I’m reading Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman.
The book was written in 2011, which doesn’t seem that long ago, but also, feels like a lifetime.
The book is raw and unfiltered in its honestly, sometimes exceedingly so (“I have, of course, tasted my own menstrual blood”). Which means it’s everything I love in a good memoir — this kind of candid unveiling and blunt forthcomingness. Telling it just like it is, in all its unflattering glory.
Not that I’ve read a lot of memoirs. The few I have read are all by-products of modern, pop-culture-type authors, all designed as a humorous first-hand account of life as we know it — the little, seemingly inconsequential things that somehow inexplicably leave their print on us for the rest of all time.
The memoirs I have read (the ones I can clearly recall) are, in this order: Let’s Pretend this Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), by Jenny Lawson; Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling; Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’, by Lena Dunham (say what you will about Lena , I loved the book’s ultra-forthright “tasted my own menstrual blood”-level of discomfort and the fact it was all poetically articulated with the observant kind of wit that makes my head buzz); Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson; and Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, by John Hodgman (introduced to me by way of my husband and his fondness for the Judge John Hodgman podcast, which I, too, have grown to love, so that any time we’re in the car for an extended period of travel, I ask, “Do we have a new ‘Hodgy’?”).
There are others, surely, but these are the ones that switched on a desire to want to be just as good, to write just as cleverly, to share just as openly. To, as I’ve said before, celebrate the absurdity of the human experience in all its unabashed glory.
What I love especially about Caitlin Moran’s book is that tucked tidily inside all her fantastic accounts of young adulthood (which is how far I’ve gotten so far) is the wisdom of feminism, simplified and boldly exclaimed. I did not expect it (because, honestly, the book has been waiting on my shelf for a year and half and I didn’t bother to re-read the cover), but it’s there, and it’s exciting, these eight years later, especially, as conversations around feminism are more in the spotlight now than ever.
But I digress, because this is in no way a book review. What it is, rather, is the sudden (or maybe not so sudden…reawakened, perhaps?) understanding of how I want to write as I begin (re-begin) this practice of consciously rekindling and re-framing my relationship to writing.
Not that I want to write a memoir (at least I think, because what provocative and intellectual theme could I wrap into my own personal narrative of being a human being on this planet). But I do know that I want to tell my stories.
“My stories” because they’re the only stories I know to be definitively true on an intimate level.
In fact, this afternoon, as we walked side-by-side in the woods, I explained to R. how much of a desire I have to write lately, but that I’m consistently seized up by the uncertainty of what it is I want to say. “What do I write about”, I asked, to which he responded, “That is the million dollar question.”
So to sit here and have a tiny little inkling that maybe there is something I can say, or at least try to say, feels like a miniature break-through. All care of a book I plucked off my shelf because I felt like reading something funny.
And where will I start?
With my first period, naturally. (Bye, husband!)
Because periods are a bit of a theme today. Because I’ve been waiting for mine to arrive with the usual sullen gloominess that always seems to signal its imminent start. Because Caitlin Moran literally just told me everyone should taste their own menstrual blood (I have no plans to take her up on this recommendation, if I’m being honest). Because my sister and I’s Facebook Messenger conversation today strangely included mention of watering your plants with period blood and how “it’s cool and all, but I don’t need to see that shit on my Insta feed”. Which all seems a good a sign as any that now is an appropriate time to share with you my own rite of passage into womanhood.
It was the sixth grade when my friends started having their periods, but we didn’t want to talk about it. It was too shameful, too menacing, this awareness that something scary and gross was about to happen to our bodies without our willful consent.
In fact, I remember my childhood best friend and I perched on the brown-painted swinging bench in her front yard, and her asking me quietly, conspiratorially, “Do you have it yet?” And me, channeling as much shock and disgust as possible into my denial, “Nooooo!” Then apprehensively, “Do you?,” and her delivering the very same level of horrified repulsion. (We discovered much later that both of us had, in fact, started our periods.)
Mine arrived the summer between sixth and seventh grade. My younger sister and I had decided to be friends that particular day (for lack of better choice, I suppose), with plans to build a tent and “camp out” in our basement rec room.
I think the novelty was in the fact we’d never really “camped” before, not in the traditional sense. Our family had a log cabin we’d visit for several weeks at a time during the summer months, and it was rustic, you bet (Mom’s first day of vacation was always spent sobbing over the accumulation of mouse turds in the cupboards), but it meant tenting had always been superseded by the privilege of sleeping in the rooftop loft.
So, alas, we didn’t own a tent. Except, as my sister and I discovered when we asked my parents, we in fact did! It was Mom or Dad that patiently went rooting through storage rooms to fish out the old 1970s canvas military-style tent they were certain still existed.
And it did! And the two of us proceeded to set it up in the basement, as planned, despite the fact that it smelled horrendously of sickly sweet mildew. The fact we’d planned to sleep in it was surely a hazard to our health. I can’t be certain it wasn’t made of asbestos, in fact, but we were determined, and Mom and Dad, who I seem to recall were feeling a touch nostalgic about the reappearance of the raggedy old tent, were not (in spite of the odour) about to stand in our way.
So, when I think about my very first period, what I remember the most is laying awake next to my younger sister in a mildewy tent inside our basement, ruminating on the fact that “I guess I’m a woman now.”
I was so ashamed of my newly-initiated passage into womanhood that I was too embarrassed to confess my condition to anyone, including Mom. So I stealthily raided her supply of feminine hygiene products, assembling my own haphazard stash of tampons, O.B.s, pads and pantyliners, unfolding the poster-sized directions contained in each box to figure out how to make it all work. (For the record, the tampon directions were very stern about the potential for Toxic Shock Syndrome and me, prone to anxiety since as long as I can remember, remained resolutely terrified I’d die from symptoms without meticulous monitoring of my overall well-being.)
Despite scrupulously combing through the directions, figuring out how to actually use my collection of pilfered products remained a matter of trial and error.
Naturally, I began with the maxi-pads, these being the least intimidating of the lot. But as is to be expected, I couldn’t cope with the sensation that I had a giant diaper stuffed between my legs.
The pantyliners seemed an obvious solution to this problem, for my naive mind had construed them as a sleeker, more compact version of the elephant-sized maxi-pads. Which, in essence, they are, but it took me promptly soaking through one of these sleeker, more compact versions in just a matter of minutes before I realized they serve an altogether different purpose than their diaper-ish counterparts.
So I tentatively moved on to the tampons and O.B.s because, in spite of my very real fear of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome, they seemed the best, most covert way for me to continue to conceal my embarrassing condition (read: no potential whoosh-whoosh sound effects as I moved with a veritable diaper between my legs).
Not wanting to discuss my menstrual-affliction to anyone, I was also unaware of the acute level of pain I would now, as a woman, be forced to endure. From that very first period, up to present time, I have and continue to be plagued by debilitating menstrual cramps.
The day after the night when I got my first period (also known as the mildew tent rec room camp-out), my sister and I decided to ride our bikes from home to visit Mom at work (which was okay, because it was a family business, so the result would be endearing instead of a hassle, or that’s what we assumed).
As I stoically pedalled my bike halfway across town, I was overcome by such acute pain emanating from my abdomen that I literally had to stop for risk of throwing up. “But alas, this is womanhood,” I told myself. “This is what I must endure now,” as I dry-swallowed another Acetaminophen (which, to this day, does nothing for the pain — Ibuprofen being the one and only thing able to soften the agony of full-blown-Day-2 menstrual suffering).
It took me a long time to figure out how to manage the pain of my period.
I got my period at school in the seventh grade, which means it was probably only my fifth or sixth one overall. The pain was excruciating. It was the middle of band class, 30 or so of us crammed elbow-to-elbow in a stuffy, orange-carpeted portable. Waves of nausea were rippling so hard through my body that a classmate told me, “You look green.” I was bleeding so heavily, in fact, that I discovered, after class, that I’d soaked through to my coveted wide-leg, JNCO-inspired jeans — not enough to be discovered by my peers, but enough that my period-shame escalated to an all-time high.
But wait. It gets better.
Band had been the final class of the day, so that after gathering my belongings at my locker, I was swept amid a herd of students keenly gunning for escape.
Our middle school principle and vice principle would regularly stand at the corner of the corridor supervising this mass exodus. On this day in particular, in which I was plagued by horrible cramps and the involuntary accompanying nausea, I too was trying to make an urgent exit when forces beyond my control resulted in my projectile vomiting across the crowd, the contents of my stomach landing at the feet of our female vice principle.
No exaggeration, I don’t remember a single thing from what happened immediately following this appalling act. The next I recall, I was seated on the vinyl “bed” of the school’s sick room, vomiting up waves of half-chewed mandarin orange slices while I waited for my mom to come get me.
These are my first memories of getting my period and, I regret, they don’t improve for quite some time.
Mom figured out I’d been pilfering her supplies, by the way.
Not so stealthy after all.