I met Aralyn Hughes for the first time at our Creative Mix Meet-up in Austin. I watched her pull into the parking lot of Cafe Creme in her aqua art car, featuring a nude baby doll on the front bumper and a giant bunch of bananas on the roof. She wore a red dress that day, a paisley scarf, and big, red, heart-shaped glasses. When we went around the table and introduced ourselves, Aralyn described herself as a writer, actress, and filmmaker. She had recently published an anthology of women’s stories, Kid Me Not, and was screening her movie, Love in the Sixties, at a local theater. As the other women introduced themselves, and shared resources — mentioning books and websites and blogs they found useful — I noticed Aralyn out of the corner of my eye taking careful notes. She didn’t miss anything.
Underneath her colorful and carefree appearance, I discovered a hard worker, with great determination and follow-through, a model for getting the job done.
Later in the year, at another CM Meet-up, Aralyn talked about her life before she was an artist. I was surprised to learn she had been a successful real estate agent for thirty-five years, the broker of her own company. She walked away in her sixties to pursue creative work. I thought her story would be perfect for Creative Mix and perhaps a good lead-in for the Heroine’s Journey. I was correct on the first point, but way off regarding the latter. Aralyn’s current life as an artist is an extension of a life built on clear choices, including the choice not to have children.
As we got to talking about the generations, hers being the first to choose whether or not to have children, it became clear that my generation had backslid. Many of us did not listen to our foremothers. We could not see what they had witnessed — back alley abortions, women enslaved by marriage, giving up their dreams for their husbands and families. We marched into the 1980s wearing shoulder pads and believing we could have it all — marriage, children, careers. Now the millennials are looking at our exhausted lives and saying, “No, thank you.”
The feminist revolution uprooted marriage, yet many of us are still trying to fit our big, ambitious lives into the old institution with little support from the culture. This is the grief and frustration I sense in many of the woman who come to me — bright, ambitious women, trying to write and paint and make films while changing diapers and dragging their kids to soccer practice. It’s a dilemma we’ll address during Heroine’s Journey for Artists and future Creative Mix programs.
I hope Aralyn’s interview inspire you stay in there with your work, to move into the future with your eyes open, and to make clear, feminist choices in favor of the work that calls.
Saundra: I want to start with your life before you became an artist. Why did you go into real estate and what kind of career did you have?
Aralyn:. I was married for nine years and expected to be a wife, mother, and homemaker. But as time went on, it became clear that was not my nature. I grew up with mentors like Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy and Angela Davis (who I saw in the Haight Ashbury), and they changed my life. Before then I had only been exposed to what my parents, my community, my school and my church had taught me. These women opened my eyes to another way of doing things.
I was fortunate enough to have parents who paid for me to go to college. My mother said, “You don’t have to get a PhD like your brother, that’s him. But you should go to college for at least one year, and then if you meet someone and want to get married, it’s okay.” So the anticipatory thing for me was to get an MRS degree.
I didn’t meet any men I was interested in marrying, much less date. Frat guys were not my cup of tea. All of a sudden I had graduated from college and thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually going to work and get a job.” But then I did get married and never worked much other than some substitute teaching. When I divorced, I thought, “Fortunately I have that degree, so surely somebody will hire me to do something.”
I was hired as the first director of the first abortion clinic in Austin, and that was the most gratifying position I ever had. In the years that followed, people stopped me in grocery stores and at parties and pulled me aside and said, “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are. I was one of those women who had an abortion in your clinic. It was a very bad time in my life, and you and the people in the clinic were kind. You didn’t shame us, you didn’t judge us. You just took care of us in a kind and caring way. And I want you to know I appreciate it, and thank you for it. And my life is in a better place now.”
But I couldn’t make enough money, and I was clear that in the next segment of my life, whatever that was going to be, I was not going to be financially dependent on a man. I had been married to a naval officer and we moved frequently, and I went along, so I couldn’t really work. And he didn’t want me to work. He wanted to have kids, and that’s what triggered the divorce. Because after saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” for so many years, I said, “No. I’m not having kids, and I’m not stopping birth control pills, and that’s just the way it is.” So he filed for divorce.
As far as becoming financially dependent, I wondered, “How am I going to do this?” The director of the abortion clinic gave me a salary, but it was not enough to really soar on or do the kind of traveling or the things I wanted to do, or just be in a more powerful position on the level with men. So I went into real estate with the attitude that no man would sell more real estate than me or make more money than me. I was motivate, and I was good at marketing and sales. Even though it was not my calling, it was easy for me, and I liked owning my own business.
I was a broker of my own company, and then in 2008 there was a downturn in the economy. I had been selling real estate for nearly thirty-five years, and I had seen in previous downturns how hard people worked to make the same amount of money as they did in an up market. Fortunately, I had saved my money for the bad times. I was a good Girl Scout and the Girl Scouts have a motto, “Be Prepared.”
When we sold Girl Scout Cookies, I wanted to be the top seller and wondered how would do I do that. I took out the telephone directory and called all my parents friends and said, “This is Paul and Ara’s daughter, Aralyn. The Girl Scout Cookies are coming in and I wanted you to get in your order, because you know, sometimes they run out of mint.”
I took their orders and then I would ask, “Don’t you think you ought to get some extra boxes, Mrs. Ramsay, because you have those bridge clubs, and you know sometimes at the last minute you’re going to need cookies.” I sold more Girl Scout Cookies than anyone in the state of Oklahoma. When the Girl Scout Cookies were delivered, my parents had to park their car outside the garage.
But then I had to deliver all these cookies and was not in a hurry to do that. I was tired after school. But my mother said, “No, you made a commitment, you sold the cookies. You deliver them in a timely manner and you take change for when they pay you.”
So I learned about money and about sales. I learned about customer service, and I learned about winning, that it can be done if you set your goal. Girl Scouts taught me a lot, and I moved that same idea into real estate.
But back in 2008 when the market went down, I told myself, “This is my time to do what I’ve been waiting to do all my life. And I don’t know exactly what that is, but I know it’s in the creative realm.” I determined that from now on everything I do will be related to creativity.
Saundra: Can I ask you how old you were?
Aralyn: I was sixty-two
Saundra: This is important for many of us to hear, because you’ve done so much in such a short amount of time. A book, a movie, one-woman shows. I know you get frustrated that you haven’t gotten farther faster, but when you think about it you’ve gone pretty far pretty fast.
Aralyn: And all along the way I was told, “This is a young person’s game.” I’ve had to push beyond that. I’m now using my savings, not for when I get old and need to be in a retirement center, but for the creative things that I want to do in my life and what serves me and makes me happy and brings me joy. I mean what’s the money for?
People who are in their sixties, who are like me Depression children, were told to save because there’d be the rainy day. When I told a friend I was going to go to Ireland, she said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland. It’s on my bucket list.” We were about sixty-five at the time, and I said, “Well why don’t you go now?”
Her husband was sitting right there and he said, “Go ahead and go I’ll be fine. Go with Aralyn to Ireland.” “Oh, you know I can’t,” she said. “Let me think about it.” When it was time to make a decision, she said, “I’m not going to be able to do it. I have clients and my business,. I’ll go another time.”
“Look, there’s not going to be another time,” I told her. “You’re sixty-five years old. You saved your money for a rainy day. The rainy day is here, and it’s time for you to go to Ireland.” She was quiet for a minute and I said, “When you die, do you want your clients to say, ‘Boy, she was so great, she never took a vacation, she was always here for us?’ Or do you want them to say, ‘She was a great therapist, but you know what? She went on some fun vacations with her friends from sixth grade and had the time of her life.’” So she said, “Okay, I’ll buy a ticket tomorrow.” And so she went and of course had more fun than anybody else.
When you save money for such a long time, you have to learn to spend it when you’re older.
Saundra: What have been the challenges for you since you made the leap? I feel like we’re missing something here. You didn’t go from real estate to published author, real estate agent to filmmaker, overnight. What were some of the steps in between?
Aralyn: I thought that during the downtimes I would do creative stuff, and then I’d work in real estate more later on. I was at a point in my life where I could do both part-time. But once I got into painting and performing, and then took a notion to write this book, there was no time for real estate anymore.
Saundra: Did you take classes or did you jump in? Were you involved in any groups?
Aralyn: I took classes in painting, and the instructor said to me, “You need to keep painting.” She didn’t say my work was fabulous, nothing dramatic, like I was going to become the next Picasso. And I thought, “Well, I think I will.” And so I did my first one-woman show about three years later, and I had 117 paintings. But it became difficult moving around all that art. I was downsizing and getting rid of “stuff “in order to be more flexible and move. I let go of all of my real estate and had my bank accounts consolidated, and I simplified my life.
I wanted for the first time in my life to be able to walk out my door, shut it, and never come back and be okay about it. So that could mean dying or that could mean going to another place.
Material things don’t matter to me in the same way they did. I do enjoy things that are artful and pretty and colorful, but having less, I’m free of them and I’m okay to leave everything. That’s why I quit painting, because I was carrying so much art around. The paintings are like babies–you can’t let them go. But I eventually let a lot of them go and tried save the one I could fit on the wall.
At some point I met with the director, Amparo Garcia-Crow. We were in the show, “In the West” at Kennedy Center, in which I was cast to be a writer, a performer, and a director. I was terrified. I had never directed anybody to do anything. I had barely been an actress. I had taken a few classes and been in a few shows. And then a writer, oh my gosh, you’ve got to be kidding me. I don’t write. I can barely sit still.
But when the reviews came out of the first show, they were raves. I quickly went to see if my name was mentioned, because they usually say good things about certain parts of the show, and then they say bad things about people who were weaker. I thought, “I don’t want to be mentioned for being less than perfect.”
I saw my name and thought, “Oh my God, my greatest fear has come true. They’re going to say, ‘That woman needs to take some acting lessons.’” But I was reviewed as a writer. I was stunned, because I had never dreamed that I’d be one of the three or four reviewed as a writer. I saw myself as an actress. But if they thought a story by women from the sixties, who chose not to have children, was important, I thought, I should publish a book
I talked to several people who said, “Who wants to read about a bunch of old women who didn’t have children? It’s negative and it won’t sell.” I believed there was audience out there and that I could get good people to tell the stories. I wanted to leave a legacy for future generations.
We were the first generation of women who had a choice to not have children, the first generation of women to have birth control pills. So our stories are important. Our stories are history.
Over time I learned to appreciate my own story and be willing to go on stage and tell it. I understood story and that’s what prompted me to publish, Kid Me Not. I sought help, but because it was an anthology and not a novel, I was not able to get much support from writers’ organizations. A lot of workshops were not relevant to what I was doing. I was also doing an indie book, and serious writers still wanted to go the traditional publishing route. I wanted to self-publish and that put me in the stepsister role.
Saundra: I get it. I know the hierarchies.
Aralyn: But I went ahead and pushed through. I got some good advice, for example there’s no place you’re going to do it for cheaper than Amazon’s CreateSpace, so don’t even look. That saved me a lot of time and trouble. I went straight there, got the prices, knew what it was going to cost, knew what we had to do. I hired one of our writers as the graphic artist, and she was able to lay out the book and the cover. I could pay her some money, but not what I would pay someone who wasn’t part of the project.
Another woman in the group had a law degree, but her teachers told her when she graduated, that she knew more English grammar than any other graduate. “I know it’s a passing fancy,” I said, “but we will be one of the last generations to publish a book without misspelled words, bad grammar, or mistakes. We’re just not going to do it.” And so we beat it to death. We had proofreader and about ten people who were willing to read it, very fairly accomplished readers. Every time someone read it, they found something else.
My last reader was an editor for the New York Times. She was in her twenties then and a lowly person in the editing hierarchy, but she knew what she was doing. When she came back with it, she said there were a few obscure grammar errors that people don’t even know about that anymore.”
“That’s it?” I said. “You didn’t find anything else?” So we went to press.”
The book was finished in a year. Everyone said it would take two years, but I had laid out a lot of parameters from the beginning. The writers were women who wanted to be writers, but couldn’t spare the time to write a book because of their jobs or their kids or because of money, and the project was a gift to them. For every one who agreed to write, however, there were ten more who didn’t want to share this part of this part of their lives. “I don’t want to use my real name,” they told me. Or “I have kids and family that are still living.” Or, I grew up Catholic.” But I said we had to lay out the truth and part of that is stepping forward and using our real names.
That’s our job: to tell the truth and to get it out there.
We took turns reading our stories in front of the group, and I talked to them about constructive feedback. So we had a format for that. One woman read her piece and everybody thought it was good, but I sensed something was missing. “There’s something you’re not telling us,” I said.
At our next meeting she said, “I threw out my entire piece, and I’m telling the truth this time, because I see everybody else is.” Her story is the last one in the book and it’s very compelling. She was one of those women got pregnant at sixteen and went on a bus by herself to Arizona with borrowed money. No one knew except a friend who gave her the money. She went on Friday, had the abortion on Saturday, came back Sunday on the bus, and went to school on Monday. No one ever knew, until she released her story in this book.
Saundra: I love the way you set the whole thing up, almost like a women’s group, with you as mentor or catalyst. There’s something about the project beyond the ego’s desire to be seen. It has a sense of mission about it.
Aralyn: Because everyone in that group became vested in everybody else’s story, it was absolutely the best it could be.
Saundra: It seems like it’s a terrific model.
Aralyn: I set the women up in groups of three in the beginning and had them go to lunch and talk about their stories before they started writing. None of these women knew each other; they only knew me. So we had to build trust.
One of the things I learned about myself is that I’m kind of a bulldog. Once I start take a notion to do something, I’m going to do it.
Saundra: I see that.
Aralyn: Some women in the group, toward the end, thought I was being too much of a task mater if they did not meet the deadline, but it was my job to drive it and get it done.
Saundra: That’s how things get done.
Aralyn: It’s like the time I took ten women to the Grand Canyon for my fortieth birthday, and we hiked all the way down on the Bright Angel Trail, about eight miles straight down. We stayed at Phantom Ranch that night, and walked ten miles up the canyon the next day. The first five miles were in the trees, and after that, there was nothing but switchbacks and direct sun for the rest of the hike.
One a woman said she couldn’t do it. We had already helicoptered two out, and now we were halfway up. “What’s the hardest thing you ever did?” I asked. “Having a baby, right?” And she said, “Oh, yeah!” “Well, you’re having another baby,” I said. “Start walking. There’s no way out. This baby’s going to come. You’re going to the top.”
Saundra: This is giving me inspiration for finishing my book. I’m going to come talk to you every week.
Aralyn: I have learned by feedback that when I talk with people about my story, my life, it is an inspiration for them to do something that they’ve been wanting to do. Or that they needed a kick in the butt to do. It’s my style of mentoring.
It’s not something that I plan for. It comes out of living my life and telling my story. A lot of young people write to me that they are inspired by me. They always say, “When I grow up I want to be just like Aralyn.” Many times they’re searching for what their purpose is or trying to find their calling or what they should do in life.
I have never really known my calling or my purpose, and I’ve not spent a lot of time trying to find it. I have just opened the door and gone out there and lived it. My purpose is what I do every day. That is my calling.
And I may share it with one person or a coffee group of twelve or an audience of two hundred.
I don’t tell myself, this has to be inspiring or to this has to be good. I find that it’s just something I do. I’m grateful that I have that gift. I don’t know where I got it, and I don’t totally understand it, but I have to listen to the feedback I’m getting.
Saundra: It seems like you trust yourself. Sometimes when people say they don’t know what to do, that they don’t know what their calling is, I think it’s because they don’t trust themselves, and that seems like something you have, based on your experience. We come into the world with whatever gifts we have, but then you talked about your experience about being a Girl Scout, where you had one success and you realized you could have an other one.
Sometimes it’s just showing yourself that you can do it. Once you prove to yourself, you can do it over and over.
Aralyn: And the things that I worry that people will judge me for – like I’m too far out, or shouldn’t have said something, — I find over and over again those things serve people more than if I had tried to organize something I thought would be helpful. Because of the way I’ve lived my life, many people have thought I was mentally ill. They tell me I’m bipolar or ADD or schizophrenic. They don’t even know what these things are, really. One friend said to me, “Why do you want to be out in front of people all the time and wear these wild, colorful clothes? Did you not have a good childhood? Did your parents not pay attention to you?”
My parents paid a lot of attention to me. I don’t work on wearing wild colors. That’s just what I like. Kind of like I don’t understand why certain men wear khaki pants and a beige t-shirt all the time. It doesn’t have anything to do with any kind of mental defect or lack of anything. It’s just a preference.
Saundra. When you live freely and authentically and according to your own truth, it gives people the freedom to do the same. It doesn’t mean they have to wear wild colors like Aralyn. It means they get to do things in a way that feels right to them, because it’s their truth and way of being in the world, and whatever joy and pleasure that brings.
Aralyn: One thing I wanted to say back when we were talking about people who say, as many do, that they don’t know their purpose or their calling, I always ask, “If you did know, what would it be?” And do you know every time they give me an answer?
Saundra: Love that.
You talked briefly about some of your role models during the sixties and seventies, people like Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, feminists. Can you talk about that out a bit more?
Aralyn: I can, although many of the women I consider mentors don’t have big name recognition.
My husband was in the military, one twelve officers who were often on leave for three months at a time. The wives would meet once a week, and sometimes in between or talk on the phone. We were all different. Some women had children, some women had grown children, and some women didn’t have children at all. And we had a wide range political lthough, because the Vietnam War was going on.
But we formed a community, and in that community I watched women with their children, and I saw how drained they were and how alone they were. Now this is partially because they were married to military men. When you’re in the military you live on base, far away from your family. There’s not much help there. I did not want to live like that.
I saw women financially dependent, some who told me they would leave their husbands if they could, but they couldn’t financially support themselves and their children, so they remained married. And then there was the woman who was the XO’s wife, second in command. When she wanted to take a trip with another friend, I volunteered to take her kids.
I thought, “This’ll be good experience,” and I moved into her house for three days. She had four children, and they were all over the place. Later I said her, “I have to make a decision about having kids, and it has to be right. I can’t make a mistake because there’s no going back. I really need you, because everybody I talk to says, ‘Oh, children are so great. I would have had ten if I could. Childbirth is easy. Don’t worry about that.’ You hear all these things about how wonderful everything is, but that’s not what I see. You have to tell me the truth.”
“I have four children,” she said. “And I would lay down on train tracks to save them. But if I had to do it over again, I don’t know. But if I were you, I would not have kids. Go out and live your life. You’ve got so many things you want to do, and it will not serve you to have children. There are all kinds of ways to be a nurturing, caring woman in this world with other people’s children as you have with mine. There are many others, and plenty who don’t have anybody to care about them.”
That was the final message that made me confident in the choice I was making.
Saundra: So to me, a mentor is someone who sees you.
Aralyn: Yes, she saw me.
Saundra: And when someone really sees you, she can give you the kind of guidance that you need.
Tell me about your experience with Creative Mornings.
Aralyn: I thought the name, Creative Mornings, sounded right up my alley, so I showed up. The people who participate are millennials, whom I think I have a voice for. I thought it would be nice someday to address at that group, so I went to see what it was like.
I spoke with one young woman for a while and then introduced myself to the leader of the group. “I just wanted to meet you,” I said, “This is my first time to be here and I’m probably going to come back.”
And while I was standing there, that young woman came up and said, “Ben, you need to have this woman speak to the group. Oh my God, you absolutely do.” And then she walked off. He called me the next week and set it up.
It was my first time to talk where I was not telling a story, although I am always telling a story. But I had to structure it more as a speech, which gave me a little more freedom to say what I think and feel and how I think the world should be. In storytelling I guard against that and hope that the stories I tell give people perspective on how to handle certain issues or deal with problems, without telling them as a teacher or professor or a mother would.
I prepared the speech, and as always, I experienced stage fright. I was terrified I wouldn’t wake up in the morning, terrified I’d get lost midway, terrified that they wouldn’t respond. But I prepared as best I could and afterwards, the leader of the group told me he was going to nominate my talk for their international podcast series. They selected and put it on their website, and I’ve had people from all of the world respond me and quote me on social media.
Saundra: Something struck me when you talked about addressing the millennials, feeling like you had something to say to them. Because a lot of women feel invisible as they get older.
Aralyn: I talked about being invisible in my recent show. I tell a story talking to this guy and this younger woman comes and takes him away. This is the story of my life. At this age I realize is I will become more and more invisible over time. This is something that comes with the territory of age and we might as well embrace it.
I think my story relates to women both millenials and Boomers, and oddly enough, some men. Women my age say, “God, if I had known this when I was younger, I would have lived my life differently.” Millennial women and men believe all these issue are new. They have the same questions about whether or not to have children as we did.
Saundra: I think the generation that came up behind you in the seventies and eighties, we backslid.
Aralyn: We shook things up so much that things had to settle out. But I do believe the millennial women are having their own liberation revolution movement, and we just don’t see it. They’re not acknowledging the foundation that we laid for them, but they are using that foundation and they are catapulting out of that. They’re not getting married, they’re not having children, or they’re having children without men, using surrogates.
Saundra: In my generation, we were told we could have it all, so we tried that, and that’s where we backslid. Because you can’t have it all. Or you can, but not all at once, and not in that way.
Aralyn: Helen Gurley Brown said we could have it all. And I think the millennials are asking, “What do it I want?” Today women decide what they want and they go and manifest without burning their bras or taking to the streets or even talking about it. They just do it. They’re having it all, with or without men.