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.  



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.

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.