The Other I

November 30, 2016

My Dorothy Day puzzle

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:05 pm

After my father died, we found several letters from Dorothy Day to him in the boxes of files he’d stored in the loft.  We didn’t know about the letters, but we certainly knew about Dorothy Day.  Because she was the reason we were living on that farm in Ohio.  My father was a lawyer and had little skill as a farmer.  But he was convinced by Dorothy Day that this was the ideal place to raise a family, away from the evils and temptations of the city.

Why?  Dorothy Day spent her entire life in New York city.  Why did she think there was some elevated goodness to be found in a country life she herself did not live?

There was, indeed, innocence.  And naiveté.  My parents were dedicated, loving, generous, sacrificing anything they had if they thought it was for our betterment.  And my father created what became an idyllic setting with a lake, fishing, swimming, ice skating, fields of wheat, cattle, chicken, pigs, fruit trees.

But was the isolation of farm life a better preparation for life than city life?  I’m not convinced.

Our “innocence” might better be described as ignorance, particularly in relation to sex.  I am not talking about our physical sexual differences – in a family as large as ours with newborns arriving almost semi-annually, one could hardly be unaware of our genital differences, beginning with the simple act of learning to urinate into the toilet.  But there was a general embarrassment about events such as menstruation, and the actual act of sexual intercourse.

I have more insight into the ways in which this simplicity, shall we call it, effected us girls.  The dynamics, I think, were just as profound for my brothers but they were different.  We sisters learned how to be generous and kind, but we did not learn how to say no when it was appropriate to do so.  We also did not learn the difference between sending signals of sexual interest as opposed to signals of friendliness.  We trusted too much, and I think each of us had to find out that male interest in having an affair was often interest in pleasure, but not a prelude to anything resembling a commitment or even wanting any kind of personal relationship at all.

Was all of this the result of growing up on a farm?  Of course not.  My own adolescence preceded the 1960’s and 70’s.  We were not the only ones to have naively misunderstood the civil rights movement and anti-war protests.  Many of the “city girls” I met at that time also confused the meaning of the flower children and hippies with a moral superiority that we thought was going to create a new world of love and liberation.

Nonetheless, admirable as she was, I think Dorothy Day was wrong in elevating country life, presenting it as somehow morally superior to city life.  As I said in my last post, I’ve seen too much love for complete strangers in one of the biggest cities in the world to accept that.

PS:  A friend who read my last post suggested that I might enjoy reading the Metropolitan Diary in the New York Times.  They are everyday stories about New Yorkers, and they will warm your heart.  I’m now making the diary part of my morning wake-up call.

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6 Comments »

  1. I don’t have anything much to add except to say that I met Dorothy Day at one of her weekly gatherings, if I remember rightly. She seemed a rather severe woman, but friendly.

    More recently, possibly because of her beatification (great word, that), I learned a lot more about her, including her abortion and personal life generally.

    She and her associates had a farm upstate New York, I believe (I used to see their weekly newspaper because someone from the group used to stand outside the gate of Fordham University to hand out copies). I suppose that’s in keeping with her rural theory. Very Jeffersonian, don’t you think? The purity of the small farmer versus the vices of the fleshpots.

    The nastiest people I’ve ever known were the ones in New Jersey where I grew up. The teenagers cruised the town looking for other boys to beat up just for the hell of it. When I started working in East Harlem I walked the streets unmolested at midnight and people actually said hello to one another. I can think of other reasons to live outside a big city, but Dorothy’s is not one of them.

    (By the way, if she makes it to canonization, when I pray to her should I remind her that we met through a mutual acquaintance [one of my Jesuit teachers], or would that be trying to jump the queue?)

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    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — November 30, 2016 @ 11:42 pm | Reply

    • My experience as a nun living in the slums where Blacks were forced to live is very much like yours in Harlem. I was treated with a generosity and appreciation that I hadn’t earned. And I never feared for my life. Or for my virginity, for that matter, though several of the young men made inquiries. But when I said no, I didn’t have to worry about defending myself.

      Should you jump the Dorothy Day queue? Hmmm: for myself I’m not sure she’d be all that eager to help with whatever I was asking for. I can probably manage to keep the dandelions under control by myself. Do you think she’d help me in keeping the slugs out of our strawberry patch?

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      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 1, 2016 @ 11:19 am | Reply

  2. I am just back from a short stay at my village where my cousin does all the farming. In these areas there is no strict ‘growing up in farms’. It’s more of grwoing up in villages.

    But for the farm labor, I see the youngsters have already fled from the village though many modern conveniences have become common place.

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    Comment by tskraghu — December 1, 2016 @ 1:33 am | Reply

    • I have another friend who told me the same thing about the young leaving the farms in India. Interestingly, he said he found the grandfather of one family who complained that the young are no longer content with this lot in life — they are always striving for more. Be interested if you have sensed anything similar. Nothing ever seems to be all black or all white, does it?

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 1, 2016 @ 11:23 am | Reply

      • Over time, agri will lose more shine and the divide between urban and rural will be less sharp – this seems inevitable. Means more crowded cities and heavily mechanized farming. Difficult to predict what’ll happen here – land holdings are highly fragmented,not easily lending to mechanization, labor is unorganized and entry of corporate sector is blocked.

        Thanks.

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        Comment by tskraghu — December 2, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

  3. As archivist for the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University, I read this post with much interest. A few minor corrections: Day did spend a significant amount of time at CW farms (better termed “houses of hospitality on the land,” as she herself admitted). And she has yet to become venerable, much less beatified. I’m sure, however, that your reflections would strike a chord with more than a few children of CW-inspired “back to the landers.” If you would be willing to provide us with copies of the letters from Day that you mention, I’d be much obliged. I’d also be glad to search our files for any letters your father wrote her.

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    Comment by Phil Runkel — December 1, 2016 @ 3:17 pm | Reply


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