Lessons from a Tired Tuesday

This week, I am feeling the burnout of a senior music major. All I want is to curl up with chocolate and cry over old movies. Even on this tired Tuesday, though, the little things continue to remind me that beauty and order endure despite my messy life.

Here are a few; maybe they will help you remember that it is good to be alive and that there are better things ahead (and already here!)

  1. Why walk down the stairs when you can slide on the railing? (I did this and a girl exclaimed, “Guys! She just slide! Did you see how cool that was?” Day. Made.)
  2. Red lipstick makes even the laziest outfit, hair, etc. look intentional.
  3. Take notes. Whatever class, chapel, lecture, etc. Just the act of taking notes sets you up to be engaged and interested in the subject.
  4. Going along with #2, Bert’s Bees makes liquid lipstick and it is absolutely magical.
  5. Fallen leaves on a chilly morning. Go out of your way to step on them. The crunch is so worth it.
  6. Use honey to flavor your latte; it makes you feel healthy, tastes delicious, and won’t cost you that extra syrup charge.
  7. Dance. Maybe it’s because my professor made us watch Bride and Prejudice (Bollywood meets Jane Austen…) but I have been adding little dance steps to my walk and WOW it’s an instant mood boost.
  8. Allow space to create. I began my piano practice this morning by improvising a piece about some flowers I saw on my walk to the conservatory.

If you can find beauty in the little things, you will find beauty beyond your imagining; likewise, if you take care to order the little details, the larger will fall into place.

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To an Old Piano on the Roadside

They were going to throw me away,

Out with the rubbish bin.

I, who you used to play,

When you were small children.

.

Did it not mean much to you?

The scales we learned together?

Maybe if I were shiny, new,

I’d be kept out of the weather.

.

But moving on is hard;

You had to lighten the load.

So I’ll wait in the yard,

And maybe down the road…

.

Though my keys have grown brittle,

My legs liable to break,

If you remember a little,

Music we yet can make.

.

So join me as I linger

Beside this busy road.

Play, you friend and singer;

Lighten your daily load.

 

 

Eating Disorder, Reordered

In many previous blog posts, I have alluded to it. I have used it as an example of the dangers of perfectionism, as evidence of my own prideful nature, and as a point of reference to show how I’ve grown.

The “monster,” as my journal refers to it.

The eating disorder.

It’s something I can only really recognize in foresight and hindsight.

I remember Googling “symptoms of eating disorder” or “am I anorexic” as a frightened sixteen-year-old. However, while I was frightened by my sudden aversion to the healthy-sized portions of a growing teenager and by the falling number on my bathroom scale, I was also fascinated.

There is (or, at least, was) a romance to an eating disorder. It’s wrong that this is the case and I hate to think that I was not only drawn in by it, but desired it. Being thin became part of my self-adopted identity. Being able to function on an unrealistically low amount of food became a point of pride. Being able to wrap my hands more than completely around my thigh was a source of security.

The media’s portrayal of the female ideal was possibly a factor, but I can’t solely blame magazine covers or fashion models. It was my perception. It was what I chose to exalt that I then chose to embody. And it was not just magazines. In fact, I could care less about magazines. It was about my image, sure, but it was also about my whole person; I was not necessarily trying to be the same measurements as Taylor Swift, but I was trying to have the control that celebrities and models seemed to represent. Sure, I wanted to be thin, but on a deeper level, I wanted to be in control.

This struggle was made worse by what I chose to focus on not just in media, but in my own area of passion: literature.

Scarlett O’Hara’s “seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties” became an obsession, regardless of whether organ-damaging corsets were the true cause of her tiny size.

Erik, Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, was another odd ideal. If the genius artist only needed one meal a day, why should I need more?

Worst of all was a book called Wintergirls. It is literally about characters battling anorexia and I secretly consumed chunks of it every once in a while in the school library. First, I read it with intrigue, then disgust. I vowed I’d never let my eating get as bad as those characters. And I suppose I didn’t. But oh, how close I came, I fear that my mindset was no better than theirs.

I could go on incriminating book characters, actors, and even ordinary people from my day-to-day life who happened to be naturally thin, but ultimately it was not a matter of their sizes or eating habits, but my own skewed perspective. This I can recognize in hindsight. At the beginning of the slippery slope, I knew something was off, but the intrigue and distractions lead me further down the hole.

Not only was I curious to see if I too had the makings of a petite Southern Belle or angsty artist, but I was able to hide this temptation toward disordered eating behind distractions. Literature and music, my two loves, became curtains to obscure what was taking center stage in my attention. If I was hungry, I would take a meagre portion to my room and read as I nibbled slowly, hoping to escape far enough into a story to forget that I was still hungry. Or, worse maybe, I would not allow myself food until I’d finished my allotted practice time. By then, I’d be past knowing how hungry I was and would be contented with another tiny meal.

But I knew I had a problem. I just went about fixing it in all the wrong ways.

Instead of realizing worth apart from my external appearance, I would search “healthy-sized celebrities” and continue to compare myself as if adding “healthy” to the Pinterest search made it rational and helpful. I would bring extra snacks to school to reassure my parents…which I would force my friends to share with me. I would take quizzes to self-diagnose myself with the disorder as if by accepting that I had one it would take care of itself or, worse, be a valid part of my identity.

I was always hungry and always balanced on the edge between total control and loss of control. In fact, I found that in trying to have complete control in my life, I lost control. I was never a rebellious teenager in the traditional sense, but I lashed out at my family. I would make a point of ordering “healthy” foods when we went out to eat as if that made me better than those eating burgers. I would retreat to my room or the park where I liked to walk more and more frequently.

I started to recover only with time and I know that I will never stop battling the “monster.” I do not aim to offer a step-by-step recovery manual, nor to I really know if I have any advice worth sharing. But what really started me thinking toward recovery – seriously considering and beginning to act – was talking to people who had either 1) been through a similar struggle and/or 2) worked with those who had.

I was lucky. My parents, so concerned for my well-being and tired of fighting the monster that I had allowed to take over, nearly sent me to a rehabilitation center. That was my wakeup call and I agreed to go to a nutritionist instead. To this day, I remember her as one of the kindest and most helpful people I have ever had the joy to meet. She explained how common this problem is and prescribed a healthy, nourishing diet to help me slowly gain weight. I was scared. By this time, I had zip-lined over the rainforest, held a tarantula, given speeches in front of large crowds, performed in competitions, etc. But this– the mere thought of gaining ten pounds –was a challenge I didn’t know if I could face. And I didn’t, not really.

My parents did. And the nutritionist did. And, though there were many nights where I suffered setbacks (for instance, once I sobbed over being “forced” to eat a scoop of ice cream), slowly I gained weight.

And then lost it.

But, though I had only gained half of what I needed to be at the bare minimum weight, I was happier. Simply eating a normal amount and eating with people was starting to work a physical change, which was a step toward a general change for the better. Have you ever been hangry? You can’t make decisions and happiness seems an annoyance when you’re hangry.

Imagine begin hangry for two years. Now, imagine it’s your own fault that you’re hangry, adding self-disgust to the irritation. But, do you know how good a bite of food makes you feel after too long without it? Instant relaxation.

As I returned to a normal eating habit, I did not gain the weight back all at once, but I felt a peace. I could think more clearly. For someone who loves nothing more than deep thought, I hate to think of the time I wasted in a cloudy state.

And, as I grew more comfortable with myself (honestly, I just needed time and nourishment, like any living thing), I started spending more time with friends. I stopped retreating, started going out for ice cream randomly with my best friend, as all high schoolers should. I stopped comparing my body to others and instead focused on developing friendships with them. This isn’t to say I didn’t have friends before, but those relationships became so much more wonderful when I got out of my own head and realized that the beauty of others does not detract from my own, but that we are more beautiful when we come to appreciate each other without comparison.

The freshman fifteen in college really did the trick, I think. In a land where donuts are inescapable, I was terrified I would gain weight. But, when I inevitably did, I found that instead of being depressed and ugly, I was happy. As a music major and honors scholar, my schedule was and is ridiculous and I have a million commitments every day. And, you know what? Without even meaning to, I prioritized those commitments over my image.

For a year or so, I definitely still curled my hair and I still believe firmly that a swipe of lipstick can make all the difference. However, going away to college and pursuing new studies and relationships and jobs, I realized in reality what rationally I knew all along: There are far more important things than my pant size and than how little I can eat.

I also started running which, in itself, could have been a disaster. It could have turned into exercise bulimia. I could have tried to run off anything I ate. But I was not running alone, just as my family and friends had not let me travel the path of recovery alone. Right away, I told my running friend about my struggle with eating and body image and he to this day asks me how I am doing. When we set out for a run, he would (and sometimes still does) ask me how I had eaten that day and if I was doing alright.

Running brought me a new support system in this friend. It also alleviated the anxiety that had lead me to seek control over eating. Also, it helped me learn to be more focused on taking care of my actual body than my body image. It is so much better to have muscular legs from regular exercise than to have a thigh gap from avoiding food. I used to hate these strong legs, but now I am thankful every time I lace my running shoes that they are built to endure the race I am bound to run.

In hindsight, I can say that I have overcome a lot of this issue and the mindset behind it, but I cannot say that I have overcome it fully.  I will battle this monster daily, though now it is tamed and nearly forgotten. I might be healthy and have the hearty appetite of a 21-year-old, but I am still a perfectionist.

I am still tempted to pride.

I still desire control and hold myself to standards I know I can never achieve.

But, looking back, I am realizing that in this struggle, I have been purged (no pun intended, I swear). I have been brought low in seeking to make something higher of myself and, in hindsight, I can see how far I have come, but also that it was not of my own efforts.

By grace alone was I saved from sin and death and by grace alone I am being continually restored in the Image of my Lord. Only now can I look back and see that while I was striving to make myself into an image I had deemed desirable, I was in fact being unmade. I was being stripped of my pride and brought to a point of devastation so that I could be remade in an image, not of myself, but of the One who had saved me so many years before and continues to shape me day by day.

In the depths of an eating disorder, God brought forth order. He reordered me, bringing me from my self-made chaos into the calm assurance of His promise. I yet stumble and am tempted, but I know that no image I might mistakenly pursue can compare to the one which, through His death and resurrection, He has and is recreating in me.

Preeminent Performance

In my “Redeeming Culture through Music” class, we were asked the following question:

“Which is most important in music: the composer, the performer, or the listener?”

The class more or less unanimously expressed that the three persons are equally important. After all, if there is no composer, there is nothing to perform and if there is nobody to perform, why bother to compose? Furthermore, without either of these, there is no reason or even opportunity to listen. In fact, these three roles are so remarkably interrelated that it is difficult to define or even discuss one apart from the other two and often an individual musician may (and should) practice more than one of these roles.

It seems, however, that although there is an almost triune relationship between the composer, performer, and listener, it is worth realizing that the composer and listener are mediated by the performer and, indeed, the performer ideally acts as both composer and listener. In performing a piece, a musician is interpreting and expressing with a unique intention, thus co-composing while also being the mode by which the original composer is sharing his ideas with an audience. Without the performer, these “ideas” would be limited to the mind of the composer; after all, notation is not truly music any more than words are truly that which they describe. The composer relies upon the performer to breath life into the form of his work and, through the performer, the music is made.

The performer is also the most active listener. It is immediately clear when a performer is not listening to his music and it is rightly said that while a musician might hear the note as he plays, the true artist hears it before. To play well, to bring to life a work in collaboration with the composer, the performer must also be the greatest of listeners.

Communication too must be mentioned, for without the performing artist to produce the sounds imagined by the composer, listeners or audience members cannot experience and participate in the music. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her beautiful devotional book, Walking on Water: 

“Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn.”

A piece of music might exist conceptually in the mind of the composer, but without the performer as its communicator, those who are mere listeners will not be able to hear, enjoy, and ponder it. The performer, then, is not only the embodiment of both composer and listener, but the mediator between the original composer and the awaiting listeners.

At this merely human level, it seems that of composer, performer, and listener, the performer (if we are forced to choose one) is the most vital, for he is both of the others, as well as a communicative mediator. It becomes apparent through scriptural synthesis that this answer is consistent theologically as well.

Here is where I must clarify: I do not mean to suggest that the relationship of composer, performer, and listener is a perfect parallel to the Trinity. (I have laughed at too many #AlsoNotLikeTheTrinity posts to risk it!) However, I will venture to suggest that music, like all arts, is incarnational, and that the composer, performer, and listener wonderfully image the intermediary work of Christ between God the Father and His creation, mankind.

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” – Madeleine L’Engle

First of all, what do I mean that “art is incarnational”? The production of art is to put ideas into a sensory, communicable form. Books are ideas set in words; painting or sculpture are visual and tangible expressions of the artist’s idea; music differs slightly in that a person, rather than a medium such as a book or canvas, is needed to produce the audible product. But even (and perhaps especially) in this case, the music is an idea made actual through the performance; music is an idea incarnate as organized sound.

Already, there is an echo of Christ in the word “incarnate,” and rightly so. The idea that music is brought fully into being by the mind of the composer and through the performer as co-composer is reminiscent of John 1:1-3:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (ESV)

God (the Father) creates as a mind imagines, while the Son manifests as the Word communicates. Ideally, a composer would be also performer, thus imaging the perfect unity of the Trinity. Even with a separate composer and performer, though, the reflective relationship is present: the composer creates conceptually and, through the power of the performer, communicatively.

This brings us to the listeners. Controversial composer, Arnold Schoenberg, believed that:

“A real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.”

Theologically, based on the parallels I seek to draw, there is some truth here. God creates out of His overflowing delight and the Genesis narrative immediately reveals God’s pleasure as He deems each piece of creation “good.” However, this delight indicates that God formed all things also in order to share this wondrous joy. When God crowns His creation with His own image, mankind, He pronounces it finally, “very good.”

Here and throughout Scripture (consider the Psalms as one such vast example) it is apparent that God in His infinite goodness and love made all that there is for His own right pleasure, but also with the gracious desire to communicate Himself and His creativity with His image bearers: mankind, the listeners.

This brings us back to incarnation. Consider Colossians 1:15-17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (ESV)

Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh, is fully divine and fully dust, fully God and fully man. By Christ all things were made and in him all things are held together; he was the means by which all is made and remade, but also is the true image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word that speaks of the Divine Mind, making manifest what is “too wonderful” for mankind (Psalm 139:6, ESV).

Christ is the mediator, the co-creator who yet condescended in mercy to listen and to teach. He is the Word, incarnation, and — in this instance — the truest of performers, for through Him we receive reconciliation and understanding, for though Christ walked in flesh among us, He is one with our Creator.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:18-20 (ESV)

Although composer, performer, and listener are each necessary and impossible to isolate from each other, we find that the performer is ideally both composer and listener, as well as the mediator between an unhearing audience and the seemingly-incomprehensible ideas of the composer. Within the context of Christianity, we find parallels that reveal the incarnational aspect of the performer’s work and resonate with the truth of Christ’s manifestation and mediation. Performers, then, in their practice, image the preeminence of Christ as they bring music to life.

 

 

Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

To Travel: A Sonnet

I was a stranger here yet better known
Away from all I thought myself to be—
Away from all routines that made me, me,
I found myself in being severed grown.

Away from all the people I loved best
I found myself in newer company—
I found my soul in this older country
Away from where in strivings I would rest.

I came in laughter ready to enjoy
Yet leave a somewhat sadder, wiser heart—
Yet leave more whole for being torn apart,
I return dyed a deeper shade of joy.

Away I went to see the world’s wide wealth,
I return now, a world within myself.

On Departing

My feet pounding the pavement to the beat
Of poetry that laid the cobbled street,
I feel a shaking sense of bittersweet
For a face I only once did meet

And wind that sings its fingers through my hair
Will not again its subtle secrets share,
Nor will the trees and flowers for me bear
The fruits I’ve come to love with reckless care.

The rhymes that seem to flow from displaced heart
I fear will be stopped-up when I depart.

-Cambridge, July 19, 2018