Two days after moving to Milledgeville, Georgia, I made a necessary and immediate pilgrimage to Andalusia Farm, Flannery O’Connor’s home, where she lived (and died, too soon, from Lupus) and wrote her beautiful, violent, revelatory stories. Andalusia is spare, restored in a way suggestive of her ghostly absence rather than preserved presence. In the kitchen, the table is set for two (O’Connor and her mother, Regina?): plates and utensils in exacting arrangement, but no crumbs for the ants marching up the wall or lipstick smears on the white napkins. In her first floor bedroom, her aluminum crutches lean against an empty bookcase and on her writing desk, a typewriter waits for paper. O’Connor sat at her desk every morning for three hours (when she was in good health), typing one word after the next (You’re one of my own children), keys clacking against the blank page. And on the mornings that she was unable to get out of bed from the pain of her body attacking its own tissues? Paper and a pen at the ready under her pillow.
“Grace changes us and the change is painful,’ O’Connor wrote. This grace is divine grace. In the Bible, the Greek word for grace is charis, which Strong’s Concordance calls “the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life.” How does the divine work to transform our hearts and by necessary extension, our heart-motivated actions in the world?
In my own transformation from illness to wellness, from a kind of insanity to recovery, my therapist hassled me about grace and redemption and accepting their unasked for but miraculous interventions. I have Bipolar Disorder, with the genuine, clinically diagnosable manifestations of this illness (racing thoughts, insomnia, impulsivity, mania, depression, suicidality), but the medications, the electric shock therapy, the years of talk therapy, even the desperate exorcism (bona fide with priest!) are not what transformed me from someone who had given herself over to certain self-inflicted death to someone who has vaulted whole-heartedly into uncertain though certainly possible joy.
Sure, giving up alcohol, eating necessary calories instead of starving myself, and swallowing my daily allotment of Lithium capsules keeps me inside the margins of acceptable melancholy and risk, but really what happened? What changed me from being, what my last psychiatrist deemed a “hopeless case,” someone on the verge of long-term commitment to the state asylum, into someone now living inside a new life a few miles from O’Connor’s home, once again professing my love for all things literary at a college, once again trusted with my own caretaking of my own life?
What happened to me is what happens to so many of O’Connor’s misfits: transubstantiation through the violent illumination of grace. My broken body spilling its blood (cuts always on my arms) reconstituted into a healed body circulating the blood of life.
Like O’Connor, I was born Catholic; unlike O’Connor, I fell away from my faith, at least, from a faith in the biblical stories and in the literalness of the sacraments. In my most desperate hour, locked inside the psychiatric ward, I agreed to a friend’s suggestion of an exorcism because what else could I do? The doctors had no medicated, therapeutic solution, so maybe a rosary, holy water, and whispered prayers might miraculously deliver me from hell. So I sat in the chair while the priest circled me, flicking holy water at my forehead and cheeks, and recited his prayer, an incantation against the devil and a plea for divine intervention.
Of course, it didn’t work. No manic-depressive devil spitting vituperative curses was cast from body. But what I did hold on to was the prayer, or rather, since I was listening to the manic run-on sentence in my brain―You are shit you are worthless you deserve to die—I held on to the incantatory cadence of absolution―You can be well you can find joy you can be saved.
O’Connor wrote, “We seem to be scared that holiness might somehow make us miserable.” If my exorcism didn’t work as intended, it did illuminate my fear of yielding to holy hope. Because this is what faith comes down to: not levitation and virgin birth and transubstantiation, but something more secular but no less rigorous. A conscious, unquestioning (yes, oxymoron) faith in the belief that what is coming in the next hour or day or year or decade will tear me from the safety and consolation of habitual misery, but will also offer the possibility (but only the possibility, no guarantee) of salvation.
In O’Connor’s study, another typewriter waited on a large desk that overlooked the yard and the magnolia trees and the peacock pen where two of the birds pecked around on the ground, dragging their riotous tails through the dust. A piece of paper was scrolled through the typewriter, and at the top, words already typed onto the page: Tell us about your favorite bird….
O’Connor’s was the glorious peacock. The ancient Greeks believed that after death, the peacock’s flesh did not decay; for later Christians, the bird was a symbol of resurrection and renewal, and the eyes on the tail feathers were the all-seeing eyes of God. I sat down and typed:
Blue Jay, guardian of the woods.
Take flight into sky,
bound for a distant tree.
How did I become my own guardian rather than a guardian of the state? How did I take flight when I seemed cemented in the mire? If not the exorcism or medicinal protocol or thousands of hours of talk therapy, what saved me from myself?
O’Connor writes, “We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given.” Throughout the most tangled, hopeless years of my illness, when I was in and out of the hospital more than twenty times, when I staggered around on antipsychotics, slurring my words, when I was locked in a quiet room with my mattress on the floor and only a plastic spoon for my food, I wasn’t using what I’d been given: words. I’d been writing fiction, a worthy pursuit, but one that allowed me to hide behind and inside invented lives. What had my illness truly given me?
Freedom, true asylum and refuge. I no longer had to invent a surface life of simulated health. After all, I lost my teaching position, my marriage, a decade of memories from electric shock treatments, but most important, lost the insistence on the pretension that I was okay. My external life suddenly came into congruence with my internal life. Why hide the scars on my arms, my diagnosis, my complicated angle to the universe? I am a misfit.
Misfit: I often behave unsuitably.
Misfit: I can’t fit my outsized, custom self into ready-to-wear.
Misfit: I now live an aligned life and no longer tolerate a misfit between my external and internal self.
O’Connor, in her last letter, offered this advice to a friend who had received an anonymous phone call, “Be properly scared, and go on doing what you have to do, but take precautions.” It is terrifying to do what we finally know we must do, and we arm ourselves with necessary defenses. What did I have to do? Transparency and vulnerability. Override the terror of shame and stigma. Take my lithium, don’t drink cabernet, don’t hack up my arms with sharps, but do gravitate toward love and compassion.
What had I truly been given and what was I obliged to use? One morning, I sat down to my computer, trying to invent my fictions and in a moment of violent illumination, maybe not the voice of God, maybe something closer to the voice of Flannery O’Connor spoke: Write the story that matters to you and that will matter to those in similar need. Write words of integrity that are holy in their whole-iness.