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.

Are You There, Margaret? It’s Me, God: On Body, Profanity, and Anger

January is a war on our bodies. It’s a war in so many ways. It’s nestled right after a holiday speckled December, full of drink and food sprees, exit fall/begrudgingly hello winter, and January is there. Waiting. Regardless of the bleak gray sky, we wipe our mental boards clean and vow better habits, more living, less poor choices. And some take January and the promise of more living to declare war on their bodies. The dieting, restricting, cold turkey, no holds barred workouts.

It’s no wonder the war is conceded by Valentine’s Day. It’s never sustainable.

Body consciousness is taking center stage.

I’ve been thinking about my body. A lot. Experience has told me that while there’s a temptation to generalize that most women suffer from body hyper vigilance, I know that while the stressors are different, this vigilance very much includes men. Who DOESN’T think, criminalize, criticize, and punish their bodies in January? At the very least, most people take a hard look in the mirror and pick ourselves apart, one limb at a time.

So when I read THIS, a jarring response essay by the profane yet sensitive Margaret Cho about her history of body issues after she received horrid comments about her body and recently inked tattoos, I paused. She goes ape shit on two readers.

Things I could say should be left unheard and unsaid because I am not willing to be the bigger person. I do not take the high road. I take the low road and blows below the belt are my absolute favorite. The best revenge is not living well. The best revenge is revenge.

About 2% of me, all raised-eye brow and all, thinks, “Oh, Cho – c’mon. Don’t take the low road.”

And the 98% of me rejoiced. It was so refreshing, and honest. It was like the part of me that I am in a room with only the closest people I know; where you laugh too loudly at inappropriate things; where you say what needs to be said in whatever words find their way to your tongue without censoring. Dammit, she’s honest. She’s so honest about NOT taking the high road. Cho received staggering points from my respect bank simply because she’s not one of these faux reputation, Tiger Woods family man/I’m actually “addicted” to sexing White women in dirty places facade. Cho claims nothing but herself, which includes CHOOSING to go below the belt.

I couldn’t help but feel ghosts around me. Misty, clammy ghosts that appeared in the room and gently licked my skin, bringing me back to my 10, 14, 17, 23, year old self when words, hate, eye daggers and jokes were thrown at me because of my weight, my skin color, my heritage, my hair, my hairiness, my almond eyes. The ghosts were as real as ever. My breath caught and I suddenly was a little girl being told to go back to my own country. Being called every kind of word used to describe round and full. Then I was a teenager being told to only date my own. Own what? “YOUR own.” Then a running, young woman with a car full of teenage boys speeding by yelling derogatory slurs. Then there was the eroticizing of my racial make up. And then, always, there is teasing. Relentless, torrential, acid rain on the tender skin of growing up girl.

I fly my flag of self-esteem for all those who have been told they were ugly and fat and hurt and shamed and violated and abused for the way they look and told time and time again that they were “different” and therefore unlovable.

The body is a war zone we grow up in. For those who are accepted as “normal” and capable, light skinned and perky, demure or graceful, it’s a playground. But for those of us on the other side of the fence, it’s a battleground. I was never beat as a POW, but there are scars reminding me that Cho is right. When those around you patrol and use your body for shooting practice, how are we not suppose to grow up defensive and use what we can for survival? I dismiss Cho’s critics (or her lone “lost a fan” fan) who call her words too harsh and unnecessary.

How does one measure abrasive behavior when bound in a triggering and defensive situation? Why are we so quick to jump on those who defiantly take below the belt shots in defense when its clear the attack was unjustified? I think those who did not undergo hard times are quick with their high road lectures and low on understanding human psychology.

Being called ugly and fat and disgusting to look at from the time I could barely understand what the words meant has scarred me so deep inside that I have learned to hunt, stalk, claim, own and defend my own loveliness and my image of myself as stunningly gorgeous with a ruthlessness and a defensiveness that I fear for anyone who casually or jokingly questions it, as my anger and rage combined with my intense and fearsome command of words create insults meant to maim, kill and destroy.

If words are used to kill someone’s spiritual and mental livelihood, it makes sense that their vitreous ego’s defense is made of the same ammunition: words.

And call me a crazy Catholic, but I hear a spiritual knock on the door of Margaret Cho. There’s something familiar about her beckoning injured birds to come to her for comfort.

I want to defend the children that we still are inside, the fragile sensitive souls who no matter how much we tried were still told we were not good enough. I want to make the world safe and better and happy for us. We deserve beauty, love, respect, admiration, kindness and compassion. If we don’t get it, there will be hell to pay. I am no saint, but I am here for you and me. I am here for us, and I am doing the best I can.

I think there’s a God, or Buddha, or Spirit, or Life, or Universe, or WHATEVER you want to call the deeper Source of our existence, there in her words; rising up to defend what she knows is rightfully true: our inner selves, fragile and uncertain, still need assurance and community.

I think that when we rise to defend ourselves, what was ugly turns into something divine. Perhaps divine, for some, is equated to some pristine, soft green mountain side with Julie Andrews twirling in mother nature. But for me, rising up to defend our humanity IS divinity. Cho self-stamps herself as damaged and gorgeous, not saintly. And there’s something spring water refreshing about that. There’s something cathartic and necessary about her uproarious defensiveness. It reminds me how acutely human we are at any time, whether on Twitter or working in a factory, or writing in a library. We, at any time, are so vulnerable to the thoughts and words of others that we cannot take each other for granted. We can no longer afford to assume that those around us are not tender. We cannot afford to assume that the memories of those we encounter are blemish-free. And we can no longer mislabel aggressive defense as aggression. Not for those who have been the cork board for thousands of pin jokes. Rising up for ourselves is not rude. It is not unstable. It is not crazy. You haven’t truly lived until you defended yourself against pure spite. As
each one of us designs our path of connection to others, we also design our individualized plan of defense for self-preservation.

There’s a time and a place for healthy and healing and bomb-like anger – which is different from the foul breath of negativity – just as there’s a time and a place for the high road. When you learn the difference and know when to practice the former, it’s become a rite of passage.

If you haven’t yet defended yourself against unwarranted hatred, don’t explain to others to take the high road.
If your body has not undergone physical violation or emotional trauma of harassment, do not assume you can locate and point to the high road.
If your life has not been used as a target for cheap funnies, hasty attempts for laughter at your expense, don’t judge the response of the humiliated.

January is a declared war on our bodies. Let’s start a revolution and wave a white flag. Wave it high, unfettered, and free. We surrender to no one but ourselves.

I grew up hard and am still hard and I don’t care. I did not choose this face or this body and I have learned to live with it and love it and celebrate it and adorn it with tremendous drawings from the greatest artists in the world and I feel good and powerful like a nation that has never been free and now after many hard won victories is finally fucking free. I am beautiful and I am finally fucking free.

40 Days of Writing: Day 1

My personal Lenten prayers and resolves live somewhere in my head and heart, but one thing I am sharing is my belief that Lent is a time of affirmation and growth.

Is what you are doing bringing you closer to God?? That is the question for me this year.? All that I do, all that I say, all that I think…is it bringing me closer to what I believe and who I believe God to be?

As Melissa Harris-Lacewell now Melissa Harris-Perry shares in this beautiful post about her womanist perspective of Lent, I began agreeing with some of her points.? Is really that fruitful to give up small indulgences like candy or chocolate, cursing, or bad habits?? When done in good faith, these restrictions?make us feel good and they definitely feel good when we return to them once the 40 day deprivation is over come Easter.? But the larger question remains: no matter what you resolve, no matter what you give up or intend to do or promise to finish or vow to avoid, does this bring you closer to God?

Does this bring you closer to God?? Closer to the ____________ whatever you claim and label that *Divine Otherness to be?? Universe.? Mother.? Spirit.?

Does this bring you closer to that?

Giving up things can clear our spiritual and mental palettes.? It can offer clean, unadorned tables of clarity and reflection.? But, for many people, that’s not enough for 40 days.? So many times, self-sacrifice and deprivation become synonymous with spiritual growth and faith development.? They’re not synonymous.? It’s the meaning we attach to our rhetoric that gives us the space to deepen our relationship with God.

I gave up some things.? And I committed myself to actions that I believe will bring me to a higher understanding of self, God, and relationship.

One of those practices is daily writing.? So often in the real world of publishing, editing, and cultural critique, the 7 year old girl who wrote simply because she loved to write gets pushed behind the woman who believes that perfect sentences reveal more than honest confessionals.

My 40 days of lent are not about absolution or confessing to the world my mistakes and oversights and shortsightedness.? Come Easter Sunday, I want to be able to claim a sweeter soul, an undisturbed tongue, a relational spirit, a loving mind.

And so I shall write everyday.

40 days of writing…who knows what will be birthed?

Today’s Ecdysis

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