It was June in Georgia and I was driving down a country road looking for some peaches. Grandma Gracie had given me her recipe for a pie and I was eager to try it out. The radio and I were jamming when suddenly I had to slam on the brakes. There in the middle of the road was a woman on crutches walking with two peacocks. “What the hell?” I screamed out. But then, actually amused by the visuals, I pulled my car over to the side of the road, turned off the motor, and got out. Some southerners talk with a drawl but this woman walked with one. And it had nothing to do with the crutches. The rhythm of her whole body was slow with some steps emphasized as if they were vowels and others ignored as if they were consonants. Before she’d said a word, I’d already heard her voice.
“Good morning” she said “are you lost?” “No” I replied “I’m looking for peaches.” “Well” she said, “I can help you there. Come on up to my house.” Not far away was a makeshift stand with a big “4 Sale” sign in front of a basket of peaches. There were also Vidalia onions, pecans, and boiled peanuts in jars all in a row.
From the screened porch, a woman wearing an apron came out and yelled: “Flannery, who’s that with you?” “Oh, just someone wanting to buy peaches.” “Have you forgotten your manners?” yelled the woman, “Invite her up for some tea.”
So southern hospitality had me sitting on the porch drinking iced tea listening to Flannery telling me that she was a writer because “when a Southerner wants to make a point, he tells a story. It’s actually his way of reasoning and dealing with experience.”
I got the idea that maybe Flannery and her mother were so tired of each other’s company that it made them feel lonely. Maybe that’s why they invited me for Sunday dinner.
In the meantime I read Flannery’s short stories that she’d lent me. They were somewhat grotesque. Like “Greenleaf”. Mr. Greenleaf’s bull escapes and goes to Mrs. May’s property. So Mrs. May tells Greenleaf to come get his bull only his sons are unable to catch it. Mrs. May then insists that the bull be shot as she doesn’t want him messing with her cows. Greenleaf is forced to take Mrs. May out to the field to shoot the bull. When the bull sees Mrs. May, it’s love at first sight. Mrs. May freezes from fear and he starts charging towards her. The bull pierces her heart and fatally wounds her. As she dies, Mrs. May whispers to the bull.
When I asked Flannery about the story, she said it was about redemption and that redemption has a price. It hit me that Flannery wrote about her faith in God and Catholicism.
Six years after her father’s death, when she was 25, Flannery began a prayer journal. In this journal, she wrote about her desperate need to be a writer, a writer capable of aesthetic craftsmanship. Otherwise she would continue to feel an overwhelming loneliness. “Please,“ she begged, “give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.”
Now I’m not a Catholic or even a religious person, at least not in a traditional way. However, I could see how Flannery tried to use the prayer diary for self-transformation. Sometimes we don’t have the strength or the capacity to make necessary changes. And to transcend ourselves, we pray.
After keeping her prayer journal for a year, Flannery got what she’d prayed for. In her mind she began to perceive herself as a writer so, voilà, she became one.
A diary is a good tool for self-transformation. There’s something about articulating a thought with the written word that makes the thought more tangible thus easier to reflect upon. That’s why keeping a diary can help us better understand who we are and what the changes are we need to make.
The way we perceive ourselves will largely determine how we live our life. Our self-narration gives us a direction. We no longer flow aimlessly because we have a story to tell—ours, A Story of One’s Own.
Writing letters help us articulate our thoughts and exchange them as well. Around 1955 up until her death, Flannery corresponded weekly with Betty Hester, an Atlanta file clerk and a kind of literary groupie (Betty also corresponded with Iris Murdoch). Betty asked questions about theology and writing that forced Flannery’s mind to seek new roads. Just as coming up with the right questions forced Betty’s mind to seek new roads, too.
In 1951, Flannery was diagnosed with lupus, the same illness that killed her father. She died fourteen years later at the age of 39. Betty instead, shot herself in the head in 1998 at the age of 75.
In 1577, St. Teresa, the barefoot Carmelite and mystic who believed she’d been blessed with contemplation, wrote “The Interior Castle” as a guideline for those who sought prayer as a mystical union with God. Bernini obviously saw this union. His statue of her in Rome, known as the “Ecstasy of St. Teresa”, shows her about to be speared by an angel of God just as Mrs. May had been speared by a bull.
(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)
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