Death Examined, Life Revealed

When I saw that Well Read Mom’s first selection for the new season was Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” I might have groaned just a teeny tiny bit. Goodness, another Russian author? I tried to finish WRM’s Spring selection, “The Brothers Karamazov” but with moving twice in four months, I just couldn’t cross the finish line with that 1,000 page haus. It was a great exposure to an iconic work, but man oh man, I had a hard time walking with the “Brothers K.” What I really enjoyed was listening to the audio book. It was terrific. The Russian names, which kind of trip me up when I am reading them, make so much more sense when I “hear” them vs reading it.

I did read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” a few times, and somehow, Tolstoy’s writing didn’t upend me quite like Dostoyevsky. I trust the foundress of WRM, Marcie Stokman, with my reading to-do list, so I forged ahead.

Yo! Go try to top this one for the “Funkiest Front Cover” award for the Russian Collection of Short Stories Category. Sixties were great. man. I have no idea where this came from, it was just on my shelf. Perks of marrying a philosophy major.

I am so glad I picked up “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” First, it is substantially shorter than most Russian literature I’ve been exposed to, given that it is a short story. I think it took me just a few hours to read.  It is hard to say that I love Ivan Ilych, like I love “Kristin Lavransdatter” or dark chocolate, but it is a must read. (Every dead Russian author has just now collectively rolled in their graves that I compared them to Sigrid Undset and dark chocolate.)  The Russians specialize in powerhouse reads, yes? They know just how to cut to the quick, even if they often take a 1,000 page pre-game tour through the land of sin and carnage. When they get to it, they lay us open and expose our weaknesses like my Southern friend, Flannery O’Connor. There’s no wiggling out of this one, Folks. We are all going to die. Maybe Flannery, due to her chronic illness, felt death’s stare just like those in Russia, who were dodging the bullets of Revolution or battling against starvation, oppression, pride, themselves and vodka. Their lives were often either brutally hard or brutally shallow. And there is always the mystical air of Orthodoxy that permeates their culture, reminding them of where they have come, and where they will go back to…

So, I’m not giving anything away here when I say this main character, Ivan….dies. Tolstoy deftly moves through his stages of denial, grief, anger, indignation, all of it. And finally, we witness Ivan’s awful realization that his life was shallow…and he wrestles with that until the end. It is ugly, but necessary. We recognize our own selves, our pettiness, our ambition.

“It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.”

Ivan’s family and friends all continue to play the game of life in charades, a perfectly orchestrated power struggle of vying for the next important rung on the social ladder. The True Story is revealed to him, and while terrifying, there lies his freedom at last. I was touched by the way Tolstoy uses Ivan’s young son as the innocent, the one who’s authentic grief and love accompany Ivan ever so briefly. There is no gore in this story, no scary medical scene, but you follow Ivan’s devastating inner turmoil throughout. I appreciate that it’s never melodramatic in a cheap way…the Russians don’t write cheap lit.

Friends, be brave, be fearless, pick up Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” It will stick to you like grace, because that’s what the Holy Spirit does.  He works through authors like Tolstoy to get us thinking about our own lives, our own well lived journey.  The ending of our story can be affected by the reading of this story.

Come back and tell me what you think.

My return to blogging….again.

I need to sweep, and hate to sweep, so I saw this as the opportune time to return to blogging instead of doing something I really NEED to do, like cleaning. Do people call it “sweeping” or “vacuuming” in the South? This is important because I just moved to the beautiful state of GEORGIA!!! People, I am a true Southerner now. For those of you who knew me in Michigan,  you sensed this all along, didn’t you? Here we are, soaking up the sunshine and beautiful Spring…and probably inhaling a boatload of yellow pine pollen. I love our new state. I miss Michigan and Indiana (my home state of 40 years) but wow, I love it here. One of the first things I did when my husband started talking about the possibility of moving, was to look up how far Milledgville was from Atlanta. I told Jim we could move after seeing that Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm was less than two hours away.

We recently went on our pilgrimage and let me tell you, it was overwhelmingly beautiful and really just about perfect. Let me show you all about it, ok? Look at that sky! These photos are all unedited, it really did look this way!


Why do I love Flannery O’Connor so much? She is such a quirky writer, completely Southern, completely Catholic, who takes her Faith seriously but herself….not so much. When I read her work, I hear the voices from my childhood. While we are Hoosiers, our Southern runs deep. These are my people she narrates back to me. She is so spot on with the neurotic that makes us all crazy sinners. But she also dishes out that moment of Grace, usually with a foghorn and a wink. I laugh hard and think hard when I read not only her fiction, but her own words from journals and letters. She really had me at Hillbilly Thomist. If you don’t particularly care for her fiction, check out her Prayer Journal or other non-fiction works.


She sat here…recovering from her three hours of writing every day. Flannery was like a disciplined soldier with her writing schedule. She sat in that straight back chair, with her joints hurting much of time from Lupus, chopping away at that typewriter, putting us all in our place.



I was a bit taken aback by the paint peeling and the general shabbiness of the place, but the staff assured me there is a long term plan to bring it all back. Since it’s on the National Registry of Historical sites, I am sure there are certain protocols to follow, let alone that dang thing called money. I loved the two ladies working at the house, they were engaging and knowledgable, and excited to see us. Of course, I had to get the Flannery t-shirt to help their bottom line. And again, I am sure she’s smirking all the way from Heaven.

The kitchen had all sorts of fun retro things in it, although all of it isn’t necessarily from Flannery’s time period. The staff pointed out that Flannery DID buy the fridge, just not all of the cute pyrex. (Probably has lead in it anyway, right?) This house was originally a few rooms in the front, and was expanded a few more times. It was quite charming and surprisingly, not musty or “old” smelling. Of course, I notice these things. It just needs some paint and it will be back to its original cool.


We had a fine time at the aviary, talking sweetly to the peacock, asking him to show us his plume. He was not impressed with us, and his lady just looked on, agreeing that he is that stubborn. We WERE impressed by the fact that, at one time, Flannery had over 50 peafowl on her property. That’s some peafowl devotion and love. The staff said Miss Regina, Flannery’s mother, did not like the birds. They had a penchant for her flowers. Eventually, iris flowers were planted all over, their bitter taste not much appealing to the birds. You can purchase some iris bulbs for your home, straight from Andalusia’s own stock. I will be doing that after we move to our more permanent home.


“Just show me your feathers already!!” — says a very impatient Lily.

We reluctantly left and moved on to where Flannery did her undergrad study, at Georgia College. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a beautiful campus. It was breathtaking.


I have to say, I think Lily was the most impressed with the chocolate chip bagel with cream cheese that she inhaled at her first visit to the Einstein Bagel on campus. She’s ready to declare her major…bagels.

At Georgia College, in their Russell Library, there is a very large room dedicated to O’Connor items. I love her baptismal gown, the personal letter she wrote, and her desk and typewriter! They had several quotes from her and her characters stenciled on the wall…quite amusing and a testament to her wicked wit.

After visiting the college, which I secretly wanted to attend after walking around- it was so beautiful, we moved on to Flannery’s grave site. What a lovely cemetery, with several well known historical figures buried there.


And finally, we visited her parish, Sacred Heart Catholic Church. What a perfect little church, with the Communion rail, a choir loft and nice woodwork. I’ve attached a picture of what the parish looked like back when Flannery attended….at least they left the Communion rail, yes? So far, it’s been rare for us to see Catholic churches in Georgia that look like the older, more traditional interiors we are used to. It was a welcome surprise to see this tiny jewel and visit Jesus inside. Lily and I lit candles and prayed for all of your intentions!

What a perfect day. The weather was beautiful, the people were friendly, and we all had a great time. I did save the quirky, best story for last. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of our next stop, I was driving and we were all a bit taken aback by the magnitude of what we saw at the very end of our day. While at Andalusia Farm, I mentioned to one of the staff that I had my teen son read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” as we made our way down there.  Let’s sum up his review by saying…he did NOT like it. I figured since he is such a “Walking Dead” fan, that this would somehow resonate with him. It did not. When I mentioned this to a few people at the Farm, someone laughed and said, “Now ya’ll know they filmed part of that right here in Milledgville, at the old lunatic asylum.” I tried not to drop my jaw down to the floor when “lunatic asylum” just rolled off  like, “Sweet tea on the front porch.” Wow. Ok…so of course we had to go check it out with that introduction. Oh my goodness…that’s a blogpost in itself. I’ll just link to an interesting story. Georgia Central State Hospital Again, great history lesson for the posse in the car, as we discussed treatment of mental illness through the ages, and how things have changed in recent years. The buildings were incredible, and sadly, in such a state of disrepair. I wish something could be done to redeem it and make it usable in some helpful way for the present day. It seems like such a shame that the campus sits still and quiet.

Friends, it was an amazing day. While moving has been hard, and continues to be unsettling at times, there is so much to do around here, that we are feeling more like Georgians each day. We will be making a return trip to Milledgville.