Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter

Author

Check out my Zombie Flower, back from the dead! I last planted pansies in this pot in Spring 2010. They withered from the summer heat and my general neglect. Then they got dumped on by brutal snowstorms all winter, and spit on by harsh spring rains. But this week, strangely, one has defiantly pushed up through the soil and rotting leaves to raise its head high. Mysterious! I thought pansies were annuals and weren’t supposed to do that. This is one hardy pansy.

This morning I saw evidence that squirrels had rummaged around the pot. They left the Zombie Flower alone. It wields an eerie power.

I have to admire its pluck. If it’s looking for care, it’s come to the wrong place. I don’t have time to water it or to deadhead its spent blossoms. Gardening is at the bottom of my list. Heck, it’s not even on the paper. It’s a postscript following an afterthought.

It shouldn’t be. I come from a big gardening family. From people who actually think it’s fun to weed for hours in the baking sun, and who eschew fancy irrigation systems for the joys of wrestling a hose. My people have lush yards, front and back, tangled and perfumed with thriving plants. They can throw a stick in the ground and watch it blossom into something extraordinary. My grandfather was a salesman for the Lily Seed Company, and a passionate, gifted gardener. He passed away over ten years ago, yet my mother, who lives in his house now, still finds the odd flower cropping up amidst hers, some persistent strain he planted so many years ago making its way to the surface. 

I often feel I lack the gardening gene. Maybe I just lack time. Maybe when I emerge from under my novel revisions, my family obligations, other work, and the many people and things that seem to demand my attention, I too will get to see the sun and try my hand at plants. It’s an intriguing idea.

But more intriguing to me is the concept of a plant that thrives when untended. Kind of like an idea. Have you ever noticed how when you turn your back, or switch to some mundane task, the best ideas sneak up on you? Or a concept you had months or years ago suddenly explodes in your mind, and you have to drop everything and write it all down? This happens to me a  lot lately. It’s why I keep white boards on my kitchen wall. Just as I think I’m stuck in my book, I’ll go rinse off some dishes, or start fixing food, and bam! —  there’s the insight I was looking for. I scribble it down, my hands dripping wet. I love it when I find an idea has been quietly developing all this time, beneath the surface, and suddenly pushes through. (Yeah, I guess I’m not much of a cook either. But that’s another story . . . )

So I guess I am gardening these days, in a sense. I’m trying to harvest ideas and words. But I look forward to taking a break at some point to try my hand at an actual plant.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the Zombie Flower. Maybe I’ll even throw some water on it this afternoon. Or, I don’t know, tomorrow. I expect it’ll hang on awhile longer without my doing too much.

For many years, I had no hobbies. Not a one. I pursued work, grad school, and, above all, writing, with gritty determination, leaving little time for anything else. I lived on little sleep, piled on the freelance work, and was generally unpleasant to be around. Around 30, I realized my life was way out of balance. I started carving out time for hobbies and recreation. Took up yoga. Tried knitting. (Which was hopeless — sorry, Mom). Went back to ballet for a bit. Took up long distance bicycling with my husband and even did a couple of 200-mile charity fundraiser rides.

I’ve always been so stingy with my writing time, but I’ve come to find that devoting even two hours a week to something else, something that does not involve staring at a computer screen, is a wise investment. It gives me more stamina for sitting at a desk. I also encounter people who are not in my usual orbit. And when I leave my daily routine to become totally immersed in something else, my brain shakes loose new ideas.

A year ago, I found a new activity that made my heart soar: taiko drumming. A combination of martial arts, dance, voice, and percussion — with a little Japanese language thrown in — taiko is like taking five classes in one. It’s also strangely addictive.

I attend the class at great inconvenience. The class meets on my husband’s one late night at work. I have to arrange a complex trapeze act with a babysitter to cover the lag time, which also means added expense. I am frequently late or must miss classes due to competing demands on the home front. Yet I’ve kept at it, with the following thought process: “I just want to be strong enough to drum for twenty minutes straight. Then I’ll be happy.” Then it was: “I just want to learn the song Kokyo. Then I’ll be happy.” Then: “I just want to play in the winter concert. Then I’ll bow out.” Then: “I just want to learn this really cool, complex song, Hiryu Sandan Geishi. THEN, I swear, I’ll hang up my bachi — my drumsticks — and retire, because this Tuesday night thing is a HUGE PAIN.”

No can do. I just performed Hiryu Sandan Geishi with my class, in my second show, “Spring Thunder,” and I’m still giddy over the fact that I successfully did this, despite missing some classes this winter and catching endless illnesses from my preschooler. And good news: the instructor said I can move up to a more advanced class this summer. This new schedule will solve my babysitting problems. But I’m also thrilled to move up because I watch the Styles class with awe, marveling at all they can do: the tricks and tosses with their bachi, their stamina, their energy. That little voice in me is still whispering. “I just want to take one session of the Styles class. Then I’ll be happy!” Yeah, right.

Here are a few pictures from the Spring Thunder performance. (I’m on the right, front row).

I think one big reason taiko works for me is that it’s an area of my life where I can see progress. If I show up, if I practice, if I commit to it, I get better. I’m sure this mentality translates to my writing too, but with drumming it’s so tangible. If you miss a note, it’s obvious. When you hit the drum right, it sings.

Also, I get to pretend I’m a real musician. Even better, I get to hang out with some truly amazing musicians, like the members of Odaiko New England, pictured below as they break in a brand new odaiko (drum):

If you’re in the Boston area, Odaiko New England can be seen performing next at a benefit concert with two other local taiko groups on Saturday, June 4. The event, Artists for Japan, will support the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund and Japan Animal Rescue and Support. I’ll be out of town, but drumming along with them in spirit! (Saturday, June 4, 2:30-5:30, Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, 1555 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge).

In a quiet, working-class town outside of Boston, behind a bowling alley and an electricians’ school, next to a Brazilian church, inside a nondescript building housing a Chinese cultural center, I’ve discovered a wonderful little slice of Japan. It’s a dojo, a practice space for a taiko drumming group, and it’s my escape hatch on Tuesdays.

This week I started my third semester of classes  with Odaiko New England. I figure I must be hooked, as I drove out to this place in the sleet, over icy roads, with a head cold and a pounding headache. Nothing like the sound of 25 drummers to ease a pounding headache, right? And yet as I got out of my car, joining fellow drummers wielding bachi (long wooden sticks), my symptoms miraculously dissipated. Taiko on Tuesdays always hits my reset button.

Here’s a quick overview, since most people, when I talk taiko, stare at me blankly. In Japanese, taiko means “drum.” Most of the drums we use are tall and wide, but there actually several different types of drums, drum stands, and drumming positions. The type of drumming I’m learning with Odaiko New England is called kumi-daiko, or ensemble drumming. It is at once musical, artistic, and athletic, combining fluid movements with vigorous rhythms. Borrowing from martial arts as well, drummers cultivate a community spirit and give each other energy (ki) through the practice of kiai (vocal energy, or shouting, while playing). They also try to give energy by making eye contact. And, on occasion, smiling at each other. Which is actually really hard to do if you’re trying to remember the phrase of a song, or learn a complicated rhythm, and not take off anyone’s head with a drumstick.

The noise and the interaction with others couldn’t be more different from the writing life. I think that’s largely why I’ve come to love it. The contrast feels necessary. I’m not alone in this, I suspect, since I’ve met other fiction writers through drumming. (And quite a lot of computer programmers. I think this is an intriguing topic for another post someday!)

But I also find discipline and routine in taiko. Predictability mixed with bursts of improvisation. In this sense, it couldn’t be more similar to the writing life. At the beginning of taiko, we bow before entering the dojo. We sit in a circle and greet one another in Japanese. We bow again. We warm up in a predictable manner, gradually building our energy and focus. I don’t do the same rituals when I enter my home office and sit at my computer, but taiko has helped me cultivate a sense of discipline and focus that I try to apply to my days at the desk. I view my office as a dojo, a practice space. I work to clear my head before entering, to warm up before hitting the novel-in-progress, and to minimize visual distractions. I’m not always successful, but taiko prompts me to try.

As I left my car the other night and hurried across the ice to the dojo, already drawn to the vibrations of early drummers warming up, I realized one more thing I love about taiko — especially doing taiko in the suburbs. It cultivates my inner rebel. I love that on a cold winter night, when a lot of us should be home with our families, or watching TV or tidying up the kitchen, we’re in a dojo drumming our hearts out. I love that in this quirky location, people might pass us as they head out to restaurants or bars, or to the bowling alley or the electricians’ school, and wonder what the hell is going on in there. As a YA writer, it’s important to get in touch with that inner rebel now and then, to relight that fire, even for two hours. It can’t be a coincidence that Wednesday mornings are my most productive writing times. The thunder is still in my ears.

Here are some pictures of my class performing at the 2010 Odaiko New England Winter Extravaganza. I’m in the front row, just to the right of the dark drum in the center. (Faces are blurry — you’ll have to take my word for it!)

And if you’ve followed me this far, here are videos for two pieces from the 2010 Winter Extravaganza. My beginner class is the first video; a more advanced class can be seen in the second.

What physical activities or hobbies fuel your writing life?