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Day by the Pool

My poolside reading in Tuscany this summer was not Life With My Sister Madonna or Obama Nation or even Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power (though I packed it), but, alliteratively, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day.

The pool, incidentally, was lovely. It overlooked Arezzo, and, since the agriturismo where we were staying is used mainly by Germans, it was clean, orderly, and the filters worked. Even the kids were courteous: when I slid into the pool, they stopped horsing around and moved to one side, delicately averting their eyes.

It wasn’t Dorothy Day country, that’s for sure. The Lower East Side is Dorothy Day country. That is where, in 1933, she and Peter Maurin launched the Catholic Worker, a monthly newspaper still going strong and still selling for a penny a copy.

A paper wasn’t enough, however. Dorothy dedicated herself to the care of the poor and dispossessed. As a pacifist and anarchist, moreover, she campaigned ceaselessly against “Holy Mother State” and did time in jail for civil disobedience. By the time she died in 1980, at age 83, she was loved by political romantics of all stripes, not least conservatives. Rome is now considering her cause, and she may be made a saint.

Those of you who are familiar with guilt will know what I mean when I say that I felt some conflict between my supine hedonism in Arezzo and Dorothy’s life of self-denial and monastic discipline.

One afternoon, a bit spooked by Dorothy’s asceticism, I turned to my wife and asked whether it was a sin to sunbathe. “Of course not,” she said. “What about wearing lipstick, then?” I asked her. She rolled her eyes. “You know what your trouble is? You are a Calvinist.”

Dorothy Day might have rolled her eyes, too, but then again, she might not. She had a keen, though forgiving, eye for the absurd. On Dec. 28, 1953, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, she noted, “Fr. Elias showed up quite the worse for wear after a wet Christmas in town. … During the newspaper strike last month [he] came in before breakfast announcing that Churchill was dead—a way to distract our attention from his condition.” The crazy cunning of the drunk, eh? As even young readers will know, Churchill was not remotely dead in 1953. He died in 1965.

Dorothy tried not to judge the people who sought shelter in the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality. She shared their life, down to the bedbugs and the lice. On top of that she went to Mass daily and said the divine office, wrote continually (and very well), and gave lectures all over the country.

Sometimes she listened to opera on the radio or watched a ball game on television. Once she went to “My Fair Lady.” But otherwise there was hardly a moment’s peace. If it wasn’t one thing it was another. Sept. 8, 1967: “Placid went wild last night, screaming fire thru the house, trying to throw Jackie off the roof ‘to save her,’ and running screaming through the home. He finally jumped off the roof of the library room, Margie … said he ran to her saying he was burning in hell. They had to call the state Troopers…”

Dorothy did not much care for calling the cops, however, perhaps seeing such involvement as a compromise with Caesar, with Mammon, with the capitalism and welfarism she loathed. Her father described her as the “nut of the family.” As a young woman she had been a Marxist, a Greenwich Village boho and boozer. She was once married for a year and had a child by another man. She also had an abortion. In 1927, she became a Catholic. “I wanted to be poor, obedient and chaste,” she later recalled. She was not someone who’d been born holy. She was one of us, but courageous, principled, and smart.

Her spiritual example—her life of love—is humbling. Her political example makes me appalled to reflect that I was once a movement conservative and regarded Charles Krauthammer as a deep thinker. Just occasionally, though, the old me resurfaces when I read these diaries and my knee begins to jerk. Dorothy certainly cut Castro too much slack, and her hostility to the Vietnam War was at times just a tad self-righteous.

Yet she was never a patsy for the counterculture. On the contrary. An entry from June 23, 1967: “I felt in view of the blood and guts spilled in Vietnam the soldiers would like to come back and kill these flower-power-loving people. … Middle-class affluent homes, they have not known suffering.”

What a great American Dorothy Day was, how brave, how free, how honest. Here is an entry from March 15, 1951: “This afternoon, glimpses of my own ugliness, vanity, pride, cruelty, contempt of others, levity, jeering, carping. Too sensitive to criticism, showing self-seeking love.”

Story of my life. St. Dorothy, pray for us.    

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