-- Regina Pickett Garson --
I was told many times to stay out of the woods and many more times than that I was blatantly disobedient. When I was sad, I went to the woods and wandered through the trees, found comfort in the paths of hard packed dirt of forest trails left by the wild animals with which I felt an affinity. I found strength in rocks ancient and strong. I found joy in the bark of trees and the changing leaves and the cool waters of springs that flowed clean from the Earth. I reveled in the colors, the patterns and the scents of wildflowers, many times more beautiful than any brush stroke of a human, for these strokes were made in Heaven, dropped on the land's palette and blended with the nourishing waters of the sky. This was my home.
I didn't talk much when I was a kid. Don't think I really saw the point, the trees didn't do a lot of talking, neither did the animals, or maybe they did, but not unless they had something to say. I understood that. I played music though. I remember my first piano teacher would ask, "What is music?" I had the answer she taught me and made me repeat at the beginning of every lesson. "Music is a language, a means to express thought and feeling." And the next lesson, she would ask me the same question and again I would repeat, "Music is a language, a means to express thought and feeling."
People thought I was good, that I had something special. I don't know. I disavow the child prodigy label. I worked hard at the music. For all who spoke of my talent, I still hold with the old adage that talent is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I trained in the classics and studied with the best in improvisation. I was a star on the local stage. Come high school, I decided to get serious about music and I went at it with the intensity of a world-class athletic in training headed for the Olympics. Maybe I was. During those years, I practiced between three and five hours a day, every day. And woe to me if I slipped.
For all the hard work though, it went past skill, art or craft, for my piano was my love, and there was the slow realization that if it were that intimate a relationship with my instrument, what was I doing on stage. And slowly the inhibitions set in and the iron claws of stage fright emerged and wrapped its tentacles around me. Time made it harder, not easier and there were times when I played when I was trembling so hard, I honestly don't know how I managed to get through my songs.
And then there were the funerals. My grandmother's funeral was so hard, after it was over, I went to my car, that I had parked behind the church and collapsed in sobs on the steering wheel as if somewhere in the wheel there was comfort. How can you/I dishonor how hard it is to cope with a funeral? But I was a child when it started, and because of my gift, even with deaths of those I loved deeply, I was still shoved out on that stage. Somehow getting through, performing even in the deepest of agony.
There was no word for "no." Maybe if it had been once and a relative when I was say in ninth grade, and there were those too, but it went way beyond that. For I was the piano player and I remember, I had gone away to college and there was a death in the community, and my mother had called for me to come play. That time, I did say, "No, I can't handle another funeral." I tried to explain. Physically and emotionally, I could not. She said you cannot say no to a funeral and I said I had to. That was the first time I ever said no to playing. But it had a price, and it was a long time before I was ready to play again. In fact, I never played very much after that. For how can you play, and refuse to play for the funeral of a loved one. For me it was survival. Instinct from the gut. I can't take any more of this. And so, I survived. But the music died.
It wasn't just one thing; it was stage fright, and the sheer agony of the emotional exertion and the level of strength it took to get through the music, the stage, and the hard ones, the funerals, and the deaths of those I loved were excruciating. Even the things that seemed easy were hard. Out looking in, I was the life that made the party, but sometimes forcing my fingers to function when every cell in my body was trembling, was a mountainous effort and it took its toil. Where was my place anyway? It wasn't the stage. I was a musician, but I was never a performer and never aspired to the front and center. How can they reconcile? And so I wrote.
My first inclination when I decided to become a writer was that I would never have to be on another stage again. In my soul, I was the feral child running alone through the woods, untamed, that was my element, and in that was my refuge and in those woods I was safer, more at home and more at peace than at any of the other moments or places of my life.
And so go the years. I am a writer and as I have said before, more than once and more than a day, writing has been my salvation. There was joy in music though and curiosity. I did after all spend at least fifteen years of my life as a serious musician, even started college as a piano performance major. I made the cut. Mozart I can handle. But it was more than that; it was my first love. I own that.
And sooner or later, if we really are human, we have to remember our first love. There was always something more, different to learn, to feel the words, to feel the tunes in my soul, the melodies, the harmonies. Music is indeed a language. I leaned to speak through the touch of my fingers on the keys. I rarely talked when I started my music lessons, age seven, I guess, couldn't read very well either, almost flunked the first grade. So, basically I was learning to read music about the same time I learned to read words, and I learned to communicate through music before I really had much of a handle on that talking thing.
Early on, it went straight from my head to my fingers, like when you are learning to read and you see a word and learn to say it aloud, except with me it was to the fingers. For all kinds of reasons, the hearing part was probably slower than for most, but there did reach a point where I wanted to hear. And I wanted it all. There's more, and will be later, but one thing, I remember when I was a child, I heard my grandparents talking about camp meetings and shape note singing. When they told me about the music, I asked questions, I had never heard it and it was spoke of only in the past. It was performed acappella, which is without musical accompaniment. And the music was read by the shape of the notes, not by their placement on a staff. I was curious and I asked more questions. By then though, it had died out in our area and it was not to be for me to hear. Shape note singing was always spoke of as a bygone thing.
When I was away at college though, one of the churches in the area (Calvary Baptist in Tuscaloosa) had a shaped note singing school. I had to go. It intrigued; I was drawn first by curiosity, like it was supposed to be part of me, but I had somehow missed it. I loved the simplicity of the notes, pure, and without embellishment, living on the merit of their tones. For many years, that was my only experience with the acappella of shape note singing.
Living now in Huntsville, Alabama, a couple years back, I had seen in a local paper where there was a Sacred Harp singing. I went. I had to, it could be no other way. This was different than the class though, which had been a seven shape system, called Christian Harmony. The Sacred Harp sounds were austere and unfamiliar, jarring even. I looked at a book and although the tablature was familiar, it was different and I could not get anything in me around it. I went back though and a friend gave me a book. I'd slip in on the back row and try to follow along, but I didn't get very far. This past winter though they talked about a camp, Camp Fasola, out in the woods, a music camp.
Where are my heartstrings? I walked around with the form in my purse for months. Then there was a message: If you want to go, you better pack. I hadn't even registered. I emailed, and heard back there was still room. So, I pulled out my checkbook and prayed I'd be caught up enough I could take the time off from work.
I worked extra all that week to be caught up enough to go and I didn't honestly know until I was in the car and on the way, that I would actually make it. But somehow, it was the same little girl and the same feeling of so many times in years so long past, when I needed respite, and I needed solace that I took to the woods for the trees, and the leaves, and the flowing waters, and the flowers, and rocks, and dirt, the dirt on my bare feet. That was home, and on that road, I knew that somehow, it was home I was going back to. With every fiber of my being, I felt it. I was late that first day, had to work a while anyway, but when I finally finished up, I piled in my already packed car.
It was right. Everything about that trip was right. Like before, I slipped in at the back of the church, the singing had already began and I still didn't have my brain around it, but I was there and it was going to happen. The music was loud, austere, and beautiful, the notes were true, and the voices strong. And I too lifted my voice. Before it was over, I knew I'd come home. For in this music, there was no performer, everyone was equal and everyone sang. There were no stars and everyone takes a turn leading. I didn't. Even that was too much, just yet anyway. But I was finally home again. Really at home with the music. And the music lives.
Regina P. Garson