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.