130 women, from 16 states, ranging in age from 42 to 76, all identifying themselves as “Crones,” gathered together for the first national “Crones Counsel.” Shauna Adix, 60 years old, was the organizer for this pioneering event. Back in 1972 she had founded the Women’s Center at the University of Utah, one of the very first in the country. Three years ago she retired. Ever since then, she has been meditating on the question, “What is Crone Work?” This event was Shauna’s initiation onto her new path. She and her group of 12 women in Salt Lake City worked for a year to bring us all together on Thursday evening, October 14, at the Snow King Resort in Jackson, Wyoming.
I could feel Shauna silently performing the alchemical work of creating and holding the space open as the conference began. After helping us feel at ease in this unusual gathering, with many jokes and asides, and fielding a few logistical questions, she moved to the front of the small stage, dropped her voice into an intimate tone, and spoke of her last few years in litigation. A former woman employee had sued her for sexual harassment. Although she eventually won the case, for two years Shauna was dragged through the courts and into the media.
Standing on the stage infront of a room full of strangers, she told us of her ordeal. Her face clouded, darkened, thickened with the memory. She put her hands in her pockets, told us how she went around for those years with her hands in her pockets, lest she touch someone and they hate and shame her for it. “But now,” she said, her eyes beginning to tear, her voice to choke, “when I think of this gathering, it is like this”–her arms reached to embrace us all–“with my arms out, wanting to touch, to connect…” With this one story wrenched from her open wounded heart, Shauna set the tone for the entire weekend.
Shauna then showed us a cape and crown she had brought for the occasion. She donned them and strutted across the stage. “Just in case you want to wear them,” she said, “when you are speaking to the group… And oh, one other thing. Whoever wants a standing ovation, at any time during the weekend, just ask for it!” Which is exactly what many women did; we stood and clapped and cheered for one woman after another countless times during that weekend. This simple instruction was amazingly effective. It gave us permission to continuously identify, tap into, and express the energy present in all these “old women” who, in any other context, might be completely invisible.
“And now,” Shauna said, “I turn the microphone over to you. Who wants to come up here and share your story with us?” Immediately, a hand shot up, and the first woman walked up to the microphone, donned the cape and crown, and began to speak. I was riveted.
That morning, I had awakened with a terrible cold and debilitating headache. I came to the conference in a thickened, mucusy state, hardly able to say hello, much less show the joy I was feeling in seeing this long dreamed of event come to pass. But when that first woman opened her mouth and began to spin her web, I went suddenly on alert, spine erect, tingling. She was followed by another, and another, all of them telling stories from their lives, one by one walking up proudly to speak, each in her own strong, individuated voice.
- There was the “dung beetle story” (as we called it afterwards): a lean vibrant woman in her 50s told us her habit of being the caregiving co-dependent was so strong that recently she even tried to help a dung beetle carry his dung! She finally realized that even the lowly beetle wanted to deal with his own shit.
- And there was the petite woman in her 60s who lost her husband six years ago. She fell into depression, thought her life was over. “I had planned to get married, and I had planned to have children. I hadn’t planned for anything beyond that!” Gradually she awakened to new life, to her first taste of real freedom. Recently she bought a house with two other women and they are moving in together.
- And there was the white-haired 71-year-old woman who marched up with a hearty devil-may-care attitude–to announce that she has been attending classes at her local university for 12 years! (Her husband is the one who stays home for all the grandchildren.)
That night I could not sleep as my headache swelled to fill the universe. Wanting to leave my body. Wanting to be done with this dis-ease. Wondering why I had to pick these exact days to have this cold…yet seeing the irony in the situation, how perfect it was. I feared this gathering, its effect on me. I feared the encroaching intimacy with so many like myself. My cold created a universe of one, with me in the center of a thick viscosity, through which nothing could enter. And yet the energy of this event seeped into me anyway. I tossed, sleepless, mind churning with static.
In the morning I awoke, amazed that I could even think about going back to the conference, with hardly any sleep and this thick head cold. Yet I felt compelled, deeply curious. There was an extraordinary energy beginning to emanate from our connection. It was energizing me, despite the illness, replacing sleep.
That morning, Friday, more storytelling. Again, the hush descended upon the room, as one by one, old women, some of whom seemed so soft and passive and silent walked to the front of the room, seized the microphone, and spoke their own truths–stories from their lives, stories that only those who have digested their experience could tell, each story a meaningful whole, with a beginning, middle and an end. I felt that these stories would go on forever, that we would never tire of them; that as each woman’s unique individuality was mirrored back to her we all opened to receive more of ourselves; that already, in our collective honoring of our separate lives, we were becoming whole.
I was astonished to realize that, despite my lifelong trumpeting of Crone values, until this very day my own perception had been subtly prejudiced. I perceived some of these women as the proverbial “little old ladies” I have seen in public places–the library, the post office, the grocery store–or rather, haven’t seen. They have been invisible, even to me! Now I realized that when they sat there looking so passive, it was because they were conserving their energy. They didn’t fidget like I do, flicking energy off like flies. Their energy must be conserved for when they speak. And when they open their mouths, their words distill the centuries.
Late in the morning, my old friend Karen from Boise arrived. We seized each other fiercely, holding on for dear life… Karen and I are both 50 years old, born only weeks apart. Last summer I had visited her; we had walked for hours at night in the hills above Boise, the lights of the city commingling with the pulsing stars.
Karen had spoken of her loneliness, her fear of aging, her bad knees. She could see nothing ahead but an increasing bleakness. I told her of Crone, of another way of growing old, of the way of wisdom and power that the Crone embodied for the ancients. Told her of how we are beginning to recover Her, to embrace Her, to enter our old age as a time when we can truly, finally, be ourselves. Told her of the upcoming Crones Counsel. Now she was here with us.
My old friend Ella arrived late from California, in time to attend that evening’s community dinner. I saw her stride in, tall, skeletal, in ceremonial dress, her gorgeously molded bald head held high, wig hanging casually from her belt. Giant earrings. “Buddhist monk?” a woman at my table wanted to know. I let her in on Ella’s year-long attempt to utilize alternative healing methods; her subsequent dismay in recognizing she must surrender, to undergo a mastectomy, and now, chemotherapy, radiation, more chemo…
At the meal I talked with two warm, gentle women from Salt Lake City, both of them in the business world (one is a real estate agent), and yet very much present with us at what for them was a most unusual gathering–more unusual, they confessed, than they had expected….
Though the conference was not billed as such, the language, forms and mythology of the goddess had begun to emerge as the women released the power buried in us for so many thousands of years. The next day, Shauna told me that some women were having trouble with the emphasis on the goddess, thinking it some kind of “cult.”
Two women actually left early, distressed. But how do we honor the archetype of the Crone, without acknowledging Her divinity? Her ancient wisdom? Her original context? And what culture but that of the Goddess could hold and carry the extraordinary energy we were discovering within us? What rituals could we use, what ceremonies could we create to contain this energy, to channel it in productive ways, so that it could help us transform this society, seed it with the ancient way of honoring the sacred in all creation?
The two women near me at the table were a bit hesitant about going to the ritual that night. This was their first exposure to the goddess culture, and yet they were curious, excited, and had no intention of missing it. I told them of my recent trip to Greece to find the goddess, about the snake room at Knossos, on Crete; the two goddess statues found in that room with snakes wound around their bodies….. The woman who sells real estate looked shocked–a sudden memory was unlocked. She told me of her son’s fascination with snakes when he was young, including a boa constrictor which she would gingerly move along with a broom when it got out of his room. How, though her son always asked her to, she would never touch it. I could feel her reworking this memory, reconsidering the possible significance of snakes. I mentioned that knowing snakes were a part of the goddess culture puts a new slant on the story of Adam and Eve. Her eyes lit up; I felt the ancient knowing seeping through her. It was as if my words were triggering her bones to release information long stored within them.
That evening: the ritual of Honoring the Crone. We were guided to move through a darkened hallway to a large common room for an initiation into the world of the goddess. We ran a gauntlet of veiled women yelling at us, in taunting, cackling, hag voices: “ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO MEET THE CRONE?” “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE! YOU’D BETTER LEAVE WHILE THERE’S STILL TIME!” At the threshold we were blessed by a heavy woman with a beautiful round face, smiling eyes and masses of curly black hair. I later learned she was a German gypsy, now a professional psychic.
Once through the door, we were smudged with sage and sweetgrass by two more beautiful goddess women. Peering into the near-dark throbbing with women drumming, I looked for Ella and Karen.
Women sat in an oblong ring of chairs, three deep, silent, or drumming, or shaking rattles, or clapping, the room lit only by candles on the altar to the East. This was no longer the meeting room. This was Sacred Space.
The two veiled hags came out into the center of the space, moved along the sides, roughly haranguing some of the women in the front row, pushing at them.”WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!! YOU SHOULD BE SITTING IN BACK!! LEAVE ROOM FOR THE OLDEST WOMEN HERE! OLDEST IN FRONT!! COME ON! COME ON! GET OUT OF THOSE CHAIRS! YOU OLD WOMEN GET UP HERE!” A sort of modest pandemonium ensued, tinged with embarrassment, as the older women rose to do a very unfamiliar thing: claim the front seats from the younger. Some of the younger were reluctant to give up their seats, and yet embarrassed to have hogged the front row. The situation sorted itself out. The chaos died down.
We were guided into a group meditation, to meet the Great Crone herself, and to receive a gift. Then, one by one we approached the altar to speak a few words of our gift from the Crone, and light a candle. The oldest women illuminated the way for the rest of us, first the front row, those in their 70s, then those in their 60s, then the ones in their 50s, 40s…. Soon, the round table dripped with wax from over one hundred flickering votive candles.
The ritual proceeded. An archetypal beautiful maiden (who, I discovered the next day, is 49, with two grown children, only a year younger than I) honored us with a sensuous belly dance. Then she beckoned all of us to the dance of the crones. Eagerly, we moved into the central space; we were all out there revving it up, cutting loose. Suddenly at one end of the dance floor, I began trading screams with a big heavy woman. We were joyful, ecstatic, as we exploded even deeper pockets of energy which had yet to find expression.
That night I lay in bed again unable to sleep. Although my cold was beginning to recede, and there was no headache now, my mind was churning with static. It felt as if my nervous system had been activated to such a high frequency that I could not come down.
Saturday AM., again I awoke early from my fitful sleep and was amazed that I could move, think. Though I felt fragile and somewhat dazed , I eagerly anticipated the second whole day of the conference.
Storytelling. A woman talked of her 20 years experience as a midwife [this story is in Crone Chronicles, #19, page 40]. Now her work is changing; she is becoming a midwife for death.
That afternoon, I joined the sexuality class. We talked of our changing attitudes towards our own sexuality, how our understanding of it is evolving as well. Woman after woman spoke of her passion, sometimes pleasuring the self, or interacting with another, other times held within, stilled into celibacy, alchemically transformed into creativity. I was astonished when the woman next to me–69 years old! she told us–broke rank. She stood up and talked about how much she loves feeling her own body; her hands covered her breasts, and then moved down onto her pubic area….
At this point we broke up into small groups. Ours moved out into the hall, into a private huddle. One woman, her eyes glinting of humor, told us her sexuality was lesbian; she talked of her tremendous sexual energies, and how they are becoming much more playful as she ages into her inner child. Another talked of how her energy has always been very sexual, and that she expresses it with her husband…yet she longs to find her soul in her sexuality, and is unable to, with him….
Later, I was struck by the fact that our small group had contained both lesbian and heterosexual energies, without even a hint of polarity between them. I wondered whether this is the times Ôa-changin,’ whether it is a function of these particular women’s energies, whether it has to do with this gathering itself, the energy of the whole building into synchrony and then filtering down into each of us, opening our hearts, receiving and circulating love from everywhere.
Throughout this gathering, we women touched each other more and more deeply, nourishing, caring for one another. The energy flowed through us, and our usual masks, defenses melted away. It was as if we were all one organism in feeling, and yet each of us utterly individuated. Each woman there was her own star, shining brightly from within. This was the only conference I’ve ever attended where I felt no competition. Crone energy assimilates the ego!
That evening I went out to dinner with three women from the mask-making group, all of them strangers to me, at least l5 years older than I. No small talk. We spent the dinner hour telling our stories again, ending with one woman talking about her own straight-laced Victorian mother’s last words on her deathbed: “What I need is a good fuck!” We howled, as her family had when they heard their mother/grandmother loosen up the stays as she let go of her life.
That evening was billed as “Entertainment.” First, a very funny, poignant, autobiographical play by two women from Billings, Montana. The plot wove around their evolving friendship as they moved from puberty (reading the Kotex box to discover what menstruation is), into sexuality (one of them married and faithful, the other once a promiscuous hippie and now a lonely widow), then into and through menopause (one of them forced, through a hysterectomy, the other using herbs and other natural tools to help quell hot flashes). Through various vignettes, they alternately kept us in stitches and made us wince in recognition.
After this came the more spontaneous entertainment. A younger crone waltzed out, dressed like she wanted to be as an older crone–raunchy, showing a lot of fleshy leg. Then some trickster dancers appeared in costume, and called on women in the audience to dance with them. One of them picked up her dance partner’s shirt to flash her breasts at the audience. Understandably, the partner was shocked, and then instantly shifted internally, flashing her breasts to the audience one more time!
A woman in her 70s came on stage dressed in white with a crown made of seashells. She sat down and quietly told us how she has recently been initiated as a priestess in an African tribe wearing this dress, this crown and how she is now learning their tribal language!
After the initial hilarity, the quiet, introspective mood of this woman’s presentation served as transition to the finale of this evening’s “entertainment”–the enactment of the myth of Inanna by my friend Ella, whose bald head and skeletal presence had been an arresting feature throughout the conference. Ella looks and acts simultaneously very young and very old. She is a female ET, whose shiny hairless skin stretches over bony structure to present the essence of spirit. Throughout the conference, we could not help but look openly at her, trying not to stare…and here she was, stepping regally onto the little stage, daring us to look openly at her body, inciting both fear and fascination.
In the myth, Inanna, the Queen of Heaven in the old Goddess culture, descended into the underworld to meet her dark sister, Erishkigal. She died, was hung on a peg for three days, and was resurrected. On her way down Inanna passed through seven gates of initiation, gradually removing all that was valuable to her, beginning with her crown and jewelry, on to (in Ella’s case) her curly blonde wig, her cape and gown, piece by piece, all being released, each time to the accompaniment of drum beats and low moans and groans from the audience.
Instantly, the tone of the evening shifted into a deep and anguished solemnity. Like the audience during an old Greek drama, we moved through terrible suffering to joyous catharsis. It was as if, in the re-enactment of this pre-Christian resurrection myth, we in the audience were mourning for our sisters, our mothers, our friends and ourselves, who have undergone this radical disease, its terrible scarring.
Can you imagine this? Can you imagine the process we women had moved through in 48 hours to accept and fully embrace this sacred, intimate drama? Can you visualize Ella’s bald ethereal beauty, her courage in exposing her body to us, as she stalked slowly around the stage, nearly naked, her rubbery prosthetic breast held high in one hand for all to see? Ella became the lamb of our collective sacrifice, wearing only underpants and a scarf tied around her one remaining breast, exposing the scar where her left breast had been.
Inanna’s death at the hands of her dark sister was our own. In witnessing Ella’s own wrenching drama, we dropped our daily poses, and became one with our own death.
Then Ella gradually arose from the floor, assumed new garments, including a huge cone shaped hat and a scepter. As she was resurrected, so were we, drying our tears and singing “We all come from the Goddess.”
The final morning was reserved for comments about the conference, more story telling, and the sudden, surprising announcement that Crone Chronicles and Encore (the other, newer Crone publication whose publisher, Joyce Cupps, was also attending the conference), had decided to join forces. Everybody cheered. We passed the hat and immediately collected $300.
Our announcement was impulsive and imprudent. We were caught up in the expansive and unifying energy of that day. A few weeks later, Joyce and I decided not to merge after all, realizing that the growing crone community has plenty of room for different approaches. At this point, I divided the money and sent half of it to her. Joyce and I remain committed to cooperating with each other as our separate publications chronicle and celebrate the re-entry of the Crone spirit into contemporary life.
I want to thank all the women who dared to come to such an unusual gathering. For three days we astonished each other with both the life inside us and the protean forms that life has taken. We are beautiful. We are powerful. And we are reaching for each other now, in recognition, of what we have gone through, of what we have learned. Our lives, distilled into stories, are meaningful. They have made us wise. And, what was more surprising to me: our energy, distilled into essence, turned playful, erotic, divine! We were like babies, our sexuality pouring through our finger tips and down to our tippy toes. I am reminded of William Blake: “Energy is eternal delight!”
This fusion of wisdom and eroticism is, I feel, the central insight into Crone which I received from the Counsel. In a flash of synchronicity, the day after the conference closed I noticed this quote from an old woman, a writer, in the New York Times Book Review: “We are so used to seeing in wisdom a residue of dead passions that it’s difficult to recognize in it the hardest and most condensed form of ardor, the gold nugget pulled out of the fire, not the ashes.”– Marguerite Yourcenar
And I want to thank Shauna Adix, for her generous and committed spirit, her finely-tuned skill in gestating a conference that was both highly democratic and yet deeply unifying. Her great Pluto in Cancer mothering energy embraced us all, nourished our collective energy to the point where we transmuted into one great physical/emotional/mental/spiritual organism.
And I want to thank the Great Crone herself, for catalyzing this energy in us all. I pray that humanity may become what we women created for those few precious days.
I see it this way: if crones can do it, we all can. Who have been more isolated from others than old women? Who have been more invisible? Who, in our western culture, for literally thousands of years, has had a worse reputation than the old Crone Herself? The patriarchial dictionary definition of Her, as the disgusting old hag, became, finally, accepted as Her truth. The energy of Her age-old wisdom was denied and turned inward. Unused, the energy stagnated, and grew bitter. As an archetype, the Crone was buried eons ago. During this long lonely time, those few individuals who still carried the Crone energy felt buried alive; so resigned were they to their own isolation that they thought they preferred it.
There was no bitterness at the Crones Counsel. Quite the opposite. We had gathered together in freedom–to understand each other and to lift the veil of millennia of oppression. The intensity and range of our feelings were extraordinary, and the dominant note was joy–as sheer hilarious exuberance, as deeply spiritual eroticism, as a common wisdom distilled from the fusion of thoroughly examined lives.
And we will do it again. We will gather and gather until the Crone is embraced in the bosom of humanity.
Ann Kreilkamp is the Founding Editor of Crone Chronicles.
Reprinted from Crone Chronicles, Winter 1993, #17