There were tiny flower gardens and vegetable patches in the yards. Often there were rows of corn, stunted but still recognizable, a few tomato plants, and always the vegetables were bordered by flowers, often grateful marigolds, all sizes and shades with tier pungent odor. I collected odors in my memory, the one beauty in those drab streets. The odors of geranium leaves, tomato plants, marigolds; the smell of lumber, of tar, of roasting coffee; the smell of good bread and rolls and coffee cake coming from the small German bakeries. Here was enough beauty to satisfy me.
This is how Dorothy Day describes her childhood in her autobiography The Long Loneliness. I’ve been a fan of Day as a human being and a thinker for a while now, but have only recently found time to read her closely in her own words. Right away, I’m impressed by how good a writer she is. Read that quote above again. It crackles with energy. It’s descriptive but not turgid, the language original but not pretentious, and the memory clearly nostalgic but not sentimental. Her talent as a writer is unfairly overshadowed by her personal reputation, which I suppose is a good problem to have, but still, I wish I’d read her work sooner.
One of the themes she builds throughout the book is that of existential loneliness. For instance, she records how she wept at night after moving out of the family house to attend college, and how she felt desolation at not holding her baby brother in her arms each night. Outside of this communion of familial love, she experienced the world as an ugly place and began to use profanity to express her rupture with the world. This last detail, which she is careful to elucidate, shows her sensitivity to the way in which her words and her inner spiritual state are intimately connected. If her life overshadows her art, perhaps we ought not be so hasty to separate the two in the good or the bad.
Later, as a young, eager social activist looking to make a mark on the world and overcome her existential angst, she manages to get arrested. While on a hunger strike in prison, she writes,
I had no sense of being a radical, making protest against a government, carrying on a nonviolent revolution. I could only feel darkness and desolation all around me. The bar of gold which the sun left on the ceiling every morning for a short hour taunted me; and late in the afternoon when the cells were dim and the lights in the corridor were not yet lit, a heartbreaking conviction of the ugliness, the futility of life came over me so that I could not weep but lie there in blank misery.
She speaks of never being free again, knowing the metaphysical prison of ugliness that sin causes. Most interestingly, the experience prompts her to question the very meaning of good and evil. She speaks of it like a wound, an experience that affected her far more deeply than any theoretical pondering about injustice. It was the direct, sensory
experience of evil. And then, the Bible she has asked for finally arrives at her cell. She reads the Psalms, written by a man who knows sorrow and yet expects joy. In the scriptures, she finds, the ugliness of suffering meets beauty. In the meeting, beauty proves to be the stronger of the two, such that it makes even suffering beautiful if it is accepted out of love.
The key to overcoming the long loneliness is not to escape it but to embrace it. To lose your life for love of the beauty all around, particularly the human souls with whom we make our pilgrimage. In this way, even ugliness is redeemed and transformed. In that encounter, which is the very nexus of human existence, is built a true community of persons. The ugliness of a Catholic Worker house with its random alcoholic tenants, its over-eager and under-educated poor, its maniacal would-be street-corner preachers, its smudged off-white curtains in the living room, its simmering pot of mashed potatoes covered in canned mushroom sauce meant to feed army, the willingness of those within to mingle with criminals and vagrants, to write for their simple newspaper simple articles to be sold at street corners for a penny apiece – This is beautiful. The long loneliness is only overcome by a beauty which is truly communal, whose beating heart is pierced for love. Anything else is whistling in the wind.