I used to hate the days before my period, those days when I feel lonely and sad and awkward and anxious and overweight. I do still hate the overweight part but the rest of it... I actually learned to appreciate. There is hardly any other time during the month I am more sensitive, more vulnerable, more compassionate, more emotional. This in turn can easily shift to feelings of anger, aggression, and frustration. But it holds the powerful potential to make me open up to other people, their struggles, their pain, and to face my own pain and my own struggles instead of tucking them away into some hidden corner of my mind and body.
It is unfair to ascribe every female emotional upheaval to hormonal confusion. That only perpetuates the sexist image of women being emotional, irrational, soft, and, as a consequence, not to be taken serious. What if we don't have the energy (and will) to hold back our anger and pain pre-menstrually? What if the increased sensitivity and vulnerability allows us to tear down the barriers of how-I-should-be and how-I-am-supposed-to-behave? To access our real raw feelings, to embrace the emotions that lie behind our rationalizing minds? What if we get the chance to really express how we feel, to actually experience how we feel, and thus to open up dialogues with ourselves and the world about things that matter to us? There is the outrage about an unfriendly sales assistant (no one in this world likes me!), the agony over a spilled coffee (I don't have control over my life!), the fury when the partner does not behave the way we expect them to be (this is simply! not! working! out!). Of course there is that, and I think most women can laugh about these moments once the exhausting pre-menstrual phase is over. But then there is so much more.
Last weekend I was working a long shift at the restaurant here on my little island. We had a huge Christmas dinner party with a seven-meter long buffet loaded with traditional Swedish Christmas foods. There were like ten different kinds of herring, gigantic hams, piles of cheese, home baked bread, and pickled winter vegetables, there were vegetarian pies, pots full of potatoes, red cabbage, brussel sprouts, steaming bowls filled to the brim with meatballs, sausages and filéts, a dozen huge plates stuffed with all sorts of Nordic fish and meat delicacies, and then of course dessert, sugary christmassy candy to munch until your teeth and belly would hurt. The air was filled with the wonderful smells of the food that blended with the scent of candles, fir-boughs, glögg, and oranges to an irresistible Christmas aroma. People's happy faces were lit by the dim light emanated by countless candles and holiday lights that we had put up everywhere in the spacious dining hall, and the sound of them talking, laughing, and drinking mingled with the old Swedish Christmas tunes that softly lulled us even deeper into Christmas mood.
I had felt tired and on the verge of tears all day, so I was happy when everyone finally left. It was my job to clear the tables and get everything back into order and although I was exhausted, I felt grateful that I was able to finish the shift slowly and quietly, undisturbed and unobserved. While I was cleaning the tables, I got very very sad. I was alone in the dining hall, and suddenly felt forlorn and abandoned. The laughter and chatter of the guests was still reverberating faintly in the warm and heavy air and I imagined them on their way home, muffled up in their winter coats, walking arm-in-arm, tipsy from glögg and snaps and Christmas ale, merrily hurrying back through the cold windy darkness towards their cozy warm homes in the city. My eyes got watery.
I continued to pile up glasses into huge plastic dish trays, to pick up crumpled-up napkins and empty candy wrappers, to re-arrange chairs, wipe tables, and exchange red table cloths and candles. Soft christmassy jazz rippled from the speakers hanging beneath the ceiling; a woman was singing about yearning and home, which caused me to feel a stitch of bittersweet nostalgia for a time and place I'd never known, a sentimental longing for better, brighter times, unsure though whether they lay in the past or were yet to come. I thought of my family, so far away, and the fact that I very likely was never going to be able again to go out for a festive pre-christmas dinner with all of them. Because that's not what we do but mainly because we can count ourselves lucky if we manage to spend Christmas eve all together because we live far from each other and everyone has their own busy lives. I silently started to cry.
I thought of the fact that I had chosen the exile from a place that doesn't feel like home any longer, that I chose to live in a foreign land to feel less foreign, and to be close to the only person that makes me feel less lonely. That that person would leave me for the rest of the winter and way into the spring, all by myself on this cold remote island where the wind wouldn't cease howling, where people I hardly met spoke in a language I barely knew. I peered out of the window into the pitch-black December night and saw the lights of the city in the distance, way beyond the dark sea and the other small neighboring islands with their scattered lights that hardly managed to cut through the darkness. What used to be a calming and comforting view at other times, felt like a vast, insurmountable wasteland now. More tears.
I thought of the fact that I was a stranger, always had been and always would be, that that had been allotted to me as the burden of my life long before I was born. I thought of my mother in Korea and the connection to her that I had felt during my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago last year, a feeling that was so rare and precious and that had never been there again afterwards. For the one millionth time in my life I wondered if she was still thinking of me and what she would tell me if she ever got the chance to talk to me again. I think if I was an actress, this would be my cry-on-demand thought. If I let my mind wander to her, I will certainly start crying. I do now while I am writing this.
I thought of my grandmother who died this year and that I never had been able to be the grandchild she had wished me to be. We both were egoistic and stubborn and proud and now she is dead and I don't even know if I am sad about her being gone or about the fact that everyone dies and we never get the chance to make it up again. I thought of the man that I met years ago while I was living far away, between the dusty desert mountains and the turquoise sea, lonely and lost and desperate, he who had been there for me when I most needed it, who unknowingly taught me so much about love and freedom, and who died this year, suddenly, tragically, taking away the chance to ever see him again and thank him for what he had done, for whom he had been. I thought of all the people I knew who had died and that it might happen to any of us at any moment, so that we better start living our lives the way we want them to be, i.e. not waiting tables while actually wanting to make the world a better place.
At that point, I started to seriously feel sorry for myself while secretly enjoying the theatrical scenery. Here I was, a soon-to-be-middle-aged woman who had had such high ambitions and dreams and now was wiping the tables in a dimly-lit restaurant on a Friday night. I was not only disappointing myself, my family and my friends but also society who neither values nor supports people who choose to live differently. I wondered why my pretty and exotic face still feels like my only major capital - though I don't even find it pretty most of the time and it is only a matter of years before it will give space to middle-aged invisibility. I pondered what I had done wrong to still be serving food without a contract or any social security, while all of my old friends have interesting jobs and busy lives.
But then my thoughts shifted to more imminent problems and I started to think about this year's Christmas presents. Without noticing it, I had stopped crying and was only sniffing a little here and there. I felt better, lighter, relieved, even though all these issues and questions and anxieties were still in the back of my head, as they always are. In the short break between two Christmas tunes, I heard my colleague singing along full-throatedly to a song he was listening to in the other building where he was cleaning the kitchen. I took a full tray and carefully carried it over there, trying not to slip on the wet floor. He stopped his singing, put away the broom, and fished a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. Nonchalantly flipping one into his mouth, he looked at me and asked: "So are we gonna get drunk tonight?". I smiled and sniffed one last time.
The next day I woke up with a headache and the familiar tug in my lower abdomen. As every month I thanked my body and Mother Nature, and I also told my boyfriend that I want him to spend more time with me before he leaves, wrote down a Christmas present list, started to make plans for next year, did a drawing for my next blog post, made myself look extra-nice to compensate my period-uncomfortableness, and went back to the next Christmas dinner at work.