I sat down today and wanted to work on Chapter 7. There was a small problem. I had no idea what was in Chapter 7.

So I put it off a few minutes and decided to take a shower. As I was walking up the stairs, I thought, “I should write about the wall, that barrier that people researching African-American genealogy often run into at about 1865.” Then, I thought about the walls that line this place, the low stone walls that were built by the ungloved hands of enslaved people. The wall, that’s where I start.

Then, I took a shower and forgot entirely about that idea in the midst of the flurry of other obligations that run through my mind when I don’t entirely focus. I almost lost the shard of the wall idea entirely, but my schedule saved me. I still had an hour left in my writing time, so I had to bear down and do it. Write around the wall.

All over these three plantations there are these low stone walls, cobbled together from the stones taken from the pastures and the seams of rock in the land here. They stand about three feet high and run hundreds of yards along the edges of fields and through the stands of trees. Sometimes they mark the line of a road bed, sometimes the edge of property line. They etch the landscape here, reminding most visitors of similar walls in Great Britain or New England.
Now, I use these walls to walk the paths that the people enslaved here walked. I stroll Grandmother’s walk (named after the General’s great-granddaughter and the grandmother of the previous owners) and find my way by watching the stone wall that holds up the roadbed beneath my feet and the leaf litter. I see the disintegrating stone wall around the slave graveyard and anticipate the Saturday when Ben Creasy’s descendants will come and help us build it back to mark the sacred place with stone again.
For me, these walls are sacred, too, built by enslaved hands in the dead of winter when crops were not yet sown and people “needed” to be kept busy. I want to put my cheek against the stones and hear them whisper to me – “Elias put me here. “ But the stones do not whisper.

Maybe the stones do whisper.

How do you help yourself focus? What holds you to your writing task?