“Tea,” says ritualist Donna Henes, “is on the queen,” grandly gesturing toward a plate heaped with cookies at the tour launch for her self-published book The Queen of My Self: Stepping Into Sovereignty at Midlife, released just before Christmas. We’re standing around Bluestockings, the Allen Street bookstore, on a recent frigid evening, amid anti-imperialist lit and gray “Power to the People” T-shirts. Henes, a writer and artist who’s hosted hundreds of thousands at multicultural ceremonies in honor of the seasons and of hu- man life cycles in over 100 cities in nine coun- tries since 1972, has published three other books and a quarterly journal, Always in Sea-son, and released a CD. Her rousing “Full Snow Moon Drumming Circle,” a winter ceremony designed to refuel light-starved New Yorkers, is scheduled for February 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Henes and her Monarch Press partners booked time at Bluestockings, unaware that the severely cash-strapped women’s bookstore had been reborn as a radical hangout likely to draw young activists who hate capitalism and love dyke erotica. These young’uns, of course, don’t show up for Henes’s event, but several mature women and a couple of men bearing bouquets, Henes devotees hailing from outer boroughs and burbs, arrive to give their beloved “urban shaman” a warm send-off.
At age 59, their queen is a font of cheer, ablaze in color—coppery hair, raspberry scarf, cranberry velvet jacket, sparkling gold tinsel snaking around her forehead. Two small dogs dart about the audience’s feet, yapping and sparring while, unperturbed and serene, she reads on. She concludes her remarks by leading us all in a traditional royal wave—fingers flattened, a shallow twist of the wrist. A little lighthearted theater to dance the revolution forward. But unlike the over-50 gals in Sue Ellen Cooper’s similarly regal Red Hat Society, Henes enthusiasts appear less interested in Amtrak discounts and shopping for tchotchkes than in achieving psychological, spiritual, and social change.
Before undertaking her round of special appearances, the perpetually busy monarch—counselor, healer, ceremonialist, drumming circle leader, support group facilitator, peace activist, and “spirit shop” proprietor—graciously agreed to answer a few questions.
Your new book critiques the very bedrock of the neo-pagan and women’s spirituality movements—the Triple Goddess concept of maiden, mother, and crone, which purports to represent a woman’s life cycle. What led you to rethink this widely revered archetype? This maiden-mother-crone/waxing-full-waning- moon concept is not ancient. It was invented, within my lifetime, by the poet Robert Graves and the witchcraft leader Gerald Gardner—two men! In the true female triads of Egyptian, Celtic, Greek, and Hindu traditions, the goddesses aren’t identified by age. Saraswati, Durga, and Kali are considered sisters, and Kali isn’t an old woman. The third deity, in fact, is sometimes a warrior. Four—the symbol of steadiness, strength, and balance—was far more important to the ancients than the number three. But the modern triplicity acknowledges only three phases of the moon, excluding the Dark Moon. It also omits one each of the four seasons, four directions, and four elements. People think that the Christian Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—was based on Triple Goddess beliefs, but the reverse seems to be the case!
Your book tells how your mother, divorced at 45, raised you and your brother in Cleveland with minimal child support, steadily working her way up to corporate VP, a rarity at the time. You also write of your own midlife transition, mourning many loved ones and suddenly realizing you had lived more for others than for yourself. The Queen archetype reframes the meaning of midlife—years in which a woman can be most dynamic. She no longer fits the literal or metaphoric role of childbearer or caretaker, but she’s not ready to retire into cronehood. How does your new approach help women cope with this time of challenge and change? Midlife punches us in the belly. Every woman arrives at this age with questioning and surprise. We experience multiple losses—the decline and death of parents, divorce, kids leaving home, hitting the glass ceiling, not getting tenure, finding our tits down to our knees. At the same time, we feel pressure from within to put up or shut up, to do stuff we’ve put off. “Now it’s my turn!”
In the workshops, we make space for grief, passing salt around the circle to represent tears, healing, the cleansing of negativity. We talk about sex—which can be a major area of loss but also a place of breakthrough when a woman renews her self-esteem and sense of agency. I heard about one young lesbian coming out and her middle-aged mother—lightbulb going off in her head—replying, “Oh! That’s interesting!” Some women fear being alone at this time; others want their own separate space and have no interest in merging with a partner.
We also pass around ash, symbol of great fertility, and talk about those habits, attitudes, and stereotypes we’re leaving behind, honoring what we learned from them. With scepter in hand, each woman defines what her reign as queen will entail. The queen never again yields her power to anyone or anything else. There’s a Yoruba expression from the Ifa religion that I love: “You crown your own life.” Accordingly, in our ceremonies, each woman crowns herself. And we have bubbles and glitter and bells!
You do build a lot of childlike creative playfulness into your ceremonies. I have no patience for some of the earnest neo-pagan ritual I’ve seen. Just go to church if you want that! The Catholics do it so much better. The word silly—from the name of the moon goddess Selene—originally meant holy.
Do younger women attend? Young women always participate. They tell me afterward that they’ve gained confidence that their path will take them further into their own power. I say, If you relate to this concept, it’s for you.
What about the woman who might be politically skeptical or uncomfortable about calling herself a queen? Someone may say, “I don’t want to rule anyone,” but that’s a cop-out. A queen has response-ability—the ability to respond to her own needs and feelings. This is not about patriarchal “power over” but the power of the spirit within you and what you can engender in others. It’s like electricity, volcanoes, tsunamis—huge, inherent, neutral power that you make either positive or negative by your intention.
The Queen, as you see her, contains another provocative power symbol—the Empress, who assumes responsibility for the condition of her community and world. Toward the end of your book, you identify several progressive majesties like Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who has criticized the Bush agenda, and former FBI whistle-blower Colleen Rowley—and you would surely now add Senator Barbara Boxer to your list. Clearly you’re not asking women to merely decorate their navels and gaze at them. Oh, not at all. Everywhere I go there’s a loudmouthed woman fighting in a very primal way for this earth. It makes me feel safer. There’s no coincidence that, most often, these women are in their midlife years. Did you know that one-third of all women in the U.S. are over 50? The power is shifting!
The Queen of Myself: Stepping Into Sovereignty at Midlife
by Donna Henes, Monarch Press, 211 pp., $16.95.
Mama Donna’s Tea Garden and Healing Haven
P.O. Box 380403, Brooklyn, NY 11238-0403,
Panel and Book Signing
April 17 from 10 a.m. to noon
International Women’s Writing Guild, Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, 212.737.7536, iwwg.com.
Workshops and Crowning Ceremonies
Queen of Myself Workshop
March 6 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Center for Holistic Health Care, 26 Narrows Rd S, SI, 718.857.1343, email@example.com.
March 11 through 13
Poughkeepsie Grand Hotel, Poughkeepsie, NY, 845-473-2206, dreaminggoddess.com/events/akashacon.
June 9 through 12
Carbondale, Pennsylvania, womongathering.com.
Five-Day Royal Retreat
August 14 through 19, Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY, 800.944.1001, eomega.org.