Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/23/2010

“We’d gotten ourselves messed up on our own” –Dorothy Allison. “Music took me somewhere safe” –Melissa Etheridge

I’ve been on leave from posting. Not from writing. Just nothing I wanted to share. So it’s stream-of-consciousness time.

Funny thing. The one activity that really affects my writing is making music. I guess my brain isn’t big enough for two obsessions. So when I practice four to five hours a day, writing takes somewhat a back seat. I can’t explain it. I know the activities happen in different parts of the brain, so it doesn’t make much sense. I’ll have to talk to my neurologist about it. If it becomes that important. At the moment, it’s not. 

Are they all the same?

It’s odd what one remembers. Odd. Weird. Eccentric. Soon after Allison published  Bastard out of Carolina I read it. I understood only the surface story of abuse and straight male (“white trash”) domination. I didn’t get most of the undercurrents and subtleties, Allison’s use of music for redemptive purposes, for example (1).  Note: the movie of Bastard is horrible. 

However, I did understand one of the themes of the novel and have never forgotten what I think is the central idea. 

It wasn’t God who made us like this, I thought. We’d gotten ourselves messed up on our own (2). 

I’ve quoted that sentence many times, sometimes forgetting its source. Yesterday I came across the George article [below] about Bastard as I was looking for something else (as I’ve said before, that’s when the best research happens—one stumbles upon an important article/idea in the process of doggedly pursuing some other idea). I was, if you must know, researching the horrifying stranglehold the wacko fundamentalist far-right Republican Christians on the Texas State School Board have on what is taught in public schools across the United States (I started to write “our country,” but I’ve pretty much decided that this place feels less and less like “my country” all the time; religious fanaticism and super-patriotism are two of the realities of this country that I simply do not understand; I live on a different planet). 

If I get back to this blogging stuff, I will probably be writing a great deal about those wackos on the Texas Board,  (3) Don McLeroy of College Station, TX, especially, who want to force schoolbook publishers all across the United States to rewrite history (didn’t we used to scoff at the Commies in the USSR who indoctrinated their people by rewriting the history books?) in favor of a mythological understanding of the United States as a “christian” nation, racist, conservative, and violently anti-social. I will be writing about it because McLeroy and his deliberately-formed dangerous ignorance will be my students’ research topic this semester as they try to sort out reality from fiction about the First Amendment guarantees of Religious freedom and freedom of the press. 

Courtney George, at the beginning of her article quotes Melissa Etheridge:

The one thing that did keep me safe, that gave me a feeling of comfort growing up, was music. Music took me somewhere safe–a place where I was happy and free and comfortable being myself. I knew from a very young age that music was something I wanted to be a part of. It was something that made me feel good and helped me escape to a place where life was how I always dreamed it should be. Where life was like the movies. Fairy-tale endings and unconditional love. (4)

Music never took me somewhere safe.

For me, music has always been difficult. A strenuous exercise in discipline. I don’t understand performance. It scares the shit out of me most of the time. I don’t know how a musician gets to the point where she never makes note errors, never gets derailed in her thinking so that the music simply flows without a hitch. A place where the performer gets into the “altered state of consciousness” my wonderful friend and mentor, Samuel Walter, used to talk about. Sam, may he rest in peace, was organist of Voorhees Chapel, Rutgers, and Church of the Resurrection in New York and rescued me from personal disaster as well as performance anxiety on two occasions. 

I lied. Music always takes me somewhere safe. Performance does not. It’s too hard. 

I’ve decided the problem is that my brain—Oh dear, can it be true—has no ability to concentrate. Except, perhaps when I’m writing. Then it goes a mile a minute in one direction. It may not seem that way to you, dear reader, but this is headed in one direction. 

Last Sunday, I played the recital program I’m going to play twice in California in the next couple of weeks at my little church in Texas (see my Facebook page). The music was affective and effective. I played pretty well—more note mistakes than I wished, but not enough to spoil the musical effect. The fact is, however, I am too balled up in my own self-consciousness to relax and completely enjoy the experience. I watch the really great performers (I’ve even accompanied some of them) and wonder how, how, HOW they get to the place where performance seems to be the best the ultimate experience of their lives. 

And then I remember that mysteriously powerful victim-becoming-hero in Bastard. “It wasn’t God who made us like this, I thought. We’d gotten ourselves messed up on our own.” God didn’t make me nervous in performance. Somewhere along the line I got myself a double whammy: Mr. Perfectionist and Mr. Undisciplined at the same time. One can’t play perfectly if one is not disciplined enough to practice until it seems as if life has passed one by. Unless, of course, one is Yo Yo Ma. But I’ll bet even his full-time job is practicing. 

So music trumps hypergraphia. But it’s much more difficult. Hypergraphia happens whether I want it to or not. (A note to my nieces: When I die, please don’t read—or, for God’s sake, let anyone else read—the stuff I write when I’m writing alone, such as the last couple of weeks. I’m eccentric, weird, anti-social, and worse, but the nonsense I write is not Nietzsche. He was all those things, but a genius.) 

Exactly what straight line was this writing headed in? It’s a meditation on getting myself messed up on my own. God didn’t make me unable to find performance somewhere safe. I lie. Music is a safe place. Even that idiot, that violent and unprincipled Don McLeroy and his right-wing history-rewriting buddies can’t take that away from me. What kind of oily palaver is that? The truth. 
( 1.) George, Courtney. “‘It wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels’: musical salvation in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” The Southern Literary Journal 41.2 (2009): 126+. [Courtney George, English lecturer at Columbus State University in Georgia, completed her doctorate at Louisiana State University. Don McLeroy would not accept anything she wrote. She’s much  too well-educated.]
(2.) Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Plume Books, 1992.
(3.) Stutz, Terrence. “Social Conservative faces tough battle for state ed board seat.” Dallas Morning News. February 22, 2020. Web. 23 Feb 2010.
(4.) Etheridge, Melissa. “Music as a Safe Haven.” Music and Culture. Ed. Anna Tomasino. New York: Pearson Education, 2005. 11-18.



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