First published in 2013, this epistolary essay by KtB editors Ashley Makar and Briallen Hopper appears in Briallen’s new book, Hard to Love, a collection of essays on love and friendship which drops on February 5th. You can order Hard to Love here.
A gift sits on my writing desk. A gift penned in your hand, in Flannery’s voice, as if she’s speaking from the grave:
For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection
which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical.
Death, decay, destruction
are the suspension of those laws.
I am always astonished
at the emphasis the church
puts on the body.
It is not the soul she says
that will rise
but the body, glorified.
–Flannery O’Connor, in a letter to Betty Hester, 1955
You’ve written me this, given me this, in a vintage sketchbook, a vellum-colored page, each letter embellished just so: the crosses of T’s looping into the shoelace tops of H’s, F’s shaped like infinity symbols standing upright, each cursive S a leaf.
The first period is like a tiny kite, no string. The second, a red dwarf becoming a star. The last, a little leaning cross. I didn’t notice the shape until I looked hard trying to describe the gift, trying to give the words all my attention. Now I see the D in Death like a treble clef, unraveling. I see ASTONISHED and BODY as an epitaph, magnifying. As if through a tear, brightly.
Simone Weil wrote that prayer is absolute, undivided attention. And that’s what it takes to be a writer like Flannery, the kind of writers we want to be. Vigilant flames sustained and made into the words we need. I fail at that every day; I fall on my face. And you help me up. If I told you my self-loathing spiral of today you’d show me all the Christmas ornaments you polished while you were trying to write: the white globe with the red mallards, the iridescent rocking horse, the silver angel holding a candle. We’d laugh at that little blond angel face of forlorn piety. We’d light our own candle to try and write by.
Flannery tells God that it’s at some insipid moment, when she’s possibly thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs that the opening of a beautiful prayer may come and lead her to write something exalted. The prayer availing itself seems to be a gesture of the grace young Flannery is praying for. And her response to that action of grace is her work, her strain to give it attention, undivided.
A pigeon egg hatches into a map of the universe, a peacock’s tail. Another world unfurls. And yet, “How hard it is to keep any one intention, any one attitude toward a piece of work any one tone anyone anything,” she writes. “Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work.” She’s even discouraged about her prayer—how she’s never been sorry for a sin because it hurt God. I bet Flannery’s sins were pretty innocuous—“gluttony” for Scottish oatmeal cookies, “laziness” in writing and prayer. And yet she tried and worked so hard. She suffered much in her labors of fierce love.
I’d hate to believe my gluttony for Golden Grahams or all my tactics of distraction from writing and prayer hurt God. But I know they hurt me. They keep me from the life I want; they separate me from God. In that sense, they are sins. And Flannery is helping me take those sins seriously and honestly: “I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing.”
Life seemed so treacherous, so disappointing the day you gave me that illuminated Flannery manuscript. I’d fallen three times trying to walk on icy sidewalks. Blisters were forming on the bottoms of my feet—chemo catching up with me. I’d missed another writing deadline for no good reason. It pained me to look at the pink-orange sky because I failed to write it. I felt like an old lady, a hoarder holed up in a dim room looking through the blinds at the menace of daylight. But I didn’t give in to her. I told you I was having a bad day.
You invited me over. You gave me that gift. You opened a window. Light shined on the table laid bare for writing, trying again.
I just read the whole Prayer Journal in the bath, in the facsimile version (checking confusing scribbles against the transcription from time to time). Flannery’s young handwriting on wide-ruled pages seems so much closer than the printed and corrected text. In the quiet and warmth I somehow felt the aura of the archive; I knew the book was just a book, but it felt precious, and instinctively I clutched it tight so the historic manuscript wouldn’t fall into the suds.
There’s so much to tell you, but what I wanted to say first, almost to warn you, is that she prays for desire like a deadly cancer, desire as consuming and overwhelming as your cancer wants to be. She prays for suffering and for grace. Her friend who edited the book seems to see her lupus, which arrived a few years later, as an answer to prayer. I think about this young woman of appetites and ambition and I hate to think that God read her earnest scribbling and sent her death, but then if you must suffer it is of course better if the suffering helps your writing and your faith. I am using the generic second person here, but I mean you, dear Ash. I love you, and I leave this practical theology to you.
I don’t know much about suffering, but I know about writing stress and night-eating and erotic thought. (“Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me”: the most irresistibly quotable lines in the journal, and some of the best concluding lines in literature.) I’m almost fifteen years older than Flannery was then, and Lord knows I have filled up several shelves of blank books with similar confessions, though I prefer ice cream and erotic thought to oatmeal cookies.
Somewhere I have the old journals I wrote to God when I was Flannery’s age. I was fighting through some of the same things she was, the conflict between self and faith, the battle for attentiveness and gratitude, the desires for experience, publication, grace, and God, though I lacked her genius and her Catholic clarity. It’s not that these conflicting desires have gone away, it’s just that I gave up on serious striving so long ago, and I am still not sure how to be ambitious without what Flannery calls “nervousness.” I have made a truce with life that I don’t want to trouble, and it’s not clear to me where the urgency and tenacity would come from to write something good, even if I had the talent.
I rarely write private prayers to God anymore: I avoid unguarded introspection in general, the kind that is open to the future and full of desire.
Why am I such a dull lump? You give us leaven and salt and the moon shoaling blue, even as new daylight glades into morning. I want to wake early to write by that imperceptible changing of light when you can’t tell if it’s dark still or day yet. Sometimes you give me, on the cusp of waking from sleep, words, arranging themselves as if in the corners of the ceiling, lines fine and fragile as gossamer, the unseen seam between death and life. And I press snooze. Ten more minutes and ten more and so on, until those strands of You are lost to me. I’m not saying you’re fragile, Lord, nor that I could lose You. But my sense of Your nearness is tenuous, my attention too feeble most of the time to even see those strands of You, much less write them.
Lord, help me to sit here and tolerate this mangle of words. The belabored metaphors that mar the page, the lame turns of phrase I cross out and then try to save. Help me stand the pain to get the grace.
Help me sit here and work every day. I’ll mess up most of the time and blunder, sometimes, back to the blue glow of daybreak.
Thank you! For naming how I want to pray—open and full of desire. If only my drive to write were as voracious as my cancer. And yet I don’t want anything so consuming anymore. I worry I’m too scared and tired to strive like I used to.
Flannery was going on 22 when she wrote God from Iowa: “Oh Lord please make this dead desire living, living in life, living as it will probably have to live in suffering. I feel too mediocre now to suffer.” I was around that age when I wrote this prayer from New York:
to write You, Lord
to write You
And here I am, thirteen years later, a cancer patient, terrified of writing. My body is slowly unraveling, and I can hardly sit still. I dart from thing to thing, like a squirrel, frantic to get all my living in before I get sick. Dividing and dividing my attention. What happened to my dire desire to write God?
“It is hard to want to suffer,” young Flannery writes. “I presume Grace is necessary for the want. I am a mediocre of the spirit but there is hope. I am at least of the spirit and that means alive.”
Three years later, her body started dying, on her train ride home for Christmas.
Her friend W.A. Sessions writes that she left Connecticut a vibrant young woman and arrived in Georgia “drawn and bent, ‘like an old man.’” She’d had her first flare of lupus on the train. I wonder what she prayed. (I bet it was about writing.)
Most days I don’t know what to say to God. I don’t want to suffer. I want the grace to stand the pain.
Hello again dear Ash,
It’s December now and you’re here at my house for a day of writing and pumpkin chili in the glow of the Christmas lights. I love our writing days together. I love how almost every time I see you we light a candle and pray. When we’re out together we even pray in restaurants, like a Norman Rockwell painting.
I found my old journals.
July 24, 2001
Writing is hard. Writing is different from more routine forms of work, writers tend to be more flukey and various in the ways they work. … I am usually fairly miserable, very tense, quite caffeinated, tired (buzzing!), and late. Sometimes there are brief thrills or moments of satisfaction. Most of the time I am frustrated and scared and just want to read mysteries and eat comfort food, my idea of heaven.
July 31, 2001
There is a desire to escape work, to use God to let you off the hook, seeking for a guarantee of spiritual purity attainable by industry, passivity, withdrawal, inaction. BUT God requires us to give, to serve, to think … he doesn’t make it easier. MLK Jr. couldn’t just stand around getting beat up; he had to think, plan, pray, take responsibility, take risks.
September 1, 2001
Re work, grad school apps—I can wholly apply myself to the present tasks, straining and rejoicing and exhausting myself. Remembering what the stakes are! No, professional life can’t be separated from “real” life, it is a part of “real” life, but God’s standards are different. He looks at the heart; and the state of a heart that is right with God is never inert. My heart rejoices to do God’s will.
Faith is necessary. All my instincts will be panic and self-preservation. I must resist them.
I panicked that day you fell on the ice. When you texted to tell me about your blistering feet, I let my tears take me over for an hour. I thought: There is nothing to be done. Then: Writing is what you do when there is nothing to be done.
In the absence of adequate words of my own, I found Flannery’s, and I found comfort in the practice of writing as a physical act, as if the pressure of my pen against the paper could push away the forces of death and decay. As if the gold ink could become a healing balm.
You write, “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them.”
My own prayers have gotten more traditional since the days I wrote them out and I admit I mostly feel them less, but I mean them just as much. I am a believer in rationing feelings these days. I wonder if you rationed yours any in your thirties? As another famous Southern lady once said, “Honey, you know as well as I do that a single girl, a girl alone in the world has got to keep a firm hold on her emotions or she’ll be lost!”
As it happens, it was two days before September 11, 2001 when I wrote this urgent prayer: “Now I am immeasurably blessed. At any moment this could all be taken. I need to love you now so I can love you always. All the people who harm the body but cannot harm the soul: make them completely unable to harm.” My prayer was not answered. I didn’t expect it to be, but I didn’t expect it to be so spectacularly ignored. Still, I have never stopped praying.
September 14, 2001 In lives, this is where Jesus lives in the world; my body can be part of his body. I’m not a naturally religious person but that doesn’t matter. I’m taken into his body.
For a long time in the mornings I’ve lit a candle in the pewter holder that says “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” and I name all the people and places that I want so much to be well. On my teaching days I pray for my students (ha!). On my writing days I hesitate to pray for my writing, because I worry it won’t go well and I don’t want my faith in prayer to dissipate, and my prayers for writing feel optional in a way that my prayers for other people and the world do not.
I pray with the red cloth-bound Book of Common Prayer my grandma received when she was confirmed at age 32, in the midst of her losing battle with life-threatening mental illness. Sometimes I read the psalms of the day, and sometimes I skim for one that will say what is in my heart, looking at the Latin titles and guessing what they mean: Hear me. Lean toward me. Judge me. Be merciful. God is light. Wonderment. Out of the depths. Rejoice.
And I pray with the small dun Prayer Book for Soldiers and Sailors my grandpa got for Christmas in 1943, a battered book literally designed to be used in foxholes. It has prayers for help, for protection, for aid against perils, for world peace, for grace to forgive, for prisoners, for the lonely, for those who mourn, for the wounded, for the dying, for one departed.
In the evenings I light a candle in the pewter holder that says “At night I give my troubles to God. She’s going to be up all night anyway.” This summer Ash and I lit candles for you at your church in Milledgeville, in front of the brightly painted Virgin. I didn’t write a prayer for you, or say one; I just let a prayer float up to you where you were sitting up all night with God, waiting for your body to rise and share forever in the glory of your soul.
I’m on the train from New Haven to Boston. I feel as if I’m looking out the window into a snow globe. Except the snow isn’t flakes, suspended in a circle of glass. It looks more like sand, storming side to side. I can all but feel the grains on my eyes.
I suppose with all these qualifiers snow globe isn’t the right image for the view out my window. You would sit with it, suffer with it, until the words came. But I look away, take another sip of coffee, another bite of clementine. I watch the gulls scuttle up a rusty pole in the river—a remnant of a pier a storm tore up?
Even though I’ve divided my attention, another image is given. Light sears, silver vermillion, over the broken trees. A shock of radiation, bone lightning. Ezekiel raving God raising the dead.
A startle of sun blares white. I close one eye and see the stark circle it is. A center that holds. And yet a yolk I know could burst and seep like a bleed in the brain. Grandmother after the stroke—her body, half paralyzed. The little slanting cross. The sign of the body, glorified.
Briallen Hopper is editor of KtB, and author of Hard to Love: Essays And Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019). She teaches writing at Queens College, City University of New York, and holds a PhD in English from Princeton. Learn more at her website, www.briallenhopper.com, or follow her on Twitter @briallenhopper.
Killing the Buddha editor Ashley Makar is a writer who works with refugees resettled to Connecticut. She does community outreach and grant writing for IRIS—Integrate Refugee & Immigrant Services. She's currently writing essays about living as exuberantly as humanly possible with metastatic cancer. She thanks the goddess of door hinges for the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen Writers Workshop and repents not her trespasses through the Irish bogs of Connemara. Ashley has published essays in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog The Struggle Continues, The Birmingham News, American Book Review, Tablet, Religion Dispatches, and Prison Legal News.