Letting my love be heard

I lost my first music therapy client about a month ago.

She was a hospice patient, and she was the sweetest person I had ever met (which says a lot, because I’ve had the fortune of knowing so many wonderful people).

When I first got the news, even though I knew she had been in hospice for many reasons, I was still taken aback. We’d thought she had more time. I’d been planning my next session with her. I was going to see her in just a few days.

Plus, she had requested a song at our last session that I didn’t know, and I’d promised to learn it for her. That night after receiving the call, I cried. I felt like I’d broken a promise, and I wanted so badly to follow through on it.

In the weeks since then, I’ve processed this with my colleagues, therapist, and supervisor, and I realize repeatedly how lucky I am for such a strong support system. They reminded me that I had given her positive experiences before she passed, and that telling her I’d learn the song for her was a gesture in itself, and that she’d been peaceful. Hopeful.

Two sessions before that, she had told me what songs she wanted at her memorial. She said her husband had never been a musical person but once heard a specific song, came home to her, and said, “This is my song for you.” That was the one she wanted at her memorial, even though she said she wouldn’t need it. She’d be with Jesus, she said, but she knew her loved ones would feel better holding one for her.

My supervisor performed those songs at her funeral, and she passed away surrounded by people she loved.

At what I didn’t know would be our last session together, I sang two hymns for her. Near the end, she wanted me to sing one more song—she didn’t care what it was, but she wanted it to be something I loved.

So I sang “Come In With the Rain,” which I thought I’d never sing to a patient, and she loved it. She said the lyrics were lovely, and I told her I looked forward to our next session. I meant it.

Today it hit me that that was the last song she’d ever heard. It hurts that she is no longer here, but I’m thankful I got to know her in her last few months, that I had such meaningful interactions with her, that our sessions brightened her days when we were there. And reflecting now, I realize there is no greater moment of genuine connection—singing a song I loved deeply to a lovely woman who understood.

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.

Giving out love in an angry world

I'm always being told that I'm not enough.
I'm not nice enough — I don't give enough love.
I'm too nice — I give too much of it away.

It's hard enough trying not to internalize the hatred I see everywhere, and it's hard not to become bitter when everything I try and do seems wrong. Sometimes, I wonder if there's a point in trying to be kind in such an unkind world. Right now, sending love to people feels a lot like throwing it into a void. Once it's given, it's gone — no reciprocation, just a lot of angriness and emptiness looking back.

Sometimes, as I think about this, I find myself harboring bitterness and cynicism. I even accept that jadedness for a while, and I think: I'll just have to live with this. It seems inevitable given how awful people can be. It seems unavoidable given how unlovable I can be, and how I can never escape that and will always be aware of it.

And there's the issue. The way I perceive the world has so much to do with how I look at myself. The more I think of myself as a bad person, the easier it is for me to see others that way.

I look around a lot when I'm outside. Often, when I'm resigned and angry and defeated, something someone does brings me back.

I see the way a mother looks at her daughter — proud and joyful, and her daughter isn't even aware of being looked at like that. All she knows is when she lifts her arms up for a hug, her mom will pick her up.

I see an elderly man drop his items and sigh as he bends down to pick it up, and suddenly five different people are there helping him.

I'm driving, and I need to get into a lane or else I'll take an accidental exit, but someone flashes their light and waves me over.

I'm having a bad day and I'm glaring at the ground as I walk, hoping no one will start berating me for something they think I should've taken care of. Then someone I'm sort of friends with smiles at me, and we talk, and I walk away realizing we've just strengthened our friendship just a little bit more.

I still get yelled at for being too nice, then turn around and get berated for not being nice enough. Sometimes I want to withdraw all of my love so I'll never get rejected and I'll never see myself hurt again. But who is that punishing?

It doesn't hurt the people who already hate me and hate the world and hate people in general. It only hurts the ones who love me. It hurts the ones I love. It hurts me.

This is a world that's hard to love in and hard to love in general. I get it. But for every bit of anger, hate, and recycled hurt out there, some bit of kindness is always happening too.

Trying to change the world is important, but when I try, I tend to fixate on the things that need to be changed. Sometimes, I just need to unplug and remind myself of all the things that don't need changing. All the kind and wonderful people I know and all the kind and wonderful things they do. All the kind and wonderful things that will keep being done, no matter how bad it gets.

So I'll allow myself to take a deep breath, be angry if I need to, and retire from company for a few hours or a few days. And then I'll try to add at least one more instance of kindness in this hectic, scary, impassioned world.

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.

Review: Alzheimer's, grief, and Lisa Genova's "Still Alice"

Book: Still Alice by Lisa Genova - the story of Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland and her experiences with Alzheimer's disease.

Still Alice captures so many elements heartbreakingly well - the helplessness, the initial denial and attempts to reverse things, the frustration and emotion involved therewith.

I learned the other day (thanks, new music therapy textbook!) that Kübler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief was not originally meant to describe the grief of the bereaved, but that of those nearing the end of their lives. These are fleshed out and given life without the specific labels in this book through the beginning of Alice's journey with Alzheimer's disease to the end.

This story and the way it is written are powerful. I cried and cried for Alice, for her family, for everyone who has and had and is going through this, for people I know who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, for the cruelty of death and the taking away of all the things we hope and dream of eventually. Many books romanticize the actual experience of having a terminal illness - Still Alice shows us both the beauty still found in Alice's life and the cruel reality of the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's. The things that we can get out of this book extend beyond knowledge of Alzheimer's itself, but also the people who have them, their caregivers, and the power of love and meaning that permeates our lives in different ways as circumstances - and as we - change.


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.

Decision-making in a goal-oriented context

Am I going after what I want?

This can hold so many meanings depending on the word that's emphasized:
Am I going after what I want? (Is it happening?)
Am I going after what I want? (Am I the one doing the work or am I waiting for someone else to do it?)
Am I going after what I want? (Am I actively doing it right now?)
Am I going after what I want? (Is this relevant? What am I seeking?)
Am I going after what I want? (Self-explanatory. Am I seeking approval and/or trying to make someone else happy at my own expense?)
Am I going after what I want? (Is this my passion, desire, and/or goal?)

Other check-in questions for myself:
Am I standing up for myself? For others?
Am I letting fear dictate my life? In other words, are my actions coming from me drive toward something or away from something?
Am I happy with where I am? If not, what steps am I taking to change that?

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.