I used to carry around a small hand drum. A djembe. I was never the best percussionist, but I could keep a steady beat. More than the music it could make, I loved what the djembe symbolized.
Thirteen years ago, when I was visiting home from college, I found the drum at my mom’s house and took it. At the time, I was a first year student at Southern Illinois University. I was 18 or 19, and I was looking for every way possible to transform from a suburban mall hippie/former pom pom girl into a genuine member of the counterculture.
This drum would certainly help.
I brought this drum with me to festivals, to drum circles on the beach, to jam sessions at house parties. I once plopped down on a blanket on campus and jammed with a group of Hare Krishnas, invited by no one, but compelled by the spirit.
I looked the part, wearing floor-length skirts on my bottom and scant scarves tied around my top. Weather permitting, I went without shoes. I stopped shaving, reduced showering, changed my diet, upped my party game and sought gatherings of the like-minded as if it were my job.
I found my people at small-time jam band shows or environmental activism meetings. I would notice a girl with a tie-dyed shirt in my dorm. If there was a white person with dreadlocks at a party, I was drawn to them by magnetic force.
These people delivered new ethnographic clues. I learned about Alex Grey art, about nutritional yeast, about Sound Tribe Sector Nine. I learned terms like “hippie speedball,” “shakedown street” and “citrine quartz.” I learned that the Grateful Dead were the center, the beginning, the model. I learned that going to see bands play was like going to church, but traveling to see shows—hanging out on the lot, seeing multiple shows in a row—that was how you became a devotee.
I cultivated an army of friends. I watched the sun rise on many a front porch. I slept in tents, in cars, in parks and on floors in pursuit of music and madness, often with my djembe in hand. I explored the country; I expanded my mind; I exercised my sense of community.
I played my silly little drum.
This fall, my husband, my small baby and I decided to return home. We work seasonally in Yellowstone National Park, and when alternative winter options didn’t pan out for us, we found ourselves knocking on his parents’ door.
When the three of us arrived, his mother had made up our room for us. She had pulled out some of the things we’d stored in the garage to make the room more our own, and it worked; we instantly felt welcomed and safe.
Among these items stood my drum.
It had been collecting dust in apartment after apartment, clinging along through move after move, but rarely ringing with music. It wasn’t considered essential in our springtime pilgrimage to Yellowstone. It was no longer crucial, no longer played a symbolic role.
Over the course of the past year, I had changed so much. I finished my Ph.D. I became a mom. I lived in the woods. I was both de- and e-volving back toward my grass roots.
And then, again by the hands of a mother, this djembe came into my life anew.
This morning—after a long night awake, with teeth and tears emerging—my daughter played on our bedroom floor. She crawled her way over to the drum and pulled herself up (it is just about the perfect height). And with her holding on, her feet learning to stand for themselves, I started tapping out a few simple beats.
My daughter began playing the drum with me. A smile spread from cheek to cheek as she swayed from side to side.
Watching her, I learned something: dancing is biological, it is primal and it is deep.
With the skin vibrating between our hands, her body could not help but move. No one taught her this. Her unique dance emerged from within, and her joy was clear and contagious. I felt bathed by beauty.
I am still constructing an identity. I am still doing ethnographic research. Terms like “co-sleeping,” “comfort object” and “food before one, just for fun” fill my sentences. I am forever learning about the wrong thing to feed her, the right way to talk to her, the best way to get her to sleep.
I wear high-waist leggings that support my soft center beneath colorful knee-length skirts. I do yoga and play a ukulele. I watch many a sunrise holding a sweet sleepless baby in a handmade quilt. I am learning to read subtle cues, while trying to be easy on myself. I am very often unsure.
This morning, when we drummed together, I felt like I saw her and she saw me. Just for a fast fleeting moment, the panic of motherhood trotted away. We had a rhythm, a shared vibration, a pattern to guide us along.
I am still among my people. Together, we are marking time.
Author: Nico Wood Kos
Editor: Toby Israel