As I type this post, I’m relishing having time for creative work of all sorts. I spent a few hours this week playing with poster design for a friend’s band – the one in which my partner Mick plays saxophone. I’d forgotten how much I like doing this kind of thing, playing around with page layouts and borders and fonts and soft edges on photos. My challenge is always not to overdo any special effects, to remember that one font is all that should be present and it sure as hell shouldn’t be comic sans. My son the artist has made sure I know these things.
My friend and off-and-on poetry/art collaborator Constance Brewer and I have also renewed our commitment to working together on some poetry this year. Somewhere along the way during the pandemic, my desire to work on poetry left me and I knew it was time to just let it be. That was a good decision; this is a welcome shift at what feels like the right time. I’m a big fan of taking breaks to regain/realign perspective and refill my creative reservoir. And I’ m grateful for other creative friends who understand the way creativity ebbs and flows.
What do others do to fill that reservoir? In the past, I’ve recharged with travel, reading, hiking with my camera, cooking, going to the movies. Sometimes a long conversation will do it, but not always given my tendency to be quiet when I need to recharge. Often, time just sitting outside somewhere without people is enough.
That said, I’ve been thinking about what 2023 might look like for creative practice and inspiration. Where to get it. How to keep it going. Doing band posters and collaborating with Connie are a start. There are already two trips on my 2023 calendar, one to Seattle and one to France. I got a new camera in the fall, so am thinking about where to hike when the weather is warm enough that cold fingers aren’t an issue. And there are assorted art surfaces in my basement waiting for me to put paint on them. There are ample opportunities to learn and create.
This is as close as I ever get to anything designated as a resolution.
In other news, I was invited to contribute a poem to a SongSLAM team in the SongSLAM Minneapolis that took place at the Ice House on January 6, 2023. Twin Cities musicians/composers Melissa Kristin Holm-Johansen, Scott Senko, and Bryon Wilson chose the poem Fall Farmers Market from my chapbook, How We Learned to Shut Our Own Mouths, as lyrics for their composition.
Here’s the poem:
Fall Farmers Market
by Kathleen Cassen Mickelson
Splotches of red, green, purple, orange and yellow
Monet together until I put my glasses on,
grocery list in hand, morning air crisp, clear.
Farm trucks form two parallel lines,
back ends facing each other,
tables straining beneath this morning’s harvest.
I can’t resist the warty pumpkins
even though Halloween is over a month away.
Nor can I pass up perfect purple eggplant,
cherry tomatoes of red and gold,
shiny orange peppers,
earthy inky beets with bits of dirt
still stuck to their skins.
I dream of baba ghanouj, vegetable kebabs,
sheet pans of roasted goodness.
In this moment, pandemics seem far away,
cruelty impossible in the face of such abundance.
All I want is to cook for everyone,
show them the many colors of love.
And here’s an audio from the rehearsal:
The team placed third in the competition. How cool is that?
One year ago, I launched One Minnesota Crone, broadening the focus I honed at One Minnesota Writer to include other art forms and celebrate mature creative women who are doing exactly what they please.
Thank you for coming along on this journey, celebrating the many gifts that crones bring to the world, and, just maybe, gathering ideas for yourself. Perhaps you’ve even changed your mind about what the word crone really means.
All that said, I wish for you all a 2023 full of whatever you love in the company of whomever you love.
Here’s a poem for this first day of 2023:
I AM GOING TO START LIVING LIKE A MYSTIC
by Edward Hirsch
Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.
The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,
each a station in a pilgrimage--silent, pondering.
Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies
are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.
I will examine their leaves as pages in a text
and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.
I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel
and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.
I shall begin scouring the sky for signs
as if my whole future were constellated upon it.
I will walk home alone with the deep alone,
a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.
– from 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day selected by Billy Collins, New York: Random House, 2005.
December, my friend, thank you for your long, dark nights. The way the stars twinkle in the black sky. Silence. How snowflakes glisten when light hits them. The crunch of hard-packed snow beneath my boots. An owl’s early-morning hoot. Crows gathered in trees, their chorus drowning out everything else. My breath made visible as I exhale.
December, your gifts go beyond beribboned packages and boisterous holiday parties. Your cold arms nudge me indoors to hibernate. Your special offering of sustenance is rest. You know best. Just look at the way the garden slumbers beneath its white blanket.
And so I welcome the Solstice. The opportunity for rejuvenation. Moments of awe over pretty lights in dark nights, both man-made and natural. The quiet space that feels safe. The place from which I’ll emerge with new energy for a new year.
I’m writing this on a Tuesday, late in the afternoon. My granddaughter Maeve has gone home for the day. We spent a lot of time today standing in front of the windows watching snow fall, birds gather at the feeder, trees cradle all those white flakes. Snow piled up in the driveway, covered the three heart-shaped markers for our old dogs beneath the crabapple. The world as we could see it transformed into a clean, pure landscape of new possibilities. By the time my son Shawn came to pick up Maeve, we had a good six inches of new snow. Maybe seven, judging from the first cut of our snowblower just a little bit ago.
These first storms of the season here in Minnesota always bring traffic troubles, spinouts and cars in the ditch, people late no matter where they’re going, schools closing early or not opening at all. People sometimes have trouble digging out, depending on whether they own a snowblower and are physically up to the demands of moving snow. Weather forecasters get their moment in the spotlight, gesturing over maps of storm tracks and sharing snowfall totals from all over the state. It’s all part of winter, of life in a climate where snow is a certainty every year.
I love winter in spite of its challenges. I’ve lived in Minnesota my entire life, learned very early that preparation was key to being safe and able to show up to work or school. I’ve also learned winter gives us opportunities to slow down that we should take advantage of whenever possible. During the summer, I am loathe to sit in my office and write when I could be outside. But now, with the snow coating everything and the temperature dropping, my office is inviting and warm, the light through the south-facing window bright. It’s time for all the thoughts I carried in my head all summer to be put into writing or poured into a painting. It’s time to think about creative projects I put on the back burner while I hiked in the woods, pulled weeds, photographed birds. And it’s time to rest: early nightfall, cozy blankets, red wine, good books, and a simple delight in that fairy-tale falling snow.
Speaking of books, I’ve been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, in tiny bites over the past several weeks. Mick gave me this book the Christmas before last; it took me until now to feel like my head was in the right space to read it. And I feel rewarded for waiting: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Kimmerer’s combination of plant science and indigenous knowledge is so well communicated and so thoughtful that I don’t want to rush through this text. I don’t want to miss anything important. My years of gardening with Mick have taught me how important it is to pay attention to what is going on in our own little piece of earth, to be patient and wait for it to show us what works. Kimmerer’s book reinforces that idea and expands beyond it to what stewardship of this earth really means. She talks about the disconnection between most of us and the natural world. That disconnection is not a good thing as it keeps us from understanding the very life forces that sustain us all. I’ve felt that disconnection dissolve just a little when I’ve sat in my own garden for solace. I’ve also felt that disconnection dissolve when I’ve watched the falling snow and given in to the invitation to slow down and rest.
Early on in the book (I’m halfway through), I was struck by the stark differences between a gift economy and a market economy, and the idea of responsibility for the gifts we share versus the greed that develops alongside what we think we can just buy. These are ideas I’m thinking hard about at this time of year when every single retailer has a sale designed to make us buy more and more and more with no regard for what that means in terms of having too much, of wasting resources and tossing things out because we no longer use or need them even though they’re perfectly functioning things. I’m thinking about what that does to our inclination to appreciate what we already have. And I’m thinking about the legacy we leave our grandchildren when we are hellbent on acquiring more stuff instead of taking care of our little spot on this planet and each other. It’s hard to buck an entire culture built around money, but there are plenty of small things that shift the focus to other kinds of wealth. The more time I spend outside, quiet and observant, the more I feel that shift.
I’ll be reading Braiding Sweetgrass for a while longer, little bits before I go to sleep at night. I enjoy the way Kimmerer weaves plant information and ecology into stories about people and connection. I want to linger over this book, absorb its wisdom, and carry it forward.
It’s a perfect winter read.
Cover photo taken at Old Cedar Avenue Bridge Trailhead, Bloomington, Minnesota by kcmickelson, 2021.
When I first thought about today’s blog post, I watched squirrels come to the water bowl on the deck. The water was frozen. It was time for putting things away. I carried the deck chairs and little table to the garage. I put away the temple bell and our iron crow we call Edgar Allen Crow, tipped the glass table that fits nowhere else on its side before it could be buried beneath snow.
The activity felt good. The air felt sharp inside my nose. Birds flitted in the stalks still standing in our garden. Back in the house, I remembered how cold I’d been the night before and threw another blanket on the bed.
November warns that winter is bearing down with bare-limbed trees, skies pregnant with snow, thin first layers of lake ice, geese V-ing across the sky, breath visible in front of our faces. This is November in Minnesota. The warmth of the kitchen offsets falling temperatures and my thoughts turn to cooking, looming holidays, family.
I remember one Thanksgiving when it was just me and my parents, when I was perhaps 12 or 13. Let’s go for a ride Cass, my dad said while Mom fretted over something (turkey? stuffing? cooking in general?) in the kitchen. Dad and I went up to Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul, where we stood in the cold looking out over the Mississippi River and downtown St. Paul. The sky may have been that powdery blue specific to very late autumn or it may have been filled with November-ish gray. That wasn’t the important thing to remember. The important part was standing in the cold with my dad, our cheeks reddening, our breath dragon puffs, just us in a quiet Thanksgiving mood in an empty park where we could see forever. When we got back home, the turkey was stuffed and in the oven, the kitchen smelled wonderful and Mom was done fretting. Dad probably made a brandy and seven, his holiday drink, and he would have made Mom a gin and tonic or maybe something with that lime-flavored vodka she had a phase with. And Mom would have gone into their bedroom, reached up on the highest closet shelf, and brought out a big box of chocolates from which we would each select just one or two before dinner.
Over the years, we might go to my brother’s or my oldest sister’s house for Thanksgiving, where there were plenty of kids and laughter. We might have my other sister home from Colorado, staying in my tiny bedroom with her husband while I shared sleeping space with my mom. As an adult, I’ve seldom traveled on Thanksgiving, save one trip to New York when my son Shawn was little and a few times to Wisconsin while my father-in-law was still alive. In fact, the last Thanksgiving he ever celebrated was one that my family all went down to spend with him. We’ve hosted for university students who had nowhere else to go that day. We’ve hosted for friends. And we’ve been with just ourselves. Holidays are changeable days; families grow and must accommodate in-laws and children and so much more.
No matter what we do this Thanksgiving, I will cook in some way. I will find time to be with people I love, perhaps not on the day itself but close. And I marvel at just how much this time of year is tied to Minnesota for me, this wintery place with such big seasonal shifts and its reminder that if we didn’t know how to prepare for the leanness of winter, we might know a little less about the value of what we have.
After I put the patio furniture away and wrote about Thanksgivings past, I remembered that my mom’s old recipe box was up in the cupboard above our stove, right beside my own old recipe box that I only pull out at this time of year. I have a fudge recipe that I’ve made every year since Shawn was six; he’s 41 now. My mom, too, had a fudge recipe she made every year, so I rifled through her old recipes to see if I could find it.
I did find it, along with a few other recipes she made every single year. I might make one or two of these this year – not the fudge, because I have my own tradition – but these others are kind of fun. I love seeing my mom’s handwriting, remember the incredibly heavy manual typewriter she sometimes used to type up recipe cards and how she always included who she got the recipe from. It always amuses me how many of these recipes she had given that she did not like to cook.
Here are those recipes. Have fun with them if you’re so inclined. They might need some tweaking. Happy Thanksgiving however you celebrate, in whatever place you call home.
Bonnie Proudfoot’s first poetry collection, Household Gods, is firmly grounded in Queens, New York, held fast in the arms of family, steered by the passage of time. It offers a constant push against the roles handed to women even as women are remembered, honored, and elegized. I was struck by the numerous threads of how women are often discounted, pushed to conform, stripped of their innocence, and denied help, how women who push against their assigned role are disappointed or worse.
While the title poem, Household Gods, deals with the fierce tenacity of a grandmother and the inheritance she left, it was the poem, Elegy for Kitty Genovese, that really struck me as the heart of this book. The first segment, Scar, begins with, “If my old neighborhood is my body….”, fixing this poet’s connection to Queens. Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed and raped on her way home from her job as a bartender in the Kew Gardens area of Queens near where Proudfoot grew up, represents every woman who ever tried to be what she wanted rather than what society said she should be. Her demise was far more grisly than most, but the implications of the story as it unfolds in this poem are clear: the world is a dangerous place for women who stop pretending to fit in and no one is going to be of much help, so just believe what you are told. Love offered is part of a woman’s protection. Anyone who doesn’t love you doesn’t care what happens to you.
The Kitty Genovese murder happened in 1964, but the lessons remain. Time has not softened the world for women; it has only become more polarized. This is hinted at in the end of the opening poem, El Tiempo: “….The past // is gaining ground, it’s snapping at her stamping heels. We / clap faster and faster, hold tight to each other when she bows.” We see the narrator’s innocence torn from her in the poem, Changeling, when a man on the bus, “waited one step between you / and the exit door, thrust / his finger up your plaid skirt / hard enough to make your stomach // ache, and you did not have the words / to describe that, but you had / to be stupid and powerless / to let that happen. You lost // a bit of wonder every day.” How many women experienced a similar incident in their adolescence? I know I did.
Loss, anger, and grief are all represented over time. Later, in, Throwing Like a Girl, the narrator longs for things to be different: “…now all roads lead to / humiliation, the kind of shame that arcs / back and forth between you and your / body. It cools you down, gets / in the way. You want to be nimble, / you want to mean business…” She goes on to vow that she will, “figure out / how to get your own self / back into the game.” There is a counterweight to loss, anger and grief: determination.
Ms. Proudfoot is not just determined for the narrator in these poems. She is determined for anyone who becomes the target of anger or is discounted, like the little brother who, “never quite seemed to fit, as if a smack / could slap somebody straight…” in the poem, Once, and the same brother who wanted to fix everything in the poem, Silt and Mystery. She is determined for those who were unjustly killed, like Martin Luther King, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, and Breonna Taylor who all show up alongside Holocaust survivors in the poem, How many pages of photographs.
All this grief, all this determination, eventually calls into question whether forgiveness ever happens. What are we to do in the face of rage? Injustice? Unfairness? Do our family ties, inheritance from our grandmothers who never gave up, show us the way? We must eventually consider what we each bring to the table, as in the poem, Sweet Forgiveness: “….None of this food, like sweet forgiveness itself, / could ever be bought, it had to be touched / by the hands of those who cared for us, served when it / was most needed, waited for, earned.” Sometimes what we need is right there in front of us – our daily sustenance. We are called to share it with one another.
I wanted to know more about the person behind these poems, so I sent Ms. Proudfoot a few questions. She said she doesn’t always know where her poems come from or what sends her toward any one subject, but she was game to answer my questions anyway. Here they are as answered.
What would you like people who come to your poems to know about you and what would you like them to take away from your work?
I did not set out to write this book, but after I turned 60, I know my gaze began to turn inward as a way to figure out more about what shaped me, and these recent poems seemed to be most energized when I was able to connect to the earlier years of my life, the years that I had turned my back on as I ventured out into the world. At some point, I had a manuscript of linked poems about coming of age in the 1960’s, and that taught me that what I had thought I turned away from was always going to be a part of me.
You had a lifetime as a glass artist before your chapbook was published. How do you see your work as an artist informing your work as a poet? Are there similarities in the way you layer each piece of artwork and the way you layer each poem?
Such a great question!
Although glass reflects my thoughts abstractly about balance, light, color, mood, poetry is another type of communication altogether, so deeply personal, so connected to thinking and living. There is no screen between my inner life and the world in my poems, as there can be with glasswork. I do think my love of narrative will sometimes come through in glass and in poetry.
When did you first begin to write poetry? What was it that drew you to it as an art form?
I began to write poetry in high school, gravitated toward it in college, but something held me back for a while; I felt like I had more living to do, and more writing to do. I wrote a novel in linked short stories, and then began to write poetry with a kind of passion. It took me a long time before I could figure out how to write a poem that I wanted to read, and how to allow language to take me somewhere unexpected.
Do you have any future poetry collections in the works?
I am working on poems all the time, but I feel like it might take me a while before I see how they link or at least rub shoulders with each other. I do know that the themes that I explored in Household Gods are not quite done with me yet.
Do you have a favorite poem from your chapbook?
I like “Superpowers”, also “Mimosa”, and “Broken Moon.”
On Mick’s birthday, October 10, we were supposed to be in Acadia National Park, admiring the coastal Maine landscape, hiking trails unfamiliar to us, photographing small creatures in tide pools, feeling that Atlantic Ocean mist on our faces. We had a room reserved at the Elmhurst Inn in Bar Harbor. We were going to make a dinner reservation at a nice restaurant, maybe have some lobster.
Instead, I cooked an omelet – ham, onions, peppers, tomato, cheddar – for our lunch at home, made a pot of Earl Grey tea. We sat on our own deck under Minnesota’s pale blue October sky, sipped our tea after we finished eating. Mick read the birthday card I’d made in the morning while he was busy listening to a history lecture on his laptop. There was no ocean mist upon our faces.
That COVID finally found us just when we were thinking about what to take on a long-planned trip to Maine was poor timing. It was also a reminder that resilience matters. Plans change all the time. Why shouldn’t ours?
There’s a glazed pottery bowl – wide, shallow – that I filled with water and left on the table in the corner of our deck. I thought birds might use it to get a drink from time to time. The bowl has become a daily water bar and sometimes bath for blue jays, cardinals, robins, finches, sparrows, wrens, juncos, flickers, chickadees, bees, butterflies, chipmunks, and squirrels. Every time I sit at the dining room table for more than five minutes, I see someone pop in for a sip of water. I had no idea that bowl of water would get as much use as it does. I fill it with clean water every day, skim white pine needles and birch leaves from its surface. That I can offer this bit of sustenance to small creatures feels like a purpose, one I can do well while quarantining at home.
I have no illusions that these creatures won’t find water elsewhere if I am not at home, but to be here, to be their source for one thing, is magical.
Mick tested positive for COVID first, just days after we both received our updated COVID and flu shots. When he first started feeling sick, we figured he had a shot reaction. When it didn’t go away, we knew otherwise. We’ve been careful but aren’t bulletproof. Who is?
He moved downstairs to our guestroom. Five days later, after I’d cancelled all our trip reservations, I also tested positive.
He moved back upstairs. At least now we could be in the same room with each other. And neither of us was deathly ill, just zapped of all our energy.
There is a way in which being forced to slow down has long appealed to me. Bonus points if the forced slow down comes at a convenient time. COVID is lousy at honoring plans, seldom arriving at an opportune moment when you wouldn’t mind missing something, like the city-wide garage sale or your next colonoscopy.
When forced to slow down and miss something desirable, it takes a minute to stop grousing. Oh, hell, it took me all week to stop feeling rotten about our missed trip, to stop thinking, we’d have been at this inn, watching the moon rise over the Atlantic, having a great bottle of wine.
Things that made me feel better: Sitting outside. Bird chatter. Grocery deliveries from our friend Luann and our daughter Abby. Entire seasons of Gilmore Girls. Thich Naht Hanh books. Jazz. Listening to Mick play his saxophone. Open windows all over the house. Not watching the news.
One afternoon, I sat at the dining room table with my camera, photographed the young robin who sat atop our deck’s privacy wall. He seemed to see me through the patio door. He chattered, sang, rivaled the music I had playing on the stereo. I watched the feathers beneath his beak puff out then flatten as he chattered.
Was any of that chatter directed at me? Do birds ever try to tell us things?
We snuck outside for walks late in the evening when no one else was around. The mild weather and clear nights called to us. It was the only exercise we got during our bout with COVID. I swear the night air, the movement, sped up our recovery.
The moonrise wasn’t bad, either. The Hunter Moon. Bare tree branches. I wished for an owl to complete the picture.
Mick and I weren’t the only ones stuck at home for the past couple of weeks. We have a few friends who also contracted COVID around the same time. That none of us had a severe case is probably some proof that vaccinations work. All of us are over the age of 60. Here we are. Lucky. Very lucky.
Today’s post was supposed to be a travelogue. This is Plan B. Right in this moment, I don’t mind. We’ll go somewhere else, do something else. We were reminded that our backyard is a sanctuary for us as well as the little creatures we’ve invited with water bowls and native plants. There is powerful healing in sitting still for a bit. All those birds and squirrels who came to the water bowl while I sat still at our dining room table already know this, just as surely as they know to keep track of where they get their sustenance. It’s just a matter of paying attention.
As I got ready to write this post, I noticed bits of yellow peeking out of the green of our backyard birches. I saw the cold-shriveled edges to the impatiens. The heat-loving red-orange begonia drooped, blooms resting on the deck floor, as if to say I’m exhausted.
Clearly, autumn is doing its work. But I am not exhausted; this is the time of year when I feel a surge of energy, ready to hike and cook and get rid of excess stuff in the house. Ready to grab my camera and photograph the frenzy of the birds prepping for winter, the shifting light, the fall colors. Ready to travel, as my partner Mick and I will in the coming weeks.
Fall also means the appearance of the annual Crone Issue of the quarterly poetry journal Gyroscope Review. Editor Constance Brewer and I collaborated on the cover art for this issue, which gave me a little more purpose for my fluid art experiments. I provided the background painting and Connie created a line drawing of women protesting as the overlay, then finalized the cover design using our collaborative work. The piece is titled, “Protest!” The issue is out as of today and you can get one HERE.
I know the great care with which the Crone Issue is put together, know how important it is to have a place for women poets over 50 to share their wisdom-filled, experience-rich poems. I can’t recommend this issue enough! It’s fabulous fall reading.
Here I am in my wistful beginning-of-autumn mood, embracing earlier darkness, chilly mornings, old sweaters, red wine, and heavier dinners. Morning hikes are alive with creatures filling up on seeds, scurrying to the next possibility.
This summer went so fast, a refrain I’m hearing from everyone I know. Whoosh and it was over with barely enough time to grill a few dinners, watch the stars come out on warm nights. But I don’t mind. This is my time of year, the slide toward falling leaves and long, cold nights. I can feel myself turning inward. Quiet.
Much as I sometimes try to be a woohoo-let’s-have-a-party person, that isn’t who I am. A small group of family or close friends is as close as I’m going to get. We used to throw great parties in this house, full of people who worked with us or were parents of our kids’ friends, or even the kids’ friends themselves. Gradually, those kinds of parties gave way to something else. Colleagues got younger, we got older, interests grew further apart. I fought that for a long time, but the way we are seen changes over the years. The older we get, the less a younger person finds us hang-out worthy.
The quieter days leave plenty of room to get more comfortable with who we really are, the us beneath the daily façade that got us through so much in our twenties, thirties, forties. For me, that means being comfortable being someone who doesn’t do small talk very well, who relishes deeper conversations about the big issues without fear or anger over someone else’s disagreement with my opinions or experience. In fact, my curiosity over how other people come to their conclusions about politics, religion, and how to inhabit this world is at an all-time high.
Where to have these deeper conversations? Around the dinner table. Cook food, pour wine, and the conversation usually flows. No guarantees, but even if the conversation stays on the surface, there is still the intimacy of a shared meal in a private space that at least opens the door to more.
So, off I go to find the candles that can sit on the table, the table cloth that my friend Suzannah designed with bare-limbed trees and a full moon – or maybe the one that my son Shawn gave me for my birthday one year, with a black Celtic design against a purple background – and some recipes that will fill the house with incredible aromas. I’ll remember what everyone’s favorite dishes are, if possible, and offer those up during the next several months. I’ll find some good Bordeaux for my husband Mick, who loves that kind of wine, or maybe some good Tempranillo, which we both love, and uncork a bottle just for us to sip on while the crickets do their fall chorus.
And I’ll get comfortable with myself, snuggle into the soft sweatshirt my daughter Abby gave me for my birthday, brew some strong coffee, and enjoy that shifting, golden light as it washes over everything.
I often think how lucky I am: lucky to have a clean and safe house, enough food, plenty of clothing, enough disposable income to help my kids and still go out to dinner. And, at a more basic level, I am lucky to still be on this earth at the age of 63. Growing older is a privilege, an opportunity to use experience and knowledge to create a happier life and give back.
Those of us in this phase of life sometimes find ourselves discounted because we’re older. We’re perceived as stuck in old ways, unable to learn a new way. Sometimes we are fearful of trying new things. Sometimes we can’t let go of our kids as they move into careers and families of their own, unclear about how our identities as parents are now defined. And sometimes we find it difficult to transition into retirement or a new phase of an old career that has shaped who we are.
But nothing is so constant as change. In our later years, we can still redefine everything about our lives if we so choose. Sometimes we discover we have no more fear because we can’t be fired and we no longer answer to many people besides ourselves. What others think of us is not as important as what we think of our own choices.
I recently had lunch with a new friend who embodies just what I’m talking about here. Cynthia Kretschmar is the owner of Face2Face Skincare Naturals, a skin care business based in Minnesota. Cynthia declared at the age of 16 that she wanted to have her own business; it wasn’t until she was past 50 that she went back to school to finish her business degree, got licensed as an esthetician, and started Face2Face. Later, when she retired from working in-person with clients seeking skin care, she took her business online to make sure those same clients had access to the natural skin care products she used during their appointments. The idea that she accomplished so much after the age of 50 was one I found intriguing. That’s why I invited her to chat a little about what it means to be pro-age and support other older women.
When I asked Cynthia what she thought pro-age means, she said, “We are all going to grow older. We might as well embrace it. The health of the body is important. I want to stay, the best way I know how, healthy and full of vitality…Pro-aging would mean you’re not here for yourself. Everyone has something to offer.” She spoke of how, in the cosmetics and skin care industry, the catchy slogan was “anti-aging” for a long time; that it’s now coming around to “pro-aging” is a healthier way to go. For her business, there was never an advertisement to clients to look younger; the focus was always to look healthy.
There is a long history of cosmetics and moisturizers and other products being marketed to women to make them stop the clock, feel like they did in their twenties. We’re encouraged to think that this is what makes us desirable. I’ve always had trouble with the idea that older equals undesirable and unsexy. I know there are other companies out there who aim for women like me – Cindy Joseph’s Boom cosmetics come to mind, as well as the Dove campaigns – but I do sometimes get the feeling that pro-age is just another marketing tactic to go after the age segment who actually has money to spend. My cynicism doesn’t take much time off. But Cynthia knew I wasn’t talking to her for her business’s products in particular; we were having an honest conversation about what it’s like for an older woman to redefine herself and honor who she is.
There’s uncertainty, of course. Cynthia said she would quote Nike as advice to other women: “Just do it!” Moving into our later years means it’s now or never. For Cynthia, skin care just happened to be the thing she kept coming back to even as she explored work in other industries. Her grandmother and great aunt both worked for Revlon in the 1960s, bringing samples to Cynthia’s mom and planting the seeds in young Cynthia about how to take care of her own skin. She became fascinated with how the skin functions and wondered why people aged so differently, with one person’s skin looking great and another of the same age showing a lot of damage. I could parallel this question about why people age so differently by thinking of my own parents, especially my father who took up serious bicycling when he was retired. The idea of not sitting down resonates for me. I couldn’t understand why, once someone had the time to do other things besides work for a paycheck, they wouldn’t grab that opportunity and run with it. Or bike away with it. The body demands movement unless atrophy is your thing.
Cynthia’s fascination with caring for our skin as we age is still very much evident when talking about her business. As we kept chatting, she talked about skin as our largest organ (which I did know) and how it’s smart (which I never thought about). It reacts to everything we put on it, everything we put into our bodies, the environment around us, stress, rest or lack thereof, and so much more. I watched her face light up as she spoke.
So, this is clearly a passion. How many of us get to follow our passions? How many of us have put those passions off?
As I thought about passion, aging, and what we do with our retirement when we skid into our sixties, I asked Cynthia how she moved from having an in-person clinic for skin care to an online business in the same industry following her own retirement. She spoke of how much she loved her clients, but her body was telling her it was time to treat it differently. Her hands developed arthritis, her back and neck rebelled against being bent over to administer treatments, and her hearing, she recently learned, was affected by the constant sounds of machines (e.g., microderm abrasion machines, oxygen infusion equipment, etc.). But a body that needed something different did not mean leaving behind what she loved. Cynthia turned her business into an online shop for the same care products she used in the clinic. She said she is not ready to say goodbye. Her clients keep her going and she has a network of industry people she knows all over the country. Retiring from in-person service does not mean she is suddenly home alone. She said, “A network is really important.” She keeps in touch with others in the industry.
I asked if she missed the one-on-one interactions and how she filled the gap. She told me that yes, she misses those interactions, but does some small things to assuage her feelings. One is to include handwritten notes with the online orders she receives from those clients, a small way of adding a personal touch to what can be a cold transaction. The other thing she does is have lunch with clients every so often just to keep in touch, which made it much clearer to me why she wanted to have lunch instead of doing an email interview for One Minnesota Crone. I had to hand it to her; I was enjoying our time together very much. And I am an introvert who would usually choose writing an email over talking in-person for a blog post. Her words also reminded me how important small efforts to show we care about others are; I thought back to when I was an editor at Gyroscope Review and found out every day how much the poets whose work I read appreciated personal notes. When you send your work, your products, your passion out into the universe, it’s really nice to have some kind of dialogue along the way that says what you’re doing matters. You matter. Others matter.
Aside from Cynthia’s passion for skin care, I wondered about other creative endeavors, beyond the creativity she uses to educate others about skin care and to market her business. When I asked, she told me that, about five years ago, she started doing quilling art. I had no idea what that was, so had to pull up some images on my laptop before we talked further. (If you, like me, are unfamiliar with the term, click here. The Crafty Lumberjacks, who demonstrate the art of quilling, are pretty entertaining. So is their cat.) Cynthia likes to make cards, usually for milestone birthdays, that include the same number of reasons to celebrate the recipient as they are turning in years. Here was another example of ways to show care for another embedded within a new hobby that gave Cynthia pleasure. And she said it was going far better than when she tried to take up the violin at a mature age. I can attest for how difficult picking up a new musical instrument is; my guitar has not been played for months and my fingers are kind of happy about that.
At the end of our lunch date, I knew a little more about skin care, a lot more about Cynthia, and had a renewed sense of being on a great track with my own ideas about aging gracefully, with joy and gratitude and purpose. Having just had my birthday later in August, I am reminded that while our bodies change and it becomes work to keep them from unhealthy expansion (M&Ms, anyone??), our delight at being in this world can grow and grow. So can our cheers of support for those on this path with us.