July 23, 2014

Being in the Right Space to Write

It's just a greeting card. How hard could it be to write in it and send it off, right?

But for me, there's a deliberation process, because to me it's not just a card. It's my words, from the heart, written to someone I care about. And for whatever reason, I can't usually make myself sit down in the middle of a busy day and dash off a message in a greeting card and feel good about it.

I have to carve out the right kind of space for something like this. I want to be in the right place, the right space, to write, whether it's a greeting card or a column. The right space is important.

I've written about writing spaces before, but this is a little different. This is more than just finding the right physical space. It's about finding the right mental and even emotional space. And in this case - the case of writing out greeting cards to loved ones - the right spiritual space as well.

I didn't realize how important this was until recently. I would procrastinate when it came to writing out things like greeting cards. But now I see it wasn't procrastination, but a matter of not having the right space.

I'm reading a book right now that helps me make my point. In his writings on "Interior Freedom" from his book with the same name, Jacques Philippe says:

"In every encounter with someone else, however long or short, we should make him feel we're 100 percent there for him at that moment, with nothing else to do except be with him and do whatever needs doing for him. This is very difficult, since we have a strong sense of proprietary rights to our time and easily tend to get upset if we can't organize it as we choose."

Guilty! But at the very least, I'm aware of it, and I'm trying. And that brings me around again to the greeting card thing. Even though the writing of the greeting card implies time and distance, I retain that same sense within me that if I am writing such a card in the middle of busy, I am not really focusing. I am not giving that person the attention they deserve.

If my heart is in the wrong place, the words I write will be wrong, too. I can feel that. It's true.

So lately, I've been bringing some of the greeting cards I want to send with me to the chapel where I spend time one evening hour each week. As I sit there at the feet of Jesus, I pull out my envelopes and cards and write what's on my heart. There are no distractions, and I am there with the person; really there. And it feels right.

It's just a greeting card, I know, but to me, it's part of my heart I'm sending off in the mail, and I want to feel as if I am looking that person in the eye as I write. I want them to feel my heart, and not the distractions around me.

Being in the right space to write, as I've found, can make all the difference, whether it be a tome or a small thank you card. And I'm glad I've discovered this and that I have a place to go to offer my best attention to those deserving of it.

Q4U: Have you felt this dilemma, even with the simplest writings? How did you solve it?

July 16, 2014

The Humanity in Handwriting

My grandmother, on the cusp of her 100th birthday, had sent along a gift in a sealed envelope to be given to my niece at her graduation. And at the party afterward, as the envelope was passed to her, my sister and I both froze, exchanging glances as if to say, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

One of us, I can't remember which one, said it out loud, so we knew that, indeed, we were on a very similar brainwave.

We'd both been completely struck by Grandma's writing in the brief moment it had swept past our eyes. No more than a few written words was all, but it was Grandma's very essence in some inexplicable way.

All those tags she'd slipped onto birthday, Christmas, Easter presents through the years, to us, from her, in her writing, it was her. That was her. Her writing represented her in more ways than either of us had pondered before and it had hit us both square on.

"This is the Grandma you have known," it seemed to say. "This is me. Not the person you have seen lately, with distant eyes." Lately, Grandma seems to come into and go out of this world frequently most days, but her writing, now that seemed very much intact.

Freezing that moment was like holding onto a part of her we thought we'd lost.

It wasn't the first time I'd been affected so powerfully by handwriting. A few months earlier our cousin Greg had sent a note through the mail the old-fashioned way. In these days, handwritten snail mail stands out as something special, especially, perhaps, for those of us who have lived in times past when this was the primary way to communicate on paper; before smooth electric typewriters and computer processors and ipads and all the other ways we tap out our words.

When I opened the envelope and unfolded the note, I stopped breathing for a moment. Greg's handwriting was as close to my father's as any I'd ever seen. 

Dad had been gone only a little over a year, but it was as if he were standing right beside me. It was in the way he forms his B's, and all the capitals, and the R's, exactly like Dad used to make them.

Is handwriting inherited, I wondered? Can it be passed down from uncle to nephew even when they did not grow up in the same space?

I felt both slightly unsettled and deeply comforted all at once. It was a gift, mostly, and I could not deny that.

Realizing the power of the handwritten word anew, I can't help but wonder, will we lose this? Will the the dying of the handwritten word eliminate the power of words that spring not from a key but from our fingers? Will we no longer be transported in the same way to another moment, and feel as if we are standing next to those we love by a simple gaze at their writing?

Will the humanity in our writing be lost when the written word by hand is no more?

I'd like to think not, but it seems too far gone now. We are knee deep in the digital age, and I am feeling the loss of what was -- and in a way the younger generations may never feel. You can't miss what you've never known, after all.

And yet I hope I am wrong. I hope that there will always be a place in this world for a pen pressed into a hand pressed into a piece of paper in order to communicate a thought, one human being to another.

Q4U: What are your thoughts about the handwritten word? Have you ever had an emotional response to handwriting?

July 9, 2014

Under the Green Umbrella in NYC

I knew it was going to be just about impossible to meet up with her during our visit to New York in March, but it was worth a try. She lived just a hop, skip and jump away, after all.

After sorting through the possibilities by text, finally, an opening emerged. Our group, which I was helping chaperone, would be hanging out for a while, waiting for the rain to pass, at the American  Museum of Natural History. It was our best bet for finding a common place to converge.

"I can make it work," she said, and we made arrangements for where we'd meet and about what time.

I soon realized that if I were to get involved in museum browsing I might risk this one chance to see her. We'd only be there an hour or so after all. No, better to blow off the offerings within and wait outside. I love museums but I love friends more, I decided. Besides, I was craving some alone time.

There's indeed a special bond between writer friends, a certain language you share that not everyone understands. There are common dreams, parallel frustrations and a way of looking at the world in all its wonder and curiosity that can't be communicated with just anyone -- not in the same way, at least.

I treasure my writing friends. Pretty much all of them also double as friends with whom I connect on a spiritual level. Quite honestly, the chance to see Lenore, even if just for a short while, would be one of the highlights of my trip because, well, she's not something to just look at and study. She's someone I know, someone with whom I've eaten Italian food in Fargo, and gourmet cuisine in a screened-in porch in Pennsylvania with golden leaves as a backdrop.

Most of our crossings happen in email, and often, the stretches between even those can get long. But I adore this woman, who has been, at times, a mentor, and other times someone with whom I'm closer to eye level as a fellow professional writer.

We both started our careers in journalism and made our way to children's books. We both have read and love Flannery O'Connor's "The Habit of Being." We are mothers who understand the sacrifices of family life and how that and the writing life can sometimes bump into one another, but that it's important to try to work it out.

And so I looked to our meeting with great anticipation. As the rain came down, I waited and watched.

Writers are good for that, so for a long time I was very content to be outside and not inside, where I'd likely be overwhelmed by the offerings given the small amount of time we'd have to gaze at them. Instead of admiring dinosaur bones, I was content admiring passersby on the sidewalk as they rushed past, or paused, or peered.

I caught the eye of these twins, and asked their mama if I could take their photo.

After a while, though, I started to get worried. I'd seen a lot of people coming and going in what had been nearly an hour of waiting.

Each time I thought Lenore was about to round the bend, I became a little more glum as I realized it wasn't her, and that the clock was not going to pause on our account.

Soon, our buses showed up -- green bus and blue bus. I began to feel a tightness in my chest; a sadness.

One by one, members of our group began springing out of the museum doors and finding their way back into their bus seats, and as they did, I knew I was going to have to surrender. I knew she was close, but I couldn't hold up our group. I didn't have that kind of power.

So I trudged to the bus, trying with all my might to suppress my emotion. All that excited anticipation had to go somewhere and it wasn't going to be into a sphere where Lenore would be, apparently. 

My eyes met my daughter's as she appeared at the front of the bus, not far from where I was sitting. "It didn't work out. She didn't make it," I told her. She responded, "I'm so sorry. I know how much you wanted to see her."

But I was now resigned. It was over and I had to accept it.

Just as the last of the pack began to trickle in, however, someone said, "Roxane, your friend is here."

What? Could it be?  I looked out the window and there she was -- Lenore -- under a big, green umbrella, looking up at me, waving.

I ran into the aisle and down the stairs in disbelief. "You made it!"

Our time together was going to be exceedingly brief, so we agreed that a quick hug and photo would have to do to mark our world-record-short writer-friend meeting.

It was a thrill for me to introduce Lenore to my daughter, whose high school choir had brought us there. I'd shared a lot about my kids with Lenore through the years, and now, one of them was here in the flesh. Their pose under Lenore's big green umbrella will always be special to me. 

I had to jump in too for the necessary proof we were all together at the same time, even if short on time.

Thinking back now on that day in front of the museum in NYC, emotion easily returns; first a good dose of humility, because once again I'd gotten it wrong. I'd given up, decided that what I'd hoped for was never going to happen, and that my little prayer had fallen on deaf ears. But as it turned out, hope had not failed me. 

I also feel a great deal of gratitude, especially toward Lenore. Our lives have seemed increasingly filled with obligations, and we don't talk as much as I'm sure we'd both like, but I know that her being there that day was a sacrifice. Despite all the obstacles before her she still made her way through the travails of traffic in the city, in the rain, just to see me.

As E.B. White once wrote, "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

And so is Lenore. 

By the way, you can read about the rest of Lenore's adventure on her blog, A Globby Bloogie.

July 2, 2014

Success to Flannery: 'Being Heard'

Look, I know there's that saying about beating a dead horse, but the horse that's been hanging out at my place isn't exactly dead just yet. I can't help but ask him just a few more favors before he says, "That's it," and calls it quits.

I'm talking about this whole trip to Andalusia Farm I just experienced with my two writer sisters, Christina and Karen; the trip that I will be absorbing in pieces for as long as it takes I suppose.

Andalusia Farm office, June 2014

The three of us decided, since we'd gone all that way to visit the place where our heroine, Flannery O'Connor, had spent some of her most prolific writing years, that we'd show up a couple days before the main event just to peruse the place.

We're so glad we did. That first tour had us alone, pretty much, exploring the grounds like a trio of Northern toddlers finding for the first time the green of grass and the shine of sun around mid-May.

We were grateful to have gotten that initial time to ourselves, because our second visit had a nice little crowd gathered inside the farmhouse by the time we arrived.

Some young story lovers sit a spell with a coloring book on Flannery's couch

They'd all been drawn to the place in part by the promise of a book reading, given by Southern fiction authors Kaye Park Hinckley and Charles McNair.

The two of them met us at the door of the farmhouse, Hinckley in the lead in her pretty red dress that I couldn't help but notice, red being my favorite color, and it was adorable besides. What a pleasure it was to meet another Catholic writer right there on Andalusia soul.

They each gave a brief talk from their perspectives and read from their works; Hinckley on Catholic fiction, the Catholic imagination and the influence of Flannery O'Connor in her writing, and McNair on southern fiction and fiction in general. The event, put on by the Andalusia Foundation and Wise Blood Books, was themed, "Misfits, Mission and Mercy in Southern Fiction."

It was pretty surreal, being gathered as we were right in the house where Flannery toiled over finding the right way to make the picture in her head come to life on paper; just steps from where she used to munch on her Mama's pound cake; only a few paces from where she occasionally meandered out onto the porch to check on her beloved peacocks.

For Flannery, success wasn't the same as what some people think of it. After being convinced to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, to receive healing for her lupus, she later admitted that she hadn't prayed for physical healing but for her latest novel to come out right and be well-received.

But she took success a step further when writing to a friend who had mentioned, I'm assuming, that she really wasn't looking to be "successful" in her writing. Flannery was very blunt as always, retorting, "Success means being heard and don't stand there and tell me you are indifferent to being heard. Everything about you screams to be heard. You may write for the joy of it, but the act of writing is not complete in itself. It has its end in its audience."

Now I know that just about every writer who reads that gets what she's saying here. We write for the joy of it, yes, but along with that, we write for our audience. And our end goal in doing so -- if we're being honest with ourselves -- is that we'll be heard. That was success to Flannery, and I can say with no hesitation that it's my goal, too. When it happens, and affirmation comes, there's no feeling quite like it.

The day of the reading at Andalusia, Kaye and Charles were heard. We listened to their thoughts about the act of writing and the power of it, and to the stories they've created as the result of their dreaming. And we laughed out loud without prompting. Each had something to say that connected with the audience down to the bones.

Kaye hit a nerve with me when she said that the Catholic writer has a certain approach to life and writing. Every day holds the potential for either a fall or an epiphany, she said, and the possibility of a spiritual epiphany is always present in the work of a writer with a Catholic imagination.

"The Catholic imagination perceives people as good because God made them good, but he also gave us free will," she said, which holds the possibility of our pushing away from God.

Flannery's stories had a lot of this pushing away from God "bidnis" (as she'd say it). She knew that without showing the opposite of mercy, mercy can't be understood, and without experiencing the opposite of grace, grace can't be known.

Because of this, people -- even people in Milledgeville itself -- misunderstood Flannery. Some have called her writing dark and disturbing. But that's because they don't understand what she was really after. Reading her letters brings clarity to her intention, and in turn, can bring her fiction to life and help the writer hear her; truly hear her.

I have a feeling that each new writer that understands Flannery effects some kind of wonderful response from her across the veil. And I have a feeling, too, that the same is true for Kaye Park Hinckley when an audience at Andalusia chuckles at her stories; like the one she read to us called "Jimmy's Cat." Well, it was enough to make me buy the book, so if that says anything...

It starts like this:

"Jimmy's cat wasn't born one-eyed. I heard he lost it one night in a heat-fight with a big, orange-striped tom when Jimmy was twelve years old. Jimmy's twenty-seven, now, and the vet who sewed up the cat's eye, sewed it so tight it looks like it was never meant to see in the first place.

"Jimmy's cat didn't have a real name. Everybody just called it Jimmy's Cat. Jimmy's mamma called it Jimmy's Cat, Jimmy's grandmamma called it Jimmy's cat. And Jimmy's wife, when he got married, called it Jimmy's Cat, too."

The rest you'll have to read for yourself in her hot-off-the-press book, "Birds of a Feather." Yes, it's so new that the copies we got were review copies. Woo-ha!

Just a girl and her peacock feather, Andalusia Farm, June 2014

Q4U: What does success mean to you?

June 25, 2014

Finding Flannery Day 5: The Ghost of Andalusia

[The rest of this travel series can be found on my base blog, Peace Garden Mama.]

"I don't usually do this," she said, a sparkle in her brown eyes, "but I'm going to make an exception this time."

The three of us looked at each other, wide-eyed, squealing in tandem on the inside.

In an unexpected turn of events, including for her it seemed, our tour guide was moving off the page of the script, following the spirit of Flannery, we're pretty sure, to show us the place where visitors aren't usually allowed -- the upper level of the Andalusia farmhouse.

We were the epitome of giddy as we ascended the stairs, following her direction, wondering what we might see.

It wasn't much, she said, mostly a place for storage where she'd been digging around lately, trying to piece together the life of the author and writer we'd come all that way to discover anew in an up close and personal way.

We were smitten, though, as we moved about the room, our gazes bringing more questions than answers.

The guide pointed out a few things, like how Regina, Flannery's mother, obsessed over pound cake. "Pound cake this and pound cake that." She couldn't get enough of the stuff.

I'm thinking of a quote I just read about Regina's cooking. "Fr. Charles at the monastery sent my parent the monastery copy of Alice B. Toklas cookbook," Flannery began (she referred to her mother often as "the parent" - her father died when she was a mere 15). "She has been reading it, with appropriate comments, but our dishes have not got any more exotic."

So blunt, that woman! So well put. I love it!

It was amazing to go through that very kitchen where those non-exotic dishes were prepared, and to have this exclusive glimpse of the woman behind the words.

Who wore those hats?

What purpose did this room serve? Was it a place of dreaming?

Mostly, because of her lupus, Flannery was confined to the lower level, where she slept and wrote and wrote some more.

There are few things more thrilling to a writer than to see the typewriter of her writer heroine, knowing how much the act of writing takes from you, and yet how much life it gives at the same time. It's more than a machine. It's a symbol for the lifeblood of the writing life.

But seeing the "back room" of the house where visitors aren't usually brought...

And that second level that is usually cut off from outsiders...wow. I can't think of another way to put it. Just wow.

That we felt blessed, privileged, undeserving and thrilled beyond words is all understated, but comes at least close to how we received this gift, bestowed upon us for no reason other than that it was a quiet day and we seemed, perhaps, more attentive than some.

As writers of faith, too, we all were feeling something more than earthly, more than tangible. It was a ghost-like figure, but it wasn't scary at all. It was a holy ghost, female, a writer like us, feisty like us, trying to figure out the world like us, present as the day she wrote her best work.

It was the Ghost of Andalusia, leading us along paths, giving us a nod of encouragement, letting us know our curiosity was blessing, and that being misunderstood is commonplace, a cross we will bear, but that being understood, as she put it, is "what success is."

Flannery's own hometown might not get her. One gentleman told us today after Mass, when we mentioned why we'd come, that "We don't like her so much; she's too dark." But we're undaunted. We happen to understand Flannery, at least the woman she's revealed in her letters. And we're determined to keep her near and continue to learn from her.

As we were leaving that coveted upper level, still high on our good fortune, I captured one final gem. There were packages that had been sent to Flannery over the years, still being sorted through, and as I took one last look near one of those upper windows, there it was -- a pile of them addressed to Flannery. At that moment, I felt the living thing of her spirit, and it seemed, as I paused in that room, alone now, that I felt someone right beside me, smiling.

Now that we know her ghost is with us...

...you can be assured we're not about to walk away. She's only just begun to show us what we're here to learn.

Q4U: What and when have you learned from those who have gone before?

June 18, 2014

Finding Flannery: The Itinerary


I have a feeling Flannery would have had fun with this word, "itinerary." She may well have spelt it something like thus: itineraree.

Hey, you can't blame a girl for pracktising up on what's comin' round the bend! I've been reading Flannery's "The Habit of Being" and, well, her habits are becoming habitual to me now, too. My Dad would have melted into the floorboards at the sight of it.

Anyway, oh my goodness (say it Shirley Temple style, if you please), I can't believe that in just a couple days I will be on a plane bound for the Deep South! First, my Mom and I will land in Kentucky to pay a little visit to my sweet cousin Blenda (isn't that a cool name?). Then I'll join up and onward with the rest of the pillgrums. (Okay, maybe I'm overdoing it now.)

Here's what's in store for us as we make our way in one little vehicle stuffed to the gills through the land where Flannery once roamed.

Our first stop will be Springfield, KY, where our Southern Belle Beth is going to treat us to some home-grown goods from her garden, and where we'll stay at a sweet little bed and breakfast just down the road.

From there, we'll make our way to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY, where Thomas Merton lived and wrote his autobiography, "The Steven Storey Mountain" and other works (see more here).

Next, we'll drive to and settle into our quarters in Milledgeville -- the place Flannery called home the latter part of her life, where some of her finest works were penned. This will constitute the longest part of our stay, and include a visit to her home of Andalusia Farm, a peek at the Flannery O'Conner Collection at Georgia College & State University, a gaze at Sacred Heart Church and Memory Hill Cemetery, and hopefully, a run-in with Manley Pointer, the famous peacock.

Our next stop will be to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA, where we'll join the good monks for prayer and morning Mass. Also that day, we're going to be part of what promises to be a really fabulous book event, "Misfits, Mission and Mercy in Southern Fiction."

This event will feature authors Kaye Park Hinckley and Charles McNair, who will give brief talks on their perspectives and read from their works; Hinkley on Catholic fiction, Catholic imagination and the influence of Flannery O'Connor on her writing, and McNair on southern fiction, fiction in general, and magical realism in his novels.

That all promises to be the perfect way to ease away from our special trip and meander on back to Bowling Green, where we'll camp out at my cousin's place before parting ways for our respective villages across the good old U.S. of A.

I wouldn't mind a few prayers for prosperity. Or is it posterity? Maybe a little of both? Sounds good to me.

Now, with all that said, I do hope you'll accompany us on our journey, spiritually of course. My hope is to post once a day from the southern lands, even if it's just a simple photo of a magnolia or some such beautiful (or otherwise) thing.

Wait now, hold on. Before you go, I'd like to direct your attention to Christina's beautiful post about this same journey. I promise, it will warm your little heart to hear of this adventure the way she's approaching it. I just love the feelings her words evoke -- slow and steady. Oh, I could sure use a little of that right about now. Or, as she puts it, "slowly and widely."

Lord have mercy, I can taste the mint juleps already!

Okay, then, are we ready? Long Live Flannery!

Roxane, a.k.a., Peace Garden Writer

Q4U: What are your images of the South? What bucket-list item would you tackle on such a trip?

June 11, 2014

Finding Flannery: A Writer's Relics

Last week, I shared here on Peace Garden Writer about an incredible journey on which I'm about to embark: traveling to and exploring for a short time the place where one of my writer heroes -- Flannery O'Connor -- once dwelt.

My introductory post on our upcoming pilgrimage to Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Ga., is the first of several focusing on this writers' adventure. But earlier today, a friend affirmed what this trip is all about in sharing an article, "Gathering Paradise," from America magazine, which begins thus:

"The best way to get to know a writer whose work you love is to visit his or her home. This is especially true of writers who have died. To walk the floorboards she walked, to lay your hand upon the railing he gripped as he mounted the stairs, to enter the bedroom where she was born and the parlor in which he died are each acts of extraordinary intimacy. You can almost feel the presence of the writer, who ate and drank, breathed and brooded, lived and loved within these walls. This is the closest we can come to communing with the dead. It allows us to see them anew, as living souls like ourselves, fellow pilgrims along the journey to eternity."

It's an article worth reading for any writer who has either considered or experienced traveling to the place of a favorite writer and discovering -- as Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, author of the article puts it -- how an intellectual relationship is rendered incarnational.

"Pilgrimage to literary houses is a secular version of religious pilgrimage, on which travelers journey to holy sites associated with saints," she says. "There one discovers relics—intimate possessions of the writers that tell essential truths about them."

The friend who shared the piece aptly pointed out the one qualm with O'Donnell's assessment, saying pilgrimages to literary houses are still religious, "precisely for writers or poets like Flannery who very much lived and breathed their spirituality and poured it out into every word they wrote."

For those going on this adventure, she aptly added, "Your pilgrimage began the minute you committed to going."

I have known ever since praying that this trip would come to be that if I were somehow able to go, it would be incredibly special for me as a fellow Catholic writer to experience Flannery's home. But now, I'm even more elated that things fell together for me, against all odds.

The thought of strolling the grounds where this heroine of mine lived and labored, giggled and grimaced, is beyond gift. I can only imagine now what it will be like to experience those relics for real.

Q4U: Whose relics have you touched?