In her writer’s statement of purpose and faith Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor writes that one tells “a story because a statement would be inadequate.” I could flatly state that this past spring break I crossed out one item on my vaguely conceived bucket list—to visit O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville, GA, but I would rather, instead, tell the story.
Needing to justify driving for hours as driving allows me the silent opportunity to think (as I have neither a working CD nor tape player in my car, and I cannot stand the radio) and my private space to smoke (as my air conditioning does not work too well, so I have to keep my windows rolled down), I chose the obvious and decided to make a pilgrimage to Andalusia Farm. Before traveling I prayed that the tires would function better than the aforementioned air conditioning.
As I passed through Atlanta, I was overcome with guilt for my regular detraction of the city: I heard, I believe, only two honks as I drove through Coca-Cola and Space Ghost’s hometown, despite that fact that I stopped once where I should not have on I-285 (normally, a death wish) and then later found myself involved in a standstill traffic accident jam. (In case you are wondering, yes, one can pray the rosary while maneuvering through Atlanta: “ten-and-two-and-aves” on the steering wheel. And, no, in case you are also wondering, I did not cause the aforementioned accident while praying the rosary.)
Madison is located just outside Atlanta, off the interstate, and about forty miles or so from Milledgeville. From that point onward, I was treated to the sight of clear pasture land and stout cattle. Wistfully making my way towards Milledgeville during Mother Earth’s golden hour of composure (approximately one hour prior to sunset), I expected to see Tarwater, in his swansong gesture of grace, scurrying about to baptize his nephew’s son, Bishop, as he avoids one cow pie after another.
I entered into Milledgeville a little before darkness. Unable to locate Andalusia from the highway, I pulled into America’s Best Value Inn. Not doubting the soundness of that national advertising claim, I asked to reserve a room for the night. As I was filling out an intrusive form, I struck up a futile conversation with the desk lady:
Me: “Excuse me: do you know where Andalusia—if I am saying that correctly—Farm is located?”
She: “Oh, you mean that…” (She turns her head to the side and her voice trails off.)
Me: “…that writer’s home. Yes, I am looking for that place.”
She: “No, I don’t know where it’s located. There’s a brochure in the lobby that will give you directions.”
Me: “Oh, okay, thank you.”
No brochure. So, after I dropped off my belongings, I headed off to get supper. Nearly everything in Milledgeville is off Hwy 441. Surveying my choice of chain restaurants, I decided upon the vivacious Chili’s for an unprecedented third time in one week. (The first two times were gracious gifts from family given to me. This third trip was a gracious gift given by my favorite giver, me, to my favorite recipient of all good things, me.) Preparing myself for the next day’s encounter, I brought my copy of O’ Connor’s The Complete Stories to the bar. *I am that guy.* The bartender was tall, clumsily-moving, and sweet. She told me about her boyfriend (which probably means that she thought that I was flirting with her–I may have been), the three local colleges, her favorite bar, her reasons for working at Chili’s, and O’Connor’s sister (she never had one, but I could not say anything). She also gave me the most thorough but unnecessary set of directions for navigating through Milledgeville. Of course, I tipped her nicely.
Before going back to America’s greatest (!), I stopped off at Wal-Mart to pick up a six-pack of beer. I noticed that People of Wal-Mart are the same wherever one might go. In line I got behind an elderly couple who were buying adult diapers. As I pulled back into the motel parking lot, a homeless-looking man almost tried to open my passenger side car door and then, as I turned off the car, started to make his way towards my door. Getting out of my car and weighing whether I should try the calm, inquisitive approach or simply start throwing left jab-right cross combos into his nose, he blurted out that he thought I was somebody else and then walked away. As I cautiously paced away from my car, I noticed that the adjacent business was a Ford dealership. According to the directions, Andalusia Farm is located right across the street from a Ford dealership. Well, if that don’t beat all—Andalusia Farm is located directly across from America’s Best Value Inn in Milledgeville, Georgia. It has been there this entire time. After that, I planned on going back inside the lobby to notify the desk clerk of my most fortuitous geographical find (and maybe tell her that I could not find any brochures), but she had already been released from her tour of duty.
(There must be something O’ Connor-esque in that last paragraph. Then again, nobody died violently, namely, me.)
As I walked up to the front porch at Andalusia Farm the next morning, I could hear whom I immediately pegged as the curator inside the home giving his spiel to a few visitors. Since only a degenerate soul walks into a home into which he has not first been invited, I stood on the front porch for several minutes, waiting for the right moment to knock. After I heard the curator begin a discussion on Original Sin, I knew that this was my cue to knock. I was greeted by a slightly nervous-looking man with watery blue eyes, a pink polo shirt, and a tan tweed blazer. I noticed the introduction he gave to me was not quite as long as the one he had given the prior couple, but I chalked that up to the possibility that he thought me to be another listless college student making the literary rounds. If so, he was not too far from the truth. After I encouraged a couple to purchase O’Connor’s The Habit of Being from the bookstore with my sales pitch that the volume gives the reader an insight into the way she infused her theology into her writing, the curator re-engaged me in conversation.
The curator is an ex-Lutheran minister and a recent convert to Catholicism; he attributed his conversion, to a significant degree, to the writings of Ms. Flannery herself. I spent the next hour discussing Catholicism, our respective Easter Vigil journeys, the role of faith in the arts, Cormac McCarthy (also Catholic), the Civil Rights Movement and O’ Connor’s use of the N-word, and, of course, O’ Connor. The curator at one point admitted that he was glad to talk with somebody who was actually engaged in O’ Connor’s work. While I think that he may have overestimated my involvement, I cannot think of too many other conversations that I have had this year that would rival this one in scope or excitement. (I must admit that I fell into a giggling fit as we started to discuss Hazel Motes’s attempt to found The Church of Christ without Christ—heavens, O’Connor was bloody brilliant.) As I went to take my leave, the curator clasped my hand, as if he did not want me to leave.
I wandered around the farm for a spell. The visitor is surrounded by an array yucca, sugarberry, red oak, pine trees, wisteria, water, and decaying buildings. The farm itself spread outs over five hundred acres, but everything the devotee will want to see is located in the immediate acres surrounding the home, including three peafowl pent up in their aviary. It struck me that this—and more or less this alone—was O’Connor’s imaginative culling place. While Ms. Flannery and mother were active about town, namely at their local parish, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, O’Connor was by no means one given over to the notion that good writing is nothing more than sundry and extreme experiences put into ink. Granted, one may argue that her lupus prevented her from participating in many things; however, I doubt that even if given the opportunity she would have become the Susan Sontag of the South. In relation to this, she writes, “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it” (Mystery and Manners).
Before I left, I visited O’ Connor’s grave, mumbled a few words, dropped a few coins on her grave stone like others before me had done, and told myself that if I ever visit again, I need to bring the lady a bouquet of flowers. That is the least I could do since all I saw was a vase filled with plastic poinsettias and a noticeable absence of notes.
As I drove back, I could not help but investigate my own consumerist approach to experience, especially in regard to my writing. Doing. The habit of doing with the attenuated hope that this will translate into exciting writing. Yet, as quickly as I consume one experience, I go on to crave another, leaving very little left in my disintegrated spectral self to write. What I have not yet managed to do is to discipline myself to write like O’Connor did–a few hours every morning, even on Sundays, as she was wont to say. The curator pointed out to me that she turned her typewriter away from her bedroom window so as not to be distracted by the sight of her front porch. Confidant in her vocation as a writer, she incorrigibly persisted in her writing in the face of the disease that would eventually claim her life as it had claimed her father’s before hers. Content with her life on the farm and with her life in Milledgeville, she offered up her suffering and the everyday drama of her provincial life (though, the mind of this “hillbilly Thomist” sauntered far and wide) with a calm and self-assured resolve. This, and not her fictional pieces, is what I take to be the greatest story she left for us.