On Community, Magic & Love: What I learned at the drum circle

November 26, 2014 in Guatemala, North America, Travelogue


“You know what I like about you?”

Tor mused, sideways at me as we watched the orange flames dance in the darkness. “You’re unusually observant. You’re always watching things. You’re aware of your surroundings, in the tiniest ways. We’re alike in that, you and I.” 

I smiled and sipped steaming earl grey from the oversized mug warming my hands. That’s because I’m always writing… in my head… I thought to myself, but I didn’t say anything out loud.

Tor is a beautiful tangle of raven black hair, the kind that’s a dead giveaway of his native American roots, and ice blue eyes bound up in a leathery, lithe, life-long hippie package.  He makes drums for a living, one of a kind, piece of art kind of drums. His soul speaks through his hands on skins. He reminds me of a character straight out of the pages of Inkheart, or Stardust.

Last time we were living here he and Hannah became good friends. They’d sit together on the stone path down to the embarcadero and talk while he sanded on the body of his newest creation. If I couldn’t find her, I’d just look for Tor. They’d be philosophizing on some topic related to music and how to best live life.

He said to me once:

“Man, thanks for letting me hang out with your kid… she’s cool… not everyone would be down with that… you know… I’m an old guy… she’s a young girl… could be weird… except it’s not…. You know… I’ve been thinking… and I’m pretty sure that in a past life, she was either my mother, or my sister.”

image-5I winked at him, “Of course you can hang out with my kid… and as long as she was your mother or your sister, we’re all set!” We both laughed.
When we departed he brought her a beautiful hand drum that he’d made, with a “magical” reindeer antler as a beater and a strip of cloth that had accompanied him to rainbow gatherings and on many adventures as the strap. It is a treasure.

This visit, it’s Ezra who has become his shadow. The boy slopes down the path, past the soccer pitch, around two sharp corners and down to the waterfront where Tor’s cabin is hung with drum bodies and animal skins. They work together all afternoon, and Ez is producing his own drum, under the master’s tutelage; learning far more than the finer points of chiseling and resonant chamber development.

A dozen of Tor’s students struggled to find a common rhythm

An Australian kid leading the pack with a solid beat that would have made it easy for most people to follow, if most people could keep time. Tor shook his head and hopped up, laughing. Crouching down on the balls of his feet he started striking the earth with his palms, drumming the world, while his young people struggled to make their skins sing.

Dust billowed around him, his hair, a snarly mess of midnight wild danced on the dark wind, his eyes flickering from blue to blazing orange with the reflection of the flames. His body collected the fine particles of the cloud of earth that was rising to dance to his beat. The strains coalesced beneath the stars into one song and Tor whirled away from the fire and came to rest, once again, on the bench next to me. He chuckled and rolled a cigarette while his proteges continued to speak an ancient language across every kind of barrier in time and space.

IMG_2362Merlin is not his real name, but he is Merlin, nonetheless.

Frenchman of unknown origin who ghosts about town weaving his nebulous magic between volcanos and flowers, water and sky, drummers and stars. If you imagine the mythical Merlin, then remove his long grey cloak and pointed hat, replace it with faded maroon velvet drawstring pants and a woven shirt of mayan origin, add a few grey dreadlocks among the tendrils of hoary hair sprouting from his scalp and chin, sprinkle some teeth haphazardly between his gums and finish with eyes positively alight with possibility, you’ve got Merlin in a nutshell.

All of a sudden the fire has changed colours and is dancing in dragon green and sapphire blue around the edges. I mention this. Tor nods and answers me with one word: “Merlin.” Sure enough. When I keep my eye on him I notice that he occasionally weaves himself silently between the two belly dancing girls who are two shots of tequila into the evening and sprinkles something unknown into the flames. A magician’s secret. Magic for all to enjoy.

“No, no,” Tor admonishes a flaxen haired girl with a ring in her lip:

“No, you have to play more gently, so that you can hear the beat of every other drummer. You have to be able to hear everyone play. I want to be able to hear everyone play. We play together, no one should be louder than everyone else.”

She apologizes and he stretches his hand toward her, “Nothing to apologize for, there is no way that is wrong, only ways that are better, when we are playing together.” 

She is quiet for a while, and then her drum speaks again, more gently, a bit timidly, Tor encourages her to dive back in, and she does.

I’m keeping one eye on Merlin as he conjures joy, and one eye on Chris, who has appeared out of thin air and is standing beyond the glow of the flames, arms crossed, watching. He wrapped me in one of his bear hugs when I noticed his presence. He’s a hugger. We stood arm in arm for a long while and talked about the level of the rising water. He told me stories of forty years ago. We discovered recently that we first visited this lake the same year, only I was in utero and he was in his late twenties, 28 to be exact, the year of his Saturn Return. I’m not quite sure what that means, but he’s teaching me. My third eye is on Tor as he circulates quietly among his people, hops up to do an awkward belly dance with the lovely ladies undulating in the firelight, to the great hilarity of everyone around.

My mind wanders as my tea cools.

Tor’s words echo in my soul, “You have to be able to hear everyone play…” Indeed, and not just in a drum circle. I listen carefully to the voices around the fire, those speaking and those simply resonating. I listen for the music of their lives, trying to hear each one.

And Merlin, he’s a crazy old dude; you can ask anyone. He might have his quirks, but among them are the ability to paint with starlight and transform an ordinary campfire into a thermal canvas. Perhaps I could stand to believe in magic a little more. Maybe not everything needs an explanation. Note to self: when someone introduces himself as a wizard, don’t laugh. We’re all magic in some way. 

ChrisChris catches my eye and grins across the space between us.

He heads up onto the yoga platform to check on the volcanos. Eventually I follow him because I want to show him the hummingbird that’s nesting up there. He shares my love for nature and for the little miracles in life. He offers to refill my tea cup and then he tells me about the book he’s reading; it’s about love.

“So, you coming back to the beach house next fall?”  he asks, knowing full well that the week we shared in North Carolina in October was the best week I’ve had since I got back from Spain.

“Yep,” I smiled at him in the darkness.

“Good. We need to do that every year.”

It’s funny how sometimes family chooses you. Chris and I shared a beer the night we met Duane four years ago and he’s been a fixture ever since. He introduces us as his kids. He’s adopted our young people. He likes to eat my bread. He wants a piece of my kombucha scoby. I stare out at the black mirror of the lake, the drums echoing hard against the inside of my skull (I’m still recovering from the headache that followed me home from Panajachel) and he postulates about whether the mysterious light in the clouds is heat lightning or an alien fly over and my mind is hugging him. This winter wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without the chosen family that surrounds us in this place and that travels far and wide to find us.

Tony and I are kind of the odd balls here

We’ve been married our whole lives, we’ve got more kids than sense, we work in the virtual world. We carry insurance policies and have retirement investments and are kind of conventional in that corner of life. We have no piercings. We wear shoes almost all the time. Tony’s pipe is filled with tobacco, of the brown (not green) variety of an evening… unless of course Kelly wanders up, “Hey man, can I borrow that to smoke a bowl?”

And, perhaps that’s what I love about being here: remembering that there are lots of ways to live life and play a drum, even when we think we cannot play, even when we think our way of drumming is the best, even when we inadvertently drown out the other people in the circle with our enthusiasm. When it gets chaotic, someone will hop up and break it down, using nothing but the ground beneath his feet to make music, an old magician will colour fire with starlight, and someone who loves you for no good reason whatsoever will wrap fatherly arms around you and remind you that the world has been here for a long time, she’s still spinning, and the thing we all need to be studying harder is how to love. I don’t know about you, but I can use that kind of reality check from time to time.