I know the smell of death, the smoky death of a building, the rotting death of food gone bad and the pieces of home and hearth that have vaporized at 2000 degrees then reattaching themselves to different places in the house.
I am the first to see it, to smell it, to feel the burning in my eyes and lungs after the fire is out. The first to stand detached among the debris, the soggy water-soaked aftermath: The first to begin the plan of what to save, what to restore, and what to replace. It’s the things, the mementos, and the snippets of lives that I see with charred and melted edges. The decision of what to do next lies with me, and then I face the family.
“Sorry to meet you under such difficult circumstances”, I say. We’re going to take care of you”. I remember their faces, the grief, the shock and I know they don’t remember those first moments with me. Sometimes we cry together, sometimes we cry alone.
They don’t often die, sometimes a pet, seldom a person. But I’ve seen the outline of a woman baked into her bed, seen her next nights dinner defrosted on the counter, the soot-covered list of things to do and presents to buy and calls to make and I wonder why. She did not expect to die.
I think of how she would feel, my crew, taking her furniture to the dumpster, her next of kin looking on, not wanting her belongings. “She was a packrat”, they say as they leave. “Just set aside the dining room set, we’ll pick it up when it’s cleaned”.
They drive away and I watch them go. They didn’t care about who she was; content to have her life piled into a long open dumpster. It takes us days of sorting, inventorying… we touch what her life was: collections of statues, teddy bears, linens, photographs… her Bible… her clothes, all covered with the fire. We take our mementos, the house now ours to empty and disburse of its contents. We work in respirators and Tyvek suits to protect ourselves from the poison seeping from the soggy debris. The ceiling is on the floor. Long broken pieces of sheet rock, like misshapen platters, piled with eight inches of wet pink insulation. Like a surreal strawberry sundae, the soot and smoke becomes a morbid chocolate topping.
We make our way down hallways with shovels and trash bags. We don’t know what lies beneath the madness and sometimes we don’t want to know. It seems like rape and robbery all at once. The house was dusty; she wouldn’t have wanted us to see that, I bet…I wonder if somehow she’s watching.
I walk the long black path from doorway to dumpster, shouting instructions to the crew, the insulation finding its way out the door like pink fiberglass cotton balls lining the path. The artist in me sees the contrast of colors with the black, the burn, the grass, the pink, and the white gone gray suits of the crew. We are the ghosts that carry her soul away.
Her neighbors look on. They don’t know what to do. Someone has been placing the daily newspaper by the door but she isn’t coming back.
There will be nothing familiar when we are finished. Even the walls where she hung her pictures will be gone, the kitchen cabinets, the front door with the gouges from the firemen’s ax, all beyond repair.
And days later when finally we are through, I walk through the house, now nothing but two by fours and electrical wires on the inside. Like a long dead corpse, only the bones remain and they tell no stories.
In what was once the living room I pause, bend to pick up a piece of paper, but it isn’t. It’s a photograph, it must be her and I feel like she’s looking right out at me.
“I’m sorry”, I say, “Someone’s got to do it”.
I have been thinking… (What a surprise) I got up a few minutes ago to start the project of using my box of pressure (binder) clips that I have had in my office for a very long time. I bought them because I often have stacks of papers that are too large for the average paper clip, and yes, I have several sizes. I believe that, like a tool shed, an office should be stocked with all the proper things. That is to say, Everything.
But I am not writing about my office, I am thinking about something else. I am thinking about lost chances. I am thinking about missing the boat….
We all miss things from time to time. It is easy to look back and say we should have curved left instead of right… but I am talking about something lifelong. An example would be; what if Mozart, as a child, sat down at a piano only once. What would his life have been? I imagine that he would have longed to feel those keys again and that he would have tasted it and chewed on it for all of his life. He would have dreamed it, and as best he could, he would have created in his mind. He would have lived it each day, stretching his fingers to tickle cool keys that would never ring at his touch.
What would the world be like? I imagine the entire world would be different, although I am not suggesting that would be the case for me. I know that I am quite average and ordinary, and no matter what road I chose… I would still be just that. It is the way of the world, and it took me a long time to realize this; a long time to accept this.
I wanted desperately to BE someone and my parents told me and taught me that I could be anything and I believed them and for a long time I aspired. I worked hard and I took chances and made mistakes. I was not driven though, in the way folks like, say, Steve Jobs or Martha Stewart or Ben and Jerry. I have looked back at my life and wondered why I lacked that drive, but I understand now… just keep reading….
But like the scenario where Mozart never sits at the piano again, I have had a longing that began when I was seven years old. I loved the drums. I drummed on pots and pans, on boxes and buckets and footstools. Anything. I used wooden spoons or pencils or sticks from the woods and I sat in front of the TV or by the radio/phonograph and played. First it was Pete Fountain, The Big Bands, and all the music from the 40s and 50s that played daily in our home. Then, I discovered The Monkees, and rock and roll…
I remember sitting on the arm of the sofa, with an inverted bucket between my legs, just pounding away to any and every song. I loved it. So I asked for a drum…. I asked to play the drum in the elementary school band… The answer was always no. Girls do NOT play drums. (This was the 60s and I suppose at the time it was a valid argument….) I continued to ask throughout my childhood but the answer was always the same. I continued to make the best of it and drummed on everything else.
When high school came, my focus was different. My creative vent leaned strongly to art and I spent much of my time drawing, painting and riding my horse. I also spent a great deal of time cutting classes with my friends Patrick and Cheri, and smoking a huge amount of good 70s weed. (Don’t judge) So, while I still drummed on everything, getting a drum or set of drums was not on my mind as much. I was also having my first crush… A girl named Shelley… but that is whole ‘nuther story….
The next part, I don’t remember so clearly and I imagine the pot has something to do with that. I went off to college, and I think I purchased a drum set then, in Lancaster PA with part of my grant money. I hoped to learn to play, finally, and I set them up carefully…. A used, but like-new five piece set of Ludwig drums with a hi-hat and a crash cymbal. I played as I was able but school took a great deal of time, as did partying and learning about life. I was a generally shy, quiet, artsy girl who was incredibly naïve and sheltered; surrounded by so many new things in a world that was nothing like the one I was raised in. I quickly realized there was no room for drumming.
The drums were in the basement at my sister’s home in Lancaster PA. She lived on Pine Street, next to Franklin and Marshall College and the homes were the classic old row homes. Long… street long rows of attached two story homes that were slender from the road but deep. They were not small, only close and since our street was a mix of students and professors, any drumming I did was largely frowned upon. Most of the noisy fraternities and sororities were on the other side of the campus, and I did not attend this University. My school was in York which was close to an hour drive away. Time was at a premium, and my desire to be an excellent student surpassed my desire to play the drums. I was still trying to please good ole Mom and Pop.
So summer came and the semester ended and I packed up my stuff to go home to Florida. My room was waiting at my parents’ house and while they were surprised and supportive for a moment when I arrived and unloaded the drums, the sentiment changed quickly and the drums… well… they had to go. So I sold them and joined the Carnival instead…. I was not terribly upset about parting with the drums because I was having a blast and had jumped into another new world…. one of travel and wildly diverse people and ideas. After all, I could always find something to drum on, and I did.
So we fast forward to now. There is no need to fill in decades with stories of how my road went this way and that, how I tried many things, learned about life and love and right and wrong and sacrifice and priorities. I always drummed and always, ALWAYS felt like I was going to have drums…. one day. I dream about them and look at photographs on the internet. I look at “for sale” ads and imagine myself going to pick up my chosen kit, bringing it home and going to weekly lessons. I practice. I practice endlessly to make up for lost time.
Along the way time seemed endless and managed. I was unhurried because there were so many possibilities, so many days and months and years to fill. Then, I blinked and was 56 years old. The yearning and desire has never left me. Drums, since the beginning of my memory, were a calling and now I am on that slippery downhill slope that we face as we age but now time moves faster every year. I feel a sense of urgency about my life and things I want to do, but drums, they are not something I want to do; learning to play MY set of drums properly is something I MUST do.
Do you feel this way about something? Have you ever had a slow fire burning inside you that never let you be? I imagine that there are unanswered yearnings in all of us. Maybe we forget. Maybe we decide that our dreams are simply childish things and we put them on the shelf and once in awhile, take them down, dust them off and tell ourselves pretty stories to make it all seem reasonable that we gave ourselves away. It wasn’t. It isn’t.
For me, this calling found me at a very early age but it doesn’t happen this way for everyone. Some people discover theirs at different stages of their lives, some by chance, some by happenstance. Some, because they simply curved right, instead of left and bumped smack into the very thing they had been searching for. It is like going to the grocery store for ingredients to bake a cake, but not knowing that what you want is a cake. As you walk the aisles picking out the ingredients, you turn one more corner and what do you see right in front of you… a freaking CAKE! All at once, you realize that it is all you will ever do for the rest of your life. Like falling in love, only the gift you give is to yourself. Your true, authentic self…. And so you bake.
Today, I have made a decision. Today, rather than look at pictures and dream, rather than watch videos of others creating rhythm and sound and beauty, I will create the path that leads to my life long destination. I will save for, research for, watch for and ultimately purchase and bring home my drums because I must honor what has been living in me for my entire life. I must find out what it feels like to complete my most compelling desire. I am driven to do this one thing before I die.
Driven. I spoke of this several paragraphs ago, and as I thought about the drums and my dreams, I believe I understand why the drive to be so many other things was not quite right. Make no mistake, I did well enough at the things I endeavored, but I am talking about on the inside, the churning feeling… the constant whisper in my ear telling me that there was something else I was supposed to do. It was drums and it passed by me like a slow moving train, leaving me feeling as though everything else was second best. I had the ticket, but I never got on the train.
So… I asked you before and I ask again. Do you have this thing inside you? Is there something that has been knocking at your little door? Have you just let it be for years? For decades? Do you think about it, wondering all the while… what if…? I urge you to make room. Make room in your life for YOU. Whatever it is, you owe it to yourself to at least try before the calendar has no more pages to turn.
For me, it is a bass, snare, two mounted toms, a floor tom, hi-hat, crash, ride, crash/ride, splash and china (though the cymbals will not all come at once most likely because they are expensive) a throne, sticks, stands, hardware, storage containers and music stand…..
So I declare, here and now…. I will answer this calling and I am going to buy, trade for, beg, borrow or negotiate my way to a drum set that I will set up and play in my home. I will take lessons and learn and practice and one day, I hope that someone says to me, Barb, you did the right thing. You are a drummer.
I wish for you… to make this declaration should you feel a calling of your own. Answer it. Answer for you because not only will it enrich your life, by becoming complete on the inside, you will be a better person, happier with yourself, and will be a better person for all those around you. Now, isn’t that a good reason to begin a new life’s journey right now? No matter how young or old, no matter your health, there is that thing, that one thing that drives you. So make a note. Make several, make a stack and secure them with a great big paper clip so you won’t lose them, and don’t lose your way. Your spirit is out there waiting, and has been the entire time.