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Donna Henes

Slow Fast: A Retreat Journal
by Donna Henes


Today is the 14th day of my fast for fall. One day for every month that has lapsed since I have last fasted. During my summer solstice fast/retreat, I received (that is, I heard, as if someone were singing in my ear) my most recent chant, "You Can Heal Yourself." Since then, I have sung it with thousands of people all over the country who have attended my seasonal rituals and workshops on personal tranceformation.

But how often have I sung it for myself alone? The chant says, "You can heal yourself, cure yourself, change yourself..." I sing it, but do I do it?

Queen of My Self by Donna Henes

This fast is intended to center me, slow me down. It is my birthday gift to myself and is in no way conceived as any sort of self-deprivation. Au contraire. It is very much about reward. Fasting is not not eating. For me it is a superior sort of nourishment. It is a physical effort toward a metaphysical goal. The process, an ecstatic spiritual experience.

The first two weeks have cleaned me out internally. I have flushed my system with fresh water and teas. Drinking and peeing constantly. I've polished my skin and my thoughts. I have cleared my cobwebs; opened my channels and charged my senses. I feel lighter, body and soul.

And now, I am ready to retreat totally into/out of myself for one final week before I resume the normal hustle bustle of my life. I leave in the morning for a week alone with myself on top of a mountain. Just me between the brown rock and the blue sky.

My goals are simple: I want to learn how long a day is; how long is a night. I want to see the sun rise, travel slowly across the sky, and set. I want to watch the moon, following in its turn, traverse its nightly course. And the stars. And the wind. I want to simply sit still. To witness and to wait.


9/15 evening

By noon I had packed the car, and Sarah and I were off. We stopped to fill six gallon size containers with wonderful mountain spring water for the week. We left the car at a parking area and packed in with all we could carry: tent, sleeping bag, a gallon of water, and my other supplies. It took my last ounce of energy to climb that trail with my pack. After struggling along those hot, heavy miles first along the Appalachian Trail, then the Lichen Trail, we finally reached the site.


9/16 late night

At first light we trekked back down the trail, retrieved the other five gallons of water from the car, and returned to camp with tremendous effort. We located a fresh water source, in case I need to refill my bottles. I'll drink the spring water and use the other to make tea, as it should be boiled.

After setting everything straight, we climbed to the main rock outcrop above my camp. I lay down, wrapped up in my sleeping bag, looking out over the valley. And that's where Sarah left me. I dozed awhile and when I woke, she was gone — until the equinox when she'll return for me.

Imagine! Finding myself alone in all the world like my dream come true. I wandered around these rocks exploring my domain, delirious with joy. Look at me! Here I am, alone. Finally, really alone. Up here on this mountain, with the whole valley below me and the big sky, which I miss so dearly in the city. It made me feel like singing. But I suddenly felt very shy in such a vast horizon. I couldn't make a sound.

I surveyed my supplies and was satisfied. I should be fine. What I brought: five heads of garlic, two ginger roots, one lime, four lemons, blackberry concentrate, cayenne pepper, bee pollen, five orange and five mint tea bags, some powdered vegetable broth, soy mineral bouillon, and a small vial of honey. And six gallons of water. That's it. Enough, though, for nourishment, energy, and purification.

The clothes i chose are all green, black, and gray. I wanted to be warm and comfortable, but also, somehow, subtle. I didn't want to stand out from my surroundings. It's not a matter of camouflage, but of merging mentally. Green is the color of healing and black is the color of nuns.

So, feeling sufficient, even a mite confident, i set about building a fire. I put a big pot of ginger to boil and went back to the rocks to wait. For tea. For the sun to go down. For my heart to stop racing. I enjoyed a drawn out evening drinking long cups of ginger tea, watching the dark and stars swell to surround me. Exhausted and thrilled and completely at home.


9/17 late night

Sleep came early and deep last night; I sank into it's bottomless pit. I staggered out into the day, nauseous and headachy, only when I got too hot in all my sleep layers. I washed myself and sat in the sun sucking a lemon for awhile. Finally, when I could no longer resist, I went back to sleep.

I woke when the sun was all the way west. Took some broth, my canteen, and notebook and went out on the big view rock to watch the sun go down. I wandered around exploring. Beginning to let myself sing. I gathered wood. And then I bundled myself up and went back to the rock to wait for the stars to come up.

Eventually I got hungry enough to start a fire and make soup and tea. Spent the night at my kitchen rock which is less spectacular but more intimate than the big view rock. Staring into space. Silent. Sipping tastes.

Sitting by the fire, I opened my new deck of tarot cards and went through them one at a time, introducing myself. I turned up a card to signify my retreat: the hermit! And so I am. After starring into the coals a bit longer, this hermit retreated into her tent.


9/18 afternoon

The sun was still low when I woke. Breezy and cool. Started a small fire and brewed ginger and soy broth which I carried to the main rock. I am drawn to sit on this particular rock, like the morning mist sits on the valley. We sit together.

After sitting for awhile — who knows, who cares how long? — I washed and dressed in my hiking duds and headed down the trail like a good girl scout to the waterfall for a gallon of water. Being in the woods seemed odd and confining. The trees felt tight after all this time in the open on the rock edge of the mountain.

Up there, the wind is the biggest thing. Since there are no trees, there is nothing between me and the breeze. Wind is newly alive for me, less abstract. Earth, fire, water. These you can touch and taste. But air. . .

Carrying the water up the hill to camp about killed me, and I was thrilled to be back home. I made a big fire, put on water to boil, stripped, and went to lie in the sun. Where I am now, stretched out on the rock, basking in it's healing heat.

So far, I have spent the greater part of every day stone naked, dressing only when I travel the trail or when the evening chills. I have become completely unselfconscious. Now I sing, shout right out. Every little thing makes me joyous. I sing all the time. Like the birds. My songs belong. My spirits soar.


9/18 evening

After a long sun-saturated while, I got antsy. Kept jumping up and moving seats. Trying on different rocks, viewing possibilities. Toured the blueberry patches that comprise the extensive ground cover on this outcrop. The more I walked, the more blueberries I found. As i watched the last light leak into dusk, I ate several, savoring each delicious one.

Back at camp i peeled garlics until I couldn't see, then lit the fire and cooked garlic, ginger, and cayenne. Now, hours later, i am sitting solo at this fire drinking hot, spicy soup. Watching the lights in the night. The wind has been building all day. Now the fire has begun to blow sparks. I'll extinguish it and go to sleep.


9/19 late morning

Rain woke me in the middle of the night. I got up, spread the tarp, brought in the food bag and sealed the tent. Nothing leaked and it stopped by morning. When I woke I was glad to see the sun and relieved that the wood wasn't too wet. My birthday present!

Boiled leftover broth with soy and went up to observe the morning.

Chilly. The sun, as intense as always, but the wind was wild and clouds began to gather.


9/19 evening

I dressed warm and went back down the trail for more water, as the boiling of it consumes about half. The walk back with the gallon jug wreaked havoc on my heart. I think I have finally let go my control over my will. I am actually allowing myself to feel weak.

Napped while the water was boiling. For the first time today the wind made it too cool to be naked, so I sucked in the sun through my cozy sweat clothes. Woke while the sun was still high. Gathered my things and went to the big rock for the afternoon on my favorite chaise-lounge-ledge. It hugs my body in a perfect fit and is luxuriously comfortable for hours.

The Moon Watcher's Companion by Donna Henes

At dusk I put on all my remaining clothes. I gathered loads of firewood, more to keep warm in the collecting than in the burning. This has been a great day. Energetic. High. I bundled by the fire and drank bouillon with cayenne and made a birthday treat of boiled-down lemon peels, blackberry juice, and honey. Pure nectar.

An extremely dark clear cold night. The deep chill on these rocks drove me to an early bed, where I lay with all my clothes on — jogging, running, jumping in place — trying to generate some heat.


9/20 evening

Morning light filtered in and I finally began to thaw. When I got up to pee, I saw that I had gotten my period during the night. No wonder I felt so lousy. Went back to bed to sleep away the cramps. I hadn't expected to get it until Sunday. Amazing to realize that my breasts did not swell and get tender. Of course they are so tiny now!

Hunger got the best of me and I dragged up to deal with it. If I sleep all day I'm afraid I won't be able to sleep at night and the night is so long. I made garlic soup, and a toddy of lemon peel with an orange tea bag and bee pollen. I cannot think of taking a walk or getting water today. I can't move. I am like these rocks. Just here on the edge of the mountain in the sun.

This viewing place is a zen garden. Thick pads of acid green moss placed just so on the steely granite. Bleached grasses growing out of the cracks. Blueberry patches turning purple for autumn. Boulders scattered in considered arrangements. Some few trees. In the distance, undulating green mountains, one early red maple.

It is never truly quiet. There are lots of singing, chirping creatures. Insects and birds, my only companions. Lots of planes, too, which are welcome at night for their moving lights.

I piled on all the rest of my clothes, made an enormous pot of mint tea, which I took back to the view. Tonight was the best sunset. Psychedelic day-glo skies with slender clouds, like geese, skimming through. Even after the fire was lit and it was dark, these streaked white formations arched above me. I'd never noticed clouds at night to be so vivid.

I chanted the night's coming on and chanted the sun's leaving and chanted myself onto the clouds and sailed over my valley.

I found this written in an old notebook: "I really am coming to depend on these fast retreats to soothe my soul and erase the lines the city leaves around my mind: all the little wrinkles that catch the litter and clog my processes." Here, I am as smooth as the sky.


9/21 early afternoon

I woke knowing it was going to rain before I even unzipped the tent. Light came in, but there was no sun. I should have been able to interpret last night's exceptional sunset. Got up, prepared for rain and crawled back in just in time. It's been raining all day. I tried to stay asleep until it stopped.

By mid afternoon, hunger drove me awake enough to take the half lime to suck on. Later I had some honey and blackberry and water. I should be fine. Even with all this damp cold, and even though my resistance is supposedly low, I'm sure I won't get sick. Everything i imbibe is especially good for preventing and curing colds: citrus, ginger, cayenne pepper, and good old garlic.

It's coming down harder now. I want to be able to slow down my system like a yogi. I tell myself to leave my body here until the rain stops and go someplace nicer. I can't quite. This is where I am and need to be. Stuck in this tiny tent, flat on my back in a mummy bag, zipped in for all eternity. No books, no art supplies, nothing at all to distract me. I lie watching the light ever so subtly change. Waiting for the dark as a mark of time passing. Day is done, gone the sun.


Much later

Now comes the night, but no sleep with it. And this stormy night, two days from the equinox, will be equally long as this blustery day. Trying very hard to be calm or I won't make it through the night. I breathe into my fear and panic, guessing what was later to be confirmed — that I was stuck in the tailwinds of a hurricane. I chant up my courage. I pray for it to stop by morning. I'm afraid the tent will leak. Terrified that the wind will blow it right off the mountain with me swaddled inside.


9/22 morning

Finally, mercifully i slept. And out of my potential danger, my very real terror, I dreamt my power. I visioned myself victorious over the trials of this rite of passage. I saw myself emerge empowered and tranceformed.

A lucid dream: I am lying here in this sleeping bag, in this very tent with the flap unzipped. A large Doberman Pincher enters and sniffs at me. Soon, he is joined by his master and a second dog. The man then crawls into the tent and tries to rape me. I break away and tell him he better be careful. That I'm a witch. "See: smell my breath." I exhale in his face and yellow exorcist-snot comes out of my nose. I warn him: "You better be careful! You can only hurt a witch once." In so doing, I seize my own response-ability and celebrate my calm, confident capacity.


9/22 afternoon

Thankfully it did stop by morning. It's dark and gray, thick with fog. But at least it isn't raining and I’m in the tent.

I washed in rainwater, which was lovely and revived me some. Of course I couldn't start a fire. I climbed to the big rock to watch the day, and I was struck! The silver air and intense, vibratory look of everything! The fog rising and swirling around me!

After being so long in the closed tent, the scope and majesty of the mountain and valley suddenly overcame me. I felt myself being carried away, lifted into the mist. I very nearly flew away forever. My head swimming, I sank down and held onto the earth with both hands. I drank some honey for grounding. It was all too much, I had to return to my tiny nylon abode for some centering.

No sooner did I climb in and manage to breathe some warm air into the tent, when it started to rain again. Oiy. Another day and night in dark confinement until Sarah and Anne, my civilian rescue team, come to collect me on the autumn equinox. I doubt that after another bout of rain, after this much more time on my back, I'll even be sane.

But I will surely be ready to leave. Anxious to get home, I'm dying to look at myself in a mirror before I wash. I want to see this hermit — what she looks like. I'd love to luxuriate in a long hot bath. Oil my rock skin, my mountain body. Then eat my re-entry meal. But first this day and this night in this capsule cocoon in this tent in this rain.


9/23 morning

The equinox. My last day here. And miraculously, unexpectedly, joyfully, the sun woke me. The first time in three days I'd seen the sky. I got right up, wanting to savor these last few solitary hours, and went to sit myself one last time in the sun on the rock to watch the valley and evaluate.

So what have I learned here alone on the mountain? What have I never done before or could never have learned in the city?

I learned how to sit. How to look. How to listen. How to lie. How to rest. How to wait. Mainly, i think, how to wait. But hence, how to proceed.

A new chant came to me earlier this week. It has been the theme song of this retreat and has rarely left my head. I hum it all day with each step I take. And have belted it out loud on more than one occasion for the birds and the planes to hear:

"Put one foot
in front of the other
and test the ground
and if it's sound
walk on."

Lesson enough, if I remember and use it.

© Copyright 2004 Donna Henes.  All Rights Reserved. 

Donna Henes
Donna Henes, Urban Shaman, is the editor and publisher of the highly acclaimed quarterly, Always In Season: Living In Sync with the Cycles. She is also the author of Moon Watcher's Companion, Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles and Celebrations and Dressing Our Wounds In Warm Clothes, as well as the CD, Reverence To Her: Mythology, The Matriarchy & Me. In 1982, she composed the first (and to this date, the only) satellite peace message in space: "chants for peace * chance for peace."

Mama Donna, as she is affectionately known, has offered lectures, workshops, circles, and celebrations worldwide for 30 years. She is the director of Mama Donna's Tea Garden & Healing Haven, a ceremonial center, ritual consultancy and spirit shop in Exotic Brooklyn, New York.

For further information, a list of services and publications, a calendar of upcoming events and a complimentary issue of Always in Season: Living in Sync with the Cycles. contact:

PO Box 380403
Exotic Brooklyn, NY 11238-0403 
Phone/Fax: 718-857-1343
Email: CityShaman@aol.com



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