Have you ever immersed yourself so deeply in a task that you don’t notice the world around you? Maybe you forget to eat a meal (because you honestly didn’t even notice that you were hungry!). Or, maybe you convince yourself that you’ve only been working for about twenty minutes…and then you notice the clock. Five hours have passed. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this flow.

I found myself in flow today.

I’m the amateur genealogist of the Beretsky family. My grandmother was a fantastic record-keeper and left behind half a dozen photo albums and scrapbooks with newspaper clippings of engagement announcements and obituaries.  I started peeking through some of these albums over the weekend and, within minutes, I got bit by the family history bug. Hard.

Before I could even finish breakfast this morning, I poured over all of the photos and documents.  I signed up for one (okay, two) of those genealogy websites. I scribbled notes on paper and drew arrows and deciphered old Polish surnames and poked through dozens of census documents. I made phone calls to a few living relatives. I sorted out lineages. I attached photographs to names. I met three other people on the internet who are researching the same ancestors.

And then, I looked up.  It was 5 p.m.!

That’s flow.  Did I even eat lunch?  I’m not sure.  I was (pleasantly) immersed in a fascinating task and my focus was so deep that I largely ignored the external world.  And the two loads of laundry I’d been meaning to do.  And, admittedly, this blog.

Researching family history is a bit like trying to solve a word puzzle.  Sometimes, to find the right answer, you need to stare at the puzzle intently and just wait for the right letters to pop out at you in the right order.  Other times, walking away for awhile might help.

A few years ago, when I first began having panic attacks, I found relief by immersing myself in light subject matter.  Think trashy magazines, simple puzzles, or organizing drawers.  At the time, genealogy also felt “light” — unlike the research for my college classes, family history research was more of a fun, low-stakes game of exploration. It was fun to page through those old scrapbooks and construct a family tree out of the names mentioned in the obituaries. I liked looking for my cheeks and nose in those old faces.

But then, once I’d traced my Beretsky roots as far back as I could take them, a dark cloud of existential anxiety rolled in.  It turned my fun game of casual research into a chore.  Where did I come from?  Who is this Mary Beretsky I keep getting roadblocked into and why in the world did her husband take her last name?  Am I reading this info wrong?  Who were her parents?  What country did they come from?!  Some relatives claim Russia; some claim Austria-Hungary. Oh, and didn’t someone mention something about Ukraine before? Who is right?  Why do some of us spell it “Beretsky” and others end it with an “i”?  Oh, and for the love of all that is good, why did everyone in the late 1800’s name their children Nicholas, Stephen, Michael, Mary, and Catherine??!!? I can’t tell all these relatives apart!  WHERE DO I COME FROM?

Sigh.  A fatal attraction, I suppose.  The family history research that had once been a panic sanctuary quickly turned into a panic trigger.

But it’s amazing what a few years can do.  Today, I picked up right where I’d left off and found far more fascination than fear.  And in those 9 hours of pleasurably intensive research, I even solved the Mary Beretsky roadblock and traced my lineage to Austria-Hungary.  Right down to the specific village!  I’m literally blown away by everything that I’ve discovered.
And that tingly buzz in my head right now is excitement — not anxiety.  Not today.