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What I Look Like at Week 39

I think it was part of childhood, like yelling into an electric fan to make a robot voice, to stick a pillow up under one’s shirt to see what you’d look like pregnant.

And not once, now or ever, did I ever delude myself into thinking I’d look anywhere as good as this.

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(Photo: Annie Leibovitz, for the August 1991 cover of VF)

Here’s what I do look like:

My best friend says I look like the letter B.

She also says I look like a dachschund that got pregnant by a mastiff.

But right now, in my present state, where my skin feels like it’s exhausting the word “taut”, this photo – while not a selfie – nailed how I look and feel these days.

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The accompanying caption (courtesy of “I f***ing love science): “The egg is so large that in the last few days before laying it there is no space left inside the mother for food. She is forced to fast.”

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Favorite Books, Number Unbound

This post is brought to you by two things from Facebook:

1) That meme where people are tagging each other to list 10 books that have stayed with them in some way. Just 10?! Come on, man. That’s like asking a mother to name a favorite child. (Imperfect simile. Not all books are created equal. But the point remains – just 10?! INCONTHEIVABLE.)

2) A friend recently commented that a very long Facebook status is one of the major crimes against humanity. Because I am  a repeat offender of said crime; I decided to just slap up my list of books (which I refuse to count) over here. At least this way, it’s my space to do with as I wish; I won’t be borking up anyone’s News Feed; and if people want to see my list, they can see it. Unbound. Heh.

So here you go, Internet. I’ve done my time.

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Flipped by Wendelin van Draanen

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke

Stories for Children by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Personal History by Katharine Graham

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

The Sandman Series by Neil Gaiman

The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

The Last Full Moon by Gilda Cordero Fernando

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Pop Stories for Groovy Kids by Nick Joaquin

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

The View From Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

 

 

 

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Captain, My Captain, and the Dire Straits of Depression

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My main takeaway from Robin Williams’ death is that we never fully know the extent of each person’s struggle; and therefore it isn’t up to us to judge what a person is going through.

One of my Whatsapp groups recently took up the question: What can you do when you have a friend who is suffering from depression?

Some of the wisdom shared:

1. It’s tough to pinpoint. It’s not about barging in on them and their feelings; hollering, “What’s wrong?! What’s wrong?! You can tell me! What’s wrong?!” As N said: “Forcing oneself into one’s personal space can be detrimental too, no matter how well-meaning the friend may be.” A lot of the time they themselves don’t know. All we can really do is be there for them. This isn’t like addiction, where a hardcore intervention comes up. Depression makes people flies wound up and struggling in this soft sticky web, unable to figure out where the spider is.

2. There’s a root to it. “There’s always something else that needs to be resolved which causes the depression. And a lot of times, the persona doesn’t understand where the emotions are coming from or how to even address them.”

3. Seek professional help. Sometimes it’s easier to tell a stranger than people who already know you; some people feel that friends and family already see them through a certain filter and are therefore less able to understand.

4. Alcohol – and drugs – are not the answer. “Alcohol is such a trigger for someone who’s already depressed.”

5. Commit to staying in touch. “I think we need to make sure that at least within our closest network, we are confident that communication lines are open and we know how people are doing (which means more than just what people are Facebooking or tweeting).”

6. They don’t just need cheerleaders. The worst thing you can do for someone is to throw a blanket over their problems with “It’s okay!”/”It’ll be okay!”/”Okay lang yan!” Maybe it will be, one day, but that just invalidates what the person is feeling. Genuine listening, without interruption, helps the person feel more confident about opening up.

7. Form a musk-oxen circle around them. In times of danger, musk oxen are known to form a tight, outwards-facing circle around the young and the vulnerable of their group. It helps to keep tabs on the person involved – whether it’s through messages or letters if you’re far away; or paying them actual visits. It’s a disease. So it really helps to tag-team caring for your friend. It can be mentally exhausting to be a caregiver, so taking turns with other friends and family will provide a support system not just for the person, but for those surrounding them as well.

8. Exercise. Get them outside for a walk. Join a yoga class with them. Anything that helps them move and get endorphins. Endorphins can help. So does a change of scene and perspective.

9. Help them remember what there is to live for, to laugh for. This is a gut-wrenching post by comic book writer Matt Fraction, who himself has been depressed, but found a way to step back from the edge. Matt Fraction on Depression and Suicide

10. Finally: “All you can do is love them. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Just be there for them, even if that means loving them from a distance if they won’t let you near them. And I mean love in a genuine, non-condescending way.”

None of this is a quick fix. Because that’s not what depression needs. It takes listening. It takes just being present to your loved ones who are going through it. It means giving them a hand to hold while they’re groping through the darkness. Because if it ever comes to that, that danger of yanking the noose, switching on the ignition, or jumping, it could be the hand that saves them.

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Keep Talkin’

I didn’t think I had anything in common with Ashton Kutcher. I never particularly liked him (as an 80s kid, my loyalty lay with his ex Demi Moore). But people can surprise you, and he did, because he’s currently learning Russian, so he can communicate with his fiancé Mila Kunis (who’s Ukrainian) and their future offspring.
Well played, Kelso. For now we both understand that nothing says love, devotion, or pigheaded bravery, like learning the language of your partner.

Funnily, when I first came here, all these blogs assured me, “Swedes love to speak English!” Let me correct this misconception. They love to show that they can. But they still prefer speaking their own language. (Which, to be fair, is true of Filipinos, too.)

Naturally, they still prefer hiring people who can speak Swedish. Fat chance people in a smaller town and a first world country will bother translating every grocery sign, package label, or train announcement.

The worst days were mostly in the beginning. I found myself among people who would greet you in English, talk to you for a few minutes, then lapse back into Swedish; leaving you to become better acquainted with your phone but not necessarily with them. I wished, often, that people would come with subtitles so I’d know when to laugh. I knew they didn’t mean to be mean; it was just natural.

Language is a lot like clothes. Some you endure for meetings or weddings. Dressing up, or in this case, using a certain language, shows you respect other people enough to leave your comfort zone for a bit. Your mother tongue is your holey pambahay that you slip into with relief at the end of the day.

Many – partner included – were conscious of my language level and would try to speak in English. But in a room where most are yammering away in a certain language, one becomes painfully conscious that any English spoken is for your benefit. You suddenly wish both that they wouldn’t bother; and also, that they would stick to one language everyone could understand.

I entertained myself with the thought that learning a language was like Candy Crush Saga. You zip through the first few levels and think, I’M A GENIUS. Then you hit this level that you stay stuck at for hours, days, weeks; a month if you get easily discouraged. But so, I have learned, is the nature of language. You gotta get dunked before you can swim or dive. There is no way to it but through it.

And slowly, the good days come, a word at a time. You actually catch yourself following a conversation to the point where you can laugh at all the right moments, without someone to explain the joke to you.

The Inculturation Goes Both Ways

The struggle hasn’t ended. It’s only changed. It will only keep humbling me every day with something new to learn.

But to my growing delight, I realized that when you bring two cultures together, this stream of learning doesn’t flow just one way. I’ve been so absorbed in this challenge, that I haven’t noticed how my husband is changing too. By that I mean that he is picking up Filipinisms that no book can teach.

For instance, his repertoire has grown to include: “You ha,” “Sige sige lang,” (Just keep going), “Joke LANG” (just kidding), “Yiheeee!” and “Naaaaaaaks”. For example: “It doesn’t matter if it’s closed, as long as I’m with you. (pauses for reaction) Naaaaaaaks!”

He’s gotten into the habit of drawing air-rectangles with his fingers when requesting the bill at a restaurant; and pointing with his lips when I ask where something is.

When frustrated, he yells, “HOY NAKO!” (An expression of exasperation for which there is no direct translation.)

No matter where we are in the world, if we want to find each other in a crowd, we just go “PSSSSSSSSSST.” (I know. Classy!)

In the early days of spring, when weather is known to play with one’s feelings, and I wondered which jacket to take, he stepped out onto our balcony and said, “You don’t need a thicker jacket. It’s Baguio weather.” (He’s never even been to Baguio, but he’s been around enough Filipinos to understand the context.)

And this is the best illustration for his willingness to try.

Me: “Sige nga, give me all the Filipino words you know.”
A: “Baho?” (Smelly?)
Me: “What?”
A: “Um. Bango?” (Fragrant?)
Me: “Come again?”
A: (desperately) “Banyo! Baho bango banyo!” (Bathroom! Smelly fragrant bathroom!)

Nowadays, our language is about 80% English, 19% Swedish, and 1% Filipino. It’s evolved into our own odd sort of mishmash secret language, but so is the nature of language – it evolves based on needs and context.

Someone speaking your own language to you is a gift. They don’t have to. They could just be silent, smile and nod; and come away none the poorer, but neither are any richer from the interaction. It is a gift when someone ventures out of their comfort zone and risks making mistakes every second. It shows someone cares enough to try. It proves that someone is willing to make an idiot out of oneself day in and day out; to sit in a room and laugh at all the wrong moments; and feel like an absolute moron. A willingness to forget oneself and forsake one’s own comfort – nothing speaks louder than that.
Talk about the boy sayin’ to the girl:
“Golly, baby, I’m a lucky cuss”
Talk about the girl sayin’ to the boy:
“You an’ me is lucky to be us!”

Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,
Talk about things you’d like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?”

– Bloody Mary, South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein

 

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One Week

One week ago, there was blood, pain, tears, and a little mass of cells we were hopeful would grow into a baby.

And now it has been a week, and all those things are gone.

When it happened, I called my best friend and we cried together. We had both really been wanting this; and we had both been nursing the hopes that this blueberry was, in fact, the Azkal we both – and so many other people, who don’t even pray – been praying for.

When the blood and the pain began, I thought I was going crazy, and all I could think of was the comfort of home, family, and friends; where I could just go on autopilot and focus on getting out of this hole of dark thoughts and blaming myself for maybe having done something that just made it go away.

But time heals; and it began with my sense of humor and my appetite. At some point I figured, ach, well. I guess I’ll go do everything I couldn’t do while I was pregnant.

So we went and had a sushi dinner. I had a Red Stripe (excellent Jamaican beer); even if I don’t really drink beer unless it’s sub-zero and there’s nothing else to be had. I bought some prosciutto and smoked salmon and wolfed them down with relish. I picked raspberries off the side of the road. I picked blueberries with my mother-in-law. We went to pick cherries from a tree. And when we realized all the good ones that hadn’t been pecked at by birds were up higher, I shrugged, said, “I’m not pregnant anymore,” and went up into the tree like a monkey. I shimmied out there and weighed down the branches so A could pick the ones far out and so I could pick the ones deeper in. We came away with 2 kilos’ worth.

And as always, it helped to focus on other people. When times are tough, that always seems to help you not get held up at your own pity party.

My mother called (that was the hardest, I think). Practically everyone I loved called, or messaged, or were brave enough to struggle through the awkwardness of not knowing what to say. I just asked them to please distract me with their own stories. That always seems to help grief – being given something, someone else to focus on other than yourself. These are ropes that help you climb out of the pit where you are just sitting in your own muck.

Our godmother. An ex-boss. One of my former child delegates sent me a shy but lovely message that reminded me to pray.

But what struck and humbled me most was the sheer number of friends of mine, many of them now mothers, who shared their own miscarriage stories with me. I didn’t know so many women suffered through these; and I didn’t know so many of my friends had endured them. I had no idea so many people I knew had had challenges conceiving. I am eternally grateful that they shared their own stories with me, as a way of saying, yes, cry now; it hurts now, but it will get better.

Because perhaps in the end what we endure serve as lessons; and as beams of hope to our friends who will undergo nearly the same thing in the future; grant us the empathy and compassion that comes from a deeper place and allows us to say, “I know how you feel. I’ve been there too”. Our scars endure to show others that something can be done. We are proof.

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Why

So the doctor confirmed my worst fears. I am not pregnant. I am just fat.

This is my gallows-humor way of saying I had a miscarriage.

I was pregnant, and now I’m not.

Before anyone goes in with “Oh, but you can have another; I know so many who’ve done it,” yes, okay, but that’s not the point. It’s not just a simple matter of dropping an ice cream cone on the sidewalk, shrugging it off, fishing in your pocket for some more change, and going back into the store for another, exactly like the one you just ordered and dropped.

I’m sad.

I’m sad because I was so excited I went into the H&M sale and came out with 2 pairs of maternity pants, that I reasoned I could use as future buffet pants. I’m sad because when I told my folks, I could hear the smiles in their voices, especially Papa, who went high-pitched with pleasure at the thought of his little Azkal.

I’m sad because I’d been excited to have this baby before I turned 36, with plenty of time for my parents to enjoy playing with the baby before the inevitable.

I’m sad because when my mother called and I had to tell her in between sobs, she said “Oh my God,” and I heard the heartbreak in her voice.

I’m sad because after radio silence and countless “Thank you for your application but we’ve filled the position, best of luck, sincerely, We Only Hire Swedish People” emails, this was something I could say, hey, look, I did something productive with my time here apart from learn a language only .00001% of the world speaks. Granted, it’s the rich part of the world, but they seem to only ever see me as someone to scrub the floors or bake them pizzas, so what?

Here was something that I could say was, look, finally, some good news. Something positive from me! Something that I could be happy about, be “my old crazy happy self that the Swedes think is a bit much” about, something that I could share with everyone; news that everyone had been expecting, and waiting for.

Of course I know we can try again. Of course we can. That’s not the point. The point is that I was so excited to finally have good news to share. It wouldn’t be that I had a job – but here, here was something wonderful, something even better. Something good after so long.

So no, it’s not something that can be brushed off with “Okay lang yan, better luck next time,” not now, anyway. Of course we will.

I just wanted to have something better, finally, to tell people. So please, allow me that. Allow me this time to understand what I’m feeling. I’m sad. And I’m not sorry I am.

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Odense, Denmark: Meeting the Real Hans Christian Andersen (Part 1)

The other week I went to see my friend Gutsy in Odense, Denmark. I really should start calling her Dr. Gutsy now that I can – we bonded as children over favorite childhood books; and she took that interest all the way, becoming an academic scholar on beloved children’s authors like Astrid Lindgren. Odense was the next stop, being the birthplace and now center for all things Hans Christian Andersen. (Sadly, I have no photo of the pedestrian lights, which are in the shape of his silhouette, but I do have some of the manhole covers.)

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Odense is the third-largest city in Denmark, which is to say it’s not huge, just comparatively so. (Copenhagen, which is the largest, is a traveler’s dream in that you can cover a lot of ground without feeling exhausted and worried that you haven’t seen enough of it, and will have to go home with one or two items uncrossed off your bucket list.)

Its biggest draw is, of course, Hans Christian Andersen, or as they call him, H.C. Andersen. Now if living in Scandinavia has taught me anything, it’s that the easiest icebreaker for Norwegians and Swedes is to make fun of how the Danish pronounce things. The joke goes that if you want to speak Danish, all you have to do is speak Swedish with a whole hot potato in your mouth.

For example, if you were to distinguish Hans Christian from all the other Andersens out there by calling him H. C. Andersen/HCA, you would pronounce it this way: Ho Seh Andersen. Which to the innocent would be like, are we talking about some exotic Latin/Danish male model?

Which, sadly, HCA was not. The man was born poor of pocket and somewhat lacking in the looks department, but one can’t say he was poor in spirit. While he related in some level with the Ugly Duckling, you might say that deep down inside, the man thought of himself as a swan.

As it is with me and any museum, what stood out were things that came with a story that brings historical figures down to earth.

The Bitter Cup

The obsession with ballerinas is not to say that Hosay (okay, fine, HCA) was gay. In fact, rather the opposite. He fell in love countless times, but he never hit the jackpot.

The great unrequited love of his life was a famous singer named Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale. She was 15 years younger than he, and was so popular that she had her own line of paper dolls so that little girls could fangirl over her.

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One night during a dinner in her honor, she friend-zoned him royally through a thank-you toast. She said something like “Out of all the people in Denmark I’ve met, there is one I would want to call ‘brother,’ and that is Hans Christian Andersen.” IN FRONT OF ALL THESE PEOPLE. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ser Jorah Mormont of Denmark.

Here’s the cup he drank out of during that toast. It was champagne, but I suspect it tasted like bitters.

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The Bed

Can’t say the HCA Institute people have no sense of humor. Here’s what they did with his real bed (feel around for the pea at your own peril).

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The Paper Cuts

Another of the museum’s major themes is HCA’s paper-cut work. Turns out he was quite handy with a pair of scissors. (Good thing he wasn’t born in the Philippines, or his skill would have been exploited for pastillas.)

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His actual scissors, with one of his paper-cuts.

Here are a few more. The guide was explaining something about how this was about how one sacrifices oneself for love. (God, this poor man! Don’t you just want to hug him?)

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These were just fun. Showed where his mind strayed to.

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He did a few Christmas ornaments as gifts for people he was visiting, which he really enjoyed doing. We learned that he visited Charles Dickens in England (fun for him, near-torture for Dickens and his family – especially because HCA’s English wasn’t that good; he was sort of clueless and actually ended up extending his stay). He didn’t even die at home; he died while on a visit.

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The last one he ever did before he died.

The Collages

Denied training as an actor or ballerina, HCA puttered around with everything he could get his hands on. Flower pressings, collages, and a LOT of other stories that most of us have never even heard of.

Check out this screen! He made it when he was sick and bored at his flat one winter. He said that he tried to “include a poetic idea or a historical representation in each section,” to the end that he wanted it to look like one long, fantastical fairy tale.

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The Rope

After he finally got rich enough to travel all around the world, he would carry a rope with him everywhere he went because he was terrified of dying in a fire. The danger was very real back then – Copenhagen, for instance, was hit by two major fires that raged for days.

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The Dollar Bill

This was maybe one of my favorite things in the exhibit. I once heard Louis CK claiming that we have no idea how good the modern ages have been to us because things took forever back in the day; and this is a great example. It took a long time for HCA to get rich and recognized, but it took an even longer time for that news to reach his fans around the world. His American fans, for instance, read in a much-delayed news article that HCA was suffering from poverty and that he needed their help. So here’s a dollar bill from one of his fans, enclosed with a letter that said something like “I’m sorry you’re so poor. But I love your writing, please take this dollar.”

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It makes one think. If someone were to make a museum marking everything that’d happened in our lives, the cool things as well as the ones that make us writhe at night, what would they find about us? Our ex-whatevers? Our old Facebook photos? Our UGLY photos? Our fat clothes? Especially now that everything’s documented on social media? 😉

Tomorrow: Part 2: The Tinder Box