Wednesday, December 13

Self Care

This semester has been one of the hardest of my college career. Between teaching, accompanying, classes, and studying piano, let's just say things got more than a little overwhelming at times (most of the time). I cried the first time I sat down and wrote out my daily schedule of obligations because I realized that most days, I had only 30-45 minutes of free time. I had countless breakdowns in practice rooms because I felt like I was failing at everything I was doing and letting down everyone who was counting on me. I even skipped class for the first time. It was ROUGH, guys.

But I lived to tell the tale. This semester took a lot out of me, but it also gave me back a lot of knowledge and wisdom and maturity. I anticipate that real life is also inclined to be stressful, and I am thankful that this semester provided the opportunity for me to explore healthy methods for dealing with stress. While it certainly wasn't the most exciting or important skill I learned this semester, I'm proud of myself for learning to focus on self care once in a while.

I had never even heard the term "self care" before this semester, and then it seemed like all of a sudden it totally took off. Suddenly everyone was Instagramming pictures of their venti Starbucks, Netflix, aestheticy brunch plates, delicious sugary delights, manicures, etc...

And don't get me wrong, I am so down for all of those things and I think they're definitely a big part of self care. However, I think self care should be considered a two-step process. The Starbucks and brunch stage is more of a "treat yourself" step, and to be honest, it's by far the more fun side of self care. I read this article on self care recently and it inspired me to really think about taking self care further than the treat yourself phase. It speaks about how self care should not be escaping your life, but taking steps to make your life such that you don't have to escape from it on a regular basis.

When we continue past the treat yourself phase is when true self care begins. Learning to distinguish between the two approaches and training myself to choose the better option is definitely going to be a long process, but this difficult semester gave me the opportunity to focus on and improve this life skill.

For example, when coming home after a long day of playing for voice lessons all morning and then having classes all afternoon:

Treat yourself says, "Go ahead and grab a few cookies and curl up with a fuzzy blanket and some Netflix."

Self care says, "You will have a much harder day tomorrow when you have to perform in piano studio and you haven't practiced for two days straight."

While both of these options make sense to me, one of them is giving me an escape and one of them is keeping me from having to escape again later.

Self care is not only preparing to make the future better, though. It is also finding ways to focus on the present and to emphasize the beauty of the moment before you. This semester I started cooking and baking several times a week (because who doesn't love food, amen?). I also grew two avocado plants in Mason jars on my windowsill and bought a sketchbook and a set of watercolor pencils and made myself clean my room and organize my closet and started exploring the world of essential oils and started working out.

Self care can take many forms, and it should look somewhat different for each individual person. The treat yourself step of self care is great and important, but it should not be the only focus. If we are caring for another person and the only way we showed that we care about them was constantly showering them with gifts without showing any concern for their life or their emotional health, that does not show true care for that person.

And of course, let us not forget that the most important part of self care is maintaining a healthy relationship with Christ. He is the one who truly and wholly cares for us, anyway. Be cautious of the self care mentality to be sure that it never diminishes or removes our need for God and His love and peace. No amount of focus on self care without an ultimate focus on God will ever bring comfort and satisfaction.

This semester has been one of the hardest of my college career, and as I enter my second to last semester in a few weeks, I look forward to more difficult days to come. However, with the knowledge of true self care and the discernment I learned this semester, I go into those days more equipped now to choose a life from which I don't have to escape, but that I can live in the strength of the Lord, every moment of every day.

Monday, September 12

Choosing Joy

So we could discuss how it's been eight (8!!!!) months since my last post, or we could just ignore that little tidbit and continue on...

Yeah, let's go with that.

I'm currently sitting in a McDonald's listening to tons of Chopin on Spotify while eating a hot fudge sundae. Since inspiration always strikes me at the most random moments, I really should have expected this to happen (although I suppose if I had expected the inspiration, that would negate the random factor and we wouldn't even be here...but I digress).

I've mentioned in previous posts before that I have a hard time writing blog posts about things that I'm experiencing currently as I write the posts, and that I rather prefer writing about circumstances that have already played out to a somewhat satisfactory conclusion. This post is that way to an extent, but it's also a bit different (have I caught your interest effectively yet?). I also don't really know if this post is relatable or not... I'm inclined to think that it isn't super relatable in general, simply because if it were more of a relatable issue, then I probably wouldn't have had the issue in the first place.

Those of you who are unlucky enough to know me closely in real life are well aware that the past year has been very difficult for me as I've been seeking the Lord's will for my life and trying to reconcile what I thought I wanted with what was the best thing for me not only now, but also for my future. We all know that making major life decisions is always such a fun time anyway (ha), but this decision was ultra-complicated for me because of one main factor:

I was incredibly lonely.

I've blogged before about my personal philosophy as a musician, and it's almost impossible to know me without knowing that music is a huge part of my life (it kind of is my life, actually). I'm currently pursuing my undergraduate degree in piano performance, and I plan to continue my education in the future to obtain a master's degree and possibly a doctorate. Music can be a very competitive field, and although I've chosen to reject the cutthroat, elitist attitude that many musicians unfortunately embrace, I am still expected to be capable of performing at a competitive level with musicians that have that "whatever it takes" mentality. Consequently, it's vital that I pursue as many professional development opportunities as I can and that I stay very focused on developing myself as a musician in preparation for my future endeavors. And I did all of that quite well over the last year.

But I was incredibly lonely.

This whole past year has been a struggle for me trying to balance my desire to find and surround myself with good people who show good character and think the same way that I do with my desire to become a successful and well-rounded musician who can function easily and be well respected in the real world. I went back and forth for months on end, anguishing constantly wondering if I was going to make the right choice, wishing that everything could just be as easy for me as it seemed to be for others, resenting others for taking for granted what I longed for more than anything else...

I thought that I had to make a choice between two things that in my mind couldn't possibly exist simultaneously in my life under the circumstances. I saw my friends compromising standards, rebelling against their parents, and completely rejecting biblical truths that we had been taught our whole lives. What made it even worse was that my friends seemed to be loving life and doing just peachy, while I felt like I was the only one left who still wanted to do what was right, work hard to achieve my goals, and follow God's plan and timing, and I was miserable.

Anyway, here I am still feeling that way, but I've grown to accept it a little more. I did finally put the decision between my two desires to rest, but somehow it didn't seem to affect my life as monumentally as I expected that it would. What I ultimately came to is that my decision one way or another really didn't matter all that much. The desires of my heart are fleeting and change on a whim, but God is constant.

His plan isn't always easy, and sometimes I still break down and question the choices I made, but ultimately I can always know that God is constantly at work. He has brought me to exactly where I am in my life right now and I can trust that everything is going to come together and be just fine. Pursuing earthly success and acceptance from others is not the way to find true happiness and fulfillment. God knows what I need and what I want and will give me those things as He sees fit, regardless of my circumstances.

The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; and my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:5-11)

So even though I've hashed all that out for myself, let me just reiterate that I am very lonely. I accidentally discovered what I want to do with my life kind of early on compared to most people, so I have a lot of direction and drive right now that not a lot of people my age have, and that alone makes me somewhat isolated. I really don't know when or if I'll find people that I feel like I really connect with well, but I remain hopeful that they're out there for me somewhere. In the meantime, I'm learning a lot about how to be a person on my own (it's harder than it looks).

I realize that sounds positively unpleasant, but I'm really not at all unhappy with my current situation. I'm thrilled for my future and I hope for many exciting things to come. (But nonetheless, if you found this post relatable in the slightest, hit me up and maybe we can be lonely together.)

So as you can see, this situation of trying to reconcile seemingly conflicting desires is not entirely resolved, but I'm kind of starting to think that it may not ever really be resolved. I think maybe I accidentally stumbled upon one of the things that's just part of being a person, and it isn't really about good or bad so much as it's about how we choose to react.

I choose joy.

Monday, January 4

Trusting God & McDonald's

When I was younger, one of my favorite family activities was to go out for a meal together (something I still enjoy). We were pretty regular patrons at Kentucky Fried Chicken, but I was a fan of McDonald's, personally. Sometimes, however, Dad would decide that he wanted to go on an adventure and try something new, which I think was just his way of saying that he didn't know what he wanted to eat so we were just going to drive around town until he made up his mind (this argument is further supported by the fact that we frequently ended up at one of our old favorite restaurants after all).

I've mellowed out in recent years, but when I was younger, I was one of the most obnoxious children you'd ever meet because I wanted to know everything. I knew the family's schedule better than Mom; I had memorized the details of every upcoming church activity, field trip, or whatever other outing was planned. I wasn't a control freak per se, but I really, really wanted to know what was going on all the time and what the plan was. Consequently, I found Dad's "adventuring" extremely frustrating. As a twelve year old, the question on the top of my FAQ's was most certainly "Where are we going?"

Time after time I would sit in the car as Dad drove around and around and around, going who knows where, little tyrant Mer wanting more than nothing else (except maybe a Happy Meal) to feel in control and to know where we were going. I would hold the question in as long as I could, knowing that Dad would not be happy to answer, but inevitably I would spit out, "Where are we going?"

This was never well received.

Dad wanted us to just sit and wait for him to show us where he wanted to go to eat (since he obviously had a plan all along). 

He had already promised us that we were going somewhere, and he wanted us to just believe his promise, then wait and see what he did for us.

I realized today that as I've been seeking God's will for my future recently, I kind of slipped back into that old twelve year old mentality. I've been so stressed out about all the things going on in my life that all I've been doing is frantically asking for, begging for, and even demanding answers from God. Just like when Dad was driving around town and I wanted to know right away where we were going to eat, I was trying to bend God's plan for me to fit my foolish timing rather than believing that His way is best.

Eventually as I got older, I started to learn to keep my mouth shut on Dad's adventures and just trust Dad's word that I would get my McDonald's eventually. I think it's time that I start applying the same principle as I follow God's plan for my life. Just like Dad promised me McDonald's, God has promised that goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. I don't have to hold on to my anxiety and worry, questions and doubts. I should instead offer it all to the One who not only is able to solve all my problems, but wants me to seek His help for every situation I face.

I always love how writing these posts not only helps me settle my own thoughts within myself, but also brings to mind other ideas to think about or related verses or songs. As I wrote this, I thought of a verse from the song "Amazing Grace" that is full of beautiful truth that is all too easy for me to forget.

The Lord has promised good to me;
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Right now, I'm choosing to believe with all my heart that God has an amazing plan for me that He will fulfill if I just trust Him. I'm going to claim His promises to me and live life fully in His steadfast love, endless mercy, and abundant grace, whatever that means might change along the way.

And who knows, maybe I'll get some McDonald's along the way to boot. 

Friday, November 27

Finding God in Music

Most kids my age struggle with finding out who they are, what their place is in the world, what they want to do with their lives, et cetera...

While I certainly can't take any credit for this, I'm lucky enough to have at least part of my life puzzle in place already that some people take years to work out.

I'm a musician. Music is what I love, and the more I experience it, the more I love it. Music puts our emotions on display in the most raw and vulnerable way possible.

I'm not a very "out there" kind of person (even though I used to think I was). I really don't like to talk about my thoughts or feelings because I just don't think that people will be interested. In music, however, I have a way to express pure feeling without even the obstacles and limits that words impose, in such a way that anyone can relate.

For example, I'm listening to a Liszt piece as I write, and throughout the different sections of the piece I hear a portrayal of pure innocence which gives way to feelings of betrayal, followed by unbridled anger which then morphs into determination, perseverance, and eventual triumph. This piece honestly gets me every time because for me, it's so much more than just notes and cool sounds. This piece is about making a decision to seek after beauty and truth with determination regardless of how ugly life can be sometimes.

"Music begins where the possibilities of language end." - Jean Sibelius
Music is very powerful and incredibly important on many levels, both physical and abstract. I can't imagine my life without music because it's how I relate to the world, and it's through integrating my personal experiences in the world into my music that my existence is made relevant (on one level, anyway).

But "musician" is not the only label that I've claimed. Even more importantly than my identity as a musician, I am a child of God and thus am identified with Christ; therefore, it is my reasonable service to honor Him and obey Him.

Growing up in church, I heard my fair share of verses reminding Christians that whatever we do should be for the glory of God, so I knew all along that whatever I ended up doing with my life, I would be doing it for God's glory and not my own. But once I started becoming more serious about my music and realized that I want to be a classical musician a few years ago, I've since then struggled a lot with how one can make music for the glory of God outside of singing sacred songs in a worship setting. It was easy to say that I wanted to honor God through my music, but I was at a loss as to where exactly God fit in to classical music.

As I started studying music in college, I really had to start thinking about how to differentiate my music from anyone else's, and to do this I started exploring how I connected to music personally, both in listening and performing. Not surprisingly, I found that my connections to music are almost exclusively emotional, so I concluded that music does indeed come from the heart, as many people have said before.

I was kind of frustrated because it didn't feel like I had made any kind of progress in my search for how to be a God-honoring pianist. All I had discovered was that music comes from the heart and touches your emotions, and that was nothing new.

There was a pretty basic disconnect happening in my thinking, though. I was making music greater than God and implying that He had to just let the music happen and find some way to be glorified in it. After all, it came from my heart and there was really no way for me to control what happened with it. 

But I was getting things terribly out of order.

People in the music world can be really awful - everyone just wants to get their big break and make their name, no matter how selfish they have to be to attain to those things. They are willing to fight their way to the top with no regard for how they affect others along the way. Those people are completely missing the point of music - to bring people together and touch their emotions in a way too beautiful for words. There is no room for selfishness in music. We should seek only to better people and offer them new perspectives.

It took seeing several selfish musicians perform for me to see just how vital it is for me to be sincere and to have pure motives behind my playing. Music is a gift from God, and to keep it to ourselves or use it only to advance ourselves would be a terrible waste. The best music comes from people who play sincerely from the heart, because they love music and love others. Despite all of the politics and nastiness that happens backstage, when you actually take to the stage to perform, the only thing that matters is whether or not you actually have the substance to back yourself up.

I found these verses earlier today and I think that they sum up pretty well what I believe is the key to being a God-honoring musician.

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, 
full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:16-17)

Like with so many other similar issues that I've struggled with relating to how I can possibly please God, it seems that it all comes down to one question: What is my motivation in doing this?

If music comes from the heart, then the most important thing for me to do as an aspiring musician (except for maybe my scales and arpeggios) is to make sure that my heart is right before God, and then to play passionately with love and sincerity from a pure heart.

Thursday, November 12

Perfectly Imperfect

I was watching the sunset tonight, which is not at all an unusual thing for me to do. What was unusual though, was that I was feeling quite melancholy staring up at the beautiful, rosy hues in the sky.

Sunsets always bring a flood of memories for me. They've usually been pleasant, sometimes with a hint of sweet, naive longing. Tonight was different, though. The memories were painful and overwhelming to the point that all I could do was cry. The colors in the sky blurred together like a watercolor painting as my eyes filled with tears. Still I watched the sky, holding on to the hope that I always feel when watching sunsets. The picture was unclear, but still beautiful.

Have you ever noticed that the most beautiful sunsets are not the ones with perfectly clear skies? The most beautiful sunsets - like tonight's - are the ones that are clouded and have some dark places. Tonight, the sun's rays lit up the underside of the clouds, illuminating even the darkest of clouds with a stunning golden light.

God can do the same thing with the dark places in our lives if we just let Him. There's no shame in being real and admitting that we're broken and confused and hurting - the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

As I looked at the perfectly imperfect sky tonight, it made me think of my life right now. The past has some dark places and hard memories, and as I look ahead with tears in my eyes, the future is unclear. But my life is one of God's creations, and because of that I can know that it's going to be beautiful.