I sat waiting for my lunch to be ready. Closing my eyes, the sun warming me, honing in on nearby conversations.
“It was just awful!”
“Do you want to meet later?”
“We have to get back soon.”
“What are you hungry for?”
And then, “Think of a Chinese word you’d like to see written.”
Two young women, students conducting a written language experiment, held a small, dry-erase board and the woman in the steel-grey wool skirt looked sheepishly to the man-in-tow standing next to her, scanning his face for a word, for approval.
“Tomato,” she smiled and shrugged.
“What an uninteresting word,” I thought to myself. Clearly, hunger and condiments dominated her thoughts to choose such an oddly simple thing.
The student began to draw the two characters, then handed the board to steel-grey skirt and asked her to draw it, to copy the lines in her own hand.
“Like this?” She fumbled through and the student asked to take a picture of steel-grey skirt holding up the sign, which she obliged after being assured it wouldn’t end up on the web or Facebook.
Steel-grey skirt and man-in-tow collected their lunches and wandered off back to their meetings and spreadsheets and before the students could walk away, I volunteered, “I have a word I’d like to see.”
“Great! What’s the word?”
“Oh—I’ll have to look that one up, it might be kind of difficult, the Chinese don’t really have an expression for that. Well, depending on the context I guess.”
“I suppose weakness is not a good emotional or political stance,” I mused.
She typed it into her phone where there must’ve been a pinyin and symbology translator of sorts and she mumbled, “Ah, hmm, that’s really pretty.”
She sketched out what looked like two number 5s, curved, bent and spooning, little animals with two quick hatchmarks in the coils and crooks, something warm in their bellies perhaps. The second symbol, like a little house on stick legs, or a bird laying in a field of short reeds or soft, matted grass, or a boat on uneven waves jutting a mast with no sail attached.
She handed me the board and it was my turn to draw.
“Very good!” She encouraged. “You could do calligraphy.”
And I suddenly thought of my high school art class, how I attended my prom for free because I volunteered to hand write every student’s name in my graduating class and their respective date’s name on folded white cardstock for all the seating arrangements at the dinner tables. How I painstakingly wrote every letter with a copper pen tip, sinking the nib into a bottle of crow-black ink, scratching out letters and then with a glue gun, affixing a black bow-tied ribbon and burgundy rose in the corner of every one.
She took my picture holding up the board with “vulnerable” written twice and asked, “Why are you so interested in this word?”
I considered the tomato. Heart-shaped, red, plump, viscous inside, thin-skinned, vulnerable and thought perhaps, it wasn’t such a bad word after all and I said, “I think objects are fine, but I am more curious about concepts, especially emotional ones that are difficult to describe with one word. Like love or home or wonder.” I thought about how big ideas cannot, should not easily be boiled down, compartmentalized, or compressed into a single word or worse, an acronym. Americans are really fond of acronyms and especially mnemonics, trying to make big ideas memorable, and easier to digest, when really, what must be done is some digging, some spelunking, some serious unpacking followed by a gentle examination of all the parts.
I thought of other languages where speakers might have cultural differences and difficulties expressing emotion. For instance, one way of responding to the everyday greeting of “How are you?” in Russian is to say ” I am not unwell.” As if, already expressing in the negative was a way of conveying strength. Things could be worse. I’m not dead yet. My friend told a story where in high school, a Russian exchange student staying at his home was being chastised for taking her host family’s young son out to play in his school clothes on a rainy day. His mother wasn’t at all happy that they had returned so filthy, caked in mud and muck, but the Russian girl sweetly explained to the mother, “he is not unwashable.”
What does it mean to be vulnerable? To be “accessible, assailable, defenseless, exposed, liable, naked, on the line, on the spot, out on a limb, ready, sensitive, sitting duck, sucker, susceptible, tender, thin-skinned, unguarded, unprotected, unsafe, weak, wide open, open to attack.” Why is there no strength in vulnerability when it takes all the courage in the world to allow yourself to let something, some ideas, someone in? To yield with grace to the often terrifying, ever-shifting locus of love, of home, and of wonder.
All three of these ideas have changed greatly for me in the last several years. Losing a beloved pet to cancer, losing a home by being priced out of the neighborhood, losing a job and a marriage; and all of these losses and changes at nearly the same time. It was like witnessing all the love and home and wonder I nurtured suddenly evaporate out from under me. There was a serious unpacking. There was a gentle examination of all my parts. Especially the ones that went missing, where I identified myself.
I thought of many loves lost in my youth, how some of the most tender pieces of me were carried off by wild wolf boys and buried like edible treasure to devour later. How sometimes there were wounds I ignored and over and over I had to revisit the same old traps that closed upon them to extract myself very carefully so as to not lose more pieces still. Sure, I came out licking my wounds, scathed and dirty. But I emerged whole.
Turns out, I am not unwahsable. I am not unwell. I am still hungry and I am getting reacquainted with wonder. I have redefined home. I still don’t fully understand the nature of love, but I am very much an eager student and believer of it in all of its necessary function and beautiful, new forms.
Panty shields up, Captain! We’re rebooting the Ovarian Operating System . . .
I know, the title of this blog alone makes you want to click fast and away. But I have to tell you a tale of consumer eco-angst removed from the simple and often expensive decision to buy local, organic products and food. But first, a little herstory . . .
There’s already been enough shame, secrecy, and taboo surrounding “that time of the month” and all the other fine euphemisms invented to be humourous or circumspect about the mystery of menstruation. There are countries where tampons weren’t and still aren’t sold because you’d have to “touch down there.” There are women who follow this practice willingly, even in forward thinking countries. They build huts and red tents and spas for this exact purpose. To wear pampers or to be pampered. Elsewhere.
But it’s moved beyond that to a place where we’re supposed to celebrate and “have a happy period,” a campaign from a company that stupidly chose their brand name to be “Always.” As in, “I’ll ALWAYS bleed, and I’ll ALWAYS wear these things.” At least Kotex, Tampex, and Playtex (all with –ex as a suffix to mean “out, from or away”) sound almost medical or medicinal. And it’s not ALL feminine hygiene, even wounded soldiers are prone to use a tampon (French for “plug” or “stopper”) to halt bullet wounds from weeping. “Always” doesn’t seem to imply medical or even chronic, instead, it implies a life sentence. Doesn’t your uterus protest? Well it should. War is hell and there’s a war in your drawers and the sick folks at Always were also responsible for aerodynamic pantyliners and pads. That’s right – they got your code red covered in homeland security and you can feel secure each month knowing there’s a little, white F-16 in your pants.
It’s not just a troubling war at home either . . . it’s covers many land masses and miles of ocean.
Your average lady uses 16,800 tampons in her lifetime, that’s 250 to 300 pounds of tampons and applicators. Tag on a few thousand pads and panty liners, and your ecological footprint is looking more like Sasquatch. Of particular offense are the plastic applicators some tampons are encased in. They are casually tossed into wastebaskets where they later escape the curb trash or landfill, trotted off by animals, resurfacing in parking lots and playgrounds and a host of other locations you’d rather not see them appear.
They come back from the watery depths to haunt you, too.
Plastic tampon applicators from sewage outfalls are one of the most common forms of trash on beaches. Yeah, you thought food wrappers and glass bottles and needles were the only gross & hazardous materials washing out to sea and coming back in with the tides. You flush them and that’s just the beginning. For building owners, pads and tampons that are flushed down the toilet are the most common cause of plumbing problems. Further down the flow, they end up the sewage treatment plants and surf into a lake or onto a river, and on into the ocean where they pool with the rest of the plastic detritus at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There it all sits and breaks down into ever smaller particles until they are the size and color of plankton or worse, are pelletized high-density polyethylene (HDPE) white “nurdles” that resemble fish eggs or food to sea creatures. Then the birds and fish ingest these hormone disrupters and concentrated toxins like PCB and DDE and the circle of life gets a big kick in the nurdles.
But it’s not just the animals somewhat removed from you, you’re an animal too, and guess what it’s doing to you by directly inserting it? Your conventional feminine hygiene products contain a mixture of rayon and cotton. Rayon is in your blouses, dresses, lingerie, linings, scarves, suits, ties, hats, socks, the filling in Zippo lighters, blankets, window treatments, upholstery, tire cord, yarn and diapers. It’s highly absorbent but no good at retaining shape and as far as biodegradability goes, it’s a real loser. Most importantly, synthetic materials like the Rayon used in tampons show an increased risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), particularly for superabsorbent tampons. So if you’re a bleeder, you’re a feeder.
And sweet, white cotton isn’t much better up in there. Cotton is highly pesticide-intensive; 25% of pesticides used globally are devoted to growing cotton. To achieve that lily-white look, pads and tampons are bleached with chlorine, a process which creates dioxins, a known carcinogen and those bad boys shouldn’t be placed anywhere near your reproductive organs. And you swear you never smoked a cigar in your life. Especially in a donkey show.
Think Outside the (Tampon) Box
It’s getting easier to select tampons, pads, and panty liners made from organic, unbleached cotton which is cultivated without the use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, sewage sludge, irradiation, petrochemicals, or genetic engineering. All of which we now have think about when looking at the towering isle of soothing, pastel colors, reminding us that yes – we’ll be back out there swimming, riding ponies, surfing at the beach and smiling while playing miniature golf in NO time.
O.B. tampons: small box, no applicator. Compact, simple cellophane wrapper covering them, easy to use, and take up very little room in your purse. It is unfathomable, but some women simple aren’t down with getting that up close and personal with their own lady bits and maybe getting their finger a little spotty. Come on darlings – this is no time to be prim and squeamish. If you haven’t seen it in a mirror to understand how it goes together and pushed the buttons to see how it works, you don’t deserve to have sex and should just hang an “Out Of Order” sign over your girdle loop. Get over it. Get into it. It’s yours. Deal.
OG-style Tampax: wrapped in paper, cardboard applicator that breaks down relatively quickly if they happen to get loose in the environment. Preferable to the Pearl brand, which has an indestructible plastic applicator strong enough for shotgun shell casings and is then further wrapped in coated paper. Awesome. Go ahead. Try running them over with your car. You can’t destroy them. They’ll only get dirty . . . and more angry. That plastic rocket launcher is just one more wasteful obstacle between you and your nana. I don’t even want to go into the perfumed varieties. Now on top of your plastic fetish, you’re going to open a vapor-impermeable pouch and stick this vulcanized, alcohol soaked albino vampire into your hoo-ha where no one and nothing but your senseless cervix can smell it? Well it doesn’t work and now you smell of lightly talcumed meat. Fail. p.s. Talc is closely related to the potent carcinogen asbestos and talc particles have been shown to cause tumors in the ovaries and lungs of cancer victims. So hey – go easy on sprinkling the Johnson’s about your leaky basement. It’s a safety hazard. You’ll slip and fall. No need to announce “clean-up on aisle one.”
Natracare and Seventh Generation: chemical-free, non chlorine-bleached, simple packaging which means even less waste. Eco-conscious enough with all the key ingredient and disclaimers including no animal-testing and skin-tested only on fellow humans. You can sleep well in the knowledge that no bunnies had to hop about with a maxi pad strapped to their fluffy bums and instead, some nice lady in a lab got itchy a few times. This is still within the normal scope of your monthly cycle.
Jade and Pearl Sea Sponge: natural tampons inspired by the traditional use of sponges by menstruating women of ancient times. So if you want to bleed like Cleopatra, this is your bag. The Egyptians invented the tampon too – so you can thank them for that little wonder. Sea sponges are available in Teenie, Regular, and Large and you precision(?) fit to size by trimming the sea sponge and experimenting with insertion. Wow. Try not to think about doing dishes or wiping counters or a nice hot sponge bath because really, I can’t see how this is either sanitary OR relaxing. So Sally, if you’re worried about sullying up the seashore, (welcome to my new menstrual tongue twister) this is all the rage amongst mythological aquatic creatures. Apparently, sea sponges are what mermaids use.
Menstrual Cups – i.e.: Diva cup, Mooncup, Instead Softcup, Lunette, Keepercup, LadyCup, Femmecup, Miacup: Ok. Here’s where I drawn the line. This ain’t a Dixie Cup, or a Sippie Cup, a Tommee Tippee Cup or an Ice Cream Cup. This is none of those fun, sweet, childlike associations. But I trust you probably got over that the first time you sprung a leak and wrecked your favorite Underroos or your expensive lingerie for failing to count the days. Maybe I just haven’t been brave enough to go with a new, miserable experience, but let me get this straight . . . i fold a plastic, rubbery cup into a jelly roll, insert this, it pops open like a tulip, I “stir” it around to make sure the umbrella’s been fully deployed, which may take some coaxing and pushing and twisting, and then I pull it out by its dangling tail at intervals, wash it and reinsert it like tiny, portable Tupper Ware?!?!
Oh, hell no!
I am not about to wash my snatch basket in the sink (and carry special, mild, perfume-free, hypo-allergenic fem soap) in between classes or you know, when I take a restroom break to freshen up while out to dinner. I mean, how does one do this discreetly? Oh, and once a month, I get the distinct displeasure of a 5-minute boil for my little traveling jellyfish at the end of the cycle in some dedicated kitchen equipment that never sees food. Or, hey, I can use rubbing alcohol (and not hydrogen peroxide) to sterilize it. But I have to be extremely careful not to soak it too long and allow it to dry completely and not degrade the integrity of the plastic and rinse the residue so I don’t fuck up my vaginal pH.
O.B. tampons sounding better all the time, huh? Can you imagine wringing out your sea sponge? Wouldn’t you rather “touch it” now?
Go With The Flow
There was a time when i worked at a place so uptight, they wouldn’t allow the female staff to carry in a purse. Whether this was for security or to keep outside worldly distractions such as cell phones to a minimum was unclear, but the idea completely incensed my friend Nicole.
“What?” she snapped. “Where are you supposed to carry your tampons, up your ass?”
I explained to her how bad the work environment sucked and how tension and impossible precision reigned, thus, the topic of anal retention seemed a very fitting description. The job had me so upset, i couldn’t poop for a week. Then I quit.
And many light flow days from then, here I was on a Wednesday nite, standing there in the supermarket isle, paralyzed by too many choices and horrible, far-reaching consequences of those attempts at informed decision. There I was: hungry, cranky, wanting ice cream and a heating pad at the same time, thinking about plumbing, and ocean waters and marine life and cancer of the Yoni.
I turn to the woman next to me who is clicking and sucking at her teeth in audible consternation, just like me, and we both smile nervously, amazed at the mini internal crisis over what we’re going to buy. Neither of us will move first, both seem to be wondering how the other will select, looking for a brave trend to follow. Somehow, there’s a preposterous sense of worry over being judged, like bringing a film or a music cd or a book to the checkout clerk, the fear of choosing poorly, unwisely, without taste or sensibilities. “Hmmm,” she says. “Yeahhhhh,” I mutter slowly and drawn out. And we both start giggling.
My cup of joy is overflowing
I consider my internal flowchart for assessing absorbency needs:
junior – aww, isn’t that cute, you inked!
light – Miss Kitty has a nose bleed.
regular – oh, yay. my period’s back.
super – omg that’s a lot of blood.
super plus – jesus, maybe you should go to the hospital!
ultra – uhh, I think that blood clot just asked for a cigarette.
I am looking for regular. Just something in between, just a few tampons, a starter pack, a holdover since i don’t see any of my normal go-tos. And all they have is “a mere scratch” or “Carrie – Prom Scene.”
So I think of the dolphins and the salmon and the seabirds and i grab the 10-pack with the small, recyclable cardboard box and no applicator with the green looking package and eco-claims to fame and the woman next to me does the same. Just enough to soldier on.
It’s all I can do, really. If I don’t want to leave with anymore acronyms. Say, add PTSD to my PMS. Christ Almighty in a hybrid – i can’t even BLEED with out feeling guilty about it in my new sustainable world concept! I leave with my chlorine-free, biodegradable, non-applicator, no plastic, rayon-free tampons and my razors (which are free from animal testing) and a pint of, yes, sorry, blood orange sorbet, and it’s a good thing. While I’m happily eating my cool treat, I don’t need to imagine poor, naked bunnies hopping around with razor burn and nicks with only a maxi-pad to keep them warm. And after all this guilt, I just want to sandwich a washcloth and tuck it in my drawers or just sit on a sock and call it good.