As I walked up to Mercury Hall, one of Austin’s prettiest gathering places, I was a little early for NextTribe’s Out Loud event, titled, unapologetically, Screw Invisibility. I was wearing, by the way, my boldest white outfit, in keeping with NextTribe’s Aging Boldly motto, despite my wariness of drinking red wine while wearing white. I was marveling at how fast this fledgling community of women has grown and how deeply it has already touched our lives. At the first Out Loud event last year, I hardly knew a soul, though I was one of the presenters. But this time I felt that I was in the company of friends. Lots of friends. I was welcomed at the check-in desk by women I knew from various NextTribe get-togethers in Austin. And that was just the beginning.
As I made my way to the bar to score a special cocktail concocted by event sponsor Tito’s Vodka, I greeted another NextTriber, Becky Crowe Nolan, decked out in an apron, whom I knew from monthly NextTribe “Coffee Tawks” and a NextTribe book club. Becky and her daughter were putting the finishing touches on a beautiful layout of nibblies. Then I ran into Beth and Julie, who had been fellow travelers and revelers at a NextTribe trip to Mexico’s Troncones Beach, and we joked about the wine we had to chug while we were waiting to catch the plane back to the U.S.
Each speaker, like so many of us, had suffered setbacks or awakenings along the way that set them off on far different courses than they could have imagined.
Because it’s grown so fast, you’d think NextTribe simply sprang up from the earth in response to the glaring need for older women to gather and share—and, yes, to get loud and visible. But of course it’s the result not only of responding to an urgent demographic demand, but of hard work and incredible savvy on the part of its co-founder, editor, and chief cheerleader, Jeannie Ralston. Jeannie and her cohorts, contributors, and collaborators have created not only a national online magazine but a growing community on the ground, beginning with Austin and spreading like wildflowers to San Antonio and onward.
Pausing and Questioning
The presenters for this event were the kind of women who might have seemed at first a little intimidating because of their accomplishments: a TV anchor, a famous musician, a well-known artist, a kick-ass gospel singer, a favorite local writer, a bestselling author. But each one, like so many of us, had suffered setbacks or awakenings along the way that set them off on far different courses than they could have imagined when they were younger. They are all, as Jeannie noted, “multidimensional,” as their creativity has only accelerated with age. And they all had some down-to-earth advice for us on how they had gotten through the adversity or restless dissatisfaction with their lives that caused them to pause, question, and change, to emerge full flower on the other side.
First up was Olga Campos Benz, who looks quite different from her local TV anchor days, when her hair was short and chic and she wore the kind of conservative outfits that didn’t make a statement. Now, however, her dark hair flows below her shoulders, and she tends toward bright splashy outfits that better suit her outgoing ebullient personality. She is, frankly, beautiful. After being exiled to daybreak news that had her getting up every morning at 2:30 a.m. and caused her daughter to complain that she was turning into a “f—ing bitch” because of lack of sleep, she finally quit and has not looked back. It was important, she said, to “find my voice outside TV” and to be able to “voice my opinion loudly.” Olga has written a novel that draws on her experiences in TV news, and she regaled us with an amusing excerpt about a revealing conversation overheard from a restroom stall.
Sara Hickman took the podium with the kind of vibrant panache that characterized her music over the years. “Hey, I’m 56,” she announced proudly. Now, however, she is not making music but is directing her energy in multiple areas. She retired from recording two years ago, she said, and she wanted us to know what she’s been up to, which is enough to make you breathless. Her approach, she days, is “dealing with problems with a creative mindset.” After being kicked off her record label, this approach is how she managed to retrieve the master copy of her recordings by essentially inventing the forerunner of Kickstarter. She’s always looking for new ideas, she says, declaring she’d probably leave the event with several more. She’s a visual artist, and she had sketched portraits of Jeannie and her fellow presenters, which left them agape in delight and surprise. Her latest project is a coloring book of Texas music, which she will self publish. Her energy and joie de vivre are so compelling that she almost had us doing jumping jacks by the end of her talk.
Courtney Santana, who was up next, admitted right off the bat that she had just turned 45, which just got her over the line for NextTribe’s age target—45 and older. Courtney, who is probably best known in Austin as a singer, also happens to be the founder of a foundation called Survive2Thrive, which is dedicated to survivors of domestic violence—a cause for which a portion of the proceeds of the event were donated. Courtney’s story was a sobering one, of her own survival of domestic violence and her decision finally to turn her life around and devote herself to others who had endured what she had. The key to that kind of transformation, she said, was to “grab hold of a new purpose and run with it.” Most important, she emphasized, was being “flexible and pliable,” as you can’t ever predict what’s coming next. And then she took us to higher ground with a soul-stirring version of “Amazing Grace.” Hallelujah.
Shooting Off Sparks
The evening was becoming a showcase for creative, soulful women who didn’t find their true purpose until later in life. And that was certainly true of my friend Judy Jensen, an artist who has mastered the rare talent of reverse painting on glass. I had written for NextTribe about my journey with Judy to Thailand to see the glass paintings in a remote Buddhist temple that she had been inspired to replace after they were shattered by an earthquake. But I hadn’t heard all the details of what led her there initially. Judy had been showing her art at a gallery in New York for years, but she found the gallery world “less stimulating as the years went by,” and felt that she was “living someone else’s dream.” What became her real dream come true was replacing the broken paintings of the life of the Buddha. One of the best days of her life came at age 60, she said, in a Buddhist temple in Thailand listening to monks chanting her name.
When Spike Gillespie arrived, we were delighted and relieved, as some of us knew that she had been to Fort Worth to sit at the bedside of her ex-boyfriend and now beloved close friend, who had suffered a massive heart attack. With so little time to prepare, she said, she was going to read from her recent essay for Word Up, a hysterical ongoing theatrical production she created for our funniest local women writers. “I’m not going to apologize because we don’t do that anymore,” she said. She told a story at once funny and sad about how much she likes to travel alone, and her mixture of skepticism and thin rays of hope about potential relationships hit home. Spike has a way of shooting off sparks that kindle recognition in us and that challenge our inner church-lady reticence. Let ‘er rip.
Finally we welcomed writer Annabelle Gurwitch, who has the easy stage presence of a polished comedian. She is very funny, but she is also very wise without flaunting it. I’m sure that those who had signed up for a writing workshop with her the next day were feeling very lucky. Again, the topic of age was front and center, as she asked, “Why can’t we be the age we exactly are?” We aren’t fooling anyone, she observed, as 40-year-olds are not going to think 50-year-olds are the same age as they are. Her next book, she said, is going to be titled The Vodka and Gelato Chronicles, as those are the items that remained in her refrigerator after her kid left for college and her husband left for good. More seriously, she acknowledged that one of the gifts of age is that she can ask herself about the story that she tells about herself to the world versus the story that she tells to herself about who she really is.
‘I’m not going to apologize because we don’t do that anymore,’ Spike Gillespie said.
So along with our goodie bags filled with lovely trinkets from local jewelry designer Kendra Scott and samples from Poise that will allow us to jump on trampolines without fear, we took home with us some thoughts about finding our true voices and our authentic selves. This is not a solitary quest, but rather one that we share with other women. I kept thinking about the quote from my mystical writer friend Mirabai Starr, who says that “the way of the feminine is the way of connecting.”
Carol Flake Chapman has worked as a writer and editor for several leading newspapers and magazines. She has covered religion and spirituality, culture, politics, travel and nature. Her 2015 book, Written in Water: A Memoir of Love, Death and Mystery, tells of her pilgrimage from grief to consolation after the sudden death of her husband on a wild river in Guatemala.
Feature image at top of page courtesy of Marcellina Kampa. All other images taken by Lori Gola.