My friend Dallas and his wife Liz have been entertaining a select bunch of us these past few weeks with tales of their trip through the Southwest. Today they were in Moab, Utah, where he saw this bit of advice on the back of a serape: “There are two ways to get rich…you can make more or you can require less.”
The advice seemed to be the glue that would bind together some recent thoughts that have been knocking at my door.
The clamor began when I was “visited” this past weekend by a quartet of strong-minded women, some exciting and magical, others more formally theological and a tad puzzling. Two were articulate and witty, even biting, another demanding, and the last inspirational if not mysterious and subtle. Some had been married and had had children, others had either chosen to remain by themselves or had been pulled into the cloister for whatever reason, and a special group had opted for lives of adventure. They all professed a feminism of one sort of another and a couple actually showed an inclination of being “feminine” in some way recognizable to this aging male child. Their speech ranged from the sardonic humor of the Georgia back country, to the sophistication that comes from a worldly perspective, to a weariness of “when will this all end,” to a touch of strident and confrontational prose without repose, to memories of a life well lived.
On a cold early Spring morning with eight more inches of snow on the ground and the promise of more to fall, I awoke early to do my hound dog/pussycat chores and to try to clear my mind in order to revisit what I had read the previous night. The author, Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, an academic and highly respected feminist theologian, had painted a vivid image of reviving what she described as the “Wisdom Tradition” in Christian theology. In her paper Wisdom Was Made Flesh and Pitched Her Tent Among Us, she makes an impassioned appeal to overcome prevailing church policies that deny women any significant role in the ongoing struggle to create a “community of equal disciples.” The paper was our reading assignment in a class I’m taking on the “feminine image of God.”
Being the only male in the class of ten, I’m most conscious of being watched a bit for any comments I might make. In the end, though, as I pondered her thoughts and reread the “highlights” of her paper, I got to the high ground and embraced her feminist frustration over how the church’s dogma of exclusion continues to subtract from rather than add to the full richness of faith.
For me, I also am learning to seek less in my pursuit of riches, especially with regard to religious matters. In this case, I thoroughly agree with her that the way around the maze of church entrenchment is through “genuine mutuality…to create a necessary, even if not sufficient, condition for further change in the church’s consciousness and social order.” Shedding restrictive dogma, rather than tightening it, is the path to a richer sense of what religion has to offer.
When my second “visitor,” Gloria Steinem, appeared, she was quick to ask the perennial question of why are we still fighting these old battles, these power skirmishes that are so bent on returning us to some crusty and outdated patriarchal time. As she elaborated in a recent interview with Judy Woodruff on The News Hour about the PBS documentary: Makers: Women Who Make America:
“…this is really a transformation we’re talking about to get to societies in which once again, as we once were, we are linked, not ranked, in which the paradigm of culture is the circle, not the pyramid, in which we understand that each individual is unique and could never have happened before or again, and is also part of the human community, and we stop looking at each other in groups.”
There’s a lot of solid wisdom and richness in what she says and it doesn’t reach for more, just the equality of what should be.
Next who came a’knocking was one of my all-time favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor. I’ve always been a fan of O’Connor, the fascinating lady from Georgia with an accent so thick it almost cost her admittance to the now Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1945 since no one could really understand what she was saying. But unlike others, O’Connor’s communications challenges were only vocal, not verbal. Her great collection of short stories Everything That Rises Must Converge scrutinizes territory ranging from race, faith, and morality.
She and Steinem both shared a birthday recently, which peaked my interest anew. Two different people from distinct worlds with striking ways of making their mark, they both were drawn to how and why people behave, for better or for worse. The one quote from O’Connor gave me an especially good chuckle:
“You shall seek the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
Perhaps both of these ladies can be seen as “odd” by some in conventional society today, but they both could see behind the masks of their detractors as well as the various drapes of Oz in society in general. What is particularly enjoyable about O’Connor is her way of describing the people who roam about in her short stories. Unlike Johnson who is focused on gender roles, O’Connor commented on being identified as a woman writer:
“I just never think…of qualities which are specifically feminine or masculine. I suppose I divide people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome, without regard to sex.”
In an introduction to A Good Man Is Hard To Find, Lisa Alther gives a good insight into the richness that O’Connor brings, especially when addressing the bland secular materialism of the nation as a whole:
“For all its failings, the South at its best has always encouraged a certain stubborn and prickly individualism, humility and awe in the face of nature, a reverence for ritual and good manners, a concern for spiritual and aesthetic and interpersonal values over and above the production and acquisition of goods.”
Again, going back to the serape with its bumper-sticker quote at the beginning of this essay, O’Connor’s kind of richness is not focused on having less, but on seeing the jewels in the crown. Her stories, which are filled with energetic women thoroughly formidable in the face of adversity, lend a dignity and lofty significance to the female experience.
And finally, the last to appear at my doorstep was not one person but four, a quartet within a quartet. They were four elderly ladies from the ever dwindling number of The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WWII, the women who worked at Oakridge, Tennessee, during the war on the development of the atomic bomb. No matter what your thoughts might be on this effort, these ladies from varying backgrounds, from girls fresh off the farm and out of high school to college graduates, were special. All these intrepid women on the trains coming to Oakridge had been told that their new jobs served one purpose only: to bring a speedy and victorious end to the war. As told by Denise Kiernan in her book, “The challenge in telling the story of the atomic bomb is one of nuance, requiring thought and sensitivity and walking a line between commemoration and celebration.”
But if anyone is worth celebrating, it’s these women. Their stories are there and remind us of real, not theoretical or fictional, accounts of women who made a difference. I invited them in to tell me more about their ventures, but there were now only three, the specter of the fourth fading away with her arms outstretched. I listened intently to what the others had to tell me. Their richness overwhelmed me.
Interesting enough was one of the slogans at Oak Ridge that reminded everyone to observe secrecy and not to blab about their jobs. In contrast to Johnson, Steinem, and O’Connor whose lives were ones of expression, these ladies had to sign an oath of silence. Everywhere was the reminder,
“Your Pen and Tongue Can Be Enemy Weapons”
So with thanks to the conversation of all these ladies, I’m trying to keep my identify afloat, avoid alienation, and gain a new appreciation of growing richer by requiring less. This quartet of feminine voices have opened a new window to enjoy a clearer view of what can be an ever widening world.