"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 human life cycles in over
100 cities in nine countries since 1972, has published three
other books and a quarterly journal, Always in Season,
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
EllenCooper'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
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
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
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!