The Drum and the Cardinal

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2022

By Robert C. Koehler

My friends Scott and Betsey gave me a drum a few weeks ago. I played it as I sat with them . . . and I certainly mean the word “play” as childishly as you can imagine. I’m no more a musician than I am a nuclear physicist, but I played along with them and, well, this is what happens to me: I notice big things emerge in incredibly small moments.

Welcome, once again, to Bob’s Rhubarb Lounge, this not-exactly-real place where all humanity is welcome to participate in the music of human evolution. It’s the opposite of anything officially proclaimed to be significant, such as, for instance, an art museum, where the contents are externally determined to be of high cultural value. Even though I love these places, I sense a cultural void present: a disconnect. This is important stuff. It’s art! It’s not you or me. Our role is to “appreciate” it.

But as I was drumming with my friends, what struck me — not with surprise, just with a smile of awareness — was the collective nature of this resonating sound. We were creating something together. But the “something” went beyond each of us. It started taking on a rhythm — a life — of its own. It had a soft, fleeting, almost mystical presence, which filled me with joy. It filled me with wow. I’m sure there was a goofy smile on my face.

Last week I wrote a column about the “advanced” world’s broken connection with nature, but something was missing in my words: the connection itself. Where is it? What is it? And then, oh so quietly, I heard the drums resonate again. I wanted to get up and dance.

And I am still swimming in the resonance now. Life’s smallest moments matter; each moment is a moment of connection, a chance to notice and bless life. All I can do is take a moment right now — this very moment (join me if you’d like) — and kneel, hold the preciousness of life as close as possible. This is the opposite of . . . achievement, success, winning.

What are the deepest ways that you connect?

After my wife died — my God, it’s been more than 20 years — the narrative of my life was broken. I was a writer, but my words were lost and isolated. They didn’t fit together. That’s when I started writing poetry again. I had played with poetry in college. But in the wake of my wife’s death, I wasn’t trying to win accolades. I just wanted to rebuild meaning in my life, moment by moment, drumbeat by drumbeat.

I wanted to, you might say, push my words to places where they hadn’t been before — and perhaps to places where they didn’t belong. I wanted to write with reverence. I also wanted to write with irreverence. The opposite of the former is not the latter. The opposite of reverence is indifference, and so I began taking it on myself not to be indifferent to minutiae — to the pulsing drumbeats of everyday life.

My poetry reaches for God. My poetry also reaches for miscellany, for litter. Indeed, this is what I call “litteracy.”

This poem is called “The Cardinal”:
I thank you god
if that’s your name
for the beauty and the trash,
the spill, the vomit, the love and
exhaust smoke of
this new most
amazing day.
Outside my window
a cardinal shocking
as a nosebleed
pecks the raw winter
ground beneath its feet.
I thank you for its
food and mine,
for my coffee and for these
words, these malleable
playthings of awareness,
which still birth
all I think and know.
Let them stroke
the trembling potential
of what I see and what’s
to come.
The cardinal lifts.
I salute it with
my cup
and swallow.

And life goes on, in all its peace and craziness. I’m not sure I know what point I’m trying to make here, except that wonder transcends certainty.