Off the Rag

The flow of life

I’m deep into post-menopause. I enjoy the relative stability of my hormones and life’s more even keel. Back when I was going through puberty, I had no idea my volcanic emotions had anything to do with endocrine glands. How could I? The discovery of estrogen and progesterone had yet to enter the 1963 junior high world of knowledge.

In those clueless days before Our Bodies, Our Selves, I got my information about my changing biology from the black-and-white hygiene film our gym teacher showed us in PE that one day. We had to sit there while Miss Nokes deftly threaded the film in the projector by herself because the kid who normally assisted with AV equipment was a boy, and no boys were allowed. This was serious business.

The movie’s glamorous coed in her strapped bathing cap and dark lipstick sat poolside and told us not to worry. She assured us pubescent girls we could swim when we were on our periods. And ride horses, too, according to the same confidence-inspiring narrator who just a few years previous had taught us to duck and cover in case of an atomic bomb. We were one well-informed bunch of kids.

But now we were becoming women. Here I was entering menarche and, if the film was right, the muss and fuss of managing menstrual periods would be a small price to pay for the freedom to swim and ride horses. I remember being disappointed every 28 days because my parents were holding out on me. Once a month like clockwork — no pool and no palomino. Who wouldn’t be depressed?

That year my whole family became insufferable cretins. They irked me to no end, and I perfected a particular head-pivot-eye-roll movement that let them know it. My parents were utter squares. My siblings were worse. My brother snorted when he chewed. My sister splattered toothpaste on the mirror. Even the family dog left cocker spaniel hair on my black pedal pushers. All this coupled with sore breasts and low back pain. I idolized Lizzie Borden.

Hormones were never mentioned. My peer group didn’t start talking about hormones until well into adulthood when, shortly after the Cenozoic era, modern science finally identified PMS. I still have the clipping from an old Good Housekeeping, “Sally’s blue with periodic pain. Sally’s gay with Midol.” How true that turned out to be.

Ten years after junior high I learned the truth. Thanks to the kindly dyke who taught my college health class, I discovered certain aspects of the female anatomy that had been completely obfuscated by the common era’s boys-have-a-penis-and-girls-don’t type of sex ed. I learned lots of things about my body that those lipsticked babes in the hygiene film never mentioned. That led me quite naturally into the world of woman-loving-women. In no time I came out and was living with, working with and processing every aspect of life with lesbians. Needless to say, our cycles coincided.

What the dominant culture considered irrational and irritable, we came to think of as heightened sensitivity. During our moon time we shared our insights about how the patriarchal paradigm was designed to keep us powerless, ignorant and deodorized. Above all, we were supposed to be discreet. To hell with that. We celebrated our connection to nature’s cycles and smudged menstrual blood on the door posts of our homes. And on our gates.

I switched from dioxin-bleached “sanitary” products to natural sea sponges. I concocted valerian and raspberry-leaf tea to ease cramps, and my friends supported each other through the emotionally raw times.

PMS became elevated to a rarefied consciousness. I rode my hormonal surges into heightened states of creativity and vision (not to mention a super-evolved appreciation of good chocolate).

I don’t mind having moved on past those fertile times. Even without my period, I can enjoy swimming and horseback riding.

Award-winning writer Sally Sheklow has been exercising her freedom in Eugene since 1972.


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