The Resurrection or YES to Vaginas*
Question: What happens when you try to scuba dive while wearing an adult diaper?
Answer: I’ll tell you all about it, but first you need to get schooled, and I’m not talking about fish.
I’m going to write about something that, according to my Southern-Culture taboos, I’m not supposed to. But, I figure, I didn’t make that rule and neither did any of my women friends so, maybe it’s time to open my big, Bowman mouth. It’s private and personal, yeah. But it’s also universal and natural. Something all female Homo sapiens the-world-over have had to reckon with if they’re lucky enough to live past middle age. (Dudes! My Brothers! Don’t you dare scroll down and skip this! Unless you’re solid-gold-gay or for some other reason never hope to have an intimate relationship with a woman over 45, THIS IS FOR YOU too. Plus, if you’re paying attention you may discover the number one thing all women want.) Now, I hear you pensively thinking, “Oh no - is she going to say ‘menopause’?” and hoping not because like old age and death we’d rather not be reminded of those eventualities. Well, hold onto your La-Z-Boy’s ‘cause I’m gonna talk not only about menopause (Get ready Spellcheck, it’s now WomenOpause!) but also about sex after it. Yeah, I know. Old-people sex! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
One of my go-to hikes when I’m back at No Pants Ranch (Don’t be alarmed . . . that’s another story.) and off the boat during hurricane season is Hugh Norris Trail in Saguaro National Park West. I often wake at 3 am with hot flashes (Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to scare you there with foreshadowing!) and make good use of those sleepless, still-dark-and-not-yet-sweltering, pre-dawn hours. The dark trail zig-zags me along the North-facing edge of a craggy canyon. It’s a climb generously sprinkled with foxes, tiger rattlesnakes, and giant Saguaro cactus. One of my favorite life forms along the steep path is one easily overlooked, at least until the wet-heavy remnants of one of those boat-threatening hurricanes pinwheels far enough inland to drench our slopes. Typically referred to as Resurrection Plants, when it’s hot and dry these Sonoran Desert Spike Mosses (Selaginella arizonica) are just curled-up, crusty, little, tan fists tucking themselves up protectively in crevices between rocks. As a giantess admiring a crowd of them from above they look like a justified mob raising angry fists to the dry sky for change. When their demands are met and those pregnant clouds arrive to deliver their life-giving moisture can you guess what happens?
What happens to those Desert Spike Mosses is what recently happened to me. Well, to my vagina and uterus to be specific. (Now, now . . . Remember, I warned you.) A couple years ago my body arrived back at the blood-red gates of fertility just as ignorant of my own internal nature as when I was a pig-tailed, kept-in-the-dark, thirteen-year-old girl who arrived at those same gates traveling in the opposite direction. And, I’m a biology teacher! I just expected to get a bit thicker around the middle, have some hot flashes, and cease having my monthly visits from “Aunt Flo”. After three decades of tampons, diaphragms, sponges, spermicide, the pill, and IUD’s (Um . . . rap lyrics, anybody?) I was looking forward to just being NATURAL inside. I was also looking forward to the end of my menstrual cycle for the shark protection. No, seriously. I live at sea and was thinking I’d be a bit less attractive to those of tooth and jaw when I snorkel. Well, it turns out that along with our loss of estrogen goes (to varying degrees for various women) our easeful female receptivity. “Female receptivity”? That’s polite code for: Our vaginas become not only much less self-lubricating but (again, to varying degrees) much less supple and pliable. Or, according to my seemingly cis-male-created Spellcheck, that should be “allowable” or “playable” or, wow, even “plow able”. I think you get the idea. (And if you’re thinking, “Jeez, Jo, just get some lube!” you along with all my younger women friends can just STFU, but don’t take that personally.)
After a few years of increasingly painful intercourse, and decreasing pleasure, I decided one year ago that I was done. Just done. That was fine with me. I was done reproducing after my child was born. My libido? – Well, maybe that’s the thing with feathers because it had surely flown the coop. All the “really fun bits” were external anyway, and finally (finally!) I was more motivated to spend my energies pursuing science, art and writing projects than men. A pursuit, I see now, that was mainly my insecure way of continually proving to myself that I am loveable. Really. I wasn’t sure I was worth loving. I’d had my shameless slut years and was ready to turn a new, older-wise-woman leaf, even if it was brown and spikey and curled up in a tiny, desiccated fist. That may sound awful to you but there was a BIG upside. That crustier state was stripping me of all my feminine cushioning and not just what little-bit-o-back I had. WomenOpause was stopping me in my tracks and giving me much needed pause. It was exposing my raw emotions, especially long buried anger. My culture taught me that girls aren’t supposed to get angry because it’s not pretty so I internalized it. But we need our full range of negative emotions, including anger, to wake us up to what's wrong. To wake us up to injustices in our lives and in the world around us so we can take action. The trick, I’m practicing, is to employ anger healthfully and skillfully, with grace and self-compassion, as opposed to ineffective rage. WomenOpause has been helping me actually know they self and start living authentically for a damn change. I’ve been harnessing the hidden power of womenOpause, y’all! I made a rap video and was even planning a special WomenOpause Ceremony, until . . . .
A snafu arose. I have a cis-male partner of the same age who I profoundly love and he wasn’t yet ready to let go of his attachment to my internal lady parts. If I’d known what was coming for me I may have sought out a female partner as I was turning 40 instead. But, now I really love the darn guy. I just reckoned we’d get creative and find new ways to share intimacy. After all, our male-dominant and dogmatic society has put vaginal sex between a man and a woman on a pedestal where perhaps it only belongs if you’re trying to make a baby from scratch (so to speak). We decided to take a break from it, you know “IT”, for a year to see how I felt. I needed a time-out from the association of love making with pain making and the clenching fear that comes with expecting it. I also needed to find out, once and for all, if I was really loveable and loved without pink-possession of that mythical Holy Grail. My culture had taught me (a mainly cis-female) that that was my main attraction, my reason for being loved. My reason for being loved. That same culture taught my cis-male partner that getting “it” was the only way to feel loved in return. I needed to sort out if I wanted to try hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in order to once again possibly have vaginal sex but just for my own damn self. If so would it be because I really wanted “it” or because our male-dominant society was making me think I needed or was supposed to want it. By literally swallowing man’s technology in pill form would I really just be force-feeding myself man’s projected desire to reckon with women only as long as we’re sexually available to them? I don’t think I’m alone in this inquiry, am I? Am I? (Dudes, my brothers, are you getting this?! Don’t let all the vagina talk distract you.) So, what happened?
The short story (because I know you’re eager to hear more about those Insurrection Pants [Um, make that Resurrection Plants but, goddess, sometimes I really love Spellcheck!]) . . . the short story is an experimental and sometimes frustrating year went by and surprise, surprise; I learned that I am indeed beloved even without a functioning vagina. (Whew!) And, even more to my amazement, once I was able to trust in THAT, I found my surprised-self unclenching her heart (we’ll see about legs) and ready to give HRT a try. A single-and-dating, childhood friend of mine told me she was still having romping-good sex because of HRT (And, no, fellas, you cannot have her number. I swear!). My sweet partner and I did some menopause research (granted, he had a vested interest) and Iearned that the big cancer-risk scare about HRT in the 90’s was really just another unfortunate example of poor science communication**. Tragic communication that likely resulted in the early and HRT-preventable, cardiovascular deaths of perhaps millions of womenOpausal women (including my mom and one older sister, both suddenly heart-attack-dead at 63). I was on the boat in Mexico at the time but the Estradiol suppository cream I needed to start the process of resurrecting my womb was available over the counter there. I stocked up between research sails, looked up the recommended dosage, and took the nightly plunge (or, what the heck, “plunger”).
To get a sense of what was about to happen with my post-reproductive system, let’s return to those Desert Spike Mosses. Also known as Lesser Club Mosses, these diminutive, miraculous plants can survive for years in their desiccated state and need only retain a tiny percentage of their living mass in order to revive with rains. They cling to moisture-retaining nooks and crannies and when post-rain-verdant they send out stems that creep along soil-covered slopes, occasionally growing as Earth’s thick fur on her shady shoulders like the one I frequent. Like algae, lichen, mosses and ferns, the bodies of these ancient vascular plants from the Carboniferous period (Thanks for the fossil fuels, y’all!) retain equilibrium with the level of moisture in the atmosphere. Compare that to most desert-adapted plants like cactus and succulents who store water in their modified stems. If it’s dry, Spike Mosses are dry. If it’s wet, Spike Mosses are juicy-plump. For Desert Spike Mosses, Rain = Love.
Selaginella arizonica’s response to moisture and aridity is almost immediate. If you want to see them green you better get your butt up the trail just one to two days after it rains or they’ll just be scratchy little balls (gosh, you are SO immature) again when you get there. I grabbed a palm-sized, grey-brown clump of them today to do an experiment. I placed them on a super-soaked paper towel and sprinkled them with water. By the time I found my magnifying glass the leaves were already greening at the tips. They seemed more animal than plant as I watched them uncurling from their armadillo-like, protective spirals. I’m watching them unfurl further now, checking them every few sentences. The leaves indeed feel spikey. They are scaly actually with serrated edges, maximizing surface area when unfurled and stacking up protectively when spiraling into tight spheres. The leaves, which look to me like the scratchy legs of some invertebrate sea creatures such as barnacles or shrimp seem designed to grab and hold every available water droplet. I swear, I just held the damp clump to my ear and I could hear a faint, fizzy sort of snap-crackle-crinkle. In the tropics where there’s plenty of humidity the Spike Moss species are actually epiphytes; not even needing roots to help pull in water. Here it seems our rooted species do both. In a desert you learn to drink all you can while you can in any way you can. Once they’re green, each cell’s chloroplasts get jazzy with excitation and photosynthesis begins immediately. The sugars they make fuel spore production, not flowers, fruits and seeds. There’s no time for that overtly sexy business.
Speaking of overtly sexy business: How about my year-long, dormant womb after I began to shower it with a monsoon of estrogen? It turns out that not only am I highly sensitive to uh – everyflippin’thing - including pain, but the dosing information I read must’ve been meant for our desert’s extinct giant ground sloth. Unbeknownst to me I was inserting a hero’s (no, make that a heroine’s!) dose of estradiol into my own desiccated garden every night and on the third night something impossible to ignore happened. As I was just about to drift off to gentle waves rocking me I felt it creeping up inside me. Mean little hands were snatching me back to those first 24 hours of labor before I began the work of pushing my child out of his first world. My uterus was twisting and squeezing. The pain was intense and I had nowhere to go but for a swim or mad. I decided to do some deep and slow yoga/meditation breaths to help me relax. Then I remembered that I suffer most when I’m resisting reality instead of groping with and investigating it with curiosity. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to actually focus on the specific sensations in my womb, instead of just naming it pain and trying to bear it. When I really paid curious attention most of what I felt was a fizzy, effervescent, sparky unfurling of my cells. My womb felt like a miniscule, electrified, fern garden that had been ignored and was now surging with wet energy. Granted, a nice gentle spring shower would have been preferred over the stalled, category-5-hurricane flooding that was taking place below my bellybutton. But, I made it through the night and have since (thanks to the amazing menopause gynecologists I found***) settled on a normal human-sized dosage combined with a patch and a progesterone pill.
So much for passing back through those faded-pink gates in a Natural state. But I wonder: What IS a natural state for my 53-year-old DNA and the cells who contain it? As Bill McKibben painfully pointed out decades ago****, really, there is no pure, untouched-by-human hands Nature left. We’ve altered pretty much everything. The next rain that falls here on my slope of dormant Spike Mosses and their jungle gym of Tardigrades and Mites will surely have a much more acidic PH level than is “natural”. The breast milk of the Humpback Whales who come to spy-hop us certainly contain high levels of petroleum-based plastics and heavy metals. Even the clouds forming overhead are often the misty transmogrifications of a passed jet plane’s contrails. How far do you have to drive and then walk to hear only birds, frogs, and insect wings rubbing together? How far do you need to swim to not hear boat motors? If you ask a Blue Whale that question they’ll say they’ve travelled the world’s seas and it is no longer not possible. So, why should my pink palimpsest of a resurrected womb be an exception? Surely it is not exempt and, though I don’t like it, I need to accept it.
As I go forward in this process I also need to remember that dry, curled up times aren't bad or unnatural in the desert, they're just the dry Yang to balance the wet Yin (that sounds really wrong) and so with our human fertile and non-fertile eras. WomenOpause, as well as our reaction to HRT treatment, is simply, and gloriously our animal cells’ natural response to the naturally-changing environmental conditions in our wombs. Whether you’re a yanked-up Spike Moss clump in a bowl of tap water or a woman with a womb soaked in lab-made hormones; it’s best to not cling to being any one way.
I will also need (and so will Paul) to accept that this unexpected revival of my own wild, spike-moss bower will end. One day it will again curl up protectively and finally take the permanent rest it deserves. Whether that’s my own choice that I make or one that my body’s cells make for me, it IS, like every loss that comes with the gift of life and love, certain. I’m grateful to those Desert Spike Mosses, and their more rejuvenation-experienced kinship. They guided me, with their prickly, green-fingered hands, through what could have been a terrifying night, helping me see through blind pain to recognize my own womb’s wild, effervescent unfurling. They are also a reminder, with every hike I take between rare and rarer rains, that in a desert we must soak up all we can of water and of each other. We are all naturally ephemeral. And no matter how we stand in relationship to those sanguine gates (spikey or supple or in a wild fluctuation of the two), we are all, we women, worthy of rain.
P.S. - My womb. My body. My choice. But. But. But, I wonder: How will my heart respond once my womb, soon fully bathed in HRT, is receptive again? Can I trust it to know if I truly want “it” again?
We shall see. Now, I bring you - Diving in a Diaper . . .
(Drum roll, please): Is it a good idea to scuba dive wearing an adult diaper? Well, that depends (ha ha ha!). Ok, seriously, here’s what happened. Sure, part of the womenOpause thing can be loss of bladder control, although I swear by my daily Kegels. The right way is: 5 seconds squeeze - 5 seconds relax. I do it anytime I’m kayaking which will now make any of you fellow sailors reading this snicker knowingly when you see me paddle by. The point is - I decided to try diving with an adult diaper because I’m tired of peeing in my wetsuit (although one’s own warm, golden shower on a cold dive can be briefly decadent). We were joined that eventful day by a friend and his spanking-new partner who was on her first ever dive. So, a nice and easy, low-risk, fairly shallow dive to conduct an experiment right? But even just down at 10 meters (30 feet) the atmospheric pressure of water builds to more than double than at the surface. Now, I knew that and expected some amount of squeeze, but I figured that as I peed the, as-advertised, “highly absorptive material” would just highly absorb my urine. But that’s not what happened. As soon as I “let loose” for science the material did absorb my pee but also all the available sea water. Then the lauded and loaded material immediately forced itself into every nook and cranny I had available and there were at least three! And then it all just seemed to grow, to continue to expand inside me! I had planned to model safe diving practices for our new diver and make a slow ascent with a lingering safety stop but, fuck that! I surfaced as fast as I dared, just letting my own air bubbles beat me to the surface. Paul, my dive buddy, popped up behind me knowing something was amiss and called out “What’s wrong?!” as he watched me fast-scramble out of my dive-tank-kit and fin-kick into the dingy. I swear, I think the stuff was STILL growing and moving further in! It was like being penetrated by a priapistic Stay Puff Marshmallow Man! ***** I think I managed to shout to him (meaning Paul - there was no Marshmallow Man there, people, jeez) something like, “Arrrgh Ahhhh Noooo Uuuuuuuugh” as I frantically began struggling out of my wetsuit in the dingy. Once I was down to just my inside-out wetsuit hanging onto just one leg that’s when our friend and his girlfriend surfaced. I was too preoccupied to notice their expressions but they were probably something like: 0 and o, respectively. I swear, the tension on the straps of that INvasive, growing, sponge-monster was so strong and the adhesive so sure that I could not quickly bandage-rip them off. I managed to locate my emergency dive knife and was trying, unsuccessfully in my “I’m trapped!” panic mode, to slide it between the straps and my hip flesh. That’s when my now-and-forever sister, my traveling-nurse heroine, my vulva savior, my labial 911, although on her first dive, managed to get out of her own dive gear and into the dingy first to help me. (Hmmm . . . perhaps the fellas were a bit afraid?) Before I managed to bloody myself she was there, setting me free and joining me in relieved laughter as I extracted the volumes and volumes and VOLUMES of liquid-laden fluff. It was like some weird clown car where my personal and private parts were the car and the “highly absorptive materials” were mushy, sadistic clowns. I’m sorry if that was TMI, but after this post, I think we’ve hit a whole new level in our writer-reader relationship.
* “Yes to vaginas!” spoken by Erin Sharkey, as encouragement for my writing of this piece during her informative, expansive, and inspiring Orion nature writer’s workshop. Thanks Erin and my fellow workshop participants for the courage you gave me. Keep on writing, y’all! This world needs our voices.
*** I highly recommend the excellent, on-line womenOpause-specialist gynecologists at MidiHealth.com . Conveniently virtual, it was a rare doctor visit in which I felt fully listened to and holistically considered as a whole human being with feelings and fears inseparable from the functioning of my vagina. My last regular gynecological visit (while I was in perimenopause and sex was changing) was a strong counter experience. When I brought up the topic of painful sex, the doctor seemed taken aback. As though my sex life had nothing to do with the state of my vagina and uterus. And worst of all, she never even brought up the possibility of HRT and its potential health and longevity benefits. At MidiHealth they’ve seen EVERYTHING. Trust me. You can hold up a fluorescent pink sex toy to the camera and their expressions do not change. At all.
**** Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, 1989
***** That’s a Ghostbusters reference for you kids!