Pads, T*mp*ns, and Giggles

The title of this post is explicit, because if you are a boy reading you may decide to skip the post.  On the other hand, if you are a boy you may want to know more about a relatively hidden aspect of girls’ lives particularly in India.

Nine o’clock last night, as I was at my computer, three girls tip-toed into the room.  The oldest one was whispering "pad" but I didn’t get it.  I kept asking.  Then I said, "Ah, drawing books!" and I pointed to where the newly purchased books were still piled on the couch.  They all giggled.  More, "Pad, pad…" and I got it and said, "Oh PADS????" and pointed downwards.  I’d been thrown off because only one of the girls gets her "mens" as they seem to say here, and she is usually so shy and secretive about it I didn’t know that the others knew.  Well, nine at night, bedtime for them, and she was out of pads…..

I try to keep a few hidden for such emergencies.  A recent visitor had left behind for us all of her unused toiletries.  They were still in the clear plastic bag she had left.  We went to the cabinet, and by now probably most of the girls were crowded around.  I found four.  I asked again whether they younger ones knew anything about this.  I’m really surprised that they don’t.  They have each seen more than their share of naked bodies, and what they do, but menstruation is so hidden they had no idea.  So, in English, with their now knowing a bit of translation — like blood — I tried to tell them about menstruation.  It was comedy hour as they were truly incredulous!  When i said something about babies inside, and the blood helping babies grow, they were even more incredulous

They noticed more in the bag, three boxes of o.b. tampons.  "Ma, What is this?"  "Oh BaBa!!!!" I said.  The only translation I can think of is "Oy Vey" from my Yiddish speaking grandmother.  "Oh BaBa" is said while hitting my forehead for emphasis — which alone can bring giggles.  So I took out a tampon — and unwrapped it.  It’s really funny looking, or rather bullet looking out of context.  I guessed at the next set of giggles when i tried to show were it goes!  Then we tip-toed into the kitchen, drawing the curtains… appropriate to the conspiratorial nature of our new adventure, and put it in a bowl of water… showing how it expands with water (would -be blood), and the string for pulling it out. The girls weren’t sure about all this at all.  We stealthily went back to the cabinet, and put the bag back….  tampons… for another time.

End of story? No.  Stories I tell, stories I live, have a way of recycling, or of being recycled.  More vignettes…

Johnson & Johnson makes the o.b. tampon, as well as other brands of pads.  Part of my responsibilities as Worldwide Director of Medical Affairs was in the safety of these products, and the consumer and professional education related to "sanitary products."  I actually wrote the tampon safety warnings that became the industry standard worldwide.  I funded research related to safety; I organized international meetings.  I presented this industry position at European Union meetings in Brussels.

But o.b. tampons have their own special story.  They were developed in post war Germany by industrialists who were no longer permitted by law to manufacture munitions or cigarettes.  Having seen an ad in an American magazine for a Tampax tampon, they went about designing one that could be made with the combined machinery of munitions and cigarettes.  Thus the German tampon is made from cotton pressed into a bullet form, and wrapped with a thin covering with the cigarette machinery.  This is probably more than anyone ever wanted to know about tampons.  Of course, the marketing of the o.b. did not say all this.  Instead the young woman doctor, and soon-to-be wife of the industrialist was credited with being the designer, thus the campaign, "Designed by a woman gynecologist."    Ten years ago or so I was talking about tampons at a meeting of the European Commission.  Last night I was unwrapping a tampon to the giggles of my orphan girls.  This is the life I want, the life I missed.  In that life I always felt something was missing.  In this life I have what was missing, and my life is full and blessed, and full of giggles.

Oases and Mirages

Another haiku:

The beaten believe

Oases are mirages.

They build their cocoons.

I gave this one to the English/Bengali teacher this morning.  She talked about it with the children, explained the words — an exercise of many meanings…

I look for ways to tell the girls I understand them, difficult at times without a shared language.  I also look for ways for the teachers to understand their behaviors, their mistrust, their defiance at times.  And I look for answers as to why we do not beat them, when it seems to some that a good beating would change behavior.  The haiku, the use of literature is also an exercise in shifting from the concrete to the abstract, from the literal cocoon, to ways they protect themselves.

Cocoons are easy for them to understand as we visited Science City last week and saw a house full of cocoons.  Oases are easy for them to understand as we have been watching Ten Commandments, and they saw the oasis in the desert.   Mirages — there is actually a Bengali word which I’ve forgotten, but it was described to me as when you think you see the sea before you and you run towards it, and it isn ‘t there. 

I’m told the girls really enjoyed trying to understand the haiku.  Two of the girls who often are in trouble took note, and did not try to doze through the class, as they sometimes do.  We try and try, and give them time, time in a place where they are not beaten, literally or figuratively.  We all work very hard psychologically.  They are at work constantly trying to find "evidence" that we will betray them; they challenge us to beat them; they relax, have fun, go on guard again.   — For our part, we work hard too, because to be honest, our agenda is to change them — to change the direction in which their lives were going.  And we want them to want to change!  We want bad language to stop, fighting to stop, moodiness to stop — harps and bulldozers, Heaven and Earth.  It is our dance, and we hope that love will help, ours and theirs.

Move Heaven and Earth

I really wish I could blog more, mostly because I think about what I want to write, and then the time disappears.  I feel like I’m living in the midst of a miracle.  I look at the house full of children, and think about the empty broken down place we bought almost two years ago.  I look at the kids, and think about what their lives were like before they came to us.  I look at all the people here, teaching, taking care of kids, cooking, cleaning — all this life and energy that didn’t exist here before.  And I look at my life now, so full — my life that seemed so empty just a few years ago.

It is not a sacrifice for me to be here.  I have created what I needed too.  This is my home now, filled with all these children, and all this life.  Just a few years ago I had a beautiful house in New Jersey, but it was empty.  My kids were out of the nest.  We talked on the phone; they came to stay sometimes, but their lives were elsewhere.  And, my husband had left me for another woman’s nest.  I kept looking at the New Jersey house, wanting it filled with children I was already sponsoring in schools in Kolkata.  I had to face that they were not coming to New Jersey, so it was pointless to hold onto the house.  And they were not orphans.  They had families, ones I was helping also, but no one was coming to fill my house. 

I sold the house and moved to a rented apartment… a first downsizing — thinking I would be back and forth.  But in that next year, I spent more time in India than in New York.  And when I was in New York, I led a fairly solitary life.  I walked my dog (whom I truly loved, and still love) in Central Park; I saw my kids when they were free; I walked along Broadway noticing babies and old people — the baby nannies, and the old people nannies, strangers called in to take old ladies and old men for walks, help them buy groceries, be their companions.  The babies and old people were white; the nannies were brown, off-white, Hispanic, Asian – paid companions, caretakers, pretending this wasn’t "just a job."    In India I felt relevant, needed, contemporary.  In the US I felt more related to who I was in the past, but not in the present.  My life lacked the kind of meaning that had always sustained me.   At seventeen I’d written a school essay about being touched by the plight of Korean orphans.. work undone on my to do list.

I’ve written here before about hearing the voices of the girls calling to me from a dumpster, calling for me to free them.  I think now that was also a call, a voice, to free myself.

I did a lot of writing in that time, the poetry and haiku that continue to define my life, here too.

One haiku..

The invitation

Offered a new assignment,

Move Heaven and Earth.

That sounds a bit like opening an orphanage in Kolkata, moving Heaven and Earth. 


RSVP:  Accepted

Blessed and lonely, with an injured thumb

This is how it is, existential and mundane.  The mundane is that I cut off the tip of my thumb cutting vegetables — just too much commotion in the kitchen as I was demonstrating use of a "mandolin" cutter that my daughter and son-in-law brought, and it slipped.  The relevance is that my typing is slow and awkward and if i try to hit "n" i get the space bar and have to go back.

We are bothered by the big and little simultaneously.  I’m distracted trying to avoid m and n.

I am blessed and lonely, at the same time.  I am blessed because I lead the life I want, taking care of the children, building, learning, creating this home.  I am blessed because when I heard them calling to me two years ago as I walked down Broadway in Manhattan, I was able to come her, to move from the thought, the call, to the creation of this family-like group.  Even in my most lonely moments I do not want to leave here.  I just wish the distance was less.

What do I miss?  Well, first of all, I have to explain that loneliness is not new to me.  I don’t make or keep friends easily.  I am in my head a lot of the time.  And I’m "different" in ways that seem to separate me from others.  This probably is also why I could do this. I’m not very social.  I prefer time alone to write, take pictures, muse… These are not social activities.  So some of the loneliness is just part of being me… But the major difference is that I miss my kids terribly.  I miss just hanging out with them.  We talk frequently, by phone and by internet, but it’s not the same.  I want a hug!  I want to give a mommy-hug.

I  miss my aunt, the relative I am closest to.  We talk on the phone too, but it’s not the same.  If she were younger she would come to visit.  She loves to hear about the children.  I send her prints through Snapfish.  I miss visiting her, talking, playing with Lily, her beloved cat… I miss knowing her life better, as she has moved since I came here — a new place with new people, as well as the old.  She has friends from her childhood — she is good at keeping people close.

I miss the freedom of life in the US.  I miss walking, long walks, streets, parks… browsing in bookstores.  I guess I miss the places I went while I was also feeling lonely.  Here, I miss that, but I have the ‘blessed" part and if I start to feel bad, I go and play with the little kids.  Rani is always happy to wave her hands as I sing to her, or dance.  Sonali, blind, loves to be held as I whirl around.  And of course Bornali and Ganga, our "Art-Medalists" love to be talked to.  Or, I go upstairs to the classroom, and sit in… which makes kids and teachers happy.

Then there is the other part of mundane… trying to keep order in my workspace… but I usually write instead…


Here I am, writing instead of making order… in the area you don’t see.  But Ganga wanted to stay with me, and I couldn’t straighten up with her on my lap.  But those few pieces of paper on the table are still there (here) as I don’t know where to put them. And in fairness to myself, this IS the office, an area of about 5X10 ft of a room 12X10, where the kids also hang out, and I could send them away but I don’t because I love having them here, underfoot.  This is my life — blessed and lonely, a sore thumb, and children underfoot.  My life is very very good.


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February 2008
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