How Flannery O’Connor Became Human to Me

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the day I accepted an offer from the lawyer representing the executors of the estate of the late author, Flannery O’Connor, to work for the executors to establish the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation. Among other objectives, this nonprofit organization would be charged with preserving Andalusia, the farm where O’Connor lived the last 13 years of her life and where she completed her published books. The year was 2000, and I was serving as the director of the local public library. I had been a devoted fan of O’Connor from the time I had studied her work as an undergraduate English major at her alma mater, Georgia College. The institution was called Georgia State College for Women during the time Mary Flannery O’Connor was there in the 1940s. She was larger than life, as so many writers of fine literature are to me. I was in complete awe that someone could write a novel like Wise Blood at the age of 27. She is considered an artistic genius by critics, an intellectual force by most scholars, and even a candidate for sainthood by some of her fellow Catholics. She was almost mythical in my imagination.

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

I spent most of 2001 working with memorabilia and artifacts associated with O’Connor’s life and career as a writer. O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, donated a collection of material to Georgia College six years after the author died. This gift included many of the manuscripts from O’Connor’s published works, along with much of her personal library. However, Regina O’Connor held onto a considerable archive of books, manuscripts, published and unpublished letters, photographs, visual art, cartoons, sketches, journals, notebooks, business and personal records, and juvenilia. I was charged with sorting through and organizing the archive, creating an inventory, and preserving the items using archival containers and methods of storage. The vast majority of that remaining archive is now reposited at Emory University in Atlanta.

I sifted through hundreds of images of O’Connor in posed and candid photographs from infancy to shortly before her death from lupus at age 39. Particularly touching were pictures of her as a young child with her father, Edward, who also died from lupus when she was only 15 years old. I held in my hands the cartoons and sketches that O’Connor created while she was in high school and college, with characters and captions that foreshadowed the wicked humor so central to her fiction as a seasoned writer. I read every letter to her mother when O’Connor was away at graduate school in Iowa, some of which revealed strong emotions as she seemed to be searching for her own voice and an identity independent of the Cline family based in Georgia and Massachusetts. I read through her personal journals where she articulated deep feelings, thoughts, and struggles. I suspect she would be more than embarrassed to know that one of those journals has been published as a monograph.

When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation was officially established in 2002, the board of directors hired me as the organization’s executive director. I collaborated with professionals to design plans for restoring and preserving the farm and launched a campaign to raise money for the work ahead, which was monumental considering the farm was 544 acres with a main house that was not exactly in stellar shape and a dozen outbuildings in various stages of serious deterioration. While preparing the main house for public tours, I touched or picked up almost every object in the two-story 19th century structure, including many of Flannery O’Connor’s personal effects that had been left in the house for over three decades: medicine bottles, paint brushes, clothing, furniture, furnishings, Catholic paraphernalia, and of course, her crutches.

Main house at Andalusia
Main house at Andalusia

Honestly, I felt a bit uncomfortable at times in O’Connor’s private space, even decades after her death. I always tried to be respectful and mindful of the intrusion, necessary as it was. I arranged her bedroom/study as much as possible to the way Robert Fitzgerald described it in his introduction to O’Connor’s posthumous short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. He had visited Andalusia shortly after the author died. He described the austere conditions under which O’Connor had written some of the best fiction of the 20th century. Indeed, I always sensed a certain ascetic atmosphere whenever I walked into that room.

Sadly enough, when a diagnosis of lupus forced her back from Connecticut to live at Andalusia with her mother, Flannery O’Connor faced a situation where privacy was almost impossible.  A plaster wall with a connecting door separated her bedroom from her mother’s. The young writer had to adapt the first-floor sitting room on the main floor into her bedroom/study because the steep steps would have made walking upstairs an insurmountable challenge for her. The two women shared the only bathroom on the first floor. They ate almost every meal together, many of which were at the kitchen table. During the time I was working at the property, the kitchen was still equipped with the same table, sink, stove, cupboard, and the Hotpoint refrigerator O’Connor purchased with proceeds from the sale of the television rights to her short story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

Andalusia Farm kitchen
Andalusia Farm kitchen

The house still contained much of what the O’Connors had when they lived there. The curtains that her mother had sewn while O’Connor was away on a speaking engagement were still covering the tall windows, clearly a hasty job performed by an otherwise gifted seamstress to avoid objections by the room’s unamenable occupant. On the mantle above the room’s fireplace, small photographs of grandparents in tarnished frames were nestled in with an assortment of novelties and knickknacks, several of which may have been gifts from some of her more unconventional long-distance friends.

Still hanging precariously in the bedroom window was the heavy air conditioner that O’Connor told one of her correspondents was an office supply, which she intended to write off her taxes. If the IRS questioned her, she had decided to argue that it “supplied” her office with cool air and was therefore a legitimate deduction. The humid summers of middle Georgia can be brutal and oppressive without air conditioning. Installed at the opening of the fireplace was a propane gas heater, which likely produced insufficient warmth on the coldest nights of the year to comfort O’Connor’s aching joints, under constant assault from disease and the effect of steroid treatments. She hated bitter cold temperatures, not only because of the physical pain they brought, but because they often resulted in frozen and burst pipes – no water, no plumbing. I can personally attest to the inadequacy of space heaters, which we were still using to heat the drafty old house while I was working there. The frigid air seeping in around the windows and doors and up through the hardwood floors chilled me to the bone. On some days, I wore two pairs of socks and thermal underwear in my office, formerly Regina O’Connor’s bedroom.

Mrs. O’Connor moved back into the Cline family home in town shortly after her daughter’s death, and the main house at Andalusia was never fully occupied again. No one was attempting to keep it clean or regulate the temperature. Regular maintenance was no longer a priority, although family members renovated the back portion of the house, replaced the roof, and rebuilt the front porch in the 1990s. The two-over-two spacious front rooms of the house, which included O’Connor’s bedroom, were mostly closed off for about 35 years. Time was not kind to the interior. Paint peeled and chipped away from the surfaces. The walls cracked, and in some places chunks of the horsehair plaster fell on furniture or to the floor. Insects took up permanent residence, along with the spiders who fed upon them and filled curtains and corners with cobwebs.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

I worked at Andalusia for 13 years, the same amount of time that Flannery O’Connor lived there. I was alone in the main house a lot of that time, especially before the visitor traffic picked up and the foundation hired a part-time staff member to assist with tours and other tasks. His name is Mark Jurgensen, and he was a lifesaver. During those 13 years, I don’t know how many times, probably hundreds, I paused at the doorway of O’Connor’s bedroom and contemplated what her life must have been like at Andalusia. My eyes wandered around that room with its small bed, beautiful barrister bookcases, reading chair, and the crutches leaning against the wardrobe. O’Connor stared at the back panels of that piece of wooden furniture that served as her closet for several hours each morning at her typewriter, with only a brilliant imagination to assist her in crafting such powerful stories, letters, essays, and speeches.

I thought about the physical challenges she faced, the emotional and mental anguish she must have endured, perhaps the occasional sense of despair, the hopes and dreams she shared with no one, the doubts that surely surfaced, and the questions that remained unanswered to the very end. I am not superstitious. I tend to discount the metaphysical. I could never embrace the faith that was central to O’Connor’s understanding of the universe. And yet, there were moments when I genuinely sensed her presence in that place, not as a spirit or a ghost as so many visitors to Andalusia were ever hopeful to encounter. For me, the presence was a memory of someone I had never met. It was the manifestation of a courageous woman with an unusual name whose fictional characters were so bizarre, yet I recognized them immediately. It was the reflection of a living, breathing person, with all the flaws and imperfections inherent in our species, but one with a remarkable gift that is rarely exhibited or nurtured. For so many of us who have trouble hearing and seeing clearly, what she left behind is extraordinary.

Note: Andalusia is now one of several historic properties of Georgia College, which is responsible for its preservation and interpretation. Learn more at https://www.gcsu.edu/andalusia

Georgia College is also host to the Andalusia Institute, a public arts and humanities center that supports Flannery O’Connor scholarship, nourishes writing and the creative arts, and engages community members with the arts and humanities. Learn more at https://www.gcsu.edu/andalusiainstitute

Recommended Reading List: African American History and Race Relations

From the silent protests of athletes like Colin Kaepernick to the massive ground swelling of the Black Lives Matter movement, examples of discontent and outrage are growing in reaction to systemic racial injustice in the United States. Understanding and facing these challenges requires historical context – how we got to this dark place – and analysis from scholars and journalists who follow the issues closely and are gifted with the ability to explain the problems and offer possible solutions. The following annotated bibliography is in no way intended to be exhaustive. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the books that have been published in recent years on African American history and race relations. It is simply a list of books I can honestly recommend because I have read them and think they are representative of the topic.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Although she is not the first person to write about America’s caste system, Wilkerson probably has better examples and research to support her conclusions than did previous writers on the subject, especially after the presidency of Donald Trump. She makes a compelling argument for why we need to dig much deeper than race and class to understand the complexities of white privilege, discrimination, injustice, prejudice, poverty, and a whole host of other societal ills in America.

She draws comparisons to the ancient caste system in India to explain how arbitrary lines are drawn between groups of people that are irrational, indefensible, and immoral. She illustrates the paradox of a country that was founded on liberty and justice for all that at the same time enslaved people for 250 years of its history and continued to enforce a segregated society, often with horrible acts of violence, long after slavery was abolished. The chapter describing how the Nazis in Germany used the rhetoric and Jim Crow policies of the United States to construct their own pogroms is chilling and painful.

One of the major strengths of this book is Wilkerson’s use of metaphors to describe how the caste system in America originated and continues to be perpetuated by the dominant caste: the power base mostly of European descent. She uses a neglected house as a symbol of how the caste system has slowly but effectively compromised the structure of American society, eating away at its foundation and crumbling its walls. The inevitable result will eventually be a pile of rubble if we continue to avoid the problem.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

What a fine book. Not only does Gates bring a mountain of research to the table, but he also offers insight and thoughtful commentary based on decades of reading, thinking, teaching, and writing about Reconstruction and the Redemption period in American history that encompasses almost 100 years following the formal end of slavery. This topic has been covered to some degree by several scholars in recent years, with Doug Blackmon being the first to come to mind. I think what sets this book apart is the examination and analysis of the concept of the New Negro as it was proposed and argued by the major figures of African American society in the late 19th century and moving through the period now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance: W. E. B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, and Booker T. Washington.

Gates recently published a book titled The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which is a wonderful history of African American religious communities and a study of how churches served much more than just places of worship. I am currently reading the book and cannot review it properly yet, but I do highly recommend it.

White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper

Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. Obviously, much of the paranoia centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”

However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day. This book is a fine addition to American history and African American studies.

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones

Well, this was painful . . . and so relevant. Jones is armed with a searing spotlight that reveals how Christianity in America was nurtured and sustained by white supremacy throughout its history and is still embracing it today. With compelling data, careful research, and thoughtful commentary, Jones forces readers to confront how racial discrimination and social injustice are far more prevalent in all denominations of Christianity than most people are willing to admit, including clergy and elected officials.

One of the lightbulb moments for me in this book was the realization that people who do horrible things while also identifying as Christians, are indeed Christians by the way our society defines it. He uses the horrific case of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine African Americans during a Bible study session at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. This young man was an active member of his Lutheran church and frequently posted Bible verses and Christian doctrinal messages through social media and his personal documents. He justified his actions with his Christian beliefs. As Jones astutely observes, if Roof had killed white Christians and had been attending a mosque and posting verses from the Koran, how many white Americans would have denied that he was a Muslim? Roof is a Christian terrorist, and the justification for his violence is directly linked to white supremacy. And, he is not alone in that twisted mindset.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

I had a pre-conceived image of someone who was much more violent than Malcolm X actually was based on this book. I was intrigued with how the man born Malcolm Little evolved from being a petty criminal, often robbing even members of his own family, to become an intellectual force to be reckoned with by the U.S. government and even foreign powers. It may not be fair to say that a few years in prison turned his life around. It would even be a weak cliché; however, there is no doubt that some of the relationships he developed with older mentors he met while in prison had a tremendous impact on his self-awareness, his belief system, his intelligence, his understanding of racial inequality, and his vision for the future of African Americans.

It was also interesting to watch how he eventually abandoned his complete devotion to Elijah Muhammad as the head of the political organization, Nation of Islam, to pursue his own leadership role within the framework of Islam as a world religion. Leaving the NOI and speaking out against it precipitated his violent death. Before he died, Malcolm moved to the forefront in the fight for civil rights and was unapologetic about the means employed to overcome racial injustice. Malcolm X had no patience for pacifists who advocated a moderate approach. He wasn’t asking for justice — he demanded it.

Malcolm’s parents were heavily influenced by the separatist and sovereign ideas for people of color espoused by Marcus Garvey, which probably led Malcolm to make distinctions between segregation and separation. The former was imposed, but the latter was voluntary and desirable — a fascinating perspective. He wanted to see black people become completely independent of white influence, dominance, and charity. His disdain for white people (white devils, as he called them) waned toward the end of his life, but he never felt compelled to be conciliatory or to make excuses for racial discrimination and the privileged white society that perpetuated it. Nobody could ever mistake Malcolm X for a “team player,” and his vision for black people presented a stark contrast to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Revised Edition) by Michelle Alexander

Alexander presents us with a comprehensive and disturbing study of how mass incarceration resulting from the “war on drugs” in America has disproportionately imprisoned people of color in comparison to whites. As a well-trained attorney, she presents a mountain of evidence to argue her case, using quotes and testimonies from a wide array of historical and contemporary figures along with hard data and heartbreaking stories. No segment of American society escapes her stinging indictment: blacks and whites; conservatives and liberals; rich, poor, and middle class; champions of the Civil Rights Movement; and modern political figures, all the way up to Barack Obama (the book was published in 2010). This is an important book that deserves serious consideration by decision makers at almost every level of government, and especially those who are in any way connected to the criminal justice system.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr.

To some degree, Forman’s book takes up where The New Jim Crow leaves off. Understanding mass incarceration of black people at the hands of a legal system that is dominated by white people is not too difficult, but the situation gets cloudy when it happens in cities across the country that are largely governed by black people. In Forman’s experience as a public defender, Washington D.C. is a model city for the disturbing phenomenon. Using personal accounts from his own case files and extensive research into the historical developments that bred the “war on drugs” and “war on crime,” Forman carefully examines why the arc of the moral universe is longer than Martin Luther King, Jr. may have imagined, and it doesn’t seem to be bending very much toward justice for people of color.

Critics will argue that, first and foremost, breaking the law is not justified simply because we don’t like the laws and that black people cannot expect a pass just because they find themselves in difficult circumstances that often leave them with few options other than criminal activity. They will likely argue that Forman is proving the point that race is not a factor at all, especially since black people are arrested and convicted by black officers and judges. However, Forman digs deeper than the surface appearances to uncover complicated and nuanced systemic issues that lead to discrimination and inequality on our streets, in our courts, and in our prisons.

I had the opportunity to sit next to Professor Forman at a luncheon when he was honored with a Lillian E. Smith Book Award in 2018 for his work. His own life story is fascinating; his methods of teaching law are innovative and inspiring; and his passion for justice is akin to a minister’s drive to lead his congregation. He even sounds slightly like a preacher when he talks about the topic of this book. Readers will have to judge if he presents a convincing argument, but I don’t believe anyone can doubt his conviction.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

This is such a compelling story from the man who leads up the organization that most recently brought us the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the lynching memorial, as many are calling it) in Montgomery, Alabama. I was particularly drawn to Stevenson’s reflections near the end of the book in the chapter titled “Broken.” He observes how our society has legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we surrender to the harsh instinct to crush those among us who are most visibly injured by circumstances that are in many cases beyond their control. Stevenson explains that we are all broken, but we are not defined solely by the mistakes we have made.

“I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule

Ty Seidule has written a book that immediately and unequivocally transformed him into a heretic in the eyes of many Americans, especially those in the South. It takes amazing courage for a southerner who is also a decorated officer of the U.S. Army and a retired history professor at West Point to openly and very publicly admit that Robert E. Lee committed treason and should be viewed as a traitor to his country. And that’s exactly what Ty Seidule has done. I applaud his bravery and the extensive research he has completed to make that claim. This is a damn fine book, not because it covers new ground or reveals any real hidden truths, but because it says what has needed to be heard and understood for a very long time by someone in a position of authority who deserves respect and serious consideration.

Seidule has heard every excuse in the book for why the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, for why the Confederacy didn’t really lose the war, and for why Robert E. Lee was such an honorable man. For the first 20+ years of his life, he believed the excuses too. He probably doesn’t give quite enough credit to his wife for finally helping him escape the vortex of Confederate mythology. She forced him to question what it means to be a “Christian Southern Gentleman,” something he had aspired to from childhood through his graduation from Washington and Lee University, an institution that has been responsible more than any other place for perpetuating the cult of Robert E. Lee. His definitions of Christianity and gentleman have drastically changed through the years, and his perception of the South is much clearer than it was when he was a young man.

This book should be required reading in just about every college and university in the South, and even in many other parts of the country where the Civil War is still romanticized beyond recognition for what it truly was: a rebellious uprising against the United States of America. Seidule spends a lot of time talking about the impact of the novel and movie “Gone With the Wind,” which is appropriate; however, I wish he had given some attention to the earlier movie, “Birth of a Nation,” especially in his discussions of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most striking arguments he makes concerns the inaccurate terminology that has been used for generations to describe the Civil War, including the ridiculous names for the conflict itself, from “the recent unpleasantness” to “the war of northern aggression.”

He also makes a convincing point about how using the term “Union” is an inappropriate way to describe the U.S. Armed Forces while they fought against the Confederacy, as if the Union were some entity separate from the United States. That distinction brings us back to the problem with Robert E. Lee, who abandoned his commission as an officer of the U.S. Army and chose to side with a rebellious confederacy of states – a domestic enemy against whom Lee had sworn to protect his country. In the end, Lee was more loyal to the State of Virginia and the other southern states than he was to the United States, and that makes him a traitor. And it’s about time southerners and the rest of the nation came to terms with that stinging but absolutely honest indictment.

The Power of Iconic Landmarks

Shortly before the Allied forces liberated Paris from Nazi control on August 25, 1944, Adolf Hitler ordered his French military governor to use explosives to destroy the Eiffel Tower, along with several other famous structures in Paris. Some of the targets had military significance, but the Eiffel Tower? Hitler was determined to make a statement: if the Allied forces were going to take Paris back from the Nazis, then he would leave the city in ruins. Although the Eiffel Tower was designed to commemorate the French Revolution, Hitler understood that it had come to symbolize the triumph of the Industrial Revolution in France. It was the first human-made structure in history to exceed a height of 1,000 feet. Upon seizing Paris four years earlier, German forces had raised the swastika flag over the Palace at Versailles and atop the Eiffel Tower. It was more than just a framework of iron; it was a testament to architectural engineering and a harbinger of advanced civilization.

Eiffel Tower in Paris
Eiffel Tower in Paris

The Eiffel Tower is a perfect example of an iconic landmark that helps define a city and distinguish it — in this case, Paris. Places around the world reap huge benefits from unusual or historic structures, most often human-made but not always. Landmarks provide identity, tell stories, promote tourism, instill pride, and in some cases, they are fully operational and part of the local infrastructure. Tower Bridge that spans the Thames River in London (often misidentified as London Bridge) is not only a magnificent piece of architecture. It is also a completely functional waterway crossing that accommodates approximately 40,000 people and 21,000 vehicles each day.

Colosseum in Rome
Colosseum in Rome

Seasoned travelers may consider it a sign of sophistication to avoid visiting familiar landmarks, designating them as tourist traps. Perhaps they are, but they attract millions of people every year for reasons other than selfie opportunities or bragging rights back home. They can be particularly educational, and many of them have museums either inside the structure itself or nearby that provide details about the landmark’s creation, construction, history, function, and significance. Some of these attractions date back to the ancient world, such as the pyramids at Giza or the Colosseum in Rome. Others have only been around for a relatively short period of time, such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, constructed in 1965.

Gateway Arch in St. Louis
Gateway Arch in St. Louis

Experience has taught me that most tourists get “trapped” by the add-on features many landmarks offer, such as the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, or the Gateway Arch. The fees can get quite pricey, but the biggest cost is in valuable time spent waiting in line for an elevator or tram ride – sometimes several hours in peak season. Most travelers are on a tight schedule, and it seems a shame to miss other sites – museums, galleries, parks, gardens – while standing in line just to get a great view of the tops of buildings. There’s a good chance you can have the same experience nearby on the upper floor or observation deck of a tall building for a fraction of the cost and time.

Statue of Liberty in New York City
Statue of Liberty in New York City

It’s good enough just to spend a moment gazing at some iconic landmarks, even from a distance, to get the perspective of their size and scope. Others may be worthy of closer inspection or a guided tour, a topic I covered in a past blog post. There are wonderful ways to experience these attractions for little or no money at all. It is absolutely free to walk out on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or enjoy views of the magnificent structure from various locations around the bay. You won’t pay a penny to see the Hollywood sign overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Many of the world’s most spectacular houses of worship do not charge entry fees, although donations are expected and appreciated. Most cities are proud to show off their public landmarks and only charge nominal fees for entry or tours, if any at all. I have included photos here of some of my favorites. I hope to see many more in the years ahead.

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
Hollywood sign in Los Angeles
Hollywood sign in Los Angeles
Big Ben in London
Big Ben in London

We Are Way Overdue for Some Uncommon Sense

You have heard people say it many times. You have seen them express it or share it through memes on their social media feeds. Perhaps you have even said it too. I certainly have. The wording may vary, but the message is generally the same and takes the form of a mild insult. It usually goes something like this. “Some folks just don’t have any common sense.” There are variations of the statement, such as “They don’t even know how to come in out of the rain.” Sometimes it takes the form of a more serious complaint in reaction to some sweeping change or even in resistance to a crisis the society or even the world is facing. “What we need now more than ever is a little common sense.”

In my experience, people who most often observe a lack of common sense around them firmly believe, of course, that they are blessed with an abundance of the stuff. For some, it is simply a defense mechanism. For others, it is a point of pride, not to mention a sign of arrogance. Then there are people who take comfort in believing that book knowledge did not succeed in erasing their share of natural-born intelligence. In any case, we seem to crave common sense because we are convinced that it is the best solution to all our problems. I’m not so sure.

Looking back through human history, I am struck by how often uncommon sense helped our species survive, evolve, advance, and even thrive. Far too often, the call for common sense parallels a determination to maintain the status quo or even to regress from complexity to simplicity, usually for the sake of familiarity, security, or comfort. Admittedly, there are plenty of times when the simplest solution is the best alternative, but not always. I would argue that the bigger or more complicated the problem, the more likely it is that uncommon sense will fix it.

Common sense told early humans that fire is a destructive force that is extremely dangerous.
Uncommon sense showed them controlling fire provides warmth, light, protection, and a safe way to eat many types of food, especially meat.

Common sense told early civilizations that flooding rivers destroy crops.
Uncommon sense showed them that controlling floods with canals, berms, dikes, catch basins, and other measures can transform deserts into farmland.

Common sense told our ancient ancestors that the world was flat based on their limited perception of the planet.
Uncommon sense from astronomers of classical civilizations showed them that the earth is a sphere.

Well sure, you might say, it took innovation and critical thinking to advance civilization and create the modern world, but we live in the post-industrial age now. Nobody from the 21st century with any common sense would be fooled by legends of the Middle Ages, by quack medicine of centuries past, silly urban myths, or conspiracy theories, right? It never ceases to amaze me how people who are otherwise perfectly reasonable will adamantly choose to accept the simplest answer because it just makes sense to them – and nothing else does. “It’s just common sense,” they say. The level of their certainty is almost always directly linked to a personal stake they have in the matter: financially, politically, morally, etc. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The global population is faring better now than it ever has. Infant mortality rates continue to drop as life expectancy rises. Advances in medicine, agriculture, and technology are pulling more people out of poverty every day and improving their standard of living exponentially. However, we cannot ignore the real possibility of disastrous setbacks and worldwide threats to the future of humanity. And yet, that is exactly what so many of us are doing. We refuse to face serious challenges that will impact future generations, and are even causing major problems now, because doing so is inconvenient. We ignore the advice and warnings from some of the brightest minds in the world – the people with uncommon sense — choosing instead to follow our common sense, which can prove to be woefully inadequate.

Common sense tells us that we had an unusually cold winter; therefore, global warming is not real.
Uncommon sense has proven that average global temperatures continue to rise with devastating effects now and even worse to come.

Common sense tells us that weather is unpredictable and that temperatures have been rising and falling for thousands of years.
Uncommon sense demonstrates how carbon emissions and rising CO2 levels are rapidly changing our climate, which is different than weather.

Common sense tells us that if you don’t have symptoms, then you aren’t sick, can’t spread a virus, and don’t need to take precautions like wearing a mask or limiting social contact.
Uncommon sense proves that you can still spread a virus even though you have no symptoms, which makes fighting a pandemic even more difficult.

Common sense says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Uncommon sense knows that, by the time we realize it’s broken, it may be too late to fix it.

I truly value common sense. As individuals, it helps us navigate a dangerous world and keeps us safe, most of the time. True enough, some people are more skilled at developing and using it than others. As necessary as it is though, common sense has its limitations. The problem with common sense is, well, it’s common. It sets the bar rather low, especially when the challenges we face are far greater than we can handle on our own. Lately more than ever, I think we are way overdue for some uncommon sense.

The Living Desert

Yes, the title sounds like a contradiction in terms, a true oxymoron. Deserts typically conjure up images of sand, rocks, and tumbleweeds with no water in sight. Many consider them lifeless, especially people who have never actually set foot in one. Of course, David Attenborough and others have done their best to illustrate how deserts are teeming with life, but there are still plenty of folks who cling to the misconceptions. The unconverted are often convinced there is only one season in the desert – summer. They also tend to think that all parts of a desert region are the same regarding topography, temperature, weather patterns, vegetation, and wildlife. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona

The only desert I have visited is in the American Southwest, primarily the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. However, I have read about other deserts around the world and have been mesmerized by documentary productions from PBS, BBC, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian. Depending on the time of year, there is incredible beauty to behold all across the desert landscape. Water may not be abundant, but it does exist. It also rains in the desert, although it tends to come all at once. In some areas it even snows, especially in the higher altitudes. Desert flora and fauna have evolved to survive in these conditions through a variety of innovative adaptations.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona

Green is my favorite color, I suppose because in the botanical world it signifies life. I love the lushness of forests, glades, mossy creek banks, fern blankets, and understory shrubs, but the desert has its own rich palette of green in so many different shades. The Sonoran Desert explodes from mid-March to late April with hundreds of species of wildflowers. Portions of the region stay green throughout the year with signature plants that are the most familiar in the Southwest. What adds even more interest is the plethora of shapes and sizes, from the golden brittlebush to the giant saguaro cactus. Some of the plants look as if they are extraterrestrial. The shapes and configurations get a bit funky sometimes, but these oddities are great for home or business landscapes because they are so unusual and even whimsical.  

Desert blooms in early spring in Arizona
Desert blooms in early spring in Arizona
Hillside of cacti in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona
Hillside of cacti in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona

For American travelers who seek magnificent scenery and some of the best outdoor recreation the country has to offer, overlooking the desert Southwest is a huge mistake. There are hiking trails everywhere. Depending on the location, the temperature is pleasant all year. The region is great for fishing, camping, cycling, mountain biking, birdwatching, and so much more. The same opportunities are available within deserts all over the world. If “getting away from it all” sounds appealing beyond the necessities of social distancing in the age of COVID, the desert is the place to be. So, dismiss the stereotypes and dig a little deeper to discover just how alive the desert is, and then make plans to witness it in the flesh.

Landscape plant at Scottsdale's Museum of the West, Scottsdale, Arizona
Landscape plant at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, Scottsdale, Arizona
A palette of green in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, Arizona
A palette of green in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, Arizona

Walking In Memory of Autumn

A ten-year study conducted by Paul Williams and Paul Thompson published in 2013 concluded that brisk walking several times a week can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and dementia. No weightlifting, jumping jacks, or push-ups required – just a fast-paced walk. Furthermore, individuals who do exercise regularly in other ways can still benefit just the same from walking. That magic 10,000-step-a-day threshold that our Fitbits remind us about daily was reinforced by another ten-year study completed in 2015 that demonstrated how meeting that daily goal can lower risk of death by 46%.

Honestly, we all know we need to move to stay healthy. A treadmill will do the job, but strolling five miles on a churning rubber belt is about as exciting as working in a meaningless profession from 9-5 every single day, which is why the treadmill analogy works so well for those circumstances. The good news is, no matter where we live, there are usually at least a few good options outdoors to pack in several miles of vigorous walking when the weather permits. Local nature trails, state and national parks, city and county recreation areas, national forests, greenways, river walks, and so many other options are available to us if we are serious about staying healthy.

What if we live in a big city? Well, there are typically public parks and gardens with paved trails for walking. We can even map out a “trail” in our boroughs, neighborhoods, or suburbs. However, there is another great space for walking that we should always remember – cemeteries. True enough, most of us don’t exactly consider walking among gravestones to be a source of happiness, but take into consideration the design, maintenance, and accessibility of cemeteries. They can be quite beautiful. Most major cities have several of them, and they may be even larger than parks and recreation areas.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Obviously, people tend to have an emotional connection to cemeteries where friends and family are buried, which means that they usually support them through political influence, volunteer hours, and donations. In this sense, cemeteries are beneficiaries of charity in much the same way churches and hospitals are. Through their function as spaces of “eternal rest” for the departed and places for contemplation and memories for those left behind, cemeteries have evolved into sanctuaries characterized by creative architecture, landscaping, and gardening.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Acre for acre, we are hard-pressed to find more diversity of trees, shrubs, and other plantings in urban areas than what cemeteries contain. Many of them have water features, bridges, statues, prayer gardens, chapels, gazebos, and special monuments and memorials. The older they are, the more character they have developed. They are rich repositories of history and genealogy. Cemeteries speak volumes about a community’s past and the promise of its future.

This autumn I decided to take a walk in one of the cemeteries where we currently live in Springfield, Missouri. Maple Park Cemetery dates to 1876 when a group of local businessmen established it on a 31-acre tract where an old fairground was once located. Some of the city’s most prominent citizens are interred there. One of the most famous people buried in Maple Park is known not by his own merit but by how he met his end. David Tutt was killed on the square in downtown Springfield by Wild Bill Hickok.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Maple Park gets its name because of an abundance of the species, which according to early newspaper accounts were growing on the property when the cemetery was first established. Because Maple Park is almost 150 years old, there is an interesting variety of grave markers and mausoleums. There is also a wonderful mixture of mature and young trees of many different species, which put on a spectacular show in autumn months.

Many of us drive for hours to visit mountains and valleys to see fall leaves on a grand scale, but Maple Park Cemetery offers a chance to see those brilliant yellow, orange, and red trees in a setting that is peaceful and even reverent. My walk among the memorial markers under the canopies of color helped me appreciate how wonderful it is to still be moving, how the turning of the seasons is a perfect metaphor for our lives, and how precious beauty is because it is so brief.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

A Surprising Concurrence of Events

Perci Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller are two mathematicians who published a study in 1989 exploring the science behind coincidence, which they defined as “a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.” They observed how coincidences “can alter the course of our lives; where we work and at what, whom we live with, and other basic features of daily existence . . . .” Lately, I have been contemplating the surprising concurrence of events that has led me to where I am now in 2020, at the age of 60, and approaching what I hope will be the final third of my life.

I have happily admitted on many occasions that I am the luckiest man I have ever met. Usually, I am referring to the good fortune of being married to my amazing wife, whom I adore and cherish. I also know that a series of key events and decisions over the last 55 years has determined the path I have taken in my career, and I couldn’t have predicted at an early age how rewarding this journey would be. Of course, there are plenty of people who have had similar experiences and have advanced so much further in their professions than I ever will. I also know that the success I have enjoyed is not completely due to my knowledge, talent, and skills – not by a long shot. Again, I am a lucky guy.

I can almost see my vocational journey as a hiking trail, with switchbacks and long winding stretches, ups and downs, a few chance encounters, forks in the path, even a few rocky sections, all of which have led me to this place. How much is serendipity and how much is deliberate, I can’t say with any certainty. Perhaps the trailhead took the form of a set of The World Book encyclopedia our family purchased in the early 1960s, when I was a young child. I can’t remember how old I was when I started thumbing through the pages to look at the photographs and illustrations, but it was definitely before I started school. The World Book gave me an early appreciation for books and reading, for independent learning, and even for order – the set was arranged alphabetically, as were the articles within each bound volume.

The first marker on the trail was likely my assignment as a library assistant in elementary school. I have no recollection why either my teacher or our school librarian selected me for this responsibility, but I vividly remember removing cards from the pockets of books checked out by my classmates, using a stamp to imprint the due date on the card and the slip in the book, and filing the card in an oblong wooden box (likely with the librarian’s help). At an early age, I was granted opportunities to fall in love with books and reading, which I did. Like many adolescent boys of my generation, I became an enthusiastic fan of science fiction books by writers who defined the genre for the 20th century, such as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Clifford D. Simak.

My love of libraries mirrored my love for reading at an early age, and I visited them as often as I could. I must have had a natural appreciation for language, and the classes in high school where I performed best were in English. I was fortunate to have three outstanding English teachers from 7th through 12th grade. I attended a small high school, and I had each of these teachers for two years. They made grammar interesting for me, and they helped me appreciate the power of the written word. Under their instruction, I discovered the difference between writing that only entertains and that which enlightens, enriches, and provokes the reader.

I also had a true fascination for the natural sciences, probably nurtured by hours of emersion in The World Book. When I started at the local community college, I had big dreams of someday working in the field of medical technology. I knew hardly anything about it. I thought working in a hospital would equate to lots of money and prestige, but I knew I wasn’t ambitious enough to slug through medical school to become a doctor. Turns out I wasn’t even ambitious enough to pass college chemistry – it looked too much like algebra, which to this day baffles me.

With encouragement from advisors and after a careful look at the curriculum requirements, I decided an Associate’s Degree in Journalism would be my best hope of staying in school. This switchback in the trail also prompted me to start writing for the college newspaper, and one of my assignments was to report on a lecture being presented by a woman who had recently edited a collection of letters by a Georgia author. I was painfully immature and had virtually no appreciation for academic scholarship. My first draft of the article reflected my stupidity and shallowness, which my journalism professor was quick to point out to me. I had no idea what an important contribution the visiting scholar, Sally Fitzgerald, had made to the world of American literature nor how her work would impact my own world in the years ahead.

After graduating from the community college, my trail took me on an uphill stretch to a state college located about 45 minutes from my hometown. By then I had decided that a degree in English was a logical choice, although I was clueless about how I was going to find a career after graduating. I can’t imagine how concerned my parents must have been. However, I was becoming more serious about academics and was confident that I was a good writer – foolish boy. A few seasoned students in the English department had warned me about one professor, a woman with a reputation for pounding the ignorance right out of you. I signed up for one of her classes my second term there, having at least enough self-awareness that I needed discipline and a challenge. The first paper she returned to me looked as if she had slit an artery and bled out on the page. Clearly, I wasn’t such a gifted writer after all.

Meeting this professor was one of those life-changing chance encounters. I was not aware when I first arrived at this institution that its most famous graduate was Flannery O’Connor. I also did not know that the library was the steward of her most valuable personal and professional archive. My fellow English majors had informed me that the demanding professor was also the O’Connor scholar on campus and that she taught a course concentrating on the author’s work. She was the editor of the Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, a journal published by the college and the longest running scholarly publication devoted to a female writer in the country. Perhaps as an act of academic penance and atonement, I signed up for the O’Connor course for the summer session, which meant covering the author’s two novels, two collections of short stories, a volume of essays, and the letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald (the scholar I encountered just two years earlier), all in four weeks.

I had no memory of reading O’Connor in high school and didn’t know what to expect. In this class, I quickly realized her fiction was dark, perhaps even demented to my naïve way of thinking. The Catholicism was lost on this Southern Baptist lad, at least in the beginning, but I immediately recognized the backwoods Protestants that populated her stories. They could have been my relatives. The stories were violent and filled with strange and twisted characters – no happy endings, no riding off into the sunset. People sometimes came to gruesome ends. And yet, it was laugh-out-loud funny to me. The best part of all? It was literature. I was unequivocally hooked. This course truly stretched me, and I was proud to get a B when it was over. I requested to change advisors, wanting to be under this professor’s guidance for the remainder of my undergraduate tenure. I could not have known at that time the central role she and her O’Connor course were to play in my professional journey.

I took history courses as electives in the humanities for my major, enough to earn a minor in the field. Knowing I really didn’t want to teach high school English, I decided to stay on at the college and work toward an M.A. in history. I was a much more serious student now, and my grade point average reflected it. On-campus jobs opened up for me too, like working at a small education museum and archive. This college gave M.A. students an option to earn their degrees by either writing a thesis or by taking additional course work. Maybe I wanted to prove to myself, my professors, and my parents who had sacrificed so much to send me to school that I could write something worthy of a graduate degree, even from a small state college. So, I climbed that steep slope by writing about the desegregation of the county school system where my college was located, using a collection of oral history interviews I conducted with local educators, both white and black.

My graduate school adviser and the supervisor of my thesis was a member of the local public library board. Upon my graduation, he was kind enough to get my foot in the door with the library’s director, who was planning to hire a cataloger. After working a year at the public library, the director encouraged me and another employee to apply for library school at Emory University. It was a two-hour drive from where we lived, but our boss was generous and supportive enough to allow us to work four days a week and commute to Atlanta two days a week over the next two years to earn what the university called a Master of Librarianship. I will always be grateful to her for this opportunity, which launched my professional career. I eventually became the assistant director of the library, and after 12 years I was appointed the director when my boss left the position. I have written another post about some of the more memorable and bizarre experiences during my time working at the public library.

I stayed connected with the O’Connor scholar on campus and worked with her on several projects, the most ambitious being the Flannery O’Connor symposium in 1994. This four-day conference featured celebrated scholars, writers, visual artists, and performers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Louise Erdrich, Barry Moser, Polly Holliday, Leo Kottke, and once again, Sally Fitzgerald. People from the community who knew me at all were aware that Flannery O’Connor was my favorite writer, including the lawyer for the literary estate of the author, whose wife also happened to work with me as our children’s librarian. In a blog post from 2015, I wrote about another life-altering event – the day this lawyer walked into my office with a proposal for me to work for the executors of the estate to establish the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation. I accepted the offer. This fork in the path allowed me to use my English and history degrees, my library training, and my administrative experience to help preserve and promote the legacy of a great American writer — what a privilege.

My mentor at the state college eventually retired, but she joined the board of directors of the O’Connor foundation, along with the man who followed her in the position. Both people have influenced and enhanced my life in ways I could never express, and I am forever in their debt. One of the grant-funded projects I initiated as the director of the foundation was a book publication, co-edited by the new O’Connor scholar. At Home with Flannery O’Connor is a collection of oral histories of people who knew the author during the time she lived at her family’s farm home, the headquarters for the foundation that we also operated as a historic house museum. Fortunately, I was familiar with oral history as a research tool from my master’s thesis work.

Flannery O’Connor lived at Andalusia for 13 years, which is exactly how long I remained there as the foundation’s director. In 2017, the property was transferred to O’Connor’s alma mater; however, by that time I had moved on to another job because my wife took a vice-president position at a small private college in northeast Georgia. Earlier that year, the president of this college had accepted a gift of property just north of the campus owned by a foundation of relatives and close friends of another Georgia writer named Lillian Smith. The organization was operating the Lillian E. Smith Center as an artist retreat and a literary landmark while also sponsoring programs for students and community members. The college president wanted to continue these activities and expand the center as an educational facility for his students, faculty, and staff. He had no one to manage the center, and I was as close to a perfect fit for the job as he was going to find.

We stayed at our respective jobs with this college for five years. I am still amazed at how much of what I had learned during the previous 30 years prepared me for this position: from property management to programming, from cataloging to curating, from historic research to historic restoration and preservation. I was even able to resurrect some of my early work experience serving as the college archivist for the president and working with the dean of libraries. I have written posts about Lillian Smith and her encounter with Flannery O’Connor – so many surprising connections and convergences that have touched my life.

In 2018, other opportunities took us away from my home state to Missouri. Through a friend of a friend, I met the dean of libraries at a state college in southwest Missouri where we live now. I find myself once again in a place where I can tap into several decades of professional experience to work on meaningful and rewarding projects, and it all just fell in my lap. I am a special projects coordinator working for the dean. I arrange author visits, public readings, and lectures. I also help install exhibits in the library. I conduct interviews for the library’s growing oral history collection. I am moderating a virtual book club for the alumni of the institution. Contrary to popular opinion, librarians do not just sit around a read all day. I always dreamed of a job where I could get paid to read. How lucky am I that part of my responsibilities are to read for a book club? Even better, I am learning new skills involved with editing videos that the library publishes through its YouTube channel, including the oral history interviews.

My father had several common refrains that contribute to the good memories I have about him. For the most part, he was a man of unquestioning faith, instilled and confirmed by a long life of Southern Baptist doctrine. When he recognized a surprising concurrence of events, he rarely wrote it off as coincidence, especially if the events had serious implications. Instead, he would declare, “As far as I’m concerned, the Lord arranges these things.” With pseudo sophistication and agnostic arrogance, many times I just shook my head and said, “I guess so, Dad,” not really agreeing with his assessment of how the universe works. In retrospect, given how my career path has carried me through the years to such wonderful destinations, maybe I need to hold out the possibility that Dad was right.

Packaging Jesus in America

The United States is a country that knows how to sell. The backbone of entrepreneurship here is not necessarily based on providing a product or service that is valuable. The secret to success in business is convincing Americans that they need or want what you’re selling, and we do it well. Where else could you take a smooth stone, nest it in a little clump of straw, place it in a cardboard box with a tiny book of “instructions,” and sell it for $3.95 as a Pet Rock? An ad executive named Gary Dahl did exactly that in the mid-1970s and became a millionaire in just a few months. Other examples include mood rings, Lucky Break plastic wishbones, and HeadOn headache relief wax. We can probably all think of a few “universities” and other nonprofits that are worthy mentions.

We will sell anything in America, and I mean ANY thing. When I was the director at Andalusia, the historic home of American author Flannery O’Connor, we scooped up red clay from the yard, placed it in small plastic pill bottles, and sold it for .75 a bottle in our little gift shop. We did the same with pond water from the property. Adoring fans and generous supporters of our house museum bought them by the dozens. No, I can’t say I’m proud of stooping to such obnoxious commercialistic measures, but it helped keep the lights on. At least we didn’t make any claims about the supernatural qualities of the clay, with all due respect to the folks at El Santuario de Chimayo who offer up mystical holy dirt on a Native American sacred hill in New Mexico.

Speaking of the sacred, I believe that Americans do a better job at marketing religious belief than just about anything else. We borrow myths and customs from various cultures and across the centuries, synthesizing them into a giant brand that we couple with Christianity, making it a lot more attractive. For example, we skillfully package up the entire Advent season in a display that can practically fit in the palm of your hand – a nativity scene that comes complete with Mary, Joseph, some livestock, and a few shepherds gathered snugly in a small stable admiring the baby Jesus. We even throw in three wise men and a guiding star over the structure, although we know these guys didn’t see the holy family until long after everyone had vacated the manger scene. We simply don’t have room for two dioramas on the coffee table. We have to save room for Santa, the reindeer, and the scioto ceramic Christmas village.

There are other practices to further illustrate the point: bunny rabbits and eggs at Easter combined with passion plays that reduce the death of Christ to a one-act skit. I am reminded of the time I was driving through the foothills of Appalachia in rural north Georgia on a Good Friday back in the late 1990s when I passed a small country church. Thankfully, I happened to turn my head in time to see three large crosses on the front lawn of the church, which would be completely expected. What prompted me to slam on brakes and swerve into the entrance of the adjacent parking lot, however, was the fact that there were three men in what appeared to be white bed sheets draped around their wastes “hanging” on the crosses. They were standing on small pedestals attached to the upright beams and holding on to large spikes driven into both ends of the crossbeams. There were several folks standing at a respectful distance in front of the display taking photographs. No banner or marque could have possibly commanded more attention. The man on the middle cross, playing the part of Jesus, I presumed, had a slightly protruding belly and was offering a modest smile for the photo op. As I moved in closer, I noticed he was also chewing gum. Who wouldn’t want to be in THAT church two days later to celebrate the resurrected Savior? What a shame Flannery O’Connor died before this happened.

Even people who love to celebrate the winter holidays with garish decorations have become disgusted with big-box stores that start filling their shelves with the stuff in early September. Now we can walk into our local Walmart before the summer ends, wander over near the garden section, and find all the accessories we could possibly need for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with just one trip. All the aforementioned illustrations may cheapen a faith tradition that is almost 2000 years old, but I don’t find them too offensive really. They simply reflect the way Americans think and operate under the encompassing influence of capitalism, which is the true soul of the Republic, morally bankrupt as it may seem at times.

What I do find reprehensible is how people in high places have notoriously attempted to hijack religion and use it to further their personal or institutional agendas, and Christianity has perhaps fallen victim to this evil form of abuse as much or more than any other faith. It happened with the late Roman Empire, the rise of the papacy, the Crusades, the witchcraft trials, the perpetuation of slavery in America, and many other pivotal points in western history. And it’s happening today – right now. The most effective way to pitch a policy package or promote a public figure to a large block of this country’s population is to make sure Jesus is clearly visible on the label.

All your past and present failures, bad decisions, naughty behavior, crude language – all your transgressions can be immediately forgiven and forgotten as long as you claim that Jesus is your co-pilot. He doesn’t even have to be in charge of the flight! In spite of the separations set forth in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, the United States throughout its history has wedded patriotism to the Christian faith. You can bet that when most Americans read the phrase “In God We Trust” on their money (why is it still there?), they aren’t conjuring images of Zeus, Shiva, or even Allah. They are envisioning the Christian Trinity.

No other demographic is more committed to maintaining the dominance of Christianity in this country, right up to the three branches of government, than strongly conservative evangelicals. They are a powerful lobby and voting bloc, spreading out over multiple denominations and encompassing all races and socio-economic sectors. Their influence has waned slightly in recent decades as the overall population is becoming more secular, but they have a loud and clear voice in public affairs, especially on the national level. Sadly, even the least qualified candidates can overcome a multitude of sins and ineptitude by claiming they are guided by Biblical principles and dedicated to protecting this brand of Christianity from resistance or competition. By focusing on a few essential staples that evangelical Christians hold sacred, these con artists can easily sell them the rest of the merchandise regardless of how cheap, useless, or even dangerous it may be. Jesus is central to the deal, and we Americans can’t pass up a good deal.

The Beautiful Annabel Lee

Visitors to this blog are no doubt aware that one of my passions is landscape gardening. My love for flowering plants, shrubs, ornamentals, and trees has grown for over thirty years as I’ve experimented with many different species and multiple gardening designs. This avocation has given my wife and me countless hours of pleasure, along with way too many sore muscles and aching joints. In previous posts, I have highlighted some of the side benefits of gardening, such as attracting wildlife. I have also discussed pond construction projects at three different homes.

One of my posts featured the technique of stacked container plantings, which combine vertical interest with the opportunity to group many different plants together compactly. Over the years, I have really come to appreciate container gardening, which has several distinct advantages. Containers are a great option where there is no soil for planting, such as decks, patios, porches, baloneys, steps, paved walkways, or pool decking. They also work well integrated with flower or shrub beds, adding vertical and visual interest with a variety of shapes, sizes, textures, and materials. What can be used as a growing container is only limited by the gardener’s imagination.

In our gardens, we have had a plethora of containers of all shapes and sizes: red clay, glazed ceramic, plastic, coconut husk, peat, wood, metal, glass, and more. Some of these came in bright, cheerful colors. Our most substantial containers, not to mention the heaviest, are made of concrete. Their edges are at least an inch thick, and they can withstand temperatures that dip down in the single digits if they are mostly emptied in the winter and don’t hold much moisture. This feature is especially advantageous as they are much too heavy for us to move once they are in place.

Our absolute favorite concrete planter is one made of the gray cement that is typical of most driveways and foundation walls. Sounds about as basic and boring as you can get, right? What makes this offset cup-shaped planter special is how the side is sculpted in the shape of the lower half of a human face, complete with a chin, lips, philtrum, and just a hint of the lower nose. It usually sits atop a short pedestal made of the same concrete that is sculpted into the shape of a stump, but it looks more like a neck for the face planter.

Annabel Lee 2009
Annabel Lee 2009


The first time we saw the planter in 2009 in a garden center in north Georgia, we were smitten. We backed our pickup truck to a retaining wall with the tailgate down, and the woman running the place helped us gently roll the planter from the berm into the bed of the truck. Once we got it home, we carefully rolled it off the tailgate down a 2×12-inch board, strapped the planter to a set of hand trucks, and wheeled it around the house to its place in our patio garden.

Annabel Lee 2011
Annabel Lee 2011


We both observed that the face looked female and had a rather pensive expression, even without eyes. During the next rain shower, as water streamed down her cheeks, we watched the mood turn to melancholy. In all conditions, her face presents a haunting countenance, perhaps because it is lifeless. It is literally and figuratively like stone, which helped us decide on a name for the planter. “Annabel Lee” is the name of Edgar Allan Poe’s final poem, which is about the death of a beautiful woman. Now, we have our very own Annabel Lee, not “in her sepulchre there by the sea,” but in our garden for all to see.

Annabel Lee 2014
Annabel Lee 2014


Over the years, we have changed up the plants that finish off the top part of Annabel Lee’s face and provide her with hair. Sometimes she has locks draping down the side of her face or the back of her head. Some seasons she has a more punk, spiked look. Once or twice she has channeled Medusa, that Gorgon of Greek mythology that turns everyone else to stone! She makes a wonderful lawn decoration for Halloween and is a year-round centerpiece to the hardscape of the garden. But, at night when her very own spotlight illuminates her cheek and casts shadows across her face, Annabel Lee almost comes to life. It’s a vision powerful enough to inspire Edgar Allan Poe to write just one more verse.

Annabel Lee 2016
Annabel Lee 2016
Annabel Lee 2017
Annabel Lee 2017
Annabel Lee 2019
Annabel Lee 2019
Annabel Lee 2019 Halloween
Annabel Lee 2019 Halloween
Annabel Lee 2020
Annabel Lee 2020

Andalusia’s Outdoor Learning Center

When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation decided it was time in 2002 to make the author’s farm home in Milledgeville, Georgia, available for public tours, we began exploring various ways we could attract visitors to return to the property after they had already seen the house and outbuildings. Of course, the almost-worshipful fans of O’Connor would travel great distances to make the pilgrimage multiple times and never tire of standing at the door of her bedroom/study, strolling around the farm complex, or sitting in the rockers on the wide front porch to read, chat, or simply gaze across the lawn at the line of trees in the distance. I wrote a post about these folks several years back. However, as the director of the organization, I was charged with developing activities, programs, and attractions that would bring less-devoted visitors back to Andalusia, including locals.

During the thirteen years I was at Andalusia, we developed an annual lecture series, brought authors to the farm, hosted an annual Bluegrass concert, and worked with other institutions and organizations to sponsor various programs on site and around town. We also opened a gift shop that would bring local residents out to the farm, especially near the holidays. We welcomed groups to the property for school field trips, college classes, book club meetings, and even a wedding. Our ongoing restoration projects attracted people from around the state interested in historic preservation.

Bluegrass concert at Andalusia
Bluegrass concert at Andalusia

All these efforts paid off and boosted the annual visitation numbers, which also increased revenue through sales, fees, and donations. The most ambitious project we undertook toward this end was designed to attract visitors who may not have much interest in O’Connor or her work at all – hard to imagine. Beginning in 2003, the Foundation applied for and received a series of grants from private organizations to develop an outdoor learning center. This long-term project helped us expand the interpretation of Andalusia by making the natural connection between O’Connor’s work and the landscape that inspired so much of it.

A good portion of Andalusia is covered in trees, with open fields interspersed across the property. In some areas, the forest is dense enough to act as a buffer from the encroaching development that surrounds Andalusia. A common image in many of O’Connor’s stories is a line of trees, which often serves as a metaphorical passageway to revelation. The woods can be an area of sanctuary or the place for terrifying encounters. At other times, trees are personified, like witnesses to the events unfolding in the story.

The first phase of the outdoor learning center was the renovation of a half-acre livestock pond located down the hill and in view from the front porch of the main house. The pond dated back to the 1950s when the farm was operating as a dairy. Understandably, when in 1976 the PBS producers were looking for a location to shoot their film adaptation of O’Connor’s short story, “The Displaced Person,” they selected Andalusia. Both the opening and closing scenes of that movie were filmed from the dam of the pond, looking back up the hill at the main house. We hired a local independent contractor who had retired from the U.S. Soil and Conservation Department. His team drained the old pond and completely rebuilt the dam with a new drainage pipe. It took several months for the spring fed pond to completely fill again. It was beautiful.

Restored pond and main house at Andalusia
Restored pond and main house at Andalusia

All visitors to O’Connor’s home could appreciate this easily accessible water feature, but for her readers, the pond may have taken on even greater significance. As a devout Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor understood the symbolic importance of water, especially the Sacrament of Baptism, and incorporated the theme in her fiction. To many of O’Connor’s characters, water represents purity, initiation, sanctuary, and salvation.  Water provides both literal and figurative cleansing. Some of the most climactic scenes in her fiction involve water.

Restored pond at Andalusia
Restored pond at Andalusia

The second phase of the project took several years to fully accomplish and consisted of two nature trails. The first was a short trail around the pond. The second was a much longer trail through the forest taking off on either side of the dam of the pond. Again, we hired our local pond builder to design the trail and cut the eight-foot wide path through the trees. In two places it crossed Tobler Creek, which runs through the middle of the 544-acre property. In the following years after the trail’s completion, we installed bridges over the creek, other foot bridges over wet areas, benches and picnic tables, and interpretive signs. We were fortunate to have plenty of volunteers from the community, from Georgia College in Milledgeville, and from boy scout troops to help with these enhancements to the trail.

Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia
Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia

Again, this feature of the property is attractive to a broad audience, including school groups and locals looking for a place to enjoy the outdoors and perhaps to get a glance at wildlife. Andalusia is home to a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Natural stands of pine and hardwoods, along with the open field areas, are ideal habitats for deer, songbirds, dove, quail, turkey, and squirrels.  The undergrowth in the forest offers an environment suitable for smaller animals such as rabbits, chipmunks, armadillos, lizards, and snakes.  The waterways and floodplains provide food and shelter for beavers, frogs, turtles, and aquatic birds, including the great blue heron.  Natural predators on the property include foxes, coyotes, and birds of prey such as hawks and owls.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

In 2010, the Foundation decided to name the outdoor learning center after Dr. Bernard McHugh Cline, an uncle of Flannery O’Connor. Dr. Cline was a physician who practiced in Atlanta and acquired the Andalusia property in the early 1930s. He enjoyed raising and riding horses on the farm when he came down from Atlanta on the weekends. Dr. Cline also purchased wooded tracts to the north of the farm from other owners, which remained undeveloped for many years as a wildlife preserve.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

The development of the outdoor learning center added to the aesthetic value of Andalusia, but it also provided funding opportunities from grants and donations that even extended beyond the outdoor resources. A major organization that supported the nature trail’s construction later made a significant gift toward the restoration of one of the outbuildings at the farm. Professors and students used the pond and trails to conduct various experiments and to identify and catalog the flora and fauna there. The Foundation hosted workshops, lectures, and other programs exploring the natural resources of the center. I was as pleased with the outcome of this project as I was with any of our accomplishments at Andalusia.