To sweet beginnings…

I attended a wedding on June 18. It was probably one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve been to. The couple in question have been together for a while, and been through a lot together. It’s been a long(ish) journey for them, though a fulfilling one.

I guess one would say that they have their fairytale ending now… but I think I prefer to think of it as a beginning rather than an end in itself, at the risk of sounding terribly sentimental.

The other part that was pretty cool about this wedding was the DIY aspect of it. The bride works as a graphic designer, and she designed the invitations and programs (like the one above) all by herself. The little bags for the wedding favors at the reception were also designed and sewn by her. They were so cute that the other people at the table I was sitting, and I, were all deciding to use them as cell phone cases (see right: my cell phone is inside).

In my church, it’s customary to have a smaller, more informal “reception” with some light refreshments and drinks before the real reception, held in some hotel or castle or something, commences. That part was also DIY in the sense that a bunch of her friends got together the night before and made all the treats. They were pretty fancy: little tiny tart things filled with chocolate and fruit, and some mini egg souffle type of thing with bacon and spinach.

But here’s the most amazing one, and I take credit for this idea: the cake toppers were made the bride as well! Some time ago, I saw some ninja cake toppers selling on Etsy (can’t find the link now), and knowing that the bride was into ninjas, sent a link to her kind of jokingly recommending that she use those. She ended up buying the wood the next day and sanding it down to make them. They turned out looking phenomenal.

The cake toppers were for a cupcake tier, rather than a wedding cake. I think the cupcake tier was a hit.

I also had a great time catching up with friends I don’t see too often.

To my friends Wing and James: Congratulations on your marriage, and may God bless them on the journey ahead.

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Contemplation 4

(From four weeks ago. Found it in my drafts box and decided to post it. There’s some good memories here.)

It’s really hard to write uplifting, encouraging posts when I’m not happy with the world around me. When nothing is going right. When I’m not doing too well with the tasks I’m supposed to be good at, like music and writing. When my self-esteem isn’t high, and my self-confidence is at a low.

These days, I’ve been so busy with practicing, and trying to get stuff right, and not getting stuff right, and more practicing, and still not getting stuff right. It’s discouraging.

I need to remind myself that I’m very very thankful to be here. Because I am. I am so glad that I’m here. I’m meeting so many dedicated and like-minded people who are also so talented at their instruments (or composing) in addition to being kind. They are inspiring. Not to mention the really brilliant teachers like Bruce Brubaker or Natalya Antonova. I sat in during a lesson with Ms. Antonova, and I love her. Very firm, but clear corrections and she seemed like quite a kind person. (I still think she might have made me cry, anyway.) I honestly love it here. However, I do feel inadequate. As if my skills aren’t enough, and they aren’t. As if I might never reach where I want to reach. That does worry me.

On the other hand…

I think being around so much maturity (whatever, that sounds weird) is making me grow up a little at a time. I’m trying to do better on the honesty front, at least. It’s making me want to work harder, do things better. I’m still held back by my lack of experience and knowledge, though.

For one thing, I’m learning how to carry on intelligent conversations with people.

But let me tell you, sitting down at a piano and improvising something pretty, if imperfect, is an excellent feeling. Right up there with getting the piece I’m actually supposed to be working on right.

Oh, and I had a day maker. An opera student said to me, “I feel so happy whenever I see you. I see you, and then I just feel so happy and good about life. You make me feel so happy.”

Or something to that effect. It did make me happy.

Gotta love those opera students. 😉

(To clarify, she was not my student. We were both students in different programs in the music festival.)

All photos are under a CC license and used with permission. Click photos for credits.

Eat more!

Friends and acquaintances would say that I always look like I’m starving, like I could eat more. I suppose that’s true — I am a very small girl with a very small stomach. My grandma comes to visit from time to time, and often states that I “eat like a bird.”

I love food, though. Sometimes I wish I could eat more. I don’t go out to eat much, and when I do go out to eat, it rarely, if ever, is gourmet. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten gourmet. Usually it’s the little buffet around town, the little dim sum restaurant several towns over, or McDonald’s.

Here are some foods I’ve recently eaten and enjoyed at various restaurants. I didn’t take the photos, but borrowed them off Flickr.

Enjoy the food porn. (Probably I will wake up next morning and find that I’ve gotten hits from hopefuls looking for actual smut.)

One of my church friends took the praise band out to lunch at the little Vietnamese place a few miles from the church. I’d never experienced the awesomeness that is pho before this. The restaurant had a wide-screen TV playing the Food Network while we waited to be served, as well as a large tank with this huge, ugly fish swimming solemnly around and around. My friend ordered an appetizer, fried tofu.

I ordered a “small” bowl of pho, with egg noodles. I didn’t realize that the “small” bowl of pho was actually a HUGE bowl of pho, way too big for one small girl to finish all by herself. And I didn’t. It probably didn’t have as much meat and green onions as the pho in the picture up there, but I recall the broth as very savory. I’ve already forgotten what type of pho I ordered, and what meat it had.

But it was good.

As a Chinese American, it follows that my parents take my family out to eat dim sum on a regular basis. Actually, no. My parents only started taking my family out to eat dim sum about a year and a half ago. We usually go to a small restaurant a few towns over that supposedly was voted to have the best dim sum in our state or whatever. I have a family of seven, so the outcome usually is 10-15 little dishes of sweet or crunchy or spicy or sticky to try. Dim sum heaven, I tell you!

My favorites were always the crunchy things. I always asked if we could order those little crunchy scallops with bread crumbs (yes, my obsession with bread crumbs extends to dim sum), or little crunchy spring roll type of dishes. My father would be the person dissatisfied with the thought of only eating dim sum, and would opt to order some noodles.

And afterwards, the comfortable feeling of being satiated; washing everything down with a little cup of tea.

And then asking for more tea.

We go out for dim sum at least once every year, now.

Panera Bread is a chain, but nevertheless a very nice and inexpensive one. Several years ago, one of my church friends decided to start a mentorship with me. Every week, she’d take me out to Panera and we’d sample a dessert and do a Bible study. If we were in a mood to get a meal, I’d get their two-in-one: a sandwich with some soup and bread/chips. I am very much a soup and sandwich person, and both are superb.

I believe I ordered something different every time I went there. I remember the broccoli and cheese soup, and some sort of barley/mushroom/beef concoction that was excellent.

During the school year, my friends would do Panera runs, and they’d get food for me as well.

I have yet to try the soup in a bread bowl, though.

I would have to say that for me, food and friendship will always be linked. The food itself at these restaurants were undeniably good, but it wouldn’t have been the same if I’d gone alone. It was always the pleasant company that I enjoyed the most, in the end.

What are your favorite places to eat at?

All photos are under a CC license and used with permission. Click photos for credits.

Things that make me happy, part two

Finding little unexpected little gems of music. Sometimes I surf Amazon, looking for new music to listen to. Some of these searches reveal little tidbits of free music that they offer periodically to promote new artists. Some of this music is really not my type of music. Others are such that I want to find out about the artist, listen to her songs, and perhaps even buy a CD. Christa Wells was one of those artists. A free song offer led to me finding her website and purchasing her debut solo album, Frame the Clouds, which I have reviewed here. She also has an amazing blog.

Recently, she put a rough draft of a new song she wrote up on Youtube. It’s not the best quality; it’s filmed at her home and is only her lovely voice and her piano. Despite all that, I have been listening to this song almost on repeat ever since I found it: it has an incredibly beautiful melody.

You work to be loved
You love to be known
You know how to hurt
You hurt on your own
But your soul is a desert

The rest of the lyrics can be found here.

To me, this song sounds sad. Someone is dry, barren, stripped down. At the same time, the song is so full of assurance, of hopefulness.

Of faith.

Despite the fact that storms keep coming before the person is ready, despite the fact that the person seems to keep losing what she has and draining all the resources she seems to have, she is coming to a realization that she might already have what she needs. Perhaps she does not know it yet, but she will find out. Despite the fact that she is also hurting, alone, and in need of love, she is gradually learning that that which she needs most is something she will never lose. Something that is there for the taking.

And this is something I can readily identify with. Often times, I do feel alone, hurt, and unloved — that as the days pass the storms keep on coming before I am ready to face them. However, it seems that these storms are wearing me down to a seed, a realization of one truth — that I have been loved from the start.

And that makes me happy.

But your eyes are an ocean flooding over the levy
Storms keep on coming before you are ready
Oh, and they’re taking the whole place down to the seed
Til all that you have…is all that you need

— Christa Wells: “All That You Need”

To be continued…

All photos are under a CC license and used with permission. Click photos for credits.

Things that make me happy

I felt like a making a list of things that make me happy. Random, huh? Mainly because I think I need a reminder. Here are several things that make me happy, in no particular order:

Chocolate. I think I eat a little bit of chocolate every day. Usually dark or semisweet, rarely milk or white. But recently, my father got some chocolate as a present from the church for Father’s day… it’s some really sweet milk chocolate that has strawberry yogurt as filling. It’s rather too sweet for me, but I love the strawberry yogurt. It’s a very nice touch.

I have many fond memories associated with chocolate. During my freshman year of college, some kind person left a box of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate truffles on the table in the student lounge of the music department. According to the chair of the department, food left unattended in the music lounge is fair game. Apparently, whoever left it must have meant to leave a small treat for the hardworking musicians and professors, because no one ever came to look for it.

Lots of other people in the department are chocolate lovers, as evidenced by the speed at which the chocolate disappeared. I had several truffles myself, and became really hyper.

Picture from Google

Books. Especially authors who have the power to use their words to inspire, encourage, and captivate readers. My favorite genres are fantasy and science fiction, and I greatly admire the imagination that goes into really good world-building. (Star Wars, anyone?)

I also have a special softness for retold fairy tales. A new favorite is the German fairy tale Maid Maleen (princess is locked up in a tower for refusing to marry the man her father wants her to marry because she loves someone else) as retold in Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days. The characters are well drawn, and Hale puts an unique take on the story by setting it somewhere in Mongolia instead of Europe. The story is told from the viewpoint of the princess’s maid, first person, and set in diary entries. Shannon Hale illustrated the book herself. The ending has a unique twist.

I enjoyed this book very much, even though I wanted to wring Lady Saren’s (the princess) neck throughout it. I loved Dashti, the maid’s, practical outlook on the situation, her loyalty to Lady Saren even though her lady was a much weaker person, and her courageous efforts to remedy Lady Saren’s depression and discouragement. And the romance? So perfect.

Good food. Recently, my mom has been trying to make me learn how to cook. I’m all open to it and everything, but I feel so dumb and clumsy. A few years ago, I badly cut my pinky finger when trying to chop broccoli, and the trauma was enough to make me avoid big knives and vegetables for a good, long time.

I have cooked two full meals, and I am happy to say that I have been successful. I have not cooked myself, cut myself, or spilled anything on myself. My family has eaten my cooking, and they have not died. In fact, they have enjoyed it, without the aid of any extra “sauces” or “seasonings” to enhance the eating experience. (Hey, this broccoli actually tastes awfully good with this mustard!)

I like eating good food that has been prepared well.

I just hope that my family does not get tired of eating chicken.

That feeling of getting something right after struggling over it for a long time. When I write or play the piano, I occasionally run into blocks. My fingers cannot play a complicated passage of music, or I cannot find a way to say something so that it doesn’t sound stilted, and I get frustrated. However, if I keep trying, I might just get it right. It might take me a few days or a few weeks, but the feeling when I finally get it right is wonderful. It might take simply leaving the piece or the essay alone for a while, or it might take reading it over and over again and practicing it over and over again. Either way, whichever works.

Hot chocolate on a cold day. Ahhh…

What makes you happy?

To be continued…

CC license on flickr – click photos for photographer credit

Music is Expensive

Picture from Amazon

*sigh*

Let me begin by saying that I have spent a lot of money this break.

Somehow, I ended up buying a lot of CDs. I don’t regret that. I’m just sad because I’m broke.

Anyway, if you have a chance and want to listen to some good music, listen to these:

1. Frame the Clouds by Christa Wells

2. The Invitation by Meredith Andrews

3. Amarantine by Enya (Christmas gift from my my younger sister, actually)

4. Fireflies and Songs by Sara Groves

5. My Medea by Vienna Teng (I got a couple of songs from Warm Strangers and Waking Hour, and by far, “My Medea” is my favorite.)

6. Us by Regina Spektor (Soviet Kitsch)

7. Hero by Regina Spektor (500 Days of Summer)

Links lead to their respective Amazon pages, if available.

"these are the scars that silence carved on me... I am a constant satellite of your blazing sun"

A friend of mine introduced me to Vienna Teng by sending me a link to “Gravity”. I noticed three things: that Vienna Teng was Asian, classically trained in piano, and that the song was awesome. Most of her songs are a sort of hit and miss with me – if I hear a song and I love it, then I’ll really love it and listen to it on repeat for the next 48 hours. If I don’t like it, then I really don’t like it. Some of the lyrics don’t catch me, and some do. However, there is no doubt that Vienna Teng is gifted in words and melody. Her music has a very unique feel.

“My Medea” is a good example. Haunting and intense, the song refers to a woman in Greek mythology who left a trail of destruction wherever she went. She murdered her children, murdered a pair of lovers, tried to destroy her former husband, Jason (yes, that Jason). I wonder what eventually happened to her. Vienna Teng also drew from the legend of the labyrinth (Crete?) and “a curse for every mile of ocean crossed” which sounds familiar but which I can’t place. Ouch.

It took me a while to understand the song.

Amarantine is my favorite Enya album so far. Even with the songs with the made up languages, I was humming along, not knowing whatever the heck I was singing. It was cool. “Amarantine,” the title track, is my new favorite love song. I am also in awe of Enya’s lyricist, Roma Ryan. She paints pictures with words, while Enya, the “sonic architect,” builds towers out of sound. Altogether, the music has the effect of making me feel as if I’m a pilgrim who has been on a long journey and has only just found her way home.

And indeed, home is a theme that Roma Ryan and Enya explore in this album.

You know when you give your love away
It opens your heart, everything is new
And you know time will always find a way
To let your heart believe it’s true
.

— Amarantine

(Who says that rhyming poetry is for 5th graders? Heidi Montag has nothing on Roma Ryan.)

Amazon had a $5 for one mp3 album deal over break, and I got “Fireflies and Songs” by Sara Groves. I hadn’t listened to any of her music beforehand, just heard references to her by Meredith Andrews and Christa Wells (Sara Groves’ vocals are featured on “Frame the Clouds,” incidentally). A housewife and mother of three children, Sara Groves released nine albums, her most recent being the one I just bought. I immediately fell in love with her songwriting, but her voice was an acquired taste. At times, I felt that her voice was a little too scratchy. The real beauty is perhaps in her lyrics. They are very very honest – so much is about everyday life. Kitchens, fireflies, friendship, tables, and houses. So much is about singing “for the beauty that’s to be found” as written in the gem “Setting Up the Pins.” Another favorite is “Love.”

love I made it mine
I made it small I made it blind
I followed hard only to find
it wasn’t love
it wasn’t love

love of songs and pen
oh love of movie endings
takes out the break
leaves out the bend
misses love

love not of you
love not of me
come hold us up
come set us free
not as we know it
but as it can be

People can identify with the small things, like chairs and tables and children and kittens, but perhaps that is where we look last for the important things. Things we need to be reminded of. To me, her songs will always be about the beauty found in ordinary things, the aliveness to be liven in everyday life, the grace of God reflected back in little simple things like friendships and kindnesses, and a love that is bigger than we know.

Will I buy anything else by her? Perhaps.

(And the song “It’s Me” brings a lump to my throat every time I hear it. Shhh don’t tell anyone.)

Meredith Andrews is pretty darn cute, too.

Meredith Andrews is so darn cute.

“The Invitation” by Meredith Andrews was one of those purchases I didn’t think I would love as much as I did. I’m not really into a lot of “Christian” music. Don’t like Chris Tomlin (I can hear the shocked gasps now) because his music and lyrics seem too vanilla for my tastes. Not intense enough. I like more intensity, more edginess. I like to listen about grace, and goodness, and love, and peace, but it all has no form and substance without the fall. Because for humans, so much of our lives has been defined around falling, being crushed, being shattered, being shaken, being broken. Which is why we are so desperately in need of grace. Grace would have no meaning if man had not fallen… the sacrifice cannot exist without a reason. One must acknowledge the fall while being defined around grace.

God is indescribable, unchangeable; but all we know of God comes from our experience of Him. In trying to speak only of God’s qualities, we more often than not come up short because there is so much we don’t know. Yet that doesn’t stop us from trying. The old hymn writers were good at this. Because of our inadequacy, and perhaps from our own inexperience of God, it’s hard to find new and fresh ways of talking about God. As someone who’s tried her hand at poetry, I can say that it’s extremely hard to not fall back onto the old cliches that instead of drawing the soul to something greater, drop them back into blah.

grace

beauty in pain?

That, or a lot of Christian music seems to be cheesy pop love songs with all the words “baby” and “love” and “darling” replaced with “God” and “Jesus” and “Savior.” Don’t get me wrong, I like love songs, depending on the melody or the lyrics. But singing the words “I can’t stop falling in love with you” 8x in a row makes me feel really weird. Seriously, I wouldn’t know those were songs about God except for the words “God” and “Jesus”. God is many things: lover, friend, Father, confidante, brother, etc. He is captivating, etc. But I’m not sure I want to think of God captivating me with his “intimate kisses.” Oh dear. Does that give you weird mental images? I’m sorry. I can’t remember the name of that particular song, so I’ll spare you.

In talking about being shattered, broken, etc., many can identify with such feelings. However, the challenge is in finding a balance. We’re broken, but we need grace. We need grace because we’re broken. One cannot be morbidly upsetting in writing about being broken, and one cannot be so airy and fluffy in writing about grace, otherwise it’s no better than feel-good bubblegum pop that’s all air and no substance. It’s my thought that, similar to the struggle of describing God, many Christian singer/songwriters fall back on the same ol’ same ol’ cliches, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it fails to satisfy.

"I was alone, but you found me where I was hiding"

"I was alone, but you found me where I was hiding. And now I'll never ever be the same."

So I was pleasantly surprised to listen and find so much depth and wisdom in the lyrics. There are such gems as the upbeat “You Invite Me In” where Andrews sings that “You invite me in/Doesn’t matter where I’ve been/Your arms are open wide/There’s nothing left to hide” echoing the account of the prodigal in Luke. Who doesn’t want to leave their shame behind? And yet that is the chance offered.

Or how about “You’re Not Alone”?

My favorite track is the deliciously piano-based hymn-like “Draw Me Nearer.”

In your nearness there is healing
What was broken now made whole
Restoration in its fullness
Lasting hope for all who come

In your nearness I take shelter
Where you are is where I’m home
I have need of only one thing
To be here before your throne

Her music is just so darn uplifting in its message of hope. “God is extending an invitation to you, to you personally, calling you by name,” she says. “He knows where you’ve been and he knows your background. He knows your family situation. He knows the things you struggle with, but he’s calling you by name and he’s inviting you to come in and to meet with him and to know him.” How encouraging!

Christa Wells. Picture from her blog.

And yet, one of the best purchases I made was “Frame the Clouds” by Christa Wells. I first heard about Christa Wells when Amazon offered me a free mp3 off this, her independently produced debut album. I can’t stop listening. She has a way of painting pictures with words. This album is definitely marked by Christa Wells’ plain honesty. The lyrics are profound in their simplicity. Favorite track? “Frame the Clouds.” I recommend this album.

Like her friend Sara Groves, Christa Wells sings and writes about the simple things of life, interjected with a lot of grace. However, the way she paints pictures with words is unique and not really like anything I’ve ever heard. Sara Groves’s songwriting makes me think of flowers; Christa Wells’s makes me think of solid oak. She sings of falling in love in “All the More”, citing little things like his grin and the desire of wanting to be kissed “I was raised not to asked to be kissed, otherwise I would’ve.” He was perfect in so many ways, but in the end it was his imperfections, his humanity, that made her fall in love with him further. Or how about “A Thousand Things,” a balladic song about human suffering? Someone suffers, tells about it. But that’s not the end of the story: someone else at the next table, also suffering, hears about this and takes it to heart. “Exquisite” pain draws people together, but so does grace. An outpouring of pain, and grace in the midst of such pain, is like a drop of rain that waters a thousand fields, hence the title.

a thousand fields nourished by a single drop of rain

Then there is the mournful “Life Costs So Much,” a condemnation of sorts against the failure to acknowledge the cost of life , living empty lives our own way, the assertion that “we’ll get along” while hiding our souls in shame. Merely existing, and certainly not living.

“Don’t Call It Love”, “I Want To Know That Man”, “Weightless”… I don’t believe there is a single “miss” on this CD. For instance, in the swingy “Don’t Call It Love”, Christa Wells takes difficult subject matter – passing judgement – and handles it with grace.

I’m tempted to sit back in my overstuffed chair

with a gavel in hand and a tired-eye stare that says
I’m not surprised you’ve messed it up again
I’m tempted to sigh, I’m tempted to yawn
if you’d only do life the way I’ve told you all along
It could be so easy
If you would only be more like me

But oh, that’s the beast that brings us down
It’s the devil in a satin gown
So don’t, don’t call it love (don’t call it love)
love wraps herself around the wound
and weeps while she speaks truth

So don’t call this love

Indeed love does… as well as make music.

"If there's a God who would enter humanity to capture the love of a rebel like me... I want to know his name." - "I want to know that man" Christa Wells

It’s rare to see a singer/songwriter who can spin such melodies and words in a way that they speak to the heart. Or perhaps these singer/songwriters get overlooked over the bubblegum pop babble, the Miley Cyruses and Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovatos and Emily Osments. It’s really a shame, because such artists should get recognition. Such music is in the end more wholesome than empty fluff. One may make a person feel empty-good for a while. The other may make a person feel more challenged, more less-whole, more longing-for-wholeness, more empty. As it should.

The only way I can describe this music is the feeling of a journey to make — a journey to love’s beginning. A journey where instead of walking the other way, one walks into grace. A journey to recognize beauty in faces and places, like the man who “poured himself out for a stranger for years, for no kind of pay.” A journey where one strives to become more Christ-like, I suppose.

A journey I’d want to make. A journey I’m making.

I am listening to the album as I write this, and I feel as if I’m uncovering a new little gem every time. The songs have that much meaning.

It’s also available on iTunes, but I got the CD, available on Christa Wells’s website, because it’s easier to lend CDs to people.

Music to buy in 2010, in no particular order, and because I like making lists:

maybe someone played so well that his fingers bled roses.

1. As Long as It Takes by Meredith Andrews (coming out in March?)

2. Brooke Fraser‘s Third Album (unnamed, and tentatively scheduled for summer 2010. Again, I recommend her. She’s my favorite singer/songwriter, and anything from her is bound to be excellent. She puts so much of herself into everything she writes.)

3. Love Makes Music EP by Christa Wells, Nicole Witt and Other Various People. Two songs written by Christa, two songs by Nicole, and one song written by both.

4. Rest of the Ride by Nicole Witt. Just found about her from the Love Makes Music EP project. She’s good. More country. But good. I like country.

The end of 2010 will possibly see me in debt.

*Update: I only bought a few of the CDS on the list: Meredith Andrew’s was one of them. I also bought Brooke Fraser’s album “Flags,” which I should review at some point, and which was excellent. I highly recommend it. I never did buy the EP by Christa Wells and Nicole Witt, but I did buy “How Emptiness Sings” by Wells, and which I will be reviewing at some point because it is also extremely insightful.

I also changed my mind about liking country.