A Day at Flannery O'Connor's House

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tomorrow is the first day of my summer class, so I thought I'd better squeeze in one more blog post before the craziness ensues. This is the first time I've taught a five-week mini-semester, so it is going to be a challenge to cram a 15-week class into 5 weeks. The class meets five days a week for an hour and a half, so that's going to present its own challenges. I haven't taught five days a week since I taught middle/high school, and I've never taught classes that were that long. Despite my reservations about this teaching schedule, though, I'm looking forward to this class. I'm teaching World Lit II for the first time in a year and a half, so I'm actually getting to teach writers and texts I'm somewhat knowledgeable about!

Because of the abbreviated nature of the term, I decided to teach a class devoted entirely to the short story, and I'm really excited about my syllabus. Over the next five weeks I'll get to share (and rediscover) my love for Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Jorge Luis Borges, Kate Chopin, and Edwidge Danticat, among others. Because this is a "world" literature class, I couldn't include all of the Anglo-American writers I wanted (including Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri), but I am getting to teach a wide variety of international authors I've never taught before-- Hanan Al-Shaykh, Can Xue, Bessie Head, and Ben Okri, just to name a few.  I'm also having my students do group projects on current trends in short fiction, and they will be presenting on topics like microfiction, flash fiction, and online journals. My ideas for the project are still developing, so if you have any topics you think I should include, please let me know!

The final reason that I'm excited about this class is that it will be my last one for awhile. That's right, you heard it here first! (Or maybe not, if you talk to me in person regularly....) I finally broke the Big News to my dissertation director this week: I will not be returning to Auburn in the fall. I'm not dropping out of school; I've just decided to "dissertate" from afar. So at the beginning of August I'm moving to Pennsylvania, where my fiance lives, and the plan is to take at least a year off from teaching.

This is a break that I really need. The past few semesters I feel like I've just been skating by, doing the bare minimum, and at times I've resented how much time I've had to dedicate to prepping and grading over doing my own research or writing. This is mostly my fault (there were semesters when I was teaching four or five classes split between two institutions), but it's also in part because I've spent the past year teaching only World Lit I, a class I tried to enjoy but got over really quickly. I was talking with another instructor the only day and was shocked to hear that during annual review he told the program coordinator that he refused to add any more women to his syllabus because that would require teaching works he had not studied before, and he could not devote the time to researching and prepping new texts. This shocked me especially because when I first taught World Lit I, I was teaching nothing BUT texts I'd never been taught or even read before: The Ramayana, Egyptian love poetry, Wu Chengen's Monkey, Lysistrata, Dante's Inferno, etc.

Every semester this is what I do. I teach almost entirely new texts, in part because I see teaching as an excuse to read things I otherwise might never push myself to read. But I know I'm also burning myself out with all the extra prepping and researching. I don't ever want to become the kind of teacher who refuses to teach new texts, so I think I need this time to reevaluate who I am as a teacher, who I want to be, and how I can sanely be that person when I have so many other obligations to meet. I also think I need the time to miss teaching, something I have done in the past but haven't done in a looooong time.

On a happier note, since today is officially the last day of summer for me, my brother and I decided to take one last little trip this weekend--we drove to Milledgeville, Georgia, to see Flannery O'Connor's house and grave. We are both big O'Connor fans, so it was nice to share the experience with someone else who has read most of her stories and novels.

O'Connor lived at Andalusia, her family's farm, for the last thirteen years of her short (39 year) life, and she wrote many of her most famous stories while living there. We were the only two visitors there, and we had free-reign to walk around the house (the unrestricted areas, at least) and the grounds. The house itself is fairly unassuming. It isn't some grand plantation house, but a modest white two-story with a screened-in front porch. The grounds surrounding it, including the pond, barn, and several out buildings, are not particularly impressive or memorable. I think the most inspiring part of the house was how uninspiring it was. Being at Andalusia really helped me to see that if you have a rich imagination, you don't need to live in Paris or New York or some other inspiring place to write honest, creative stories. Although O'Connor spent a few years in Iowa attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop, as well as time at Yaddo and in New York and Connecticut, the majority of her life was spent in the town of Milledgeville and living on that farm. Despite this "limitation," she used her background and experiences in the rural South to create stories and characters that have long out-lived her.

I've always been reluctant to write about the South, about the people and places where I grew up, but I think it's time I start digging into them a bit deeper, mining my memories and experiences for their story potential. I think, in many ways, that's what my stories have been missing, that moment of truth and authenticity that can only come from sharing a lived experience. Maybe it's time I start "writing what I know," as opposed to "writing what I've learned."

Me on the famous front steps of the O'Connor house
Flannery O'Connor's bedroom at Andalusia
O'Connor dining room
One of the peacocks on the farm. There were around 50 of them when Flannery lived here.
Barn and Milk House at Andalusia
O'Connor's grave at Memory Hill Cemetary


Learning to Live

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I've been back from my Great London Adventure for a few days now, and it's amazing how quickly things return to normal. Within hours after arriving back in the States, I was already feeling as if I'd never left, just as within hours after arriving in London, I felt as if I'd never lived (or belonged) anywhere else. Today I'm working on my summer syllabus, proofreading the latest issue of The Scriblerian, and reviewing a fellow contributor's essay for a collection on travel/tourism coming out next year. Tomorrow I have a list of wedding-related errands to run (including picking up my dress, which came in three months early!) and paperwork to complete. In other words, things here are just as I left them at the beginning of May. Part of me might even be tempted to believe the whole trip was a dream if it weren't for the little mementos I come across throughout the day: my British Library reader card tucked into a pocket of my backpack; a receipt from Sainbury's folded in my wallet; a Bath train ticket being used as a bookmark; an open bag of Haribo Hari gummies in my purse; the last two lemon macaroons chilling in the fridge. Despite these reminders, it is still hard for me to believe that a week ago I was at Versailles, fighting the palace crowds; wandering through the endless gardens; lying in the grass by the Grand Canal, eating tomato pizza and scoops of pistachio and mango gelato; and peeking through the dust-coated windows of Marie Antoinette's Hamlet.

The Queen's Hamlet has always been my favorite place at Versailles, and one of my favorite places in the Paris region.  I've often heard it spoken of snidely, as the place where Marie Antoinette went to play farm girl, to pretend peasantry when palace life got to be too much for her--an idyllic charade that made the French populace even angrier and more resentful of the royals during the Revolutionary period.  But when I'm at the Hamlet, I tend to see it the way I think good ole Marie did--as a perfect escape, a breath of fresh air when the rest of the world gets to be too imposing, chaotic...noisy.

The first time I visited the Hamlet was in 2005.  I'd spent the previous seven days running around Paris, dragging my friends through museum after museum, hopping from Metro line to Metro line, climbing staircase after staircase to take in wide, sweeping views of cityscape--concrete, plaster, asphalt, and brick stretching all the way to the horizon. Yes, there were occasional patches of green, and every once in awhile we'd stop to rest our feet by the fountain pool in Luxumbourg Gardens or bask in the sunlight on the Sacre Coeur steps, but even then, the city was always breathing, panting all around us.  There was nowhere we could go to escape the sounds of city life: the car horns, squealing bus brakes, non-stop chatter in more languages than I could recognize.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a city girl at heart. I love the speed and energy of city life, the constant movement, the surge of adrenaline I feel every time I run to catch a train or cross a busy intersection or fight my way through a crowded plaza. I need the chaos in order to, occasionally, appreciate the calm, the quiet, the peace of green spaces. And that's exactly what I found at the Queen's Hamlet--calm, quiet, peace--all things I didn't know I missed or was looking for until I had them. And then I never wanted to leave.

Visiting the Queen's Hamlet is now the thing I look forward to most at Versailles--it's the perfect escape after fighting the palace hoards to see the thrones or Marie Antoinette's bed chamber or the Hall of Mirrors.  It feels so remote, tucked away in its little corner of the estate, acres of fields and pastures and streams and lake. It's still a working farm, with donkeys, sheep, goats, cows, and the fattest rabbits I've ever seen.  And even though I had to share the experience with a much larger crowd of people than I had previously (everywhere I went this trip felt more crowded than before), I still felt a sense of calmness descend over me when my eyes first swept over the hills and saw the moulin.  It's the same feeling I get every time I see one of Monet's Nympheas, the feeling that compels me whenever I'm in New York/Paris/London/San Francisco, and feeling stressed or tired or overwhelmed, to go to the Met/l'Orangerie/Tate Modern/Legion of Honor and sit in front of one of Monet's numerous water lily paintings, focusing only on the swirling pools of blue, green, and purple oil and tuning out everything else. In those moments, the city is silenced, the chaos stilled, and nothing exists for me except Monet's thick, broad strokes and the soothing colors of his palette. This is the feeling I get when I return to the Hamlet.

Having so many other tourists around this time had an interesting effect, though. It actually pushed me closer to the buildings, forced me off the approved paths and into the little nooks and hideaways Marie Antoinette once sought. All of the main buildings at Versailles are open to the public--the palace, Petit Trianon, Grand Trianon--except those at the Hamlet. These are all closed up, emptied of their furniture and decorations, of any sign that someone once lived in them. And yet, they feel more alive than any other royal residence. Although all of the other buildings are full of original furnishings, artwork, drapes, and even table settings, it is difficult for me to imagine people (namely, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI) actually eating at those tables or sleeping in those beds or sitting in those salons, entertaining company. The furniture looks too perfect, too staged, too much like what I've seen in a dozen other museums.

In the past, I've also had a difficult time imagining M.A. (it's okay if I call her that, right?) at the Hamlet, but this time--peeking through the unwashed windowpanes of her house into empty rooms, seeing the late afternoon sunlight slanting across the unswept black-and-white-tiled floor--for the first time, I could see her there. I looked straight through the house (there are windows on the front and back, and it's only one room wide) and saw what she saw--the tranquil oasis she had built. The grassy hills and grazing cows and blooming waterlilies on the pond. The open verandas and giant flowerpots and vines of flowers creeping up outdoor staircases. The way the light refracted off the green water. Unlike all of the amply furnished palace rooms I'd passed through that day, this barren room spoke to me and said, Someone lived here. Someone's skirt swept along this floor. Someone pressed her face to this glass and admired this view. Someone lived here.

Sometimes I think I get it all wrong when it comes to "living." I tend to think that if I'm not filling up my hours and days with activity, if I'm not doing something, then I'm not living. As if collecting experiences and stories as if they're Girl Scout badges is what life is all about. But maybe Marie Antoinette had it right. Sometimes in order to appreciate that kind of living, we have to take a step away, have to stop moving altogether. We have to press the pause button on our busy lives and embrace the stillness. We have to empty our minds of all thought and just feel the sun on our faces, the breeze on our skin. Breathe deep breaths of cool, honeysuckle-tinged air. Just live.


A Typical London Sunday

Friday, June 3, 2011

It's Friday, the end of my third week here in London, and it's all coming to an end much too quickly.  I have just one more week here, and then I'll be headed back to Alabama. It's a bit difficult to even comprehend going back right now. The heat must be unbearable. (Until Wednesday, the weather here was crisp and cool, and the past few days the temperature has been hovering around the low 70s).  I have absolutely no idea what's going on back home--I haven't kept up with the news or any television programming--but I assume if anything truly important happened, Facebook would have let me know.  It's been so very nice to be almost completely cut off from all of that (by choice), to be fully immersed in my work and life here. I will admit that I'm beginning to feel burned out, though--just a little. I've had a frustrating few days research-wise, and that makes it hard to clear my mind and keep going. I'm also beginning to realize just how much I have left to do, and how there is no way I can get through all of it in the time I have left. I'm trying to let that go, though, and just enjoy the remaining week.

I'm not even going to try to summarize all that I've been doing since my last new post a couple of weeks ago, so instead, I will just show you how I spent last Sunday. (Pictures, except the last, are in no particular order.)

Late afternoon sunlight on St. Martin-in-the-Fields--view from the front of the National Gallery.

@ Tate Britain:  The Lady of Shalott and Ophelia on the same wall. My inner Anne of Green Gables-loving, ten-year-old self could have died of happiness.
@ Tate Britain: I just really loved the fierceness of this Leighton sculpture.  Oh, and Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose behind it. 

Springtime @ St. Paul's

Got to Harrod's after closing, so decided to take a meandering walk home, and ended up here: St. Simon Zelotes.

Sunday crowds at Buckingham Palace.

Where the Londoners go to unwind--St. James' Park on a sunny, lazy Sunday.

And I finished my day with some Indian food and Facebook, looking out over the lovely, quiet courtyard of my  OLD flat. But that's a story for another day. :-)


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