It took Naomi Bradley five years to forgive her husband for dying. She just couldn't get over the anger she felt at not having had a chance to say goodbye when her husband, Bill, died of a sudden heart attack at 58 while they were on vacation in Nevada in 1983.

She talks about it freely now in helping other older women deal with the tragedies in their lives.

It is one of the things crones do for all who join their ranks, for today's crones are not as the dictionary defines them: "ugly, withered old women; hags."

Rather, they are part of an international movement of thousands dedicated to restoring a reverence for older women dating back to pre-Christian times when women were cherished as maidens and mothers, mentors and midwives, healers and counselors and leaders of their tribes.

"We need to revere elders again in our society," said Ingrid Aspromatis, a founding member of the Northwest Desert Crones, a group of 20 some women ranging in age from their 50s to their 80s.

"That's part of the reason for our group," Aspromatis said. "We gather to celebrate the oneness of our aging. We've raised our families, had our careers, now we're coming to the time in our lives when we can give back to the community and to ourselves in whatever dimension that might be. There is a great deal of creativity and compassion among us and that cries out to be shared."

One way it is shared is through croning ceremonies, an opportunity for women to mark their passage into old age and gain a sense of spirituality in the process. Drumming and chanting are also employed as tools for relaxation, just as they were in ancient times.

A writing workshop taught by Aspromatis also helps crones examine their lives and release the tensions associated with painful or unhappy events as well as revisit happier memories.

For some crones it is an easy task to throw off the societal labels attached today to women over 50 as wrinkled, dependent, frail, debilitated, ugly, grotesque, dispensable, useless or unimportant old women.

These are the labels that emanate from "a period of persecution and degradation of women as chattel that continues to pervade society today," wrote Ruth Gardner, a Desert Crone founding member and author of "Celebrating the Crone." "Generations passed and little girls were taught by the clergy and their fathers that they were 'lesser.' Their mothers knew that teaching their daughters to deny themselves meant survival. So they taught them denial and acceptance of the teachings," Gardner wrote in 1999.

"We became so used to denying ourselves that perhaps, despite changing laws, we still find it difficult to claim our rightful places."

Today's crones treat their aging as a rite of passage that carries with it the freedom to speak out in their own behalf and to celebrate rather than lament their stage of life. Their means of doing so is as varied as their membership, which consists of artists and musicians, bikers and professional people, writers and homemakers, single women, married women, those in lesbian relationships and widows.

Their purposefulness receives much of its strength from their weekly meetings.

"They're therapeutic, healing, educational and entertaining," Aspromatis said of the Northwest Desert Crones meetings held every Monday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Nanini Branch Library, 7300 N. Shannon Road.

Similar crone groups are also active in Tucson, Green Valley, the Avra Valley area and the East Valley, taking in Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert and Apache Junction.

At the crones' June 3 meeting, Bradley, who recently celebrated her 75th birthday with a hot air balloon ride, in addition to describing her experiences in dealing with the death of her husband, also addressed problems vast numbers of women have in dealing with the emotional and psychological stresses in their lives.

"There is no hell other than that which is within us," she told her fellow crones.

Bradley also talked of the difficulty so many women have with the simple act of touching and encouraged her audience to learn to hug to ease their reluctance to touch, passing out a flyer on the subject that read:

"Hugging is good medicine. It transfers energy and gives the person hugged an emotional lift. You need four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance and 12 for growth. Scientists say that hugging is a form of communication because it can say the things you don't have words for. A hug is a great gift … One size fits all. And the nicest thing about a hug is that you usually can't give one without getting one."

In the back, several crones discussed lyrics to a 60s song titled "Love Minus Zero" by Bob Dylan. Other meetings might include discussions of sexuality, self confidence, personal journals, or simply "decade" stories focusing on each decade in a woman's life starting at the age of 10.

"With older women as mentors, you can learn how wonderful aging can be from people who are accomplished, educated, talented and have done incredible things," said Aspromatis. "If you had a crisis in your life, who would you go to, a woman of 20 or a 60-year old?"

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