On Memory

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For the second time today, I’ve left the pot of water boiling on the stove. It sat there, bubbling away, until the last drop of water sizzled out, the kitchen filled up with a concerning hot-chemical smell, and the inside of the pot turned a sickly white color. I discovered this scene when I casually ambled back into the kitchen, totally unaware that anything was amiss…until I sniffed the air and caught sight of the pot.

Aaaand cue the shame and amusement. Ashamed because I know it’s dangerous to leave the stove on, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve forgotten to turn it off this week. Amused because it’s pretty hilarious to forget something so simple. Turns out everything is gonna be okay, because my 82 year-old grandma is teaching me how to not forget.

Apparently electric stoves can cause electrical fires, which you can’t put out with water. I did not know this before sitting down to write this, so yeah, I’m glad I know now. I guess you’re supposed to use baking soda. Who would’ve known. Side note: I am absolutely floored by the number of uses baking soda has. Almost every time I ask Google how to do some daily activity, the answer is “use baking soda.” Get a grease stain out of a shirt? Throw baking soda on it. Cat pee in the carpet smelling up your hallway? Shake some baking soda on that shit. Rusty pan? Baking soda. Gunky sink? Baking soda. Clogged garbage disposal? Make a volcano by dumping baking soda and vinegar in there! (This is not even a joke – I actually looked this up once, tried it, and it worked). Pro tip.

Anyways.

So I keep leaving pots on the stove until they boil out. The irony of this is that I’m living with my grandmother, who does not leave pots boiling on the stove, and who is dealing with the lasting effects of a stroke. She is fascinated with the ways her mind has changed in old age: she mixes up opposite concepts (lemons with limes, hot with cold, dark with light) and sometimes will do the thing opposite to what she wanted to do. She says that since our memory of binary concepts lives in the same part of our brain, it’s difficult for her to separate them. It’s like you’re reaching into a single dark cupboard, feeling around for two identical cups. They might be different colors, but they feel exactly the same. At least that’s how I imagine it might feel like.

She also talks about how it’s often difficult to recall words (I imagine this like trying to draw water out of a deep well full of lily pads and cattails with a small bucket, but she’s the only one who knows what it’s actually like) and how her short-term memory is less powerful than it used to be, and more selective.

So just to recap: who is the one leaving pots on the stove? It’s me. Me, the 25-year-old whose frontal lobe JUUUUST BARELY firmed up into its full-fledged adult form. I have a newly-minted brain. So what’s going on here? I have no idea, but I find it intriguing, so here are some musings on memory.

Memory is a fickle thing. It turns out that most of us remember in stories, not in concrete accounts of exactly what happened. Each time we recall something, dredging it up from our well of past experiences, we handle it, shape it, and share it. We mix up the memory while fitting it into our current belief systems and habits. When we put it back, it’s more of a story than before. It’s a reflection of our identity.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk invites us even deeper into the confusing world of memories and recollection. He describes a study in which veterans were interviewed directly after returning home from the Vietnam war, and then again years later, when they were in their 80s. In their old age, the healthy vets gave very different descriptions of the war than when they were young and fresh out of battle. Over the years, they had moulded their memories to fit nicely into their current identity. They had a core self, and their recollections had become fully transformed by it.

Conversely, the vets who developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder gave THE EXACT SAME descriptions of the war when they were 80 years old as when they were 20. They told the same story. Their memories (of the traumatic event) were frozen in time. Here’s the crucial difference between the vets with PTSD and the vets without: for vets with PTSD, memory was not transformed by identity. In fact, the memory itself, stuck forever in its original form, becomes a permanent part of their identity. Not the other way around.

People with PTSD don’t just have trouble integrating our memories with our current core self. We also have trouble with basic memory functions. Specifically, PTSD affects the first stage of memory function: initially acquiring and learning information. This is very crucial when we’re trying to remember something in the short-term. Like returning to the stove a few minutes after putting the water on to boil to pour our tea, for example.

All this memory gobbledegook may have something to do with why my grandma is the expert on memory in this household (besides the fact that she has a PhD in psychology from Columbia). She’s had many more years of practice not remembering things. She knows the secrets. The solution? Don’t use your memory at all. Just use your senses. Sensory memory comes before short-term memory on the path to storing information in our brains. Use a physical habit that takes the place of needing to remember. Stay in the room. Don’t let yourself leave while the pot is on the stove. Keep it within sight. And voila! No need to remember a thing.

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On Soulmates

Are we meant to find our soul mate? Do we have only one, or are there lots? Is this just another idea for us to gather around, warm our hands against, and use to make meaning out of our relatively meaningless lives?

Here’s what the internet has to say on the matter (you can read the full articles by clicking on the titles):

Wikipedia:In current usage, “soulmate” usually refers to a romantic or platonic partner, with the implication of an exclusive lifelong bond. It commonly holds the connotation of being the strongest bond with another person that one can achieve. It is commonly accepted that one will feel ‘complete’ once they have found their soulmate, as it is partially in the perceived definition that two souls are meant to unite. The term “soulmate” first appeared in the English language in a letter by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1822.”

Ooookay. There’s a lot to unpack here. The thing that sticks out the most to me is that this definition stresses an all-or-nothing type of partner. You’re gonna be with this person for all of your remaining breaths, and you are not whole without this person. This is the definition of “soul mate” I encounter the most. It makes me feel nervous and confined.

Merriam-Webster: “1) a person who is perfectly suited to another in temperament
2) a person who strongly resembles another in attitudes or beliefs”


This is a really funny one. The thing is, I would never, ever want to be with someone who resembles me in attitude. I just wouldn’t. So, by this definition, would I not want to hang out with my soul mate? I honestly don’t think I could make it one day hanging out with myself (what’s that? I live with myself every day? Oh yeah. Well, I don’t want any more of me around. That’s all I’m saying).

The Atlantic: “Take the idea of romantic destiny, or “soul mates”—the belief that two people are deliberately brought together by unseen forces…Believing in soul mates is functionally the same as believing that if you get a certain job, achieve financial independence, or move to a sunny place, you will have true and lasting satisfaction. Nothing is more human than this belief, which keeps us hopeful in spite of our negative experiences. But it is a recipe for unhappiness. We cannot attain permanent satisfaction—at least, not in this mortal coil—and waiting for it will leave us disappointed over and over again.”

This realist view really resonates with me. It makes me feel like I have power in my own trajectory. I get a calm, contented feeling, knowing that a relationship will be sustained not by a mysterious, ethereal force, but by my own decisions and response to challenges.

Seventeen: “Wondering if your bae is the perfect match? Here are 18 signs that will help you know if you’ve found your true connection.
1) You just know it. There is no test that will help you determine if you’ve found your soulmate or not. To figure it out, you just have to know it. You have to feel it in your gut, that this person is the right one for you.


Alright. You know what? I’m tired of hearing this bullshit over and over.

One time, when I was 15, I caught sight of a super cute guy at a traffic light one summer. I had been driving around like a hooligan with a group of friends. Egged on by loud whoops from everyone in the car, I leaned out of the open window and asked this guy if he would marry me. He said yes. Then we pulled over after the light turned green and had a little wedding ceremony. I knew he was The One – in that single, summer evening moment.

I know that’s an extreme example. But we aren’t living in some masterpiece painting, where we work on a single painting for our entire lives, always with the same color scheme, the same brush strokes, always keeping an image of the finished product in our minds. Our lives are more like leftovers soup. We’re pawing through the fridge, finding the old broccoli that nobody wanted to eat, chopping up celery, throwing some chicken in there, and stirring it around, shaking various spices in, just improvising our way through this lumpy bullshit. And then, in the end, it’s fucking delicious. Maybe not in the exact way we thought, but it is!

Brides.com: “You might be wondering if you met your soulmate on a vacation, subway stop, or that time in the rain when a stranger invited you to share an umbrella—but didn’t realize it at the time. According to Dr. Tobin, yes, this is possible. “Everything in life is about timing. I believe it’s a matter of self-knowledge. When you understand that a relationship is not about control or the simple need of fulfillment but is essential to our psychological and spiritual development, then you’re open to the possibility of meeting your soulmate.”’

YES. Yes to this. I never would have thought that I’d have a full fuck-yes to something written by Brides.com, but there we go.

Here’s what I think: I think we have lots of soulmates. Not just one. I think a soulmate can be a romantic partner, a friend, a pet, or even a stranger who you lock eyes with on the street for a split second. Sue me.

I understand having a gut feeling about someone and following that. You make decisions based on your gut feeling, and you just keep doing the next right thing. I’m doing that right now with my partner, who I love deeply. What I don’t understand, and don’t accept as true, is the other part of Seventeen’s claim: that you just know it. Life is so complicated as it is. Sometimes I don’t know what to eat for breakfast. Sometimes it takes a little bit of recalibrating, rest, or space to be able to come back to my “knowing.” I don’t “just know” anything. And I don’t want to. I’m just here improvising.

Here’s one more article, in case you really want to delve deeper into the soulmate idea.

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On Empathy & Secondary Traumatic Stress

Empathy is all at once a loaded word and a cliched idea in 2021. I want to explore the shadow side of this omnipresent buzzword. What is empathy, really? The Berkeley definition is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” This seems doable. Imagining what someone else is feeling could be as simple as procuring an image of a raincloud in your head when someone says they’re feeling gloomy.

However, Google Dictionary’s definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The ability to share the feelings of another. This is all well and good when you’re empathetic towards someone because they’re feeling grief or joy: these sentiments are breeding grounds for connection and vulnerability.

But what happens when the other person’s feelings consist of self-hate, suicidal urges, and severe disdain for other people? Where does that leave you, after you’ve employed consistent empathy for that person? Filled with a desire to not be alive anymore, and an acute loathing of basic humanity? Is that helpful to anyone? Is that good?

These questions are important to me because empathy used to be one of my strengths. I had an uncanny ability to feel into what others were feeling, so much so that when I watched TV with my best friend, she would catch me mirroring the exact facial expressions of the actors on the screen. She’d call me out on it, and I would be startled, not even realizing I was contorting my face to match the ones on the screen. I’d come back into consciousness to find my mouth had formed a deep frown, or my eyebrows knit together in an angry face. I was doing it completely subconsciously. I wasn’t able to control my empathy.

And then, it wasn’t a strength anymore. It was a window, a soft gap where other people’s brutal feelings could infiltrate and settle into my body.

Brené Brown asserts that “empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” But what if empathy isn’t a choice at all? What if you’ve been in a state of empathy for so long that it’s a simple habit, a continuous way of being? Then it could be very dangerous.

At what point does empathy become stupidity? And are there people who are carrying too much pain inside of them, trauma that they are unwilling to face, who pose a real threat to the people who care about them?

I know this is a controversial thing to suggest, because the “good” thing to do would be to empathize with somebody who is in pain. Right? Someone who is in pain needs outside help. Pain is not meant to be dealt with alone. And I know the word “threat” is extremely charged. I don’t mean that the person in pain intentionally hurts others. But unchecked pain is catching.

When I was 18, I met a sociopath. I disliked him when I met him. My gut reaction was to crinkle my nose and ignore his impish quips. I could see that he was terrified and small, underneath his contempt for others and boyish bravado. But something about his quick, bird-like movements and strange, old-fashioned speech intrigued me. He was attractive, in a disconcerting, “I want to put you under my wing and keep you there” sort of way. He was carrying immense trauma; he had been regularly beaten as a child, and only knew how to give and receive love through violence. He made me uncomfortable, and I thought that was an indication that he would challenge me: that I was about to learn a lot about myself and the world. I was a free-spirited, confident young woman, ready to take on anything.

Flash forward 2 years. All that time, I’d been engaging with this person, being fully empathetic to his experience, seeing things through his eyes, reveling in the entirely different way he saw the world (as a cold, loveless place where one had to be aggressive and hateful to exist as an individual). I had surrendered to empathy, because that was how I knew how to love and attend to someone. By the end of those two years, I was suicidal, had developed debilitating anxiety, woke up nightly with sheets drenched in sweat, no longer felt desire for anything, was insecure to the point of hating myself constantly, and felt shock/surprise if someone touched me in a loving way. The joy had vacated my body – all that was left was over-arousal, despair, and a torturous memory of the person I’d been before.

Years later, partially healed, I started teaching music at a charter school, a job I was extremely ill-prepared for. The principal had me read up on Secondary Traumatic Stress. The National Education Association writes that “educators can begin exhibiting symptoms similar to those of their students – withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue” even if they haven’t experienced trauma themselves. This is a well-researched, fully-fledged fact: that educators develop what’s called “compassion fatigue” when faced with their students’ trauma every day in the classroom.

I personally experienced Secondary Traumatic Stress after only a couple of months of working with about 100 kids as their music teacher. Kids accused me of physically harming them when I didn’t. They touched me inappropriately and called me names. They were constantly terrified that everyone, including me, was out to get them. Most of them didn’t feel safe anywhere. Some told me that they were worried every second of every day that their parents would be killed.

I, still carrying my own traumas inside of me while trying to take care of these traumatized kids, crumpled. I started having panic attacks almost daily: loud, urgent affairs where I screamed and screamed, desperate for some relief or catharsis that wouldn’t come. I couldn’t greet my partner upon arriving home after the work day, because even the slightest touch or word directed at me felt explosive. Loud noises made me feel like I was being beaten over the head with a baseball bat. I was a shell of a human.

Could I empathize with these kids (share these kids’ terror) without wasting away into this fragile humanoid creature? No. Could I genuinely teach them without being empathetic to their experiences? No. So I left the job.

I think it’s interesting that, as the use of the word “empathy” has increased over the years since the 1940s, so has the use of the words “anxiety,” “trauma,” and “relationship.” There seems to be a correlation between the prevalence of “empathy” and “anxiety” in the English language. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think, based on my experience, this parallel upwards trajectory of anxiety and empathy in our culture makes a lot of sense.

Is empathy inherently dangerous? No. Does trauma always breed trauma? No. But I think it’s important to talk about how empathy isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. If we sacrifice our own experience of the world in favor of being empathetic, we risk being worn down. In that state, we can’t help anyone at all. Empathy should never be all-encompassing, as tempting as it may be to surrender to someone else’s experience. It has to be done with regard for the Self, and the Self’s desires. This might be obvious to most people, but for most of my life, it wasn’t obvious to me. So I’m writing about it.

On Decisions

I woke up this morning and shuffled to the bedroom door. What followed was a mess of decisions, routine, habit, emotion, and, like it or not, just plain humanness. What followed was a mess. A beautiful, powerful, ordinary, exhausting, comical mess. A regular day. A regular day where I made so many tiny decisions, each one influencing the next, and influencing the people around me. What a complex web we weave around ourselves!

MORNING
walked out of the bedroom door
thought about boiling water for coffee, but didn’t
thought about picking up my phone
gratitude for coffee
more gratitude for coffee
dragged my feet to the bathroom
while peeing, considered not working out
tried to justify not working out (“I’m sore from yesterday, I didn’t get enough sleep,” etc)
realized that was bullshit
brushed my teeth while dreading working out
realized I could drink coffee right before my work out
got considerably more excited to be alive
turned on the shower accidentally (that was my habit before I started working out in the mornings)
turned off the shower
felt sheepish
walked to the stove to put on the water to boil
went back to the bedroom to pull on my workout clothes
walked out of my bedroom, forgot why I walked out, then walked back in
thought about picking up my phone
resisted the phone addiction (I have a rule – no phone in the first hour of waking up)
grabbed my yoga mat and brought it outside to the deck
chose the YouTube workout I wanted to do
went back inside to pour the water over the coffee grounds
picked up my phone to text someone before I forgot
felt a bit guilty for breaking my “no phone in first waking hour” rule
breathed an audible sigh of relief as the coffee percolated (and my phone addiction was appeased)
poured milk into my mug like I always do
took the first, heavenly sip
walked outside to start the workout
thought about how terrible this feels
thought about how strong I’m becoming
gulped coffee like it was water and I was on a desert island
thought about how I still don’t have a “perfect body”
thought about how I definitely don’t want to do these fucking bridges
drank the last dregs of coffee
was amazed when the workout suddenly was over (I didn’t think I’d actually finish it)
stood up shakily
rolled up my yoga mat
thought about breakfast
thought about all the things I wanted to get done today
realized that the workout actually made me feel super energized
gratitude for my body
gratitude for a full day with “no plans”
almost immediately decided to go into town with my grandma to keep her company at the bank
thought “so much for a day with no plans”
thought “look at me, being helpful”
thought “oh shit, now I’m not gonna get as much done”
thought “fuck it”
tried wheat germ for the first time
discovered that wheat germ is pretty much a much blander nutritional yeast
got really excited about wheat germ
gratitude for wheat germ
had a fantastic conversation with my grandma about nothing and everything
gratitude for my grandma
showered and chose an outfit
decided I didn’t feel attractive enough in the first outfit
changed my shirt
got into the car to drive into town
realized I forgot my chapstick
went back inside
grabbed the shitty chapstick because I couldn’t find my good one
headed back to the car

AFTERNOON
called Chris while I waited for my grandma to finish at the bank
learned a lot from talking with him
decided I love being with him (I usually decide this 1-7 times a day, as if it’s a new revelation)
thought that I really want to trust him more
gratitude for Chris
thought about how I really really have to pee
talked about Christmas plans
felt stressed about buying Christmas gifts
received a text from my grandma which read “I’m going to scream soon”
felt panic rising in me, that old, familiar “I’ve been at the bank for almost an hour” panic
thought about how much I have to pee
went over to sit by my grandma, trying to be comforting
decided to go find a bathroom
wandered around the neighborhood for a few minutes, desperately searching
felt weird about going into any of the fancy hotel lobbies nearby, so just went back to the bank

EVENING
hid in bed watching Monk
felt incapable and anxious
forced myself to venture out of the bedroom for a family video call
thought about how far away we all were from each other
gratitude for family
tried to time things so our dinner would be delivered before we both got way too hungry
decided what I wanted for dinner from the Cuban restaurant
called to order
thought about how luxurious it was that we didn’t have to leave to pick up the food
shared a beer with my grandma – Blue Moon – her favorite kind
finally read a text sent that afternoon, from the parent of a piano student (S)
realized she’s asking if I could teach S this evening, instead of tomorrow evening
weighed all the factors: my crippling anxiety, my love for this student, my deep exhaustion, her dedication to the instrument, and her recital coming up in December
decided to let go of my “free night” and teach her an online piano lesson at 7:45pm
ate dinner with my grandma
thought about what I wanted to teach S
thought about how proud I was of her
thought about how I wasn’t making any sense
wondered why the hell I was talking so much
thought about how inadequate I was as a teacher
thought about how much awesome wisdom I was imparting
wondered if anything I’m saying is actually getting through
ended the lesson on a strong note

NIGHT
felt proud of myself
gratitude for my student
gratitude for teaching
dreaded writing this blog post
said goodnight to my grandma
begrudgingly sat down to write this blog post
had zero clue what to write about
lay down and snuggled into my blankets, trying to feel more at peace
then decided what the topic would be: decisions


On Decay

Today I wandered into a cemetery filled with palm trees and cracked stone. I felt lighter than I had in weeks. Everywhere I turned, there was life demanding to be acknowledged. A baby palm tree pushing up from the grass. An iguana sunning itself on a grave. A bird alighting on a post. It didn’t seem like a place of death at all, especially not in the sunshine, with the grass shining greenly underfoot. I was reminded of Whitman, who wrote in Song of Myself that there is no death (I’ve included the full excerpt below). Later, I opened Rumi, searching for a response. I found it in this poem:

Dissolver of sugar, dissolve me,
if this is the time.

Do it gently with a touch of a hand, or a look.
Every morning I wait at dawn. That’s when
it’s happened before. Or do it suddenly
like an execution. How else
can I get ready for death?

You breathe without a body like a spark.
You grieve, and I begin to feel lighter.
You keep me away with your arm,
but the keeping away is pulling me in.


While Whitman asserts that death doesn’t exist, Rumi speaks of waiting at dawn for an execution. Both reflect the feeling I had today: that death is never permanent. Something will always disintegrate and decay, and something else will always grow from the nutrients/energy of the decayed thing. The graves today were filled with life. Grieving really does make us feel lighter, like Rumi writes in this near-perfect poem. Giving space to the darkness in us, being vulnerable and letting parts of ourselves die, can allow light to come in.

Full excerpt from Song of Myself (Leaves of Grass) by Whitman:
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means,
Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,
I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.


Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon
out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.


This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for
nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken
soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

On Dreams

Last night, I’m immersed in The Sopranos Season 1, Episode 2, and all of a sudden, Tony starts describing this bizarre dream he had. The dream involves a vicious bird, a lost penis, and an auto mechanic, and the whole thing makes me chuckle to myself, especially after Tony says, “and I’m holding it (his penis) up, and this bird swoops down, and grabs it in his beak, and flies off with it.” You see Tony gesturing with his hand to demonstrate the scene, then the camera immediately switches back to the therapist’s forced-imperturbable face. It’s perfect. You have to laugh.

This scene also makes me think. Why are dreams so mysterious, and so varied? Sometimes they’re ludicrous to the point of being comical. But the ludicrous can turn out to be sad. Like Tony’s ducks. He loved those ducks. He truly loved them, and truly felt a loss when they were gone. It doesn’t make any sense, and that’s okay. Sometimes (most of the time) life doesn’t make any sense at all. I know dreams are proof that we work through shit while we sleep. I also think dreams are proof that hardly anything we do, or decide, is rational.

Sometimes I wake up, terrified that what I’ve dreamed has actually happened. The feeling of relief is so magnificent when I realize I still have “control” over my life, and the terrible dream-thing did not happen. But my body has adjusted to the dream, somehow. My body has, in those few moments or hours of dreaming, accepted that the dream is real. And it takes a few moments after I wake up to readjust. Recalibrate to reality.

Sometimes I wake up with the name of a past lover still on my lips, the feeling of losing them so present in my body that it feels like we just said goodbye the day before. It is real longing, conjured up by a dream. And not only longing, but clarity as well. As if, through the experience of that relationship from the dream perspective, I have actually developed a fresh sense of myself in relation to that other being. The dream is not just some fantasy that doesn’t affect me in real life. The dream has transformed my life.

And sometimes, I wake up remembering nothing at all from my dreams.

Dreams are also tied up in memory and identity for me. I remember some of my dreams, from my childhood and teen years, as if they were memories. Fully-formed, tangible memories. You know how we change and shape our memories into stories as we remember them over and over again? Some of my older dreams are like that. I know them now like stories. They’re stories of myself. These dream memories help to form my understanding of myself, my current self, in the current world. They’re important to my identity. They’re resources for me to use, lenses through which I can filter new information.

Dreams are a portal into another realm. We might think that we’re rational beings with free will, but we seem to be operating based on much more ancient, and much less linear, program than we imagine. We like to giggle incredulously at our dreams, at the weird, nonsensical situations we create in our sleeping minds, but is reality much different?

On Teaching

I don’t often get to talk about my teaching, even though it is arguably the most important thing I do. People usually ask what shows I’m playing next, and how the album recording is coming along, but they don’t really ask me how my 15-year old student is doing on her new composition, or if my 9-year old has learned how to play minor scales yet. I guess teaching piano isn’t as glamorous as getting dressed up and rocking out onstage. But glitz isn’t everything. I think teaching a really inspiring piano lesson to just one student can be as impactful as performing for a big crowd.

When I was 19, I volunteered for a community music school in Montréal to teach free music lessons to kids in underserved boroughs outside of the city. I was fresh out of teaching piano for most of my teen years at Summer Sonatina Piano Camp, plus a couple years of private teaching out of my parents’ house in Vermont, and I was so excited to meet all of my new students. It turned out that we didn’t have enough keyboards for more than one weekly private piano lesson. So I had a single student. Their name (changed here for privacy) was Sam.

The first thing I remember about Sam was their shoulders, which they held slightly slumped forward at all times, as if trying to shrink away from something. From the way they observed me, and the little remarks they made, I could tell they were strong and intelligent, and as soon as we started lessons that intuition was confirmed. We set up our little 76-key keyboard in an empty classroom in their middle school, right in front of the chalkboard by the door. The classroom was messy, and totally ill-suited for a piano lesson, but we jumped right in anyway.

Sam had no musical experience, except for playing around on a little keyboard they had at their house. I showed them how to place their hands on the keyboard, how to keep their fingers strong while they played, and where middle C was. They absorbed everything so quickly, and so completely. I had honestly never taught a student before who could master concepts that fast. It was incredibly fun for me, and Sam was eager to play whatever pieces I brought in for them. We learned chords, scales, arpeggios, and were playing stuff hands together way sooner than I thought someone could. I think one of the last pieces I assigned was Sonatina in C by Clementi, which I usually don’t assign until I’ve been working with a student for at least a couple of years.

I remember one day, we had just sat down at the keyboard, and Sam noticed my earrings. “Why are you wearing mismatched earrings?” they asked me. I felt my earrings, trying to remember which ones I put on that morning, and they were indeed mismatching. It was something I did a lot back then, in defiance of expectations mostly, and partly simply to show people that I was a badass. I smiled. I said, “I’m wearing them because we can do whatever the hell we want. Who says earrings have to match? It’s a silly rule.” They gaped at me, then laughed. I know that message stuck with them.

I know because as the semester progressed, they started sitting down at the piano as if they belonged there. And not just a belonging at the piano. A belonging in the space they inhabited. In the world. Their shoulders weren’t slumped anymore – they sat upright, ready, alert, believing in themselves. In the beginning, they would call themselves stupid or lazy in almost every lesson. And every time, I would tell them that they were smart, hardworking, and capable. Because it was fucking true.

The music was just an avenue for me to help them find confidence in themselves. It was proof that they could excel at something. It was proof that the school system that put them in the “stupid people math classes,” as Sam would call them, was just plain wrong. They slowly realized that they had the power to do whatever the hell they want.

That’s why piano lessons are so fucking awesome.

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On People

Honestly, it was the most fun I’ve had in awhile. I sat on the porch of a cafe this afternoon, eating banana bread and sipping a café con leche, and writing about the people I saw. Here are some of the ‘characters’ that inspired me today.


Old guy with defined abs drives a golf cart down the middle of the road.

Middle-aged couple stop to discuss the construction site across the street. They are tan and comfortable with each other, as if they could be walking on the moon and still feel at home together.

Woman wearing a stoic look, a short bob cut, and an old 90s sweater strides past.

Man with wild, stylish white hair smokes a cigarette out of his car window, glancing at me in hopes of some attention.

Two very fat people hunched over on scooters ride by in lurid, pastel-colored shirts.

Trio of old guys stop on the sidewalk to check out a construction site across the street. They speculate. They shade their eyes with their palms. They wonder and exchange ideas. As they move on, a woman I hadn’t seen before falls in line and walks with them silently.

Teenager, lanky, with faded, oversized tie-dye shirt, carries a backpack and looks at their phone intently. Their long, blond hair hides their face as they walk.

Pink-in-the-face guy with cigar and light blue shirt bikes by, adjusting his baseball hat.

Woman with bright blue flowing skirt and skin-tight shirt carries herself like a festival queen.

Very prepared tourist couple come into view with freshly-purchased straw hats and gatorade. They each carry a bag, and stroll in an easy way that allows them to turn their heads in all directions to see the sights.

Two guys drive up in a white van, one driving, one delivering. The delivering one runs out with a single package of toilet paper, jogs the package into the cafe, then leaves. I hear laughter and Latino music as they drive away.

Stylish older couple float by. They both hold themselves with a lot of grace, and have grown their hair out long. The man has arm tats and the woman’s arm is in a sling. She carries a breathy white bag. I inhale and think about my future.

Little girl, about 10, rides in an open-air tour bus, wearing an oversized cream-colored tee shirt, looking off into the distance at nothing in particular. She looks tired. There are little wisps of hair all around her chubby face.

Guy in a white tee hunches over an exceedingly noisy scooter, which is probably about to fall apart.

Woman in black tee and a ponytail points to the cafe, saying “And that’s the coffee house my next-door neighbor used to own.” She’s riding a beach cruiser bike. Her friend, trailing behind on her own bike, looks at the cafe with interest.

A young couple walks by on the other side of the street. Their body language looks a bit dejected, like they’ve given up on something. The man walks slightly in front of the women. She keeps her body in really good shape, him not so much. He takes out his phone as they turn around, probably lost.

Young guy on a scooter holds a guitar in one hand, and steers with the other. He yell-sings “Hey! Come, come on!” as he zooms past me, blond hair flowing and waving wildly in the wind. I smile. How can you not, when someone is singing and scootering.


Once I started noticing all these things, it was impossible not to be interested in every single one of these people. I wanted them to succeed, whatever that meant to them. Once you start noticing, like Mary Oliver once said, you start loving. “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Here’s the full excerpt, from her collection of essays, Upstream:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.” -Mary Oliver, Upstream





On Joy

One time, my mom gave me a book called 14,000 Things to Be Happy About. It was awesomesauce. I’ve opened it so many times, read for a couple minutes, then closed it with a knowing smile on my face. It even inspired me to ask friends and family to write their own lists of what makes them happy. To this day, I still have the notebook where I collected these various “happiness lists.” Maybe someday I’ll do something with them. Who knows.

I’m tired AF tonight, need to feel a little joy in my body, and don’t want to write anything truly coherent, so here’s my own happiness list, in no particular order:

pot roast slow-baked with beer
a new gel pen
playing a song at a show that makes someone cry
making my own stickers using colored pencils
sharing a meaningful look with a stranger as I walk by them on the sidewalk
waffles with strawberry jam
kids creating their own compositions in piano lessons
a big, clean dining room table
beautiful tea towels
using cash to buy cheap coffee
using coins from my piggybank to buy expensive ice cream
Vans sneakers
biking with someone I love
asking trees for advice
eating raw green beans
my cat’s almost obscene obsession with chasing and eating green beans
getting into bed with clean sheets
biscuits and grits
snuggling on the couch watching a movie, eating popcorn with my partner
mid-solo realizing that this shit actually sounds dope
walking along a river
flourless chocolate cake
holding hands in public
giving someone a gift I’m super excited for them to have
ice-cold lemonade
putting $40 into my retirement account
practicing piano in the morning sunlight
sweet tea
watching a really good Netflix food documentary
seeing a flower I’ve never seen before
Bananas Foster
listening to the birds
moss
eating at a fucking amazing restaurant on my birthday
dessert wine
leather jackets
long dinners with family
walking in cold weather drinking a hot drink
laughing so hard that tears stream down my face
showering after a workout
my cat’s hilarious habit of eating popcorn when I throw it for him
really, really, really, really warm socks
first snow
hugging my mom
getting paid to play music
the moment when the food arrives at the restaurant
snuggling
seeing a butterfly
walking barefoot
going to sleep after a long day of working
swimming in a lake
giving myself a hug
greenhouses
blackberries
cats in laundry baskets
the little moment when my partner joins me in bed after a long rehearsal and whispers “I love you so much” into my hair
homemade tie die shirts
Steinway pianos
balling out and choosing the whole bottle of wine at a restaurant

I could literally do this forever, so I’m gonna cut myself off there and call it a night. Make your own list! Try not to judge what comes out. It’s honestly so fun. I feel better already.

















On Plant Babies

I’ve been writing about some heavy shit recently, so tonight I want to talk about something more joyful: house plants. I’m obsessed. I feel like a lot of people got super into house plants over the past two years. We were stuck inside in quarantine for so much of 2020: forced to face our own inner worlds for months at a time, as well as our dreary apartments that we hadn’t quite gotten around to fixing up. We needed relief.

We needed something to care about, other than the global pandemic and the presidential election. We needed something that was our own, something we didn’t have to do in tandem with our housemates, who were ALWAYS AROUND (why were they always popping up in the room we wanted to be alone in?). We needed some friggen house plants.

I harbor real love for my plants. They’re like little babies, except they don’t wake up screaming in the middle of the night, or suck up all of your hard-earned cash as soon as you put it in the bank. They’re the perfect progeny: demanding just enough attention that you feel accomplished, even benevolent, for nurturing them, but not so needy that you feel overwhelmed and desperate for a break. Plus, I’ve been learning so much. Now I know that you can propagate almost any plant, as long as you have time and a lot of patience.

When I graduated from the University of Rochester in 2019, a close friend gave me his Pothos babies that he had been rooting in plastic water-bottles. I planted them in hanging baskets that were WAY too big for their tiny little roots. Not knowing that at the time, I just patiently waited for them to grow, keeping them in a sunny spot on our porch in the summer, and by a window upstairs in the winter. Now, they’re huge, healthy vines that cascade down into my home studio.

Plants are amazing for sharing love, and passing down traditions. I’ve propagated more Pothos babies from those original plants than I can count, and gifted a precious Pothos baby to a close friend. I also gave a Pilea pup to my mom to bring back to her farmhouse in Vermont. For awhile, she sent me daily updates on how the plant was doing. It was so cute. My grandmother has a 30-year old jade tree, with a thick trunk, that I absolutely love. When I was there last, I collected a jade pup from this primordial mother, a small, dark-green baby that’s now growing happily on my windowsill in Rochester.

It feels really lovely to know that the plants you’re growing can actually make other people’s lives brighter, not just your own. Sharing plants is a huge reason I love growing them.

For more propagating madness, I picked up a couple of Arrowhead cuttings from my neighbors, which I rooted in water. Most of them didn’t make it, since I was pretty inexperienced and had no idea how much to water anything, but one plant survived. I’ve had that little one for over a year now. Once, she was down to a single leaf, and I valiantly nursed her back to health. Now, she’s healthy and happy with lots of leaves, sitting on my piano in front of a south-facing window.

I find it hilarious, and touching, that word is getting out that I’m obsessed with plants. One friend moved away from Rochester for a year-long graduate program in Spain and left her house plants with me to “babysit.” I happily welcomed her Cat Palm and Zebra succulent into my growing indoor jungle. It’s a bit more pressure taking care of someone else’s plants, but I like the challenge.

My mom, seeing how excited I was about all of my house plants, brought me a Prayer plant as a gift. She said it was my grandmother’s favorite plant. It made me feel more connected to my family. Now, whenever I water my Prayer plant or trim yellowing leaves, I feel like I’m with my mother and grandmother.

I’ll tell one last plant story, and then I have to go to sleep. My dad, who is a real estate agent in Vermont, was showing a house that had been abandoned for a few years. It belonged to an old couple, both deceased now, and the family was finally selling it. Sitting on a small stool by the front door, forgotten in its terra cotta pot, was an ancient aloe plant struggling to survive. This thing was huge. It mostly consisted of dry, yellow stalks. Just the tips of the plant were green, juicy aloe leaves. He saw it, and immediately knew what he had to do. He brought it to Rochester as a gift for me.

I was ecstatic. I can’t even tell you how excited I was to have this nearly-dead aloe plant. I immediately went to work digging out individual roots, cutting off excess dried leaves, replanting the big old plants in their own individual pots, potting the healthier pups, and composting the parts that were too far gone to save. I now have an entire guest room FULL of aloe plants. Some are large, some are tiny, some have long yellow stalks, and I love them all. A lot of them have started growing pups, and I can’t wait until I have pots overflowing with green, healthy aloe. I have no idea what I’m going to do with all of it, but I don’t really care.

Now that I’m in Florida, I genuinely miss all my plant babies. They bring me so much joy. When I’m feeling really anxious, angry, or lonely, watering and pruning my plants is one of the only things that can bring me out of my funk. Or at least make me feel less alone.

Here are the house plants I’m taking care of right now:
-Laurentii Snake plant
-Whale’s Fin Snake plant
-Golden Pothos
-Jade plant
-Vittatum Spider plant
-Pilea (Chinese money plant)
-Cat Palm
-Sword Fern
-Dragon Tree
-Zebra plant
-Elephant Bush
-Alice evans succulent
-Arrowhead plant
-Peace plant
-Aloe Vera

Succulent Bush Senecio

Here are the house plants I’ve managed to kill so far:
-Mexican Snow Ball
-Ruby peperomia
-Echeveria ‘Perle von Nurnberg’
-Lavender (I’ve actually killed two different lavender plants….)

-English Ivy
-Strawberry Begonia

-probably more I’m forgetting