Schooled by the President

My wife and I joined a group of people from our community to mark off another travel experience bucket list item. In this case, the distance from home was short enough for a road trip. We traveled through pines and vast farmland to the little village of Plains, Georgia, where we gathered with a couple of hundred other people before sunrise in anticipation of the big event: Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. Okay, I haven’t attended Sunday School in over twelve years, and we could have easily found a class to attend much closer to home, but the teacher wouldn’t have been the 39th President of the United States.

Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday School for most of his life, reportedly even during his presidency (1977-1981). However, in recent years his class at Maranatha Baptist Church has been drawing capacity crowds, especially after his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2015. This health scare may have interrupted his teaching, but it didn’t stop it. He teaches his class in the church’s sanctuary that seats about 350 people when filled to capacity, and there is an overflow adjacent room that seats 100 more people who watch  via video feed. The 93-year-old former Commander in Chief is still greeting anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred pilgrims multiple times throughout the year for a 45-minute session, although there are rumors that he will scale back if not completely stop teaching sometime this year (2018).

The charming little red-brick church is tucked in a pecan grove a couple of miles outside the center of Plains, a hamlet of less than 800 people where Jimmy Carter was born and raised and the place he and First Lady, Rosalynn, still call home. No part of the state defines “rural Georgia” better than its southwest section, and Plains is a bonafide representative. Maranatha Baptist Church looks like so many other little churches I have seen and visited during my life. The members are equally familiar: genuine, proud, polite, but above all in this case, fiercely respectful and protective of their world-famous congregant. Those who are charged with orchestrating this unusual ministry of the church do so with humility, humor, grace, and above all, efficiency.

The church’s website advises attendees to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m. in case the crowd is large. We arrive at ten after the hour. Entrance to the sanctuary is based on a simple numbering system. When we pull into the dirt driveway of the property, a friendly fellow welcomes us and hands us through the car window a slip of paper with a sequential number indicating what will later be our place in the lineup to file into the church. We are number 58 — obviously not quite as committed as 57 other sojourners, the earliest of which we later learn arrived at 4:00 a.m.

Like many activities that combine religious practice with celebrity status, the President’s Sunday School class attracts an eclectic assembly that writers like Chaucer would find fascinating, as do we. One notable example is the chap who arrives in a mint-condition Model-T, sporting the requisite hat/goggle combination and accompanied by an extraordinarily tall tabby cat that he walks among the pecan trees on a leash. We learn that he is just beginning a long journey across the country to visit various attractions, an adventure he will record in a travelogue — think Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the feline version.

On the Sundays the Carters are attending, the glaring distinction of this church is the early and abundant presence of law enforcement, which includes local sheriff deputies and at least six Secret Service agents, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs canvassing the exterior of the church building and weaving their way through the herd of vehicles parked under the trees behind the church. A member of our group observes what a misnomer “Secret Service” is to describe a team of people at a little country church dressed all in black with sunglasses and ear pieces, handguns clearly visible. Their service is no secret whatsoever. During the hour of worship that follows his class, President Carter sits in a pew next to one of the two center aisles (the Carters are indeed members at Maranatha). There are agents at the entrances to the building and one agent sitting directly behind him. Every time President Carter stands with the rest of the congregation, the agent stands and shifts his own position slightly out into the aisle just behind Carter’s left shoulder — an added measure of protection. Without a doubt, we are attending the safest worship service in the state that morning.

On the Sunday we attend, illness has descended upon a significant portion of the congregation, including Rosalynn Carter who is recovering from surgery in Atlanta. A few of the members are having to pull double duty. Jan is the fearless and funny woman, school teacher turned event coordinator, who lines everyone up outside and gets them ready to go through security and enter the church. She is joined by several other members inside who provide instructions for the Presidential encounter, all the dos and don’ts that are expected, including no applause for the President. We are reminded this is church, not a campaign rally. Jan also plays the piano later in the morning for the worship service. Shortly before the teacher enters the sanctuary, the recently-installed pastor, at the ripe age of 23, provides a Q&A about himself, his family, the church, and the Carters. Another woman who helps with the orientation before the President’s arrival identifies herself with the last name “Carter,” and someone in the audience asks if there is any relation. She replies, “Yes. Billy Carter was my father.” Later that morning, this jovial niece of the President returns to the podium to lead the singing — the music minister is out that day involved in a church-related activity out of town. They are a resourceful and flexible church family.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

 

President Carter could not be more charming. We just barely make the cut to get in the sanctuary and are sitting in the choir loft behind him, but he graciously turns around to include us. He spends the first few minutes greeting everyone and asking, by sections of pews, “where are ya’ll from?” Place names are shouted out: Maine, Texas, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, and many others. We are amazed by the distance some of these folks have traveled to hear a great statesman with humble beginnings speak of a faith that has no doubt sustained him through trials that would crumble most of us.

Jimmy Carter is judged harshly these days by so many of our population who consider his presidency to be lackluster at best and a dismal failure at its worst. He faced insurmountable challenges and horrible crises while in office, and admittedly some of his decisions perhaps did not serve the country well. Many of his accomplishments in the White House are overlooked now, but he should always be remembered for brokering a peaceful resolution demonstrated by a handshake between a Jewish prime minister and a Muslim president that undoubtedly saved many, many lives in the Middle East and beyond. Also, no one denies his decades of post-Presidential humanitarian achievements with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, monitoring elections around the world, and so much more. To my way of thinking, he is a remarkable testimony to the charity and love most often identified with Jesus, the one he calls Savior. In the end, his Sunday School lesson always comes back to that simple but profound profession of faith.

My Introduction to Los Angeles

A professional conference this year gave me an occasion to visit Los Angeles for the first time. Although I have been to California twice, I never traveled farther south than Big Sur. I arrived in L.A. two days before my conference began to take in a bit of sightseeing. Like Las Vegas and New York, Los Angeles is an iconic city that is closely tied to the uninhibited side of America, where everything is out of the cage and off the pavement. It attracts huge money, which is shamelessly exhibited in fast cars, flashy clothes, ostentatious jewelry, and mansions that could easily command their own zip codes. Usually we associate the “La-La Land” factor of the city with some of the more affluent sections and suburbs: Beverly Hills, Malibu, Santa Monica, Burbank, Hidden Hills, and Bel Air. However, there is more to Los Angeles than glitter and gold.

The afternoon I arrived, I rented a car and made the short drive down to Huntington Beach, the place where Duke Kahanamoku popularized surfing in the 1920s and graced the town with the title “Surf City.” The wind was especially strong while I was there, so walking out to the end of the long pier to circle Ruby’s Surf City Diner was rather brutal. The reward was witnessing first-hand the largest waves I have ever seen — much higher than those on the Florida coast to which I am accustomed. My visit was capped off perfectly with a few cocktails at the Barefoot Bar of Duke’s Huntington Beach Restaurant while I watched the Pacific sun set, a spectacle that never gets old.

Sunset at Huntington Beach
Sunset at Huntington Beach

 

View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory
View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory

Early the next morning, I drove to the hills just north of Los Angeles to check out the Griffith Observatory. Whenever I travel, I am always in search of vantage points that will offer jaw-dropping vistas, which led me to this location. I was not disappointed. In addition to a close-up view of the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign, the hill-top site provides near-360-degree scenery featuring the nearby green hillsides, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the skyline of the city in the distance. What I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy the Observatory itself, which serves as a museum of astronomy. From the Fresco painted ceiling above the Foucault Pendulum at the entrance to the wonderful exhibits featuring the sun, other stars, the moon, and planets, the Griffith Observatory is a must-do for anyone who appreciates the mysteries of space. I was particularly impressed to see that a theater in the Observatory is named after the late Leonard Nimoy, the talented actor who portrayed Mr. Spock from the Star Trek television series and movies. He and his wife, actress Susan Bay-Nimoy, made a generous gift for the expansion and renovation of the Observatory. I always liked Nimoy as an actor and an artist, but learning about his philanthropy made me admire him even more.

Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory
Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory

My next stop was the place that most vividly puts the tinsel in this town. Still recognized by many as the shrine of the entertainment industry, Hollywood covers three and a half square miles of prime commercial real estate in central L.A. Strolling down Hollywood Boulevard is an experience that can be recreated nowhere else in the country. The star-studded Walk of Fame stretches for fifteen blocks and is likely the most dangerous sidewalk in California because most people are looking at the ground the whole time they’re strolling along. Tourists also have near collisions with each other in front of the famous Chinese Theatre, where legends of film and television have literally left their mark with hand and footprints in the large cement blocks in the forecourt. Hollywood & Highland Center is a busy multi-story shopping complex that includes the Dolby Theatre, home of the Academy Awards. Of course, there are plenty of retailers, restaurants, specialty shops, and tourism stands up and down the street. Most impressive to me were the historic facades of the classic old theaters along both sides of the Boulevard — El Capitan, Egyptian, Pantages, and Pacific — they recall the golden age of film from the early to mid-20th century. It is easy to imagine what a glamorous time it must have been. Yes, Hollywood Boulevard would have to be classified as a tourist trap, but how can you visit L.A. for the first time and skip this legendary feature of the city?

Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood Boulevard
Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center
Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center

My last stop of the day was the Getty Center of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Situated on a 24-acre hill-top campus, the Getty Center is a remarkable combination of art, architecture, and nature overlooking greater metropolitan Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bay. The views of the city and the ocean from the various porticoes, terraces, and gardens are unbelievable. The collection, changing exhibitions, and outdoor art on view at the Getty Center reach across European and American history—from medieval times to the present. I was particularly delighted by the central garden, which boasts more than 500 species. The 134,000-square-foot design features a natural ravine and tree-lined walkway. A stream that winds through a variety of plants gradually descends to a plaza where bougainvillea arbors explode into bloom. I rushed through several of the galleries in the complex of buildings but was only able to get a taste of this astonishing cultural wonder. I hope to return to the Getty again someday to enjoy much more of what it has to offer, and when I do, I am sure there will be plenty of other treasures to explore in “The town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciúncula” — The City of Angels.

Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center
Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center

Sometimes You Just Have To Be There

Travel is stimulating. Visiting new places outside our own environs infuses so many of us with a sense of wonder and renewal. Travel literature goes back at least to the 2nd century with the Greek geographer Pausanias. In the modern era essayists, journalists, and even novelists have treated readers to highly-descriptive narratives that feed the imagination and make us feel like we have actually visited places we have never even seen. Writers like Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, John Muir, and Robert Louis Stevenson were gifted with keen perception and carefully-crafted language, combined with illustrations, that gave their readers a sense of “being there.” The introduction of photography enhanced the experience, and one could argue that publications like National Geographic served as travel literature in serial form.

Beginning in the 20th century, film and television added a whole new dimension to the genre, which required less imagination but awarded viewers with essentially a reproduction of the sights and sounds a traveler would enjoy. There are numerous television channels across the globe devoted to providing this type of content around the clock. The Internet has now made it possible for both professionals and amateurs to share their travel adventures through personal and hosted websites, blogs, social media, and photo and video sharing sites.

For those who are unable to travel for any number of reasons, the opportunities to see the world vicariously through the content provided by others is almost endless, which is quite wonderful. However, and this is the sad truth, when it comes to truly absorbing the magnificence of many locations on the planet, there is no real substitute for literally being there. One of the times this realization was made abundantly clear to me was when my wife and I visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona in 2008.

View of the Grand Canyon from the south rim
View of the Grand Canyon from the south rim

A video of this impressive geological feature, as much as 18 miles wide in some places, will give the viewer a sense of its massive size, beautiful colors, varied textures, and even the sounds of the wind as it rushes through its 4,000-foot depths. What a video cannot recreate is the tingle down your spine when you stand at the rim’s edge as your mind and body react to the overwhelming expanse and the dangers presented by the chasm before you. It is also difficult for a flat screen to depict the depth and breadth of the canyon that the eye perceives.  The video cannot provide you with the brush of the wind against your skin and the smells all around you. The audio can record many of the sounds you would hear, but it cannot accurately reproduce that low, soft “wwwwwhhhhh” created by the air swirling in this enormous space that your ears detect. Obviously, I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it either. There are several places we have visited, and I am sure many more we haven’t, that a book or video simply cannot do justice. Sometimes you just have to be there, and that’s why we travel.

The Evolution of the Library

The industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie wrote, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” An avid reader for most of his life, Carnegie was responsible through his generous financial support for opening hundreds of public libraries across the country in the early 20th century. Although they disagreed on significant policy issues, Andrew Carnegie and President Franklin D. Roosevelt both recognized and publicly expressed how important libraries are to the health of a society. Libraries have a responsibility to their patrons to provide the resources for developing information literacy skills necessary to participate in the democratic process.

Having grown up in Macon, Georgia, in the 1960s and 70s, I can recall my mother driving me downtown to the main branch of the public library where I could roam through the stacks to find books to read. At the time I had no real appreciation for the privilege this simple activity represented, but when I left home to attend college and worked toward completing degrees in English and history, the value of library resources became much clearer. With an MA in history, my first full-time job was working as a cataloger in the public library of a small town in middle Georgia. Over the next two years, I commuted to Emory University in Atlanta to complete a Master of Librarianship degree. I continued in the profession for the next twelve years, eventually becoming the director of that same library.

To say that libraries have changed since my childhood is an obvious understatement to anyone who has benefitted from these institutions. There is no shortage of literature about how the advent of the Internet and electronic resources has transformed the way libraries operate. Several standard textbooks have been available for over ten years that cover library services in the context of the information explosion of recent decades. Some studies are now focusing completely on nontraditional library sources — collections that have only existed in electronic format. In their 2016 book titled Discover Digital Libraries: Theory and Practice, authors Iris Xie and Krystyna Matusiak explore different digital library issues and synthesize theoretical and practical perspectives relevant to researchers, practitioners, and students.

Library stacks
Library stacks

The breadth of Internet resources is mind-boggling; however, the depth of those same resources can sometimes be deceiving, which has created a false panacea for information illiteracy. In past generations, library patrons viewed librarians as the trained sentinels of printed resources, the official concierges that users needed for reading recommendations, research assistance, facts, figures, dates, and answers to almost any conceivable question. One could argue that this sense of importance was a bit exaggerated; nevertheless, librarians had a clearly defined function and role in their organizations and the communities they served. Affordable computers and mobile devices with Internet access have been challenging the significance of librarians, and even libraries, over the last fifteen years.

In a recent article in the magazine American Libraries titled “Ten Reasons Libraries Are Still Better Than the Internet,” Marcus Banks explains that these institutions still provide tangible services along with less obvious benefits such as access, privacy, and intellectual freedom. While Banks sees the Internet as “an indispensable and irreplaceable tool for modern living,” he argues that “it is not a library and will not replace the work of librarians.” Of course, what should we expect to read in a trade magazine for this profession, right? No surprise either that I tend to agree with Banks. Professional librarians have always taken seriously their responsibility to lead patrons to the most accurate and reliable information available, either in their own libraries or in those with which they have reciprocal lending privileges. The introduction of the Internet has not altered that mission at all. Only the methods of delivery have changed. As Banks observes, “a conversation with a librarian can clarify exactly what you are looking for and figure out the best way to use Google — or many other resources — to find it.”

One of the major impacts electronic resources are having on libraries is in the use of space. The average desktop computer connected to the Internet, including subscription services provided by the library, gives the user access to resources that thirty years ago could not have been contained in a building the size of the Pentagon. Libraries no longer need stacks and stacks of reference books and bound periodicals. Certainly, many readers still want “real” books — the kind with bindings and paper pages. Reading an e-book will never replace the experience of holding a traditional book in their hands that requires no machine, no batteries, and no WiFi connection to download. But, as library budgets continue to shrink and librarians are forced to become even more creative and innovative in allocating the limited funds at their disposal, they will stop purchasing many print sources that are so readily available in a more cost-effective electronic format. They will also convert sections of the library that were once occupied by stacks to other high-demand options such as public-access computer stations, study rooms, audio/video booths, leisure reading areas, and even coffee lounges.

I recently read a Facebook exchange by my friends and mentors who are also retired college professors.  They were bemoaning the changing landscape of libraries. One of them expressed her conviction that libraries to a certain degree should be “rather intimidating, evocative of all of the great minds whose ideas reside in books therein, yet nonetheless something of a magnet to all of us who want to know things.” I absolutely understood her sense of loss when she pined for browsing the stacks and even smelling the pages of old books. The sensory pleasures of reading are understandably treasured by so many people. At the same time, this “discussion” about libraries and books and nostalgia was taking place on a social media platform that was born and has lived its entire life exclusively in the realm of the Internet. FaceBOOK has never had a single association with pages and bindings. The irony was palpable.

As the platform for the creation, exchange, and storage of information continues to evolve, and even more rapidly in the age of electronic media, perhaps the differences in function of libraries and archives are becoming more relevant and more distinct. To my way of thinking, libraries are designed to provide information created in the present and the recent past. As such, electronic sources will naturally continue taking the place of more traditional print sources. Also, weeding out books that are no longer read by patrons has been a normal task of librarians for ages. Archives offer access to sources that have more historical value and are still considered useful for research and institutional documentation. Considering the fact that archival collections are moving to digital formats at blazing speeds, even these resources will soon be available more by computers than a trip to a physical repository. As for the nostalgia of holding an old book in our hands, doing so in the future may involve visiting a place that functions more like a museum than a library or archive. As sad as that may sound, I would rather see ancient books placed in acid-free storage containers than scanned and made available only as an image on my monitor.

Decorating for Christmas

Aside from gorging on turkey and football, one of the strongest impulses generated by Thanksgiving Day among so many Americans is the urge to head to the attic, basement, or garage and pull out the holiday decorations. At this time of year, any sense of good taste is tossed out like moldy green-bean casserole that was pushed to the back of the refrigerator and forgotten for two weeks. Thanks to the development of inexpensive plastic, PVC, fiberglass, large-scale inflatable statuary, and sophisticated electrical components, some American homes and properties are transformed into dazzling spectacles that almost put to shame the illuminated facades of Las Vegas casino resorts.

The amount of time, energy, and financial resources that families dedicate to decorating varies considerably, but I suspect those who celebrate Christmas tend to be a bit more profuse than their Jewish counterparts. Muslims and Hindus use much less extravagant decorations for their special celebrations at other times of the year. Even among the folks who celebrate Christmas, the amount and type of decorations are quite diverse, with everything from simple nativity scenes to the construction of a North Pole Reindeer Flight School in the front yard that backs up neighborhood traffic for several blocks. The true zealots start their decorating activities the week before Thanksgiving, perhaps even earlier, and it can take them up to two weeks to get the job completely finished. I know a family that puts up a Christmas tree in every single room of the house, including miniature versions in all three bathrooms.

Such enthusiasts have a difficult time giving any decoration a well-deserved sabbatical or even retirement. They have an attachment to or fondness of every piece they ever purchased, so decorating through the years has a cumulative effect. At some point, all surfaces of the house are adorned with festive accessories in an attempt to display every single item they have accumulated. It can be a tad overwhelming. Some manage to pull it off better than others. Lest I be perceived as a decorating snob, I hastily confess that I have in years past clearly fallen into the camp of the unrestrained and over-exuberant. My wife has done an admirable job of intervening and helping me understand that less is better when it comes to Christmas ornamentation.

Christmas Tree and decorations
Christmas Tree and decorations

For most of its history, Christianity has been a remarkably adaptable religion, which partly explains its rapid expansion after the 4th century and its durability throughout a good portion of the western world and across many different cultures. A fine example of this adaptability can be found in Christmas decorations. Ancient Romans brought evergreen trees into their homes to celebrate the winter solstice. They also hung bright metal ornaments on trees around their homes. Pagan societies believed that the holly bush had magical qualities to repel evil spirits. Even beyond decorations, Christians managed to incorporate customs from other faith traditions into the celebration of Christmas.

Americans are a population heavily influenced by capitalism and commercialism. We market everything, including Christmas. We are also a flexible bunch, and we don’t mind bending the truth a little to sell the product. Again, we can see this characteristic exhibited in a fairly common holiday decoration: the nativity scene. We like to portray this pivotal point in human history as a nice package that can easily fit on a small side table or night stand. So we take all the elements of the story — the baby Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, angels, the shepherds, the ox, the donkey, the star, and the wise men with their camels — and we fold them altogether into one, compact decoration. It is irrelevant that the wise men were not there on the night of the Christ child’s birth but at least a month or so later (perhaps much later) after he was presented at the Temple by his parents. We cannot be expected to have a separate set of figurines in the house to represent this part of the story. After all, we need to make room somewhere for a sleigh and eight or nine reindeer too!

The older I get, the more I appreciate celebrating the spirit of Christmas with simplicity and humility. Over the decades I have purchased, displayed, and discarded any number of decorations. I have suffered through finding just the right tree at a farm in the country, cutting it down, paying way too much for it, and hauling it home only to find that once we wrestled it into the stand, it was as crooked as a Washington politician. We have gone through several different artificial trees and are thrilled with the two we have now, one inside and one on our back porch, that came with lights already installed. Over the last few years we have started buying what my wife calls “timeless” decorations — pieces that are reminiscent of generations past. Some people would refer to them as classic decorations. A close friend of ours paints marvelous Santa faces on gourds, and we include our collection of them on the living room mantel every year.

There are two decorations that my wife and I cherish perhaps more than any others, and we put them out every year then carefully store them away until the next Christmas. One is a small, resin angel that her parents gave her when she was a child. It is beautiful and precious. The other is a little plastic illuminated church that houses a manually-wound chime player that plays “Silent Night.” It belonged to my mother, a woman to whom the Christmas story was fundamental and factual. The miraculous birth of Jesus was a mystery she embraced without question, with little or no struggle. She has been gone now for over a dozen Christmases, but that little church keeps the memory of her fresh and close for me. I am grateful to have this modest decoration that is somehow a perfect expression of her faith and this holiday.

Church and angel
Church and angel

Book Reviews: Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Some readers will criticize him for his lack of attention to a few basic grammatical rules. Okay, he needs to brush up on the mechanics, as many journalists do. Others may not like his style — the book takes the form of a long message to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. I think it is the perfect approach for his subject, making the book personal, emotional, and thoughtful. It reminds me of the innovation with narrative that the white civil-rights advocate Lillian Smith used in books like Killers of the Dream and Our Faces, Our Words. Coates could do a whole lot worse than follow Smith’s example. In our deeply divided society, this book will be rejected by many readers who have lost patience with what they perceive as a hypersensitive generation coddled by American universities where almost everyone is a victim of mistreatment and therefore has an excuse for irresponsibility. I don’t think Coates has fallen into that trap, either real or imagined. I highly recommend this title to anyone who wants some insights into the struggles of what an African-American colleague described once as “waking up everyday, looking in the mirror, and knowing you are wearing black skin.”

We Were Eight Years In Power
We Were Eight Years In Power

Coates is one of the most powerful voices in the country on identity politics and its ill effects on social justice, most especially for African-Americans. In interviews, Coates has made it clear that he sees little hope for conditions in America to improve with regard to the plight of African-Americans. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays, many appearing previously in The Atlantic, that reaffirms that opinion. His vision is definitely pessimistic and perhaps depressing. It would be easy to dismiss Coates as a man made bitter by his own struggles to be heard and to overcome the legacy of bondage that characterizes the black experience in America. But, his analysis is careful and calculating, and to some degree even objective. He is relentless in shining the scorching light on white supremacy and how it has systematically crushed the spirit of African-Americans, even during the Obama administration. Coates now sees white supremacy back on full exhibit, in the open, and he dubs Donald Trump as the “first white president.” The election of Barack Obama clearly set a standard and was perceived by his supporters to alter the course of American history. However, many white Americans distorted that monumental watermark into perversion: “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.”

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.