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The Final Word Is Love: Dorothy Day on Human Connection, Music, and the Power of Community

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

The Final Word Is Love: Dorothy Day on Human Connection, Music, and the Power of Community

“Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks,” Walt Whitman counseled in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life. Hardly anyone has embodied and enacted this ideal more fiercely than the great journalist, social activist, and Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897–November 29, 1980) — a woman who practiced what she preached and lived her values in every way: Amid a postwar culture that embraced consumerism as an act of patriotism, she advocated for and lived in voluntary poverty; she defied the IRS by refusing to pay federal taxes on war; her protests against racism, war, and injustice landed her in jail on multiple occasions.

Although Day’s lifetime of activism, altruism, and infinite compassion for the fragility of the human spirit were motivated by her faith and she is now being considered for sainthood, her legacy remains an instrument of secular motivation for the pursuit of social justice and the protection of human dignity. She belonged to that rare breed of people who manage to live righteous lives without slipping into self-righteousness in the face of human imperfection in others, for they are all too intimately familiar with its existence in themselves. A century after Whitman embraced his multitudes, Day remarked of the contradictory parts of herself: “It all goes together.”

It is this allness that Day chronicles with tremendous courage and largehearted wisdom in her 1952 autobiography, The Long Loneliness (public library).

Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day

In a sentiment that calls to mind artist Agnes Martin’s assertion that “we all have the same inner life” and Cheryl Strayed’s assurance that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” Day considers the impulse to share one’s interior world with the exterior world — an immensely vulnerable-making act and yet, ultimately, an act of love:

Writing a book is hard, because you are “giving yourself away.” But if you love, you want to give yourself. You write as you are impelled to write, about man and his problems… You write about yourself because in the long run all man’s problems are the same, his human needs of sustenance and love.

Joining in the choir of celebrated writers who have extolled its singular power, Day points to music as a supreme solace for the human heart and its universal longings. Recounting hearing a psalm at the age of ten and being electrified by an indescribable, all-consuming joy — a joy Aldous Huxley memorably described as the “blessedness” of the musical experience — Day reflects on her lifelong relationship with music and art:

Whenever I felt the beauty of the world in song or story, in the material universe around me, or glimpsed it in human love, I wanted to cry out with joy. The Psalms were an outlet for this enthusiasm of joy or grief — and I suppose my writing was also an outlet. After all, one must communicate ideas. I always felt the common unity of our humanity; the longing of the human heart is for this communion.

Day ends her autobiography by returning to this longing for communion as the central driving force of human life — something we so easily forget when we buy into the divisive narratives of difference that make us fall apart and so easily remember when disaster and tragedy unite us into falling together. Day writes:

The final word is love… To love we must know each other … and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

Complement this particular fragment of The Long Loneliness with Elizabeth Alexander on the ethic of love, Martin Luther King, Jr. on what the ancient Greek notion of agape can teach us about breaking bread, Henry Beston on the power of community, and the great cellist Pau Casals on the measure of our humanity.

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Strong as a Bear: An Illustrated Celebration of Animals and Their Emotional Presence in Language

Free as a bird, busy as a bee, and the rest of the metaphorical menagerie of the human imagination.

Strong as a Bear: An Illustrated Celebration of Animals and Their Emotional Presence in Language

The human animal, the thinking animal, thinks with animals. We know that animal-based metaphors are central to our meaning-mongering and that metaphorical thinking is central to the development of children’s creativity, which means that animals are our constant companions in the sandbox of the imagination from childhood on.

In Strong as a Bear (public library), German author, illustrator, and graphic designer Katrin Stangl presents a playful take on this metaphorical menagerie of the human imagination through a series of illustrated idioms, existing and invented, exploring the emotional resonance between humans and other animals.

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Reminiscent of Blexbolex and vintage Soviet illustration yet entirely original, Stangl’s aesthetic emanates a jubilant simplicity suffused with a vibrancy of emotion.

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Strong as a Bear comes from Brooklyn-based indie picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion, publisher of such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion; photographs by Maria Popova

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Young Barack Obama on What His Mother Taught Him About Love

“Perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer.”

Young Barack Obama on What His Mother Taught Him About Love

In 1990, a promising law student and writer not yet thirty was elected as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. His editorial work for the journal impressed the publishers of the The New York Times imprint into offering him a book deal and so began his quest to capture “the fissures of race … as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — that mark our modern life.”

That young man was Barack Obama (b. August 4, 1961) and that manuscript became his lucid and lyrical memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (public library).

A beautiful writer with an unmistakable voice, Obama reflects on the extremes of ambition and self-doubt familiar to writers, all the more amplified by youth:

Like most first-time authors, I was filled with hope and despair upon the book’s publication — hope that the book might succeed beyond my youthful dreams, despair that I had failed to say anything worth saying. The reality fell somewhere in between.

It wasn’t until Obama had ascended in the political realm, more than a decade later, that his potent and poetic writing garnered the attention which its creative merit warrants. (I am reminded here of Hermann Hesse’s wonderfully prescient wisdom on publishing: “That stratum of writers and intellectuals which seems from time to time to lead because it shapes public opinion or at least supplies the slogans of the day — that stratum is not identical with the creative stratum.”) But his mother, Stanley Ann — one of the most captivating presences in the book — didn’t live to savor her son’s success. She had died of cancer, “with a brutal swiftness,” a few months after the book’s publication.

Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack
Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack

And yet it was she who had taught Obama about what would become the greatest guiding force of his life — the power of love, not only in the impersonally interpersonal political sense of building on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “experiment in love,” but in its most personal manifestation between two human beings who have chosen each other as partners in every dimension of life, the trying and the triumphant, and continue to choose each other every day of their lives.

In one of the most moving passages in the book, Obama tells the story of how his parents got together — an anecdote his mother once relayed, which illustrates the wonderfully imperfect yet unconditional nature of real love. He writes:

She sighed, running her hands through her hair. “We were so young, you know. I was younger than you are now. He was only a few years older than that…”

She stopped and laughed to herself. “Did I ever tell you that he was late for our first date? He asked me to meet him in front of the university library at one. When I got there he hadn’t arrived, but I figured I’d give him a few minutes. It was a nice day, so I laid out on one of the benches, and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. Well, an hour later — an hour! — he shows up with a couple of his friends. I woke up and the three of them were standing over me, and I heard your father saying, serious as can be, ‘You see, gentlemen. I told you that she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.’”

Embedded in the story is a broader meditation on time, the universality of the human experience, and what we each most long for as we surrender, often with enormous resistance and at the price of great discomfort, to love:

My mother laughed once more, and once again I saw her as the child she had been. Except this time I saw something else: In her smiling, slightly puzzled face, I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up — their parents’ lives revealed to them as separate and apart, reaching out beyond the point of their union or the birth of a child, lives unfurling back to grandparents, great-grandparents, an infinite number of chance meetings, misunderstandings, projected hopes, limited circumstances. My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives. The innocence she carried that day, waiting for my father, had been tinged with misconceptions, her own needs. But it was a guileless need, one without self-consciousness, and perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer. What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father, was … the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment. She saw my father as everyone hopes at least one other person might see him; she had tried to help the child who never knew him see him in the same way. And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.

Obama began writing this memoir the summer he met the love of his own life, 25-year-old Michelle Robinson. The two were married three years later and he soon came to echo what his mother’s story had taught him about love in articulating his own experience of that supreme human gift. In 1996, when Obama was still unsure of whether he would pursue a political career or become a writer, photographer Mariana Cook — who would later come to photograph some of the world’s greatest human rights leaders — visited Barack and Michelle Obama in their Chicago home as part of a project exploring coupledom in America.

Barack and Michelle Obama, 1996 (Photograph:  Mariana Cook)
Barack and Michelle Obama, 1996 (Photograph: Mariana Cook)

Cook conducted a short interview with the future President and First Lady, in which 35-year-old Obama reflects on the mystery and magnetism of his love for his wife:

Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from. But I also think in her eyes you can see a trace of vulnerability that most people don’t know, because when she’s walking through the world she is this tall, beautiful, confident woman. There is a part of her that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s abiding wisdom on the “moments of vision” that make relationships last, he adds:

What sustains our relationship is I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. And there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.

Dreams from My Father is a tremendously beautiful and insightful read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with Tom Stoppard’s perfect definition of love, Frida Kahlo on how love amplifies the beauty of the other, and Anna Dostoyevsky on the secret to a happy marriage, then revisit philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving.

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