When I turned 50, I decided to celebrate in my own way; not with a glitzy party, not with a spa weekend, not with a blowout shopping spree or a Caribbean cruise; but with a croning. I rented a cabin in the woods in Hocking Hills in southern Ohio, invited 15 of my women friends – women I’d known for 20 some years, raising children in common, helping each other in times of need, celebrating holidays together. Some were also long-standing staff members at my marketing & publishing firm at the time and we had been working together every day for many years.
I called my celebration a croning not because I knew anything about croning celebrations but just because it felt right – the designation sounded mysterious, yes old, powerful, connected to the earth and rooted in nature, somehow. I asked my friends each to submit her favorite photo from her lifetime, her favorite piece of music from her younger years, and tell me about her favorite Chick Flick scene from a movie of the past. With all of this, I created a poster celebrating our lives and our crone-hood, a compilation of all of our music on a CD, and a VHS of best clips from the best movies of the past decades. These were our “party gifts” – everyone got a poster and a CD, and we watched the movie clips together on our first night in the cabin.
I had a sign just days before our weekend; my daughters and I went for a last visit to a local bookstore that was closing its doors for good, victim to the big chain trend. We entered a largely empty cavern, with a forlorn zig zag of empty cases skewed this way and that throughout the back two-thirds of the floor. In the front, right behind the registers, were maybe four cases with books – books jumbled, lying on their sides, orphans and widows and picked over discards. I looked through a few little piles, knowing I’d come too late to find anything good. And there on a shelf right at eye level was a small, square book, titled Celebrating the Crone, by Ruth Gardner. I kid you not. There it was. What kind of coincidence is that, I ask you?
What happened at my croning weekend was remarkable. We all brought food, wine, candles, bathing suits, and hiking boots. We cooked all of our favorite dishes, drank, snacked, partied in the hot tub, hiked, and talked. We talked about incredible things. On the second night I filled a little basket with folded slips of paper, each with a different question I’d written earlier that week. By candlelight, we passed the basket. Each of us in turn selected a question and answered it.
I felt as though I was sitting in the middle of a scene in a Chick Flick of my own. I was warmed by the honesty, entertained by the fumbles and foibles that were shared, gladdened by the sources of pride that were humbly revealed, and stunned – and I mean absolutely stunned – to learn for the first time of many major, personal and unbelievable events – losses, tragedies, hurts, and challenges that many of us had endured, suffered, or conquered, and been shaped by fundamentally. These were revelations never before known to me – not even after having shared childcare, gathered at every major holiday, met for coffee a thousand times, talked at wee hours, and worked side by side for twenty plus years!
A few years have passed since then. I’ve moved across the country, back to my native Redondo Beach, California, leaving these wonderful women behind. I’ve formed many new valuable bonds and friendships in the intervening years with women from all over the country. And in the summer of 2011, I thought, “I would like another croning celebration, but much bigger, and with a purpose – a time and a place for many women just like me to gather, and consider our lives up until now, contemplate our futures, and give ourselves knowledge, support, and most of all permission to make some changes going forward, if we so desire.” I envisioned bringing together women from all walks of life and all kinds of accomplishments and expertise. I thought – how powerful and uplifting would it be to retreat with women from my era – with a shared intent to consciously choose what our lives will be as we step forward – to, as we did when we entered college – declare a new major?
I started mentioning this wish without even intending to, almost whenever I engaged in a conversation with another woman of my generation. And the response was overwhelming: I was met with enthusiasm – ideas – follow-up emails – introductions – encouragements. It just kept going. And here we are.
The meaning of our gathering in October for each of us will be different. But I hope that every one of us enters our retreat with an open mind and a hopeful heart, and I hope that as we walk out the doors at the end, we will each say of ourselves:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” – Rabbi Hillel
“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.” - Proverbs 31:25
Ann Voorhees Baker