The Queen of My Self

By Sharon Mesmer

(Article first appeared in the NYTimes online on 2/11/16, and in the Sunday Review print edition 2/14/16:

For some women, menopause is no big deal. Some say they barely notice it. My mother, long ago, described her menopause this way: “My periods just started gettin’ lighter and lighter, and my hormones settled down, and then one day … pffft! It was over.”

Not me. Not only did menopause change my life, it changed me.

Before I was laid low by hot flashes and panic-inducing adrenaline rushes, the constant oscillation between morbid sadness and killer rage, I’d prided myself on being fearless. I’d kicked undercover cops in the groin, screamed obscenities at the masochistic nuns at my Catholic school, threw a chair at my abusive fiancé’s head while Allen Ginsberg read poetry in a room below.

And suddenly, I was a person to whom sitting quietly with hands folded, ideally in a dark room with the shades drawn and maybe “The Lawrence Welk Show” playing low on an old TV, seemed like the best plan ever.

I wish I’d been better prepared. I wish I’d properly celebrated the last time I’d canceled plans to spend all morning soaking in a lavender-scented bathtub with a bottle of Advil. I wish I’d noted down the date when I’d dug that last extra tampon out of the bottom of my purse and thrown it away. I should have marked the event in some way, maybe even performed a personal rite-of-passage ritual: taken that tampon out to the woods, placed it upon an altar that I’d fashioned out of ancient, glacial rocks, and set it ablaze while I chanted an invocation to whoever the crone-goddess of menopause is.

I am now well-acquainted with that crone-godddess.

It’s possible that I have the World’s Worst Menopause. But how to quantify with hard data hot flashes that make me feel like I’m staring into the mouth of an active volcano or the engine of a coal-burning locomotive on the hottest day in history? To what previous record could I compare panic-inducing adrenaline rushes that occur every hour on the hour and, while I’m teaching, inspire concerned students to ask if I’m having a heart attack? When I hear women use cutesy nicknames like “power surges” I want to rip their throats out.

If you are one of those women for whom the transition from periods to no periods was like the transition from walking to sitting down — congratulations. Everybody else — you are my tribe. And I’ve come to believe that our tribe needs a ritual.

I’ve heard menopause described as a second puberty. There are plenty of rite-of-passage rituals for girls as they begin and complete puberty. There’s the bat mitzvah, the quinceañera and the Sweet 16. I’ve read about a beautiful Apache ceremony called Na’ii’ees, which takes place the summer after a girl has her first period, at sunrise, and commemorates the story of Esdzanadehe, the First Woman. As it was originally performed, a girl, covered with a golden mixture of cornmeal and clay, becomes imbued with the power of the First Woman, and receives the ability to heal and bring blessings to her community.

I didn’t have a Sweet 16 or a bat mitzvah. But I did have a First Holy Communion, which supposedly marked my ascent to the age of reason, as a seven-year-old. As rituals go, it was a good one.

First, there was the buying of the white dress, white fake fur jacket and white shoes. I clearly recall my mother and I marching up and down Ashland Avenue, the main shopping street in our south side Chicago neighborhood, in search of something that I would actually deign to wear. It couldn’t be too ornate, according to Sister Eleanor, the principal of St. John of God grammar school, but according to me it had to be really, really pretty. (Twelve years ago I actually found the dress as I was cleaning out my mom’s house, and it really was pretty: sateen with sheer puffy sleeves and seed pearls all over the bodice.) As we shopped around, we’d run into other girls and their mothers doing the same thing. Seeing them and comparing notes — “Goldblatts ain’t got nothin’ good no more” “I heard they’re gougin’ everybody over by 63rd” — heightened the feeling of the ceremony’s importance.

The ceremony, on a May morning in 1968, bordered on the pagan: all 60 kids marched slowly, piously, in a procession toward the church, led by the pastor and assistant priests, with altar boys shouldering a large statue of the Virgin Mary on a wooden pallet, her head wreathed in white roses. The streets, blocked by police barricades, were packed with our parents, grandparents, godparents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and neighbors, all snapping photos. We were told by the nuns not to talk to, or even look at, anyone, just keep our eyes focused on the kid directly in front of us, our hands folded in prayer. And yet at almost every step someone was yelling my name — “It’s Uncle Bob, honey! I wanna take your picture!” “Sharon! Look at your mother!”

As we turned a corner, I could, for the first time, hear the booming sounds of the church organ and the choir. I remember thinking right then that that was a magic moment: all of us walking toward the thunderous organ playing just for us while the choir of adults sang us in to the tune of a hymn called “This Is My Body.”

A group of teenage boys stood with their arms folded, watching us; a young mother crouched down, put her arm around her little boy, and pointed; an old man doffed his cap. As we walked up the steps of the church, the nuns, like security at a rock concert, waved back the mothers with flowers and dads with cameras. It felt like we were the Beatles.

Now I wonder: why is that we’re lauded and celebrated when we’ve only just embarked on the journey? Why do we stop marking, ritually, the accomplishments along the way? The hurdles that women routinely overcome?

I think all of us who are going through menopause should gather together, and then two-by-two make a pious procession through streets clogged with our living loved ones and long-dead parents and grandparents (resurrected just for us and calling our names). Whoever we are, whether svelte and wafting Chanel, or pouchy with pendulous breasts, I want us to be made much of, cheered, lauded, recognized. I want our procession to be led by a bunch of men our age with beer guts pushing their shirt buttons apart, shouldering a statue of whoever our appropriate goddess is — possibly Tonantzin, the Aztec Earth Mother, or maybe Hillary Clinton.

I want us to be sung to by a choir as we march into a secular temple, possibly some combination of the old Fillmore and the Society for Ethical Culture. Once inside, we gather in a circle around a huge ring of fire and, at an appropriate moment, accompanied by chanting, we toss into the flames that unused old tampon that we’ve been carrying around for five years. As we do, the fire changes from red to pure white, tongues of it leap into our hearts, and we receive the ability to heal and bring blessings to our community.

And there’s a party afterward that lasts four days, with enough ice-cold drinks, Ativan, and L’Occitane Verbena Refreshing Towelettes (chilling in hundreds of tiny personal refrigerators), for us all.



As a result of this article in the New York TimesI was invited to create an Empowerment Queen’s Crowning Ceremony at The Ethical Culture Society. The event also features Anne Klaeyson, Leader of The Ethical Culture Society, Sharon Mesmer, Poet and Lori Hefner, Healer.  

Becoming the Queen of Your Self

June 30, from 6:30 – 9:30 pm.
The Ethical Culture Society
2 West 64th Street, NYC
Info:(212) 874-5210


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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to


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