Last night I spent several hours researching in the tall stacks of a nearby college where the vibrant tree above stands at the campus entrance, a festive welcome to the all girls school in rural Virginia. The smell of musty books, thumbed by scores of coeds, faculty and visitors like me over the years, ignited the possibilities I always feel when I’m standing at the beginning of something. Being surrounded by information inspires me.
Like the shocking colors in that tree, the smell of possibility was just the jolt I needed. Lately, as I near the end of this first draft of my novel and wade deeper into my search for my family’s history I’ve hit some roadblocks with both and I’ve felt my excitement wane. For the past week of my writing fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I’ve been counting the pages I write, reprimanding myself for not producing more. My kids are missing me and my husband has rearranged his schedule while I’m gone. The least I could do is return with a finished manuscript. For the past month of researching my family history, I’ve felt the pressure of similar unreasonable demands to make some important discovery about the people I came from, especially my great grandmother, Josephine.
It’s still a mystery whether or not she was the daughter (like my grandfather told me) or, if as her age suggests, the granddaughter of Col. W.R. Stuart and Temple Burton. I have yet to find any death certificate to pinpoint where and when she died. The only frame I have for her life is a 1920 census that puts her at age 45 and my father’s account that she was dead by the time he was born in 1934. These two bits of information are the bookends for the life of a woman who didn’t live to see her sixtieth birthday. Maybe she didn’t even live to see 50. Having grown up with both my grandparents and great grandparents, I can’t help but feel like my father and his siblings missed out on something precious.
The precious stuff is not so much in the beginnings and endings of people’s lives or the stories we read about them, real or imagined, but in what happens in between. When I got an excited text message from my fourth cousin two days ago that said, “Found Josephine,” it reminded me of how thrilled I was when she first found me and our subsequent visits together pouring over her big binders full of information on our family. Turned out she had found some other Josephine, but I was more buoyed by her tireless enthusiasm toward our search and the opportunity it allows us to get to know each other better than I was disappointed that the information didn’t pan out.
After a full day of writing yesterday (I did not finish my novel but I at least came closer to knowing how to), I took a jog along the Sweet Briar campus, Michael Jackson on my ipod propelling me along when I saw that tree. I ran by it twice before I doubled (or tripled) back, realizing fall colors are brief and tenuous. If a strong wind kicked up that evening, those leaves could all be blown to the ground by the next time I rode or jogged by. So, I stopped running, just stared at it for a while and let a wave of contentment wash over me. I had the privilege to write uninterrupted by the demands of real life at an artist’s colony, a husband who encourages me to do so, gladly taking over the fulltime care of our daughters and home while I’m here and in my cousin, Monique, a kindred spirit and research buddy. With the sun disappearing beyond the Blue Ridge mountains, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. In both my novel and my family research, I was beyond the frenetic excitement of the beginning but had not yet reached the relieved exhilaration of the end. I was in the middle where the precious stuff, the joy of the journey resides.
Do you find the middle of a project as challenging as I do? How do you stay connected to the joy of the journey?