Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bird Sanctuary

"Slowly and widely taken" is how we approached our first visit to Andalusia Farm, home of our favorite writer Flannery O’Connor. This was it, the moment we had been waiting for and why we had made the journey across six states, convincing people back home that we had to go. Flannery was calling. I responded, “I’m coming, Flannery!”

Back in 2009, I dreamed of having a writers’ vacation in the south with college friends but our plans fell through. Then, writing about Flannery one day with my writers group, this trip idea came to fruition in a way I'd never expected. I found myself following in the footsteps of my favorite writer - not with other twenty-somethings but with women with more life experience and published work than I, women of strong character who are mothers - one with eight grandchildren, the other in the midst of raising three teenagers. I am here with other writers whom I greatly admire, and we all feel that we are meant to be on this journey together, and that it is the right time for us, not too early and not too late.

Our first glimpse of the farm was two unpretentious signs - nothing gaudy, just matter-of-fact, stating this was Flannery O’Connor’s home.

Photo by Roxane Salonen
We entered the red gravel driveway, and I drove slowly through it so we could take it all in. Underneath a canopy of trees, I felt so embraced by the greenery until finally the farmhouse emerged out of a clearing, the one I'd seen so much in pictures with Flannery.

We parked and got out. Meandering across the grounds, we started in the back first and walked  through the very humble Hill House, home to their hired hands who worked the dairy farm.

Next we saw the sheds falling apart in disarray, the cow barn and the milk-processing shed. Flannery’s mother Regina was regarded as quite accomplished for running the operations of a whole dairy farm as a single widow by herself. This income, combined with what Flannery made from publishing her books, short stories and articles, is what sustained them.
Photo by Roxane Salonen
Then we heard a sound, a screech, and all looked up. We knew the sound. It was coming from the peafowl pen, where Manley Pointer was standing in full glory, all his suns shining! But as we moved closer, he got a little self-conscious. He came over to greet us with his feathers trailing behind him regally. Then he proceeded to pose for us on his beam and show off from all sides. Two female peafowl also shared the coop with him. They came out graceful and majestic and curious about us. I talked softly to these creatures, who seemed inherently aware of their dignity. “How beautiful you are!” I said. And they cocked their heads and looked at me. At one time, Flannery had 40 or 50 peacocks roaming the farm! I can see why she was attracted to these splendid birds of such dazzling beauty.

Photo by Karen Mahoney
Flannery called this “Bird Sanctuary” for good reason. As we lingered behind the Hill House, we listened to the smaller birds happily chattering and calling back and forth from the tree limbs. The setting was tranquil and peaceful. (Listen in on this YouTube video, courtesy of Roxane Salonen.)
Roxane says we must carry this back with us, when life gets crazy, to close our eyes and remember Georgia. We must carry ourselves back and hear the birds calling at Andalusia Farm and let ourselves find sanctuary in the woods of Flannery’s farm.

Finally, we made our way to the main house, first stopping to enjoy the views from the front lawn and taking in the tranquility of this setting. 
Photo by Roxane Salonen


“How do you feel?” asked Karen. “Do you feel Flannery here with us?”

I smiled. Yes, I think I do, I said. There is something I can’t quite put into words when you finally realize you are tracing the very footsteps of someone you admire so much. A writer who is a heroine, a role model, a kindred spirit, and a heavenly friend all rolled into one.

We are led through her house by a tour guide who is new herself to Andalusia Farm. One of the highlights is when I sit down to play Flannery’s own piano. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. Karen was a piano major in college and she got a turn to play, too. Who would have imagined we could touch the keys Flannery played on?

We also saw her bedroom, moved from the upstairs to the first floor, because her lupus made it impossible for her to climb the stairs. It contained her bed, her crutches and the knickknacks as she had them on the fireplace mantel. (Later, we saw her own typewriter that is kept at the Russell Library Museum at Georgia College & State University). 

We continued through the house and got to walk in all the rooms, even getting an exclusive viewing of the upstairs, which is normally roped off to visitors and a back room off the kitchen that is still being sorted through and organized! We looked in wide-eyed wonder at each other as our tour guide kept making exceptions for us and letting us get even more up close and personal with Flannery!

The Andalusia Foundation is still sorting through magazines and papers that Flannery subscribed to and odds and ends around the house that were tucked into nooks and crannies and closets and boxes. Therefore, Roxane pointed out how it makes it feel as though Flannery just died. She died in 1964 but this site has only become a place of tourism more recently, and we've been privileged to see it while yet young. Thank you, Flannery!

By the end of our tour, I felt so filled up to the brim and so blessed beyond words to be here in this home of such a great American writer. She may have been misunderstood by many, but she was faithful to her vision. She may have borne many crosses and pain, but she did so with perseverance and faith. She could be blunt and stubborn, but witty enough to laugh at her own books so hard – they fell out of her lap.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Georgia on My Mind

I did not expect Milledgeville, Georgia, to be such a young, hopping town. In Flannery’s time, she described it as so remote that it can be reached, she wrote, “only by bus or by buzzard” (A Literary Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia by Sarah Gordon, page 21). But our experience of the town showed us it is very much thriving today, even while it has preserved the history and even businesses of yesteryear. Thanks in part to the legacy of Georgia College & State University, I think there is a youthful vibe to this place, amidst its rich cultural heritage.

Young guitarists were plucking out hill billy, country songs at Buffingtons restaurant downtown, while hipsters were hanging out with their laptops and sipping drinks at a trendy cafĂ© called Blackbird Coffee. A spunky and energetic, young tour guide at Andalusia Farm gave us a wonderful tour of Flannery O'Connor's house, bringing us up close and personal with Flannery. A delightful student working at Russel Library Museum at GCSW chatted with us for quite some time after we’d paid our respects to the Flannery O’Connor exhibit. The people are friendly and social and have time to talk. 

Yes, there is something alive about this place. Tucked in the heart of Georgia, an old city of “capitals, columns and culture,” it has kept its southern charm to this day.



I will miss you, Georgia, and I've decided to carry a little piece of you home in my heart.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Walking with Thomas Merton, Surprised at the Abbey

How does that Teddy Bears Picnic song go? "If you go out to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise...." Well, when I went out to the Abbey of Gethsemane on Day 2 of our writers' pilgrimage, I was in for a surprise! 

First, did you know that there is a place called the Holy Land in Kentucky? It is named so for all the Catholic churches tucked here in the hills, thanks to the brave-hearted Catholic religious who came out here into the wilderness in the 1700s to build churches, monasteries and convents. As our fellow pilgrim Beth drives us through the hilly countryside on very winding roads, we see so many beautiful, old, brick churches with tall spires, perched on the tops of hillsides. 

We are making our way to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY. This Trappist community of monks was home to the writer Thomas Merton, who became Fr. Louis in 1941. Having read Thomas Merton's astounding autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, I felt like I was seeing this monastery for the first time just as he recounts his first experience of it in the book. The churches perched atop the hills also remind me of how in St. Antonin, France, where Thomas lived with his father as a child, he was struck by the way the church fitted into the landscape:

"The church had been fitted into the landscape in such a way as to become the keystone of its intelligibility," he wrote. "The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, in proclaiming the glory of God" (The Seven Storey Mountain).

Thomas Merton later mentioned how the cloistered Abbey of Gethsemani was the closest thing to a medieval French village to be found in America, and I would have to concur.

Walking up to the white-walled abbey, we were met with signs saying, "Silence beyond this point." The silence is what distinguishes the Trappists, who observe their days in silence, except for their communal prayers, which include the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass. It is this silence and solitude that so attracted Thomas Merton to fling himself headlong into the monastery. He wanted "GOD ALONE" - as the words that appear over the gate of their enclosed community proclaim.


I expect to be brought up to the second level of the church to look down over the monks as Merton experienced as a lay person, but we are in fact, after Terce is over, invited to walk in and sit just behind the monks for Sunday Mass. Tracing the footsteps of Merton, I am struck by the simplicity and beauty of this humble life of a monk, hidden to the world so as to be totally available to God. 

Then out of the silence emerges the words of the liturgy and the chanting of the Mass parts in Latin. Then come the readings from Scripture and the voice of God issuing forth out of the silence, reaching into the darkest corners of the soul, beckoning me out into the light of the Gospel. 

I see in the monks' habits of white, covered in a dark, brown, wooded scapular, both symbols of light and darkness, of purity and sin, the struggle of every human soul. Because it is the feast of Corpus Christi (Body and Blood of Christ) we hold candles at the end of Mass and make a small procession with the Eucharist exposed in a monstrance to a smaller chapel, where we kneel down to adore Our Lord, who we believe is truly present, body, blood, soul and divinity under the appearance of bread.

 It is walking through Gethsemani that I get the sense like Merton of the freedom that can be found within the church's walls, like being in the garden of life. 

One of the monks in the crowd (and we were pleased to see many young monks about my age!) was wearing only the white habit. He hadn't received his brown scapular with hood and belt yet. I thought of Fr. Louis, who writes about each Trappist's slow fade from the world until he becomes "lost" in the community. Merton wrote about the wonder of seeing a man stand out from the others in his all-white garment, until suddenly one day, when Merton looked, he was gone. Snuffed out like a candle flame. Engulfed in the rest of them wearing the same thing and you couldn't pick him out. 

Wow, do we need to see more of that kind of total abandonment to God in this world!! It's a beautiful testament to the desire of every human soul to approach God. Yet Merton's spirituality, which was Catholic, was that "For him the vital religious questions will always be variants of the question: Who am I, and who am I meant to be?" as Paul Elie puts it in The Life You Save May Be Your Own. It was at the abbey that Thomas become fully himself, fully Thomas Merton.

While Trappists spend their days in silent contemplation and prayer, growing the inner spiritual life, they also do a lot of hard work and manual labor. They are self-sufficient in that they work in the fields, growing food and harvesting it, cooking and using their hands to build and do carpentry and work to take care of the land. It would be true to call these monastic orders "tree huggers" for all they do to be good stewards of creation. For all curious, more about Thomas Merton can be found here.

And for the surprise! At Mass I spotted a familiar face - a friend I'd known five years ago and graduated with from Franciscan University of Steubenville was praying just a few rows ahead of me! She just happened to be there on retreat for the weekend. It is moments like these that one is aware that God knows where we are and can plop down right in my path a friend of the past. Indeed, wherever you are, whatever path you are trodding right now, I firmly believe God knows where each and every one of us are at and He walks with us through this valley of tears until we reach the heights of joys.

When have you felt like God found you in the midst of life?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Howdy from Kentucky!

What does a Catholic writers' literary pilgrimage to the south look like? In the next few blog posts, I will attempt to share some of the spirit of our road trip with ya'll. 

Two northerners from Wisconsin drove down yesterday and arrived in Springfield, Kentucky, to meet up with our North Dakota friend and a southern belle. Most of us had never seen each other in person before, having met through an online group, and so it was wonderful to finally give hugs all around and see each other face to face.

We gathered in the kitchen as our very own Beth Dotson Brown cooked a delicious meal for us from homegrown fresh vegetables. Beth loves to cook and I must say we were spoiled with her generosity!

 After our meal, we took a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood.

The historic downtown is lined with old fashioned barbershops, attorney offices, judicial buildings and statues of Abraham Lincoln. It is like stepping back into the 1800s.

Finally, we ended up at this outdoor patio restaurant where we talked about writing and our travels (two of my favorites subjects!) over wine, and I was inspired to dream big. I think we all were encouraged by being in each other's company.

People are so friendly here! I believe it must have something to do with all the front porches and rocking chairs that bring out the friendliness in people. Unlike us northerners who have decks in the back of the house, here neighbors sit outside watching the world go by.

As the four of us walked up the hill on High Street, some folks sitting on their front porch wicker chairs greeted us and called out, “You’re walking fast for going uphill!” Ha! Yes, that's why I love the south. Always reminding me to slow down and smell the roses! 

...which is how we spent this very evening...

From the porch swing, Roxane reads aloud to us excerpts from The Habit of Being, the collected, personal letters of Flannery O’Connor. I have my journal open in my lap for writing, and Karen rocks in her chair with her Kindle open to reading The Habit of Being. It is in these letters that we have gotten to know and admire Flannery; for she's a bold writer, fiercely witty, devoutly Catholic, peculiar about peacocks, and she's dying of lupus yet making the most out of her life with a deep sense of purpose and passion.

As it grows darker, fireflies dance and light up the night around us, until I decide it is time to go in; and then a few hours later, after writing, it is finally time to go to bed.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Convergence on Georgia, A Pilgrimage Slowly and Widely Taken

The countdown has begun! In five days, I depart on a literary pilgrimage of writers from across the country, converging on Andalusia Farm, home of the great American writer Flannery O'Connor. This is a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity, where after writing to each other and getting to know each other from our written works, we are joining as pilgrims on a trip that is both spiritual and recreational.

One experience this past weekend made me realize the spirit in which to take this trip. When I took a sewing project over to Grandma’s house this past weekend, life slowed down for a few hours and I was aware of how things happened at a slower pace. First off, just driving out into the countryside and away from the whizzing traffic and the speed of work brought me a sense of calm. In the city there is always noise and activity and I always feel as though I have to be doing something and doing something fast! But driving out to the country changes your perspective on things. The woods is like a curtain so that you somehow lose track of time, or time seems somehow irrelevant out here. Surprisingly, nature seems to be in no rush. 

Inside my grandparents’ house, life also unfolded at a slower pace. And since it’s been a few years since I tried my hands with a sewing machine, I was a little slow at that. It was a blessing to have to slow down, to concentrate and to approach the process slowly and carefully. Grandma was my first teacher of the craft. I used to spend hours at her house, learning how to sew an apron, then a skirt, then a full-length dress that won a merit award at the county fair. Now Grandma was coaching me again, helping me fit the dress, pin it in place and plan out the steps to tailor the dress to fit me - a custom fit! 

I forgot, too, how much patience it takes to just thread a needle, to spin a bobbin, to measure and pin, to press and straighten, to stitch in a line, to pull out stitches because I made an error, to restart and retry, until finally, I exclaimed, “I think it's done! Look at this, Grandma. Did I do it right?” And we laughed together, yes, it turned out as I had hoped and it looked lovely! But first came all the fussing to make sure it fit me just right and that my stitches wouldn’t show and that they were the right tension for the knit fabric of the dress. From start to finish, it really was a lesson in patience. At the end of the evening, after sharing a supper meal with my grandparents, I took the dress home feeling grateful for my grandmother’s wisdom and expertise, pride in my accomplishment and a special ownership of the dress that now was fitted just for me.
In the south, things will also move at a slower pace. Not only because I will be on vacation (really!), but also because people down there move at a slower pace. I found this out when I went down to Tennessee on mission and had to learn how to slow down. I need this vacation to not be mighty roller coaster ride, but rather, a journey "slowly and widely" taken, as one of my writer friends said. In other words, a vacation that doesn't whiz by on an agenda. One where I don’t worry so much about everything we do but about how we do it. A deep, pondering walk along the sandy shore rather than a noisy race over the water on a speedboat. 

Yes, I need to take this journey in true, southern style, because, as a fellow writer told me, back when this trip was just a hopeful seed in my head, "That pilgrimage, slowly and widely taken, is a book!"

And so I come...with my ears open to hear the bells of Gethsemani as Merton heard them and with my eyes wide in wonder over Manley Pointer, the peacock, so I may stand transfixed as the priest character in the story "The Displaced Person," who exclaimed with jaw gaping, "Christ will come like that!" 

I'm excited to touch the tangibles of Flannery's home after reading about her for so long and to see the red sun set over the dark woods "like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees" (from "A Temple of the Holy Ghost").  

Like Flannery, the writer, I am seeking to plant my writing in the broader landscape of my country, and like Thomas Merton, whose abbey we will visit, I am on a soul-searching quest to find my purpose in life and to discover how God wants to use my writing to impact the world. 

I come as a pilgrim with a story, looking to enter into others' stories and to see all of ours in a broader light. I come with prayers and hopes and dreams. I come to be changed, challenged, enlightened. 

In an excerpt from The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, Paul Elie comments:
"A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience. 
"Pilgrims often make the journey in company, but each must be changed individually; they must see for themselves, each with his or her own eyes. And as they return to ordinary life the pilgrims must tell others what they saw, recasting the story in their own terms."

To learn more about my fellow pilgrims, visit their blogs:

Roxane blogs at Peace Garden Writer
Karen blogs at Write 2 the Point
Beth blogs at The Goodness of the Garden...All Year Round
I will also have the joy of meeting Kaye Park Hinckley, who is releasing a short story collection Birds of a Feather through Wiseblood Books in July.

 Stay tuned! And may the rest of your June be "slowly and widely" taken, too.