“I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen.”
Today in Nashville, Tennessee I am thinking of Carson McCullers. It’s Thanksgiving week, and we will be driving to Chicago as soon as the tail-light is fixed.
It’s true that I have a huge amount of reading to do on the road to Chicago, and I wish I were part machine and could just flick a switch to get the reading done and student stories edited.
The more I teach the more I realize it’s taking me away from my own writing. I used to be able to pull it off better, but my head is crowded with stories and so just for this minute in time I will try to reach back to a Carson McCullers’ memory long ago in Georgia.
It is the fall of 1987, and we have just returned home from teaching English in Ningbo, China. I am working at Architectural Design Concepts in downtown Atlanta, an architect firm of glass brick where the head secretary gives me fashion advice.
It’s like a tiny “Mad Men” office of Architects in a boutique agency, except I avoid the men as much as possible, especially the head men – who bark orders and make me nervous.
I feel like Vera from “Alice’s Restaurant” amidst the glass brick.
Was one named Keith?
The name “Keith” floats back to me for some reason.
There was a sweet boy, David, who got me the temporary job as he was Kiffen’s high school friend, but I don’t work with him. I have to work with the bosses, but sometimes David picks me up at the MARTA station because there are car issues – the main one being we don’t have one because we’ve been in China.
We rode bikes in China.
At my job with the architects, I wear glasses and don’t put my contacts in until later in the morning. My dad has recently left his job with the Atlanta Falcons (the entire coaching staff was fired) but he’s now working with a commercial sports guy doing something that could lead to something, so sometimes he and I take MARTA together to our respective offices downtown.
And it’s more than I can bear some mornings – facing eight hours in an office of architects or at least that is what I tell myself.
Was one called Ken too?
Keith and Ken. How is it possible their names have floated back to me after all these years?
One was short and aggressive, and the other tall and laconic.
Kiffen and I are trying to decide whether to move to New York or LA or Chicago to find work as writers and actors. I am determined not to stay in Atlanta.
That equals failure for me.
But in the meantime we work at these temporary jobs. Kiffen is working as a waiter at “Rio Bravo” but might work at Charter Peachford in mental health. We both end up for a few weeks at Gulf Oil or was the before China?
One morning while on MARTA with my dad, dreading the day, I complain to him about the egos of the men in the firm where I’m sent to make coffee or get coffee or file or something so beneath me because I have an MFA in Playwriting and I have taught English in Ningbo, China.
He is reading the sports page on MARTA and he says, “Well, honey, you gotta understand when men are at work they don’t have time to be polite. They’re getting the job done.”
Or did he say – polite or sensitive?
I can’t remember. The sentiment was I needed to get with the program and quit whining, which was true enough, but I quietly seethed.
Could that same thing be said about women at work?
Well, honey, you gotta understand that when women are at work they don’t have time to be polite.
No he would not have said that – because women were expected to be polite and accommodating.
He was stating a fact. It wasn’t personal.
But I felt caged into a role I knew would kill me eventually if I stayed.
How does this relate to Carson McCullers?
Well, since it is post-China, I am desperate to get our lives back on track. We are living in my parents’ basement paying off China. We live in Roswell, Georgia. We have traveled the world only to end up back in Roswell, broke.
Why are we broke? After all, we’d taught for almost a year in China, and we were paid in Chinese money – a lot of Chinese money – but it all had to be spent in China. So we came home with beautiful pieces of silk – red, golden, lime green, purple – with roosters and rabbits and dragons. We gave away most of the silk as gifts. The rest of the money we spent for tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railroad where we took a train from Beijing to Berlin.
So back in the United States we had to get jobs fast.
So I want to tell these egotistical architects I’m not a nobody. I want to tell them about teaching in the middle of rice fields in the city of Ningbo and trying to write letters like Isak Dineson had written from Africa, and what it was like to travel for ten days on the Trans-Siberian Railroad across China, Russia, Poland, and Germany.
But the architects don’t care about these things, the architects – they want coffee. They want coffee ten minutes ago! They need their files. I try to write my plays when the architects aren’t looking but they are always looking and needing.
Another secretary in the office advises me on where to get a decent haircut and offers make-up tips, and I feel like Miss Amelia from “The Ballad of the Sade Cafe” or Hulga from “Good Country People” stomping around this boutique agency of glass brick and design plans.
And then I see it. A miracle!
A Carson McCullers Symposium announcement in the local library. The first one of its kind! There will be a Carson McCullers Symposium in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia in late October. Edward Albee, the playwright, will be there. David Diamond, the composer, will be there. Virginia Spencer Carr will be there too – Carson McCullers’ biographer.
We are living in Georgia for a minute. Carson McCullers was from Columbus, Georgia. We have been to Flannery O’Connor’s a few times for Sunday drives, but there is nothing going on in Milledgeville whatsoever.
O’Connor’s house is surrounded by fence and barbed wire.
So I tell Kiffen – let’s go together to the Carson McCullers Symposium.
Please oh please. Let’s go!
There will be screenings of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding and Clock Without Hands. There will be discussions of “The We of Me” and the twisted trinity of Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia, and Cousin Lymon in The Ballad of the Sad Café. We will learn about her friendship with Truman Capote and where she lived in New York and how she was only 23 when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published.
Lucky for me, I have a husband who is game for anything.
Maybe we just got home for China and are working these soul-crushing jobs, but Kiffen is cheerful and doesn’t mind these jobs like I do. But this Carson McCullers Symposium gives us something to look forward to as if we are citizens of the literary world.
We will even stay in a hotel. I even make a plan for us to cross over the river into Phenix City, Alabama where Carson and her husband, Reeves, used to go drinking since Columbus was dry and they had to go to juke joints in Phenix City, Alabama for excitement.
We are going to do the same thing.
We are going to live it up at our first literary conference all about Carson McCullers and see her hometown and where she was born.
We are going to go hear how Carson McCullers became Carson McCullers and see how it applies to our lives.
She escaped Georgia. Maybe we can too.
Part II. The Symposium in Columbus, GA.
More Carson McCullers’ links
“We of Me”
The We of Me – “The Member of the Wedding”
Photograph by Lucy Lunsford in Hyden, Kentucky 2008 at the Appalachian Service Project