That’s What Sisters Do

Suddenly there was a loud crash, followed by what sounded like a rain of smaller, shattering crashes. I rushed up the stairs to find my sister lying face down in the hallway. Rachel had fainted again, this time while holding a glass full of water. It was a humid summer day, and she had just come back inside after tanning on the roof as she often did. Instead of walking up the stairs and getting to drink her water in peace, she fainted. Her bikinied body was glistening with glass and droplets of water.

“What’s going on up there?” I heard my dad yell from the kitchen.

“Rachel fainted again. Can you come up here?” I responded, almost automatically. I heard the sound of his old knees creaking as he scurried up the stairs.

Rachel’s face was turned to the side, her eyes closed and cheek pressed into the carpet, forcing her lips into a pucker. She looked almost peaceful lying there on the floor, but specks of red were appearing on her skin where the glass had punctured. My dad kneeled next to her and began to softly tap her cheek and open her eyes, while saying somewhat aggressively, “Wake up, Rachel!”

She was unconscious for a minute or so before she started coming to. Her eyes continued to roll back into her head, but she had a slight smile on her face. Rachel was always the type to wear a smirk in inappropriate situations and had a way of always making me feel better, even when only half-conscious.

While my dad tried to made sure she didn’t have a concussion or any broken bones, I started to pick tiny shards of glass off of her back and legs and out of her long, coppery brown hair. I couldn’t help but think that the pieces of glass that covered her body were almost beautiful; they looked like dusted snowflakes. Then, I saw her hands.

My dad picked Rachel up and carried her to a couch in the spare bedroom, where he laid her down on her back. She was still smiling, but it became more forced as she became fully conscious. There were shards of glass all over her chest, stomach, and legs. A crescent of glass fragments and specks of blood made up one side of her face, and her hands resembled a reddened mosaic.

“I’ve been in a lot of weird situations from fainting, but I never thought I’d be watching you pick off bloody glass from my half-naked body” Rachel said, laughing. My dad awkwardly inched out of the room to get gauze and bandages, and Rachel laughed even more. I rolled my eyes, laughed, and continued to rid her of the dusting of glass on her skin. Because that’s what sisters do.

*          *          *

When Rachel was thirteen, she was diagnosed with a disorder that caused her to have an extremely fast heartrate, low blood pressure, and many fainting spells. She was often fatigued, both as a side effect of her condition and of constant discouragement. Doctors refused to believe in her symptoms and tried to tell her it was all an illusion made up in her mind. Meanwhile, she was fainting on top of glass.

She was yet another culprit of an almost-invisible fiend, a disguised malady whose concealment only made matters worse. For a person with a condition that made simply waking up in the morning feel like running a marathon, Rachel could run multiple marathons a day. I should know.

*          *          *

I remember the first time I saw my feet turn blue. I stood up at my desk at school, watched the room spin around me, and looked down to see two blurry spheres of blue. Quickly sitting back down, I put my hand to my chest and felt a heartbeat that was hurried and heavy, like pouring rain. I closed my eyes and felt it travel up through my chest and into my head, settling behind my eyes.

After that moment, I wasn’t able to leave my bed for two weeks. Every time I sat up too quickly, I fainted and fell right back down into my pillow. I remember my dad asking me to simply walk down the block. “Sarah, you can at least do that, can’t you?” he’d say, but my legs felt numb underneath me, and my feet were still turning blue when they felt like it.

Rachel would come in my room and bring me ice cream from our favorite place, Sebastian Joe’s. She has never been the type to be over-compassionate, but I think she knew before any of us that I was dealing with something far too familiar to her.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with the same condition as Rachel. I felt embarrassed by it, embarrassed by the fact that I had to bring liters of water to school and sit to the side during gym class. I hated the comments of “I wish I had what you had so I wouldn’t have to run the mile during gym” and “You don’t seem very sick.” I would come home from school – if I went to school in the first place – and immediately lock myself in my room. But Rachel didn’t do that.

*          *          *

Rachel was, by any definition, the most stubborn child there was. She loved to throw tantrums and cause my parents great dismay, but she never had a single hair out of place. I, on the other hand, was more of an introspective child. I was always off on my own, tying things in knots or seeing how many playing cards could fit between my toes, and my hair was always a blonde, fluffy mess. Needless to say, we didn’t always get along.

I was always the sick child when we were younger. I got some sort of stomach flu almost every month, which Rachel absolutely hated. The second she heard me getting sick, she’d run downstairs and curl up in a fetal position with her eyes and ears covered. At one point, I even had scarlet fever. Rachel was the stubborn, shiny-haired, healthy child, and I was pretty much the opposite.

We grew up, and things changed. Rachel was still headstrong and beautiful; I was still easy-going and only a little less disheveled. But I grew out of my illness, and Rachel never really did. She’s in and out of hospitals before I even hear she’s there, but every time we finally touch base, she laughs about it and sends me graphic pictures of her IVs.

*          *          *

While Rachel laid on the couch, covered in glass, I wished to see a reflection of myself in her skin. Instead, I saw someone much stronger than I could ever be. I saw nights spent in hospitals and days spent in bed; but I also saw passion and intelligence and so much unfettered strength.

“Don’t worry about me, sis,” Rachel whispered when she saw me staring at her red hands, “I’m okay.” With that, we grinned at each other, and I continued to carefully wipe away the tiny crystals of glass.



Finding My Heaven

Ikea was my heaven. Every corner I turned, there were different displays with endless arrays of brochures. As I walked through the makeshift bathrooms, kitchens, and bedrooms, I found it exhilarating to uncover as many different leaflets as I could and add them to the growing stack in my small arms. They all simply featured pictures of furniture but had various Scandinavian names that grabbed my attention. I liked that they were all categorized and named, given specific instructions, and could be filed away with an organized understanding of where each piece of furniture belonged.

I have always had certain quirks that set me apart from everyone else. However much I loved stashing away hundreds of Ikea brochures in manila folders, I soon found that it wasn’t a topic of conversation that other seven-year-olds found amusing. I liked the uniformity of it all, the way I could make each piece of paper like a marching soldier finding its position and purpose within my fortress of folders. Those Ikea brochures received more attention than any of my other toys did, simply because I liked being able to make a story out of something so concrete.

There came a time when I realized that furniture catalogs no longer captivated me, so I switched my attention to something else. I returned home after a tiring day of third grade and told my mom that we had to go to Office Max. After driving through a downpour to the nearest office supply store, I stood in the entrance and scanned the vast mountains and valleys of notebooks and writing utensils that beckoned me. I left the store with four shiny three-ring binders and hundreds of plastic sleeves that I bought with my own money.

That day, and for many days after, I sat on the floor for hours cutting out pictures and words from magazines. I chose images of beautiful models in perfume advertisements and snippets from articles about the latest celebrity gossip from one magazine. Then, captivating landscapes and scientific discoveries from another. I methodically glued these images and words on pieces of paper and placed them in plastic sleeves in my binders. There was Teen Vogue mixed with Good Housekeeping on one page and then People Magazine with National Geographic on another. My binders told stories of beautiful women on scientific expeditions surrounded by real mountains and valleys, not ones of office supplies. They could do anything. They could even go hiking in skinny jeans and five-inch high heels when the mood struck.

Again, with time, I lost interest and decided to move on from my binders of mistaken dreams. My next project still included magazines, but, to my mother’s dismay, I used a different canvas: my wall. One night in fifth grade, I felt compelled to cover an entire wall in my room with clippings from magazines. Every night for months I went to sleep with hundreds of faces watching me and not one square inch of my purple walls peeking out from behind the white smiles and unblinking eyes. However unsettling that may sound, It was almost comforting to be surrounded by people who I imagined knew exactly who they were. It became a common practice for my friends and me to write our names in pen on the people we wished we were or the places we wanted to go.

I had been so transfixed on the pictures in my mosaicked life that I had forgotten about what they overshadowed. Words had always been important to me. I started reading when I was three years old and writing not long afterwards. My parents and teachers loved the dorky poems I wrote in my free time, but my peers dismissed them as quickly as they had my brochure collection. Still, words had always been there. With my Ikea obsession, the names of the furniture were what set them apart in the piles of monotonous diagrams. In my binders, it was the words I chose that truly described the aspirations I had for myself. I never really dreamed of hiking up a mountain in stilettos. I dreamed of reading the latest Harry Potter book in a t-shirt and shorts. Although I didn’t see the symbolism of it at the time, I ripped every single one of those pictures down from my wall and started over once again.

I have explored pretty much every avenue in search of an identity. I’ve gone from being a classical to contemporary pianist, athlete to choir geek, and finally, brochure collector to proud writer. I’ve moved on from Ikea’s bland black and white, to the exaggerated colors of magazines, to creating my own color through my writing. I’ll admit I still find myself eyeing brochures sometimes. It is no longer their uniformity that I admire; rather, it is the memory of how I’ve become the individual I am today. I’ve moved on to a new chapter in my life — pun most definitely intended — where Ikea is no longer my heaven. Writing is my heaven.  


To The Guy Who Shouldn’t Have Been Born on Valentine’s Day

Disclaimer:  This piece of prose is fiction.  Although it is based in reality, it is not based on something that directly happened to me. Also, I should mention that this may be triggering for some because it deals with a theme of abuse. 


To The Guy Who Shouldn’t Have Been Born on Valentine’s Day:


You were tall — a steady machine with a height of six-foot-four or so. And she was slim because that was how you liked her. Some days she was the apple you chose to sink your teeth into, leaving your spit on her soft skin and your touch down to the core. But other days she was nothing but water. She was stunningly beautiful, but she was empty.

At first, there were only tears. Then there were snaps of judgement without snaps of bone. And then there were bruises. Thumbprints appeared as your claim to her skin, and little by little, she became your blueprint. Smile lines were replaced by guidelines, and those guidelines were replaced by complacency. Complacency soon became transparency until she was less than an outline and you were everything inside of her.

All the while I was paralyzed. Every closed door was a weapon, and my fear was their ally. To turn that knob would accept the certainty of pain. To turn that knob would be a statement.

And she really loved you. She did. I know because I heard the cries at three in the morning when she begged you to love her back. I know because she tore herself apart to let you feel whole. She was broken because that was how you liked her. She was silent because she wanted to fix you.

I watched it all. I watched each fiber of her being as it was separated into piles of yes and no; I felt her eyes darken and her hair wilt with the changing seasons. I heard the reverberated murmurs of you and only you from her bones and through her teeth.

I wish you were just The Guy Who Shouldn’t Have Been Born on Valentine’s Day to me. Instead, you’re thrown chairs and emptied threats and too many tethered days spent pacing. You’re the closed doors and watered-down glances and the harrowed hospital lights. To her, you’re the one that is gone forever. But you’re always there. On her wrists, her tongue, etched into the deepest crevices of her vitality. 

You really shouldn’t have been born on Valentine’s Day. But you were.

A Farewell to Norman and Big, Red Dogs

So, I haven’t been able to write on this blog since the very beginning of the school year. And although it pains me to see that my last post was over 100 days ago, I like to believe I have valid reasons. Mostly I just couldn’t seem to justify taking time out of my busy life to write these little posts instead of writing, say, college supplement essays. However, a recent event has left me in a state of reflection and in dire need of just typing it all out. Bear with me because this is unedited rambling.

On December 12th — the day after my 18th birthday — Norman Bridwell died. Most of you won’t recognize the name, but many will recognize his legacy. He was the author of the beloved “Clifford the Big Red Dog” books.

That’s not all he was to me, though. The series he wrote marked the beginning to a long road of self-discovery and identity for me. And here’s how it happened.

For preschool, I went to Sunshine Montessori. And let me tell you, that place was intense. It was all about order, organization, and coloring within the lines. Unfortunately for me, I was not about any of those things. I was constantly causing my teachers great dismay by scribbling wherever my hand wanted to take me and encouraging the other preschoolers to do the same.

One thing the teachers knew could always calm me down was a good book. In awe, I’d sit complacently with the other children at story time as the stories would unfold with every page turn. I loved books but I couldn’t read yet. So I watched attentively each time and memorized every storytelling technique.

One day, I decided to test my newfound knowledge. I gathered all of the kids I knew were younger than me (which couldn’t have been too many since I was only three) and brought them to the “reading corner.” I vividly remember grabbing a Clifford book and the wooden stool the teachers commonly used.

Mimicking what I had seen from my teachers, I sat up straight and held the book open so the other preschoolers could see the pictures. Then, I looked at the illustrations and made up a story that I thought could go along with them. I remember how impressed the other kids were and how I pridefully assured them that, yes, of course I knew how to read!

I didn’t fool everyone, though. One of my teachers saw me for the imposter that I was and walked over to me chuckling.

She said, “I think it’s time you learn how to read.”

And the rest was history. After I got over my embarrassment and stubbornness about the subject, I began learning how to read. There were different levels of “practice” books I had to go through before picking up a “real” story. (Again, my preschool was intense.) This of course bothered me to no end. I was sick of reading “The cat sat on the mat” and other meaningless stories. However, I stuck with it and finally got through “Level D.” I could now read any story I wanted and to whomever I chose, and the world was that much more magical.

Norman Bridwell can be seemingly irrelevant in this story. I really could have picked up any book that day to fake-read and it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome. But for some strange reason, Norman died the first day of my “adult life.” In a way, it really just drills in the idea that my childhood is kind of…over. In a short eight months, I’ll be off to college and big, red dogs won’t exist anymore. So, yikes.

All in all, I really can’t thank Mr. Bridwell enough. He was the beginning to my independence with literature, the end to my dependence on “story time.”

And something inside me tells me that there’s a reason I remember this story fifteen years later. You might not believe in fate, and I’m not even 100% that I do either, but either way, Norman’s death will not be forgotten by at least one kid that he influenced. That’s pretty cheesy, but without further adieu…

Farewell, Norman Bridwell. You may be gone, and my childhood might be ending too, but I like to think that you’ve played an important part in how I’ve become who I am. clifford


The Ironic Thing about Me and Love

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t boy-crazy. My first crush was in preschool. Correction — my first crushes. At the age of three, I was convinced that I was in love with twin boys named Nicholas and James, and I told my mother that I had decided I was going to marry the both of them. The costume I chose to wear that Halloween consisted of a long white dress, tiny high-heeled shoes, and a veil. That’s right — as a three-year-old I went as a bride for Halloween and essentially set back the feminist movement a few years. My intentions were innocent but still, I was already thinking about marriage. As a three-year-old.

Maybe I was desperate for love at that time because I grew up in a household where love between my parents was scarce. I have known that they would eventually get divorced far before any child should even know the term. So for over ten years, I just waited for the day that it would all come crashing down. It wasn’t until I was sixteen that it did end up happening. It was difficult to go through, but by that time, their long-awaited separation almost relieved me. I felt like I could finally take a breath, move on, and stop tip-toeing around the obvious tension.

Despite the lack of love between my parents, I grew up as a highly affectionate person. I was constantly wanting to hug and touch people, always writing the most lovey-dovey poetry you can imagine, and I was dangerously comfortable with telling people how I felt. Especially when it came to telling people I loved them.

So there you have it — the first incredibly ironic thing about me and love. Against all odds, I became probably one of the world’s most hopeless romantics.

To me, it was all about roses and love letters and soliloquies on balconies. I refused to settle for anything less. I desperately desired to live in a different world where you meet one person, fall in love, and — with lack of a better phrase —  live happily ever after. Besides disney movies, there really wasn’t any evidence that this could happen in my world, but I still wholeheartedly believed that love was something magical.

I had my first boyfriend when I was thirteen years old. We had grown up together, always secretly pining over the other, and I had very high hopes for our romance. Unfortunately for me, in an age of technology, most of our budding relationship occurred over text. Once it was time to actually speak in person, I was awkward and shy and lived up to every single middle school relationship stereotype. It took months before I could keep a conversation going and even longer to finally kiss him.

My relationship with him was innocent; I was shy and naive. But over time, I found that I had made a dramatic mess of myself, as I  obsessively tried to make my fairytale love come true. I depended on him to make me feel good about myself and to fill a certain need I had for that true love to exist. Sadly, I felt so certain that it had to last forever that when it didn’t, I was absolutely and tragically broken. I thought that with a love story like ours, one that could be found in a cheesy teen novel or whimsical romantic comedy, it had to be fate. The story of childhood friends that always loved each other in the back of their minds was timeless and dreamy to the point of being completely illusory — something that I made up in my head.

For months on end after the classy break up text of “so…are we over…?” (not an exaggeration — that was actually the message) flashed across my flip phone’s screen, I was torn apart. I had been so in love with the idea of being in love that I had completely lost who I was. I would lay in my bed and sob for hours, holding on to every depressing Taylor Swift lyric I could find. Not only because I had lost my first boyfriend and one of my best friends, but also because pushed in the back of my mind was the realization that it hadn’t been real. Over the year I had been with him, I had become someone that was unrecognizable. I was a jealous, judgemental, jaded person who slowly ruined her relationships in desperation of keeping that first chance at love alive.

Although those were some of the hardest months of my life, I have never regretted it. He was (and is) a wonderful person and our relationship taught me so much. I had to learn a lot about love and the lack of love at a young age, and more importantly I learned about who I am when it comes to relationships.

It is difficult for me to distinguish love from infatuation.

It is difficult for me to distinguish love from loving the idea of being in love.

And when I do fall in love, or even come across the possibility of love, I fall hard and fast.

I have been in a healthy relationship for over a year and a half now. I’ve slowly discovered that true love doesn’t always have to be chocolates and serenades and romantic makeouts in the rain. Love is spending time with each other’s families, singing in the car to our guiltiest pleasures (*David Archuleta, we’re waiting for your comeback*), and watching Netflix way too often because just being next to each other is the best thing in the world. Love is knowing that I like my ramen half-cooked, making fun of me when I’m fake-angry, and sometimes liking my mother more than me. I’ve learned so much about what it is to truly know a person inside and out and to love every part of that person with every ounce of my being. I’ve also learned that making out in water really isn’t very sexy at all.

Yes, I’m still a hopeless romantic, but I am a reformed one. I still believe in soulmates because I’ve found one of my own. But ironically, going along with the entire purpose of this essay, I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever get married. I believe in love, but I know its limits. I have sat in my room and listened to my mom yell over the phone at my dad about money and lawyers and even about me. I have been reminded every day that marriages often fail. Often being over half.

So there it is. Another ironic thing about me and love. As much as I am the hopeless romantic that I am, I am also constantly questioning something most hopeless romantics dream about.

Anyway, I guess it doesn’t really matter at this point because the possibility of marriage is still about ten or more years away. It’s funny how you can get a glimpse of my obsession with romance solely from the fact that I’ve given this all so much thought…Honestly, who am I kidding? I’ll most likely get married someday. In the end, I do truly believe in love. There are days —  especially when I spend them sitting in my bed and trying to tune out the yelling between my parents — that I do question marriage and the “happily ever after” that I’ve always searched for. There are also days when I look around and see love everywhere and wonder why I would ever consider not getting married. In the end, I will always be the little wide-eyed, three year-old girl who went from door to door dressed in white. I will always believe that love can be magical. And although I can be pessimistic and cynical and overly-concerned about marriage and love, I will always be ironically and hopelessly love’s biggest fan.

“To Be Beautiful”

To Be Beautiful


He said her name out loud, feeling the familiar shape of it start from his lips and roll off of his tongue. It confused him, the way it made him feel. It was just a name and yet somehow he let it mean so much more to him. It was a memory, a lost good bye, the gradual creeping feeling of heartbreak.  William had always been average. He was of average intelligence and average appearance; he had always blended into any group of people and invisibly made his way through life. Meredith was the opposite. She was beautiful and profound and everything that everyone wanted to be.

She had called earlier that day. Her voice was still the same as he could remember it from years before, but something about the way she said each word was different. It was as if she was walking on a tightrope high in the sky, carefully placing her feet and waiting for imminent disaster.

Meredith walked into the book store they used to love with hesitance and confidence at the same time. She seemed to be discovering herself all over again within the glistening book covers she used to know so well. Tall and slender with fiery red curls cascading down her back, Meredith looked exactly as he remembered her. But she also looked exactly the opposite of how he remembered her.

“Hey, Will,” she said with a hint of shyness and a touch of redness inching its way across her cheeks, “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Suddenly, the swirling colors of the towering book cases melted away into tickling grass and the day turned to night. Meredith was still there, but she was almost fifteen years younger and they were outside in the backyard of the house Will grew up in.

“Do you ever wonder what you’ll be like when you’re older?” she said, as she laid on her back looking up at the night sky above her.

“Yeah I guess,” Will responded as he looked over at Meredith. Her green eyes were gleaming and her cheeks turned upwards into a smile. He could have sworn her freckles were dancing.

“Oh, Will! You’ve never really been the type to talk, have you? But that’s okay because it’s why we work as best friends.”

“You’re right, Mer.”

“Well anyway, I think about who I’m gonna be all the time. I want to be beautiful when I’m older. Just like those stars up there. I want someone to look up and admire me.” Will couldn’t help but think to himself, You’re already beautiful. I admire you. But he never had the courage to say it.

Fast forward a few years, and Will was thirteen. He stood in the living room of his home, gazing out of the big window that looked out onto the street. Meredith came biking around the corner in a floral skirt with her wild hair tied back into a low ponytail. Will ran outside to meet her.

“C’mon Will, grab your bike!” she said with a flip of that long, curly hair Will had always loved.

As she smiled at him, he felt something unknown pierce through his soul. It sent shivers through his body, and made his legs feel hopelessly lost underneath him. He fumbled with his bike as he pulled it from the fence it was leaning on, and tried to steady himself on top of it. Will followed Meredith through the streets, weaving through and around cars. Her face lit up with every sharp turn; she’d close her eyes for a second to feel the wind on her freckled face. Finally, they reached a beautiful open meadow where every blade of grass glinted under the summer sun. Meredith set her bike down on the ground and ran out to the middle of the field, spinning and twirling as she closed her eyes and felt the warm breeze on her skin.

“Isn’t it just beautiful?” she asked.

“You’re beautiful,” Will said quietly under his breath.

Meredith abruptly turned towards him with a surprised look on her face. Will had never surprised her like that. She got closer and closer to him until their faces were almost touching. Will looked down at the ground, but she stared right at him.

“Have you ever kissed a girl, Will? Cause I’ve never been kissed,” she said.

Will shifted his eyes up and down, attempting to gather the courage to do what he knew she wanted. Meredith leaned in and he kissed her. She giggled and ran back to her bike, and they never spoke of it again.

They grew older and at the same time, they grew apart. Will was reserved and didn’t have many friends, let alone girlfriends. Meredith, the social butterfly that she was, fluttered around and teased every boy without even trying. She didn’t seem to realize that she left a trail of admirers wherever she went. Will would often see her biking by his house through the big window he used to sit at, and she was still beautiful as ever.

Then in her senior year of high school, Meredith was offered a modeling job in Paris. She walked up to Will’s house when she found out, hovering over the door with her fist, wanting to knock but frozen in time. It had been a couple years since they had really talked. They would say hi in the halls and smile when they passed each other on the street, although they both wished to be more than two ships passing in the night.

Meredith left everything she knew and flew to Paris to follow a dream that had never been hers. She soon became a supermodel, her picture on the covers of high fashion magazines. Every once in a while, William would stop in the supermarket and pick up a magazine that featured her. He’d search for her dancing freckles, the stars in her eyes, the natural blush that easily flushed across her face. He’d search for the beauty he always saw in her but it wasn’t there. Her beauty was taken away by an electronic eraser, her face falsely beautified until the true beauty was gone.

Back in reality, William stared into the eyes of the girl he loved. Her face was sunken and dull, her eyes weighed down by faint dark circles.

“Will? You still haven’t said anything,” she said nervously.

“Hi, Mere.”

Two words and she was sobbing.

They stood there, across from each other in the book store. He stood and she cried. What the fashion industry did to her? William couldn’t know for sure. But he could see her frail body and the makeup that streamed down her face that was swallowed in tears.

“All I wanted was to be beautiful, Will,” she said in between sobs, with her face deeply buried in her hands, “I wanted to be someone you would love.”

At that moment, he knew there were three words that had always been true and always would be true. He knew he could say them and he would have what he always wanted.  But he was average and she was anything but. He was average and she was more beautiful than any star in the sky.

So he said nothing at all.

Authors note: I wrote a version of this short story a few years ago and decided I wanted to add a some changes and upload it onto my blog. I thought it might be interesting to explain that there was an actual person that inspired this story. My favorite babysitter in Holland (name has been changed) left for Paris and became a supermodel when I still lived there.  I remember watching her bike outside my living room window. She would bike past every once in a while and every time I saw her, she got skinnier and skinnier. Obviously, the rest of the story is fictional but this was something that had a big impact on my life so it is important for me to include it on my blog. I’ll attach pictures of my babysitter-turned-supermodel below:

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I Can Hear the Music

What is the point of a melody when the notes are strung together with a technicality that cannot be broken for a single second? I was taught that there are notes that go together and others that do not, and you cannot choose to singlehandedly change their order or create the clash of dissonance that your fingers are twitching with desire to play. But what is the point of that melody – of that sound – when all it is, is a repressed sense of who you really are?

Piano. It’s an instrument of the ages. That classic cascading waterfall of white, speckled with black, is iconic and yet modest at the same time. A timeless beauty that captures dreams and emanates a kind of expression that everyone desires.

And yet, my journey with the piano has been anything but elegant.

I started piano at the ripe age of six. My sister, Rachel, was eight. The Steen family had just packed up and moved everything to Holland for two years, and adventure was broadening every perspective we had in our new horizons. My great-grandmother had been a successful concert pianist, which caused my mother to believe that one of us had to have inherited that gene. What better place was there to begin our musical discovery than the mystical land of Europe?

My first teacher’s name was Hanukkah (Luckily I am not Jewish or this experience probably would have ruined the entire holiday for me). She was Dutch and couldn’t necessarily speak English well enough to put things softly for my sister and I. At least, that is what I tell myself in place of believing that she really was the evil person she seemed to be. A month or so into our lessons with Hanukkah, she told our dad that we had “bad fingers” and she just could not teach us anymore.

However sad that is, it was for the best. From what I can remember in the midst of that dark time in my life, Rachel and I cried after (or during) almost every single piano lesson with Hanukkah. That woman really had no idea how to teach piano to non-prodigies, and definitely not to children as young as we were.

Anyway, the entire time that I was playing piano with Hanukkah, I didn’t learn the notes I was playing. I didn’t know their names, or even where exactly they were located on the piano. I learned to look at the sheet music I was given and guess where the notes were by repetition. Soon, I could almost – slightly – decipher the general vicinity they should be in. It usually didn’t work out for me, but sometimes it did, and that was enough for a rambunctious six-year-old like myself. My flawed method was still better than asking Hanukkah to actually teach me something.

By this point, I had already decided that I despised piano.

What I loved was biking through the rainy streets to and from Hanukkah’s house for lessons. I would ride on a small seat on the back of my dad’s bike, and he would hold my sister’s handlebars so she wouldn’t have to do any work either. On the way back, we would always stop at the same place for dinner. It was a small, dirty restaurant called “Hollandje Pot” that served strange, greasy Dutch food. Rachel and I ate the chicken fingers every time, thinking they were the most delicious delicacy in the world, oblivious to the many health code violations that were most likely occurring all around us.

So that is what piano was to me: an hour of yelling and guessing and crying followed by greasy, chewy, finger-shaped fried chicken.

After a few months of blissfully ignoring the small upright piano we had sitting next to our kitchen (and the tragic rejection from Hanukkah), my parents found a new teacher. I cannot for the life of me remember her name, probably in part because it was something strange in Dutch, but mostly because she rarely showed up. We were supposed to have lessons every other week, but it usually ended up being once a month. This woman would travel to our small row house to teach us, and honestly all I can remember is that she was young and beautiful and did pretty much whatever she felt like doing. She would flip through my lesson books and only teach me the pieces that she liked, which meant that I was continuously playing the same few songs.

Piano now was something disposable to me. I didn’t despise it as much as I had with Hanukkah, but it was still a relief when my dad would sigh and say, “Well, I guess she isn’t showing up today for your lesson…again.”

Time passed, and we moved back to the states — to Minneapolis. I was awkward and boyish, but not in a cute way, with wild hair that I never brushed and a little bit more weight than the other girls my age. It was the first time in my life that I was truly searching for an identity and discovering where I fit in.

For a while, I didn’t play piano. As far as I can remember, I didn’t miss it either. Then, Rachel and I were introduced to our new teacher: Elizabeth Stavrou.

Mrs. Stavrou was tall and big-boned with silvery hair and glasses. She was terrifyingly eloquent and always also spoke with air of superiority, towering over me in more ways than just her height. My sister and I began 30-minute piano lessons with her once a week. She soon discovered my absence of knowledge on the instrument, specifically notes, and decided to completely start over with me.

Rachel progressed quickly with our new teacher, while I was left behind as I tried to start from the beginning. Mrs. Stavrou’s piano-teaching style was traditional and very intense. Along with our performance pieces, she taught us sightreading, music theory, and the other technical aspects of piano. She entered us in countless competitions, exams and performances. As a “fun fieldtrip” to reward us for our hard work, Mrs. Stavrou took us to the Russian Museum of Art and gave us a worksheet to fill out. That was “fun” for young, energetic girls according to her. And you can’t question that woman.
I was lost, dizzied by the different notes and key signatures and scales. I was lost within a maze of sharps and flats, ups and downs, and expectations for me to play “at least 45 minutes a day, every day, no matter what.” I desperately wanted it to come as easily to me as it came to my sister, but piano technique was never my forte (pun most definitely intended).

To fill up the 45 minutes a day that I’d sit at my small, often out-of-tune piano, I began to look up and play chords of songs that I liked and even write my own music. I learned more about myself and what music meant to me within the songs I printed out, and the times I closed my eyes playing whatever came to me, than I ever had sitting up straight at a piano lesson.

Soon, Rachel quit and I became Mrs. Stavrou’s new pride and joy. She entered me in contests that I often won and applauded me on my ability to play each piece with dynamic emotion that set me apart from most of the other students. When I performed, I simultaneously lost and found myself within the music, even if I didn’t particularly like the style I was playing in.

After many years of growing to appreciate Mrs. Stavrou, beginning to understand and love the piano, and finding myself along the way, I told my parents I was ready to go in a different direction.

From the endless hours of playing Taylor Swift songs in my angsty middle school years, I learned that there was a way to play the piano other than Mozart or Haydn or Bach. A way that I felt connected to myself. A way that opened my eyes and allowed my fingers to go wherever felt right. I did some research, and found myself on the website for Linden Hills House of Music. There, I read biographies of the different teachers and later approached my parents with my research and a proposal to switch my piano education.

My mother, the one who had always encouraged me to keep playing no matter how discouraged I became, was hesitant to allow me to move away from a classical piano style. She had previously bought me a brand new baby grand piano just as a way to bribe me into playing. She told me that she would upgrade me from the tiny upright to the shiny, new baby grand as long as I played until the end of high school. Since I had found a loophole in her bribe, and reminded her that she never specified what kind of piano lessons I had to take, she finally agreed.

I started lessons with my new piano teacher, Charlie Smith, at the beginning of my 8th grade year. I felt bad leaving behind Mrs. Stavrou, and I honestly regret it every once in a while, but it was the right thing to do.

I walked into Charlie’s piano room a little shy and nervous, not knowing what to expect. He was young and friendly and immediately made me feel comfortable. We talked about what kind of music I liked and what I wanted to do with my lessons. I had never been asked what I wanted to do. I listened to him speak about what music meant to him with bright eyes and admiration; I had finally found what I had always wanted — musical freedom.

I remember being so nervous singing for Charlie the first time. I had never believed I had a very good singing voice and it surprised me how simple it could be. It didn’t have to be perfect every time. Throughout the years he has continuously boosted my confidence and introduced me to performance in a completely new way.

Charlie has taught me so many things — not only music, but life lessons as well. Because of him, I have been exposed to more jazz and blues and alternative and indie and current music. But I have also learned the importance of believing in myself and exploring my own interests and appreciating every aspect of something beautiful and sharing my art with the world and much more. I’ve been taken out of my comfort zone when asked to improvise on the spot, when I’ve never been asked to be creative in that way before.

I am able to read in between the lines – play in between the measures if you will – and I have never again felt obligated to contain myself. Now when I perform, I not only lose and find myself within the music, I also discover new things about myself every time. It means so much more when someone comes up to me after I perform and compliments me, than it ever had before with Mrs. Stavrou. I have even had Mr. Dahlen, my elementary school media teacher with a long silver pony tail, come up to me and exclaim how very impressed he was with me. It’s those moments that I will remember simply because of how proud I was of what I was doing (and because the ponytail is hard to forget).

Because of piano, and with much thanks to Charlie, I hear music in a new way. Not only because I have learned to hear each aspect of the song, from the bass notes that I’ve learned to listen for, to the rhythm that I’ve learned to mimic and make my own, to the melodies and harmonies that I’ve learned to appreciate and transpose to my vocal range. Not only because of those things, but because when I find myself subconsciously listening for those different aspects of a song, I am reminded of something so beautiful and special that I have. I hear music in a way that speaks to who I am.

It truly feels like now, for the first time, I can hear the music.