A little encouragement goes a long way

My dad blasted opera music when I was in the womb to ensure that I’d soundly sleep through it once I was born. He didn’t want to have to adjust the volume on my account. I don’t blame him. Not only do I sleep soundly to any type of classical music to this day, but I’m also a music fanatic.

At 3 yrs old, I was placed at the piano and commenced piano lessons. When it was clear that my little fingers were still too young for the keys, lessons were postponed until I was 5. I am the youngest child in my family, and therefore a natural glutton for attention, so I was delighted by all the praise I’d get from family and visiting friends for my playing.

(I also like photographing pianos.)

Somewhere along the way, within the ten years of my lessons, this natural relationship with the piano turned sour. Maybe it was the long days at private prep school that stole time from my practicing, making me feel inadequate and behind in my lessons. Maybe it was not getting the music scholarship in high school, making me feel discouraged. Regardless from where this destructive seed originated, it was planted in my sensitive adolescent brain and just continued to grow. Stopping lessons was a relief since it meant no longer needing to face feelings of shame and inadequacy at my lessons. And I was now free to focus on “more important” things like academic work and college applications.

These negative associations with the piano settled into a painful estrangement. The longer I stayed away from the piano, the more my memory of previously perfected pieces diminished, along with my agility on the keys. This deterioration resulted in deeper feelings of incompetence and inadequacy, perpetuating the downward spiral. All the while, my love for the piano just continued to grow, which made things worse. I could barely listen to Chopin without being moved to tears – not for its beauty, but for its mocking quality of what I no longer had.

When I was earning money out of college, one of my first investments was in an electric piano and digital recorder. Not because I was a prolific songwriter, but because I secretly wanted nothing more than to become one. This was not a dream I shared often with others, since it made me shy and self-conscious to even think about it as a possibility, and part of me felt silly for even purchasing the equipment. And when the piano would sit in my apartment unused for months at a time, my feelings of silliness would return. Who am I really kidding, anyway?

Slowly, with help from writing, acting, and other creative outlets that allowed for healing self-expression, I began to revisit my relationship with the piano. I’d sit for only a few minutes at a time, but found myself naturally floating over keys in aimless improvisations here and there. I’d hear fun melodies in my head, and fumble on the keys to bring them to life. Those that I liked I recorded. This became my rare guilty pleasure that I allowed myself only when feeling especially indulgent, and when there were not “more important” things to do…you know, like laundry, cooking, shopping, etc. And I never bothered mentioning this pastime to others, lest they want to hear my little doodles and realize the hack that I was. What business did I have in making music anyway? I was even terrible at reading it! It was waste of time, really…

And this is how the next five or so years progressed. As my sense of self began to strengthen, the stranglehold that had developed around my self-permission to play began to loosen. My explorations on the piano began to become longer in length and freer of self-criticism. Lyrics for melodies began to present themselves, and I began filling a notebook with them. Pieces of songs began to form together.

(I like tinkering on the guitar too.)

This past month, I finally completed my first piano piece, complete with lyrics and voice. I hadn’t played piano in front of anyone for the last 12 years, never mind any original pieces. But I felt a shy need to share this one with my brother, a close sibling who strongly influenced my own musical palate. With a timid nervousness I sent him a recording via email. Just a rough draft of something I wrote, I told him.

Two hours later I got his email:

“So I just played this song a bunch of times. It is simply beautiful.  The piano, your voice, and the lyrics. It sounds professional, and that does not do it justice.  I am beyond impressed. I think you need to keep going on this. You have a gift.”

And so began the tears. Years of repression released. For so long I had replayed the story in my head that I was not good enough to write a song. I was not even worthy of the piano. And here was positive support and encouragement from a family member who has a track record of holding high standards for all things I do, from college essay writing, to choosing a career, to driving manual shift. Generally there is always room for improvement. But today I got his praise.

This push of encouragement inspired me to continue with other songs I had brewing, and with vigor I’ve been dedicating time to the the piano each day since. Over the last few weeks, I can honestly say that what was left of the darkness that had plagued my relationship with the piano has completely lifted. It is now my peer rather than my superior, my dancing partner instead of a disciplinarian, and playing music is a happy creative relief instead of a stress-inducer.  It is amazing how healing this familiar, old wound has greatly impacted my overall emotional health. A burden has lifted, and I simply feel more like myself.

While this healing process has certainly been going on for years, it is clear that a little encouragement from others may be the final push we need to get ourselves over a massive hill. Especially if we create that hill ourselves.

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High Sierra Music Festival: Medicine for body and soul

When people want to relax and rejuvenate, the obvious ideas that come to mind are massages, spas, sleep, a warm bed and maybe a luxurious getaway at a high-end hotel. Not ridiculously late nights and camping in a tent. Or uncomfortably hot days, ongoing loud music and communal cold showers. But let me tell you, if you’re an outdoorsy, music-loving type, a camping music festival (specifically High Sierra) may be just what the doctor ordered.

(Toots at the main stage)

Anyone who knows me knows that my quality of life basically revolves around the mood of my stomach. It’s a capricious one, that tummy, and some evenings it will have a fit and cause so much discomfort that I need to retreat to my bed instead of moving forward with evening plans. I’ve been able to negotiate with it by altering my diet, getting a consistent amount of sleep and exercise, and basically being a better listener to its needs. Though these adjustments have helped tame the outbursts, they have not been enough to alleviate its regular poutiness, making me, more often than not, a tad bloated and numb in my core. This is why I avoid tight pants.

(Deer Tick night show)

The High Sierra Music Festival is a 4-day festival in Quincy, CA, about 4 hours north-east of San Francisco. It happens annually the long weekend after July 4th. If you want to score a desirable camping spot, it’s best to arrive as early as possible Thurs AM, if not Weds night to queue in line for entry. The foothills of the Sierra Mountains make for incredibly hot days in the sun, reaching upper 90’s, and significantly cooler nights that require bundling up. There is never a shortage of music options within the entire 4-days: the festival’s 3 stages each have bands playing continuously from 10am – 12am; “late-night” shows go on 12-2am; Silent Disco allows you to dance it down to a DJ’d set on headphones (respecting the noise ordinance) in the meadow with other night owls from 2am – sunrise; just walk around the grounds at any time of day or night to find a pop-up band or jam session playing somewhere amongst the tents. Basically, it is an onslaught of music and (if you’re me) dancing for 96 hours straight.

(me dancing with the samba drumming parade, in festive style)

Two days into the High Sierra Music Festival, I noticed that I was feeling unusual…my stomach actually felt connected to my body and I felt 5 lbs lighter. No bloating, buddha belly or debilitating pains. Yet, I was running on no more than 8 hours of restless sleep between the last two nights, my meals had been few and far between, and the food I did eat contained wheat and other ingredients that have been triggers in the past. I also had an endless amount of energy given my lack of physical rest. I’m normally a need-8hrs-of-sleep and in-bed-by-11pm type of girl. Generally, staying up past 1am ensures that I will be groggy and suffering from stomach pain the next day. Yet, here I was unable to stop dancing, hour after hour, feeling my healthiest. Most importantly, my stomach area, or solar plexus chakra, was happy.

(stilt walkers in the parade)

Our solar plexus chakra is associated with our self-confidence, self-esteem, will and empowerment. It is the fire that fuels our “gut instincts” that lead us into action. It embodies our sense of self. It is ultimately the source of our self-acceptance and confidence with our place in the world. Given that this blog is about me learning how to settle into my body and “true self”, it is no surprise that my solar plexus chakra is generally unbalanced, causing stomach pains!

(drum circle dance party at end of parade)

So what is it about the festival that balanced my tummy chakra and allowed me to embody my true, free and jubilant self? One could argue it was the insane amount of dancing, an exercise that stimulates the energy center with all the twisting and hip-shaking, promoting healing. Or maybe it was the healing power of live music inundating my every cell. Maybe it was simply the fact that I was free to do whatever I wanted at any time, whether it be dancing, napping, swimming, exploring vendor tents or getting a snack. I was able to pay attention to my needs and desires full-time, with no obligations, responsibilities or restrictions getting in the way of honoring them.  I was surrounded by the things I love most, and had no computers or even phones (low battery and poor reception) to distract me from interacting with them as I wished. This was the perfect setting for pure, uninhibited self-expression.

(The Nibblers rockin’ out on the roof of a winnebago)

Now that I’m back in the “real world,” where responsibilities and obligations do exist, my goal is to not let them cramp my festival style. I don’t see why the sense of freedom and connection I felt on the festival grounds cannot be continued into my every day life. The key, I believe, is prioritizing my needs and not allowing external responsibilities and obligations overshadow them. Our first responsibility truly is to ourselves – during a plane emergency, you are asked to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting others. For example, there is no reason for me to not make yoga and dance classes during the week, since movement expression is clearly vital to my health. Why should these things not get prioritized over other activities? There is no reason why I should hold back impulsive self-expression in social situations. Who’s to say I’m too quirky? And it is necessary to lay down boundaries so as not to feel guilted into saying “yes” to everyone, every time. Not acknowledging needs and expressive impulses will force that energy to be stagnant once more in my gut.

(The Motet funkifying Grateful Dead tunes on the Big Meadow stage)

Lastly, it is necessary to have a positive attitude and deflect negativity. It is obviously easier to do this in an environment that is already brimming with smiling, happy faces, and where the person finding your lost ID and credit card returns them safely to the lost & found (thank you, whoever you are). But this positive energy ultimately begins with one person. I’m going to try to approach every day, every situation, as though it is a festival. What about life is there not to celebrate? Maybe my stomach will take a hint if I lead by example.

A big thanks to Lloyd Chang for letting me display a few of his shots! Check out more of his wonderful pics at socialskit.com

Learning from our inner child

My favorite thing to do as a child was to explore the outdoors. I was fortunate enough to live on a beach where I’d find shells, scare fiddler crabs, and chase minnows. I also collected objects in and around the yard, including an old rusted train track bolt, copper wire, and a piece of volcanic rock. I thought about this the other day as I looked at the glass vase of shells I collected from from my time in Florida, sitting on my end table. I was still a collector of objects that interested me. But what to do with these things once collected?

An old lamp shade that survived my apartment-purging a few weeks back was still sitting unused in my closet. And a hook hanging from my ceiling remained bare since I moved in. I decided to create a shell mobile. Though it was not a hard task, and my simple mobile is by no means a masterpiece, it did get me back in touch with my explorer-self who enjoys tactile relationships with interesting objects. It reminds me of this each time I look at it. And it also reminds me that I like to make things.

Once around 8 or so, I became obsessed with building forts and structures that were “my own” within the untamed outdoors. Old metal sheets that my Dad had lying about made perfect walls for a fort. Under a blanket thrown over 5 garden stakes (4 in the corners and one in the middle to prevent sagging) became my favorite place to read. My brother, 15 years my senior, joked that I turned the backyard into a shantytown.

I’m not sure exactly when I got the idea to start the “Hippy Hideout Club,” but somehow I got it in my head that hippies (I thought hippie was spelled hippy) were really cool. To me, “hippy” signified a free-spirit who was in commune with all things naturally harmonious and beautiful. I liked long flowy skirts and big-beaded jewelry. Maybe that’s when the seed for my move to San Francisco was planted. I enlisted all my friends in the neighborhood to participate in the “Hippy Hideout Club”. I dreamed up elaborate plans for a tree house, but since this was not a viable option on our property, a shaded corner of the yard had to suffice for our gatherings. I was president, of course, but assigned official roles to each of my friends, from vice president to meeting attendance taker. One was not officially in the “club” until they had an appropriate name badge, fitted with the official stamp (a simple sand dollar ink stamp) and their hippie name. My vice president chose “Sunflower,” her sister (the meeting note-taker) chose “Cloud”. My name was “Wind”. Wind fascinated me, and still does. It can be so welcomed, like on a hot summer day, or cursed at, like when riding a bike uphill in rain. It cleanses our air and helps pollinate our plants. It is the antithesis of stagnation.

I was reminded of my Hippy Hideout days today as I sat at my desk, facing the windows. The wind was so strong that it suck my sheer curtain out of the open window, making it dance. This was really the essence of the name I had then chosen for myself: a force that was as gentle and beautiful as it was strong and unpredictable. It inspired me to take some photos.

“Childish” is a term generally used with a negative connotation, used to describe feelings or behavior that does not seem rational or practical. But in truth it is with this pure and ignorant mind that we are most susceptible to inspiration and wonderment, even in the simplest of surroundings. I’ll take inspiration and wonderment over practicality any day.