Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Circle Remains Unbroken

Saturday, and we're tooling down I-20/59. Kind of like Rome, all roads in Birmingham lead either to I-65 or the I-20/59 route. We're in an enormous Lincoln town car, which we need since we have three adults, three kids, and assorted kid's stuff packed in. Jill's in back with Jack the baby, his brother Johnny Mak, and their cousin, Lizzie. I'm up in front with Lizzie's Mom, Leigh.

She was born too late to fit the bill, but Leigh reminds me of an unreconstructed hippie. Tomorrow we'll be tie-dying t-shirts at Leigh's prompting after a barbecue where she and Jillbo feed us steaks, burgers, salmon, plus slaw, plus greens, plus salad, plus several other things I've forgotten but were good. Not fried green tomatoes, though, which are one of my favorites. I had fried green tomatoes the night before, and pound cake as a first course the night before that. Not knowing much about Southern customs, I ask Jill if having cake before anything else was some sort of tradition. "Nope," she says. "It's just the first thing we had ready and the kids were hungry."

After the Sunday barbecue, Jill and I will desperately scramble to get kids, food, kid stuff, plates, and more kid stuff in before an approaching thunderstorm that has chain lightening snaking across a black Alabama sky, both of us nervously calling for Leigh from the shelter of the house while she stubbornly faces down the Storm King and keeps on tie-dying, finishing up the last shirt.

That's Leigh. But that's also tomorrow. Today is Saturday,and we're off the highway and cruising down a Homewood street, looking for the Community Arts Center. We're going drumming at Leigh's invitation.

We're late, because we're always late. It has something to do with a kids' special theory of relativity, I think. No matter what time you start, you arrive late if you have kids. If necessary, kids will force time backwards and forwards or even sideways until you're late.

I can hear the thrumming of drums as we enter the Center and go into a room that looks like a small gym. There's a circle of seated people , beating on a variety of drums, everything from bongos to Indian war drums to Ricky Ricardo congas. People open up the circle, we grab chairs, park Jack's stroller, secure the nearest free drums, and start drumming.

It's not as loud as you'd expect, more like a steady drone. The kids immediately get into it and start pounding away. I look over at 15-month Jackie and he seems to be digging it. But Jack, he of the goblin face and pumpkin grin, he's always digging everything as far as I've seen.

There are maybe 25 to 30 people in the room, adults, parents, a sprinkling of grandparents, kids. The kids are around Johnny Mak and Lizzie's age, 4, 5, 6, a couple older, a few just barely walking. A towheaded toddler with enormous blue eyes who's bouncing around the circle's center solemnly hands me a drumstick and then goes hunts me up another when I take it.

I'm tone deaf, have a voice like a crow, and my sense of rhythm is not much past one-two-three-four, but I'm holding my own. Leigh and Lizzie are doing about the same. Jill, who used to drum in high school, is tattooing out an intricate rhythm that I can't follow, but interleaves nicely with the group's beat.

Johnny takes off all-of-a-sudden, Jill yells for him, and I chase him down. "I need to go pee!" he tells me. "Can you do it on your own?" I ask. "No," he replies, so I take him to the Men's Room. Maybe he just needed directions. Johnny heads into the stall, and I wait as he does his business on his own. I think of Robbie back when he was Johnny's age, hauling him into a bar's men's room where he refused to use the stall after he saw me at an adult-height urinal. I ended up propping his feet on the edge and bracing his back as he streamed into the urinal, enormous grin on his face.

Johnny and I head back to the gym and the drumming. "You like this?" I ask. "Yes," he says.

Me too. Peg and I don't have kids, but in the "there are two kinds of people" measurement, we're the kind of childless couple that likes kids, like having them around, and like doing things with them. Robbie is either Peg's "first cousin once removed" or her second cousin, depending on which definition you use. In any case, he's her cousin's boy and for more than a few years was my boy, too, in both his and my mind. Most of what I think I know about kids I learned from Rob.

Back in the circle. I give Johnny my sticks and he starts a speed sprint beat on his drum. I check on Jack, who seems a little uncomfortable, and discover it's because the wandering kids have been dropping paper machie apple and orange rattlers into his stroller as they cruise by. I pull out about a half-dozen of them and Happy Jack is much happier.

The drum leader thinks Jack was bored and hands me a transparent plastic rod based on a South American rain stick. "Maybe this will help," he says. Jack's already cool now that he's got some room in the stroller again, but digs the rain stick anyway, quickly figuring out that if he turns it he can watch the stuff inside twirl down to the other end. I pick up a bongo and resume the beat just about two seconds before a break is called.

The leader is a barefooted guy named John Scalici who's been doing drum circles for about five years and runs a program in B'ham called "Get Rhythm." "One of the nice things I see are the different family groups inside the circle," Scalici says. "Different conversations." "Different interactions."

And he's right. There are kids playing, wandering away, coming back, people talking, getting up, playing drums, not playing drums. But the circle always stays formed and the beat always goes on. I bet it's always been this way, campfires, family groups circled around at day's end, talking, children playing. Someone picks up an instrument. The music starts. A circle of drums looping around thousands of years, a new link added here in Birmingham.

We start drumming again. Scalici has a couple of people who are either regulars or part of his team who lead and change the beat, sometimes adding new sounds at his direction. One has picked up a small, carved, wooden frog and strokes a stick against its spiny back.

Johnny's face lights with delight as the frog makes a very realistic croak and he cranes to watch how it's being done. "Cool, huh?" I say. "It sounds like he's burping!" Johnny Mak exclaims, and I have a moment of pure joy.

I can't really talk about it without sounding like an unreconstructed hippie myself, but it's things like that that make me love kids. Jill, Robbie's mother, Beth, other Moms I've known sometimes express surprise at how comfortable - the word "patient" comes up a lot, too - I am with kids, but there's something very Zen-like about them that relaxes me. They're totally in the moment, you know? That's something most of us lose long before we hit our teens. The day's events, the next day's expectations, they mount up and we're usually thinking about what happened, or what's going to happen. Kids live in the present. They see the day as it is. No tomorrow. No yesterdays. Not even five minutes ago or five minutes from now. I can sometimes get back to that way of thinking -- more truly, "no-thinking" -- when I'm hanging with kids. And every now and then, when I'm lucky, I get to see them discover something totally novel -- the first time they've ever experienced it - and I get to see that look I just saw on Johnny's face.

Yeah, I know, a childless guy romanticizing kids, shades of J.M. Barrie, right? But I try not to, and Johnny's got all the badness and exasperating `tude you'd expect from a little boy, too. He and Lizzie totally bypass the fact that they're cousins -- in fact both refer to Jill and Leigh interchangeably as "Mommy" -- and are into a full sibling relationship when together, beating on each other one moment, kissing each other the next. Together, they leave a path of destruction wider than the trail from an Alabama twister. And Johnny, who's father, Mak, is Japanese, starts constantly referring to me as "Unco Fred" on Sunday. Later, Jill laughingly tells me that "unco" is Japanese for ah, feces.

On the other hand, when I drove up in my rental, Johnny ran over to the car, pulled open the passenger door, hopped in and hugged me. I can put up with a lot of "Uncos" for moments like that.

Saturday night, drumming over, we're coming back to Leigh's after dinner out. Johnny Mak is passed out in the back seat, leaning against Jill. It's another thing I like about kids. Johnny reminds me of my cat, Curly, when he was a kitten, playing one moment, the next sound asleep wherever he happened to be. We once found Curl face-first in the rug, still standing, but sound asleep.

I reach into the back of the Lincoln and gather up Johnny, a nervous Jill sounding like my mother as she worries over my back. I carry him into the bedroom, and Jill slips off Johnny's shoes, covers him up. He never wakes.

Jill and I walk back outside and I think about carrying Robbie to bed 15-odd years ago, thinking further back, thinking about being half-awake, half-asleep myself, being carried securely in my father's arms into my grandmother's house in Waterville, Maine. The circle keeps on re-forming, and the drumming never stops.

There are a million-and-one stars exploding above us in the Alabama night.

For Jack, Lizzie, and Johnny Mak - Birmingham, Alabama -- 3/11-13/2005.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Unco Fred,
You ROCK! You can drum in our circle anytime. And you're a good writer, too. To quote our favorite story, Charlotte's Web, "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer." Unco Fred is both.
With love,
Johnny Mak, Lizzie, and Baby Jack