journal

Improvement sucks

Improving is HARD.

If I've made a goal to run 5 miles in a week and I succeed, I feel great physically and emotionally. If I decide to practice piano more than usual and I have a smooth lesson... obviously, that's ideal.

But the biggest adjustments take so much more sacrifice; sometimes, even just wanting to improve is difficult. It would be so much easier to say, "This is just who I am. Whoever doesn't like it can deal with it."

One thing I'm always having to challenge is my pride. I know—my low self-esteem is a constant, ongoing joke for me and a cause for concern among adults and even some friends. But pride actually plays a huge role in that—pride that I think I know what's best for myself (of course I should eat one meal a day!), pride in trying to be the best at something, pride in not wanting to change my thoughts.

These are all things I hate changing. I hate having to redefine my self-identity, even if it means I'll stop beating myself up for the occasional horrible grade. I hate having to let go of grudges and reach out to people I've pushed away, even if it means we might reconcile and find peace. I hate admitting my emotional vulnerabilities to people and giving them the power of rejection, but look at how unhealthy that is!

I'm learning that the more an improvement can pay off, the harder it is. I've always known sacrifice is essential to change, but the deeper it goes, the more it feels like a self-redefining experience than it does a simple breaking of a bad habit.

My bad habit is sometimes a cognitive distortion (if I drop something, I'm clumsy, because I'm a horrible person) or inertia (why go running when I can rewatch a show?). My bad habit is sometimes not even my fault, like when my anxiety tells me to stay in bed and hide from everything.

My bad habit is sometimes a safety mechanism—if I push people away, they can't hurt me.

I wish I could write an inspirational, feel-good post about self-improvement, but it wouldn't be true. The truth is improvement starts with motivation, but motivation eventually runs out once the going gets tough. So, I guess my lesson this season is this: when motivation runs out... just keep going.

At least it means I won't have to look back on my life and wish I'd just pushed through.

Being okay with being lost

"Not all those who wander are lost," but maybe some are. What happens then?

This semester has seen me living a much different kind of life than whatever I'd foreseen over winter break. February has come and gone, and somehow I feel like the semester still hasn't started.

I keep questioning myself lately, more so than usual. I am so lucky. I have so many opportunities and I am in a place with so many ways to be connected to people and I have a lot of material and societal blessings. What can I improve on? How can I use it to spread it to the people around me? How can I spread it to people who are not near me? Why do I become so caught up in my own day and schedule that I waste precious moments I could spend making someone else's day better?

Life is so short. Have I really lived my life if I haven't done something truly worthwhile for others?

As everyone knows about me, I'm a relationship-based person. I love building relationships with people and walking with them on their journeys, laughing with them, crying with them, celebrating with them. Friendships, familial relationships, mentorships. All of it.

Yet only recently have I found myself trying to be a more "fun" person rather than a better person. I've gone out of my way to seek approval and friendship from people just because I think they're my close friends, as if I'm only just barely staying "cool" enough to be kept around. Beth McColl said it best in a tweet the other day: "I can't watch myself nurture a neglectful relationship, or try and cheat rejection by working harder to be liked."

...which is what I saw myself doing, and I'm done with that. Yes - I want to be friends with so many people. I want to love on my friends (almost to the extent of Leslie Knope), but I can't force that upon anyone. If you do many things for someone who wants you to be their friend, it's entirely different from someone who's wondering why you're investing in a relationship that's not mutual.

I often post about the people around me on Instagram, but the most meaningful moments of my life usually don't make it. Instagram is just a highlight reel. Substance comes from the daily conversations, the late-night food runs, the phone calls when you absolutely need someone to talk to whether it's about a sudden heartbreak or Chance's Grammys performance. Sometimes I feel emotionally closer to people hours away than people who are right here on campus with me; I have been so frightened of losing these relationships, as if I'm just not worthy of friendships where people really want me around, but for once I need to step away from being so focused on trying to see if my friends view me as a friend. The way to invest in myself isn't by gaining others' approval - it's by investing in the community I'm in and trying to make a single drop of change in this rapidly changing, occasionally frightening, always giving world. The world gives to me - I can give so much more back.

So I'll keep doing this -- this floating in limbo as I begin a new way of being part of this community. I don't know where I fit, but maybe now without searching so hard, I'll find somewhere I belong where I'm not too loud, too quiet, too annoying, too boring, too innocent, too non-innocent, too... everything. This world is wide enough.

With every loss, something changes

It's always kind of eerie returning home after a semester in school now that I'm in college - that is, one that forces me to live away from home.

You know that feeling when you walk out of the room and someone pranks you by moving things around in subtle ways? Maybe your couch shifts three inches to the left, or a centerpiece gets replaced...

That's how it feels.

After an extra-long winter break, I feel like I'm returning to SMU just when I'm finally part of my own family again. It's easy to feel like just a visitor when I visit home once every few weekends. But now, I'm relearning my family's habits, learning the little changes in their lives - what places they frequent, what days of the week my sister has lessons, who finishes what chores now - all the things I once knew by heart. All knowledge of which I once took for granted.

It just never occurred to me to think about it. In a way I feel that I'm coming to another loss associated with growing older: my life has always, I thought, revolved around my family, but it doesn't look the same anymore. It can't.

With every loss, there's always a moment of bewilderment. A period of grief. And then, once the shock of it all wears off... we find a new "normal."

My family doesn't look the same anymore, but then again, neither do I. As with so many things, with both tragic losses and tiny lost moments, readjustment happens. The new "normal" has to be built, bit by bit, and then it becomes lived-in and familiar, like a brand-new house that becomes a home.

Happy, healthy, confident.

We've all heard those jokes about Asian parents and so-called "tiger moms."

I believe in open communication with my peers and my professors when I'm having a hard time, and because of this, I get a lot of feedback on why people think I'm so stressed much of the time. They want to explain away everything into something simple.

This is what I hear often:
"Oh, I totally understand - you Asians are all like that."
"You're a perfectionist. You're Asian. Of course you are."
"I'm sure your mother placed a lot of pressure on you to do well."

I know where this comes from; I was surrounded by people whose parents did pressure them. And yes, my mother had high expectations for me as a child, but she knew my potential and she wanted me to reach it and expand it. Would you be surprised to find out that she never once blamed me for my mathematics grades consistently being lower than those in musical and English courses?

In elementary and junior high school, our parents would occasionally get those cute little cards that they fill out to be given to their children later. When the time came, my peers would eagerly open their cards full of words and words and words, overflowing with affirmation.

Mine came from my mother and always contained only three words: "Happy. Healthy. Confident."

Back then, I couldn't understand why she would do this. Everyone else gets long letters, I told her. Her reply never changed: of all the hopes and dreams she could ever have for me, those are the only things she really wants me to be.

I still didn't get it during college application season, but the last three semesters in college have seen me sick and bedridden every few weeks. I come home stressed, overwhelmed, burnt out, sometimes so sick that I have to miss school but so obsessed with doing well that I feel the need to push myself into continued attendance anyway.

Now that I'm learning self-care and actually allowing myself to do it, I still ask my mother for advice on what to do with my future. Music therapy is the combination of my two greatest passions (music and service) and yet... I have so many more things I love, so many more activities I want to do and careers I want to pursue.

But when I ask for this advice, my mother no longer tells me much. She doesn't say what people think she would say as an Asian mom - none of that "go be a doctor/businessperson" kind of thing. Even now, with no card, my mother still reminds me: "happy. healthy. confident." Everything else will come naturally from there.

And if I'm all of these things, then what more could I ask for? 

In the dear words of my newest favorite character Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (the musical version): that would be enough.

Am I excited for right now?

I often find myself saying, "I just need to get through today."
"I just need to get through this week."
"Thank goodness the semester is almost over."

This week challenged me in so many ways. I went through many unexpected and highly emotional upheavals, things that made me question myself as a person, as a friend, as a student. This week didn't go at all the way I thought it would. I wanted a break, but it was one obstacle after another.

That's nothing new, but here's where I'm taken aback: I liked this week. In fact, I'd even say it was a good week.

For every emotionally difficult moment for me, I reached out to my closest, most dearest friend on campus here. We ate together, talked together, cried together, processed life together. We encouraged self-care to each other and found ways to manage together.

Today, I said to her, "I'm really excited."
"For what?"
"For now. I'm really excited for this weekend with you, and this IS the weekend, and that's happening right now."

Is this what it means to be engaged and enjoying life?

Because I'm so tired of waiting for the day, for the semester, for the year to be over. Life isn't something for me to enjoy later on when I have time to do so. What does it say about me when I think I don't even have time to enjoy all of the blessings I get every day? It's like I expect life to get better - it's not life that's negative at all; it's my own perspective.

My phone screensaver is a quote: "Wherever you are, be all there."

I've looked at it every time I open my phone, but I want to live it. I want to stop saying "BE ENGAGED" as some sort of inspiring buzzword.

To every person I am with: I am here with you, and I'm grateful for right now. Here I am.

To every activity I'm doing: I've been given time on Earth to do this, and every breath allows me to keep going. I might as well do it well. Here I am.

And of course, to every single moment I'll ever be blessed with: Here I am.

The elusive freshman glow

Last year, I watched a stranger try to get ketchup out of a near-empty container. Being me, I couldn't resist saying "aww..." and quietly cheering him on. We introduced ourselves to each other by first name, and then he smiled at me.

"You're a freshman, aren't you?"

I was. How did he know?

"You have the 'freshman glow.' Don't ever lose that."

And he left. I'd heard that from several people by then - that I had the "freshman glow." No one I asked was ever able to tell me exactly what it was, so I shrugged and continued with my freshman life.

I'm a sophomore now and I finally understand.

It's the excitement that people show before they begin college. It's those Facebook posts that say "So blessed to announce that I'll be attending -insert school-! Can't wait to see where these next four years take me!"

It's the Instagram post a few weeks into school captioned: "I love this campus! Love my friends here already. So blessed."

Blessed. Yes. I am. But when did I go from "so excited to be here!" to "I'm so tired all the time and every week is so long?" Somehow, I look at these posts and immediately think, "That person is going to stop saying this soon. That's where I used to be."

I look at a freshman with so much hope and energy in their eyes and listen to them talk about all of the organizations they want to join and all the good grades they hope to get.

And then I think... I wish that never went away. And lately, I'm starting to get it: freshmen come in here and they don't have to see the underlying issues of (American, at least) campus life yet. We were here when racist posts started circulating; we were here for the pro-life/pro-choice arguments; we are still here, frustrated with rape culture, frustrated with so many things that we can't change that we now understand represent a national and worldwide issue.

It's also a personal issue. Somewhere, we forgot that we can't keep running on energy if we aren't recharging it. When did it become okay to lose our sleep, our eating schedules, and every second of "free time" to pursue the perfect grades and all of the organizations we wanted to join?

Yes, the freshman glow is a thing, but I don't ever want to see anyone else lose it. Can we start talking about self-care and actually doing it? Can we keep seeing the good in people and hoping for the best, knowing that great things lie ahead in the unknown, even if we think we have a good idea of what to expect?

This life is ours to live and ours to look forward to. There's a certain glow that we can always look toward, and it's still there - we can't give up on it just yet.

They will never silence us.

I am shocked, angered, saddened, frustrated, fatigued, fearful, yearning.

I am all of these things, and more. So are many others.

We should never have lost black lives, nor police lives.

We should never have lost the lives of those in the Pulse nightclub.

We should never have lost Christina Grimmie.

We should never have lost any of these people, and more, of all the massacres, the killings, the bullying, the lynching... and still more.

Yet instead of uniting and building community, instead of supporting and loving the people around us who feel the same grief and frustration and desire for peace, we do anything but. Instead of love, hatred is spread. Instead of support, blame is given.

I have been discouraged, disheartened, sickened and tired. I have thought countless times that this is enough. I have shouted and screamed and tried to get the voices of suffering communities heard, and people who do not listen will not listen. Human nature is loathe to change, to admit wrongdoings and misconceptions. I have had thoughts of hopelessness, of despair, of giving up because this fight is long and tiring and seemingly endless.

I let myself feel it, and then I push on. I know the pain of my friends, of the people in my community. I know I am not alone. I know that once upon a time, the world was very different, and we pushed it to where it is today, for better and for worse in many respects. Change is coming. We can't afford to give up now; the cost that we suffer is, as much as it hurts, less than what we suffer if we stand by and stay silent during injustice. I am willing to take that backlash. I thank God for everyone willing to be part of it. For every act of hatred, we will replace it with acts of love and love and love and love.

They can hate us, accuse us, defame us, kill us. But they will never silence us. People die, but ideas and revolutions live on.

We will keep fighting the good fight.

Reflections from the SWAMTA 2016 Conference

This week, I attended the Southwestern Region of the American Music Therapy Association (SWAMTA) conference in Austin, TX for the first time! Some thoughts:

There is more to music therapy than just "music" and "therapy."
It's also about understanding our clients and learning both about them and with them. Many of our clients experience the world in a different way than we do, and we have to understand how they do and meet them there. There is no "one size fits all" sort of treatment or approach even if they have the same diagnosis, because everyone is different. As much as I think I can improve my musical and therapeutical skills, I must also learn how to understand, to love, and to really get to know each client through sessions and not through textbooks or case studies.

Everyone has something to teach and to offer. 
About 36 sessions were presented at conference; many were led by practicing music therapists and professors in the music therapy field, but a lot of them were also presented by students! Some students from our school also participated, describing their experiences and what they've learned or different possible interventions. Most of the attendees at this conference have been out of school for many years, but they came to student-led sessions, asked questions and paid close attention anyway. Since everyone's exposure and background is different, everyone has something to learn from each person - and vice versa.

I have a long, long way to go and I'll never reach the end.
At first, I was just excited, and then I was overwhelmed, and now I'm grateful and looking forward to the road ahead. Every time I learn more about music therapy, whether it's through books, classes or this conference, I realize how much more there is to learn and how many challenges I'll have to go through. I hear from nervous students in practicum but at this conference, I also heard from a professional with many years of experience who talked about her challenges with maintaining boundaries and continuing a healthy therapeutic relationship with her client. It will never stop being a learning journey and I will always have something more to improve, and that's okay. In fact, that's part of why I love music, therapy, and music therapy so much.

Even though there are things I can't talk about, I never have to do this alone.
Client confidentiality is one of the biggest things emphasized in music therapy and I will often be restricted from talking about my experiences with people or on the Internet, but it doesn't mean I'm isolated. I have colleagues and supervisors. I can talk to other music therapists. I can talk about my own feelings without ever needing to go into details. And I have family and friends who will be there and continue supporting me - no explanations needed.

How important are the arts?

Here is an article I wrote - an open letter to people who look down on the arts and/or those who start to wonder if they're right - and I want to take a moment to talk about why this matters to me. Too often, we hear people saying things like "Oh you're taking the easy path" or "Wow... so what do you actually intend to DO with your life?" We hear constant jokes about the "starving artist" stereotype.

Apart from getting upset, I think it makes us doubt ourselves, too. Or at least, it makes me do so, anyway. I start to wonder if I really am taking a self-destructive path, if I'll have no income, no credit, no stability, no way to maintain whatever else I want to do, etc. I hear about how only the best succeed and, knowing that I'm nowhere near the best, I spend many nights wondering if my practicing takes me nowhere and if I'm the only one who thinks my passions are worth following. But it's nights like those where I remind myself why things like music therapy exist now and why I love so many things in life but still love music and fine arts connection so much more than I do anything else. I think it's easy to know why we love what we love, but to never doubt is hard - and if even one person sees this and remembers why they love art, once loved art, or will love art, then I'll be content.

 

I just can't seem to say goodbye.

I'm an affectionate person: easily attached and never really able to un-care.

In my last year of high school, I thought I was so ready to leave. I wanted to leave what had become my comfort zone, to expand into the world and all the opportunities laid out there for me. And in a way, I have. I've left comfort zones I didn't even know I dwelled in, grasped opportunities I never dreamed would exist anywhere within my world. I'm in love with the people I see every day, my professors, my friends, my classes, all the different perspectives I hear and take in.

And yet. I always walk around with a little bit of wistfulness, some part of me longing for people and moments that were just magical. 

Almost everyone who talks to me hears, at some point, about John Carmichael's concerto that I played in 2014 with the SLHS orchestras. I don't think anyone ever quite believes me when I talk about it, because words are so insufficient - how can I ever begin to talk about why I cried the last time I performed it? It certainly wasn't just because it was the last time. There's just a certain magic in that particular piece, in looking out not at the audience, but at my conductor painting the air with her hands, at my friends making it happen, at the piano keyboard in front of me and marveling how this all ever came together to form this moment.

It was one of those moments that I can spend my whole life chasing a career just to try to feel one more time.

But I've learned how, in being so in love with that moment, I have to let it go to continue with my other Magical Snippets of Time. It's a lot like saying goodbye to my best friends, now moving on in college and living their dreams, now in high school and about to embark on their self-created paths, now here, tomorrow somewhere far away. You won't always be able to replace their part in your life; you just learn to live without. And a lot of it is about acceptance of the bittersweetness of it all. I keep thinking that I'll never have that moment again - I may or may not ever play another concerto with an orchestra, and it could be "bigger," but it won't be the same. And now I'm learning that it's okay. There's something different to enjoy in everything. I just need to be able to say to these moments and to my best friends of now, of the past, of the future... thank you for stopping by.