Learning patience

“Oh look, your favorite tree, and it’s full of fruit!” my friend exclaimed as we got out of the car at our Russian River destination. I had told her on the drive up how obsessed I was with figs, and how happy I was that it was finally fig season. I went over to look where she was pointing, but my excitement waned as I realized that all the figs that covered this tree like christmas ornaments were still too green to eat. Not a single ripe one. In a few weeks they would all be ripe for the picking, but alas I was too early. As I stared at one of the green bulbs that seemed to mock me, my disappointment dissipated into amusement as I realized that I was once again being faced with the lesson that was front and center in my life right now: patience. From my career to relationship to digestive health, I had been cultivating tender sprouts for a healthy blossoming, but none had yet to show their bright petals. Instead of appreciating the small (or in some cases large) steps I had made in each of those departments, I tend to get restless and internally throw a fit, like a small child wanting ice-cream “noooow”.

I guess a large part of my anxiety stems from the fear that no flowers will actually bloom, that all my work in cultivating fruitful areas of my life will fail, leaving me not only barren and exhausted but also cynical. Because in the end, there is no guarantee that fruits from our labor will actually ripen and make it to our mouths. There could be a drought, a plant plague, or some thieving animals that will squander all your hard work. In order to not go mad over the risks, it is necessary to have trust and faith that the fruit will in fact come. One needs to detach from the needless worry, and surrender to what will be. Water the plant, give it your love and best intentions, but then let go. You may find that all that positive energy you’ve directed to your sprout will actually encourage it to push through and bloom even more beautifully than you imagined.

At least, this is what I’m telling myself right now. Only time will tell for sure. Until then, I am doing my darndest to wade patiently in the unknown and appreciate my seedlings.

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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.

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.

Defining the value of art

Does art need to be in a frame in order for us to value it?

In 2007 an internationally acclaimed violinist set up in an unassuming corner of the Washington DC subway station and played some of the most sophisticated pieces ever written on his Stradivari violin, worth $3.5 million. Of the estimated 1,100 people that came through the subway during his playing, only 6 of them stopped to listen for any length of time. The artist who regularly gets paid $1000/minute earned a total of $32 for his 45 min set. Mostly, he was ignored. This experiment begs the question: what determines the value of an art piece and to what extent does context and presentation play a role? And, do we need to be first convinced of a thing’s value in order to value it ourselves?

I think about this now when I visit museums and art galleries. To be honest I wasn’t particularly impressed with many of the exhibits I saw at my latest visit to the SF MOMA, despite their presentation and protection by security guards. I just wasn’t “moved”. When art museums were a new experience for me, I remember feeling a pressure to connect with the pieces simply because whole environment shouted “this is special”. If I wasn’t feeling a piece, I would sometimes wonder if I was missing something, and then judge by inability to connect with it. Perhaps, because of the fancy presentation and price of my ticket, my expectations were too high. Perhaps, if I saw the piece simply hanging in a doctor’s office, I would feel differently.

This is why I like independent art shows – presentation is simplified and it’s a more casual, accessible environment where expectations may not be high, allowing the pieces to better speak for themselves. Here are some pieces I enjoyed while at an independent art show this past weekend.

But I think the pieces I like best are those that are unexpected as we pass by. Those that weren’t necessarily created with the intention of being “art” and are not out to claim attention. Without being influenced by elaborate presentation, we can react to such pieces from a more neutral state of being and see it for what it is. But also, the unexpected nature can add a special touch, like receiving a surprise gift. This scene below, painted randomly on a sidewalk, made me smile as I headed off to work one morning. I probably wouldn’t have been as amused had I saw it printed and framed in the SF MOMA. Its natural form on the sidewalk is what gives it its value.

I’d like to think that if I was walking through that subway during the 45 min violin concert, I would at least acknowledge the violinist with a smile (as I usually do with street musicians), and if I was not late in catching my train, stop and appreciate the music for a bit. But in order to recognize something, we need to be present. Our eyes and ears must be open to receive. It’s quite possible that many of those commuters that morning were so focused on their days ahead that they didn’t even hear the music. And if you don’t hear the music, how can you stop and appreciate it?

Maybe that is exactly the point of the $100 tickets, dress-code and fancy performance hall – to make sure we are paying attention.

Lighten up

Every once in a while we need to be reminded of those basic habits that keep us alive and well. A near miss with a car reminds us to look both ways before crossing the road. A stomach upset reminds us that fried food is not welcome inside our body.

And a 58-second youtube clip can remind us to lighten up. A few weeks ago I was feeling rather dark and heavy, and had been for over a week. Though I didn’t have a specific reason for this “general malaise,” I can give credit to my impeccable ability to judge myself: I was annoyed at my ongoing knee tendonitis and drum-tight hamstrings, which made me feel like an 80-yr old in yoga class. I was frustrated with my inability to make decisions around my true calling and career goals, which just made me more irritable at work. And I was feeling guilty for spending just too many nights at home instead of being a happy city socialite.

As judgement generally does, it went outwardly as much as it went inwardly. Why is this person talking to me right now? Do they really think this thing is so important? What a waste of time, I don’t care! And I wondered why I was feeling so fatigued.

In the midst of my gloom, I came across this video, now viral, of Bill Murray with a posse of fans doing a slo mo walk, Wes Anderson style. Immediately, I was laughing. So ridiculously simple, but oh so hilarious. The laughter jarred my whole being. At first I was surprised something so simple could be so amazing. And then, as though snapping out of a trance, that thought itself surprised me. Of course something so simple can be so amazing! Get out of your head and lighten up!! All of a sudden the things I had judged that past week as “stupid” or “useless” had a rightful place in the world. And what were once my (first-world) heavy burdens were light as a feather, being blown out the window by my laughter.

As I made my way out the door to meet a friend for dinner, feeling 10 lbs lighter and fresh as a daisy, I laughed at how seriously I had taken myself and this thing called “life” for the past week.

Sometimes we just need a good laugh to lighten us up.

Making space

I live in a studio. So space is (very) limited. When I moved from my cottage-like 2-bdrm abode in spacious Florida to the 7×7 mile peninsula that is San Francisco, a lot of stuff had to go. It’s amazing just how much crap one can accumulate when you have the available space. And once in San Francisco, I begrudgingly made yet another trip to the Salvation Army when I realized that my initial clean-up was not sufficient for my new living space.

Downsizing was initially stressful. After signing the lease on my little home, I walked into the space with pangs of anxiety and claustrophobia. How is all my stuff going to fit in here?? What else can I get rid of? This is NEVER going to work!! It took some conscious deep breathing and a reassuring pep-talk with myself to get my heart rate down.

But after some meticulously planned placement of furniture with a measuring tape, things fell into place (literally).

And my living space became tight but tolerable, until this past weekend, when a bubbling angst over space signaled that yet another clean-up was necessary. The bookshelf that was stuffed into my closet had items I hadn’t looked at since I moved; extra stools took up valuable overhead space; my photography lights, also unopened since the move, took up more space than their practical value to me. What started as a mere reorganization of a few items turned into an entire reevaluation of all material possessions. Old card from an ex? Out. Clunky backpack? Goodwill. Fiction books I won’t read again? In the clunky backpack going to Goodwill.

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While I have experienced the therapeutic qualities of cleaning house before, no clean-up had ever felt so good. I can’t quite say why. Maybe it’s because it was not done in a mad rush to move apartments. I had no time-limit, no urgent reason that prompted it, and no expectations for what I was trying to achieve. The intent was simple: purge that which does not serve me. And in that pure mindspace, I found that I was able to be fully present with each object I sifted through, appreciating it for what it was and easily able to make a decision on its fate. There were no struggling moments of indecision or exasperation.

In that state of presence, I found creative inspiration coming in to help with my purging process. I considered finally getting rid of my metal strawberry shortcake lunchbox that had been my companion since kindergarten. It even accompanied me to my first professional job post college, earning me the nickname “cupcake.” At the decisive moment, while standing over a scattering of books and albums on the closet floor, I realized that I could line the box, covering the rust lines, and have it neatly house the jewelry that overflowed my night table. In fact, a large piece of beautiful butterfly wrapping paper I saved from a “welcome to San Francisco” present was still neatly folded under a pile of books, waiting to be used. This idea would be its saving grace from the trash. And so my craft project began. Here is the end result.

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Once the bookshelf was reorganized and I was reacquainted with all items that filled it, I moved on to my clothing rack. Doing a quick sweep for unused garments, I came across several band t-shirts, shrunken from loyal overuse. I loved these shirts, but they were too short to wear. I recalled the t-shirt display that covered the front of the GAP office downtown, and I knew what to do. An uninspiring Target canvas print, brought over from my FL days, hung on my large kitchen wall. It was time for a change.

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By the end of my cleaning rampage, I noticed that I could breathe easier. I felt renewed and energized. And my living space no longer felt cramped, but just right. Not only could I now recall what items I owned and why, but valuable space was created through my careful elimination and recycling (upcycling?).

I then realized that something is not better than nothing, and available space should not be a reason to fill it. Both in my closet and in my life I noticed a tendency to horde, to claim and hold on to things available to me, simply because I can – without thoughtful consideration of how they actually serve me. In my quiet moment of contentment, while taking in my fresh surroundings, I vowed to respect my space going forward by filling it only with those things that add real value to my life.