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.

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.

 

In Memory of My Good Friend, Joyce

I met Joyce in “The Commuter” office at the junior college where I began my tenure in higher education. “The Commuter” was the student newspaper, aptly named because there were no residential students at the institution. As I recall, the office was just a small interior room in the student union building, which also housed the offices of student services, a short-order grill, and a room with several billiard tables where I spent way too much time as a freshman resulting in a quarter marked with the stigma of scholastic probation.

By the time I met Joyce, I was gaining clarity and getting more serious about academics, learning to accept some of the responsibility that accompanied the freedom of the college experience. I had also given up on the dream of majoring in biology after encountering chemistry at the college level and discovering it was nothing more than higher math hiding behind glass beakers and Bunsen burners. English classes were always my favorite in high school and where I consistently made the best grades. 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. A wonderful benefit from choosing that path was the friendship I developed with Joyce.

Joyce must have been about 40 years old when I met her. She would have been labeled as a non-traditional student by the college faculty. I’m almost certain she was divorced by then and had several sons, probably ranging from teenagers to young adults. I do not recall if she was returning to school or if she had just decided later in life to pursue a college education. I also don’t remember if she were actually seeking a degree in journalism or just liked writing for the newspaper. I don’t know if she ever received a degree. Our friendship started in 1979, so my recollection of details that long ago is foggy.

Joyce was a contemporary of the two professors, a man and a woman, who ran the journalism program. It was a new experience for me to have a classmate who was halfway in age between me and my parents (I was a “late” child). Junior colleges and community colleges tend to attract nontraditional students, and our institution was no exception. I knew several others by name, but I didn’t associate with them outside our mutual classes, nor did I stay in touch with them after graduating. I knew at the time that Joyce’s life was not an easy one, a stark contrast to my own. She had challenges that I simply could not appreciate at the time – a single mother trying to make ends meet while going to college and taking care of the mundane frustrations of adulthood. Honestly, I will never fully comprehend how tough her journey must have been.

After graduating from the junior college, I left my hometown to pursue my education further at another state school about 45 minutes away; however, I continued to come home on the weekends to work at a grocery store, go out with a girlfriend from high school, wash clothes, and attend church. Being raised in a Southern Baptist church, that last part of the routine was expected and not even questioned. When I wasn’t out on a weekend date, I would often visit Joyce, usually after I left work at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening. She lived in an apartment complex not far from my home. Perhaps she still had a son living with her at that time, but I don’t recall seeing anyone regularly.

When I arrived, Joyce would ask if I wanted her to put on a pot of coffee, and I imagine the answer was “please” most of the time. She typically drank instant iced tea during my visits. Even though I was of legal age by then, I was always under the influence of Baptist temperance and never alcohol. I don’t remember ever seeing Joyce imbibe. We would sit at her kitchen table sipping our drinks and smoking cigarettes. Joyce was practically a professional smoker, never letting more than a few minutes pass without lighting up. By comparison, I was a novice, only picking up smoking while being around it so much at work and with the journalism students. Although I never would smoke around my parents (my father had quit when I was a child), my mother knew I was doing it and was greatly disappointed.

I’m sure there were plenty of times when Joyce would rather have been alone or was too exhausted to spend a late evening with me, but she never failed to open the door. I probably never called in advance – just showed up like the impertinent, clueless guy I was back then. I don’t know how many times I stayed past midnight, but it was more than once or twice. We sat at that kitchen table and had conversations deeper than my green intellect and Bible-saturated head could properly process. We talked about life, death, love, sex, religion, and more. She was widely read and had a sharp, critical mind. She was full of compassion and never judgmental, but she hated injustice and had no time for moral superiority. Although I don’t remember, I must have taken my guitar with me a few times and sang for Joyce – probably to get her opinion on songs I was composing. I shudder to imagine what she thought of my efforts, but I’m certain she smiled and encouraged me just the same.

Sometimes Joyce would tell me about the latest trouble one of her sons had landed in, which usually involved an arrest and charges for violations associated with drug use. Her eldest son was the one who no doubt kept her up at night when I wasn’t around. She spent so much time pleading with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, lawyers, and influential friends, always defending him unconditionally regardless of the circumstances. Her love was true and unwavering.

After earning my B.A. in English, I decided to stay on at the same college and work towards an M.A. in history. I started working on campus and had no reason to return home every weekend, which meant my visits to see Joyce eventually ended. However, we stayed in touch through correspondence after I graduated, got married, and started a family. I can recall getting thick envelopes with multiple pages of hand-written letters from her, filled mostly with her thoughts about current events and books or the latest news, good or bad, about her sons. She was a much better correspondent than I was. I kept her letters in a box for many years, and I painfully regret that at some point I disposed of them, probably during a move to a new house.

In the mid-1990s, Joyce was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that would ultimately take her life. She got in touch with me and asked me to sing two songs at her memorial service that was going to be held at the Unitarian church. I have no idea if Joyce was a member there or ever attended, but Unitarianism would have been about the only brand of Christianity Joyce could have tolerated. Up to that point, death was more of an abstraction to me, manifested primarily in family visitations and funerals. Joyce’s death was perhaps my first real confrontation with mortality. I visited her once while she was in the hospital to talk about the songs. I was woefully unprepared to fathom the finality she was facing, and I remember asking her, “How are you doing?” She could have easily shot back with, “How the hell do you think I’m doing? I am dying for Christ’s sake!” Instead, she told me she was having a lot of anxiety but that the doctor was giving her medication to help. Gracious, as ever.

Her request was that I accompany myself on the guitar and create two medleys of four songs in the following combinations: “Graceland” by Paul Simon and “In Your Time” by Bob Seger along with “Circle” by Harry Chapin and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a popular Christian hymn written by Ada R. Habershon in 1907. I was more nervous singing those songs than I had ever been up to that point. I had to get it right – no mistakes. I suppose I did. I was honored that Joyce had asked this favor of me. But now, 25 years later, I understand clearly that I didn’t do Joyce a favor at all. Like so many times in the past with our late-night conversations, her sage advice, her endless patience, and her enduring friendship, Joyce was giving me one last gift. She was confirming that I mattered to her, and that my modest musical talent was a worthy expression of my love for her. I am forever grateful, and I am a better human being because of Joyce.

 

 

A View of Flannery O’Connor’s Woods

(Based on a lecture presented at “Reason, Fiction and Faith: An International Flannery O’Connor Conference,” at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, April 20-22, 2009)

American author Flannery O’Connor completed the short story “A View of the Woods” in September 1956, three years after the major electrical utility company in Georgia finished construction of a dam on the Oconee River, which winds it way south through Baldwin County, Georgia, and cuts a path just east of downtown Milledgeville. There are interesting similarities between the circumstances in O’Connor’s short story and the developments that were taking place in the Milledgeville area where O’Connor was living when she wrote it. To some degree, O’Connor’s story envisions the rapid commercial and residential development that would eventually threaten the landscape of Andalusia, the family farm operated as a dairy in the 1950s by O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor.

Flannery O’Connor moved back to Milledgeville in 1951 from Connecticut, where she had been living with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald since September 1949. Andalusia is located directly on the north-south highway passing through Milledgeville, which was officially designated U.S. Highway 441 in December 1948. The dam on the nearby Oconee River created Lake Sinclair, covering over fifty square miles with approximately six hundred miles of shoreline in three different counties. Within a short time, residential development began to claim sections of the lake’s shoreline as families started investing in weekend cabins at first, followed by increasingly lavish permanent homes. Greater interest in lake recreation brought the construction of marinas, boat ramps, fishing supply stores, camping facilities, and parks. Highway 441 was the major artery connecting the town of Milledgeville with the growing lake community and points farther north with larger highways leading to the state’s capital, Atlanta.

Lake Sinclair
Lake Sinclair

Government officials and a good portion of the electorate across the rural American countryside in the 1950s and 60s were ravenous to “catch up” with the big cities and attract jobs, build infrastructure, and provide new and improved services to their communities. Milledgeville was no exception, and the creation of Lake Sinclair paved the way. Textile manufacturing plants began to move in during the late 1940s when construction of the dam was underway; the first drive-in theater opened in 1950; the local telephone company was purchased by an outside conglomerate to expand service in 1957, the year that “A View of the Woods” was published. In that same year, Milledgeville experienced its first modern expansion of the city limits, moving the northern boundary just a mile from the driveway to Andalusia.

Beginning in the first paragraph of O’Connor’s story, the reader is presented with circumstances that mirror Milledgeville’s mid-twentieth-century progress. After explaining the family dynamics that will ultimately drive the story to its shocking conclusion, the narrator provides details of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Fortune’s windfall. The power company’s dam floods much of the countryside, providing Mr. Fortune with lakefront property. He knows there will soon be commercial development, creating even greater demand for his land.

Mr. Fortune’s idea of improvement includes paved highways filled with new-model automobiles and flanked by supermarkets, gas stations, motels, and a drive-in theater. His vision is inspired by the success of a nearby entrepreneur identified as Tilman, whose very name invokes an inherent conflict in the story between plowing the land and manning the till or the cash box. Tilman’s eclectic country store is complete with a barbeque pit and is reminiscent of many establishments that populated rural highways in the United States sixty years ago, and in some areas, still exist today. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor included a similar roadside establishment called The Tower, where Red Sammy Butts sold his famous barbeque in a combination gas station and dance hall.

In her typical fashion, O’Connor offers marvelous and visually descriptive language to profile her characters and to punctuate their traits. Tilman’s evil nature is clearly identified with an appearance that invokes mythological satanic images. Mr. Fortune’s deal with Tilman to sell the lawn that provides his daughter’s family with a view of the woods is an obvious reference to Faust’s pact with the devil from the classic German legend, an observation made in early critical works on O’Connor by Frederick Asals and other scholars. Like a demon being promptly transported back to hell after shaking Mr. Fortune’s hand on the transaction, Tilman slouches back under the counter.

O’Connor presents Mr. Fortune as an ambitious landowner, driven by pride and domination, whose hunger for progress and personal acclaim blinds him to the pure beauty of the natural world. Mr. Fortune’s canvas of the future is painted with deception, revenge, and even violence. The story pairs reckless commercial progress with greed and avarice, contrasting the irresponsible destruction of natural resources to the stewardship of preserving the rural landscape. In describing the disintegration of a cow pasture into a red-clay pit by the heavy machinery in the beginning of the story, O’Connor uses the words “disembodied,” “nausea,” and “revulsion,” analogous of an assault by a deadly disease or virus. Later in the narrative, Mr. Fortune envisions the woods and trees being drenched in blood from the wounded, barely visible sun setting behind them, the mysterious sacramental image that O’Connor repeated many times in her fiction.

The critical literature provides an abundance of commentary on the personification of landscape and the role of nature in O’Connor’s fiction, from Carter Martin to Christine Flanagan. We recognize that Mr. Fortune’s lack of apprehension is manifested in his inability to appreciate the mysteries of creation that literally surround him. The woods in this story provide a backdrop for a small sanctuary, “the lawn,” where the Pitts children can play in safety, a respite from the otherwise contentious and even threatening environment that is ever present. In a letter to Elizabeth Hester dated December 28, 1956, O’Connor made the analogy conclusively when she compared the woods to Christ. They seem to walk on water and are surrounded by light. O’Connor associates the forest with purity.

Mr. Fortune’s obsession with obliterating the pastoral setting and beginning construction of his commercial empire is a rejection of purity and an abuse of innocence, an evil intention that is also reflected in his disintegrating relationship with his granddaughter, Mary Fortune. He considers the child his protégé, or even a prized possession; however, his ambition goes too far when he announces his plans to destroy the lawn. As the tension grows to hostility between Mr. Fortune and the child, she calls him the “Whore of Babylon,” and indeed he has become a prostitute by selling off the family property. After all, he is “pure Fortune.” When the child becomes an obstruction to his strategic plans, his fixation turns to rage and results in the horrible murder of his granddaughter.  The old man’s damnation is sealed.

To translate O’Connor’s theme in this short story as a summary condemnation on all commercial development would be a careless overstatement. Mr. Fortune’s daughter and son-in-law are by no means portrayed as altruistic or even humane. At the same time, the old man’s intentional conversion of land and trees to pavement and buildings, with total disregard to the desires of his family, characterizes him as irresponsible, if not evil. His hasty decisions and actions are illustrative of many mid-twentieth century landowners in America who sold property that had been in their families for several generations, placing their birthrights in the hands of developers who were delighted to build and pave over the woods and fields.

Many Americans, including elected officials, are starting to understand that unrestricted and mostly unregulated urban expansion has led to the destruction of the natural landscape that characterized rural America: the lawn where we play, where we graze our calves, and where we look at the woods from the porch, in Mary Fortune’s words. It is only in recent years that government agencies have started to encourage landowners to preserve their holdings, even providing tax incentives to keep land undeveloped.

Flannery O’Connor’s uncle, Dr. Bernard Cline, purchased the Andalusia property in the early 1930s and later acquired more land adjacent to the farm, which remained undeveloped for many years as a haven for wildlife. Such was not the case for so much of the land adjacent to Dr. Cline’s property. Perhaps it wasn’t O’Connor’s intention, but her story ends up being a prediction of the disappearance of the countryside that once surrounded Andalusia. Her forecast came true to some degree, with the eventual expansion of Highway 441 that carved away two acres of the east boundary of the family farm. The encroaching commercial development that followed was inevitable, including the Milledgeville Mall, which was constructed a mile south of Andalusia only eight years after O’Connor’s death. The next two decades would see the proliferation of fast-food and franchise restaurants, retailers, motels, convenience stores, car dealerships, nightclubs, and the king of capitalism, Walmart. The concentration of this rapid growth was located within a two-mile radius of Andalusia.

The Woods of Andalusia
The Woods of Andalusia

While opinions vary widely on what constitutes good stewardship of the land and protection of the environment, Andalusia’s caretakers have been able to take advantage of urban encroachment while still providing a view of the woods for the many visitors who have made their way to the property since it opened to the public in 2003. Although Milledgeville is in a very rural area of the state, Andalusia’s location on a U.S. highway brings travelers right to the driveway. Most American tourists reach their destinations in automobiles, and when they arrive, most of them expect accommodation and comfort. Abundant businesses within one mile of Andalusia’s entrance are more than capable of meeting the basic needs of travelers, including fuel, food, lodging, and entertainment. However, the farm structures of Andalusia are positioned a few hundred yards from the highway with a buffer of trees on all sides. This limited isolation allows visitors to make their way up the driveway to the main house, where their imagination can easily transport them back in time to 1964, as if Flannery O’Connor had just departed Andalusia for the last time.

Certainly, Andalusia is off the beaten path, and O’Connor’s readers who truly desire to experience the countryside that inspired some of her best fiction must leave the city and the interstate highways. The rewards for making that departure are certainly worth the effort. The current owner of Andalusia is Georgia College, the liberal arts institution in Milledgeville descended from O’Connor’s alma mater, Georgia State College for Women. I am hopeful and encouraged that the College is committed to preserving the view of the woods at this internationally significant landmark, a proper memorial to such a gifted writer.

Andalusia pond and main house
Andalusia pond and main house

A Weekend of Writing at John C. Campbell Folk School

Not too long ago I participated in a weekend writing workshop at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. Beginning on Friday evening and ending at lunch on Sunday, the program provided inspiration, encouragement, writing prompts, editing tips, and one-on-one coaching for writers of all skill levels and in multiple genres. The instructor was a kind and gracious poet named Karen Paul Holmes, an award-winning writer who has been published in HuffPost, business publications, literary journals, and anthologies. Her books of poems are Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press, 2014) and No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Books, 2018). She founded and hosts the Side Door Poets in Atlanta and a monthly Writers’ Night Out in Blairsville, Georgia.

John C. Campbell Folk School historical marker
John C. Campbell Folk School historical marker

For more than 90 years, the John C. Campbell Folk School has encouraged all students and guests to become a part of its community through activities such as concerts, dances, presentations, and meals. People with varying interests are given a chance to come together through song, art, nature, gardening, cooking, and storytelling. From basketry to writing, participants can choose from over 860 weeklong and weekend classes each year in a broad variety of areas. This creative experience is enhanced by knowledgeable instructors and small classes. My writing class had only seven people. The classes are structured to create a non-competitive, hands-on learning environment.

Orchard House
Orchard House

Our class met in a house-turned-dorm and meeting space called the Orchard House. We had two males (including me) and five females. There was one young woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. The other five students were all older than I was. We were all amateur writers with diverse backgrounds: education, ministry (the other man), and corporate business. As a librarian, literary landmark manager, and artist retreat director, my career probably brought me closer to writing and writers than anyone else in the room save the instructor, but I certainly did not feel I had a competitive edge whatsoever. The retired folks were spending much more time writing than I was, and they took it seriously. They were good at it.

One woman had recently lost her aging mother after an extended decline, and she was working on a collection of reflective essays about the thoughts and emotions she experienced as her mother’s caregiver during those final years. The piece she shared with the group was funny at times but also incredibly moving. The retired Methodist pastor was an affable guy who had some great stories and the ability to translate them into writing that didn’t read like sermons. There was a woman who seemed to be still living in the 1960s. She was a widower and shared through her poetry intimate memories of the relationship she had with her husband, and sometimes her language bordered on the erotic. Her poems were passionate, but her sense of loss was still raw and full of grief. I was most impressed with the work of the woman I guessed was the oldest member of the class. She shared memoir-style essays that demonstrated wisdom, insight, and a remarkable command of words. I was envious.

John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC
John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC

This weekend dedicated to writing was an amazing opportunity provided to me by an artist who served on the advisory board of the retreat center where I was the director. It was such a rewarding experience. Our instructor gave us several writing exercises, one of which resulted in a short post titled “Bliss” that I decided to publish on this blog in 2018. I highly recommend this workshop with Karen Paul Holmes, but any program that gets us away from home and in the company of other writers to practice the craft can be immensely satisfying and productive. Finally, I would encourage anyone who values the arts to visit the John C. Campbell Folk School and consider becoming involved with its programs. It is such an extraordinary place.

John C. Campbell Folk School art
John C. Campbell Folk School art

So Many Books, So Little Time

The title of this post is familiar to reading enthusiasts. We have seen it on mugs, posters, social media memes, etc. I once had a tee-shirt with the slogan printed in multiple colors on navy blue fabric. Serving as a professional librarian for fifteen years of my career, peddling books was my trade. Librarians everywhere through the years have repeatedly attempted unsuccessfully to dispel a popular myth about the profession: librarians spend all their time reading. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have no more time to devote to reading than most other professionals. We spend our time, talents, and energy making sure that our patrons have what they want to read. Libraries have certainly undergone major changes in recent decades, but the central mission of making information available to users is still the same as it was when the Library at Alexandria was established over 2,000 years ago.

I was fortunate to have family members who read to me as a small child and instilled within me an appreciation for books. We had a set of the World Book Encyclopedia even before I started school, and as I learned to read, I spent an increasing number of hours browsing through the volumes. In elementary school, my teachers appointed me as a student library assistant, which probably gave me an early understanding of the importance of libraries.  I was turned on to reading on my own with our Weekly Reader elementary magazines in school. I went through the comic book phase that most young boys did during the 1960s but eventually moved on to science fiction novels as I moved into adolescence. The first lengthy novel I can remember reading in high school was Jaws by Peter Benchley, published in 1974. From that point on, I began to move away from science fiction and toward mainstream fiction. I am forever thankful to my mother for driving me to the central branch of the public library and allowing me to spend so much time perusing the shelves for the next reading adventure.

In addition to three wonderful English teachers in high school, I had several professors in college who helped me develop a thirst for literature. My undergraduate degree was in English, and after going on to get an MA in history, I started my first full-time job in a public library. A few years later, I earned a degree in librarianship. I continued to read classics in literature while also adding works by contemporary writers of serious fiction, with the occasional nonfiction book thrown in as well. It was during this period of my life that I made a conscious decision to devote most of my valuable reading time with either literary classics or contemporary award-winning books. I am willing to spend two or three hours watching a movie just for fun, but typically I want more than just entertainment when committing over ten hours to a book. The major exceptions to this rule are audiobooks and titles associated with my profession, gardening, religion, and science.

As is true with so many aspects of our lives, modern technology has had a tremendous impact on the practice of reading. From the early experiments with electronic books in the 1970s to the e-readers of today, the definition of the book is constantly evolving. My wife bought my first Kindle in 2008, and as much as I love bound pages of print, I was enamored with the device from the moment I downloaded a title, which was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. To read a review of a new book and have it in my hands ready to read in less than 60 seconds is miraculous to me. Yes, there are some disadvantages to e-readers, but to my way of thinking, the benefits far outweigh the shortcomings. For readers who also enjoy traveling, the ability to carry multiple books in the palm of your hand is just about perfect. I am on my fourth Kindle so far.

Book collection
Book collection

In 2010, a dear friend introduced me to Goodreads, my first social media site for readers. To date I have added to my profile 559 books completed over my lifetime, 190 of those since I joined the site. Goodreads is a web community that allows members to share with Friends what they are reading, look at book descriptions, read and write reviews, and see author’s profiles. The site boasts 80 million members worldwide. I primarily use Goodreads to track my own books and to write reviews of what I have read. I also share my reviews and recommendations on other social media sites, primarily Twitter.

I have never been ambitious enough nor had the attention span to have two books going at once — until last year, when I became an Audible subscriber. A subsidiary of Amazon, Audible is an online portal for purchasing, downloading, and listening to audiobooks. It allows customers to search for or browse a large collection of audiobooks, which they can buy using money or membership credits. Users can listen to downloaded titles on computers or mobile devices. I spend a significant amount of time driving, and my car is equipped to play audio files from my phone through its speakers. Now, while I am reading a book in print or on my Kindle at home, I am also listening to an audiobook when I am away from the house. With this new reading approach, I have drastically increased the number of books I am completing. From 2010 to 2017, I was averaging about fifteen books per year. In 2018 alone, I read or listened to 63 books.

According to Forbes magazine, there are anywhere from 600,000 to 1,000,000 books published in the United States each year. Only a small percentage of those will become best-sellers. A much smaller fraction will win the most prestigious awards in the publishing industry, such as the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Even with the expanded capacity provided by audiobooks, I struggle to keep up with reading each year what I consider the best books published that interest me. I have to pick and choose from the award-winners and highly-recommended titles, while working through classics from the past that I still haven’t read. This is a frustrating process for everyone who loves books, but it is a sweet dilemma that comes with the passion.

 

Books for Critical-Thinking Christians

Does the title of this post sound a tad arrogant? Intellectually elitist even? Arrogance is not my intent, and I don’t have an elite intellect. I do have a keen and personal interest in religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was raised on conservative Christian values — the Southern Baptist variety, which is quite fierce. Over the years, my beliefs, practices, and worldview have changed considerably due to education, travel, social interaction, and perhaps above all, reading. The following is an annotated bibliography of authors and books that have influenced my thinking about religion. I offer this suggested reading list for those who want to approach faith from a critical and thoughtful perspective that does not always confirm but instead challenges traditional assumptions about religion.

I have read all or parts of numerous books on world religions, and there are plenty of good introductions by major publishers, especially academic presses like Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge. A book I read not too long ago that addresses religious faith in general is Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith. No one would question how influential Huston Smith was (he died in December, 2016) in the study of world religions. His book on the subject has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1958. In 2000 he wrote this apologia for religion in the face of the growing post-modern position that faith is no longer necessary in the age of enlightenment. He is a skilled writer, and his prose is certainly accessible, even entertaining. In Why Religion Matters, Smith lays out his case for why religion exists, why it has survived for tens of thousands of years, and why it will continue in spite of opposition from the agnostic and atheistic sector of the scientific community.

I think Smith makes some good arguments, and I tend to agree with him that there is evolutionary evidence for the necessity of religious faith for humans. Where I question Smith is on the broad assumptions and emphatic stands he takes along the way. I also take issue when Smith seems to resort to tired religious clichés and platitudes. As an example, Smith writes: “Scientists would give their eye-teeth to know what the non-material component of photons is. For religionists, it is Spirit.” With this type of dismissive assumption, Smith is falling into the “god of the gaps” trap that atheists so often describe.  At any rate, this book is a good source for lay people (like me) who want to hear justification of faith by someone who spent a lifetime studying the subject.

CHRISTIAN HISTORY

It is probably my interest in history that has attracted me to books on early Christianity, so I add here several titles from well-respected scholars. The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders studies the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, distinguishing the certain from the improbable, and assessing the historical and religious context of Christ’s time. In Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, Paula Fredriksen explores the religious worlds, Jewish and pagan, of Mediterranean antiquity, through the labyrinth of Galilean and Judean politics, and on into the ancient narratives of Paul’s letters, the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus’ histories. Both of these books are dated now but are fine contributions to our understanding of the social and religious contexts within which Jesus of Nazareth moved, and to our appreciation of the mission and message that ended in the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. For a less traditional perspective on the historical Jesus, I recommend The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, who has dedicated her career to helping Christians and Jews understand the Jewishness of Jesus, thereby deepening the understanding of him, and facilitating greater interfaith dialogue.

One of my favorite scholars who enjoyed studying the life and legacy of Jesus is Marcus Borg. He apparently also enjoyed stirring up controversy, along with his frequent co-author, John Dominic Crossan. It isn’t really necessary to provide details of these books here because the subtitles are fairly descriptive. I freely admit a significant bias toward Borg and his approach toward examining the Gospels in a historical context, and I know that many readers will criticize him for recycling material in his books. The man was a master book salesman, and his prose is accessible and thought-provoking.

  • The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth
  • The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith
  • Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship
  • The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

A recent title by another scholar whom I respect is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire. Bart D. Erhman doesn’t break any new ground here, but as in previous works, he manages to make early Church history more palatable for a large audience. He writes well and can manage to find opportunities to be witty with a subject that is not inherently humorous. Most of what we read here is generally covered in any survey of world civilizations, except in far more detail, which is why the book is worth reading for those of us who are not scholars but are nevertheless interested in history, religion, and the evolution of Christianity. Ehrman takes a direct and well-documented approach to explain why Christianity did indeed triumph over all the long-held religious traditions of the classical world.

THEOLOGY

Again, the titles in this category are not necessarily complex nor heavy. My intent is to introduce books that the rest of us can grasp and appreciate. Some of these would be considered more like apologies than theology, but subject headings are not my focus either. Here are a few books that have had the greatest impact on my thinking.

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil
  • Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg (I told you I was a fan)

I will add a couple of books here that are much more recent than the previous selections. These two titles by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland changed the way I thought about some fundamental tenants of Christian theology. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person presents a radical departure from traditional teaching for most Christians. The element of this book I found most interesting was the authors’ belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which begs the question: do they believe in the supernatural traditions of other major religions, like the stories surrounding Muhammad or Siddhartha Gautama? I decided to email Philip Gulley and put the question directly to him, and he wrote back! He responded, “Yes, bodily resurrection is an issue with which we both continue to struggle.” I truly admire his honesty. The other book by Gulley and Mulholland I recommend is If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World. As idealistic as the premise of this book is (and perhaps a bit naïve in places), these guys make a compelling argument for how challenging it is to truly embrace the teachings of Jesus and the basic tenants of the major world religions.

RELIGION AND SCIENCE 

In so many ways, the last 250 years of religious thought and practice have been defined by the conflict between religion and science.  My intellectual interests as an adult have been concentrated in these two areas resulting from my heritage and a childhood curiosity about the natural world. Much of my reading that touches on both topics has been in the area of anthropology and evolution. Here are two titles that take a more general and conciliatory approach, one from a scientist and one from a minister. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion our moral world in recognition of their separate spheres of influence. More recent scholars have scoffed at Gould’s compromise, especially scientists and humanists, but I still believe the concept is worth considering.

Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion is the fourth book thus far that I have read by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is actually a collection of essays from 2000 that predates the bestsellers by this Episcopal priest who left the ministry to finish her career teaching in the small liberal arts college where I am working now. Taylor was named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2014. The principle thesis and the sharp observations in this book are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method. She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

AGNOSTICISM AND ATHEISM

A critical study of Christianity is incomplete without the most challenging opinions of all. My fascination with science has led me to scholars and writers who completely dismiss religion as supernatural nonsense at best and dangerous, manipulative propaganda at worst. On any given day, I may find myself in sympathy with their judgments, but I still embrace mystery in the universe that I am not yet convinced science can explain nor dismiss. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness by leading atheists. It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

In his cleverly-spelled title, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens is just a bit too unreasonable about the evils of religion in general. Of course, he is correct about so many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute his calculated and logical arguments dispelling the myths that are at the center of religion. However, I maintain that religion seems to be a necessary component for so many humans, as history and other social sciences have firmly demonstrated. He thinks because he has successfully faced facts, reality, mortality, and the cosmos apart from the supernatural, that everyone else should be able to do so as well. Obviously, he is mistaken. And frankly, no amount of evidence or persuasion on his part or that of any other atheist will likely win over the multitudes around the globe who prefer supernatural beliefs about the universe instead of rational, scientific explanations. I suppose he is, nevertheless, compelled to keep trying. Hitchens is as brilliant as any of his contemporaries who have presented the case of atheism.

Speaking of brilliant, it is probably good form to give the last word on critical thinking to one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the world, who also happens to be the most outspoken and popular atheists of the 21st century. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. As much as I respect Dawkins as a scientist, scholar, and writer, I think he overstates the danger of religious practice. I prefer the more mellow and considerate position of humanists like Greg M. Epstein. However, anyone who truly wants to cover the range of opinions about religion, from pure devotion to intransigent denial, should consider reading this and other books by Richard Dawkins. Oh, and you can’t insult him by calling him the Devil’s advocate — he doesn’t believe in Him either.

(Note: some of the book descriptions in this post were lifted from the Goodreads website.)

Flannery O’Connor: A Born Writer

“He’s a born politician.” “She’s a born actress.” “He’s a born preacher.” “She’s a born lawyer.” These are examples of an expression I heard often when I was a young man describing someone who seems to possess an innate talent or skill for a profession or avocation. People who excel in this fashion often exhibited certain predispositions at an early age that their family and friends recall and associate with their success. I am not qualified to comment on the influences of DNA over environment in determining aptitude, but most of us can remember that one child who seemed almost obsessed with a certain activity, pursuit, or area of interest and eventually grew up to turn that fixation into a lifelong career.

  • The librarian who as a child organized into collections and sub-collections every single book, DVD, and CD in the house
  • The biology teacher who as a child captured and studied every living creature within a one-mile radius of home and could spout off a half dozen facts about almost any major species
  • The information technologist and software architect who as a child voraciously read encyclopedias and was fascinated by computers and programming (think young Bill Gates)

When I served as the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia, I frequently gave presentations about O’Connor, which included a brief overview of her life that was cut short at the age of 39 from the effects of lupus. Along with many others who have studied her life and work, I perceived that Flannery O’Connor was indeed a born writer. I’m sure the same case could be made for any number of writers, but I know much more about the childhood of Flannery O’Connor than any other author.

Mary Flannery O’Connor (her full name) was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and was the only child of Edward and Regina O’Connor.  She was raised by a Catholic family that sometimes viewed children much like small versions of adults, a perspective largely abandoned by the 19th century. Young Mary Flannery thrived in this atmosphere. She was a bold, precocious little girl who took herself quite seriously. She referred to her parents by their first names, not “Daddy” or “Momma.” When he was away from home, her father wrote her affectionate letters that he playfully addressed to “Lord Flannery,” and she would sign her correspondence to him with the same title, addressing them to “King of Siam.”

Young Mary Flannery was encouraged to read, and perhaps the most recognizable photograph from her childhood shows her in profile sitting with a large book in her lap, staring down at the page with a look of determined concentration. She would later use that same fierce gaze to observe the world around her and depict it through a grotesque and outrageous filter. As a young reader she collected a small library of familiar children’s titles and took the liberty of writing brief reviews on the flyleaf or title page of the books. Always assertively opinionated, the young critic praised some books as “First rate,” while others, such as Georgina Finds Herself, she dismissed as “the worst book I have read next to Pinnochio.” It is worth noting that, at the height of her career, Flannery O’Connor wrote more than a hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia. Also, she carried to adulthood her sharp words in assessing the value of books, as is illustrated in her acidic comments about the works of other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. To put it in today’s vernacular, she was savage.

Not unlike many bright children, Mary Flannery wrote stories from her own imagination. Some of them were about animals with human characteristics, which is a typical theme explored by aspiring young writers. However, she went a few steps further than most children. Not only did she write clever and often hilarious stories, she also illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession. The volume of her published letters, The Habit of Being, includes correspondence to her agent, editors, publishers, and other professionals in the book industry where O’Connor demonstrated shrewd business acumen.

As a high school and undergraduate college student, Mary Flannery turned her artistic energy to cartoons, which she created through sketching and drawing but more elaborately through printing with linoleum blocks. Although she ended up in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under the direction of Paul Engle, she initially entered graduate school at Iowa thanks to a scholarship in journalism — she intended to pursue a career as a cartoonist. O’Connor’s biting satire and wicked humor were clearly developing even as a cartoonist, not just in the illustrations, but perhaps even more so in the captions. Some critics have argued that, as a mature fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor continued to exhibit the eye of a cartoonist in the creation of her most exaggerated characters. Little wonder that, when asked why her stories were so shocking, O’Connor explained “for the almost blind, you draw large and starling figures.”

In the private journals Flannery O’Connor kept as a college student, she undoubtedly believed that being an artist was so much more than a career choice.  It was a vocation. As she focused her attention toward writing, O’Connor yearned for her work to be used by God. She wanted to craft stories that would miraculously reveal God’s grace. As she matured into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, she became less sentimental, but she never lost her appreciation for the mystery of art as it is interpreted by the Church, to which she remained devoted for the rest of her life. Perhaps she returned to the intensity of her younger years. She certainly became much more confident. When repeatedly asked why she decided to become a writer, without hesitation O’Connor always replied, “Because I’m good at it.”

Most of us get some level of education and eventually find a job that, with any luck, will get us out of our parents’ hair and their bank accounts. We will end up with about five different full-time jobs before we finally clock out for the last time, and our career paths will largely be determined by factors such as education, employment opportunities, salary, family obligations, and just plain old simple fate. But for a select few, a seed will be planted at a very early age that will germinate into a thriving métier that brings with it fulfillment and a deep sense of purpose. The term from my Southern Baptist heritage was “a calling.” The vocation of writing for Flannery O’Connor required serious devotion, discipline, sacrifice, and a form of genius that appears only a few times in each generation of artists. She was born with an incredible gift, which she carefully and skillfully nurtured, and her readers are the fortunate beneficiaries.

A New Steward for Andalusia

My wife and I were invited to a ceremony on August 9, 2017 making official the transfer of ownership and stewardship of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor, to her alma mater, Georgia College, in Milledgeville. The great American novelist and short story writer lived on this farm with her mother, Regina, for the last thirteen years of her life. In her first-floor bedroom, O’Connor worked faithfully every morning for several hours, struggling on her manual typewriter to construct sentences and paragraphs that would not only entertain her readers but help them envision the action of grace on characters who were often violently resistant to it.

Andalusia transfer ceremony 8-9-17
Andalusia transfer ceremony 8-9-17

We were invited to this special occasion because I served for thirteen years as the founding director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that gifted the 544-acre site to the College. The current chair of the Foundation, Donna Barwick, explained to the people gathered that rainy August morning how she and her fellow board members arrived at this decision. “We would never, as a small organization, be able to raise the amount of money that it will take to maintain this place in the way it should be for Flannery’s legacy,” she said. “So we’re confident that this place will be treated properly.” Sadly, she is absolutely correct. Private entities that are responsible for the care and preservation of historic homes have an extremely difficult time raising the capital to do the job — in many cases, it is an insurmountable task. Andalusia is no exception. With a sizable two-story Plantation Plain house and a dozen outbuildings, this literary landmark will require millions of dollars to completely restore it and then a respectable annual budget to maintain it and keep it open to the public.

When I first began as the director of the Foundation, I had unrealistic expectations of how much money we could raise to restore the farm. I was sure that wealthy benefactors would be eager to drop thousands, if not millions, of dollars into our lap in honor of such a great writer. After all, she has friends in high places, at least financially. Celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, Tommy Lee Jones, Bono, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the Coen Brothers have all publicly paid verbal tribute to the author. We made overtures to all of these people, but they either never responded or indicated that they were focusing their charitable giving on other causes, like world hunger.  It’s hard to trump world hunger.

Toward the end of my tenure at Andalusia, I had a meeting with the incoming President of Georgia College, Dr. Steve Dorman, and we spent considerable time then and later discussing the ways in which our Foundation and the College could collaborate. We even toyed with the idea of the College taking over the operation of the site, although we never truly talked about any specific plans or what such an arrangement might look like. Now that the mantle has officially been passed, I am giving some thoughtful consideration to this next chapter for Andalusia. I feel a certain allegiance to Georgia College because it is the place where I earned my BA in English and my MA in History. Naturally, I will always have an emotional attachment to Andalusia, the home of the author whose work I so admire and the place that I devoted so many years to preserving.

I believe that Georgia College is the most logical beneficiary for this remarkable treasure. The College has the staff, resources, and state-wide support needed to protect and preserve Andalusia. I would imagine that Flannery O’Connor and her mother considered other colleges for the future writer to attend, but they decided on Georgia State College for Women, which is now Georgia College. As the state’s designated liberal arts college for the University System of Georgia, this institution is also home to the world’s preeminent Flannery O’Connor studies program, which was cultivated for many years by Dr. Sarah Gordon and is now directed by Dr. Marshal Bruce Gentry. The College publishes the Flannery O’Connor Review, edited by Dr. Gentry, which is the longest running journal devoted to a female author in the world. I am convinced that the administration understands the value of this donation, which was expressed by President Dorman at the signing ceremony: “We are grateful to the Andalusia Foundation for entrusting us with its future and look forward to continuing to share this piece of American history with the world.”

I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with a good friend of Flannery O’Connor, Marion Montgomery, who taught English at the University of Georgia for thirty years. He shared with me a conversation he had with Regina O’Connor not long after after her talented daughter had died. She may not have completely comprehended what Flannery was doing in her fiction, but Mrs. O’Connor understood the importance of the work and that Flannery’s professional papers needed to be preserved for scholars who were already exploring her genius and many more that would follow. Mrs. O’Connor confided to Professor Montgomery that she was struggling with the decision about where the papers should be reposited. Colleges and universities in various locations around the country were expressing deep interest in acquiring the archive, including Georgia College. Professor Montgomery asked her where she thought the material belonged. “At the College here in Milledgeville,” Mrs. O’Connor replied. Mr. Montgomery said, “I agree.” Since that time, hundreds and hundreds of scholars have spent countless hours poring over the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College, the place where a young woman’s talents as a cartoonist began to evolve into drawing startling figures with words instead of pictures. And now, some fifty years later, the care of the landscape that sparked a brilliant artist’s imagination is exactly with whom it belongs.

My first copyrighted song: “The One You Call”

As a life-long amateur musician and singer, I have been writing songs since I was a teenager. I wrote love songs when I was in high school. I tried to write a few songs that were more artistic in high school and college, but alas, I wasn’t a poet. Being raised in a Southern Baptist church and attending one for much of my adult life, my major contribution to worship was in music. I wrote songs that I could perform in church, which I did for about twenty years. I posted some thoughts about my experiences and my evolution with church music here.

I joined a mid-life crisis band when I was in my early forties, which afforded me plenty of opportunities to perform — only covers and never original material. One of the band members had a nice studio setup in the basement of his house, which is where the band practiced. When I approached him about helping me record an original song I had written, he went beyond just laying down tracks. He solicited help from some of his musician friends from other parts of the country, and they added bass and other instrumental accompaniment to my keyboards. He added acoustic guitar and electronic drums to complete the instrumental recording, and then we got together in his studio to add my vocals. The finished product is an amateur effort, but the instrumentation and the mix are really top rate for a home studio recording.

I regret that my voice is not quite professional quality. I have been told for decades by congregations, audiences, family, and friends that I should record my songs. They all mean well and I deeply appreciate their support, but I know the difference between the quality of my voice and what I hear in the entertainment business. I’m okay, but I’m not that good. However, I do think the original song that my band mate helped me with and recorded for me is marketable. I think it is as good as many of the country and pop songs played on radios all across the country. In the hands of the right people, and with the right voice, I believe it could be broadcast-worthy. Family and friends also strongly encouraged me to copyright the song. I procrastinated for several years, but I finally decided to submit the lyrics and the sound recording to the Library of Congress Copyright Office last year. This song is the first thing I have ever copyrighted.

A link to my recording of the song is available on YouTube here. I am singing all the vocals. The words and the music are written by me. The lyrics are printed below.

“The One You Call”

When the night gets cold
And you need someone who knows
Exactly how it feels
Someone who knows it’s real

I know you want to be strong
But you’ve been hurting for so long
You don’t have to take the fall
Let me be the one you call

I know your heart is broken ’cause I’ve been there before
You think you won’t survive it baby; can’t take this anymore

If you just want to cry
Don’t need a reason why
You don’t have to be alone
Just let me take you home

Now don’t you be afraid
What anyone may say
You don’t have to take the fall
Let me be the one you call

When will you see that I am so in love with you
Look deep into my eyes now baby; you know it’s true

If you just want to cry
Don’t need a reason why
You don’t have to be alone
Just let me take you home

In the middle of the night
Though you may not think it’s right
It won’t bother me at all
Let me be the one you call

Let me be the one you call