One of the things I like to do for leisure and sometimes passion is to play percussive instruments. I like to drum, especially on drums played with the hands – a djembe, a doumbek, a frame drum or riqq. I took up drumming when the deterioration of my hearing reached a point where the mid-range of many instruments just wasn’t getting past my cochlea. With the percussive beat, I can still continue to be a musician of sorts…. at least for now.
I would not say I am much of a drummer, but I have learned a bit over the last number of years and I enjoy it. This drumming interest has been the catalyst for a number of experiences and has taken me to places of introspection, release, and joy. When I can, I attend various gatherings or workshops where this is happening so I can get to play with others – for fun and for instruction – and for interaction and connection with some very fine people met along this journey. Sometimes I have even been able to convince a friend to accompany me on a drumming adventure.
It was at one of these venues, a summer camp, where I invited my friend K. to accompany me for the weekend. We were assembling ourselves in a large circle with other people in a room getting ready to learn a few new pointers on the frame drum, when a woman juggling a number of drum bags squeezed in, maneuvering a chair tightly next to us, and began to unload her things without saying anything. We shuffled to make room as best as we could. She then proceeded to lay out her drums, bags and accoutrements in an array around her, tensely zipping and unzipping cases to reveal very expensive and beautiful cherry wood and inlaid instruments that were further wrapped up within colorful printed cloth, these securely packed within their cases. She barely looked at us, and actually had a rather annoyed and somewhat paranoid air about her – almost as if she thought we were going to suddenly leap on top of her instruments and break them, or take them and run away, laughing maniacally as we did so. K. and I just looked at each other with mutual recognition of the situation.
Her demeanor left no opening for where to jump in with conversation. I wanted to start with the line “nice drums”, but she would not make eye contact with me. Being hearing impaired myself, it is imperative that eye contact be made so I know the other person is synched into me, that I have their attention and can subsequently navigate my way through conversation by watching their face, reading their lips, catching a few phrases, while using their expression as a cue. Because of this readjusting and compensating of the senses, I have become rather adept at reading body language. Vibrations come off other people and appear to me in Big Print. But she wouldn’t give me that opening, and so we remained painfully removed from each other. Although we were practically elbow to elbow and about to embark on a group endeavor together, her aura was filled with static and spikes. Furthermore, once instruction began, she continued to Not Engage with us. It was very weird, and rather uncomfortable.
When the class was over, instead of smiles and satisfied acknowledgement, with eyes darting suspiciously around her, she carefully and slowly wrapped her fancy instruments back up into their pretty cloths, tucked them in their cases, zip zip zip, and walked away without saying a word. “What is going on with that woman?” asked K. “I got the feeling she didn’t like us very much, didn’t you?”. I had to agree. We wondered what it was about us, as we noticed she did speak with a few other people. After that, every time we caught glimpses of her that weekend, we would note her unsmiling “I Don’t Want To Know You” face. We started referring to her as “That-Snooty-Woman-With-All-The-Fancy-Instruments”. We laughed about it because there was not much else to be done about it, and it just became one more vignette in our drumming adventure that weekend.
Some time early the following winter, K. and I attended a very spiritual day-long African Rhythm workshop in the mountains with a group of women. We were sitting down with our djembes against our knees when suddenly That-Snooty-Woman-With-All-The-Fancy-Instruments walked in! Not only that, but she proceeded to sit down to the right of K., and without any sort of acknowledging glance began unpacking her drum. I say “unpacking” because it was a spectacle to behold. It reminded me of one of those Russian Matryoshka dolls. First she unzipped a protective black drum case to reveal yet another drum case of printed African cloth within. Lifting that drum carefully out, she proceeded to untie this fabric case. Removing her djembe from that revealed that it had a protective quilted cloth hat on top of the drum head. Removing that, there was a colorful second cloth beneath, which lay across the top surface of the drum. The grand finale to this drum strip-tease revealed a very beautiful carved djembe. She did not look to her left where we were sitting, but did engage with the woman on her right, who we figured must have been a friend.
We began to play. The group made wonderful rhythms together. We sang together. We ate lunch together. We reached some wonderful places while drumming and we even wept together. But at the end of the day, That-Snooty-Woman-With-All-The-Fancy-Instruments still would not look at us and we left without any real contact, without even finding out her name. I wondered if it was something specifically about me, or us, that caused her aversion.
During a hot summer the following year, I reunited with some Middle Eastern drumming friends at a retreat. I almost fell over when That-Snooty-Woman-With-All-The-Fancy-Instruments drove up. She brought a number of very expensive, fancy frame drums with her. She also purchased two very beautiful and expensive new inlaid doumbeks while she was there. She laid out all her things around her carefully, setting up her “zone” with pillows and little knit bags and covers and rubber grips so her drums would not slip off her lap. It was the same Matroyshka-like situation again, as she unpacked her drums. Carefully zipped within their cases, they were further encased with more cloth, and then with a hankie draped across the heads, preserved like an Egyptian pharoah in a tomb. And she was extremely protective and hovering about them, although she actually, very surprisingly, suddenly offered to let me try out one of her new drums.
Because this was a small group of people, we ended up sharing some meals at the same table and practicing some difficult pieces together. It was the sort of situation where people could get closer. I finally learned her name. Although I still found her a bit aloof and only had a few conversations with her, we managed to chat a bit and actually had some laughs. It turns out she was nice. By the time the weekend was over, I was thinking that although she was maybe A Bit Odd, she was actually an OK person.
Finally, when it was time to say our goodbyes, she called me “Sister” and gave me a hug. And that was that. The walls were down, the connection had been made. I couldn’t wait to tell K. that “That-Snooty-Woman-With-All-The-Fancy-Instruments” actually wasn’t snooty this time, that the ice had metaphorically been broken, and it had really become more like “Margaret, That-Serious-Woman-With-All-The-Fancy-Instruments.” When I got home, we even became Facebook friends, although we never used that venue for any correspondence and she hasn’t posted much, and definitely no real personal information. A rather private person, I still really didn’t know much about her, although I got the feeling of a somewhat spiritual and basically good person. It had all come full circle and that circle was now complete. I haven’t run into her drumming lately though. I haven’t even seen her post since June.
Via the posts of some fellow drummers, the news has gone out that Margaret passed away the other day after a very brief but fierce illness. Surprisingly (to me), this disturbing news has hit on many unexpected levels. She is younger than me and her death, needless to say, is untimely. Furthermore, I discovered this week that Margaret had been battling cancer – not once, but three times. Over these years, there is a good chance she had been going through illness or treatment those very moments we had seen her, in all her withdrawn, introspective and “snooty” aloofness. As a person who has experienced cancer treatment, I can understand about needing to shut down a bit and go within emotionally. But aside from the fact that she was a fellow musician, the truth is that I did not know very much else about her at all. Even without knowing her very well, I felt my chest tighten upon news of Margaret’s death. And then I cried.
This has been an unbidden invitation to look inward from many angles. Do we ever know what is going on inside another person? Physically, emotionally, spiritually, in their minds and hearts at any given time? Had I put myself out there more, had worked past my own deafness to be the one to approach her, would it have made a difference or would she have reacted the same way anyway? Was she there for the very same reasons as I was, to try and transcend the crap-that-life-throws-you and come to that place of introspection, release, and joy? Perhaps, it is even ironically possible, that she may have thought that WE were Those-Two-Snooty-Women-With-All-Their-Fancy-Instruments?! I will never know. This week she has been in my thoughts. I find myself going over the few conversations we had, looking at the few photos I took of her or that we were in together, remembering her face, and the way she carefully unpacked her drums and laid out her possessions – the way she played her rhythms. I do know that I am glad we had finally made that connection.
What I was reminded of from That-Serious-Woman-With-All-The-Fancy-Instruments is that much in the way she packed her drums, we are all a bit like those Matroyshka dolls – many layers within layers covering more layers within. I will try to turn up my Awareness Radar another notch. I thank Margaret for leaving me with the grace of that lesson and wish her journey takes her to a place of light, and of peace.