On upcoming books

a month into the new semester, I thought I’d reflect on four things I’ve learned, and re-learned, the past four weeks.

  1. It is absolutely possible, and indeed necessary, to work hard without shriveling with stress. 

    In a school where harboring a cesspool of stress is considered a status symbol, that feeling of guilt when not doing something jabbed at my ribs for three years. It still creeps, squinting sinisterly in the shadows of my day, but no longer numbs my psyche like it once did, like an iron mass pressing inside my skull. So uncanny, isn’t it? Going through the motions day-by-day, without realizing we’ve turned a deaf ear to our bodies, until, almost unconsciously, we begin to perk up, jot down some notes, and feel the weight lift.It’s less that I was unhappy before, and more that I have never been as comfortable with happiness as I am now. I work better, I do better, I think, feel, am better, when I choose to listen to myself. When I stop frantically conjuring up the shame of sacrificing an hour of practicing to finish a few more pages of reading; when I just go the fuck to sleep already.

    In yoga, we fixate our breath on creating space within our bodies: between our organs, within deep, dark cavities, around tightly-locked joints. I’m only wishing so desperately that I had realized sooner the immense contentment creating space within our lives, even within a moment, can bring.

  2. There are three kinds of critics: those who are deathly afraid, those who are strong, and oneself. 

    The curious conglomerate of commitments I’ve embraced this semester have invited a whole battleground of feedback. Everything from “how are you going to prove that musical sexism is different than everyday sexism?” (thesis seminar), “whatever you do, do not hesitate” (anxiety-inducing fellowship nomination meeting), “make it uglier, turn your fingers into machines!” (a lesson on Prokofiev’s fiendish Toccata). I’m reminded ever more forcefully of just how transformative a poignant word of advice can be, and how devastatingly easy it is to validate one’s jealousy with one awful sentence. I hear my mother’s words of, “if you’re truly strong, you will lift others up” ringing in my ears, indicting me when my perfectionism gets the best of me, when I forget that, without listening to the ones who support me, I would scarcely be anything at all.

  3. Simply expressing what you love is not enough; the rhythm and the inflection of that expression is where the impact lies. 

    I’m often asked, “How do you have time for a social life with all the crazy shit you’re doing?” Usually, the answer is some variation on “I just pray,” but it almost always comes down to necessity. I have learned far more stuffing my face to the brim with food with a friend than I ever will even dehydrating on a bus to Prague, because I absolutely need to stuff my face with friends. Being with them, and meeting new ones, sharpens the edges of what I love, and challenges me to find better, clearer ways to articulate it. It’s not merely what I enjoy about my internship, or what I’m struggling to process for my tour, for example–it’s about structuring that enjoyment, or that struggle, or that passion, into something meaningful for the one taking time to listen to me.

  4. Being “too ambitious” is impossible–ambition wears many different masks; when stymied, it often creates its own cracks to seep into. 

    My thesis advisor recently prodded, “this may be a bit ambitious to include in this project.” (I’m writing on the structural and socio-psychological occupational barriers women face in the classical music industry). “Okay,” I replied, one finger running methodically along my chin. “Could I turn it into a book, then?” His resulting smile contained all the satisfaction of garlic flecks grazing oil at just the right temperature. So, yes, perhaps this amateur and rambly and nonsensical corner of the interwebs will prove useful in a few years. Remind me to keep my eyes peeled on Amazon Books.

On full moons

[POI: a “deep existential moment,” as a friend put it, I had walking home from practicing in the early hours of the morning this past Wednesday]

This week, I felt disoriented walking the same paths, holding the same doors, complaining about the same nuisances–here, that includes a bureaucracy “to rival the Ottoman Empire’s” (according to my History of the Modern Middle East professor), a new credit cap that unleashes a different head of the same stress hydra, and inconveniently-located women’s restrooms (vestiges of the university’s more-sexist-than-today years). I felt the same strangeness answering the twenty-seventh question of “are you ready for senior year?” “does it feel different?” “are you…on the cusp of change?” It’s remarkable how, with a simple wring of time, everything you’ve known for three years somehow leans a different hue, is outlined another way.

And yes, I do feel different, but a comfortable different. Like things have fallen into place, the way milk, poured in languid swirls, fills the cup’s edges until the coffee emerges a spritely hazelnut color. Some constants will always remain so–rapidly-turning leaves landing with small thuds on College Walk; late nights on Low banisters, legs dangling off the ledge; early mornings gathering myself for the day ahead, accompanied by 0% plain Fage. It would be foolish to think that senior year will somehow be easier now that internships take up as much time as classes do, now that E.C. parties have reached a new zenith of affectionately disgusting.

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On parental expectations

[POI: an invasive mother, dressed in unflattering coral, cornering me for intel on the college application process at a house party]

Two years after I ED’d Columbia, a cloud of skepticism still clung to every Thanksgiving and every birthday. Why didn’t she choose HYP [the gilded acronym of Harvard-Yale-Princeton]? Columbia is always ranked lower than HYP. You have no chance of getting into Yale RD, so why not just EA it? Yale breeds all the men of rich Upper East Side families that you need to bed, then marry ASAP. The mere thought of their daughter not applying to Yale was so frightening, so repulsive to my parents, that I roamed the thick oaks of suburban Maryland for three nights after banging the front door shut, screaming that I wished nothing more than to never have been their child.

All this came flooding back, not stinging and smarting the edges of my brain like it once did, but dull, more numb, like nerve endings that have evaporated into smoke, when yet another Chinese mother interrogated me about her daughter’s college applications.

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