Saturday, July 25, 2015

On the Other Side of the Gate: A Shift in Vision

I am an old timer. I first went to Milledgeville and the O’Connor Collection in 1973 or 1974, forty plus years ago. I was writing a dissertation at the University of South Carolina on Flannery O’Connor’s kinship with the 19th-century American romance writers. Carless, I took a greyhound bus from Columbia, SC, to Milledgeville. I spent an intense week reading manuscripts, talking with then curator Gerald Becham and Sarah Gordon, and, each day after the Collection closed, walking the Georgia College campus and surrounding downtown and residential neighborhoods. Multiple times I passed by the Green St. house hoping for a glimpse of Regina and walked to O’Connor’s grave in Memory Hill Cemetery. But not having a car precluded my seeking out Andalusia. But dependent upon public transportation, I did have an unanticipated bonus the day I left: I do believe I met some of the prototypes of O’Connor’s characters on a Friday afternoon when we sat together in the bus station, they going on weekend furlongs from the then still functioning mental hospital, I returning to Columbia to teach summer school in order to get through the summer financially.

When I landed a tenure-track job at Converse College in 1976 (dissertation still unfinished), I trashed my bicycle and bought a car. My next trip to Milledgeville was in 1977 in that car. I did numerous drive-bys of the Andalusia lane on this trip and on subsequent trips before the Andalusia Foundation was formed and the house and grounds opened to the public. Sometimes I parked across 441 or pulled off of the southbound lane a hundred yards or so from the lane and walked back to the locked gate and no trespassing sign. I had heard a number of tales of trespassers encountering a uniformed guard appearing out of nowhere, so I never climbed over the gate, but rather merely rested my hands on its bars and peered through up the sandy lane. I must have looked like an F. Scott Fitzgerald character, nose pressed against the glass, longing for the rich society life he couldn’t have. In my case, I was separated by a farm gate and longing for something I couldn’t name, didn’t—and perhaps still don’t—really understand. What drew me back repeatedly? What was it that I thought I’d have or learn by walking up that lane to Andalusia?

When first Sarah Gordon and then Elizabeth Wylie asked me to write something for this Andalusia blog, I had no idea what I would write. In fact, non-techie that I am, I didn’t know there was such a blog. Their request, however, got me thinking about what four decades ago I hoped to find beyond that gate I so consistently returned to. Was it a kinship between O’Connor’s 19th-century farm house and the white clapboard 1880’s farm house in Virginia that I had grown up in? Did I think architectural similarities somehow might grant me some special insight to a writer I had loved since 1969 when I had first read her—all of her fiction—in one week for an honors seminar my senior year in college. Was it idle curiosity? Was it my 1960’s spirit of wanting to defy a no trespassing sign.

Once the house and grounds were opened to the public by the Foundation, my visits to Andalusia accompanying occasional research trips to the manuscript collections, attendance at O’Connor conferences in Milledgeville, and teaching stints at the two NEH summer seminars yielded no answers. In fact, once allowed beyond the gate, I found I no longer felt an obsessive need to be at Andalusia. I certainly did, however, enjoy strolling through the woods and fields; walking around the dilapidated farm buildings (and now graciously the completed and on-going restoration of a few) and associating them with the layout of some of the stories; eating figs from a bush that O’Connor likely ate from; standing in the house and seeing rooms and items I had previously known only from published photographs. I confess I picked up my share of rocks, one of which now sits in the center of a birdbath in my home in northeast Arkansas. While I saw some other visitors pull healthy iris rhizomes from large clumps in need of division and replanting, I lifted two small rhizomes that had been repeatedly mowed over and took them to Arkansas where I have restored them to health. I bought my share of memorabilia and have enjoyed sharing cards and refrigerator magnets over the years. I have regularly contributed financially to the restoration of the farm buildings, the upkeep of the house, and the return of the peacocks—may Mary Grace and Manley Pointer rest in peace, and may the surviving hen, I forget her name, not get new companions until the pen is secure from weasels and large enough to accommodate multiple occupants.

I will likely return in September to the 2015 O’Connor conference and spend time at Andalusia. That time will, of course, evoke O’Connor for me, but perhaps more importantly it will be time spent with other O’Connor scholars and friends from across the country who relish O’Connor’s work as much as I. We will debate new books and essays, quiz each other about what we might know about the Sessions’ manuscript or about any new gifts to the Emory or the GC & SU collections, and tell stories about our latest joys of reading and teaching O’Connor. We will talk about our own on-going work and our families and pets, and we will determine what upcoming conference we might see each other at in the near future. Whether next on the lawn of Andalusia again or in a bar in San Francisco, we will slide back into the same comfortable conversations, among people the large majority of whom have never set foot in one another’s home towns, much less their living rooms. What bonds us is not place nor even, I think, O’Connor’s person or home. Rather it is her art and thought that has made each of us see, as she and Conrad would say. That vision has changed us. I hope for the better.

My birds use their Andalusia rock as a secure perch in a deep birth bath. I am getting ready to dig and separate my Andalusia iris, giving them a new home under a nicely thriving ginkgo tree. I love my abstract watercolor of three peacock feathers painted by a Georgia College art instructor and won by me in a silent auction in 2001 by shutting down competitors with a bid of $666. No one dared touch that! I unquestionably hope the Foundation continues to receive monies necessary to restore Andalusia as a historical literary gem that will attract visitors and consequently increase O’Connor’s readership. But I don’t need any of these material things. Whatever I thought I needed in 1974 when I literally longed to climb the gate to Andalusia could not possibly have been more formative, delightful, and terrifying than the daily awareness of O’Connor’s work that has increasingly become a part of me since I first read her in 1969. At the slightest provocation, her one-liners jump into my head; people or things I see or hear around me recall scenes from her fiction; and skies and tree lines can even evoke her whole canon.

The one tangible thing I do need I have intentionally hung by my mirror in my bathroom: a framed note-card reproduction of Martha Dilliard’s painting “Revelation.” (If you don’t know it, you can find it online.) It depicts abstractly some olds hogs lying in a sty, and Ruby and Claude—and theirs and my kind—trailing the hordes through the sky presumably to heaven. Seeing this image first thing every morning unfailingly makes me laugh and reminds me that the slap of reality that hit Ruby in the doctor’s office was not just for her, but rather for me and you and all of O’Connor’s readers who grasp her eternal crossroads. There is no pig parlor at Andalusia. It is, however, a place where a great mind and imagination accomplished much of her greatest work.

--Virginia Wray began her career at Converse College before becoming a member of the founding faculty at the Louisiana School for Math Science and the Arts. She then moved to Lyon College (previously Arkansas College) where she taught English for 25 years. She then served as VP for Academic Services and Dean of Faculty at Lyon for 5 years, retiring in July 2015. She currently serves on the Scholars Council of the Flannery-O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Flannery O’Connor: Fashionista or Frump?

This spring I was granted access to some of Flannery O’Connor’s personal artifacts for an Independent Research Study sponsored by Georgia College’s Graduate Creative Writing Program. These artifacts became the basis of Andalusia’s current exhibition: Flannery and Fashion at Mid-Century.

My job was to sift through the clothing in the chifferobe that stands in Flannery’s bedroom. No one knows who left the clothing there, or why it remained after other personal items were taken by their rightful heirs. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for as I cataloged and inventoried each of the 56 items in the chifferobe, but I was fascinated by any clues that might offer up information about how this brilliant writer lived.

Like so many others, I have been enchanted by Flannery’s vision of the Deep South, which seems to come to life at Andalusia Farm. It’s a world where a phony Bible salesman steals prosthetic legs and a convict shoots a little old grandmother point blank. It’s a world rife with paradox, simultaneously comic and tragic, sublime and damned that mirrors the paradoxes I found when I tried to answer the question:

“What did Flannery think about fashion?”

My initial response: She didn’t give a hoot about fashion, did she? When O’Connor was a student at Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College), she published a satirical piece entitled “Fashion’s Perfect Medium” in the school literary magazine, The Corinthian. It poked fun at faddish mid-1940s fashions her classmates wore: oversized sweaters, long strands of knotted pearls, and reversible rain coats. Reading the piece, one gets the sense that O’Connor understands fashion trends quite well but is above the frivolity of it all.

After reading Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Connor, in which he paints Flannery as a dowdy homebody after several callers to Andalusia reported O’Connor received them wearing dungarees, an oversized button-down, and clunky loafers, I came to a similar conclusion. O’Connor devoted her time to more important literary, philosophical, and theological pursuits to care about what duds she wore.

However, other evidence suggests O’Connor, at least earlier in her life, may have been a clotheshorse—and having been brought up to be a Southern lady—cared about her appearance and wearing proper attire. While in Iowa City attending graduate school, O’Connor wrote daily letters home to her mother, Regina. In nearly every letter O’Connor discusses her concerns over clothing: mending, laundering, switching ugly buttons for prettier ones, taking clothing shopping exhibitions to Cedar Rapids with her friends, and thanking her mother for sending clothing that was trendy. While at the writer’s colony, Yaddo, O’Connor writes in a letter home about buying a new, blue jacket because the director, Elizabeth Ames, wanted her guests to dress formally for dinner. So even if O’Connor didn’t admit to caring about fashion per se, she did at least care about decorum.

As for the items in the chifferobe, the most important was a navy-blue cotton dress worn by O’Connor. The sleeveless dress with a fitted bodice with pin-tucking, a fitted waist with full pleated skirt, and matching lace on both bodice and at hemline, was at the height of 1950s trends. O’Connor wore this dress for an interview and photoshoot The Atlanta Journal Constitution published in July of 1962, just before the 10th anniversary reissue of Wise Blood, O’Connor’s first novel.

Other notable pieces from the chifferobe also reflect a smart sense of style. O’Connor favored clothing the color of her beloved peacocks. Most of the 12 dresses, 5 blouses, 5 silk scarves, 3 hats, and 2 pairs of gloves are either blue, green, teal, or some combination of these colors. I found 12 belts, many which were fabric-covered to match a particular dress, another trend of the 50s. There was also a collection of underthings: slips, panties, a garter-belt, dress-shields (some that had been well used), and bras (size 36 if you’re curious).

Every writer embodies a little part of every character they write, and ultimately, I think O’Connor was both like the Grandmother from “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—capable of donning gloves and hat so people would know she was a lady—and like Joy/Hulga from “Good Country People,” too concerned with her intellectual life to care if people saw her wearing beat up loafers and shapeless sweatshirts two sizes too big.

Photo by Joe McTyre for the AJC in 1962.

-- Sarah K. Lenz is a recent MFA graduate of O’Connor’s alma mater. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Colorado Review, Fourth River, South Dakota Review, and New Letters among others. Her essay, “Lightning Flowers,” was named a Notable Essay of 2014 in Best American. She lives in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Hidden Treasures at Andalusia Farm

Do you enjoy a walk through the woods, discovering new and interesting places, solving a puzzle or how about a treasure hunt? If so you may like Geocaching. What is Geocaching? Simply put, geocaching is a real-world treasure hunt using GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites, and Andalusia Farm has several of these treasures on-site!

It all started in May, 2000 when the US government removed “Selective Availability” from global positioning satellites. This meant all civilian GPS units became far more accurate. Before the month was out a GPS enthusiast hid a container in Oregon and posted the coordinates on a website and said “Go find it” and they did. Since then geocaching has grown by leaps and bounds.There are now more than two and a half million geocaches hidden all around the world. Some are on high mountain tops some in the sea but most are more accessible in the woods, parks, or even in the city.There are over six million active geocachers hunting for them. The chances are good that you have walked right by a cache. Caches are never buried but often well disguised and cleverly hidden.

What is a cache? Basically it is a hidden container with a log sheet. The cache is owned and maintained by the cache owner who is a member of The owner acquires permission to hide the cache, writes up the description for the cache page and sends it to a reviewer who publishes the page on the geocaching website.

A cache can be any size. Popular cache containers are ammo boxes, plastic Lock-Lock boxes and pill bottle sized containers. There are tiny ones no bigger than a small bullet. Regardless the size all cache containers contain a log sheet that the finder dates and signs with his or her user name. Many are disguised as rocks, bird houses, logs - the list goes on. Creative cachers can come up with very challenging cache containers that are puzzles to open. Larger cache containers contain “swag” - trinkets that can be traded equally.

There are several types of caches. Puzzle caches require you to break a code, do some math, and maybe Google some answers to questions before solving for the coordinates. Earth caches have no containers at all. The coordinates take you to a location where some interesting geological formation can be found. You must answer questions based on your observations. Other caches take you to historic sites or monuments. A complete list of cache types can be found on the website.

To play, geocachers log on and register at One’s username becomes the name that is used to sign logs sheets which are always in the cache. Once logged in you can enter your zip code, city or street address under “Play” on the website. A list of nearby caches will be provided as well as a map. Each cache has its own page listing coordinates, a map and description of area. There are codes to tell you what type of terrain to expect and how difficult it may be to find. Once a cache is found (or not found) the cacher logs his experiences on the cache page.

Geocachers use hand held GPS units or smartphones. There is a free app for iPhones that will get you started or a more sophisticated one for about $10.00. If using a handheld unit you enter the coordinates of a cache you have selected. The phone app will bring up nearby caches for you to find and includes a map showing the cache location and your current location.

Who geocaches? Families with children, retired couples, boy scouts to earn a badge and anyone else who enjoys the out of doors. There is a cache type for everyone.

Everyone caches for different reasons. For us it is about getting out in nature and having a challenging adventure. It is also the fun of discovering new places. It is finding covered bridges in Pennsylvania and Georgia, turning off the main road to find a postcard pretty town in New York, or learning about the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. We explored a remote kite-surfers hang out in Curacao and met other cachers on a cruise. We found an old firetruck hidden in downtown Milledgeville. Finding places we never knew existed is always a thrill.

We hid our first caches at Andalusia Farm. Andalusia fit our criteria as a good place to look for a cache. The farm is a safe place for families to cache. There is the Tobler Creek Nature Trail which meanders through beautiful woods filled with wildlife. There is the history of the Clines, mid-century farm life and Flannery O’Connor. The caches will bring people who did not know about Andalusia. Hopefully they will leave with a little knowledge of what Andalusia is all about and some new cache finds.

-- Mary Anne and Paul May (aka: AstoriaRose and MayTech) are avid geocachers, and volunteers at Andalusia Farm.