A portrait of the namesake of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center hangs in the auditorium where we held our first in-person event since the pandemic shut down the world. She’s not necessarily known for being bold—how could she be with that outspoken, attention-hogging husband of hers?–but she is remembered for her quiet strength, which is what her portrait exudes. But in her later years, she was certainly bold, speaking out at women’s rights gatherings and finding a passion–beautifying the state and advocating for nature—that she pursued tirelessly, resulting in this magnificent complex filled with flowers, native grasses, and impressive stonework on the southern edge of Austin.
There’s nothing more motivating at this age than realizing how many ways we can remain relevant and fulfilled.
It is fitting that NextTribe gathered at a spot that is the culmination of a woman’s life work. We believe that all of us have something to contribute at this age—maybe something that has been simmering in us for years and is just now ready to serve, or maybe something that we stumble across that perfectly suits the skills and know-how we’ve been amassing over decades.
“How to Age Boldy” was the theme of our Out Loud event last week at Lady Bird Johnson’s spiritual home. Four impressive speakers told us what aging boldly meant to them, and we also asked each guest to tell us how she is meeting that ideal. What we heard thrilled and inspired us, because there’s nothing more motivating at this age than realizing how many ways we can remain relevant and fulfilled.
Pushing Through Fear
After decades traveling the world to get the story for NPR, International Correspondent Jackie Northam journeyed to the wilds of Central Texas to tell us her story. And what a story it is—starting in the frigid city of Edmonton, Canada, where she dreamed of being a foreign correspondent even though she had no training as a journalist. Through steadfast will and ingenuity, she crafted a career covering wars and seismic world events, such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the fall of Saddam Hussein, and the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan.
I had to keep going back. People had to know what was happening despite the danger.
She has never been anything but bold, it seems, even when her own life was on the line, as it was during her time in Rwanda. “The favorite mode of killing was the machete, and at one check point a machete was held to my neck. They thought I was Belgian and Belgium was a colonizing country so they hated Belgians. I couldn’t get my Canadian passport out fast enough,” she recounted. She got out of that threat and after a week stuck in the Hotel Rwanda, she was evacuated from the country by the United Nations. “But I had to keep going back,” she said. “People had to know what was happening despite the danger.”
With her fierce determination to be a witness to world events, she is a walking example of overcoming fear and obstacles and for her, one sense of aging boldly is to share her experience with young people through mentoring.
“I’m 62 years old, and I still have a few more things to do,” she said. “There’s a whole new generation coming up behind me and most of them are women.” This last line elicited cheers from the audience. She told of young female correspondents who arrived in Israel this past spring to cover the uprising there after she left. “They sent me a photo and they were all kitted out, with flak jackets and they had these huge smiles on their faces.” She paused to consider the mental image. “Turn back the hands of time, that was me.”
Laugh Don’t Cry
The story told by Gigi Edwards Bryant elicited a similar response of “How did she survive?” but for very different reasons. Bryant was raised in 20 different homes in the foster care system from eight years old until she aged out at 18 with her daughter. She believes in looking at the big picture to create a meaningful life. “I thought for some time beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’d be dead at 13,” she told us. “Too many times I was attacked and raped and beaten and [I thought] at on more house if they touch me, I may kill myself.” She survived, she said, by looking at the long haul. “I had to believe there was something better than what was in front of me.”
I thought for some time beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’d be dead at 13.
There certainly was something better. Bryant went on to earn a college degree and an MBA; she is a businesswoman who started her own company after working for the State of Texas. She is now a philanthropist and activist, working mainly with kids in the foster system now. Her focus is on being an example of rising above the hardships for them, showing them the way, and looking for the humor and the humanity even in the darkest times.
“It’s important to laugh. I could tell you my story and have you snotting up a storm,” Bryant said, but instead we laughed with her, proving her point. “However I think you learn more in the context of a life, of a journey and every journey has a step to it.”
Passage to Power
Rochelle Weitzner was 50 when she had her entrepreneurial breakthrough. The former CEO of Erno Laszlo was driving with her wife in Southern California when she started sweating profusely. She thought something might be wrong with the car’s AC until she noticed that her wife was shivering under a blanket. It was Weitzner’s first hot flash, and it led her to start the skincare line Pause Well-Aging, one of our event sponsors, which is specially created for women in the three stages of menopause. “In that moment, I knew a lot of things were about to change,” she told the assembled crowd. “Women like me would me would need tools and product along the way, and I knew that if I wanted those tools and products, I’d have to create them myself. And that’s exactly what I did.”
Her Pause Well-Aging skincare line was born in a flash—a hot flash.
Weitzner, who likes to say her company was born in a flash—a hot flash, has been a trailblazer in the beauty industry ever since, forcing the beauty industry to include menopause in the conversation. “I see menopause as our passage to power,” she said. “It’s a time in life when many of us have the most freedom we’ve ever had, and we’re the wisest we’ve ever been. And frankly we don’t give a crap what other people think about us. So embrace your power and embrace your passage to power.”
Rebounding From Loss
The way Kathy Valentine sees it one of the hardest things to deal with as we age is loss and part of aging boldly is rebounding again. “Yes, there’s the loss of collagen, of flexibility, or radiance and hair color, but I’m talking about the big stuff,” she told us, noting that for her that meant things like family, careers, relevance. And she is intimately acquainted with loss. In 2009, she acknowledges that she was living a “lottery life.” She had a husband and a young daughter; she was part of a legacy band you might have heard of called The Go-Gos. But then within two years she had lost the charmed existence. She and her husband divorced and she was kicked out of The Go-Gos.
When I take action, the chaos seems to find some order.
After describing the despair that led her to hide in a closet to cope, she grabbed her guitar and started strumming a song she wrote at the time about the sadness. “In my closet” she sang, “is where I hide away till I feel OK.” Besides music, she began to restore her equilibrium through her friends and by taking action, which in this case was going back to school. “When I take action, the chaos seems to find some order, and the universe kicks in and starts helping me too,” she said.
In her college creative writing classes, she discovered a new passion, which became her memoir All I Ever Wanted. She began doing fund raising for women’s causes and formed a new band. Different opportunities started coming her way. “I had to lose the things I was holding onto so tightly before I reached out for something else,” she said, “because we get complacent.”
Life has become full again, and not only because The Go-Gos asked her back and the band is getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. “I’m two years into my 60s and the life I’m building now is not based on my age, my looks, or any super power. It’s based on being me,” she said. “Sometimes being bold is acknowledging that you’re lost, you don’t like what’s going on, but trusting that you’ll get your boldness back again.”
How to Age Boldly: The Other Answers
A new addition to this Out Loud program was having attendees answer a simple question written on a strip of paper. The question: “I am Aging Boldly by….” Each woman then stuck the strip of paper on a canvas, so others could read their words and get ideas and encouragement. The result was a melange of determination and defiance.
Here are some of the favorite answers I came across:
“Appreciating my body more and giving less fucks.” —Marie Cohan
“Becoming an outspoken advocate for the things I believe in. equality, democracy, reproductive rights, etc, etc.” —Macy Thompson.
“Trying new things and learning to lean into discomfort and uncertainty.”
“Running my own business and not apologizing for my time.”
Appreciating my body more and giving less fucks
“Really listening to my heart and only doing things that are meaningful.”
“Getting my first book deal at age 53.” —Wendi Aarons
“Taking hip hop classes and advocating for transgender Texans.” —Katie
“Being here tonight! (It being Wednesday.)” —Veronique
“Doing whatever I want whenever I want.”
“Rarely saying “no” to an opportunity. It’s all a bonus.” —Julie Anderson
Working on accepting every wrinkle I have earned.
“Learning new art forms and making new friends.” —Patrice Roisman
“Learning to say `screw it’!” —Carol Burton
“Working on accepting every wrinkle I have earned and sharing my wisdom.”
“Going back to school for something I love.” —Taline
“Playing in a band (and oldies band).” —Cyndi Alba
“Being all I can be, including doing nothing at times.”
Perhaps my favorite answer to this question came from Kirsten Longnecker for all that it implies about strength, curiosity, and adventure: “Working out so that I can lift a carry on bag into the overhead bin until I croak.”