On Music and Writing

I’m listening to Hall and Oates, in my head, right now.

“I can’t go for that, no, no, no can do, well I can’t go for that, can’t go for that, can’t go for that….”

Go figure. When I’m urging my brain synapses to fire and work with me, my brain decides that I need to relive the 1980s. I have to remind my brain that I am not writing about the 1980s this week – high school, college, bad hair, bad boyfriends, bad jobs – that I am writing about traveling. I have chastised my brain, but it refuses to work with me here. It has basically just informed me that it doesn’t give a shit if I want to write today and that, in fact, it is time to rock out to Hall and Oates. And then, as if in punishment for the unrelenting bickering my brain and I are engaging in in my attempt to turn off, or in the least, change the song on the jukebox in my head, Hall and Oates seems to be getting louder, almost deafening. My brain and I are going through a break up right now.

I do this fairly regularly – listen to entire songs in my head. Most often it’s in the shower, in the morning, when I’m still half asleep, half in bed, half alive, pre-coffee, pre-consciousness. In the time that it takes me to wash my long hair and my lanky body and shave my legs or other parts, if necessary, and rinse and, repeat, if necessary, I can complete quite a lovely, all-in-my-head version of Sugar Magnolia. Or, depending on the morning, Bill Withers, “Lovely Day.” Or, depending on the day ahead, a good ol’ Tom Waits tune. It’s how I wake up most every morning, with music playing in the background.

I’ve seen almost every band, artist, or musician that I have ever wanted to see in my lifetime. Almost. The playlist that I have in my head rivals anyone’s ipod, yet perhaps not my friend George’s vinyl collection. And, my photographic memory is such that I can pull up just about any song that a moment may require. Thus, if I’m among friends, and you may be one of them, and I appear to be zoning out, I’m generally, simply, quietly, and most probably, listening to the soundtrack in my head.

What is not helpful, or joyful, is when my head tune gets in the way of my writing. If I have approached some sort of impasse – a word or a turn of a phrase or a hitch in getting to the meat of a topic – this is when my brain decides that it is the perfect time for some groovy music. As if on cue, and as if waiting for just the right moment of hesitation, my brain decides that this is it’s chance to recall me listening to the Allman Brothers, “Well there’s a man down there, might be your man, I don’t know,” at the House of Blues in New Orleans circa 1996.

This insane phenomenon that I possess explains why I tend to write when I’m drinking. The wine, or beer, or bourbon, or whatever is the adult beverage chosen for the evening, seems to drown out the songs in my head that are competing with the words I’m trying to put down on paper. Someone recently asked me how I write when I’m buzzed. It’s not a secret to the writers who do it, and I suspect that is most of us. As Ernest Hemingway so eloquently stated, “Write drunk. Edit Sober.” Oscar Wilde most assuredly wrote that completely fucked up, but awesomely absurd and creepy story, The Picture of Dorian Gray while imbibing, perhaps at The Palace Bar in Dublin. Certainly Gonzo journalist himself, Hunter S. Thompson, used drugs to smooth his rapier-like critiques of American society. I suspect that these writers, much like myself, found themselves in their heads so much that they needed a way to dull the voices, or in my case, the music, that was drowning out the emotions they were trying to express through words.

I’m sure that there are many good, nee great, writers out there who don’t drink a lick of bourbon. (Read Anne Lamott, one of my heroines). But for some reason, I find that my writer friends who like to imbibe are slightly edgier, funny, introspective, self-effacing, and, generally, much more interesting to be around. So, I’ll continue to write drunk (or somewhat buzzed) and, edit sober. This piece included.

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On Sabbatical

On Sabbatical

I want to go back to the mountains. I’m sitting here, in the frigid, suck of February, hoping it will bring us the summer we had last year; the temperate weather, the woods that always smelled clean, and mountains that were verdant and impossible to fathom and that I hiked with dear friends. I want to smell clean grass and I want to hear bubbling streams and I want to experience brushfire burning in the distance. I want to be anywhere but here.

I’m on sabbatical. And I’ve spent the better part of a half a year looking forward to the time when I could sit down with my research – research that has been done over the previous three years – and read and evaluate what those letters and diaries and slave books meant and, I want to have the time to contemplate what I would write about it all. In the past few months, I have found myself beholden to the work I said I would do for others and neglecting the work I have wanted to do for myself. The fact that I have barely considered my own research makes me more than contemplative about how I have chosen to support this writing lifestyle.

Academics, and historians, I believe, I have lofty goals. We expect that there will always be enough time to read for ourselves, to write for ourselves, to sit back and wonder about the way the world works with a cup of coffee or tea or bourbon, thinking about the past and today, and how they intersect and how we’re going to bridge that gap between the past and the present so we can make it understandable and readable and important. We want our words and our work to mean something. We want our words and our work to span generations, so that like C. Vann Woodward, our students are reading us decades beyond our lives in the present world. I want mine to mean something more than the protests I lived through, the bridges I slept under, the petitions I wrote and, more than anything, the Ph.D. I achieved on the way to attempting to right some wrong in the world and instill in my students my faith in humanity and this great democracy.

So, this is what I contemplate every day when I sit at the computer, wracking my brain for a thought, words that will leave an impact when I’m not of this earth. I want to write about what is meaningful in this life. I want to jar you into thinking about why the world is not so much a different place than it was centuries ago. I want you to walk through this world thinking about why a simple plantation located in “nowheresville” Louisiana might make a difference to how you think about the world you live in today.

I’m thinking and writing today about my life and, about Cross Keys, a plantation that existed from 1853 until 1985. I suspended my fake boundaries of history and went back to the 19th century and decided I could write about slaves (which I have not done) and women (which I have done a lot) and make it seem relevant at some point. History is nothing but relevant, although you would never know that considering the way politicians act inside the Beltway. I want to write a book about the fact that women were relevant, as they are today, and as they were then, to the fabric of this country. I want to write a book about Louisiana, and how African Americans lived and how they were spoken about, when they were enslaved and thought irrelevant, barring how it made the economy in Louisiana a better place for those who were white had the wherewithal to survive.

Today, however, I will read theses, and books my erstwhile colleagues wrote, and take notes and write notes and write this blog that I think, sometimes, saves me because it provides me with a place to vent and think out loud. Sometimes sabbatical is just about gathering yourself and your life and your disappointments in others making it congruent when life seems completely incongruent. Tomorrow, the letters of the women who ran Cross Keys will tell me something I didn’t know. History is nothing but an adventure every day. And who knows where that next day will take us.

On Irelanding

The plane has landed at Dublin International Airport, after a short five-hour flight across the pond. It’s 7am, Dublin time – 2am in the states. As we disembark, we are exhausted, exhilarated, full of wonder, and now, waiting in a seemingly endless line of non-Irish travelers answering questions about why we are here, what are our intentions –  just to get through customs in these sleepy morning hours. All I want to say is, “I’m here to travel. Perhaps investigate. See your city. Meet your people.” And then, get in a cab, arrive promptly at our rented Air BnB apartment in Kilmainham where the man is waiting for us to check in, show us around, and sleep. There are seven days ahead of us to be travelers. Right now, I need to sleep.

We began discussing this trip, Sarah and I, in the summer, when she was looking at a milestone birthday and I, contemplating life and career and equipped with a new passport, decided we needed to get out of the states and mingle with other folks; non-American folks, in a strange land with, perhaps, different accents and different foods and differing views on the world. Traveling expands the mind and the heart and eases the worries associated with home. We chose Ireland because we both had never been and because it is replete with American speaking folk and a neverending supply of pubs – where we could take in the local flavor and drown our respective sorrows, perhaps renew our faith in humanity with many pints of Guiness and Smithwicks and glasses of Jamesons. We did all of that. Faith in humanity restored.

And, there’s history there. As a historian, I appreciate walking into a building that was built centuries before anyone had even fathomed America. To this day, it is still impossible for me to wrap my head around the fact that I was in a pub where there were people, just like me, sitting in the oldest pub in Dublin, the Brazen Head, built in 1198, drinking mead or beer and discussing world events, just as we did, all those centuries ago. For me, every pub was history. Every pub held a story. And if I didn’t know one, the locals filled me in.

Life as we know it, is always in a state of flux. We have jobs and meet people and are happy and are sad and we dance and drink and then, we drop, exhausted with what comes after all the revelry that should be and seems to be our lives. At least some of us. Life is never easy my friends. We’re often disappointed. We’re often tired. But sometimes, we’re exhilarated and enlightened and loved and well, we love. I love Ireland. I think Ireland loved us.

I have much to say about being in Ireland. About the people we met, and the places we saw and visited and who we were when we were there. Do we ever leave a place really? Or do we leave something of ourselves there and hope to go back, to that place that we were when we were there. Not out of body, but not of the person that we embody when we are truly, ourselves, in a place where no one knows us and where we don’t want to be known. A place where we just want to be. Somewhat absent from our lives, but also, somewhat so much a part of it that we can’t breathe.

So, we visited twenty two pubs (I know, a lot for lovely ladies like ourselves), and, we met many lovely folks in those pubs. Pubs where writers and artists and regular folks have frequented for years; hundreds of years. I sat in a pub where Oscar Wilde perhaps could have written Dorian Gray. I sat in at a fireplace where James Joyce could have contemplated writing Finnegans Wake. I wonder if I could ever be that kind of writer. One who makes an impact on generations, years to come. But I was there. And I was glad to be there. As a writer, historian, a human being who is always interested in the way we live, and love, and operate in the world. Ireland felt like home.