Memoir Writing Reflections #1: The Brain is a Marvel

by: Giselle General

This year, on top of everything else my husband and I drastically changed, I added one more to the list. I finally started working of my first memoir, my first full-length written work. The initial plan was to publish something right around my 30th birthday last year. That got derailed by two major things: COVID and running for public office during a pandemic.

This is to account my initial reflections on this journey and observing my mind, both how it works when it comes to motivation and getting organized, and from a mental health standpoint as far as memories and triggers.

I had to check my email history and digital calendar to confirm the timeline. When you don’t have a full time job, the pace of time feels so strangely elastic and oddly compact, depending on the time of day. In early September, I took a chance and applied for the Horizon’s Writing Circle, a writer mentorship program. I recall being so nervous outlining my bio as an artist, feeling like a fraud. I suppose I had a few essays and got paid for it. I’ve been blogging for a decade and been an ethnic paper columnist for five years. But will it be enough to deserve undivided attention from someone who actually published multiple books?

I applied for the program in early September and in early October I got the confirmation that I got in the program. How exciting! I arranged a meeting with the author mentor in mid-October. Just like the other mentorship programs I participated in, I had a very clear goal in mind and I needed their advice to make it successful. When I outlined my goal, the summary of the memoir and the tangible deliverable, my mentor was excited. But it didn’t hit home for me until I hear her utter the words “Yes, I’m very positive that by the end of our mentorship period, you will have a first manuscript.” That felt so real, so tangible. It’s remarkable.

This is a precious time and opportunity, I have to everything I can to make the most of it.

This sparked a flurry of motivation in my mind and my heart. I made an outline of all the different chapters and themes of my life using blank MS Word documents. In a few minutes I had 40 blank chapters. Whenever inspiration strikes as the cliche goes, I would open a file and either type the entire story right there, or write short phrases of the smaller stories to write about. As of right now, I’ve been doing this for just two months, and I’m halfway through, over 20 chapters that looked decent enough to be scrutinized. Done is better than perfect, I tell myself over and over. It frankly didn’t feel like much, but when I say to people out loud, their reactions remind me that 20 chapters in less than 60 days is noteworthy.

Some days when I write, my brain somehow forgets to tell my body to breathe. After the keyboard clatters for a few minutes as I tell a heartbreaking experience, I’d suddenly gasp for air. Only then do I clearly look at the words on the screen, and tears would roll down my face. I thought that being triggered would be more melodramatic and fiery than this. I guess I was wrong.

In early December I had a dream that I wasn’t happy about. In my dream, somehow my father became alive in my current life as an adult for just one day. I was frantically giving him a tour around my home and around Edmonton, filling him in on what he missed for the past 23 years. The day doesn’t end, I don’t know what rudely woke me up into reality. I laid in bed, my eyes angrily boring holes in the ceiling as the tears silently fell. I know that this is from my consciously digging up memories and putting them on paper, or in this case, the computer screen.

Damn it, brain! Why do you have to do this to me? This wore me out mentally more than the other times I got emotional while writing. I spent the next week not writing anything new, just updating the grammar of the earlier chapters I wrote.

While dedicating time and energy to write, I had to juggle other priorities as well. There’s truth to the saying looking for a job is a full-time job. Taking the time to diligently search for opportunities that fit my experience level and salary range and writing a thoughtful application, that takes effort and a mental toll. I try to switch it up during weekdays, a few hours on job searching, an hour or two on writing, then some time for chores and volunteering.

This is how I remind myself that being unemployed doesn’t mean I’m useless. That I’m still improving my skills, using the ones I have, and making a positive impact around me in different ways. Sometimes it looks like the homecooked meal I made and a clean kitchen sink. It can look like being present at a board meeting and being efficient in all the items we discussed. It can look like a piece of artwork I finished for the home and two memoir chapters done in a single day.

Activities not related to writing or career help me stay grounded and balanced. My husband actively finds video games that a very beginner-level person like me can handle, and he is very kind and diligent when we do levels together where he had to do about 70% of the work. It’s pretty sweet of him. Whenever he plays video games that he streams to his audience online, I hear him talk about me and share fun updates about ‘the wife’. I sometimes chime in on conversations and his audience seem to enjoy it. Our group of friends have organized a weekly movie night, just like what they did regularly a decade ago. My friend asked for my help with pet-sitting and it’s quite fun being a dog and cat auntie. It’s actually nice having a cat on your lap being cozy while reading one of the books my mentor author lent me about writing techniques.

My suicidal ideation has never left my mind, but I am able to keep it at bay for the most part. It’s not by feeling more optimistic about the world – there’s too much obvious evidence that people and systems are harmful and selfish and problematic. It’s by keeping a little bit of hope that what I do matters to a small extent and it affects people positively, whether it’s just myself, my immediate love ones, or those who gets affected by any of my community service work. And that’s enough for now.

Like Father, Like Daughter: We Both Have Metal Dentures!

As an attempt to convince his kids to take dental health seriously, I remembered my father, when I was a kid, basically telling us “don’t be like me!” He had metal dentures for the top of his teeth, and he during one of these conversations, he would take them out of his mouth and show them for us to have a closer look. I don’t recall any other details about what happened to his teeth that he ended up losing a few of his adult teeth and him needing to have dentures. He was too focused driving down his stern advice: don’t eat too much sweets and brush your teeth every night, or else you’ll lose your permanent teeth and that would be bad.

I knew he meant well, but back then there’s an issue as far as people’s perception of dental care in the Philippines. Since dental care is something you pay out of pocket, when you don’t have the means, so-called preventative care and checkups are out of the question. You would go only when there’s a toothache that is so unbearable pain or only to pull out rotting teeth.

In 1999, shortly before my family got into the fatal vehicle accident, I vaguely remember my sister telling me that she went to the community dentist on her own for the first time. That she was nervous and also proud that she went. At the time, both she and I are starting to see many of our adult teeth forming.

And when the accident happened, well, medical check-ups of any kind went out the window. Asking for permission, and for money, for medical and health related reasons was tough. My grandma would mock me and scornfully ask “did your father’s side relatives make you ask? If they want so badly to do things like dentist checkups form you, maybe you and your brother should move and live with them instead!”

2007 was a chaotic year for many reasons but January was pretty rough. After coming back from New Year’s vacation from the father’s side relatives, I asked the mother’s side relatives, who I live with, if some of the suvivor’s pension money can go towards a dental checkup. This infuriated my uncle and grandmother and my brother and I got punished severely. That’s all I have to say about that for now.

It was soon very obvious that two of my froth teeth were really rotting. Since dental care is cheaper in the Philippines, they were extracted and I got my new dentures less than a month before my flight to Canada on August 2007.

During university I managed to get a few check ups and fillings done for my teeth because I managed to stack my benefits. I learned that my benefits from working retail at Future Shop which covered 50% of basic procedures, plus the 50% covered from being a university student, completely took care of the cost. Perfect for a broke university student!

When I visited the Philippines in 2013 with my then-boyfriend, since I knew dental work is still cheaper and I was unemployed, I got a replacement for my dentures. I was sold to the fact that the one with a metal plating will be more sturdy than the plastic one. I was pretty irritable for a good chunk of the trip for other reasons so it was a stressful experience. The metal base had to be adjusted a few times so it stops cutting through my gums, but it was all good ever since.

After I got used to my metal plated dentures, that’s when I remembered that my father had a metal plated one as well! I whispered a little prayer then, apologizing that unfortunately I didn’t manage to keep all my adult teeth. From then on, my dental care routine has improved dramatically. I told myself, I’m the adult now and I can take the reins moving forward and take care of the teeth I have left.

When we moved to the neighbourhood my husband grew up in, he convinced me to go to his dental clinic so that we have the same dentist. Remarkably, my husband only had one dentist for his entire life, since he was a child! When Dr. Chin retires, I bet it will be quite an adjustment for him. Maybe my husband can reach 40 years old first before that happens?

The first major dental surgery I had was 2015, when I had ALL my four wisdow teeth pulled out at the same time. The bottom two are impacted, meaning they are not coming out properly and are kinda stuck, causing pain, risk of mis-aligning the rest of my teeth, and potential infection from hard to reach areas that I’m not able to clean properly. Again, huge thanks for work benefits covering the cost of all that.

These days, I go to the dentist at least once a year for a full checkup and cleaning. Even after we moved from my husband’s neighbourhood to a different location, we continue to go to the clinic of his childhood dentist. It’s funny that I seem to be more diligent with booking my appointment that he was. When I sit on the patient’s chair and the dental hygenist gets started with their work, I have to remind myself to ask “oh! I have dentures, should I take them out now?”. Then they would put it away neatly wrapped in tissue and inside a paper cup.

Every appointment I would ask my dentist to check on my dentures. At this point, I would have this metal one for almost a decade now. Whenever I ask, how are they looking? Are they falling apart? Should I get them changed? So far, the dentist keeps saying that the dentures are still in good shape and for as long as they are comfortable I can keep using them.

Maybe in the future, when I am in a position to have a positive impression on a child, let’s say being an aunt or grandma, maybe I can do the same technique as my father did. Maybe I can pull out the dentures, grin widely to show the missing teeth, and say “this is what happens when you don’t take care of your teeth. Do you best to care for them and brush them always!” While I wasn’t able to fully follow my father’s advice, those were due to childhood circumstances outside of my control. Maybe when I give the strict cautionary tale, with the support of the adults in their lives, the kids these days will be able to follow through.

The Last Birthday Gift I got from My Parents

Closeup of a child wearing pink pyjamas holding a yellow birthday gift box.

By: Giselle General

It was May 1999, and my family is planning for another set of birthday celebrations. As my brother and I are born on the same month, and less than two weeks apart, the family is not very keen on having two large-scale parties so close to each other. In our small village in Philex Mines in the Philippines, birthday parties usually consist of inviting dozens of neighbours and their entire families, the adults and the kids. So it is a big affair.

My sister is a year and a half older than me and a bit taller. Her love of sports made her pretty fit and athletic. Also being the oldest, I imagine that even then, my parents were already either asking her help for more mature things, or she started being privy to information that wasn’t passed on to me or my brother.

My parent’s closet in their bedroom has four shelves. The top shelf was too high that I cannot reach it. Even climbing on top of the first shelf to boost me up wasn’t enough. I’m unable to cling onto the edge of the top shelf, let alone stick my arm further to search for whatever is inside.

Like most siblings, my sister loves teasing me. Well, it’s more of a back and forth really. She loves to give me jump scares, hiding on a hallway or behind the door and as soon as I walk by, she would jump and startle me. I tease her about being afraid of the dark, that whenever the electricity shuts down and it’s pitch black, she’d shriek and grab my arm for dear life.

It looked like she knew ahead of time what our parents bought me for my birthday. She said that as a surprise, our parents tucked it at the very far back of the top shelf of their closet. I thought, darn it, they are smart!

Their bedroom is not always open so I knew I had to be swift if I wanted to find out what it was. Apparently it was already gift wrapped so it should be easy to spot. But try as I might, I still haven’t grown tall enough to climb up and reach.

Then a week before the birthday celebration, my sister said that she’s positive that I will like the gift they got for me. But apparently, our parents moved it to a different cabinet. Disappointed, I stopped searching around altogether. The birthday party is just a few days anyway.

Then it was the day of the party! It was pretty fun as always, with our neighbourhood friends – both kids and parents – enjoying the treats and the balloons and just getting together. It was my turn to blow the candle for my cake, a green and white pandan-flavoured cake like I requested. Then it was my brother’s turn. Since he is still pretty little as it is his fourth birthday, my mother held him as he tried to lean on the cake to blow his candle.

And then finally I got my gift! It was a skipping rope (back then we call them Jumping Rope) and I was indeed delighted! My sister sheepishly told me that actually, our parents didn’t move the gift away from the cabinet. She just thought saying that will make me stop snooping around and ruin my own surprise.

That skipping rope was well used and well loved over the next few months. In our house it is the only one we have that is factory made, with the fancy colorful rope and plastic handles. My sister, her best friend, and I would spend afternoons trying to beat each other’s records for the most amount of jumps in a row. Sometimes they would show off by skipping barefoot. That never appealed to me – I had to wear flip flops at least.

And then a few months later, the accident happened, the one that killed my sister and both of our parents. Since I had a fractured skull, I was prohibited from doing any physical activities. I never saw that skipping rope ever again. I was also stopped from returning to the community Martial Arts class our parents registered us for.

I thought about it for a while as an adult. For some reason I’ve felt reluctant to get myself another one. Perhaps in my mind, it seems like it’s something only for little children. Despite seeing ads and videos of people doing skip rope in professional gyms, it didn’t resonate with me.

Four skipping ropes and two small hand weights on a gym floor

But all that changed this summer, right after I resigned from my job. I finally bought myself one, one of those sleek, athletic looking ones from the gym equipment section of the store. To my relief and delight, the rope is adjustable. I have the height of a 10 year old child so I was a bit worried it would be too long and awkward for me.

The first time I tried it again it was awkward. Since about six years ago I started suffering from plantars fasciitis and I had to be more careful when my feet land! I had to make a dozen attempts to get the rhythm right as well. After a few days, skipping rope felt comfortable and delightful again! A goal for my summer being unemployed is to recapture how life was like when I was a kid, to have a leisurely summer again. With the other activities I did, plus the skipping rope, that goal was achieved!

The Latest Sexual Assault Nightmare

Close up of a person's eyes looking afraid

By: Giselle General

Trigger warning: Trauma flashbacks, nightmares, violent sexual assault

I’m sharing this in time for Sexual Violence Awareness Month, which is in May. If you have experienced sexual violence, there is help. This is just one of the many amazing organizations that can provide support and healing. https://www.sace.ca/

On Easter Sunday, my husband and I decided to go to bed like it’s a regular Sunday. He is working the next day while I have the day off.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I had a horrific nightmare. Having nightmares related to sexual assault is not new to me, I’ve had them on and off for a few years. But this was such an expected curveball.

I was captured, together with other people, in what looked like a room in a building located in the mining village where I grew up. There were no other clues or signs that indicated where I was, just the people I was with. I was with N (a childhood classmate), his mother C and a few people whose faces I can’t figure out.

Our captors look like soldiers, and they were rounding up the people they have captured. I don’t hear any sounds from the others, because I was paralyzed in horror as I realized what they were doing to the younger women like me. The soldiers were taking turns raping them.

And then, came my turn. My vantage point shifted from what was happening around me to just seeing how my face, my eyes looked like. I can’t tell who or how many men were violating my body. I can’t tell where it hurts, what body parts or tools were they using. Did they have a gun pointed at my head? Were they yanking my hair so they can access my mouth? Am I getting struck by sticks, ropes, or knives? Was the pounding in my vagina or anus so rough my body shook uncontrollably? I don’t know, I couldn’t tell.

From my vantage point, I see just my head, sometimes bouncing and shifting in direction, likely because someone or something was ramming inside me. Am I lying down, am I tied up, am I sitting up, am I being straddled, carried or thrown around? I can’t tell.

Everything around her face – my face – was fading away. And my eyes – her eyes – came to focus. And I know that look. The flash of horror from knowing what is about to happen, then the silent scream of taking in all the pain happening all around my body inside and out, and how much being violated is ripping my soul. And then, the resignation and escape, when the brown of my eyes lost sparkle and life, still wide open but fading into dullness and numbness. My head bounces more roughly, the invasion getting frantic. My mind trying to tell me “he’s almost done, it’ll be over soon”.

The next thing I know, I’m thrown into the ground, my body naked, grime and mud on my arms, legs and knees, my belly feeling hollow and raw. I lay them stunned for a few minutes, and then I tried to crawl on my hands and knees, forcing myself to sit up. As I painfully manage to do so, I look down between my legs. There’s a pool of blood on the dirty floor, slowly growing in size.

I frantically crawled to the end of the room, where my fellow captives were. I locked eyes with N, who was sitting beside his mother. As I get closer to them, C had a good look at my battered, broken body and my lifeless eyes. She then pulled my in her lap, the way a mother would for her child. I scrambled to touch the blood still coming out from between my legs and weakly asked “I’m not that broken, am I?” She said “no you’re not!” and pulled me closer, as if giving me permission to seek refuge in her arms. I crawled closer to her lap, and wept.

Silhouette of three Soldiers Walking

And that’s when I woke up, shaking, crying and breathing hysterically. It shook the bed so much that it woke my husband, who swiftly took me in his arms. This is nothing new to him, although I can tell for sure, the first time in at least a few years.

What’s even more messed up is that it’s not the sexual assault that distressed me so much to wake me up. It was when a motherly figure, one that I don’t have anymore, tried to give support and comfort. The reminder of what I don’t know, of what I will never have again, is what hurt more, enough to shake me awake.

It wasn’t until the morning when I was about to prepare for lunch, alone in the house, that I realized that it has been fifteen years since the sexual assault incidences that happened to me took place. It felt like so long ago, but at the same time, it doesn’t.

Another realization that made me pause is the gruesome scene that came in my dream. The sexual abuse I experienced was with a known person, and involved more blackmail and quiet threats. No tools, weapons, or violent physical injuries occurred. I think that subconsciously, the knowledge that rape and sexual abuse are common tactics in war came up on the surface that night.

During that week I had a surprise. Turns out, my next therapy appointment is for that upcoming Sunday. It was a relief knowing that I’ll have my phone call in just six days instead of thirteen. Telephone therapy went well overall, and this was the last thing I brought up. He confirmed something he had said in the past, the reality of how trauma works. Triggers can be unexpected and can pop up anytime, and it will affect me in varying degrees for the rest of my life. Hearing this a few times in the past, it feels more reassuring every time. Because it means I’m not flawed or weak or bad for having reactions to these again.

But with all that said, I’ll be glad if it is five years or more before I get a horrific nightmare of this sort!

My “Turning Red” Story: When I Got My First Period

Scene from Disney Pixar Movie "Turning Red". Mei, as a red panda, looks at her reflection in her home's bathroom mirror.

In honour of the soon-to-end International Women’s Month, and in appreciation of the recent Disney Pixar movie Turning Red, I’d like to share the memorable and also a bit scary experience I had when I got my first period.

By the way, I got mine when I was in Grade 5, at 10 years old. So for those who argue that getting periods is not a topic for children, this is something that kids experience all the time!

As a storekeeper of a sari-sari store, I’m familiar with menstrual projects, which we nickname “napkins” in the Philippines. I noticed though that when kids come to our store to buy them, they always asked that it be wrapped in newspaper, or in an opaque plastic bag that conceals what is inside. When I ran out of newspaper, I’d use the cardboard from a 10-pack of cigarettes, or a bag from a wholesale pack of candy or bubble gum – those things are thick and brightly colored. During the movie, when Mei’s mother was putting different types of pads on the bathroom counter while describing them “regular, overnight, scented, wings…” it make me chuckle.

Just like most of my weekends, I was left alone watching over our little store in the mining village where I used to live at the time. Grandma (Lola Aleg) left for the day, to go to the city to get products for the store. Or is it for a while weekend or week? She’s gone so often I can’t keep track.

It was early in the weekend, when my mischievous self was tempted to sneak a chip bag from the store inventory as a snack for myself. It was 10 AM so the electricity for the whole village was shut off for a few hours already, an austerity measure that the mining company introduced a year ago. If I needed to go to the bathroom which is in the basement of our little store, I have to very carefully head down the ladder and do my business in a tiny room that is almost pitch black.

I went to the bathroom and in the faint light coming from the window, I saw something very wrong in my panties. I thought to myself, OMG! I can’t believed I pooped my pants without even knowing! This is what I get from sneaking too many snacks from the store display. It was sticky and brown, but surprisingly not as smelly as poop normally would. I hurriedly changed into clean underwear, fumbling in the dark where my underwear bag would be, worried that a customer would be calling from the storefront upstairs.

Then 4 PM comes around and electricity is back in the village. I went to the bathroom again to checked if there’s anything unusual in my underwear. This time around, there’s no mistaking it. It’s liquid, it’s sticky, it’s red – it’s a period! I hurried to try to wash both panties with water and bath soap, as I didn’t know how to clean blood off of fabric then. We learned that later in the school year.

I honestly can’t remember whether I told my grandma that weekend or sometime later. It wasn’t until six months later that I had my second menstrual cycle. This I wasn’t surprised about, as we learned about this in health class earlier in the school year. We also had a school assembly shortly before my first period, from one of the multinational companies that sell household items, including menstrual products.

What I do remember thought is that once I started having acne, lola told me many times on how I missed out on one of the most effective ways to combat acne. She said, I could have used the underwear when I had my first period, lightly wash off the blood but not completely clean if off with laundry soap, and with the part of the panty that had some light menstruation blood residue, to dab it off my face where pimples are popping up. The things was, she said, is that it needed to be from my first menstrual cycle. Looking back now, it sounds kinda nasty, but I understand that she grew up in a rural area in the 1930’s – 50’s. My brother and I weren’t spared from other old-fashioned methods to address various illnesses growing up.

Thinking back now, there were so many things that I wish I learned about how menstruation works. Dealing with cramps every month was a common experience, but I learned later on about how it can be debilitating for other people – as in blacking out or being nauseated in pain. I wished I learned earlier on how having sexual intercourse works during someone’s menstrual cycle. Turns out, it is messy, but doable and pretty satisfying – as long as you and your partner have prepared to clean up afterwards. I wished I got adequate information when I was exploring birth control methods, so I can better differentiate what is “expected spotting”, “usual menstrual cycle discharge” or “excessive bleeding” when I adjusted to having an IUD implanted in my uterus. It took one year for my frequent bleeding to stop and I’ve had an IUD in me for 11 years, that I might have a learning curve on how to put on pads again. Maybe I’ll just skip those altogether and go with a Diva Cup or those fancy new period panties.

Compared to years past, I think that available information about puberty life and other life milestones is getting better now, thanks to access to online information, being referenced in mainstream media, and professional content creators. I hope that for kids, teens and their families, that such experiences are something that is anticipated and informed about ahead of time.

The Life-Changing Impact of School Choirs in My Life

By: Giselle General

Humans of New York is a Facebook page I have been following for the past decade, with is compelling and artful way of capturing people’s portraits and their stories of the subjects, usually narrated from their perspective. A series of posts not too long ago talks about a subject that was dear to me, children’s and youth choirs. It was a story of the founder of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.

Music, particularly singing in groups, was a regular part of my own life starting in elementary school. I would say it is my first ongoing experience as a child learning how it’s like to contribute something to a collective whole. Usually the settings are religious, where students from every grade level take turns being the main choir for the monthly Catholic mass at school. I learned then the phrase “singing is twice praying” which I find compelling to this day, even if I don’t regularly go to church. There is something deeper, spiritual, and elemental about music, and even more so for me, when the sounds come from my own body, my own breath, my own vocal chords.

I continued this musical journey through the Catholic Youth Ministry student group in my first two years of high school, still in the village where I grew up. By then, it has been three years since my parents and sister died, and I’m very well set in my ‘parental’ and provider roles for my brother and myself. Home life was not a place of ease and acceptance. Being part of the Youth Ministry choir was great way for me to maintain some sense of age-appropriate exposure and belonging, one of the few ways I felt like an actual teenager.

When I moved to a high school in the nearby city, I was too intimidated to join the Performing Arts Club of my new school in the city, but I did join the Liturgy Club. That involved a lot of singing in the daily church service from 7 PM – 7:30 AM before the morning bell.

“Hear me Jesus, hide me in thy wounds that I may never leave thy side. From all the evil that surrounds me, defend me! And when the call of death arrives, bud me come to thee. That I may praise thee with thy saints, forever!

When I came to Canada at 16 years old, I joined the school choir for Holy Cross high school in St. Catharines Ontario, during my only year in high school here, Grade 12. It seemed like an easy, seamless way to be part of a club. I can already sing in English and despite not being able to read music, I can follow along once the instructor plays the piano and demos the notes. The first song I learned is O Canada which was really cool. It meant I was years ahead in preparing for my citizenship ceremony, haha! On top of religious songs, I also learned how to sing pop songs in a choral setting. I learned how to be the backup melody while our vocalist Danica would sing the main lines. This one I remember well, which is Apologize by Timbaland.

Danica our lead vocalist: “I’m holding on your rope, Got me ten feet off the ground. And I’m hearing what you say, But I just can’t make a sound. You tell me that you need me, Then you go and cut me down, but wait. You tell me that you’re sorry, Didn’t think I’d turn around and say.”

The other students, including me throughout this entire verse: “Ooooh, na na na. Oooh na na na.

Staying after school on Thursday afternoons, sometimes also Tuesdays, was something I really looked forward to then, because I was not used to the way things were in Canada with school being done at 3 PM. It felt way too early and I’m usually at home alone after school. It opened remarkable experiences and opportunities for me, such as performing in front on a baseball stadium in Toronto and me taking the yellow school bus for the first time. And also, getting a loyalty award at the end of the school year for being involved in the choir. This has significantly helped in my adapting to life in Canada, followed by discovering the Filipino-Canadian Association of Niagara and its cultural youth dance group.

When I moved to Edmonton and stared university, I considered auditioning for the choir, but got intimidated by the fact that the members are likely music majors, so those with superior vocal skills who are planning to make this their career. As I went through the motions of completing my university degree, the show Glee came about. I thought the show was entertaining and fun and cool. While in this case, the choir is more of a show choir and is flashier, I’ve seen glimpses of what reminded me about what high school choirs, and high school clubs in general, can provide to young folks going through one of the most transformative stage of their lives.

I got teary-eyed when I watched one of the performances of this youth choir featured in Humans of New York, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The combination of the vocals of the performers and picking up the distinctive sound of youth, especially for the male students who seem to have just started puberty. Seeing how many of the kids are way shorter than their instructor/ conductor, and seeing how animated they are singing their parts.

My youth choir experience was something I personally cherish in my younger years. It kept me out of trouble and at the same time, helped me reconnect to my actual age and stage in life, that I was an actual kid who is still growing up, not saddled with adult responsibilities such as earning income and being the parent for me and my brother. When they are run well, youth choirs can serve as a bridge between kids of different backgrounds, provide structure, motivation and fun in a balance way for growing minds, and open opportunities for those who lack access in their own homes.

Thank you to all the adults that help manage youth choirs and other music-related programs and make them a success!

Love Language Reflections: Learning About Love Maps

a man and a woman walking on a farm on a date

The consequence of not having solid role models of what a loving, caring, mutually equitable marriage looks like, is that I had absolutely no clue where to start. While I am lucky enough to have some memories of my parents until they died when I was eight years old, that is not enough time to learn, remember and apply it in my own relationships. One thing did stand out, and that is they treated each other well, so at least I know that this is a valuable principle that I want to have, and want to make happen, in my own marriage.

Luckily for me, I was book smart as a child and have retained some of the positive aspects of being one. That is, being resourceful and not feeling ashamed to do research, whether it is print or online resources, on how to do things. It’s something I’ve done for many years, including the awkward topics that I felt are just as important, such as learning about sex positions!

A YouTube channel I’ve started watching recently and really loved is Cinema Therapy. It’s an amazing Youtube channel that analyzes movies from a mental health standpoint, from a filmmaking standpoint, and hosted by two men (a registered psychologist and a film director) who are very open about their emotions while reviewing the movies. One of their videos talks about the 1990’s version of the Addams Family movie and how the main characters, Morticia and Gomez, showcase several key principles of a good marriage. In this video, the new concept I learned which I really like is the one of Love Maps.

A Love Map is the “part of your brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life” as referenced in the book mentioned in the YouTube video, the Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.

This is gonna sound cheesy again, but my husband, bless the man, has already been doing this without knowing the technical term for it. Many times in the past, when he learns something new that caused a strong reaction in me, both positive or negative, he makes an actual effort to remember them.

I’ve talked about the concept of Love Language before. I realized that the concepts of Love Language and Love Map go hand in hand, and I think it’s remarkable! Love Language focuses on categories that are very practical and tangible, while Love Maps can help find and apply specific observations or preferences.

So, using my husband as an example, the love languages he likes to receive are acts of service, quality time, and touch. Integrating the principle of the Love Map here means the following examples:

  • He appreciates food being prepared for him whenever I am at home. It doesn’t matter at all whether it is 100% homemade, takeout, or simple processed food like a frozen meal or a can of soup. Having a plate or bowl of warm food and a drink placed in front of him is something he really loves.
  • He appreciates that I know how to repair clothes and re-purpose non-wearable clothes into other functional household items. The most recent one is the pair of pants I repaired so many times, and when it’s no longer salvageable, I turned it into a pillow. He describes them as “gift made with love”.
  • Spending time doing different things while in the same room is quality time.
  • He loves cuddles and hugs throughout the day, and bed cuddles during daytime hours can only last up to 30 minutes max, then he gets restless.

In my case, the love languages I really cherish are acts of service, touch, and words of affirmation. Integrating the principles of the Love Map here means the following examples:

  • While I like all various types of affirming words, my outward reactions to them vary. Hearing “you’ve my love” and “I love you” will have the most immediate and reciprocating response with me saying “I love you too!”. Compliments about my skills “you’re such a smart baby!” would make me feel nice inside, but my reaction is more muted, likely because I’m raised to be modest about my skills. Compliments about my appearance “you’re a sexy lady!” are also lovely for my self-esteem, and I need to work on responding to them still. It is nice to be reminded at least one person thinks my butt is cute!
  • Acts of service for me includes self-organization and self-care, not just actions done directly for me. So, paying the bills on time or emptying the dishwasher are amazing, as well as him taking a break from chores and playing video games so he can de-stress. There’s no need for him to iron my clothes or buy my preferred snacks from the Filipino convenience store.
  • I love all forms of touch! We hold hands in the car all the time. When we “bump” into each other in our home’s hallways there’s always a little kiss or butt grab! And cuddles for at least 15 minutes at bedtime before sleeping is an integral part of our bedtime routine.

Combining this with other things I’m trying to do for my own individual wellbeing, such as therapy and learning about mental health, I hope that we are able to continue to be there for each other. This upcoming year is a year of a lot of change, and I hope that we will be able to ride out all what is to come and have our relationship in one piece.

Book Review and Thank You Letter: Motherless Daughters, The Legacy Of Loss: by Hope Edelman

By: Giselle General

In an attempt to fill the gaps in support and knowledge from my ongoing therapy, I was seeking out additional resources to help with dealing with the pain and loss of being an orphan. While my therapist wasn’t able to point me to an local support group, I found an adequate starting point.

I just finished reading the book Motherless Daughters, The Legacy Of Loss: by Hope Edelman. This is a Thank You Letter and a book review for the person who recommended this book, a remarkable woman in Edmonton named Mimi.


November 29 2021,

Dear Mimi,

Thank you for your lovely invitation to go out for lunch a few weeks after the outcome of the Edmonton Municipal Election last October 18. It was wonderful to chat with someone who experienced many of the things I have as a first-time elections candidate, as someone who is a person of color, and a woman. You shared many stories and insights that will help me as I go through my emotional recovery after not winning this election.

On top of the political commentary and stories, you kindly asked important questions about one challenging reality I have, as someone who doesn’t have a mother figure in my current life, and as someone who hasn’t had such a person for a very long time.

If my memory served me right, you actually haven’t read the book yourself, but you shared to me that Motherless Daughters was a book recommended to you a while back. I believe you said that you’re not the self-help-book-type. I was overjoyed though, since self-help is a book category I read on regular basis. Thank goodness an E-book version was available through the Edmonton Public Library, and I started reading in on nights and weekends when I have spare time.

The book was written and researched by a woman whose mother died when she was young, a teenager, and it involved numerous interviews and questionnaires from other “motherless daughters“. I liked how the book chapters outlined concepts bases on topic, such as navigating womanhood, romance, family, motivation and self-worth as a motherless daughter.

My favourite was how the book outlined key differences in terms of impact, depending on the child’s age when the mother passed away. I was eight when my mother died, together with my father and sister. Old enough to remember who they are and to know that life will never be the same after the deaths. Too young to do basic household management functions on my own. Too ill-equipped to grieve but not immune to the need of it.

It was a tough read, where every paragraph hitting me hard, shedding a light in very dark corners of my scarred soul, revealing wounds that never really completely healed. Especially in the first five chapters, it felt like every third paragraph made me cry, the vision of a child in her brokenness that was never acknowledged, and was just hidden away for so long. The stories of the other women and the commentary from doctors and the referenced resources, are both haunting and illuminating.

While distressing and unfortunate, I learned that it is actually normal for people to freak out when they reach the age of death of their same-gender parent. I thought that being fatalistic, catastrophising is a unique issue I am having due to election stress. Seriously, for the last six months before the election day my mind was telling me relentlessly “If I lose in this election, I have three years left to prove my worth. If I am not able to accomplish something profound and remarkable, my mother’s sacrifice was worthless. I don’t deserve to outlive her, and ending my life then is the right course of action.” I cannot rationalize it then, but yes, I was measuring my life and worth based on a very specific number, 33 years of age.

Now, there is huge comfort from realizing that this is a common occurrence. That subconsciously, people can be neglectful about their lives, or in the case of those whose mothers died of suicide or addictions, the adult “motherless daughter” ends up replicating those behaviours. It comes from wanting to grasp any way to find a connection with the mother that died too soon. So this is something I have to seriously watch for between now and 2024, that I don’t harm or kill myself, either by suicide or self-sabotaging my wellbeing.

Chapters of the book outlined how motherless daughters like me are stunted in our development, pushed to maturity and independence too early in some ways. But we are also stuck in childlike tendencies and yearnings in other ways. Instead of feeling inferior, I felt liberated by this. This paved another path of acceptance, and also pride, that my childlike mindset has not affected my adult life in debilitating ways.

For me, knowledge is power. I imagine it comes from my need for control from needing to look after myself (and my brother) at such a young age. I cannot describe how relived I am in realizing a few things:

  • That I will likely grieve again, in cycles and waves, for the rest of my life. When I reach womanly milestones, I would then yearn for a mother’s presence and guidance. Like during my first period, potential pregnancy and childbirth, menopause, even being a widow, financial and career changes, and many more.
  • A few time and age-related stages will be particularly difficult, such as reaching the age my mother died (which for me is in three years), giving birth, and when my child/ren reaches my age when my mother died, which is eight years old.

This is a huge blessing that came at a perfect time. Did you know that just a few weeks ago, during my therapy session right after the election, that I told the doctor that I need a very specific support group for people like me? He was sympathetic and understanding but the referrals provided were too broad for what I am seeking. This is the next closest thing to a support group and it worked really well as a starting point. I’m super grateful for the recommendation, as this has officially marked another journey of my healing from trauma, unpacking the fallout of being an orphan.

Film Review: Canvas

Scene from animated movie Canvas. The main character, an elderly gentleman, sadly looks down as his adult daughter kisses him on the forehead.

Thanks to a recommendation through social media, a few nights ago I watched an animated short film on Neflix called Canvas. The story is about an elderly gentleman who looks like he is of African heritage and is wheelchair bound. He is coping with the death of his wife and as a result, was reluctant to pursue a hobby of his, which is painting, so much so that he avoids the art studio in his house. He is grappling with grief as he watches over his granddaughter who comes to visit and shows interest and skill in art.

The film is short and one that has no dialogue, and I find those types of animated films really captivating. In order for a silent film to be effective, the background music, sound effects, and imagery in every scene needs to provide the right impact. It is the perfect opportunity to apply the principle of ‘a picture can speak a thousand words’.

Screenshot from movie Canvas, elderly grandfather hugging his granddaughter.
Screenshot from movie Canvas, elderly grandfather hugging his granddaughter inside his house after he caught her sneaking in the art studio, a room he hasn’t visited since his wife passed away as it brings pain and grief.

The artistic style of the animations shift when depicting real life scenes in the film into something different when depicting ideas and history. The thoughts of the characters and backstory are showcased using a ‘drawn pencil’ style, while the actual scenes with his granddaughter, the abandoned art studio in his house, or the backyard were the default animated style.

In the beginning, the grandpa would look at his granddaughter with reluctance whenever she would be in the dining room drawing. He would pass by the hallways of his house, and try to avoid looking into a dark part of the hallway that has a clothing rack of his wife’s clothes, that hides a door into an abandoned room that served as an art studio. His grief upon his wife’s death was so intense he couldn’t pick up a paintbrush and canvas, and one time he threw down his easel in anger.

His granddaughter, as expected of curious children, eventually discovers the hidden door and sneaks into the art studio room. He also saw his wife in a dream. That seemed to be the wake up call that the grandfather needed to acknowledge the bittersweet feeling of losing a love one, and to reconsider doing artwork again.

Scene from the movie Canvas. The main character, the grandfather, sits outside in front of an outdoor easel and canvas, holding a paintbrush and looks wistfully, while his granddaughter and daughter looks at him lovingly.
Scene from the movie Canvas. The main character, the grandfather, sits outside in front of an outdoor easel and canvas, holding a paintbrush and looks wistfully, while his granddaughter and daughter looks at him lovingly.

Now that I’ve reached a milestone with my husband, being together (dating and marriage) for over ten years, I wonder about the routines and interests that I have that are strongly linked to my life and interactions with him. He was the one who inspired me to pursue doing arts and crafts for various purposes, from wall decor and paintings to practical items like blankets, pillows, and oven mitts. He loves to call these items in our home “items made with love” and now, he refuses to buy decorations and linens from a store. If we need something at home, like a cooking apron or a lap quilt, he would ask me to make one and I’d happily make them.

If heaven forbid my husband passes away before me, would grief drown me the same way? Would I be reluctant, at least for a while, to make art, to sew, to paint? I go to bed every night literally wearing my husbands’ and my clothes, all woven together in the quilts I made in our master bedroom. If the love of your life is gone, I can imagine how difficult it can be to navigate through seeing household items that are tangible signs of the life built together over a long time. This film, in a short eight minute time period, depicts this is a way that is well done.

This film is a must-watch. I am really grateful for that social media screenshot image that encouraged me to watch it, as it was published on Netflix with no big promotions. The link to the Netflix film is https://www.netflix.com/ca/title/81332733

Love language Reflections: Support in times of Crisis

Man hugging woman, woman's head burried on his shoulder

by: Giselle General

My husband and I had a particularly challenging weekend sometime in June this year. As if the pandemic is not enough. In times of crisis or particularly stressful situations, people react differently. People’s reactions can possibly be categorized into the following: fight flight or freeze mode.

Similar to how we face a threat that is directly affecting us, people might react in the same way if there is a crisis about their loved ones, especially if we are directly involved in their daily lives. Some people are in “hyper solution mode” or “fight mode” running around getting things done, getting everyone together to act, and then after this adrenaline panic-solution mode, they get exhausted and worn out. These helper types, dedicated to support their loved ones, end up not realizing they need to care for themselves too.

There are some people who have intense outbursts of emotion during times of crisis, getting stuck and unable to provide tangible practical solutions to resolve the crisis at the end. I personally describe this as the ‘flight mode’ especially emotionally. However, in my opinion, there is value with how these type of people respond even if it may be off-putting at the time. They demonstrate the emotional impact, the reality and seriousness of the situation at hand.

Woman sitting and crying, and person's hands supporting her shoulder's comforting her back.

And there are people that are in silent mode, I would say is the ‘freeze mode’. Those who are too quiet or maybe two numb or lost, unable to determine a course of action. It’s not necessarily that they’re useless in the time of crisis, however, it takes prompting or direct, specific instructions to get them to do anything. Whether it is direction from the hyper solution-focused loved one, or being prompted by the emotional outburst of the others. 

Particularly for long-term relationships, I think it is really important to understand how our loved ones respond during times of crisis.

This is because different reactions or solutions would be more appropriate depending on the situation. If someone is in medical distress, it probably would be important to be more solution-focused at least until the severity of the situation is minimized. However, it is important to acknowledge the intense feelings that have come up because of the situation. Imagine your loved one being taken away by ambulance – there’s the peak emotional state and then there’s the crash afterwards. In many crisis situations, solutions, support, and follow-up is more of a marathon not a race. There needs to be diligent planning and follow-up and ongoing communication so that the problem at hand can be fully resolved.

The valuable thing about knowing your loved ones’ mechanism when responding to crisis as you can pick them up and support them during times when they are struggling. Some people struggle with displaying their emotions even after the fact, even when it’s safe, more appropriate, or even healthy to do so. Some people get paralyzed and unable to do proactive helping in the heat off the crisis and that can be detrimental as well. I think it’s important for people to have faced crisis situations to feel vulnerable enough and unpack their emotions afterwards. Being self-aware of one’s own tendencies are just as helpful.

Lined notebook with handwritten words, "Today, 1, 2, 3".

This is speaking from recent experiences. I think, or I hope, that I’ve figured out my own and my husband’s mechanisms when it comes to crisis solving. There will be times when he’s not willing to talk about it just yet and that’s okay. Sometimes disconnecting from the situation for a bit by browsing the internet is an okay way to provide yourself some relief. And it’s important to acknowledge that. He gently suggested a couple times for me to meditate because he knew that it would be helpful for me, and I honestly would not even thought of it if he had not brought it up.

It’s important for loved ones to not be judged by their coping mechanisms. It is also important to gently and lovingly nudge your loved one to get supports that you are unable to provide. It took me a while to acknowledge that sometimes I just need a talk therapy session with a professional to help unpack my emotions so that I can be less filtered in my language and be more candid in a way that works at specifically for me.

To be heard, understood, supported, and pushed sometimes, is really important to maintain our sense of perspective, sense of health, and nurture our ability to help ourselves and our loved ones.