For the Living

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A little warped because the program was in my coat pocket. Next to my heart.

Funerals and memorial services are for the living. I understand that now.

The ritual gives survivors and loved ones comfort, and closure, if that’s ever possible. Sometimes it takes years to move on after the death of a loved one. And if there isn’t a sense of closure, then you can’t feel at peace; the sorrow will gnaw at you, make your feel guilty, perhaps, fill you with regret at words left unsaid, deeds undone.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed is a beautiful service at my parish that I started paying attention to — and attending — after I found Emmett Wilson four years ago. Back then, November 2013, I was caught up in picking apart Emmett’s last days on Earth, and his funeral. I’d only recently discovered not only did we share an alcoholic kinship, but also we were cousins.

Even though he lived and died almost 100 years ago, I felt (and still feel) connected, and a healthy need to honor and acknowledge his life and his struggles, and to give myself some kind of emotional closure, which is nice, considering I never attended Emmett’s funeral.

I included Emmett’s name in our parish’s program, which first lists the names of our parish’s deceased in the past year, then lists the names of our beloved whom we wish to remember during the service.

My dear friend Nancy didn’t have a funeral. She didn’t want one. But her family and loved ones will gather sometime over the next few months to honor her memory, in a way she’d appreciate — her cousin is establishing a garden in her honor.

Meanwhile, attending this service was comforting. It was beautiful; Gabriel Faure’s Requiem was sung in Latin.

In paradisum, which is where I like to think Nancy and Emmett are at this moment.

The entire Requiem is beautiful, but the best part is In paradisum, which is moving and poignant, and where I like to think Nancy and Emmett are at this moment. You can hear it at this link, if you haven’t experienced it before. It’s worth it.

May the choir of angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, once a beggar, mayest thou have eternal rest.

 

 

 

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“…to accept the things I cannot change…”

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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.

Christmas gifts.

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.

In Praise of Sponsorship

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As of April 27, I will have 10 years’ sobriety in AA.

Putting down the drink was the easy part of getting sober. Keeping away from the damn drink was the hard part — and I surely would not have accumulated this much time, one day at at time, unless I had some help.

But I’ve always balked at accepting help. I’m self-reliant, and I’ve always prided myself on being able to take care of myself. Looking back, I realize that was probably how I was able to survive growing up in an alcoholic household — but now, as a recovering person — I’ve come to understand that self-reliance; i.e., my best thinking, is what got me into AA in the first place.

Four months into AA, I found a sponsor. She was tough as hell on me. She told me if I was really serious about sobering up, and realize the benefits of The Promises, I’d have to follow her directions.

The AA Promises. From pages 83-84 of Alcoholics Anonymous’ big book. They do come true.

The self-reliant alcoholic in me resented another person telling me what to do. I resisted, but I also knew, deep down, that I needed accountability and structure in order to kick this disease, and my sponsor was my best chance to do that. I’d tried to sober up twice before — nothing else had worked.

I did what she said. I didn’t always want to call her every day to tell her what was going on. I didn’t always want to go to a meeting every day. I didn’t want to pray every day, especially for people in my office who I didn’t get along with, or the person who cut me off on the Beltway, or the idiot in the grocery checkout line who decides to pay with a check when I’m in such a hurry to get back to my so-important life!

But I did it anyway.

And it has made all the difference.

Are my problems *poof* gone thanks to sobriety? No.

But my life is manageable.

I still have problems with people in my office, but, thanks to the AA program, I feel more compassionate towards them. It has made a difference in my attitude and the way they act towards me.

People still cut me off on the Beltway, but maybe that person has had a terrible day, or is truly in a hurry to get to the hospital or somewhere else to help a loved one.

I realize I’m powerless over other people, places, and things. But, I do have power over my reaction to other people, places, and things.

And I sure as hell could not have arrived at any of this on my own — only through the help of a good sponsor.

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Because I think that sponsorship works so well with my alcoholism, I decided to get a writing sponsor. I didn’t set out to ‘find’ one; this relationship evolved naturally.

You probably knew my first one — my dear friend Nancy. I used to talk to her almost every day about Emmett and the book, and the research. Our conversations were wonderful. I could talk to her about what I found about Emmett in the research, or about how I interpreted Emmett’s relationships with his family, for example, and she’d give me great feedback. It was clarifying and encouraging. Nancy knew my entire story, especially the AA part.

Jacki, myself, Nancy. History detective gals.

Eventually, I told Nancy that I considered her my ‘writing sponsor’, and she said she was honored that I thought of her that way — and voila, our writing sponsorship was born.

It wasn’t a one way relationship, either: Nancy also had writing and research projects underway, and she’d talk to me about them. We’d discuss research databases, research libraries, the best ways to interview reluctant sources, how to catalog articles — you get the picture. We were a team.

And when Nancy died this past January, I was devastated. I felt as if I lost a family member. I’ve really missed Nancy. It has been hard to keep up the writing and research with as much enthusiasm since she died.

But I think Nancy would have been really p-o’d if I wallowed in sadness and the listlessness I’ve felt since she died in January. She would have come up here from Florida and kicked my ass over it; no lie. Nancy would tell me, directly, to get a grip. Find a damn writing sponsor. I need one. She’s right, of course.

As of this weekend, I have a new writing sponsor.

I feel like my Emmett Wilson writing program is back on track.

Things are looking up.

Thanks to my sponsors.

 

Three Years

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Happy Blog Birthday! Source: My talented daughter, Sage.

I started the Emmett Wilson book blog three years ago, about a month before my first research trip to Pensacola.

The blog wasn’t my idea, but my husband’s. He thought I ought to get the project out there, ‘market it’ (his words) so that when the time to publish rolls around, the word would already be out there.

I wasn’t thinking ‘marketing’ at all; rather, I was hoping to make connections with far-flung family members, genealogists, Florida historians and other researchers who might be able to fill in the many gaps I was finding in reconstructing Emmett’s life story.

It has all been beneficial — while the publication date of Emmett’s first book is still unknown, I’ve been privileged to meet many Wilson family descendants, and descendants of Emmett’s friends through this blog. Some of the information holes have been filled in, I’ve made wonderful new friends, I’ve learned so much about a distant branch of my family that has become precious and dear.

It has been rough in places, too. Data trails go cold. Sources don’t always prove useful. The writing muse neither speaks nor wishes to bother with me. And of course, a dear friend I met through Emmett’s research died of cancer this past January.

Still, the discovery process of piecing together Emmett’s life intrigues me like nothing else I’ve ever encountered in my life. And the writing — well, sometimes, I have to will the damn muse to work with me.

It’s all good; it’s all wonderful, really. And I am so grateful and humbled by the opportunity to tell Emmett’s story. When I think about it, I’m always a bit surprised at how this has come together, and thankful that I paid attention to that voice I heard in the middle of the night four years ago, when I was looking through an archive of photos, and found Emmett’s.

There is a lot more work ahead of me on this book, but I welcome it. I may complain and vent my frustrations about the process from time to time, but I wouldn’t give this up for the world.

And to quote my dear friend Nancy, who left us in January, “We’ve got this. It’s going to happen.”

Thanks for your interest in the continuing saga of uncovering Emmett Wilson’s story. Stay tuned; it is just getting interesting!

 

On to the Second Draft

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The review of the first draft is finished.

Complete with notes to self, on the text, on hot pink Post-Its, and note cards.

It’s a five-chapter mess, not counting the bibliography and notes section.

It is a relief to have gotten through a complete first draft. But, no lie, the real work begins with the second draft.

The good news is that I have enough information, but about a third of it needs to be put somewhere else and massaged into shape.

The bad news is that this is the first rough draft, and frankly, it looks like it.

And sometimes, the problem with the text simply comes down a need for clarification.

I’m not sure when I’ll have a final draft in hand. I wish I knew, but for now, I’m good with not knowing. As my friend Nancy used to tell me, the book is meant to be; it is a matter of time. It will come together when it is the time is right.

I tell my students that writing is both a journey and a process:

  • Much of what and how you write is about self-discovery, and finding out where you need to change. I noticed in the review of the draft that I am uncomfortable talking about Emmett’s alcoholic behavior. The writing feels stiff and awkward; as if I’m trying to save face for him — when the reality is that writing about the discomfort, shame, and embarrassment of his drinking misbehavior closely resembles my drinking behavior. Even though I’m almost 10 years sober, I’m troubled thinking about my past; I know that if I don’t address this, it could lead to trouble.

In AA literature, the third Promise tell us that, as we become sober people, ‘we will not regret the past, nor will we wish to shut the door on it.’  Becoming truly, completely sober doesn’t happen overnight; it requires living the principles of the program every day, and being mindful of them. Emmett’s story has helped me discover my need for a close relationship with my program, and that I can’t ‘wing it,’ as Emmett tried to do (and failed).

  • Your first draft will not be perfect; neither will the second, and maybe not the third. My experience has almost always been that the first draft is the worst, especially if the particular writing project is new. For example: In my writing classes, the first papers almost always reflect the lowest grades of the semester. It isn’t that the assignment is particularly hard; mostly, the issue is that students do not proofread final copy before submitting it for a grade. But almost always, when students do second, even third, drafts, the writing is dramatically improved.

The other issue with drafts is time: Writing can be tedious if you dislike the topic, procrastinate, or simply don’t have enough information/research. With Emmett’s book, I worried constantly over the past four years whether I had enough information to tell the story adequately. There are still information holes but there is enough to do a decent biography for Emmett.

[I am also hopeful that perhaps one day, someone may read this blog (or read the book!) and realize they have one of Emmett’s scrapbooks in an attic somewhere.]

More later!

Journaling & Self-Editing Finds

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I’ve been posting less on Emmett’s blog this month because I’m working on Emmett Wilson-related articles to submit to two publications:

lpr

I met the representatives of the Little Patuxent Review literary journal when I was at the AWP Conference two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, they told me to submit my article.  The deadline is in two days, and my piece is in rough condition. No pressure. 😐

durmar6I also met a few representatives showcasing a new literary journal, The Ponder Review. I spoke with them about my Emmett Wilson project, and was also encouraged to submit my article; I have a little more wiggle room with their deadline, which is March 6.

And, in the midst of preparing journal submissions I am halfway finished with the first read-through of Emmett’s 450-page manuscript. So far, the quality is mixed — the first chapter is in fairly good shape. But the second chapter is awful.

Frankly, I’m not surprised at the poor condition of the second chapter, because when I look back at my notes on this section, I saw that I was complaining to myself and to Nancy mightily about how hard it was to write. In my notes, I said that I couldn’t figure it out why this was so hard, because ironically, it is one of the periods of Emmett’s life where there are relatively few information holes.

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Source: Wikipedia

But now, after eight months since I drafted the chapter — what immediately jumps out is Emmett’s Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior, and I can see that I was trying to present Emmett’s behavior consistently, when in fact, there was nothing consistent in his behavior at all. He was up and down because this is when Emmett’s drinking habits became entrenched. He’s only 22 years old in the second chapter, but there’s already evidence of blackout drinking.

The inconsistencies are quite telling, and an important aspect of Emmett that needs to stay in this story.

I’m kind-of surprised I didn’t notice this pattern eight months ago, when I was in the midst of writing the chapter, but then, I had a similar situation back in my dissertation days. My dean recommended that I step away from the research for about month — do something different — then come back with fresh eyes, because it would make all the difference.

Such good advice then, and now.

I should clarify that when I say ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ I don’t want to imply that Emmett was evil; but when Emmett became intoxicated, he became a different person. Perhaps he did seem as if he was possessed by an evil spirit once he had had too much; it is clear that Emmett Wilson was a completely different person when he was sober.

 

 

I’ve made the notes and crafted a more cohesive structure for the second chapter, which I’ll rewrite after I’ve gone completely through the manuscript.