Train of Thought
How a ride up the Hudson helped unlock this Pleasant Valley native’s voice
Illustration by Chris Reed
Staring at a blank page is a dreaded reality for writers. I have several projects in the works. At times it can be overwhelming, but not for the reasons you may think. I love research so much I could disappear in a library and never come out. I have enough journals and rough drafts to fill 10 libraries. But seeing a manuscript to completion is my Achilles heel. I love the research; I love the writing process. What makes completing a project so difficult?
The answer revealed itself to me while I was taking a train from Poughkeepsie to Albany. Looking out the window at the old homes and mansions on the banks of the Hudson River, the history teacher in me was fascinated by my surroundings: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home; Frederick Vanderbilt’s mansion, the Mills, Olana House...The Mid-Hudson Valley carries New York’s DNA.
As I rode the train, and looked out on the still pristine and largely untouched landscape through the Catskill Mountains, I thought about those who came before me riding on the same tracks: Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Dorothy Day, Eleanor Roosevelt...I share an undeniable kinship with these women, not only because I, too, was born there, but because I have always felt called to follow in their footsteps in some small way (my pet project is set in the 19th century). Or in the footsteps of my great (great, great) grandfather, Isaac Van Wagenen, from Kingston, who bought Sojourner Truth as a slave for the sole purpose of giving her independence. This is my history too. Yet, I pale in comparison to my foremothers and fathers. My revolutionary soul actually feels guilty that I don’t live in a time where speaking out means risking my life. I feel called to write, but sometimes doubt the importance of my own message.
Fortunately, I came across these words spoken by Barbara Kingsolver: “Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” Rather than feel guilty for my comfortable station in life, I can appreciate it and say a prayer of gratitude that I do not live in an era (or an area of the world today) where I risk being jailed or killed for my beliefs. I can accept my calling as a passing of the pen, so to speak. I have stories to tell to my own generation. I have been given the beautiful gift of awareness of a true vocation. To waste it would be an insult to myself and my creator. I am a teacher of history and a promoter of having a positive outlook. How dare I question the value of that in any era?
Although I live and teach in Florida, I still consider Pleasant Valley my home. I’ve returned each of the past 24 summers since I moved away and am always inspired when I am there. It’s in my blood. It is my home. It nurtures my soul and keeps me going throughout the rest of the year until I can return again.
Jonna Shutowick teaches history in Boca Raton, Florida. She grew up in Pleasant Valley and spends her summers there, finding inspiration for her writing. Her current project is a collection of stories about asylums in the Gilded Age.