This name for peri/menopause has appeared in many cultures and has been passed down through the eons, generation to generation. I, myself, really like calling it The Change, as it describes the awe and magnitude of peri/menopause. The Change honors the call to attention, the rupture from the known, the reflective incubation, the life choices and the leap of faith that a conscious, mindful passage through peri/menopause requires. The Change encapsulates the seismic shifts, the unexpected turns, the disturbing reorientations, the annoying distractions, the unsummoned losses, and the depth of self-discovery that is available to every woman willing to answer the call and step into the initiatory potential of this passage to Eldership.
As I prepare my workshop (The Chrysalis and the Crone: A Conscious Menopause) to bring to the SMCR Conference next week, I find myself deeper and deeper in the reality of our contemporary, global culture and the crisis of the absence of rites and initiations. Specifically, how does it affect each and every one of us, that our experience is being defined only by our ‘symptoms’? What does it mean for us and our planet if we pay attention to the attempts of the psyche to guide us out of our work-a-day-lives and into discovering what else might be possible? What if we choose not to be thwarted by the unimaginative beliefs that the soul’s needs are unquantifiable and thus unimportant?
Marion Woodman describes this vacuum:
“The doors that were once opened through initiation rites are still crucial thresholds in the human psyche, and when those doors do not open, or when they are not recognized for what they are, life shrinks into a series of rejections. Torschlusspanik [a German word connoting the terror of disconnection] is now part of our culture because there are so few rites to which individuals will submit in order to transcend their own selfish drives. Without the broader perspective, they see no meaning in rejection. The door thuds, leaving them bitter or resigned. If, instead, they could temper themselves to a point of total concentration, a bursting point where they could either pass over or fall back as in a rite of passage, then they could test who they are. Their passion would be spent in an all-out positive effort, instead of deteriorating into disillusionment and despair“. (from Richard A. Heckler’s Crossing: Everyday People, Unexpected Events and Life Affirming Change, p. 134)
If this is true, then instead of suffering ‘symptoms’ and struggling, each of us, to suppress or get rid of these symptoms, we might consider peri/menopause as a collective imperative to initiate and embody change – in ourselves and our society. Peri/menopause might be the catalyst to shake us awake from our collective trance, to step away from our habituated notions of who we are and how our world is supposed to work.
Here’s the rub: change is pain. We are, for the most part, creatures of comfort. We like, for the most part, to be lulled. But our souls long for more, and at peri/menopause we can no longer ignore the small whisper, deep in our psyches, asking: “Is this it? Is this all there is?”
Change is afoot …
What would the world be like if young women were mentored by older women?
What would the world be like if we knew we had a place for our stories to be told?
So intones the voiceover at the start of the trailer of a forthcoming film.
And it is right on time.
The recent media attention paid to Tomi- Ann Roberts and Nikki Dunnavant’s research recent re: religious identification and menstrual traditions has got me thinking (more than usual) about women, bonding and menses. Roberts and Dunnavant’s religious women harbored more negative attitudes toward their periods than their secular counterparts, but they reported a sense of woman-to-woman connection during their menstruation that non-religious women did not.
So how do we create community and lose the shame?
Red tents anyone?
“Things We Don’t Talk About: Healing Narratives from the Red Tent” explores the increasing reach of the “Red Tent Temple Movement” seeded by women’s empowerment facilitator Alisa Starkweather and inspired by Anita Diamant’s 1997 bestselling novel The Red Tent – a rich fictionalized treatment of biblical character Dinah. In the novel, Dinah and her tribeswomen gather during their menses in a sacred women-only space.
The practice in a book became a movement.
Starkweather and others in more than 50 red tents across the nation and beyond (in 30 states and 6 countries) believe that the simple practice of gathering women and girls in a space dedicated ONLY to them (whatever their date on the menstrual calendar) is precisely what women and girls need to feel supported and nurtured. This is the stuff of healing, they say.
Red tents are an initiative within what I call the ‘feminist spiritualist’ wing of the menstrual activist movement — a loose collection of activists who emerged in the 1970s and share an earnest celebration of embodied womanhood. This style of activism, I’ve argued, has endured and innovated for more than 4 decades, but remains on the fringe of feminist movements as a mostly white middle class concern. Liedenfrost’s film, however, may nudge an expansion of the movement (or perhaps, show that it is already slowly capturing a diverse following?). A commitment to inclusion rings through the voices of the women captured in “Things We Don’t Talk About….” Red tents, as one woman explains during the trailer, are safe, welcoming and invite each woman to “come as you are and who you are is enough.”
Filmmaker Isadora Gabrielle Liedenfrost, a seasoned filmmaker specializing in “multicultural motifs and embedded cultures and spiritual traditions” presents a rich palette of reds, auburns, and fuchsias and a haunting soundtrack in this piece. Her camera brings us images of small and large groups of women crying, laughing, dancing and hugging together woven with the heartfelt stories of the empowering benefits of women-in-community.
I am left asking: could red tents offer women—whatever their spiritual inclination—a shame-free community? Could they restore a lost tradition now updated in a contemporary body-positive context? Surely, the feminine intimacy offered here is not for every woman, but for many, it might feel like home is a lovely little tent.
Research by SMCR members Tomi-Ann Roberts and Nicki Dunnavan garnered a lot of attention this week. Stories showed up at Live Science – Why Why Women Should Bring Their Periods ‘Out of the Closet, popular ladyblog Jezebel – Your Period Is a Time for Deep Lady-Bonding, and the Daily Mail - Women, start talking about it. Period! Roberts and Dunnavan surveyed 340 religious and non-religious women about their experiences and attitudes about menstruation. As the Daily Mail reported: ”U.S. researchers say women across the world need to be more positive about menstruation – and that means talking about it in public.”
There’s been lots of public discussion about contraception, some might say too much! The birth control/medical insurance coverage brouhaha hit a boiling point last week with Rush Limbaugh’s egregious comments about Sandra Fluke, and the heated debate rages still. Maureen J Andrade at OpenSalon writes that Birth Control Is Not a Women’s Issue: It’s a Human Right, while Asma T. Uddin and Ashley McGuire, blogging at the Washington Post, insist It’s about religious liberty, not birth control. A group of crafters has come up with a unique protest action: sending “interfering” male government members a knitted or crocheted uterus, vagina or cervix, while feministing.com has invited readers to Talk About Birth Control For REAL.
Back to women’s experience of menstruation, Enith Morillo in Menses’ non-sense: Menstruation and the Muslim Woman’s “Red Tent” and Carolyn West in Menstruation – Celebration or Taboo?, explore different cultural menstrual traditions.
Female visitors to Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand) are faced with a difficult moral dilemma regarding the taonga Maori collection included in an upcoming tour.
An invitation for regional museum staff to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of Te Papa’s collections included the condition that “wahine who are either hapu [pregnant] or mate wahine [menstruating]” were unable to attend.
Te Papa spokeswoman Jane Keig said the policy was in place because of Maori beliefs surrounding the taonga Maori collection included in the tour.
“There are items within that collection that have been used in sacred rituals. That rule is in place with consideration for both the safety of the taonga and the women,” Keig said.
She said there was a belief that each taonga had its own wairua, or spirit, inside it.
“Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”
The policy does not apply to the entire exhibit, but to a “behind-the-scenes” tour offered November 5. Visitors’ reproductive status will not be verified in any way, but women are expected to be honest about it and obey the request.
Red Moon: Menstruation, Culture and the Politics of Gender may have crossed your path as The Moon Inside You (its original title prior to 2010 its current distribution through Media Education Foundation). It is a film that has enjoyed wide release, with exhibition on French television and inclusion in an EU showcase of films that circulated last year. The broad exhibition strategy of Red Moon is fitting; it has a casual, heartfelt and humorous style that should appeal to many.
The purpose of Red Moon, as articulated by the filmmaker Diana Fabianova in voice over, is to answer this question: “At any given time, 25% of the female population is menstruating. Invisible. Discreet. Why is this normal, biological function taboo? There must be some deeper meaning.” There are problems with this statistical framing device – 25% is an over inflated number that eliminates girls and post-menopausal women as “females”. It also glosses over females that do not menstruate because of gender transformations and amenorrhea. Outside of this statistical malfunction, there are a few other facts provided through voice over which are not supported by specific research or attributed directly to any menstrual researchers. However, beyond these slights, Red Moon has great potential to make a taboo subject approachable.
As it begins with man-on-the-street interviews, the film seems to have interest in addressing men as equally as women. Through interviews with researchers who have written about menstruation in the 80’s and 90’s, the film attends to menstrual taboo historically and highlights menstrual suppression as an issue to address within patriarchy. There is a fantastically creepy interview with Elsimar Couthino, famous for inventing Depo Provera, Norplant and for writing Is Menstruation Obsolete (the book that launched millions of suppressed periods.) In his interview Couthino believes that women should have no more than one period in her lifetime and he likens menstruation to pending death: “First of all, menstruation is incompatible with life and nature, because an animal cannot survive bleeding longer than a few minutes in the forest. Blood, the smell of blood (he sniffs) attracts the predators. This one is bleeding. She is going to die.” Fabianova comically cuts to a hooting owl, waiting for your blood.
Fabianova is critical of pill-popping mentality and finds it better to challenge the negative view of menstruation, and silence around it, rather than do away with the period altogether. While she provides some examples of solutions to painful PMS (a belly dancing class delights, for example) the film does not directly address dysmenorrhea and severe menstrual challenges which have become justification for suppression in the first place. It does however, remind menstruators on hormonal birth control that the blood you see is a fake-period.
In fellow Re:Cycling blogger Chris Bobel’s recently released book New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, she focuses on the type of menstrual activist stylings akin to Red Moon. In short, feminist spiritualism, according to Bobel, is a narrowly focused mode of menstrual positivism that essentializes the idea of womanhood through menstruation. The movement typically appeals to middle class white women and identifies menstrual change through the self. In feminist spiritualism, political action is limited to the individual menstruator or to the girls the menstruator is encouraged to educate. Red Moon treads in this territory throughout as interviewees speak to menstrual energy, the preciousness of menstruation, and the spiritualism in bleeding. The film ends with this logic as a nude woman walks through city streets, dropping red blobs that spring new trees to life through CGI effects. In voice over we hear about the filmmaker’s changed subject position: “I no longer fight with my hormonal clock, because it is she that reminds me once a month that I have a personal, intimate connection to nature and the universe.” It’s too bad the film narrows its final message to the individual, rather than reflecting on some of the broader work done throughout, like connecting negative menstrual associations to patriarchy, and demonstrating how certain menstrual practices harm the environment and our wallets. Overall, Red Moon is a conversation starter that requires additional reading to supplement its message.
I haven’t studied every online tool for period tracking but this one appears to be the most sophisticated yet: MikvahCalendar.com helps observant Jewish women track their cycles, including her niddah (ritually impure) time. It automatically calculates sunrise and sunset, sends email or text reminders, and can be customized for Chabad, Ashkenazic, and Sephardic traditions. And it’s Rabbincally Approved.
Guest Post by David Linton, Marymount Manhattan College
Debates about Christianity’s attitudes toward women sometimes focus on Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene and isolated engagements with other unnamed women encountered during his travels. Little is made of a healing scene in the book of Luke(8:43-48) where Jesus had momentary contact with a woman who, in all likelihood, had a severe case of menorrhagia. Here’s how the translation is described in the Revised Standard Version”
“As he went, the people pressed round him. And a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by any one came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased. And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes surround you and press upon you!” But Jesus said, “Some one touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
The story is rendered with remarkable efficiency. The stealth of the woman was motivated by her clear understanding that she was a pariah in her community,that she was forbidden by the rigid rules of Leviticus from having contact with others lest she contaminate them. Peter’s response is particularly interesting. Rather than acknowledging the severe violation of the rules and dealing with its consequences (Jesus would have had to go away from everyone to be cleansed), Peter denied that any contact had even occurred. (Does this foreshadow his later denial of even knowing Jesus?)
But Jesus seems utterly indifferent to the rules as he places the well being of a suffering woman above the demands of his cultural prohibitions.
The fact that Jesus’ heroic menstrual encounter has been expunged from the narrative of his life reveals, yet again, just how pernicious the taboos and prejudices are. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Sunday School classes set the menstrual record straight?
To make matters worse, the wonderful gospel song that extols the woman’s faith, first recorded by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, “The Hem of His Garment” has been similarly sanitized so that she is simply “sick.” The YouTube link that contains the song takes on extra layers of meaning when you listen to it with the thought in mind that it is an unacknowledged story of reactons to the menstrual taboo. The YouTube link also contains an additional Soul Stirrers recording, “Jesus Wash Away My Troubles” – a bonus!
The act of reframing the menstrual cycle–as a source of deep awareness and even, power–is hardly news, and yet, it seems that way to most of us.
Liz Kissling sent me this link to a 2002 essay written by Gina Cloud. Here is a classic passionate call for a new (or very old, perhaps) way of responding to menstruation. While I bristle at the essentialism at the root of this reframing, I certainly appreciate any effort to reclaim the menstrural cycle and render it as more than a nasty nuisance that depends on consumerism to make it go away. Cloud renames the menstrual cycle, the “sacred cycle” and PMS as “powerful monthly insight.” For her, the week before a menstruator’s period is a time to “get clear” and unblock what she calls the “repression of expression” most women are socialized to practice every day.
Cloud numbers among a steady stream of women–health educators, midwives, at least one physician, and lay women dedicated to empowering women through resisting more conventional attitudes about menstruation. They have written books, led workshops and generally promoted the idea that menstruation can and should be seen as a not a curse, but a gift.
In 1978 Jeannine Parvati published her now classic Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal. The tone of the book is vintage late 70s, hippie discourse infused with cultural feminist valorization of all-things- feminine. In her chapter On the Rag & Other Menstrual Rituals, Parvati cites “the images, our body fantasies, our cultural myths and poor health” as barriers to the “ecstatic renewal” [emphasis in original] of menstruation and said that “[b]leeding is part of being sexual,” connecting menstruation to female sexuality. She also included a hand-lettered pattern for homemade reusable cloth menstrual pads. 1978!!!! Parvati’s book was a breakthrough.
Tamara Slayton beautifully illustrated Hygieia and herself, embarked on her own menstrual health work around the same time. Inspired by an unplanned teen pregnancy that she was forced to hide, Slayton connected the “shaming of the fruit of the womb” (her words) with the pressing need for positive menstrual education for girls. In 1989 Slayton published Reclaiming the Menstrual Matrix, a Workbook for Evolving Feminine Wisdom. Here, she advances the idea of menstrual consciousness as a MATRIX (long before that term was applied to feminist thinking by sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, or the blockbuster sci-i action film trilogy by the same name) Here’s Slayton’s take:
With menarche you meet your wisdom, and with your monthly bleeding you practice your wisdom, and then at menopause you become the wisdom.
More on the radar is Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of the bestselling Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom
On her website she writes:
The menstrual cycle is the most basic, earthy cycle we have. Our blood is our connection to the archetypal feminine. The macrocosmic cycles of nature, the waxing and waning, the ebb and flow of the tides and the changes of the seasons, are reflected on a smaller scale in the menstrual cycle of the individual female body.
Some folks bristle at this kind of reframing. It is not for everyone. But it can and does resonate for some. The idea of tuning into the menstrual cycle, even to celebrate it with a ritual bath, journaling, or a few hours in the company of other women in a ne0-Red Tent, is a compelling idea.
What if we channeled our “tidy it up” or ‘turn it off” energies into seeing our cycles as creative, restorative and HONEST moments in our lives?
Really, what if?
That’s how Varda Polak-Sahm, writing in today’s Washington Post, describes her visit to the Mikveh in preparation for her second wedding. The Mikveh is the ritual purification bath Halakha, the Jewish law, requires of women after each menstrual cycle and prior to an Orthodox wedding ceremony.
According to Orthodox rabbinic law, immersion in the mayyim hayyim, or living waters, removes the impurity left by menstruation and transforms the woman’s status from contaminated to pure. This is an essential element of Jewish existence. Before a synagogue is built, Jewish communities install a Mikveh. Without purification, Orthodox men cannot even touch their wives. Thus, without purification in the Mikveh, there is no future for the Jewish people.
Polak-Sahm writes about her own changing understanding of the Mikveh in this brief essay, making her new book, The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh, sound like a worthwhile read for those of us interested in traditions and beliefs surrounding menstruation.
The Hasidic movement Chabad Lubavitch has opened the first mikvah, a ritual bath for spiritual purification, in Montana. Estimates are that there are fewer than 1000 Jews residing in Montana, but Chabad says this is the only contemporary mikvah in a vast area that includes Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Jewish law requires married women to immerse in the mikvah for ritual purity after menstruation and a period of abstaining from sex. Brides are expected to immerse before their weddings. The bath can also be used as purification as part of converting to Judaism.
Outside of the small Orthodox Jewish community, many American Jews had stopped using the mikvah, partly out of objections to its perspective on women. However, in recent years, more Jews have been rediscovering traditional practices, and the ritual bath has had a renaissance.
As a shiksa, I don’t care to open the debate about the mikvah’s perspectives on women, but simply to note the significance of this increased availability of means for women to practice menstrual ritual of their faith. (Those who are interested in the question of whether the mikvah is sexist may wish to read this article by Jancie Lochansky, which puts that question to Rivkah Slonim, author of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology.)