Photograph by Charli Wyatt
Bloomington-based writer Ann Kreilkamp says a "perennial hunger for solitude" led her to a year of grieving alone after the death of her husband, Jeff Joel. Recognized as an expert on the subject of aging women, Kreilkamp is launching a publication called "Crone: Women Coming of Age".
She published her first book, "This Vast Being", early this year.
Ann Kreilkamp isn't the hunched old hag most people think of when they hear the word "crone."
In fact, it's this unappealing image of aged womanhood that Kreilkamp - a spritely, bespectacled woman with short, frenzied hair and seemingly boundless energy - is bent on doing away with.
Next year, the Bloomington resident will launch Crone: Women Coming of Age, a semiannual publication dedicated to declaring and exploring the ways and wisdom of advanced womanhood.
"The crone is that part of us that is wise, and is authentic, and has learned from experience," says Kreilkamp, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University and now lives in Bloomington.
The crone archetype is familiar to scholars of Indo-European mythology, which is rife with various representations of what is sometimes called the "triple goddess." The crone represents the third and final stage of a woman's life, coming after the "maiden" and the "mother."
Kreilkamp, who turns 65 in December, insists she hasn't attained crone status yet.
"I'm still entering crone," she says. "It's a rather august title."
Kreilkamp should know. She's devoted a considerable chunk of her life to studying and celebrating the crone. From 1989 to 2001, she published a quarterly magazine called Crone Chronicles, subtitled "A Journal of Conscious Aging," while living in a yurt in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
That publication had a small circulation - about 5,000, as Kreilkamp recalls - but was twice nominated for the annual Independent Press Awards by Utne Reader. The magazine also spawned a yearly gathering of women called Crones Counsel, which still meets.
"It was very potent and homeopathic," Kreilkamp says of the magazine. "There's been a lot of energy for it to come back."
"(Crone Chronicles) was a women's circle in print," says Anne Niven, editor of the California-based SageWoman Magazine and Kreilkamp's partner in the new publication. "It was visionary but perhaps ahead of its time, and now the time has turned."
In the time between the two publications, Kreilkamp has found herself faced with a different kind of "crone work": dealing with death.
Her husband of 12 years, Jeff Joel, died of a heart attack in January 2003, just one semester after they had moved to Bloomington so he could study law at Indiana University.
Rather than go back to Wyoming, Kreilkamp stayed, dealing with her loss during what she calls her "year of conscious grieving." She chronicles the experience in her first book, This Vast Being, a collage of personal letters and journal entries she wrote during that year.
In this memoir, published earlier this year under Kreilkamp's own imprint, Tendre Press, nothing's too personal to share. In addition to frequent references to astrology, which Kreilkamp used to practice professionally, the book includes her unblinking account of finding her husband dead in bed.
Perhaps the boldest aspect of the book, however, is Kreilkamp's running discussion of the joy she discovered through her grief.
"His ecstasy as he released from his body was palpable to me," she writes. "For several months following his death I participated in an indescribable sense of joy and freedom, simultaneous with my initial shock and grief."
This summer, she organized a 28-stop, cross-country book tour. Her goal, as she writes in her travel blog, "was to start a deeper conversation around death, loss, grief and their gifts."
Before hitting the road, Kreilkamp held a launch party of sorts at Tutto Bene in April. Instead of reading from her book, she invited others who had been "transformed by grief" to share their stories through presentations, art and performances.
WFIU jazz host Joe Bourne emceed the event. His wife, Paula, sang a song in remembrance of her mother, who passed away in 1975.
"It was Ann's courage in facing her own deep grief that made me want to be there and participate," says Paula Bourne. "The event grounded me in the sacred past and kept me focused on the precious treasure of celebrating the story of my mother's eternal presence now."
For her out-of-town events, Kreilkamp organized small discussion circles. Participants often confessed to experiences that made them question their own sanity, such as sensing the presence of a departed loved one in an animal or feeling the overwhelming urge to howl - literally howl - to express their pain.
Kreilkamp encourages people to welcome those experiences and learn from them.
"It is a deep end," Kreilkamp says of grief, "but it is not an end. Death is a gate to a larger dimension - not dementia."
Kreilkamp's approach to grief might seem radical to some, but she found her feet during a radical time. As a child, Kreilkamp says she was a "good Catholic girl," but a tumultuous first marriage, a near-death experience and the consciousness-raising movement of the late 1960s forced her to question everything from her spirituality to the study of logic to a woman's place in the family.
After finishing her Ph.D. in 1972, she took a job at New College, an experimental liberal arts school in California. She was fired, she says, "for being too experimental."
"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," says Kreilkamp, "It seared me. From then on, I didn't try to get approval."
Kreilkamp admits to a "perennial hunger for solitude" and says she spent most of her grieving year in solitude.
Since then, however, she's been reaching out to her community. She joined the Green Acres Neighborhood Association and, together with her fellow members, hopes to foster a village atmosphere where people take care of each other and share resources such as open space.
Kreilkamp figures that, ultimately, everything she does is about creating more open space, whether for alternative philosophies, grieving hearts, aging or her neighbors.
"I think of open space as a verb," she says. "It's what we need to do. There's plenty of room for everything."
Charli Wyatt can be reached at .