I took the dog for a walk. It was colder than I expected, a bitter wind was blowing. I was dressed for the cold but not for the wind. Instead of going for our usual four miles, I cut it down to two miles. Along the route, we happened upon a house with a yard full of political signs.
Democratic and progressive signs.
If we had been in Bend that would be commonplace but not so much here in Redmond. I started to walk on by but decided I would stop by the house and thank them for having the gumption to put such signs up in this town.
I rang the doorbell.
There was no answer.
We have the same kind of doorbell so I knew if I spoke into it, they would get my message of thanks. As soon as I did, a woman swung open the door and invited me in.
We had never met before. Like me, she is relatively new to the area, having moved here via Southern California by way of 30 years in the UK.
What was the likelihood I was going to ring the doorbell of a woman who had lived in the UK for 30 years? We had so much to talk about as we stood in her living room, swapping stories about our husbands, about the UK, about moving, about travel, about the political climate in which we find ourselves. At one point, she reached out and wrapped me in the biggest of hugs and thanked me for ringing her doorbell.
I thought of all the Scots I met while studying in Scotland earlier this year, how they always had a story to share, and how they were never timid about approaching others to swap a story or two.
It’s difficult to make new friends as one grows older. We don’t have the history with them that we had with others. They don’t know our stories and we don’t know theirs.
I thought about that later that same day as I sat in the home of a charming Eugene woman who had invited me to come speak to her book club. We’d “known” each other via a mutual guy friend and through my work as a writer and hers as a juvenile advocate in the courts.
The book club is comprised of professional women – attorneys, CPAs, educators, CEOs, and the like. Intelligent, educated women who have been meeting together monthly for a quarter-of-a-century or more! They have been with each other through child-rearing days, divorces, marriages, career changes, health challenges, grandparenting joys and traumas. They’ve swapped books and even swapped dogs.
We talked for four hours and never ran out of stories to share.
I was the outsider to the group and yet they welcomed me as a sister.
You are family now, came the text affirming all that I felt while in the midst of those women.
That’s it, isn’t it?
The thing we all long for – a welcoming embrace.
The kind the neighbor I’d met on the dog walk gave me.
The kind the book club ladies offered me.
Before heading back over the mountain, I stopped to visit a former college roommate who has just returned from a 500 mile Camino trek.
I wanted to hear all about this journey she had made with her boy. She greeted me the way she has greeted me for over four decades now – with the embrace of a beloved friend. The kind of hug I missed so much during the pandemic. The kind we were too afraid to make for fear of passing a deadly virus to one another. I will never ever take hugging for granted. I am thankful for the vaccines that make it possible. I think often of those who did not rise up from this pandemic. Those who died alone, bereft of family and loved ones.
We talked as we hiked Mt. Pisgah, just up the road from Ken Kesey’s Oregon farm, and the gravesite of his boy Jed who was killed when a University of Oregon van carrying the wrestling team overturned on icy roads.
The first time I heard of Ken Kesey was in 1973 in Ms. Hussey’s Humanities Class at Columbus High School. I never imagined then that one day I’d actually live in Oregon, much less be able to recognize the home of Kesey. Or that I might grow up to be a writer myself.
My friend Peggy knew me back before I became a writer, back when I still had my southern accent. We met as college coeds at Oregon State. We’ve known each other longer than we’ve known our husbands, both named Tim.
What did you love most about your trek? I asked.
Being outdoors, she replied.
What about you? What did you love most about Scotland? she asked.
The people, I replied. They taught me that we can hold the strife of politics and policy in one hand, while grasping for all the good in life in the other. How to live in the tension of all that. They value different things than we do. They value community and it shows.
I met so many women out making the Camino trek on their own, Peggy said.
Did that surprise you? I asked.
No, not really. I think they needed to feel their own strength, she replied.
I get that.
It’s difficult to claim your own space as a woman, difficult to find your voice, difficult to demand that others respect your rights.
I read a story this week of Annie Besant while doing some research. Married to a vicar, Annie began to doubt the faith her husband possessed, the one that gave him permission to rule over her. One day she walked into his church, stood in the pulpit where he preached, and discovered she too had things to say. Her quest to claim her own voice came at a high price. She lost her financial security, her children, and her faith in the church she had grown up in.
For centuries the leaders of Christian thought spoke of women as a necessary evil, and the greatest saints of the Church are those who despise women the most …
Such writings as this, along with a pamphlet on contraceptives landed Annie in jail, and then in court.
If you think this fight for control over a woman’s body is new to your generation, or the generation of your mother, you would be wrong.
The fight for control over a woman’s body has been going on longer than SCOTUS ruling on Roe v Wade. Collectively men have long sought to have power over a woman’s body. In fact, many faith traditions make it a tenet of their faith that men have rights over the female body. Men have built societies throughout the world with an eye toward control over women. And too many women, unwittingly or compliantly, have participated in building the structures that oppress themselves.
I thought of that while sitting and listening to the women in the book club swap stories, and again while hiking up Mt. Pisgah with Peggy, and thinking of what the gal on the other end of the doorbell said about where she finds herself these days: I wish I had been smarter sooner.
Don’t we all?
It’s not lost on me, however, that conversations like the one I had with the women at the book club could not have taken place even 70 years ago. Such has been the power of patriarchy, a patriarchy still being taught in churches and academic hallways today. Even from the highest court in the land. Even in the hearts and minds of some of our most beloved kin and friends.
You do realize there are reasons why those in power don’t want women thinking too much.
People who think vote.
And when women vote, we almost always vote for improving our lives and the lives of the vulnerable.
That’s what men in power fear most- that their power will be diluted or dismantled as more people are looked after, cared for, tended to, raised up, given space in the public forum, and as God intended, welcomed with a warm embrace.
The way women and men freed from patriarchy do.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of The Murder Gene, available now.