Saturday, May 15, 2010

Andalusia Pilgrimage: A Confession of Obsession

Interesting news earlier this week from Andalusia, Flannery O'Connor's farm in Georgia:  the peacocks have laid eggs.  While not an announcement on the same level as capping a leaking oil well or publicly admitting that you, the governor of South Carolina, funded your adultery with taxpayer dollars, the fact that pea-eggs have been discovered in the grass at Andalusia is important to the small circle of us who live and breathe All Things Flannery.

Peacocks were once the kings of the barnyard at the O'Connor farm, overrunning the place to such a degree that when editor Robert Giroux paid his author a visit, he recalled being picked up at the front gate and driving up to the house: "The car was going about five miles an hour up this road.  As we drove in she had about thirty peacocks strutting around.  They're very beautiful, but very stupid, and their trains were trailing.   They were so slow that the car would run over the trains."

Flannery had long been fascinated by birds, starting when, as a six-year-old, she taught a chicken to walk backward.  Peacocks, "with tails that resembled maps of the solar system" (as described by Brad Gooch in Flannery: A Life), eventually became her obsession.  In 1952, shortly after being diagnosed with the lupus that would kill her 12 years later, she ordered her first pair of peafowl.  With their frightening, rusty shrieks and dazzling display of tailfeathers, the peacocks came to symbolize the terrifying mysteries contained in her stories.  In one, she describes a character as having "eyes as blue as a peacock's neck."  As Craig Amason, the current director of Andalusia, once noted: "She knew the importance of the bird."

The birds, then, are the closest we can come to touching Flannery.  If you're into obsessing about the talismans of writers, that is.

The birds currently strutting around Andalusia are not descendants of the original flock.  After Flannery's death and the subsequent slow decay of the farm, those birds were scattered around Georgia: pairs went to live at Stone Mountain, a cancer center in Atlanta and at a monastery in Conyers.  About a year-and-a-half ago, the Andalusia Foundation decided to repopulate the farm with peacocks, hoping it would give visitors a taste of what it was like during the Flannery era.

There were no rusty-doorhinge screeches from the trees when I pilgrimaged to Andalusia four years ago.  But I didn't need the birds to give me the shivers--I already had that enduring chill from a two-decade obssession with Flannery and her fiction.  I've written about that odd and pitiable obsession elsewhere on the web, so I won't go into how my first reading of The Violent Bear It Away made my hair stand on end, "follicles like exclamation points."

This, then, is what it's like living at the outer limits of obsession.  For those of you un-baptized in the spirit of fanaticism, you should know it is possible to absorb so much of a writer's life and work that you start adopting an unnatural familiarity with someone who died when you were still in diapers--life-size posters on your wall, calling her "Flan" in your most intimate moments, drunk-dialing random numbers and yelling "The life you save may be your own," that sort of thing.  With apologies to my wife, there was indeed a time in my life when I was googly-eyed for Flannery.  That particular fever has since passed, but I still regard her works as pillars which hold up the roof of my own fiction.

But back to Andalusia.  You know how some folks plan a lifetime for a trip to Paris or Bali-Bali?  That was me with the O'Connor farm.  When the Army sent me to Fort Stewart, Georgia in 2004, I finally found my chance.  I was too busy with pre-deployment training and the subsequent year in Baghdad to make my way to Milledgeville, but once I got back and shook off the Iraqi dust, I started making my plans.

Here is my journal entry for that day:

July 1, 2006:  This is the moment I’ve been anticipating for fifteen years. The car, softly bouncing along the rutted dirt road tops a small rise, passes through the wooden-gated opening and there, off to the right, is the white house tucked among the tall shade trees, the wide, screened-in porch beckoning like a cupped hand waving us forward.


I have finally made my Flannery O’Connor pilgrimage to Milledgeville, Georgia.

Jean and I rose at a Godawful ungodly hour, got in the car and drove the three hours to Milledgeville. I’d planned out the route on, but chose the “shortest route” (rather than the “fastest route”) option so that we could save on 50 miles worth of gas. This turned out to be a nearly disastrous mistake because, after we got off I-16 and then another couple of state highways, we found ourselves going down a deserted one-lane dirt road. The red-clay track led through thick, insect-buzzing woods and there was not another car, house or even telephone wire in sight. We crept down the road at 40 miles per hour for about ten miles, our car pluming a red cloud of dust, and both of us getting increasingly nervous by the minute, thinking that Mapquest was leading us to our doom. We saw a burnt-out carcass of machinery off in the ditch to the right and cracked a joke about how the hillbillies preyed on unsuspecting travelers who depended on the internet for everything. I sang the banjo-twang song from “Deliverance.” At two separate times, sleek, tan does bounded across the road in front of us. Jean fretted about how we should call our daughter and have her retrieve the downloaded Mapquest route from my computer.  "That way, if we don’t return, she’ll know where to look for the bodies.”

“Wait,” I said. “What’s that up there? Is that a Stop sign?”

It was, indeed. And there was a paved highway, cleanly bisecting our dirt road of doom.  Mapquest told us to take a left and soon we were back in civilization once more.

Sort of.

We needed to stop for gas and pulled into the first station we found—a dusty yard with three pumps on an island in front of the squat little mini-mart whose windows were crowded with lottery stickers and Salem cigarette ads. I told Jean I needed to use the restroom while she pumped. When I entered the store and made my way past the racks of bagged peanuts, sausage sticks and Moon Pies, I was confronted with a line of Locals, all of them in their sixties or seventies and all of them wearing John Deere caps and not-recently-laundered T-shirts. They perched on stools along a short counter in front of a grill where a cook was scrambling up eggs and burgers. The Locals eyed me—me, in my ironed shirt and city-slicker shorts and tennis shoes—and there was a barely-perceptible pause in their conversation. The grill sizzled in the half-beat silence. One of the good ole boys nodded at me and said, “How you?”

“Fine,” I said. “Fine, thanks.”

I hurried into the bathroom, did my business (or “bid’ness”) then hurried back out to protect Jean while she pumped and paid and we sped away after buying a bag of salted cashews and a Diet Coke. She wanted to buy a plastic baggie of boiled (“bolled”) peanuts which were sitting at the register, but I talked her out of it, later telling her, “We have no idea how long they’ve been sitting there.”

We had a good (nervous) laugh about the gauntlet of Locals back at the gas stations.

“Yep,” I said, “we’re definitely in Flannery Country now. Them there was Good Country People, fo sho.”

We arrived at Milledgeville, browsed the antique shops, ate lunch, then I said, “Okay, it’s time.”   My voice quivered as I spoke.  We headed north out of town on Highway 441 and there, sandwiched between a Honda dealer and a row of motels, was the driveway with a small brown sign pointing the way to Andalusia.  I drove slowly down the dirt road, topped the rise, and had my first glimpse of the white country house where Flannery wrote Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away and nearly all of her short stories. We drove around behind the house and parked in the grassy field.

The afternoon air was thick and hot, too hot for even a decent insect buzz.  We walked up the steps to the screened-in porch and I stepped inside the Main House. Craig Amason, the Foundation Director, was there to meet us. He told me everything I already knew, and I nodded politely with feigned interest.  The tour guide babble was all superfluous for me.  I was here to breathe in the molecules of Flannery, which floated like dust motes in the air.

He paused in his spiel about the long-gone peacocks.  “Just out of curiosity, how’d you hear about Andalusia?”

I looked at him and grinned. “Mister, I’ve been waiting to get here for fifteen years.  You have no idea.”

At that point, a trio of loud-mouthed ladies swept onto the property and bullied their way through the front door.  It was as if Mrs. May, Julian's mother, and the Grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" had conspired to gang up on my pilgrimage to the Shrine.  I suppose they would have been good women....if somebody had been there to shoot them every minute of their lives.

Jean and I slipped away to explore the rest of the house on our own.

Most of the farmhouse was roped off—the front staircase leading to the second floor, the parlor, Flannery’s bedroom directly to the left of the front door—but I stood in each of the doorways for many long minutes, absorbing the ghost of Flannery.  Deep down, I knew this would not make me a better writer.  Being here would not fortify my fiction with eight essential vitamins and minerals.  But yet, there was something about standing witness to her environment where she practiced "the habit of being" even as disease weakened her body.  She once wrote: "I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing."  If she could do it, so could I.

Somewhere, beyond the flapping gums of the ladies behind us, I could hear the click of her crutches as she advanced to meet me. I stared at her desk (“Not the original, unfortunately,” the director said) and the typewriter (“Again, not the original, but one just like it”) which were positioned to the left of the bed (the original) and in front of the window. Flannery would sit there every morning, the morning light streaming through at her back, and peck away at the typewriter, rattling out her message of faith and violence and goddamngreat prose, sending a message to me forty years in the future. I asked the director if the books in the glass bookcases were hers, and he affirmed that they were (“Though the bulk of her private library and papers are at the college, of course”). The velvet rope kept me from entering the room, cocking my head, and reading the spines of the books, but just knowing that they were hers was pretty thrilling. I stared at her silver crutches leaning against the un-original desk. I stared at the curtains her mother Regina had sewn. I looked at the cracks running along the wall, meeting the ceiling, then spreading out in spidery veins. I thought about water stains in the shape of the Holy Ghost descending along the wall.

Jean bought me a T-shirt and we left the house, the three biddies still clucking at the director, trapping him into false good manners and a strained smile.

We walked around the grounds, me stopping to pose on the porch and in front of the house, Jean worrying about snakes as she stepped in her sandals through the crackly undergrowth near the stone birdbaths, both of us poking our heads into the ruins of the caretakers’ house, the equipment shed, the cow barn and the milk shed. Then we left, just barely escaping ahead of the three ladies in their large SUV.

I turned to Jean, “Now I can die. I’ve been to Andalusia.”

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