It started, as it so often does, with her own story. Eleanor Mills, a loyal 23-year editor at the UK’s Sunday Times, was summarily dismissed from the Murdoch empire just as she was honing in on 50. The shock of her public beheading led her to find solace in a sun-drenched retreat in Jamaica. There, she dreamt up a design for a new future: spearheading a movement to help other women avoid such ignominious exits, and step into a more accurate sense of their collective power. With the tools, resources and networks to wield it. The result, a short 18 months later, is a mix of activism and education via an online platform, brilliantly named Noon. And a series of retreats designed for midlife women, of which I attended the first.
I’ve always known that you can simply put a group of women – almost any women, in any country – in a room, close the door for a few hours and they will emerge empowered. But if you dial up the mix with beauty, serenity and skill, you create a buzz that can project individual women into powerful new chapters – often to their own surprise. And create a wave of enthusiasm that translates into societal change. This, I suspect, will be what happens to the 17 women who left after 4 days of this Noon ‘Reboot Retreat.’
Beauty and awe came through the setting, which has more than a passing resemblance to the spa in the TV series Nine Perfect Strangers. Held at Broughton Hall in the middle of Yorkshire, this stately home, owned by the same family for 1,000 years across 33 generations, oozes longevity, legacy and generational connection. The 3,000-acre estate is now dedicated to transformation and regeneration, both human and natural. The old home, stuffed to its high ceilings with centuries of art and accoutrements, contrasts with the sleek new ‘sanctuary’ and meeting facilities, a visual invitation to build the future on the carefully curated pillars of the past.
Getting a group of rather senior modern British women to slow down takes a bit of time. Revved up by high pressure jobs while simultaneously challenged by physical accidents, or pivotal personal moments, or simply not knowing what comes next, it took Forest Therapist Liz Dawes’ excursions into the forest to start the process of gearing down into some semblance of presence. If you think this is woo-woo stuff for ageing ladies, and need a data-driven model from a big brand to believe in the effectiveness of these approaches, check out the ‘awe walks’ recommended by the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
The next few days are a carefully curated collection of inspiring women from Eleanor Mills’ hyper-connected rolodex. Her Oxford chum, Tamsin Calidas, who has just published a best-selling book, I Am an Island, shared her own midlife transformation – an extreme tale of life on a remote Scottish isle, left alone after a battle with childlessness, loss of husband and a solitary few years facing (and filming) the sea in which she swam (and found herself) every day at 4h30. Rachel Peru, a single mum, who became a successful midlife lingerie model after a daughter’s illness forced her to stop her teaching career. The highlight for many was the yin yoga session, complete with bells, led by Broughton Hall owner, Paris Ackrill. Or the constellation session, exploring the path, resources – and obstacles – to the future through an embodied mapping of the route.
Four days also gifted the socially starved, post-pandemic participants with a series of deepening conversations and connections between women walking parallel paths towards maturity and growth. I was reminded of how quickly and profoundly women connect with each other in a mutually generative way. It contrasted remarkably with a 5-week session I participated in recently with a group of men (I was the only woman). The level of intimacy and vulnerability were dramatically different. Among men, most of the focus was limited to professional issues, while it was clear that major personal transitions simmered under the surface screaming for attention.
That certainly wasn’t the case for these women. Everything was generously ladled into the communal soup of reflection – the personal, professional, philosophical. My personal ah-ha moment was triggered by walking up a windy hillside where 33 stones were laid out in a Fibonacci spiral, each marking a generation of the Tempest family, with the latest stone erected just two years ago to herald the arrival of the owner’s first child. It made me think how my own family line had been sliced through by the Holocaust, with several generations annihilated. But that my Holocaust-surviving mother, still imposing at 96, recently welcomed her first great grand-child, born to my son. I may not have 33 stones to look back on and build on the shoulders of. But I realise I am second in a lineage of four powerful women, one 96 and one 1-week old. And that stepping into that lineage is accepting your humble place in the much greater ongoing cycle of life (and yes, my son’s favourite movie as a kid was The Lion King).
This may be what this generation of midlife women is called to do: slaying the last bastion of feminism. Boomer women beheading the intertwined snakes of ageism and sexism. The first truly massive wave of educated, independent professional women who are flexing their muscles, their money and their political and social might. Marti Barletta first began announcing this shift in her book Prime Time Women a decade ago. They are on the cusp, not of retiring, but of being unleashed on the world. They’ve been busy balancing between the multiple demands of the first half of life. They have loved and cared and nurtured children into their own lives, pushed through careers to relative seniority and influence. The second half of life frees them to fully face – and reshape – the societies they are maturing into.
After all, it’s only noon.