By Bus or Buzzard: Flannery and Self-Isolation

In these days of social distancing and limited contact with the outside world, we often find ourselves reaching for a book to pass the time. In doing so, we might find some kinship with an author whose own mobility and outside contact was fairly limited, not by global pandemic, but by chronic illness and situation.

Contrary to popular belief, Flannery was not a recluse. While her lupus did prevent her from being as active as she might have liked, she was by no means stopped by it. O’Connor spoke at many universities, received guests regularly, and even made her famous sojourn to Lourdes and Rome. However, she faced a different kind of isolation.

In the 1950s, the town of Milledgeville, Georgia, was not exactly an urban hotspot. Flannery felt alienated from the friends she had made up north, and frustrated waiting on a diagnosis[1]. This is a sentiment that feels very real these days, not being able to contact our friends or know the inner workings of the medical world. In a letter to Louise and Tom Gossett, Flannery says, “I am not supposed to have company or go anywhere but to the doctor…” which is a sentiment we can all echo today[2].

But have hope! Although Flannery at first felt trapped, alone in the wilds of Georgia with her mother, she found ways to pass the time, small comforts to make the best of her situation. She began raising her famous peacocks[3], an occupation she claimed required very little time. Of course, she wrote hundreds upon hundreds of letters, many of which you can find in The Habit of Being, not to mention her thirty-one short stories. While she might have felt lonely at times, she knew that “what she was making, she had to make alone.”[4] Isolation can be difficult, but it can also provide the focus you need. Flannery joked that even receiving mail was momentous to her, something we all might relate to in our self-quarantines[5].  

So what would Flannery advise us to do in this situation? We know that health was a concern for her, and those with similar chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems are more at risk in this environment. Living out at Andalusia would have made social distancing physically, if not emotionally, easy for Flannery. To protect the immunocompromised, limited contact with others (as well as frequent handwashing) is advised. And of course, Flannery let her creative juices flow, producing most of her body of work during her 13 years on the farm. In her spirit, take up letter-writing or simply creative writing as a new hobby!

For a final word from Flannery, take this classically understated line. In one of her letters, she advises a friend to not worry at the beginning of a bad situation, because “everything has to be diluted with time and with matter[6].” In time, everything will be resolved, as long as we have hope.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999),26.

[2] Ibid, 576.

[3] Ibid, 91-92.

[4] Ibid, 53.

[5] Ibid, 29.

[6] Ibid, 224.

“By Bus or Buzzard” is famously how Flannery gave directions to get to Andalusia in the small town of Milledgeville, Georgia, from the Habit of Being, 77.

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