& Dorothy Day & improbable beauty
Someone I dated briefly told me—I think because I had told her that I am by disposition easily delighted and she had been reading a biography of Dorothy Day—that at the Catholic Worker House in New York, they used to plant seeds in the sidewalks and grow flowers, maybe clematis, maybe in the 1960s, that climbed up the building. She was right; I did find that delightful, and I thought about it every now and then. When I looked it up later, I couldn’t find much about it, because what I remembered wasn’t quite right. But it was also not entirely wrong. I saved the research I did in a Google doc, and when I discovered last week that November 29 marked forty-two years since Dorothy Day’s death, I dug it out again to tell you about it.
Morning glories come up—to bloom, one might say—in a few stories about the Catholic Worker Movement. That makes sense: Catholic Worker activists embrace voluntary poverty and radical hospitality in independent but loosely affiliated "houses of hospitality" across the world. They live, by choice and in solidarity, close to the margins. And that’s where morning glories grow best. (I don’t care for easy metaphors, but this story is full of them. Sorry.)
Morning glories are hardy and thrive in otherwise difficult conditions. They do well in poor soil and flourish with neglect, in places we might otherwise consider barren or unlovely. They trellis easily. Their leaves are heart-shaped. It’s because they are elsewhere seen as weeds that their unexpected beauty astonishes in places where little care has been taken or given. Of course they come up in Catholic Worker histories.
Here are a couple:
In 1950, a writer described the Cleveland, Ohio, neighborhood where a new Catholic Worker community had recently formed, a place where, among derelict homes, “some housewives, still young enough in heart to defy their environment, have flowers (brave as themselves) growing from window-sills: petunias, geraniums and verbena, and anaemic-looking morning glories held up by string.”
Thirty-some years later, a Baltimore Sun reporter found morning glories climbing up a string to a third-story window of a property owned by Viva House, a longstanding Catholic Worker community inaugurating a new nine-bed women’s shelter. “Anyone who plants morning glories on a beat-up Baltimore street must be optimistic about something," he wrote. And “anyone who turns his house into a shelter for homeless women can't be totally at odds with the future.”Brendan Walsh founded Viva House in 1968; he probably got the idea to plant morning glories while spending time at the Catholic Worker house at 55 East 3rd Street in Manhattan, down the block from Hell’s Angels HQ, where, yes, there were often morning glories in bloom. Day had bought the building in 1974, which she called Maryhouse, for use as a women’s shelter; she lived among the women who stayed there until her death six years later.
Day’s life had been one of material austerity and had gotten physically smaller as she aged: in her last months she rarely left her room. But the walls were, somehow, wide. In her room, she read, listened to opera on the radio, watched television, welcomed visitors, wrote and edited The Catholic Worker, noted when a friend brought asparagus from the Worker farm in Vermont.
And then there were morning glories.
In 1978, after a volunteer named Paul built window boxes for the facade, another worker, Mike, began planting morning glories each summer “with singular devotion.”Two summers later, near the end of Day’s life, Mike had “planted morning glories again”—seemingly “more morning glories than ever"—and trellised them with fishing line strung to a third floor window, so that they would “reach the window of Dorothy's room where she so often sits and watches the children play across the street. Then the vines will fill with colorful bell-shaped blossoms, which—in spite of city dirt and din, and with some help from sun—will for many weeks come to give morning glory to the Lord." By September 1980, she had stopped going downstairs for Mass, and the morning glories—white, pink, lavender—had indeed climbed to the third floor.
The flowers delighted Day, as many things did. She loved John Ruskin’s phrase “the duty of delight,” which she understood this way: “as one gets older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on earth, the suffering, the Cross. And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving.”
In this spirit, perhaps, Maryhouse volunteers have planted morning glories on and off since her death. In 1982, a Maryhouse resident wrote that "the strings from the third floor to the moat fence appear like a primitive design for the entire third floor elopement. The plants (not the suitors) have already begun their climb."Volunteers mention the flowers in the pages of The Worker once in a while.
By 2002, they were a legend, the morning glories: “Frank and Bill O. tell me there was a time when morning glories stretched all the way from the dining room windows up the front of the house, to the third floor. I’m too lazy for all that work, but Michael and I did put a couple of strings from the front fence up to the windows on the second floor. We’ll have to see how it goes, or grows. I hope, by the time you are reading this, the front door at 55 East Third Street will be under a green canopy.”
Anyway. You see what I mean about easy metaphors. Sometimes it’s okay for things to be easy, I guess.
update 12/15/22: I added detail about the window boxes and changed the Maryhouse illustration.
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