Sunday, January 25, 2015

Like Keeping a Secret

Last year, I found out that my strategic writing class would be working with Andalusia as a client. Our first step would be taking a trip to the farm to see it firsthand and I was unsure of what to expect. I had passed their white sign several times, but never put much thought into what was actually tucked away down the path behind it.

As someone who is far from a Flannery enthusiast, I was skeptical of what her historic home could offer me. I wasn’t sure that seeing any of her personal belongings or even witnessing where she wrote some of her most famous works would really resonate with me. But as I drove the dirt road up to the house last winter, I knew that there was more to Andalusia than I could have ever anticipated.

When I arrived it was cloudy and foggy. When I stepped out of my car I could still feel the moisture on the ground. As I took everything in, I was hushed to silence. I held my breath. It felt like I was keeping a secret. I suppose I was. I had heard a lot about Andalusia but it was nothing to do the site justice. No one mentioned how open the sky was or how much clearer the sounds of birds chirping were. Even the bitter cold was encouraging because I knew that only meant the spring would bring more beauty to the farm.

The historical significance of Andalusia is what drives the majority of Andalusia’s guests, but its beauty is a draw all on it’s own. My first visit to Andalusia was more than a pleasant surprise and showed me that anyone can enjoy what they have to offer.

Alanna and the Spectrum PR team volunteers at the 10th Annual Bluegrass Festival.

--Alanna Gardner is a 20-something public relations and advertising student set to graduate from Georgia College in May 2015. She currently serves as an Account Executive for Spectrum PR of which Andalusia Farm is a client. Her favorite things to tweet are advertising quotes, feminist remarks and Beyoncé lyrics.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Affinity and Empathy

One day last August, as I stood on the veranda at Andalusia, I was caught in a moment that is best described in two words: empathy and affinity.

I am a storyteller by trade, and when I discovered my affinity for Flannery O’Connor’s work—both her fiction prose and her letters and lectures—I began to do what people like me do. I began to plan a performance. I studied Flannery for a year, sinking into her writing and into several of the most recent and most well read biographies (including Ann Napolitano’s O’Connor-inspired and O’Connor-filled fiction piece A Good Hard Look) because I was interested in doing a one-woman show about her life. I studied Flannery’s voice. I spent a lot of time thinking about who she was. I did what actors know is the work of empathy. I crawled into her skin, as best I could, and tried to see what she must have seen and feel what I think she must have felt. I am sure I was and am wrong about more than half of it. If I were Flannery, I would want a great deal about myself to remain a mystery. However, I think I began to “get” her.

So I stood on the veranda that August Sunday morning, thinking about peacocks and letters to friends, about physical pain and eternal interior peace. And I really did feel like I was in the same space as Flannery.

To be sure, I was still left with a lot of mystery, which indeed seemed appropriate. I was visiting the farm with my brother and his partner. I teach at an Evangelical Christian college which even that summer found itself embroiled in the current Christian debate over homosexuality. That debate has wreaked havoc on my family, and continues to do so even now. So I stood there, watching Ted and Nic amble about the place, thinking about how much I love them and how I wished there were things I could understand better. I wished I knew what people really fear, and what God really wants, and if maybe just maybe God isn’t bigger than we give Him credit for.

I thought about Flannery’s friendships, especially with Betty Hester and Maryat Lee, both of whom were gay. She told the former, “I can see now how very much grace you have really been given and that is all that is necessary for me to know in the matter,” and said the knowledge that Hester was gay didn’t make the “slightest bit of difference” in her opinion, which was “based on respect.” Flannery did take into account other forces: the opinion of her mother, whom she said, “lives in a world Jane Austen would feel comfortable in” and the struggle she found herself constantly embroiled in between religiosity, artificial religious language, and the reality of the Incarnation of Christ. “I doubtless hate pious language worse than you do because I believe in the realities it hides,” she told Lee. The real item on the table for every person was what they did with the knowledge of the Incarnation. The rest was just semantics. In this, I find my affinity with Flannery to be incredibly strong. The more of her thoughts I read, the more I nod in agreement with them. Debates and pundits rage. Flannery pounded out sincerity and a knowledge of holy Love from a typewriter in a musty room in Georgia. That I understand.

So I stood, taking in Flannery’s world and thinking about what it must have been like to be her. I thought about the workings of a dairy farm, since I grew up on one in Michigan. I thought about approaching situations with a keen observant eye and quick wit that can only be appreciated by folks of a particular strange strain. About how she said “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd,” and how much that sounded like my own Christian experience. I thought about strange birds, misfits, and the people who seem on the fringes of polite society and how I would rather be with them, observing and “cherishing the world at the same time [I] struggle with it” than anywhere else. That place is a place where God dwells although (perhaps because?) mystery remains. Empathy and affinity: that was my view from the veranda at Andalusia. It felt like home.

--Jen Letherer, MFA, teaches theater and media studies at Spring Arbor University. She is the author of Remote Virtue: A Christian Guide to Intentional Media Viewing and The New Female Archetypes: Rethinking Women's Roles in Groups Through Television. Learn more at

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Season of Waiting

It’s early January, the holidays are over but winter has just begun. Here in Georgia that means rain and a damp chill that’s hard to shake even though the temperature rarely drops below freezing. It's a season of waiting, waiting for spring and sun, for things to bloom.

I’ve got a week before the semester starts again and I’m trying to make the most of my quiet days, alone in my duplex, to settle comfortably into the stillness and wait with patience and awareness. It’s quiet here, surprisingly so considering that I share a wall with a woman about my age and her two sons. I rarely hear them. I rarely hear anyone. My cul-de-sac is hardly as isolated as O’Connor’s family farm, but it’s far enough from Milledgeville’s small downtown to feel isolated. And sometimes when I sit here at my desk, looking out my window the grassy hill, I think about her.

I haven’t been to Andalusia since November, but I know its terrain well enough to picture it now, muddy and green underfoot, bare trees cluttering the horizon. I imagine that O’Connor felt at least a little of my restlessness, especially given that her choice to live at Andalusia was so heavily influenced by her illness.

I’ve always been impressed by writers who jot notes on cocktail napkins, who are inspired at parties, or bars. I find writing is a lonely habit, and one that requires stillness. Ideas come slowly. Isolation is essential because it’s uninteresting, it doesn’t clutter or distract. The silence of a familiar room becomes a liminal space where boundaries blur and ideas mingle.

Waiting reminds me of waiting rooms and I remember a connection that occurred to me months ago between Flannery O’Connor and Elizabeth Bishop. I thought about the two of them this summer during a talk given by Doreen Fowler as part of the NEH Summer Institute: Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor. Fowler gave a talk on O’Connor’s story “Revelation” and she spent some time on the importance of the waiting room as a setting, which got me thinking about Bishop’s poem “In The Waiting Room.”

Both of these works use waiting rooms as spaces where boundaries break down and are re-established, where identity becomes a slippery thing, and the normal boundaries of personality slip and slide.

I liked thinking about the two of them together, mostly because their writing is so different. O’Connor’s fiction is loud, stark and grotesque where as Bishop’s poetry is quiet, lush, and muted. They were very different women, but they were both women who kept to themselves and waited for the right words to come.

The view from O'Connor's bedroom window on a drizzly winter day.

--Laura Martin is a graduate student and the creative writing MFA program at Georgia college. She works under Bruce Gentry on the Flannery O'Connor Review. She is currently working on a book about fairy tales.