Note No. 67

May 12, 2010

I have found a hobby that could very well conflict with writing.

It all happened last week. On Tuesday, I flew home from Mexico. The next morning, I was in the car with my mom, who was driving our packed car to a tiny place in the mountains outside of Asheville.

Destination: African Dance and Drum Camp.

The last four years, my dad, sister and I have been hearing from my mom about this fabled place and for as long as I could remember before that, my mother had fantasized about playing percussion but seeing as she was always a stay-at-home mom and then a foreign language teacher for attitude-challenged middle schoolers, it was not until after my sister married and I graduated from college in 2003 that she finally pursued her long-discouraged hobby.

It started as a few small gigs with some local drumming groups. Then she signed up for this camp one May and that was it. She came home about a week later, her eyes as big as plums and her whole body nearly shaking from excitement. She had barely slept and spoke of campfires and all-night drum jams. We shook our heads in amazement and were not surprised when she signed up the next year.

And the year after that.

And the year after that.

It was last year that I told her I wanted to come with her this year for her fifth time. Ideally, both my sister and I would have come but seeing as someone has to be at the hotel and seeing as I was already promised the time off, my sister said just to go and maybe she would come another year.

Here’s a rough idea of how it all went:

How I got my drum

I went into it nearly 100 percent unprepared. My mom forever likes to bring up the time when I was four years-old and both my parents wanted me to start reading, because my sister had done so at that age, but I had apparently said something to the effect of: “I”m not going to do that now. They will teach me how in school.”

This was another such occasion. My dad kept hinting that I should be preparing my hands to get a real beating but I had no drum to practice on, as I was thinking I’d borrow one at camp. In the meantime, I saw no point (nor time in my schedule) to pound on things for the sake of strengthening my palms. Surely, if I was in this thing called Beginners Class, I would learn all of that, calluses included, at the same pace as others in my group.

So there I am on a sunny Wednesday morning, packing as quickly as I am unpacking from Isla, throwing just enough stuff in a duffle bag to ensure that I will have clean underwear and that I will not freeze on the mountaintop. We are to meet my mom’s drumming friends, Ed and Mary Anne, and make a two-car caravan with them. Mary Anne is as seasoned a drummer and a camper as my mom is, but Ed is at the same novice level as I am, the only difference being that he has been to a few drum circles, whereas I have been to one circle at the Unitarian Church about two years ago.

As we are pulling out of the driveway, my mom looks in her rearview mirror.
“Wait a minute.”
She stares into the reflection.
“The damn car is open.”
She gets out and goes to the back, where the hatch is, indeed, gaping wide open, all of our things ready to fall out.
“What the hell?”

I don’t know why but the whole thing sends me into a fit of giggles. I think it might have something to do with getting three hours’ sleep the night before I left Mexico, flying my pound puppy home, taking him through Customs, taking him to the vet this morning before the trip, getting ready for the trip in about 45 minutes and not getting my first dose of caffeine till this very moment that I am sitting in the car.

Four hours later, having miraculously found a Whole Foods for lunch and feeling a little stabler, we are nearing our destination and the landscape has changed from open interstate to winding mountain roads.

“Old Fort,” my mom says, reading the sign of an upcoming town. “That rings a bell. We were calling it Old Fart after we’d driven past it about 10 times.”

Suddenly, she is restless.
“Sometimes, this trip just seems interminable.”
She always thinks it takes two hours, she says, but it doesn’t; it takes four.
“Why do you think it’s two hours?”
“I dunno. I just have it in my head that it’s two hours to Asheville.”

We have been listening to Putumayo CDs, back to back, and I have been trying really, really hard not to think too much about Pedro. He is in the excellent hands of my friend, Lynn, who is trained in veterinary medicine, but he is not well. A bout of diarrhea and kennel cough has left him skinny and lethargic. But I am working hard on living in The Moment, so I push thoughts of my puppy away and concentrate on things in front of me, like the lovely cloud formations in the blue, blue sky.

No one has brought a camera but there is wine. Oh, is there wine. My mom has two bottles and Ed has nine. That makes 11 bottles for four nights and four people, meaning we are each going to have to drink two-thirds of a bottle every evening—or make a few friends, which I guess is not hard to do when you are offering wine.
And we are so, so close to getting there but I have to use the bathroom. I have had to phone Mary Anne once already to ask them to stop for this reason, as I seem to be a bladder on legs today.

Six miles from camp, I cannot take it anymore.
“Can we stop at McDonald’s again?” I ask her through the cell phone.
I am sure I could make it but I hate getting somewhere and having to use the loo. It’s all: “Hi! Nice to see you. Get outta my way! Don’t touch me!”

As we park, I am unbuckling my harness before we even stop and the seat belt alarm beeps at me in protest.
“This car is so not Mexican,” I say.

Back on the road a few minutes later, we are just digging into the mountain hills when we get behind an 18-wheeler.
“Our luck,” says my mom. “We get behind a damn truck.” A beat. “Of course, it’s probably delivering our food.”
“You’re joking; right?”
“Well, no.”
“You think there’s an Ingles truck delivering our food to the camp?”
She thinks about it. “Well, maybe not.”
Then she cackles and starts into a round of teasing about the newcomers’ orientation that I will have to attend.
“You have to hold hands and parade around naked—while wearing beanies.”
She’s kidding. Of course.

So, we are still plugging up the side of the mountain at an omnimover’s pace.
“Oh, just our luck, Margaret. If you hadn’t had to stop and pee, we wouldn’t be behind this damn Ingles truck.”
“It’s delivering our food; remember?”
“Yup. I know Ed and Mary Anne are saying the same thing.”
“You’re the boneheads who wanted me to come.”
Before you get the wrong idea, this is all said in good-natured jest. My mom is delighted to have me along.

We finally make it to the top and the unloading begins. I spot a tub full of pills and First Aid stuff and glance over its contents.
“Now, Mary Anne said something about bringing a box of Epsom salts, too,” I say. “What’s it for?”
She pauses. “You’re not supposed to know.”
Another pause.
“Is the food that bad?” I ask.
“At the end of the day, if you’re really drumming like you’re supposed to be, your hands HURT. If you soak them in Epsom salts, it really helps. Tried and true remedy.”

Then we are near the end and only a few items are remaining.
“I can take this and the box of pharmaceuticals,” she says, “and you just take your drum.”
I see a drum still sitting in the car, after we have already carried five other percussive instruments up to the room. “My drum?” I ask.
“Is it the one you bought in Barcelona?”
“No. That’s my drum. This is your drum.”
“I have my own drum?”
“You bought me a drum?”

It’s beautiful. A mahogany djembe with gray-green roping, I cannot take my eyes off of it.

“I just thought that it looked like you,” she says. “There were hundreds of drums on the Web site but I thought this one looked like you.”

As we sit there fondling it, she explains that it’s goatskin, which most of them are.
“And if you can see what looks like the backbone, it’s better. You get a better sound because it comes right from the middle of the back.”
“I know. It’s kind of sacred, because two things had to die to make it.”
“The tree and the goat?”
“Yeah. The tree and the goat. See? You’re carrying around the spirits of the tree and the goat.”

We have a moment of silence.
Then she adds: “I just didn’t think you could fully enjoy drum camp on someone else’s drum. It would always feel temporary.”

Drunk Camp*

Less than five minutes after moving into our room at North Lodge, Mary Anne and Ed are knocking at our door, wanting to know why on Earth we have not started drinking yet, so my mom uncorks one of her bottles and pours out four glasses and says: “All right. Let the games begin.”

Then Ed and I skip the newbie orientation, and we all have another glass and totter down to dinner. Afterward, we break off into our groups and Ed and I find ourselves in the beginners’ circle. We learn the three tones of a djembe: slap, tone and bass. And we spend an hour and a half learning how to hit the head just so but no matter how much we hit the head, we still do not achieve the gloriously distinct sound that the instructors manage to do with what seems a mere tap of the hand.

My hands already ache as I put my new drum away and go off to the next class: krin. I cannot say I get the hang of it and soon, we are pouring another glass of wine and lugging a few instruments down to the fire circle, where we pound away for another hour or so until the clock strikes midnight and we have to let the flames die.

I sleep through yoga the next morning and arise to a glorious day. The air has that fresh mountain quality and the light is shining through the tree leaves in such a way, leaving twinkling patterns on the ground outside and our bedspreads inside, and the cool wind is blowing with a gentle ferocity so that I just want to weep, it’s all so beautiful. God, I missed this.

At breakfast, we meet Tom Harris and his band of followers, who teach drumming to troubled teens as a form of therapy. Each year at camp, he makes a drum to be auctioned off at the end. To win it, you have to buy at least one raffle ticket for a dollar and the proceeds will all go to Tom’s program at Inner Harbour.

The rest of the day passes quickly, as I will soon find out happens every day at drum camp. It goes something like this:


After our first all-levels djembe class, during which I was often looking around the room at everyone else’s hands, I say to my mom: “You’re always in groups; right? I mean, if you get lost, you can always look at your neighbor; right? Assuming your neighbor’s not me.” But then a miraculous thing happens: three more people join the beginner class, and Ed and I find ourselves being the leaders of the group. They’re looking at OUR hands!
“You were so good!” Ed says to me later that afternoon as we all four share a glass of wine on the valley view porch off the guesthouse where he and Mary Anne are staying. “You, too!” I say.
And we toast.

Must. Keep. Going.

The morning of Day Four, camp is awfully quiet at 7 a.m. and I am not sure if it is because everyone is at yoga or sleeping in.

Turns out, it’s the latter. No one went to bed until 2 a.m., when one of the instructors finally came in and coaxed the impromptu circle to go home. I had stayed on until about 12:30, when I got goaded into my first solo and then found my hands to be bruised with little blue dots from my exuberance.

Rain blows in and makes the day even sleepier. My hands ache on the drum that morning but the funny thing about drumming is that you could be bleeding and the beat would still give you the energy to go on. Whatever pain you’re in becomes secondary once you enter the trance of being surrounded by about 30 others, who are pounding away with such light joy that you cannot do anything but join them. I guess that’s the idea behind using it as therapy.

It all pays off on Saturday night, when we come together in the auditorium for the talent show. This is where the beginners show the experts what they learned, and the experts show the beginners how good they can be one day, if they work, like, really, really hard. Here’s what I look like, traditional attire included, doing my solo, which is more or less successful—though my face of pure terror does not really convey that.

Several hours later, my mom has won the raffle drum. Yes, she won the drum. And we have all given each other’s performances multiple standing ovations and moved the party to the basement of South Lodge, where acoustic music is replaced by pop tunes, and we all grind and jive till the wee hours of the morning. I make it until 2:30 a.m. Then I have to stop. I don’t know if it’s even a question of ability. I simply do not want to go any further.

The Land of Busy

And then, before we know it, it’s Sunday morning and it’s all over and we are sitting in a final farewell circle, sharing our experiences of why we came and what we got out of it. After two hours, I work up the courage to say something and I thank the group for welcoming my mom five years ago, and for welcoming me this time. I tell them that my sister and I have seen a whole new side of our mother and that now I understand what drum camp is all about. I hope to be back next year, I say, but if not, I will never forget this experience.

After that, I sneak across the room to the bathroom, because actually, it wasn’t just that day we were traveling; I am sort of always a bladder on legs. And when I come out, the entire group is holding hands and waiting on me so that we can finish the closing ceremony.

Then my mom and I are back in the car, winding down the mountain, this time with no Ingles truck to slow us down. Out onto the interstate we go, all the way home again to my dad and to Pedro and to the Land of Busy, where time is kept by a watch, not a tapping foot, and a slap is a smack across the cheek, not part of a sound pattern.

And so, it’s already Wednesday and I am just updating you but what can I say? This place is crazy. There’s always something to do. Oh, and my hands only just stopped hurting. Which brings me back to my original point: how can you spend part of a day beating your hands to a pulp and then expect to spend the other part typing with those very hands?

* Moniker courtesy of Ed

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