The Queen of My Self

I have pretty much always had a current love interest, a paramour, an inamorata of the moment in my life. Ever since elementary school, I have been involved in a series of crushes, flirtations, romances, relationships, and marriages of varying degree of consummation, duration, maturity, intensity, and pleasure. However, I have never before I turned fifty felt myself to be a particularly attractive girl or woman in the abstract.

While I had definitely attracted my share of admirers, one by one, over the decades, it is not as though I ever had a queue of suitors waiting outside of my front door, vying for my affections. Try though I might, I never quite fit the popular, idealized, mass-market parameters of beauty or body or demeanor to have any sort of general appeal. Far from being a femme fatale, with hardly a Hollywood face or figure, I failed to turn heads in a crowd.

Certainly I had been told many times that I had a pretty face, but it was always in the dubious context of, “You really ought to lose some weight, you have such a pretty face.” Or, “Why don’t you pull your hair back so that people can see you. You know you have such a pretty face.” Those motherly suggestions didn’t exactly serve as self-image enhancing morale-builders.

Oh, I was probably pretty enough, but it was pasted on. My lips were fetchingly colored, but my smile was frozen in fear. During the maiden years of my teens and twenties, I was serious, withdrawn, self-conscious, over-sensitive, and as unsure as a tentative spring shoot caught in an inclement frost. Completely unprepared emotionally, I was out there, as it were, and available, because I was expected to be. But my heart was never in it.

I was way too shy to perceive — let alone enjoy and Heaven forbid show  — myself as the sweet, loving, sensual, sexual, swan-in-waiting who I really was in my secret, tender heart. Instead of being who I was, I believed and internalized everything that I had been taught: that I was not thin enough, striking enough, or vivacious enough to attract appreciative attention. And that was what life was supposed to be all about, after all, wasn’t it girls? To be attractive to men.

By the age of thirty, I had left an idiotic mistake of a marriage and several semi-serious boyfriends behind. Like Greta Garbo, I vanted to be alone. Those relationships were not awful or abusive or co-dependent or any such thing. They just didn’t fulfill me, the full me. Something crucial was always missing. Eventually, I began to realize that the absent ingredient was myself, that mysterious shadowy stranger who lived in my body and who did and thought things beyond the scope of my ken.

How I yearned to learn who I was, myself, in the heart of my soul and not as a warped reflection of someone else’s view of me, be it mother or lover or Glamour Magazine. In an undeniable flash of inner truth and commanding clarity, I felt myself called upon by spirit, by destiny, by dharma, by fate, by free will, to embark upon a concerted search and rescue mission for the Holy Grail of my own elusive soul. And this expedition had to be solo.

Though I had been an instinctive spiritual seeker for most of my life, I had never before dedicated myself so completely, so conscientiously, so passionately to the practice of self-knowledge and actualization. I was a woman on a sacred quest, determined to find my authentic self and to begin to live the life that I was meant to live. Whatever, wherever, however that might be. “Take me, I am yours,” I would pray. “Show me the way.”

As it turned out, I was well prepared for this journey, for this pursuit of meaning and purpose and an appointed path. Long a pilgrim of sorts, I was aware from a very early age of a sense of connection with that all-encompassing universal life force that is so incomprehensibly greater than myself. That cosmic perspective had always provided me with a safe comfort zone when real life was too painful. But now it was time to scale back my scope to the microcosm and take a good long look at myself. Mirror, mirror on the wall.

When it came to looking inward, I had a head start. Introspective and intuitive from the outset, I have always kept journals of my thoughts and dreams to help me figure my confused way through the labyrinth of my world. Ever since I was very young, I occupied an internal world of wonder from which I composed poems and affirmations to give myself courage and hope. I built secret back yard sanctuaries and attended quirky altars in basements, in attics, in dorm rooms, on dashboards. I lit candles, meditated and performed my home grown ceremonies in honor of my ever-evolving understanding of That Which Is.

Once I got going, I was on a roll. I challenged myself to expand all of my horizons and indulged myself in endlessly fascinating explorations of inner and outer space, conducted on physical, emotional, intellectual, psychic, and geographic terrain, alike. Like the Greek Maiden Moon Goddess Diana, the Huntress, I was a free and wild spirit running through the mysterious night forest with the dogs and the deer, beholden to no man, learning how to be sufficient unto myself.

“Feed me,” I whispered, and I did. I surrounded myself with banquets of inspiration and enrichment, beauty, philosophy, music and science. I engaged in life-affirming activities: made art and ceremony, built a home and a professional ritual practice. By doing T’ai Chi and Yoga, I strengthened my body and became more flexible and balanced. Studying comparative religion, multi-cultural myth and ritual, anthropology, astronomy and quantum physics did the same for my brain.

My curiosity about the world around me, the greater universe and its workings, and especially my perfect place in it all, took over my life. Became my life, actually. Became me, and I took my act on the road. I traveled on pig and chicken buses to holy sites on far continents and sought out teachers of the old ways in jungles and deserts and mud and wattle huts on the tops of mountains. I performed intricate acts of private devotion and endurance: silent retreats, long fasts, arduous vigils, vision quests, pilgrimages.

Like the mystics and mighty sheroes of myth and legend whom I admired and wanted to emulate, I invented tests of skill and spunk for myself in order to prove my mettle. I drove ten thousand miles criss-cross-country alone. I danced naked in the moonlight. I peed outside. I drummed and chanted my power awake. I hennaed my hair. Unencumbered, I did whatever moved me. And through it all, I rarely gave a thought to how I appeared to others, what they thought of me, how attractive and sexy I was. Like I could give a damn. This was my own personal Me-Decade.

My grand adventure treasure hunt yielded a far greater return than I ever could have imagined. The more I searched, the more I learned about myself. The more I explored, the more I discovered that I liked what I found. The more excited by and attracted to life and living that I felt, the more attractive and exciting I, in turn, became. As it turned out, my spiritual self-absorption had a thrilling aphrodisiac effect — from the inside out. I felt attractive and sexy, therefore I was.

This Ugly Duckling had grown and changed as if magically transformed. My entire self was charged with new confidence and ease of being: my head held high with pride and self-esteem; my eyes alive with what I had seen, the many sights and insights; my cheeks red from the chase — and hair to match. Though still not svelte, my body had sped up and slimmed down, as if by some merciful afterthought. I was a mean, clean, spirit-driven machine, shined with spit and polish, full of gas, revved and ready to go. How attractive is that? Now, “Who’s the fairest of them all?”

Because I felt more and more sure of myself, sure of my path and my purpose, I became less guarded and more open. Because I had learned how to be safe in my own care, I felt more trusting in general, less defended and much less defensive. Something in me had thawed. That last tiny fist-tight nerve that I had never in my whole life allowed to totally relax until and unless I was completely alone, finally let go. My withholding tension, released. Without realizing it, I had been holding my breath for years, “waiting to exhale,” as Terry McMillan put it. I had nothing to hide.

Soon I realized that this new openness, this unprecedented vulnerability that I was permitting myself to expose in intimate situations, was actually my greatest strength. If your channels are not open, it is impossible to connect with anyone else with any honesty and depth — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or sexually. If your antenna is not joined, you cannot communicate. If you are not plugged in, you can’t be fully present in the moment. Well, my energy was flowing, alright, and my juice. I was turned on and I let my light shine.

The power of attraction, seduction and sex was suddenly in my court. I was charged with my self and very much in charge. As a maiden, I would sometimes date people simply because they asked me, whether I had a desire to do so or not. I was that flattered. Now my longings and lust came directly out of my own wants and needs. It took a long time and much introspective effort, but I grew to know my wants and my needs. And it required an even greater struggle to rise into my right to act upon them and to expect them to be honored.

Supreme in my creative powers of seduction and fulfillment, I identified with the great lineage of Love-Fertility-Mother Goddesses who have been revered throughout time and culture. Their power, raw and electric, was their self-knowledge, their exquisite access to ecstasy. Their generative heat, their sex, the seat of their strength. The vitality, the powerful intensity of their sheer desire, their boundless energy, was potent enough to produce generations, poetry, agriculture, craft. The same fire, the same hot love which ignites to spark the beginning of babies, also kindles the creation of culture Their lust was the force that fashioned all life, and their love, the fuel that maintained it.

Their sexuality was imbued with spiritual significance. Sex, especially the female experience of it, has been all but universally invoked in myth and ritual as symbolic of the primary force, the fiery source of life. For the Goddesses of Love and Life, unabashed and bold, sex was an authentic religious expression. Sex as energy. Sex as creation. Sex as abundance. Sex as unification. Sex as divine spirit. Sex as celebration. Sex as sympathetic magic. They were called Ishtar, Isis, Cybele, Inanna, Aphrodite, Yemaya, Bridgid, Pele, Shakti, Fuji and Freya. They were not shy.

When I began this journey, I was an innocent in many respects. Responsible beyond my years, yet repressed, compressed, regressed, like the tightest pussy willow — the one with the hardest shell — protection for my fuzzy fertile possibility. Over time, with proper tending, my husk expanded to include all of the growth that I had been doing. Pregnant with potential, like a plant in springtime, like the moon, I was finally flowering into my summer fullness. Maiden no more, I had married myself and given birth to me and in so doing, I claimed my Mother Power.

Feeling creative, abundant, productive, protective and secure in my adult self, I was eager to assume my maternal role, one that I took quite seriously. Like any mother, like the archetypal Mother Goddesses of every people, like Mother Earth Herself, Mother Nature, I was filled with the willingness and (I prayed) the wherewithal to provide perfectly for the life that I had created and the lives of those to whom I was connected. I gathered my nurturing responsibilities around myself gladly. But they soon swamped and threatened to drown me in duty.

During my late twenties and thirties, I had designed and assigned myself a series of life tests to aid in my own development. It was exhilarating and liberating to live up to the challenges of my own expectations as I managed to pass each examination with flying colors and expanded consciousness. In my forties, unfortunately, the hard-knock lessons of living sought me out, unsolicited, unexpected, and most unwelcome.

During that excruciatingly intense time, I nursed neighbors, pets, clients, friends and family, many, too many, of my nearest and dearest relations, through adversity, disease, disaster, devastation and death. A regular habitue of AIDS wards and emergency rooms, airports and waiting rooms, pharmacies and operating theaters, funeral parlors and cemeteries, I would kid that for years on end my only social life was conducted with people who were lying down. Except it was no joke.

Midwife, parent and witness to the myriad transitional stages of death and dying, I found myself immersed in the drama and mundane detail, the minute-by-minute, day-to-day struggle of life. And I suddenly knew myself to be mortal. I observed at close range, in my self as well as my charges, the ravages, the grave toll of time, the eternal taker. The grim reaper herself, that greedy old shriveled death-eater robber-baroness bitch so hell-bent on stealing my whole world away.

Every time my mother would look at her once-robust body during her final frail few months, she would sigh with a profound sadness, “What happens to a person.” This was not a question, but a statement of actual, albeit poignant, fact, the emphasis resting on happens. I understood in terms of my own recent body changes precisely what she meant. Time, like gravity happens. The recognition in corporeal terms that life itself, this particular life on earth, is quite terminal in the end.

During my forties and early fifties, I lost nearly everyone and everything that I loved: both parents, my oldest and best friend, another good pal, three women friends who had all been murdered, two women from my moon circles, all three of my cats, my home-made home of 18 years, my communal community, my emotional support system sisters, most of my so-called friends, many of my precarious sources of income, my monthly blood, my hormones, my equilibrium, my figure, my youth, my confidence, and what ever control I thought I had exerted over my life. Plus, my adult son had been pronounced terminally ill.

That thirteen-fourteen-fifteen-year eternity, my time on the deathwatch, was made much more miserable by being menopausal. It is hard enough to minister to pain and fear and grief with a clear head and steady nerves. My interminable insomnia, insufferable mood swings and hormonal surprise attacks definitely did not help. All of my energy was lavished on others who were, themselves, dying to leave me. And all the while, vital parts of my self were departing, unchecked, through the back door. I was nearly washed away in the rivers and floods and torrents of blood, sweat and tears.

Somewhere along the way, between changing invalid diapers and scattering ashes, I lost my center, I am sorry to say, and some of my hard-won self as well. I was off kilter and shaky, preoccupied with questions of decline, death and decay. Exhausted, I rarely slept for more than five or six hours a night. I was freezing one minute and feverish the next, and my body was in the unsettling process of shape-shifting into that of a matriarch who had born thirteen children and nursed them, every one.

To top it off, I was all but celibate for long patches of time, totally disinclined to engage sexually. Although surely sex could have been a salve in such hard times, I refused the comforts and retreated into myself. Rarely in the mood, I was too tired, too busy, too sad and distracted. And people — friend and lover alike — I noticed regretfully, fled from me, frightened by my hands-on association with so much pain and suffering. All I managed to attract was trouble.

Life kidnapped me and kicked me around like a football for years on end. I was bounced against the wall of my perceptions and I rolled through a rift in the earth. I sank like a rock, swallowed by its smoldering center of molten pain. Caught in the wasteland, the endless morass at the bottom of that dark pit of terror, I became completely paralyzed, unable to help myself. In my darkest hours, in addition to sex, I gave up Yoga, T’ai Chi, swimming, vitamins, gym going, movies, walking, even masturbating. For quite a while, I did nothing to make myself feel better except to work like hell to do what ever was required of me. I managed to hang on by a thread for all those years, but my wire was pulled pretty taught.

Resentment, self-pity and bitterness began to tinge the edges of my anguish. I was becoming the archetypal Martyr Mother. The one who sacrifices her life in the service to others, always serving her self last, whatever gristly scraps might remain. Not a becoming trait. In the end, I was no Mother Teresa. My anger roiled to the surface which served only to attract negative vibes and random volatility towards myself. Once while I was shopping, an old woman actually started screaming at me, flailing at me with her purse for no reason except that “I was asking for it,” as if she could read the dark swirls of my mind. I didn’t say a word to her, but I was prickly as hell and she felt it.

It was a good thing that I had worked so hard through my late twenties and thirties to build myself up, because I now needed to rely on that core of inner strength. And it was just as well that I learned how to be independent, because here I was in hell with no one to help me. They were all going, going, gone. Thank all Goodness that I had provided myself with a valuable dowry hope chest filled diligently over the years with enough spirit support skills to sustain me through storm or drought.

I was Mama Donna by day, caring for my clan. Completely involved in the intimacy, the evanescent immediacy of life and death, here and now. At night, I would write my columns and my book, Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles and Celebrations, wherein I pondered the perpetual round of the universal order and the human condition. I explored the brilliant complexity of the cosmic seasons of the universe and the universal seasons of the life cycle.

Like Penelope, I spent my evenings alone in the dark, spinning yarns, weaving a comforting sense of order, pattern and systematic interconnectivity. Quietly quilting my own experience into the intricate complexity, the enduring continuity of That Which Is. Like Madame Lafarge, I was knitting a running commentary on the revolution of my life, my duel with death, as a way to interpret the rules of engagement and the lessons of the fray. I was attempting to re-weave what had been broken, repair the damage, body and soul.

My writing and ritual practice kept me sane, if not sanguine. Conducted in sacred time, this work kept me connected with the cosmos, my soul in contact with the creative and generative qualities of time beyond fathomed time. My own world was reduced to AD, After Death and BC, Before Conception. But here in the perspective of the ages, the vast eons, the unfathomable light-years, I found consolation. Time might take its toll, but it really does ultimately heal all wounds. “This, too, shall pass.”

And eventually, it did. One day, 15 years later, the doom and gloom and hard times simply lifted and I was through to the other side. Just like that. After a decade and a half of loss and struggle, the worst was finally over. I had been a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend, a good girl for so long, so long. I had dedicated my life to the healing, the needing, of others — often to the exclusion of my own self-regard. And now my own abused overworked body and broken heart cried out for mending. For compassionate convalescent care.

My era of selfless-mothering others was done and I began to direct my ministering attentions toward me. My first instinct was to acknowledge and bless myself for all of the love that I had I had given so freely for so long. Slowly I learned — and am still learning — how to lavish upon myself that same unconditional loving kindness, encouragement, support and solace. Eventually I grew to embrace the difficult circumstances that had been forced upon me, as well as the hard changes wrought from within, for the invaluable opportunities for growth and spiritual development that they offered.

When I finally emerged from that extended term of service in what I have come to think of as the hospice mode, I was wilted and spent, but also immensely enriched and empowered. I did not have to prove myself. I knew what I knew. My abilities were affirmed through action. I was deeply satisfied that I had done my best in each instance of adversity, and proud of my forbearing endurance. The awareness of what I had been through and seen enabled me to engage on an entirely new elevated level of assuredness.

Tested, twisted, torn but not totally destroyed, I had stepped up to my life and survived to thrive. I had endured a decade-and-a-half-long trial by fire, and like the phoenix, I flew free from the depths of the conflagration to be resurrected from my own ashes. Tempered by the flames, I was sharpened by the surety of my own mastery. And now, here I am. The reigning Queen of My Self, crowned with the glory of my deeds, sovereign, secure in my self-esteem. Firm in my self-affirmation:


When I burst forth from my Maidenhood into my Mother Time a quarter of a century ago, I was a bud turned blossom. I had flowered into an adult woman, creative and nurturing, Mother of Invention, author of my self. Eventually, time and the winds and storms of my maternal years weathered my once-sumptuous bloom. The galloping growth of my spring and sweet blush of my fertile summer had slowed and faded in the sweltering heat of vicissitude and time. Like many women of a certain age, I had let myself go, like an overblown rose clinging to the vine in the fall, my petals ratty and my hip growing round. But this is only natural. A flower must shrivel before it can bear fruit.

Now that I have entered my autumn years, I have become a well-seasoned woman, ready for the harvest. Piquant, tart and succulent, ripe with the cycle of life. What my Chicana friend Linda calls “Una mujer in su salsa.” A hot sauce woman. I’m slower now, and surer like thick crystallized syrup. Strong and steady, I’m salty and sultry and a little bit dusty. A little wrinkled. A little weary. A whole lot wiser. I bear the fruits of my own labors, and I wear them well. I have passed into the majesty of proud maturity that Ms. Brody would term her prime.

Finally, finally I felt good about myself again, and it showed. This is surely what they mean about PMV (Post- Menopausal Vigor). Radiant, I was lit from within. Other people noticed this and began to gravitate toward me. Suddenly, after five decades of rather modest sex appeal ratings, I found that I was turning heads wherever I went. The Queen I had become in my fifties began, for the first time in my life, to attract charged affection and lustful admiration from friends and strangers alike. Like bees to a hive, attention buzzed around me, tickling my self-perceived image, stroking my ego. I was the Queen Bee, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, the Queen of Sheba. Honey, I was the Queen of Hearts.

I first noticed my new effect when I started to get wolf whistles from construction crews and guys in passing cars. Each time it happened, it shocked me deeply. What in the world? I am old enough to be their mother. I thought that those kinds of experiences were long over for me. “Wow!” I would secretly marvel, “I never thought I would hear that again.” Whereas in the past I used to react with the rage of a scorned Amazon at such macho street behavior, I suddenly found it to be flattering. I felt terrifically gratified in a totally guilt-ridden unfeminist sort of way.

One night I was in my car, stopped at a traffic light on my way home from an evening with friends. It had been a wonderful occasion and I was bathed in mellow pleasure. When I happened to turn my head to the left, I saw that the extremely handsome 35-ish year old man in the car next to me was trying to get my eye. He flirted with me in a rather sophisticated and subtle Cary Grant-like style. I burst out laughing at the absurdity. He laughed then. And for that moment we made a real connection, direct and human. Attraction is simply energy. Good energy is the spice of life.

I must have been exuding some sort of unconscious pheromone, some lust musk, because I am certainly no Beauty Queen. The bags under my eyes now have over-night valises of their own. The veins in my legs and on the backs of my hands are starting to show through in blue. And forget my figure. Everything not tied down has long since fallen: my breasts, my belly, my once taut neck. As Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer explained, “I’m forty-nine but I could be twenty-five except for my face and legs.”  My body may have taken a plunge, but my spirit was soaring.

The brain, the mind, is said to be our most sensitive sexual organ and I have come to absolutely believe it. Time after time again in my life, it has been proven to me that being in possession of a lively, energized spirit is much more erotic than having an outwardly pretty face or perfectly honed physique. It seems to me that the popular misperception that mid life marks the end of a woman’s sexuality and appeal has less to do with her losing her looks than her losing her spirit. Allure is visceral and begins inside.

Recently I came out of a very promising meeting about a new book that I was preparing to begin. This book, in fact. I was excited about the prospect of working on this fascinating project and also about my own ability to pursue it. My outlook was uplifted, optimistic, enthusiastic, and my outfit wasn’t bad, either. I suppose I must have been smiling to myself as I strode through the rush hour crowds clogging the Herald Square subway platform. When the train pulled up, the man standing ahead of me stepped aside rather than enter the car before me. He twirled around, bowed and gestured me to step in first. I swear if he had had a cloak, he would have laid it at my feet for me to trod upon. Sir Walter Raleigh of 34th Street. Which would make me the Queen.

Astonished, I stepped into the jammed subway and miracle of all earthly miracles, a young man stood up and in a truly chivalric manner offered me his seat. Such courtliness would have been rare enough had I been pregnant or old or on crutches. But his response was not one of compassion. He was acting out of some primal attraction to a charismatic mature female power, some presence of stature that he sensed in me. Both of these men afforded me honor. I could not have felt more like a Queen that afternoon if I had been wearing a wide brimmed turquoise bonnet, white gloves and little black handbag.


* ***

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