From Mermaid to Tent Keeper, One Small Business Owner’s Hope to Bring Joy to Women Everywhere
By: Meredith Flory
Military spouses often find themselves needing to use their degrees, job training, and career experiences creatively. Aj Smit, the Armed Forces Insurance 2020 Lackland Air Force Base Spouse of the Year, certainly found a way to use her theater degree from the University of Northern Iowa and a dream from childhood to spread joy wherever she is stationed.
Smit has been a military spouse for eight years, living in Hawaii, Germany, Mississippi, and now Texas, but growing up in Northern Iowa she dreamed of the ocean. She remembers, “I always wanted to be a mermaid growing up, like people want to be a teacher or astronaut.” While she knew it probably wasn’t possible, she says, “[I] saved my birthday wish each year for this absurd thought, that I could be a mermaid someday.” She remembers wishing each birthday from ages 4 to 22, “Dear God, please let me become a mermaid. I don’t even need to breathe underwater, just the fins would be fantastic.” Then on her 23rd birthday, while looking for mermaid books, she “came across another article about a professional mermaid” and was immediately excited to find that, yes, in fact, people will pay you to be a mermaid. Soon after she got a monofin—a fin that both of your feet are attached to—and later added a tail, beginning her career as a professional mermaid.
She loves bringing “joy, whimsy and wonder to the world.” One of Smit’s early business avenues was performing for mermaid birthday parties. She explains, “At Hickam Air Force Base we could swim out farther down from where the kid’s party would be, and I would tell the adults where my treasure chest was so they could grab it from the hidden spot.” The chest would have books and treasures for the children, and Smit would know which child was the birthday child and call him or her by name as she swam into the party. She would lead games, swimming, and songs and “teach them to speak like dolphins (a lot of high-pitched yodeling, sorry parents), and they would just glow from happiness.”
As her career choice was unique, and military spouses move often, opening her own business seemed like the best way to continue performing. Because her talents and skills were focused on the arts, Smit’s challenge was the paperwork, record keeping, and other administrative duties required when running your own small business. She shares of growing as a businesswoman, “It’s something I’m always reminding myself of, and if people can take that from the get-go and be organized and make sure to keep your paperwork straight, everything else will be easier.”
Smit’s business, In-Joy Productions, has grown to include mermaid and fairy parties, storytelling, henna, and Red Tent events.
Smit is focused not only on growing her own business, but helping women grow in their understanding of their bodies, emotions, and needs. She explains, “A Red Tent is a place where women gather once a month on or near the new moon and learn from one another in a sober space, open faith environment.” Based on the book The Red Tent by Anita Diamont, it builds on a concept that women would gather together in separate spaces when menstruating. Smit shares that in the book, “the women come together while bleeding to share stories, encourage one another, rest, drink tea, and craft or sing together.” There are available certifications and also tools for getting started through Red Tents in Every Neighborhood and the Red Tent Temple Movement.
In addition to using these resources, Smit relied on her training as a performer and former teacher in after-school programs to think of creating the space and conversations as a lesson plan. Knowing she will inevitably move to another community, other women who participate “step up to help lead, becoming Tent Keepers” in hopes of the tent continuing after Smit has moved. Part of her growth as a businesswoman is helping others to flourish as well.
According to Smit, each Red Tent is different in their practice, but she chooses to use themes that focus on tools for emotional well-being, such as “how to set boundaries, what vulnerability looks like, how to use creativity in your life, [and] how your cycle impacts you.” She shares that running Red Tents “has opened my eyes to how much we don’t talk about.” Red Tents provide a community of women, and in Smit’s Red Tents that is inclusive of anyone identifying as a woman, to come together and have important conversations not focused on work, children, religion, or any of the many other responsibilities that take our time. Red Tents allow for complicated feelings, and she gives the examples of having a good life while grieving or being frustrated while also excited about something upcoming.
Smit shares that she has learned so much from the women she has spent time with in the Red Tents and that even though she leads the events, she’s “realized we are all more connected than we are different, and that if you build it, if you build a place of goodness, a brave space, where what is shared in circle stays in circle, and you can do your best to hold onto the people around you and assume the best of them, and come together when there are misunderstandings, your life will be better for it.”
During closures for the current pandemic, many aspects of her business are closed, but she has found ways to adapt, doing story times on her Instagram since she cannot perform at parties and leading online Red Tent spaces. If you would like to be a part of her online community, her Facebook group “Embodied in Joy” gets first information for Red Tents and retreats, and she does mini meditations, thoughts, and other activities. You can find In Joy Productions on her website, Instagram, and Facebook.