The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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The first time it happened, I was in Bible School in Weldon, North Carolina on the second floor of the Methodist Church educational building, listening to Dozen Pierce say that God knew how many hairs were on everybody’s head. I wondered if He knew why my stomach hurt.
It started out like a warm moist fist in the bottom of my belly clenching and unclenching, and every time it unclenched, I felt a warm wet release. Was I wetting my pants? Even though I’d heard about menstruation, and knew it would happen to me sooner or later, I never associated this pain with it.
I never said a word to Dozen Pierce, sat there and decided I was dying of appendicitis. Walking home later, I thought of my funeral, fantasized about eulogies. (“Such a short life she lived.”) In my own bathroom, I found the blood, was momentarily relieved, and then annoyed. Thirteen-year-olds don’t like anybody, even a mother, explaining about Kotex or tampons or the greater implications of it all, at least I didn’t. I was at the age where I wanted, most of all, to be left alone. I was alarmed by my body’s “coming of age.” More was happening on emotional levels in one week than I had dealt with over many months in preadolescent years. My skin started to break out. I decided I had a problem with “nerves” because I started perspiring heavily in a way I never had before. My tomboy chest developed bulges that I hid, shoulders humped over, chest caved in as much as possible. I just wasn’t ready.
My mother and I had “the talk.” I don’t remember what she said but she showed me how “the belt” fit, and Kotex fit into the belt, and I was repulsed, felt like a baby with a diaper, and what if someone should see? She said it was something to celebrate, and the next morning I knew she had told my father because he kissed me and said congratulations, now you’re a woman, and put flowers by my place at the table, and I just wanted to drop through the floor. So much for gratitude for a remarkable father.
For years I kept no records, but knew I was “regular,” knew I had “premenstrual syndrome” sometimes, was more irritable and easily upset right before I “started,” and basically found the whole thing an annoyance created by a biology that was an embarrassment at best. And I used the first day of cramps as an excuse to stay home from school. True, I was often in pain and perpetually groggy when losing a lot of blood, but staying in school and seeming “out of it” in study hall meant one of the older boys might crack, “Wha’s wrong wid you? On the rag?”
In my twenties, out of college, in a rural setting with an introspective lifestyle, I began to get to know myself in some ways for the first time. Sexually active, I began to notice a lot of differences in the ways my mate and I operated. He was “ever-ready,” like a charged battery sexually. I had tides of sexual energy that peaked around fourteen days after the first day of bleeding. Then it receded and sexual approaches towards me during the lowest ebb of sexual energy around days eighteen to twenty-five were usually met with disinterest and a confusion of guilt, denial that my cup wasn’t running over, and evasive withdrawal covered by the explanation of my cycles, which sounded like an excuse because it felt like an excuse. I wasn’t at that time prepared to let other people be responsible for their own disappointed expectations.
Years later, living alone, the cycle became clearer, less foggy, but simultaneously mysterious as different strains of energy emanated from me at different times of my cycle. Physically healthy and disinclined to deny or change these inner weathers without good reason, I attempted to label them without the help of any outer authority or bias. And I came to accept that what I perceived was not “my imagination.” It was who I was, perhaps similar to other women’s cycles, perhaps uniquely me. And I began to wonder what would happen if I let the original impulse of these tides direct my life more. This keeps changing, as I keep changing, but right now, this is how it works for me:
Week One: First day of bleeding. Physical sense of release. Cramps are painful depending on whether or not I can work with what’s happening, or have to “cope” in an alien environment for a woman with a remarkably busy uterus and cervix, releasing its riches to the earth ideally, but in our sanitary world, more often into a toilet or “protective shield” or absorbent tampon. It’s a landmark; it means my life, my eggs, are marking time, and the shedding is no loss, nor is it dirty, but creates a void for a new beginning, the true month for me.
I enjoy setting aside the first several hours of bleeding if I can, even the whole day, to respect this rite of passage, to re-evaluate the prior month, in particular the last week before I began to bleed, when “the harvest” was ripening, in my writing, my life, my relationships, when I was most challenged in dealing with the outer world, from the point in my cycle when I was most “inner.” How did I negotiate that? Did the turning inward of that time reach an appreciative realm or did I fall into conflict with every tug from the outer world? What do I want to do with the rising energy of the upcoming cycle?
But before I think of all that, I melt, lie still, face down, body folded over knees, and consolidate my extraneous notions of being a woman into one wordless throbbing ache that is like the stoking of a furnace deep inside, hot and silky and moist. I like to groan, not because it hurts but because the sound helps me not think, helps me dive deeper to the bottom of this beginning and ending, find the ocean floor of fertility and feel what I find there.
Week Two: The bleeding has stopped. With typical human amnesia of one season, I move into another, becoming more extroverted and energized to gather experience, absorb the outer world, meet it head-on like a healthy horse at a hurdle. My social life often peaks as Week Two progresses. Around day 10 or 11, I begin to get a distinct taste in my mouth (undiscernible if I’m in a cigarette smoking or distracted phase) that I can describe as “chemical.” I have a maximum of charisma and ease in every situation, and flirt with the world at large, not as a seductress but because I’m pleased with my potential, want to share the wealth. I am fertility itself.
Sensitivity is heightened no matter what I touch — a leaf, an old blanket, a cat, the palm of a human hand. I see the best in everyone, and want to merge with it, marry it, bear fruit. No wonder babies are conceived then.
For a long time I never correlated a sharp sudden needle-like pain in my side with an egg piercing a fallopian tube. And then I began to count, to keep track. Right ovary. Left ovary. Right ovary. Left ovary. They take turns, like little partners, laying these precious eggs. What had seemed clinical and far removed from my life in high school text books suddenly seemed like a miracle. And a miracle with unexpectedly practical benefits. The year I waited tables I noticed that during ovulation my tips went up at least 20 percent. True, I was at my most extroverted, but I also suspected that on some primeval level or through a subconscious sense of smell, these other creatures were picking up on my power, my fertility, and applauding it.
Week Three: “Reality descends.” I have seen the Goddess in me, heard her laughter, watched her dance. (I can dance with an instinctive grace and burst of syncopated energies during Week Two that leaves me under the brief illusion that I invented dance.)
If my euphoria and flexibility during Week Two originated on a mountain peak, a point from which I could see in every direction and act as hostess of the universe at large, then Week Three requires that I step off my throne, move down towards specifics, the nuts and bolts of my life, and see my shadows and missteps, the fine grain of an enlarged photograph.
Week Four: By Week Four, I have turned still further inward. Like most modern women, I can’t retire from the outer world, but I can coast through it with a clear understanding of my resources, my limits, my cycle’s agenda. My rational mind takes a back seat and the intuitive takes a front seat. My limbs are a little heavier and I have a slightly decreased digital dexterity due to water retention (if you type a lot you notice these things). It isn’t unusual for me to hunger for long hours alone now. My usual passion for conversation is replaced by simple appetites for the elements: wind, water, fire, the earth. But who can sit by a fire for a week? I can’t. With a less focused verbal ability, less linear thought patterns, I fake intellectual clarity if I have to, and if I’m relaxed, may start a sentence and not finish it unless reminded to do so. Out to lunch? Not really. “Gumpy” is what I call it, when I’m least computer-like, mentally efficient, and more like a walking time bomb of gut feelings eager to pop out like uncensored graffiti.
I don’t make important decisions at this time, or enter into contracts or agreements with the outer world if I can help it, because I’m more inclined to change my mind immediately afterwards. Instead I witness what is unresolved in my life, watch my nocturnal dreams in particular, where, on an inner timetable, the most repressed and mysterious parts of my psyche steam with significance in a way they do not at any other time of my cycle.
If I’m pushed into an unusually active role in the waking world that cuts me off from this inner agenda, I’m more inclined to react, rather than respond, to any conflict or pressure, because my emotions have taken on a piercing quality, as if they are being magnified from some deep and deliciously painful but pleasurable place, like a good itch. Depending on my self-care, I either express that magnified ability and sensitivity with voices of insecurity and easily hurt feelings, or with a poignant appreciation of everything that happens.
Often I feel an urgency, a rising tide of release, a sense of “this has to come out,” this unfertilized egg, or the unresolved opportunities bubbling up, or the creative idea that won’t keep forever. Some of my most creative hours have been in this period, because it is the time when the temptation to doubt is strongest, with the rational mind submerged, the unharnessed emotions racing like a swollen river of purpose. And then it starts again, the bleeding starts like a deep autumnal signal to let go of leaves, the limbs of the trees that create the jungle of my psyche are bare again, and the life force begins to quicken around yet another seed, and I feel glad to be female.
Elizabeth Rose Campbell