Guest Post: On Turning 50
Jenny Atkinson served as Editor-in-Chief of Exponent II for three years, from 1997-1999. She was 27 years old when she took the helm, making Jenny the youngest editor in our 44 year history. Jenny vigorously recruited many of her peers to participate in the organization, thus giving the staff a more diverse demographic. Another way she modernized the publication was to shift the quarterly from a folded newspaper format to a neater, more manageable and permanent booklet style with heavier paper and a stapled spine. (This is why the people who subscribed early on refer to Exponent II as a “paper” and later subscribers call it a “magazine.”) The organization is ever grateful to Jenny for making our voices more varied, solid and permanent through her vitality, innovation, and giant heart.
I was 19 years old when I went to my first Exponent II paste-up party. I had recently moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and couldn’t believe the newspaper that had been arriving in the mailbox for my mother for most of my childhood was being created just a few blocks from where I lived! That first encounter was full of yummy snacks, fascinating conversation and hard work in a tiny room full of women who seemed to be forces of nature. I was hooked.
In the decade that I was deeply involved with Exponent II, a number of the other women celebrated their 50th birthdays. I imagined that their boldness, clarity, sense of self and lack of concern for other’s approval (confidence in the face of criticism) was something like a birthday present they were given on their 50th birthdays. I couldn’t wait to turn 50 and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.
Over the years that I worked with these women, I learned so much. I was always thrilled when I would make a trip to pick up the Exponent II mail at the Arlington Post Office in the years that I was the secretary or treasurer of the board. I’d hope to make a side trip to Carrel Sheldon’s porch where we would sit and talk. Carrel was so open and insightful in those and many other conversations—whether the topic was the church, sex, friendship or whatever popped into our minds, I always learned something from Carrel and even more importantly, I always felt listened to by her—like my ideas, questions and struggles were worth consideration.
I remember one Exponent Board Retreat weekend where we headed to the Cape (or somewhere, my memory is getting worse by the minute). We stopped at a cool estate sale. Later that day, these women presented me with a beautiful necklace—something that was such a good match to my tastes and my spirit. They gave me that gift at a time when I was really sick. It was important to me at that time that the tiredness I felt was something physical—chronic fatigue syndrome. Who knows what it was (and sometimes is) exactly—now I think of it much more as unexpressed sadness and anger that I interpreted as tiredness. No doubt it was also due to high levels of busy-ness and the feeling that I had to try to be perfect. But during that difficult time, I felt so supported, loved and cared for by those Exponent II ladies.
I think about the hours I spent with Sue Booth-Forbes. Whether we were digging around in a small closet where the back issues of the paper were stored (when I dropped those packages off at the post office, I always imagined the excitement of the woman on the other end when she would open her mailbox and see the treat waiting for her), talking about an article under consideration for publication, or just enjoying a delicious meal Sue had cooked for us, I gained an even deeper understanding of the importance of Exponent II. Sue’s love for the paper and all the people reading it was almost palpable.
When I became the editor of Exponent, I was also grateful for younger people who started agreeing to help with the work of the paper. I was so impressed when I’d stop by Heather Sundahl’s house to drop off a few manuscripts for editing (yes, it was still mostly pre-email in those days). I did not have kids at the time and I marveled at her ability to hang out with a houseful of babies and toddlers and still have time and energy to proof articles. My roommate, Diane Brown, who was busily working on a PhD, would also make time to read even more words in her spare time as another of our expert editor/proofreaders.
And over the years I edited the paper, I worked with three different magical design editors. Eileen Lambert (I still think of her as my fairy godmother), Sarah Bush (who spent endless hours thinking about how the look of the paper contributed to reader experience) and Kate Holbrook (who was probably working, going to school and always baking something scrumptious for us to enjoy when I’d stop by her house). When I think back on my time with those three, I mostly remember laughing, deep conversation and a strong desire to ensure that Exponent II would speak to all its readers in the way it spoke to us. Working on the paper brought us together in a way that enriched our friendship and made me a better person.
Over the years, I’ve learned from and felt the love of all these women and so many more—the wise “older” women and the (usually) younger ones who were just getting involved with Exponent II. As I have reflected on these friendships, I’ve realized that of course becoming myself was not going to be a birthday present I was given when I turned 50. Instead, the qualities I’ve admired in so many Exponent II women were always hard-earned. I’ve been a bit disappointed to give up on this fantasy—I’m turning 50 today and I still have so much work to do to be the person I want be. But when I think about how fun and important doing that work has been with my Exponent II friends, I’m excited to continue the journey as I become even more myself—more confident, daring, kind and peaceful in the decades to come.