I grew up next to the ocean, but I rarely went in.
The water was always too much of something. Too cold, too salty, too unforgiving. The currents were strong, and I wasn’t a great swimmer. The speckled blue waves were murky as they churned toward shore, and I was afraid of what swam beneath.
The ocean didn’t belong to me, but the beach did.
The beach at sunset was my favorite place to be. As teenagers, we would sit in tight clusters together, the jagged edges of the cliffs scratching at the back of our legs. We would traipse in flip-flops, over the powdery sand below, cocooned in hooded sweatshirts, watching fireworks explode over the horizon. My best friend and I would drive through the night, stopping for rolled tacos and yelling out the window at strangers. Home was always to the West. Against the horizon, waves glistening in the moonlight, the beach silent and reassuring.
Except on Sundays.
Every Sunday night, without fail, we would find each other at the drum circle that gathered on the beach. We were drawn like moths to the fire pit flames that would lick at the crisp black sky. A staccato drumbeat mixed with the crash of summer waves, and young people trickled in to gather together and lose themselves in the steady thump thump THUMP thump of the circle’s rhythm.
We were drawn there on Sunday nights. Sitting cross-legged together, my back against his chest, her shoulder touching mine. He would take my hand as my sandal hit the loose pebbles in the cliff trail. Her eyes would lock with mine when the stragglers on the periphery danced too close or yelled out too loudly.
I grew up in the drum circles. I watched best friends sit in the sand, faces illuminated by the glow of the fire, youthful innocence glistening in the warm summer breeze. They played drums. They played loudly. In the drum circle , rhythms grow in your heart. You learn the music by listening. By closing your eyes. By leaning back into all that is familiar, and letting go of everything else.
As we got older, and the beach grew further and further away, the sound of the drums echoed faintly every time we came home for a visit. We found each other when we were back from college, piling into my car and driving off toward the beckoning sound. But only for a season. We grew. We relied less on the familiar circles that overlapped in the sand. We found other people, who held us up in the same way, but without the salty soundtrack. We were no longer unsteady walking down the cliff path. We found lovers, and had babies, and our roots grew deep and strong. The identity shift of motherhood, of marriage, of career rolled over my memories of those nights on the beach, blanketing my adolescence in an unexpected fog. I had left the familiar rhythms behind.
When my tiny peanut of a one year old sat in my lap and watched his music teacher pass out the drums. She turned off the music, and we listened to the symphony of sound that blended together when moms and toddlers hit the drums together. We sat cross-legged, in a circle. And then I heard it.
The mom next to me. Her hands flew easily over the tight skin of the drum, both hands alternating as they swept and hit and thumped. Thump thump THUMP thump, the familiar beat rang out. A faint smile graced her lips, as her eyes softened. And suddenly, I knew where she was from.
I knew that she was a drum circle mama. Perhaps from a different beach. Perhaps growing up on the edge of a different jagged cliff. But I could tell in that moment, watching her hands, that she had grown up with the smell of salt water in her hair too. She knew what it was like to be drawn to the waves. To gather around a fire pit and find religion in music. To feel at home in the darkness, when the only thing that drowned out your sadness was the steady drumbeat of time. Her drumming was different from all of the other moms. It was a language that I used to be fluent in, a rhythm that was once mirrored by my own racing heart, every Sunday night by the water.
We drummed together, as her daughter twirled and smiled. Bennie bounced and rocked, and I let myself drift back for just a moment to what it felt like to be protected from the world by the brotherhood of youth. I watched the 20-something me scrunch her toes in the sand. I watched her breathe in the sticky, salty sweetness of the ocean. I watched her leaning into friends, sharing the burden of being at the beginning of a journey, fearless and anticipating and full of dreams. Perhaps I hadn’t let that young woman disappear completely. Perhaps none of us had. Perhaps the drums, and the rhythms, and the reassurance were always there, creating a tentative ground that we needed steadying from on occasion.
The lessons of the drum circle stretch across time, licking at our feet like the choppy waves that ripple in to shore. Acceptance, peace, faith, friendship. Love, uncertainty, darkness, new beginnings. If I need to know how to find my way home, I need only to look to the horizon. The drummers are mine now, their faces a reflection of my own. And while the circle has grown smaller, and the friendships deeper, the rhythms remain the same.