Spring Break with Flannery

If you’re interested, you can read some notes I made during a very long van ride to Milledgeville, Georgia to research about Flannery O’Connor with my senior literature class. It’s mostly impressions and random, rambly thoughts. ūüôā

Day One:

Maybe everything looks dirtier when it’s cloudy. The median is dotted with brown puddles full of plastic trash, and buildings are dingy and peeling off their old paint, almost like I do with nail polish when I’m tired of it. Some of the paint has stayed, but only out of sheer stubbornness, it’s clear. In some nameless town in Tennessee, there’s a strip club and an abandoned restaurant across the parking lot from one another, with graffiti on the bricks. Someone has written, “Gummy I love u” in sprawling red cursive.

I’ve seen an identical van to ours pass us with a group of people similar to ours. Their van had Louisiana plates and ours has Georgia ones, which is how I know it wasn’t really our doppelganger and I am me and not anyone in the other van. In the gas station just outside of Memphis, there was a young and harried mother yelling at one child while she changed another child’s diaper and thawed some breast milk in the bathroom sink. A third child stood quietly by the door, trying to avoid being in the way of anyone. We exchanged uncertain smiles and I ended up drying my hands on my pants.

I keep noticing road signs telling drivers statistics of how many are killed a year in car accidents. This all feels relevant, like living out an O’Connor story, almost. Instead of the memorable “the life you save” sign, I’ve seen several of its 2017 equivalent: “Use your blinking blinker.” Less eloquent, maybe, but making a similar point–watch how you go. The life you save may be your own.

I slept through Mississippi.

Alabama looks remarkably like parts of Arkansas, and yet not the same at all. I can’t figure out the difference. It’s hillier than Southern Arkansas and, while there are still plenty of pines, I notice a lot more hard woods mixed in. They’re all jumbled up together. I guess the terrain isn’t all that different, just new. Signs: “City of Hamilton: Small Town Living at Its Best” and, just below it, “Please don’t text and drive.”¬†The life you save may be your own.

Redbuds and possum haws pepper the tree line like hasty brushstrokes of color against a bruised gray canvas.

Outside Birmingham there start to be more apostrophes on the billboards. A sign for a lawyer’s office says “One Call, Y’all” and a couple miles later, there’s this sign: “Bringin’ the jobs back home.” Every time I hear the names Birmingham or Atlanta, there’s a voice in my head starts saying civil war, civil war, civil war, and then I go through the litany of other names for it: War between the states, war of southern secession, of northern aggression. War in which neighbors fought one another among the rolling hills of the eastern United States. War in which a girl’s sweetheart might have fought her brother or her father and she would have stayed home, hoping for it to end before any of them died.

We don’t do the romanticizing about war that they did then, which is perhaps good–maybe we’ve seen uglier things in the past century and a half. But it’s possible that, although we don’t romanticize, we also don’t do as much remembering. We don’t have uncles and fathers and grandfathers telling us what they saw and did; we get our knowledge out of books, which lends itself either to romanticizing or not remembering at all. I forget that I had ancestors on both sides of that war, some who didn’t want to fight at all, but who were forced to. It’s easy to look back and question what is really worth taking up arms for–easy to forget amid placid everyday events that we haven’t really come up with a better way of settling disagreements when nothing else will work. What on earth is worth fighting for? Worth dying for? Worth killing for?¬†It almost sounds barbaric even to contemplate.

I don’t have the sense of southern pride maybe I ought to, having grown up in the south. My generation in general seems to be lacking in a sense of civic pride or patriotism, and I’m not altogether sure why. I understand the south more than I would other regions, I guess, but I still have a hard time understanding how humiliated the south felt after surrendering. It’s hard to understand the concept of separate water fountains for black and white people.

Madison, Georgia: Everything looks more official if you plant a wooden fence in front of it.

Pecan orchard on the left in Eatonton, Putnam county, home of Joel Chandler Harris. No one except the professors had heard of Brer Rabbit. Maybe in avoiding romanticism we’ve swung to the other extreme of having forgotten everything past.

Then again, maybe I’m reverting to my natural smartypantsness. Sometimes I feel like the unnamed child in O’Connor’s story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” who rages at people who either disagree with or don’t understand her beliefs, until she’s confronted with something she can’t understand herself, something which challenges her views of orthodoxy. The reason no one my age knows Brer Rabbit is that no one read it to them. And it’s¬†possible¬†there’s a good reason Joel Chandler Harris isn’t read to kids nowadays. The same reason, I guess, that my viewing of Disney’s¬†Song of the South¬†was technically illicit. Censorship is a strange thing.

A nice downtown with Christmas lights on the trees is cheery. And a cool Georgia night makes dogwoods and white columns enchanting. You can smell the jasmine before you see the vaguely yellow silhouette of its blooms.

The hotel shower doesn’t drain.

Day Two: 

Wake up and get an early breakfast. The lady working the buffet has lived in Milledgeville all her life and can’t believe we’d come all the way from Arkansas just to read some books in their library. On spring break, no less. We get some coffee and head to the special collections room, where we have to down our coffee fast before we can go in. Three hours almost isn’t enough to scribble down all the new things that might help us with our papers. Then the afternoon is devoted to walking around Flannery’s farm and the old area of Milledgeville.

At Andalusia, we’re greeted first by the peacock, who responds to our hellos by violently spreading his tail. I’m reminded of one of the stories in which a priest is struck dumb and also moved to tears by the sight. Next we’re greeted by a charming man with a Georgian accent, who says things like “you all” and politely says “facilities” for bathrooms. When referring to himself, he says “yours truly.” Charming, charming man, telling us all about Flannery and her mother and her home, giving us his “irreligious” interpretations, the result of two things: His Methodism and ensuing distaste for Thomas Aquinas.

Our walking tour of Milledgeville is headed up by the very enthusiastic Jim, who gets mysteriously excited when talking about Flannery O’Connor’s favorite mayonnaise recipe. Jim leads us all around town, his own interests giving us perhaps a more extensive tour than we would have gotten from someone more objective. I retain most of what I hear, but I don’t worry about the rest, contenting myself to gaze in raptures at the lovely white mansions, all bedecked with dogwoods and redbuds and some Japanese maples. I enjoy seeing Flannery’s church and the view she would have seen every day at mass or confession.

Then Jim, his eyes twinkling a little, leads us through the cemetery to prove to us a theory about O’Connor family relations. It’s a beautiful graveyard, ancient and full of trees, and headstones of people who died centuries before, some dying young and some old. It’s mostly because it’s in itself a solemn place that I pay attention to Jim’s speculations about mayonnaise and family plots.

The next place we go is more somber still: the old asylum/penitentiary for which Milledgeville was renowned. We pass the new facility (deemed boring by Jim) and wind around decrepit brick buildings that are half reclaimed by the ivy and weeds overtaking the cement. There’s another cemetery here, for the patients of the mental hospital, but the graves are mostly unmarked. The graves that are marked are done so only with numbers on small metal pegs. People are forgotten here, and only recently was a memorial statue erected, of a very stark angel posing dramatically on the hillside.

It’s so quiet, and the idea of the confinement of any soul who was in any way aberrant, possibly being subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment, does fire the imagination and cause you to shudder. Jim has ghost stories and conspiracy theories that he will only hint at, skirting the edges of conjecture and genuine ignorance of why enormous, seemingly operational buildings are still guarded, or why the grounds are still so carefully tended. Again, it’s remarkably quiet but for the birdsong, and I am on the verge of thinking strange things when the tour has ended and we’ve waved goodbye to the colorful Jim.

Then we’re eating and remembering the day and everything seems worth laughing about, even the moments of strangeness.

It’s 8:11 and I want to go to sleep. Woohoo what a crazy Spring Break.

Day Three:

I can’t get over how excited that guy was about recent scholarhsip that proved which recipe of mayonnaise was Flannery’s favorite. That just doesn’t seem like a fulfilling life to me. It’s like the idea that mayonnaise by itself is filling–ridiculous to imagine. Mayo goes with other things to (maybe) make them taste better. I don’t see the point of some of the literary scholarship people write, if they’re not seeking to understand more about life or what tends to happen in life. It’s like eating mayo plain.

I’m back to questioning the usefulness of a thing, which is always a dangerous contemplation when your majors are music and English.

I’m not saying something has to produce results¬†a, b,¬†and¬†c¬†to be useful or even worthwhile. Some things are ineffably worth our time, and I admit that others find things fulfilling that I never could, and vice versa. However, if going to grad school in English means obsessing over a single, famous person in an attempt either to know that stranger through analyzing her life for details about mayonnaise–or, alternatively, murderously dissecting her stories in an attempt to¬†make¬†them relevant to a society to which they were never intended to speak,¬†I’d rather not go. I’d rather go plant a garden and work with my hands and produce something tangible.

If knowing about mayonnaises, or retracing the steps of a fictional journey in a story is what is meant by literary tourism, then I tend to agree with the lady in the hotel that driving 700 miles to visit a library is kind of crazy.

If I had to make a choice between being an O’Connor expert and knowing my neighbor, I’d rather know people in real life. What makes someone who’s published a few stories so much more interesting than Uncle Joe at family reunions, to whom you listen with reluctance and boredom if you’re caught in the same conversation? Again, these are dangerous meditations for an aspiring author, and perhaps I don’t know enough really to question what I’m questioning.

But what if you don’t really have to make a choice? What if we could listen well to all the stories we get told, whether we read them in an anthology or listen to Mr. Bill across the living room? I’m not suggesting you can go visit the home town of everyone who has a story just like you would with someone famous like Flannery O’Connor, but surely, if you considered their words important, you’d listen a little better. If the chapel speaker next Tuesday, for example, were someone on the level of Flannery O’Connor (or pick someone in your own field who’s widely admired and fan-girled over), I doubt anyone would be texting during the lecture. Or tweeting, or surfing Facebook.

Why on earth, then, is it an acceptable thing to do those things while someone lesser known is speaking? You would never have a conversation with someone else while a professor was having a one-on-one conversation with you. Why is it suddenly okay when you’re in a room with twenty other people and the same person is teaching you something you might not otherwise learn?

[Oh, looky there. A soapbox. I was standing right on it, sorry.]

I guess I question some of the distinctions I make between which people are listening to and which aren’t. Why, for instance, is it worth knowing what kind of condiment was preferred by a 1950s author, and not worth knowing what your grandfather thinks about current events? What makes things important? What makes things interesting except how interested we are in them? Chesterton wrote a lot about little things, things that you would never expect to be written of seriously–things like chalk, and lying in bed, and taxi drivers.

To the accusation that he makes mountains of molehills, he wholeheartedly confesses that it is indeed his aim, to be as amazed by molehills as he is by mountains. What I’m trying to say is that mountains are interesting¬†and¬†molehills are interesting, if you will be interested. Flannery is important¬†and¬†the lady who cleans the student center is important. I’d like to be humble enough to take a ready interest in whatever situation I happen to find myself in.

In the Emory library (which is horribly and wonderfully official and regulated) we go to the 10th floor to the special research room which you have to be buzzed in and out of by the librarians. It feels fancy until you realize you have no idea what you’re doing. The librarian brings you a box at a time, each filled with letters and archival materials like pictures and religious keepsakes.¬†What on earth should I look at?¬†What should I copy down?¬†Who can say?¬†

You copy down anything of remote interest, scribe-style, until noon, when you wander around the campus hospital cafeteria, bewildered at all the options and losing hope of ever finding the exit. Then a nice man comes and offers to take your tray. Bless you, kind man.

Emory is a large school, at least it seems large to me, because I am a small town girl. Dang it, there is no denying it, even if I wanted to. I am easily amazed. There were a lot of people, all of whom appeared to have their lives together more than I do. I don’t know what I meant by that statement.

Four more hours in the library and I’ve read many letters and looked at many pictures. Everything I’ve learned over the past two days is starting to loop through my mind, blurring with what I knew before and what I still don’t know. Comfort food for dinner and a cookie for dessert and I ‘m ready for bed at 8:30. What is wrong with me? I’m turning into my parents: a long soak in the bathtub and I’m the most content person in the hotel. All’s right with the world.

Except I feel I ought to keep going, keep reading, or else talk to a dear friend about something entirely unrelated. Going to sleep this early feels like cheating, somehow. It’s the introvert ghost, haunting me, telling me I’m not as much of a person if I’m not out around other people. ¬†I need some excuse to be alone–something useful like homework or leisure reading. Oh goodness.

Day Four:

Our last stop is at the Ave Maria Grotto, where a monk named Brother Joseph crafted miniatures of religious sites with spare materials like broken glass and such. It was gorgeous and his story was moving–he’d wanted to be a priest but his back was injured early on and he became a brother instead, in charge of shoveling coal into the monastery’s furnace. Humble, unbeautiful work, for a small, humble man. The care he put into each monument shows: small details are attended to, like having multiple clocks on a church tower match the time they tell, or making sure decorative flourishes are consistent and symmetrical.

Walking through, I kept gazing at small thing after small thing that would catch my attention, thinking about the reverence and care Brother Joseph must have taken in building the miniatures. There is an infinite beauty in small things. That sounds pretentious, maybe, but I’d hold to it if pressed, I think. Maybe I mean that small things are worth caring for.

Not being Catholic, I know some of the meaning of the grotto was lost on me–I’ve had it drilled into me to avoid idolatry, and to me it’s confusing to revere so many statues and hold up individuals as patron saints. I don’t understand and I admit it. I almost felt like a heathen, looking at shrines to Mary when I don’t have the same feeling about her that Brother Joseph did or that many of the grotto’s visitors likely do. Yet I am a Christian and believe as they do that the Christian faith is more than just a nice story–that there really is a person, Jesus, who was and is both God and man, whose resurrection from death we celebrate at Easter as something that really happened.

I feel uneasy sometimes looking at Flannery O’Connor’s faith as it plays out in her stories. They’re not terribly comfortable to read as a Protestant. I felt today the same way i felt visiting the Catholic church in my hometown, when I wanted most of all not to be a sightseer, only there to figure out where we disagree and where my view is superior. I know there’re places, some of them foundational, where I wouldn’t agree with Flannery about faith. But I read her perspective with eagerness because it’s a genuine one. Flannery seemed to hate more than anything a kind of charlatan faith that only sought profit for the car salesman who made it up as he went. She doesn’t treat hypocrites with much patience and yet, in having them populated her stories, she often offers those characters the most grace, if they will take it.

I suppose I admire the effort Flannery took to tell the truth about what the world’s like. Similarly I admire Brother Joseph’s sense of vocation: working faithfully as a coal shoveler and crafting, in his spare time, beautiful things out of discarded materials.

I have a sudden doubt about the credence of any of the stuff I’ve been babbling about during this van ride. It’s like the insipid interview I gave for my school when we were at the grotto, when, waving my arms around at the carved rocks, I got out something about how I thought it was “cool” that someone so small and unattractive made something so beautiful. Awful, Jo.

I don’t actually remember what I said, but what I know is it’s not what I meant. I can’t ever say what I mean, quite. The English language either needs a few more words or I need to learn the English language better. Probably the latter.

If I were looking at this mess of impressions in the writing center, helping to consult my self, I would be a regular thesaurus, suggesting alternate words or phrases–saying condescending things like “consider beginning this paragraph with however¬†or some other signal word” or “be sure all your verb tenses match!”

As I won’t be taking this to the writing center to have me look over it, I’ll probably just click submit and be horribly embarrassed later by five or ten comma splices. Or some other egregious error. One consolation is that Flannery O’Connor was awful at spelling, and became so famous that people go visit her hometown all the time. Even on their spring break.

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