I have great news!
Emmett’s grand-niece, Elizabeth Meade Howard, has published a book!
Elizabeth is the granddaughter of Katie Wilson Meade. I’ve ordered mine from Amazon, and I cannot wait to read it!
Sometimes this damn book reminds me of a guy I knew from my high school days back in Mississippi.
Public transportation back then was laughable, unreliable, and/or nonexistent. Also, teenagers wouldn’t be caught dead riding to school on a public bus or in a car with one’s parents.
Carpools with friends was passable, but the really big deal when I was in high school was having your own car.
So, this 15-year-old guy I knew, who lived in my neighborhood, desperately wanted his own car. His dad told him: We can’t afford it, so if you want your own car, you’ll have to do it all on your own.
The 15-year-old saved up his money from mowing lawns, working nights and after school at the local movie theatre, et cetera, and bought a junker off of an old guy from Rankin County who used to come to the theatre on occasion. The old guy lived wayyyy out in the country. I remember it cost the kid a whopping $150 bucks cash (it was a big deal back then, especially when his dad didn’t hand him any of it, and minimum wage was $3.35 an hour).
The old guy from Rankin County hauled the junker to the 15-year-old’s house and literally dropped it in the driveway.
The dad went ballistic, but there was nowhere else to put it.
I remember the 15-year-old worked on the junker for an entire summer, nonstop. He hunted parts from the junkyard, trying to piece the engine together. He bought parts from the local hardware stores when he could. The whole thing, really, was a piece of crap, but he was dedicated that summer, and determined to, at a minimum, get it running. He’d worry about what it looked like later.
Come September, the junker was abandoned in the driveway. There was a huge grease spot underneath it. Parts were scattered here and there, and the 15-year-old didn’t touch it once school started. It was more than he could handle, I suppose. He lost interest.
The 15-year-old’s dad had to get rid of it. Eventually, another teenager from Tougaloo either bought it off of the dad for $75, or the dad paid the kid $75 to take it. The 15-year-old went back to riding in to school via carpool.
Wouldn’t you know it, by February or March, the Tougaloo teenager had the junker running. It still looked like a piece of crap on the outside, but that’s not the point — the Tougaloo kid stuck with it, and got the junker to run.
Right now, Emmett’s book feels like a junker in my driveway. I’ve collected the parts for the engine, but I’m having trouble piecing it together. I don’t know when I’ll get Emmett’s vehicle running, and sometimes, it feels entirely frustrating.
I can see in my mind’s eye how I want Emmett’s vehicle to come together, but dammit, a lot of the parts are scattered around in my metaphorical yard, tools strewn here and there, too.
The insides of the vehicle aren’t pretty either: The back seat of the gutted insides are sitting under a metaphorical tree, all torn with stuffing coming out of the seat, with a bird sitting and shitting on the broken head rest.
But I’m not going to let it go.
And I’m not going to give it up.
I still love working on this project. I still can see this thing completed in my mind’s eye, but ~sigh~, you know?
Time to put my on my writing overalls and get started.
Two weeks ago, the realization that it was time to accept things I cannot change arrived at the door, around 11:15, courtesy of our mail carrier Jesse, of the United States Postal Service.
My dear friend Nancy’s cousin had written earlier that week, asking for my address, because Nancy had gifts for me.
This was unexpected: Nancy was still in the hospital a few days before Christmas without any discharge date in sight. Also, she and I had a deal where we didn’t exchange Christmas gifts. Just corny holiday cards. Thing was, I didn’t know Nancy’s condition was precarious. Had I known, I would have gone to visit her, and I’ve regretted it ever since. I said as much to her cousin.
“Nancy was an extremely private person. She didn’t want anyone to know. You were on her mind even as she was failing,” she wrote to me. “She wanted you to stay strong and she was proud of your accomplishments.”
The box arrived.
The box sat on my desk for several days.
Now, I admit, I haven’t completely processed Nancy’s death, and I don’t expect to ‘process’ Nancy out of my life, ever. I’ve grieved on and off outwardly, but I’ve put her death aside mostly because I don’t like to wallow in sadness. I’ve come to understand the addictive nature of my personality. I would latch onto that grief; use it as a way to defer action on Emmett’s book, for example, or to hide behind it as an excuse to eat mint chocolate chip ice cream every day. I know Nancy wouldn’t like that one bit. She’d give me holy hell for shelving Emmett, and/or for using her death as a crutch to not get on living life, to not face life on life’s terms.
So, why delay opening the box?
If I opened it, it meant I was acknowledging she was gone, that life continues on, even though she’s not physically there.
I miss Nancy. I miss talking to her. I miss her counsel and her god-awful jokes, and her nutty sense of humor, and her abrupt, direct way of telling me that I could do better with a certain paragraph, or section of Emmett’s story. She got me and I got her. We were friends.
Yesterday, I opened the box.
Three things — the first was the Mississippi State University official cowbell that I sent her for her birthday last October. Nancy had come to love my alma mater’s often inconsistent football team. She’d watch the games on Saturday afternoon, and ring the cowbell, surprised and delighted at how loud and deafening it was!
Nancy’s cowbell will hold a special place in my office, next to my own old, beat-up cowbell that I was given during my Freshman year decades ago; both will definitely get used!
The long blue box held a pewter house blessing, that reminded me of another dear friend of mine who died a few years back, Chris.
I meet Chris in the rooms of AA. He was one of the first people who saw the emotionally fragile, spiritually brittle person I was in the early days of recovery. I remember telling Nancy that whenever I saw Chris and asked how he was doing, he’d always say, “I’m blessed.” When I first met him and he said that to me, my first reaction was to take his inventory — to judge him. This guy was a nut, I thought.
And then, I slowly got to know Chris. I realized he truly was blessed, and lived his life like a loose garment. He was sober, serene. Unfettered.
I wanted what he had. And because Chris saw through the facade I put up when attending those early meetings, and extended the hand of friendship, things got better.
Finally, there was this.
Nancy knew well how difficult it has been to conduct Emmett’s research, then find a way to tell his story.
There have been days when I just wanted to (and did) say to hell with Emmett and his story. I questioned both my sanity and the purpose of doing a project on a long-dead, obscure man who drank himself to death. Why bother, I remember asking Nancy a long time ago, when I was going through a particularly frustrating period in Emmett’s research?
“Because his life was relevant. His life had meaning, and a message. And because he picked you to tell his story,” she’d said, in an email message to me. “It’s worth it. I think you know that, too.”
Indeed, one of the most precious gifts I’ve received from doing Emmett’s story is friendship. I’d never have had the privilege of becoming friends with Nancy if it weren’t for Emmett.
Emmett’s story has definitely been worth it so far. And I will see it through.
I haven’t been much in the mood to write over the past few weeks. It has something to do with it being August and the feeling of things coming to an end, as it always does to me at this time each year. For most folks, the feeling of Auld Lang Syne, and the ritual of reflecting on things accomplished over the past year and planning for the next year takes place on December 31.
My ritual of reflection and rebirth for a New Year always takes place at the start of the new school year. Right about now. And I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting over the past few weeks.
First, I took a break from Emmett’s book. This was, really, the first true break of any significance from the writing. It was both difficult and necessary to break out of the daily — and I do mean daily — routine of writing about Emmett, because I was resenting it. It wasn’t that I was making a lot of progress, but that I was looking for distractions so that I didn’t have to write at that moment. I was forcing myself to write, and it showed.
Next, I’ve also come to realize that the approach to Emmett’s story wasn’t working out. Fact is, this is a biography with gaps in the data. I’ve invested four years collecting the details about Emmett’s life, which is fine, but the real story here is my relationship with Emmett and the process of researching an obscure man’s life. It’s not as dry as it sounds: You see, I’ve come to understand that the real work of research involves building relationships with other people, which, honestly, is something I’ve not been all that great about in my life. I’m coming through this process richer in friendships; certainly richer in the understanding of what it is that connects people.
And, it turns out I’ve been actively writing this book from day one, via my research journals, my correspondence, my blog posts, and the draft chapters. I’m not starting over by any stretch of the imagination. Rethinking the approach has given me a new energy; the presentation will be unique, something that I find exciting and energizing. This new approach feels absolutely right. I can’t explain it, but it makes sense: Most major writing projects involve starts and stops as the writer ‘tries on’ the story, or the chapter in progress.
I’ll restart writing Emmett’s story on the day my kids head back to school (Tuesday after Labor Day).
I don’t find it ironic at all that this epiphany took place during the month of the eclipse. And speaking of eclipses, we spent ours in Charleston, South Carolina.
I’m looking forward to September, and to a fresh start with Emmett’s chapters.
Although I’ve made a few posts here on the blog this month, I took some time away from Emmett Wilson & the research starting on July 1, because I was feeling burned out. After four years of near-continuous digging into and piecing together Emmett’s life, I was starting to resent him, and the book. I needed a break.
So, I went to Canada for 10 days, did a bunch of hiking and reading books that were completely different than gilded-age Florida politics. It did a lot to recharge my batteries, and give me a fresh perspective. Here’s some pictures from a few of the hikes:
The rest of the time, I read a bunch of books.
And there was one more — I had to return it the day after I got home from Alberta, and it was the best of the lot:
I could not put the Grann book down. I read it the entire flight from D.C. to Calgary. What was intriguing (at first) was the way Gann “fell into” this story, which was much like I fell into Emmett’s research. It took Gann years to piece the research together, and he talks about the internal wrestling and validation about the research process. He got caught up in the story of the Osage, and it became a huge part of his life — much like Emmett’s story has become mine.
It’s good to be back. But things will be a bit different. Because I was feeling burned out, I realized I needed to take healthy time away from the research, read other writers (because it really helps my writing in the end), and incorporate more balance into my workday.
On Tuesday, I posted final grades for the spring semester of my classes. Typically, I take the week in between spring and summer semesters to clean out files, finish last minute prep work, and and prepare for the next set of classes.
In addition, I decided to do some Emmett Wilson spring cleaning. I’m going through ALL of the articles, resources, references, images, and notes collected over the past four years. It’s great re-acquainting myself with what I’ve collected.
My organization strategy has been twofold: First, because most of the information about Emmett comes from specific sources, I organized each item by year and title of publication or name of source. Second, I created a timeline for Emmett’s life, and broke it down into four different time periods. In each timeline entry, I note the date, the event, and the location in my files of my source. There’s over 6,000 entries to-date. Booyah!
Reviewing the files also gives me a great sense of relief and control, especially since this has turned out to be a much larger — and incredibly more rewarding! — project than originally anticipated in 2013. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope of it.
Another great benefit of going through the files is finding interesting oddball things I saved when I first started Emmett’s project —
This, for example:
This letter wasn’t written by Emmett or Cephas Wilson; I’m not sure who wrote it; I found it as a loose document in the Blount family archive records at the University of West Florida.
I saved it because during this time Lula Wiselogel Wilson filed divorce papers against her husband, Cephas Wilson, according to a family genealogy. The genealogy did not say why the papers were filed against Cephas, but a quote in the genealogy from Berta Daniel Wilson (no relation to Emmett Wilson, but a neighbor of Dr. Francis C. Wilson family in Chipley) was interviewed about it and was quoted in the genealogy saying that Lula had filed the papers and, “…the gossip was terrible at the time.”
For what it is worth: Lula never went through with the divorce, but knowing that Lula was a force to be reckoned with, she probably could prove items #3 and #4!
My essay on the Wilson-Myers house (related to my research on Emmett Wilson) is up!
The link is here; click on the push-pin for Chipley, Florida.