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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Olya Melen, Ukraine
Environmental attorney

Olya Melen is a firebrand attorney who used legal channels to halt construction of a massive canal that would have cut through the heart of the Danube Delta, one of the world’s most valuable wetlands, a World Heritage Site, and biosphere reserve. The organization Environment-People-Law (EPL) filed lawsuits to prevent construction and Melen tried the case. She was denounced by the notoriously corrupt and lawless pre-Orange Revolution government, but the judge ruled that the canal development flouted environmental laws and could adversely affect the Danube Delta’s biodiversity.

Satomi Oba, Japan
Anti-nuclear activist

Satomi Oba was long-time campaigner against nuclear proliferation with particular concerns for human rights and justice. After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, she fought against nuclear power plants. She was the Director of Plutonium Action Hiroshima, and an active participant in the Rainbow Serpent Network (of women throughout Asia and the Pacific working to end nuclear weapons and power). She also worked for the No Nukes Asia Forum, the Abolition 2000 Global Council, and the Global Network for Peace in Spacer.

Dai Qing, China
Journalist and environmental activist

Dai Qing reported on a conference in 1989 about the impending Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Her subsequent research led to the publication of the book Yangtze! Yangtze! In which she denounced the dam as “the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world.” Dai claimed that there was a potential risk for the Yangtze River and the Yellow River to dry up, leading to sandstorms in Inner Mongolia and environmental influence on Korea, Japan and even the west coast of the United States. After Tiananmen Square, the book was banned and she was jailed.

Dame Anita Roddick, England (1943-2007)
Entrepeneur and environmental visionary

Anita Roddick was the founder of the now world famous Body Shop boutique in 1976 in Brighton, England, long before fair trade and Earth-friendly businesses were fashionable. The Body Shop opposed product testing on animals and tried to encourage development by purchasing materials from small communities in the Third World. It also invested in a wind farm in Wales as part of its campaign to support renewable energy, and it set up its own human rights award. Roddick’s last struggles were against globalization and sweatshop economies.

Vandana Shiva, India
Physicist, eco-feminist, and author

Vandana Shiva is a champion for women’s rights and the global food supply. She fights for intellectual property rights, biodiversity, biotechnology, and bioethics through her intellectual contributions and her activist campaigns. She got her start as an environmentalist by participating in the nonviolent Chipko movement during the 1970s. The movement, whose main participants were women, adopted the tactic of hugging trees to prevent their felling. She is one of the leaders of the International Forum on Globalization and a spokesperson for the global solidarity movement.


Marina Silva,
Brazil Defender of Brazilian rainforests and human rights

Marina Silva, a former rubber tapper was frequently at odds with development interests, including powerful farmers and ranchers who are seeking to turn the Amazon into Brazil’s agricultural breadbasket. In 1994 she was the first rubber tapper ever elected to Brazil’s federal senate. There she built support for environmental protection of the reserves as well as for social justice and sustainable development in the Amazon region. Deforestation decreased by 59% from 2004 to 2007, during her implementation of an integrated government policy. In May 2008 she was forced to resign due to her oppositional views on hydroelectric dams, biofuels, and genetically modified crops.

Celsa Valdovinos, Mexico
Rural environmental activist

Celsa Valdovinos began her environmentalist career by organizing youths and women for clean-up efforts to remove the garbage that their neighbors dumped in the fields, and she continued her work from there. Because of Valdovinos’s efforts, some rural communities in the impoverished state of Guerrero have recovered forests, obtained water services and developed gardens, but these advances were paid for with military harassment, forced displacement, threats and the imprisonment of her husband, who, like her, is a local environmental leader. Today Amnesty International fears for her safety.

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.
– Rachel Carson


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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


Amrita Devi, India
Founder of the Shipko Movement in defense against deforestation

Amrita Devi organized a large group of peasants from 84 villages in Rajasthan in an effort to protect the forests from being felled on the orders of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. In one day in 1730, 363 protestors were killed by the axes that were meant to fell the trees. This event was the inspiration of the modern Shipko Movement, a grass roots association of women peasants who act to prevent the cutting of trees and to reclaim their traditional forest rights. The movement has now spread throughout India and has had far reaching impact on the global green movement.

Lois Marie Gbbs, United States
Grassroots environmental activist and community leader

Lois Gibbs became involved in environmental causes when she learned that her neighborhood, Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, New York was built on a toxic waste dump. With no prior experience in community activism, Gibbs organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association, which she led in a battle against the local, state, and federal governments. After years of struggle, 833 families were eventually evacuated, and cleanup of Love Canal began. Her efforts also led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

Jane Goodall, England and Tanzania
Primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist and conservationist

Jane Goodall’s holistic methods of fieldwork transformed not only how chimpanzees are understood, but influenced scientific thinking regarding the evolution of humans. In addition to being an animal rights activist, her involvement in tropical forests has led her to be actively involved in a number of environmental issues, and to found the Roots & Shoots an international children’s environmental education program and the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation.

Fatima Jibrell, Somalia
Environmental organizer and educator

Fatima Jibrell founded Horn of Relief to train young people to organize awareness campaigns about the irreversible damage of unrestricted charcoal production, which has deforested Somalia and led to widespread famine. As a charcoal alternative, she has spearheaded the development of solar cooking stoves. She teaches women and youth to build small rock dams to slow the runoff during the brief rainy season, which nourish vegetation, crucial in slowing the growth of arid lands.
Winona LaDuke, United States-Anishinaabeg
Activist, environmentalist, economist, and writer

Winona LaDuke is an ardent representative of indigenous perspectives. At the age of seventeen she spoke at the UN on behalf of Native Americans. She is a founding member of Women of All Red Nations and director of the Land Recovery Project on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. An inspiring speaker, she was the 1996 and 2000 vice-presidential candidate of the Green Party, the first Native American to run for national office. The author of All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, she is currently the Executive Director of Honor the Earth, an organization she co-founded with Indigo Girls in 1993.

Wangari Maathai Kenya
Environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner

Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt movement in Kenya In 1977, in response to the serious problems caused by deforestation: soil runoff, water pollution, difficulty finding firewood, lack of animal nutrition, and poverty. The Green Belt program has planted more than 30 million trees to prevent soil erosion and to provide firewood for cooking fires. In recognition of her monumental efforts, she served both in Parliament and in prison. In November 2006, she spearheaded the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign.

Eco Sheroes continues on Monday, June 13th
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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


I have always believed that if it is at all possible to save our planet Earth from the destruction that we have wreaked upon Her, that if it isn’t already too late, then it is we — women of a certain age — who are the ones who can and will do it. These Queens have affirmed my faith.
xxQueen Mama Donna

There is hope if people will begin to awaken that spiritual part of themselves, that heartfelt knowledge that we are caretakers of this planet.
– Brooke Medicine Eagle


Sharon Beder, Australia
Civil engineer and leader in environmental and water supply issues

Professor Beder’s work focuses on the social, political and philosophical aspects of engineering and environmental politics, ecologically sustainable development, environmental principles and policies, and socio-political dimensions of environmental economics. She has been Chairperson of the Environmental Engineering Branch of the Institution of Engineers, President of the Society for Social Responsibility in Engineering, and a director of the Earth Foundation Australia. She is now the Environmental Education Coordinator at the University of Sydney.

Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, India

Ttwo illiterate village women took it upon themselves to seek justice for the survivors of the poisonous gas leak from a storage tank at a Union Carbide pesticide factory into the heart of Bhopal city, which killed 8,000 people instantly. More than 20,000 deaths in the years since have been attributed to the disaster. Since 1984, the two women have tirelessly continued their efforts to exact justice from the giant chemical companies responsible. They have inspired support from all over the world.

Erin Brockovich, USA
American legal clerk and environmental activist

Erin Brockovich was instrumental in constructing a successful case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California in 1993, despite the lack of a formal law school education, The case alleged contamination of drinking water with hexavalent chromium in the southern California town of Hinkley. Brockovich went on to participate in other anti-pollution lawsuits. After experiencing problems with mold contamination in her own home in the Conejo Valley, Brockovich became a prominent activist and educator in this area as well.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway
Head of the U.N. commission to define sustainable development

Gro Harlem Brundtland is a politician, diplomat, physician, and international leader in sustainable development and public health. Dr. Brundtland spearheaded the movement, now worldwide, to abolish   cigarette smoking through education and persuasion. She was a two term Prime Minister of Norway, and has served as the Director General of the World Health Organization. She is now Special Envoy on Climate Change for the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Rachael Carson, United States
Biologgist, ecologist and nature writer
Rachael Carson is widely regarded to be the mother of the modern environmental movement. Her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring challenged the practices of agriculture, scientists and the government, bringing to light the environmental hazards of common post-WWII pesticides. She was attacked by the chemical industry and some in government as an alarmist, but courageously spoke out to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world, subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Canada-Inuit
Climate change activist

Sheila Watt-Cloutier has worked on a range of social and environmental issues affecting Inuit, most recently focused on persistent organic pollutants and global climate change. She is the President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents internationally the interests of Inuit in Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. In 2005, she launched the world’s first international legal action on climate change, alleging that unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases from the United States have violated Inuit cultural and environmental human rights as guaranteed by the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

Eco Sheroes continues Friday, June 10th.


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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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