Drumming Circle

What creates happiness?

I am sitting on a folding chair, one of 20 in a large semi-circle, in a gym, in a small school an hour’s drive from my house. I am smiling. Everyone in the room is smiling. Why is that?

There is a short, late 20’s/early 30’s guy with a shock of wild, thick black hair in the open part of the horseshoe made of chairs. At various times during the 75 minutes he is hitting two wooden objects together or hitting some skin or dancing. He changes cadence from time to time. He is why we all came to this place. He is the instrument of the smiles but not the root cause.

The root cause is music or in this case more specifically rhythm. Rhythm causes happiness. Especially when you participate in making the rhythm.

This is the monthly drumming circle for the developmentally disabled adults that live in the Illinois group homes run by St. Coletta of Wisconsin. My younger sister just celebrated her 25th year as part of this community.

The short guy with the wild hair is a musician who for the past couple of years had lent a couple of hours every month to sharing his joy of rhythm with this community. That makes him one of life’s under-recognized heroes.

The smiles for most in the room come from banging 2 drum sticks together. playing with tambourines or bongos and generally making noise— as a group.The best was at the end when one by one they got to come up and play on the musician’s drum set. Each person had their own rhythms to share but all of them had a huge smile when they finished and received a round of applause.

This week the adults were joined not only by a few family members and the staff but by two of the cutest little girls on the planet. Elly and Eddie (short for Eden) are 6 and 4.5 respectively. I was told by Elly that there is an older sister Emma who is eight and a Brownie but she was at a birthday party. Their Dad teaches at the school and was doing some work in another room nearby.

As I said, most of the smiles were from making rhythm. There were two exceptions. My sister’s smile was in part from watching Elly and Eddie. She loves hanging out with little kids. And while I enjoy banging drum sticks together as much as the next man, my smile came from witnessing all the other smiles in the room.

Can’t wait for the next Drumming Circle.


Sunday With Sandy

I spent Sunday afternoon with my sister Sandy. She has autism and lives in a group home about a 45 minute drive away. It was the first I had made time to visit her since my mom died. Over the past 5 months Sandy has had far less contact with her family than she had become accustomed to because our attention had turned to Mom’s needs. It is time to pay more attention to her.

Since people with autism can range broadly in terms of how and how well they function let me tell you a bit about my sister. She knows who people are. She knows her family,loves her family and certainly misses us whe n she does not see us.

Her speech is limited. She forms words and sentences often it is hard to figure out what she is saying. She has a tendency to babble and repeat things over and over and over.

She is on several medications that help her control her behavior. She can become obsessive about something and it will become hard to redirect her which may lead to physical confrontation. Often food is the object of her obsession. Her control has been relatively good for the past couple of years but  I still have memories of having to wrestle her to the ground  in public, crowded places to keep her from grabbing things she should not have. With her screaming at the top of her lungs. While people stare at you as they try to figure out what if anything to do since they do not know you are family or a mugger. One learns not to be embarrassed easily.

She loves music. She could play records for hours. Beatles, Beach Boys and Herb Alpert are amoung her favs. No accounting for taste on that last selection. If you spend time with her it is always a good idea to have some of her favorite tunes on hand.

She is very friendly and enjoys striking up conversations with strangers. Most are fairly good natured about it though as I said she is often difficult to understand. Once in awhile Sandy will try to hold someone’s hand or reach for a piece of jewelry. You never know.

She has few govenors on her speech or he actions. She is definitely not politically correct. That last characteristic can lead to many smiles–as long as you are not easily embarrassed.

So that is my soon to be 42 year old sister.

I went with my mom’s husband Fred who has been her de fact father for 20 + years. She seemed a little reserved at first. Normally I immediately get a big hug and kiss. I can understand. She could feel a little abandoned andon top of that her mom just died. Yes, she understands that. She was also very chatty, in a random word kind of way. Sometimes that is a warning sign that her behavior control is on the low side.

We started by going shopping for a new comforter and sheets. Most people with autism have some trouble with choices. I gave her the choice of polka dots or a blue pattern. She would say she wanted whatever one I said last. We finally agreed on the polka dots.

By this time she had warmed up. Lots of hugs and kisses and she wanted to hold both of our hands. Nice but hard to maneuver through narrow aisles that way. She waited patiently in line.

Non-PC moment number one. She asks the sales clerk if she showered today. One of the good ones. The response was  “No, not today but I did shower last night”. At least two more people got the same question before day’s end.

We went to another store to look for a winter hat and gloves. Sandy was doing a good job of reading name tags and addressing clerks by name. One got her necklace grabbed. Another was fun and offered Sandy a smell of some perfume.

People can be very kind or completely standoffish. Enough are kind that my faith in people gets restored consistently when I am with my sister. As Sandy was trying on hats another shopper asked if I had coupons for the store and offered me an extra. She made a point of finding us again before she left to give us more that she had not used.

We went to a movie. She tends to be more interested in live action movies especially musicals. Unfortunately High School Musical 3 was not for 2 hours so we saw Madagascar 2. (It did not hold her attention or mine.) Got pop and popcorn. Popcorn can be a problem because she never has enough but I took a chance. A little chatty during the movie about the popcorn but not too bad. Some great belches from the pop (hey, I am a guy of course I found that funny). Lots of kisses.

On the way home she borrowed my water bottle for a drink. She sits in back, its safer. I ask for the bottle back and then try to drink not realizing that she had removed the top. Soaked my pants. For a nanosecond I was mad, after all it was 30 degrees out. Then I burst out laughing. You never know what will happen when you are out with my sister. I turned on the heated seats and all was right with the world.

Once you take her home she is done with you. She starts saying goodbye and does not stop until you walk out the door. Every time you walk out you realize how much you learn from a day with Sandy.