The Summer of Dorothy Day: Writings on Faith, Motherhood, and Shadow

Sunday mornings, before mass, I try to experience God where I can.  The attempt to experience God before mass, I realize, helps when I fail to have a spiritual experience at church, which is often.  Should the music dry my already thirsty soul, should the homily fall in my expectations to be inspired to run out the church doors and give myself to the poor, should the cold handshake I receive from the person sitting in front of me bother me too much — I will have the morning as solace for church.

This morning I woke at 5am to a grunting baby.  Rosario, greeting the world with small utterances from deep in her little body, drank and drank from my left breast.  She quickly quieted herself, seemingly content that I anticipated her needs before her grunts grew into a full city-heard cry.  My breakfast, egg whites and oatmeal, vanished without delay.  My hunger after nursing Rosario demands fast preparation hands.  Afterward, the stillness of the apartment and borrowed silence in the Bronx led me to the couch.  Alone with nothing but a cup of coffee and a book.  I knew it wouldn’t last so I dove into Dorothy Day’s, “The Long Loneliness,” her autobiography.  Within the first pages, I became lost in her early explanations of how she was haunted by God, plagued by early realizations of good and evil, knowing good from bad.  I resonated with her.

It brought early memories of my own family, especially my mother who, in raising four children, grew to depend on prayer and faith the way modern American housewives now depend on evening glasses of red wine.  What struck me as especially inspiring is reading about (arguably) a modern day saint worker who confesses to the ordinary sins of life and Day’s ability to describe that mundane nature as inherent and natural as our right to breathe.

– Interruption: When I checked Facebook earlier, another writer asks how to write as a mother.  And I write a few lines of encouragement, trying to bid her to the side of optimism.  Remembering that life – writing, parenting, work – are all life practices that we hope to master but never truly succeed.  As I write those lines and these, my son asks for help in stripping a tag off a new shirt, removing a plastic binding from a stamp he received as a gift, and Nick exits the shower with steam and carrying his iPhone, playing old rock songs.  Each one perforates my silence, the caffeinated inspiration that has descended, temporarily, on me.  And I try to write quickly, incisively, and with depth knowing, hating that the inspiration, like my morning breakfast will quickly evaporate into nothingness.  This last line was interrupted once again by my son, asking for me to look at birthday card he made for his cousin.  The clippings of conversation from the kitchen slide through from under the door.  My breasts tingle, asking for either a baby’s latch or a pump.  Interruptions, interruptions. –

Dorothy Day shares her earliest memories and the tone reminds me of an investigational hunt; the scouring for evidence, the search for bread crumbs that led her to the place where she writes the paragraphs about what made her Catholic.  It moves me into deeper consciousness – my preferred place of existence – and a flood of memories surface.  Irrelevant shards of childhood, splintered afternoons that I can only recall in patchy images – like my siblings and I trying to cook my parents dinner to celebrate their 20th anniversary, and my serving them plates of food on roller-skates – and with difficulty in understanding why my brain preserved that particular moment.

I remember afternoons staring into the blue sky, wondering about God, or what I thought God to be.  New Jersey summer nights and the smell of the community pool, tv dinners, and 10 o’clock chides from my mother to the rest of the family to gather in the living room to pray the rosary.  It occurs to me, in the stillness, when Rosario, Isaiah, and Nick are soothed by their dreams, that I can remember nearly everything important if I concentrate long enough and have enough stillness for my mind to recall what was long forgotten.  If it had to do with God, I will remember it with enough coaxing.

The project I am about to endure is daunting.  I don’t know where to begin a memoir about my faith, but what I do know is that I am no longer afraid to begin writing it.  I am, however, still steeped in the fear of what I will unearth, but I have come to the conclusion that that fear is healthy, perhaps even necessary in my telling such a story.  A story, I believe will probably be, the story of my life.  (Double entendre: story of my life literally, story of my life referring to importance and ambition).  Or maybe it just feels that way at the young age of 36 which IS young in the memoirist world.  I remember when 30 was old.  Such paradox, the writing age vs gestational age.

I keep thinking that this summer will deliver me from myself; like I will awaken as the person and writer I long to call myself, my skin clear of the self-inflicted bruises of perceived inferiority and doubt.  Someone without a shadow following me.  I continue doubting my ability to write despite a growing list of publications, even after a year of studying in a writing program.  The irony catches me, confounds me.  This explains whey I find such comfort in Day’s writings.  She began as a savvy journalist with an array of glittered literary friends in New York.  But then a shift happens.  She leaves the world of literature, art, and journalism and she writes of the decisions that eventually led her to pursue justice and a life of faith. What I read is the ultimate surrender to the haunting of what she described as a child.  Perhaps it is the haunting that most comforts me, the knowing that if others are haunted, it is not my imagination that a Ghost indeed exists, and that same Ghost, the one that accompanies me from birth to my unknown death, has cloaked the shoulders of others, asking for their life.  Her work gestures skyward as if to say, “There would be no shadow following you were the sun not shining over your shoulder.”

Writing about my faith is like asking me to fight in a war where I am both sides.  The battle field’s territory is my interiority.  There will only be one victor and one casualty, and they will be one in the same.  But if I am truthful, the war has been waging for years.  36 years to be exact.  Writing about it is just a formal sharing.

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Some Resurrections Take Time

I remember when I blogged for sanity.

I remember when I blogged to find a community of like-minded people.

I remember when I stopped blogging.

– And now I’m back to my site, here.  A lot of things have changed, and I’m returning to sharing the personal as a political act.

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I’m Here

Not only am I here, but I’m in many places – my own website, tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter.

I think someday I will learn how to keep everything in one place, until then though, I’m going to be in many places.

But this will always be home. HOME.

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Two Summer Homes

Sometimes the road feels like home.  The shoulders of highway feel like walls and the yellow dash line feels as familiar as the handrail going up the steps to the bedrooms.  Sometimes the car is my couch.  That’s how 2014 has been spent. Traveling.  Being uprooted, splintered weeks where a Wednesday feels as uneventful as Sunday.  When the days run together and all I’m checking in on is the weather: bliss.

In the midst of Nick’s ever traveling job, he meets up with us wherever we are in the country.  The past few weeks it’s been Norfolk International Airport.  Visiting my folks and then family vacation in the Outerbanks, Isaiah and I have been little beach bums, kicking sand off our sandals in our drive from the south all the way to Philadelphia for a wedding, and finally headed home last night.

I’m home, but the house is emptying as we ready for the New York move.  It’s home, but not.  It’s too clean to be called home.  The walls too bare, the floors too shiny, the simple decor too obviously minimized for strangers to be home.  Yet we’ve never been happier, healthier, or pleased.  We have so many tomorrows unfolding and life is too short to be spent in anything but gratitude.  Right now, I’m just enjoying that I have two homes: the road and this house with a small echo.

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Today we’re off to Russia. It’s a surprise.  Ron, my father in law, is retiring from the job he has had for 40 years. 40 years!  We’re sneaking in to surprise him on his last day of work after four decades of service.

What a privilege to have that kind of security, to move into your late years with security, pension, and pride of accomplishment.  I remember as a young adult thinking that the word “retirement” was one of the most depressing words in the English language. Now? I think it’s a word that drives me into a state of wonder. Celebrating not only retirement but the man who sacrificed many things to stay in that one place in his whole life; for family, roots, and belonging.  I am so proud of him.

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Back into Photography

I’ve been reading and writing more lately. Trying to establish the habits that I will surely need in my MFA program. I’ve found that I need to do something else to balance my literary heavy life. Photography came back into focus. I haven’t picked up the camera in a long time but I was reminded why I love it so much, how I feel the artistry of everyday came alive in small snapshots of the environment around me.

Although flowers are cliche, I am constantly reminded of how beautifully detailed they are, and how often they are ignored in the busy rush of the day.  Part of spirituality is to notice things, not for the sake of beauty, but for the sake of wonder. Wonder is the output of a spiritual awakening.

Find what awakens you. Keep coming back to it.

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Sisters Gone

Two Sisters

*For the two Indian sisters who were raped and murdered in India this week

They hung from a mango tree
after their sweetness had
all been stolen.
Hung to sway into a wind
that their skin could not feel.

“The Untouchables,” in a
caste system that hated them,
so much so they deemed them
unworthy of touch.
And so ironically, so violently,
they were left to be within anyone’s reach.

They swung from a mango tree,
hollowed and broken, for all
the village to see themselves.
No mangoes to pluck, all had been
under their watch.

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Morning Pages: Condemnation, Forgiveness, Righteousness

As I read today’s reading I’m thinking about condemnation and what all this means about judgement.  I’m still absorbing the news about Elliot Rodger who killed six other people in his self-loathing and misogyny.

He already was full of self condemnation, there is nothing further one can feel when already filled with self hate.  Even after everything he has done to those poor families of the murdered, I cannot ignore the level of self hate and rage he had, so much that he emptied it out onto others.

I sometimes wonder if people forget that hell isn’t always a burning place after we die.  Some are already living it here already.

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Morning Pages: Sexual Violence, Advocacy, and Spiritual Endurance

There is it. The word, the “A” word: advocate.

In my early days of being an advocate and educator for survivors of rape and sexual violence, I thought it primarily described my role as being a voice in times of silence.  Silence during invasive rape examination kits, I would be an advocate with my eyes and head, never breaking the gaze of a survivor who needed me to hold her stare while doctors did what they had to do for an investigation.  In the dim lit corners of trials and courtrooms, I walked beside survivors and often their crumbling family members who could not keep their emotions contained.  Advocacy, I learned, was not about supplying my voice in the place of silence.  It was much more body focused.  Knowing where to stand, and what presence to carry into each situation.  Mostly, though, it meant developing a profound understanding of the voices of others. Knowing when and how to help them shape it, use it, attend to it.  There are so many ways to advocate for survivors. Speaking for them, however, is usually not what’s needed though.

I wonder if these same qualities I learned in the field of sexual violence could be applicable to the spiritual world.  Who doesn’t need to learn when to listen, how to listen, undoing years of learning that responding is equivalent to saying something of worth?  Advocacy is the highest call to presence for another human being.  Who else have I been an advocate for?  Who else in my life needs me in similar ways, just not in those conditions?  If I look into my life, I’m sure I will find others who also feel abandoned by everyone – including God – and violated, betrayed, broken, and bewildered.  Perhaps I can begin to stop focusing on the whorl of my life, and fixate on being that for others.  I have been an advocate for survivors of sexual violence nearly all of my adult life and it has sensitized me beyond comprehension to the world of survivors.  But what survivors of violence need overlaps with what we all need: radical compassion, a loyal friend, honesty, and fellowship of anger at the injustice of the world.

Today is Memorial Day weekend, and I remember all the women who have been lost in the war of violence. I uplift all the women who were killed, raped, tortured, held captive, enslaved, beaten, manipulated, used, and dismissed purely because of someone’s misogyny and unconscious spirit.

For what I believe about women in the world, I am prepared to be “kicked out of the synagogue” and, in terms of advocacy for women, killed.

They will expel you from the synagogues;
in fact, the hour is coming when everyone who kills you
will think he is offering worship to God.

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Morning Pages: An Untamed State

Is it possible to be a novice at something you’ve been doing for years?

Yoga instruction books explain the normalities of those newbies beginning yoga practices.  Understanding the body is essential to yoga practice and in the early stages of yoga, the body unleashes a reliable yet unexpected stream of energy.  This may help explain the decreased need for sleep early on.  But as the body adjusts and muscles are strengthened, the amount of sleep normally needed returns.  I always found that living contradiction marvelous. As the body uses new muscles which should deplete energy, the body experiences a temporary abundance of wakeness.  As the muscles become familiar to moves and stretches, the nocturnal pattern returns.

I have begun and left yoga only to return again months later. With my frequent stints, a lasting period of beginning and ending, I’m at a constant state of novelty. This disloyalty has continued for nearly two decades. The epiphanies are always the same once my body remembers the arches, pulls, and smooth arm arcs: I should keep this up. I should commit to furthering my practice. This feels amazing. And yet when my routine changes, my morning yoga is the first thing I remember to forget.

The same is true for prayer.  My kind of prayer. The kind of prayer where I stand in front of an closed window and open it slowly, allowing panefulls of breezes to wash over me. I stand in the same spot, hear the same creak in the wooden floors beneath my bare feet, listen to the trees rustle, temporarily pierced by a far away siren and take in the glory of mystery. Why am I here? Why was I born in this time? Who do I love, and do they know it?

I take it back.  Prayer is the first thing I remember to forget when things get hectic.

Reading a book, hard thick paged reading, was abandoned a long time ago. As a child, I read voraciously, to the point of my staunchly religious mother wondering if the devil was tempting me through silent words of a stranger’s mind because I read in secret, openly, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and every free moment in between.  My fifth grade teacher would tell you that the days she relented and treated the class to a game instead of quiet time, the class would squeal as they played Four Corners and I, to be obedient, would play along, too, but only with a book in my hands, my eyes moving left to right while I followed the herd of my friends, trying to choose a corner that would not be picked by whomever was It. Last one standing won the game and got to be It. Even with my book, never paying attention, I won and resented becoming It. It forced me to put my book down and play a silly game with lots of giggles. I wanted to be lost in the world of stories, guessing, and feeling like someone was drawing a picture for me in my head.

“Remain in me.” So says today’s reading.

Well, what does that mean? Remain in me? Who is “me?” Those beautiful trees I pray in front of in the morning? My noisily sleeping, teeth grinding child in the next room?  How does one remain?

“I have told you this…so that your joy might be complete.”

Ahh, yes, joy. That word that everyone writes in wedding cards and birthday greetings. That word people use to up the anty on happiness.  The idea that something beyond ourselves is attainable yet is only given by something other than ourselves, this Joy that must be granted, not oddly earned.

Joy is the even streamed energy that bolsters my joints, limbs, and mind. The sources for it are, unfortunately, those first things I remember to forget when life gets hectic: prayer, yoga, reading. And upon rumination, the list continues: friends, writing, dancing, painting, learning, laughing. These are the first things to go, the first people thrown off the boat to preserve whatever distortion we have of life.  But these are precisely the things we stay alive for.  What kind of survival ends with misery if all that gives joy is surrendered?

In the strange mix of extroversion and introversion, I need both relationships and solitude to thrive.  Somewhere along the way, I think, the idea that my life is purely to serve others without taking joy for myself began to breed, especially when I became a mother.  It is time to reclaim those pieces of myself in sustained practice.

Yesterday morning I did morning salutations and so I woke at 4am, feeling quite refreshed.  I picked up the book I had been waiting to read for quite some time, “An Untamed State” by an author and editor who is slowly shifting into a permanent state of Important in my life, Roxane Gay. I read for nearly three hours.  And I feel, suddenly, like the adult I envisioned I would be as a girl: a writer with big dreams, stealing literary moments when her family sleeps, running on foreign lands I’d never been with an expert tourist called an author. Today it was Haiti.  I close the book when my body calls for water, or food.  I go to write my morning pages.

God asks us to remain one with God. God is in us, We are in God. To remain in God is to remain in ourselves.

Do the things that continuously bring you back to yourself. God awaits in the pages, in the arm arcs, by the window pane.

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