Features and Occasionals

Red Tent

By Elaine Jarvik

An intergenerational dialogue about aging and the four stages of a woman’s life—the maiden, the mother, the matriarch and the crone.

The kindest of the dictionary definitions of “crone” comes from Merriam-Webster: withered old woman.

Things go downhill from there. Oxford adds “ugly” and Dictionary.com insists on “witchlike.” In case you need it used in a sentence, this fragment is offered on-line: “a run-down house that was inhabited by a cantankerous crone who kept to herself.”

Apparently the public perception of the word hasn’t changed much since the Crones Counsel was co-founded two decades ago by the late Shauna Adix, long-time director of the University of Utah’s Women’s Resource Center. But as the group gears up for its 20th-anniversary gathering this October, it holds fast to its own definition: “A crone is a woman of age, power and wisdom.”

It also holds fast to its spelling of Counsel. They don’t mean to be a Council, with a hierarchy and rules. They mean to be a gathering of women who listen to, encourage and support one another. They mean to be a group that is honest and hopeful about growing old.

“Women are more afraid of growing old than dying,” notes Susan Ann Stauffer, who wrote her PhD dissertation on the Crones Counsel in 2007. Indeed, we are a country where teenagers now use Botox, and 60 is touted as the new 40.

But the truth is that there are a lot of old people in America. And Americans are living older longer than ever before in history—an average of 30 extra years, a kind of second adulthood, says cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. It’s not 30 years tacked on to the end of life, it’s 30 years of an extended middle age or an early old age. These are people who are often still healthy and who can still be useful.

Bateson was in Salt Lake last Spring, talking about her book “Composing a Further Life.” Now 72, she says she remembers thinking about her own future as she hit the standard retirement age, stacking it up against the general consensus that golf might be a worthy pastime. “Playing golf for 30 years—it sounded to me like something from Dante,” Bateson says, referring to the various Circles of Hell.

“Longevity requires we rethink our lives in fundamental ways,” Bateson told her audience that evening at the University of Utah. We need to ask these questions, she said: “What am I here for? What’s worth doing and why? What does it mean to get old?”

Bateson set out to answer those questions by doing lengthy interviews of older men and women, then writing it all up in a book. The Crones Counsel’s approach is a lot more experiential and experimental —throw a bunch of women together for several days and let them talk, listen, sing if they feel like it, offer spontaneous standing ovations, ask for standing ovations for themselves, and honor what the rest of their culture often discounts. There are no keynote speakers, no panel of experts, no Power Point. Storytelling —their own stories, told without notes and without restraint —are the heart of the gathering.

The first Crones Counsel was held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1993 and drew 110 women from around the West. The seventh was held in Salt Lake and drew 400. There have been annual gatherings as far east as Tennessee, and women have come from as far away as Australia. Crones Counsel 2012 will be held at Salt Lake’s Airport Hilton October 10-14.

This will be Naomi Silverstone’s first Crones Counsel event. She’s heading toward retirement from the University of Utah, where she has been professor in the College of Social Work for 30 years, and says that frankly, at age 67, she sometimes feels invisible to her students.

At Crones Counsel 2012 she’ll be in charge of “The Red Tent Event,” which gets its name from the 1997 novel by Anita Diamant and the “Red Tent communities” that have sprung up around the world—fabric refuges where women feel safe to talk about their bodies and their lives.

Silverstone wants to make space for intergenerational dialogue around each of the four stages of a woman’s life: maiden, mother, matriarch and crone, and hopes the “Red Tent” will attract both young and old women. There are no age limits, at either end, for any parts of the weekend. In fact, several Crones Counsel regulars have been attending since they were in their 30s or 40s.

“I was 45 when I went to my first one,” says Janice Brooks, who looked around at the vibrant 80- and 90-year-olds then and thought, “This is what I want to grow up to be.”

Earlier this summer, at a planning meeting for the October event, 32-year-old Annie Kennedy sat around the table with women decades her senior and explained why she wants to be involved. “I think we’re really thirsty for direction,” she says about her age group. “We’re wide-eyed women looking for role models.” Kennedy, a Salt Lake visual artist, is in charge of creating what she calls the “portable sacred space” of the Red Tent.

Like Crones Counsels in the past, this one will include a lot of storytelling, informal workshops (in previous years these have run the gamut from tap dancing to “how to plan your own funeral”), and a culminating “Croning Ceremony.”

“We tend to look at aging as a downward arc,” says Stauffer, who has been attending the Counsel since she was 43 and is now both an instructor in the University of Utah’s new Social Work program in St. George and sits on the Crones Counsel Board. “But if you de-couple aging from death, you begin to see it as its own time. It’s our own landscape, our own place.”

Sitting around the planning session a couple of months ago, Stauffer explained that “it’s the responsibility of the older woman to show her face.”

“And her neck,” added Kaye Chatterton, who attended the very first Crones Counsel at age 49 and is now 70. Everyone laughed. Crones tend to be more accepting of wrinkles, as well as natural hair color. But there is no set way to grow old, they say.

Dictionaries may call them withered and even witches, conjuring up cranky women without teeth, but these Crones prefer to think of themselves the way anthropologist Bateson would—as “wise activists” who can perhaps steer the world toward fairness and peace. Not an old hag crone, they say, but a “fairy godmother crone” who honors, embodies and celebrates the deep wisdom of the aging process, an “evolutionary pathfinder who is midwifing a new old age.”

Elaine Jarvik is a freelance writer and playwright. Her plays have been produced at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, and locally by the Salt Lake Acting Company and Pygmalion Theatre Company.

Crones Counsel 2012: Looking Back, Moving Forward runs Oct. 10-14 at the Hilton Salt Lake City Airport, 5151 Wiley Post Way. For information on registration, fees and schedules, visit www.cronescounsel.org or email info@cronescounsel.org.

This article was originally published on August 31, 2012.