Friday, August 26, 2016

Flannery and the Family

The longing to discuss what I read and study with loved ones has informed my reading ever since I switched my focus from psychology to literature two decades ago. As a graduate student, I gravitated towards Victorian literature in part because my wife loved and would discuss it with me, and just a few years later added a minor in Irish literature following a pleasant jaunt to Dublin while our first daughter was in the womb. And so it went: we studied Gaelic Irish together when my degree called for a third language, read literary biographies aloud while I studied for my PhD exams, and reread the Bront√ęs side by side while I wrote one of my dissertation chapters.

Since then, our family of four has journeyed together through western narrative, beginning with personal childhood favorites like C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, moving swiftly through Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle of Time series, traipsing through the magical world of Harry Potter, and more recently delving into such popular dystopias as those sketched in The Hunger Games trilogy and Ender’s Game series.

I have been a bit slower to introduce the girls to the types of fiction I regularly teach, wanting their initial experiences of the western canon to be positive. A couple summers ago, when they were 11 and 13, I warily introduced Emma and breathed a sigh of relief when Austen’s humor clicked with them, just as I was delighted a year later to see how much they enjoyed the melodrama and social commentary of Dickens’ Hard Times. Both forays into the nineteenth century generated enough interest each time for one daughter or the other to spend the succeeding year researching and reading the author in question for school. Success!

So you might imagine the anxiety with which I introduced them to O’Connor’s fiction during our family’s pilgrimage to Milledgeville this past June. I had excitedly rediscovered O’Connor after taking a job in California--until then not having read a word since 1994--and for 4-5 years now have been teaching both her short and long fiction in my various disability studies courses, as well as in the Bible as Literature and in Literature and the Arts course I teach annually. My own appreciation of O’Connor grew particularly swiftly this past year; I spent much of my sabbatical reading and writing about O’Connor following fruitful ventures into her letters and manuscripts at Emory U. and George College. She plays a key role in my current book project, and, thankfully, has fully won over the affections of my wife. I did not know, however, how O’Connor’s particular brand of redemptive grotesquery would go over with my teenage girls. Despite their early familiarity with Brothers Grimm stories and recent ventures into violent action movies like Fury Road, I was unsure how they’d react.

Crossing my fingers, and lifted by a prayer or three, I set things in motion a couple days before Milledgeville by reading aloud “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” starring an unnamed protagonist just slightly younger than my girls. Both O’Connor’s fictional progeny and my own daughters think romance a bit suspicious and sexuality quite icky, share a deep-seated love for the Divine, and are drawn to the mystery of the Eucharist. It seemed a good place to start.

Fortunately, my daughters’ amusement at the young protagonist’s quirkiness--her aspirations to become a hard-to-kill martyr and her arrogant dismissal of older teenagers as “idiots,” among others--did not devolve into condescending critique. They could sympathize enough with the girl’s subject position to laugh without judgment, and were intrigued along with her at the enigma of intersexuality that figures into the story’s recollected carnival scene.

Emboldened, two days later I again pulled out the worn collection of O’Connor’s fiction I purchased in college, and this time chose the more infamous “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Our family was, after all, driving from Atlanta to Georgia’s former capitol, allotting just enough time to read the story before pulling into Milledgeville, and there was something particularly poignant about driving out of the same metropolis the doomed family leaves behind in that story, though it took our own car slightly longer than 20 minutes to escape the outskirts of the city . . .

As we drove southeast through a countryside that retains much of the color and texture of the landscape O’Connor knew well in the 1950s, our imaginations proceeded along a parallel path that descended swiftly from the fluffy, comic clouds of family squabbles and poorly behaved children into the horrors of violent loss. The girls were silent as I finished the last few, blood-soaked pages, and then the conversation began, covering the contours of psychosis and self-deception, the sometimes far-from-tender route taken by mercy, and the potentially similar spiritual paths traversed by the Misfit and the old woman he shoots in the chest.

The conversation continued in the hallowed recesses of Andalusia with the help of two kind and knowledgeable docents--escaping into the depths of Wise Blood for a time--and then wound down, appropriately, as key images previously touched only by fancy came into view: a barn, a tractor, a peacock.

And a shared family experience that, unlike the buried recollections of “General” Sash, will be long treasured and only grudgingly forgotten.

Paul Marchbanks is an associate professor of English at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, and is currently writing a book on the redemptive ends of much grotesque art.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Flannery's Fangirl

When we first pulled up the dirt road onto Andalusia, it felt familiar. The car bounced on through the winding driveway, passed the caged peacocks, and the worn rocking chairs on the porch. It bounced passed the small pond behind the trees, and all the way up to the empty visitor’s parking lot. We were the first ones to visit that March morning.

We were: my two parents, Debbie and Alejandro, and I, Sarah Lawrence College graduate student, Isabel, studying creative writing. We had been road tripping the past two days from Miami, trying to get back to New Jersey. We had decided when we first planned the trip we would have to stay in Georgia, so why not take a trip to Milledgeville to visit Andalusia? Touring American writers’ homes and graves has slowly turned into a bucket list between me and my father. O’Connor’s home at the top of both our collective lists.

I got out of the car, and walked on up to the back of the house. My parents were already ahead of me, near the front porch. Everything was green and blue. The bright morning light, mixed with the freshness of the earth. The irises were lined up in a row around the foundation of the house. It smelled of early spring. The grass underneath my sandals was wet and squished with each step as I walked up to the front of the house. The small pond was down the hill to my right, and the peacocks in their cages were on the left side of the property. I felt giddy, ready to devour every ounce of knowledge about O’Connor I hadn’t already known.

My fascination with O’Connor started when I was thirteen. I knew I wanted to be a writer, so my dad got me, The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers Workshop. The first story I read in the book was O’Connor’s “The Comforts of Home.” It was breathtaking. I knew, right then, I had to read more. As I continued to read O’Connor throughout high school (both in and out of the classroom), she easily became my favorite writer. From “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to Wise Blood, her writing always captured me on a multitude of levels. The combination of her clear, pungent prose, mixed with wit and harsh criticism of the world she came from, is not only something I admire, but something I strive to create within my own stories. Luckily enough, when I went to William Paterson University for my undergraduate degree, I had the immense privilege of working one-on-one with O’Connor scholar Brad Gooch. His book, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, is a book where I have dog-eared almost every other page, and was delighted to find several copies waiting to greet me in the Andalusia gift shop.

Walking through the farm and property of Andalusia felt strange and electric. Passing her bedroom, the old restored kitchen, all the way out to the back— beyond the peacocks and the stables— all of it so green and lush. I was so hellbent on exploring, that it consumed my whole morning. Sometimes I’d walk side by side with my parents and we’d examine the property together, but then I’d get restless and move on ahead of them to another room. We saw it all. I typed on the model of her old typewriter, watched the video about her life in the small art gallery, my mother even bought several iris bulbs from the garden. When I went up to the peacocks and watched the lazy birds lounge on their perches, or walked along the banks of the small pond, I felt closer to her. Like I was allowed a little sliver into her world, what it might have been like when she lived at Andalusia. I remember sitting on a small wooden bench near the pond, my parents climbing up the prairie hill to the front of the house, and feeling the wind rush past my face, the baby hairs on my arms stood up in a sudden chill. My dad called me from the top of the hill, it was time to go.

By early afternoon, we headed out of Andalusia and out into Milledgeville proper to find O’Connor’s grave. I was the first to find it and the last to leave it. I knew I would see it again. We headed back on the highway, up the coast.
Isabel Anreus is a graduate student in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Word of Welcome

Milledgeville, as it does each August, welcomed its newest residents en masse this week. The class of 2020 and their parents blanketed the downtown area in the course of move-in day at Georgia College, and I know our merchants are happy to see them. Summer is fairly peaceful around here, but there is such a thing as too quiet. Ours is a very O’Connor sense of normal: several hundred teenage strangers make the place feel like home. While it was nice to have an array of parking spaces to choose from in downtown Milledgeville, it’s time to get back to the usual order of things. Both students and parents are eager to start a new chapter, and as a teacher I share in their enthusiasm. 

At Andalusia, this time of year offers us several opportunities to educate as well, and in ways that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the garden variety “visit to the museum.” Creative writers, naturally, have an affinity for the inspiration that Andalusia offers, and I hope that the stories and poems they read at Thursdalusia have been crafted with a little bit of the farm therein. Student organizations frequently join us to put on special events (the 12th Annual Bluegrass Festival on November 5!) and to maintain our grounds and trails. Students from the hard sciences are some of our most frequent visitors as they sample our pond water and survey the wildlife on the property. And, while it’s not necessarily an effort to educate on our part, especially enjoyable are our teacher friends who use the porch as a second office to plan and grade.

It may be a bit of tall order for someone who’s out to test our pond water to become a dyed-in-the-wool Flannery fan. It happens, of course, and that’s a pleasant bonus, if for nothing else to give the English teacher greeting them something to talk about. But beyond giving our volunteers someone interesting to read, I hope their service to Andalusia gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride in preserving a place that is so vital to Milledgeville. That dedication to service and to causes greater than oneself gets at the ultimate purpose of education, and those of us at the farm, educators in our own right after a fashion, are privileged to provide an outlet. Thus, we thank our volunteers already in the fold, and invite the newest “Milledgevillians” to join our cause.

Daniel Wilkinson is, when not greeting guests at Andalusia and the Old Capital Museum, an Instructor of English at Georgia College. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Finding Flannery

Flannery would have welcomed us, I think, Michael and me, twice making a pilgrimage to the high holy place of Andalusia when a special event allowed us proximity to Milledgeville.  After celebrating Christmas 2014 with family in Atlanta, we detoured to Andalusia while driving home to Florida.  In May of 2016, we were again in Atlanta for the high school graduation of my granddaughter at the Galloway School.  Such an elaborate event you have never witnessed, especially for a Depression child such as myself who attended a yellow brick schoolhouse set back from an athletic field on Atlantic Ave. housing us natives in our journey from first grade to 12th, growing up during WWII in Fernandina, Amelia Island’s fishing village-cum-mill town, where Main St. began at the river and ended at the ocean, where you went home and told Mama if you saw a stranger downtown, and it was entirely apropos that, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, everyone else does.”

            So, what drew us to Andalusia? A Florida poet and her professor son, teaching English/Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, about whose students he said, “I teach them what they don’t want to know.” Well, if by some abysmal error in academic judgment, the didn’t get Flannery O’Connor, they were not left out of the loop because Flannery has been a figure in Michael’s classes.  Michael is a fan, an ardent fan, and so am I, the reader who marveled at Flannery’s characters, mastery of plot, and dialogue: the amazing doors her imagination led her through.

            Our very first visit, it was post-Christmas, it was bitter cold, and Andalusia was respite from the tinsel and tape of the holiday.  It was peaceful and quiet driving from the highway where the white farmhouse rose at the end of a secluded road like something remembered from lost yesteryear, or else, a “Manderlay” of another fiction.  And, speaking of lost, we got Very—as we made our way back to Fernandina on an unfamiliar route we had not traveled before.  But, my son Michael said to me with satisfaction as we left Andalusia, “We did this together!” When I questioned Michael as to why he had wanted to come to Andalusia, he replied, “Be a part of the house and the people who lived there.”  Yes. To absorb its energy, become a more knowledgeable person. Such make up the deep and reverent memories that are the only things we take out with us at final exit.

            Returning to Andalusia in May 2016, was homecoming, and when we drove away this time, we did not get lost.  There was a leisurely drive on the lovely Georgia backroads.  Parking our car at the back yard of the house, there was a low wooden performance space that had been set up for special events, and under shade trees lawn chairs were placed in a wide circle for the comfort and welcome of visitors. Come sit a spell, I heard in my head like the Southerner I am, and so we stayed a spell enjoying the intimacy and privacy of the setting.

            Next stop by unspoken consent was the screened-in pen that housed the peafowl, one female, and a male of the exotic plumage. Michael, camera in hand, focused in on His Majesty, the male.  Some minutes passed while the two birds slowly paraded before us as if accustomed to celebrity, then, several minutes more and the male fanned out in all his glory and stood (so it seemed) striking a pose in front of us.  Michael said, “Flannery had said, ‘Do not try to make it happen.’” But, it happened! I told Michael, “I think he likes you.”

            After negotiating the front steps leading up to the porch and into the foyer of the house, we stopped at the front desk to make some purchases.  A fine edition of Flannery’s collected stories, some buttons imprinted with Flannery’s highly recognizable face for Michael to wear on his t-shirt, for me to wear at my table at the next Amelia Island Book Festival; and especially for me, handmade by a local artist, a double strand of carnelian’s mysterious and magical stones no doubt prized by queens and priestesses.  One of the ways we touch back to history, not to mention the primary reason we were there. 

            History is heavily embedded within Andalusia’s walls.  We passed through room to carefully preserved room, and in the silence there is a palatable O’Connor presence that asks for reverence like a church or cathedral.  In the house kitchen with its appliances the like of which we shall not see again, it brought up an image of my stepmother feeding wet garments through the wringer of that same kind of antique laundry machine kept in the garage of the beach house I grew up in. From the kitchen, there is a small windowed porch in which the only furnishings consist of a couch placed against the windows, and a desk on which sits an antediluvian typewriter.  Michael set in solitude for a long time on the couch in that room in communion with the remaindered spirit he must have felt there. I don’t think it accidental that Flannery was born on March 25th, and Michael was born March 24th.  Separate years, but surely kindred spirits of the Ram. As the uninvited fellow who impulsively sat down to share my blanket at a concert in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park said to me, “The beautiful people find each other.”

            Knowing that Flannery was as fascinated as this writer with all types of birds had a strong resonance for me. I sat down at the desk, punching the keys energetically just as in Miss Ross’s typing class at Fernandina High School so many years ago. I wrote several paragraphs to leave behind me about my favorite bird, the breathtakingly beautiful male cardinal who for me is an omen of imminent good fortune—often the case when the cardinal and poet cross karmic paths.

            So, thank you, Andalusia, for the floodgate of memories you have unlocked.  Thank you for your tangible past that interprets the present and leads us into the future, enriched. We shall come again for this.  And again, and again. 

Nola Perez is a poet and memoirist from Fernandina Beach, FL.  She is the author of In the Season of Tropical Depression, The Movement of Bones, and other works.