Of Music and Mochi

Despite the wind’s wintery bite, Wednesday was a day of hygge (that newly ubiquitous Danish word), permeated by an inner sense of coziness and capped with little moments of happiness.

One of my favorite parts, appropriately, was listening to an album by a group called the Danish String Quartet. I first came across their music in NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, and in a break from the quartet’s usual classical fare, they played their own arrangements of Danish folk songs. I fell in love. And then I did somersaults of joy when I discovered they had not one but two albums of such musical bliss.

As I was driving home from work Wednesday, I had their album Last Leaf blasting (can one blast string quartet folk music?) and I watched the pink sky mellow into dusk. (I also watched the road, of course, so don’t worry.) The track “Shine You No More,” which I have heard innumerable times now, blew me away once again and set my feet itching to dance. I heard in the “Unst Boat Song” the sorrow and joy and longing of 100 lives, and it invites you to write your own experiences into the music, too, whatever they are that day.

Music like this buoys my spirit when gray January settles in. It reminds me of the life that pulses even in the quietest moments and celebrates the softness and introspection of winter.

Image result for mochi

Before I tell this next vignette, I have to share a secret, burgeoning desire I’ve harbored for the last several years: I really, really wanted to try mochi ice cream, the sweet cream and rice-cake frozen treat invented in Japan and made popular in the States in recent years. However, as someone who is sensitive to milk and always has been and probably always will be, I assumed that tasting this delight would forever be beyond my reach. Vegan ice cream there may be, but vegan mochi? It seemed unlikely. When I would see freezers of mochi  in the grocery isle and hear them calling my name, I would sadly turn away and inwardly bemoan my dairy-free fate.

So you can imagine my delight when my roommate Jess informed me in passing that not only was there vegan mochi, but it came in GREEN TEA FLAVOR, which was, just as secretly, the flavor I had always wanted to try. So I bought some on my way home, practically bouncing gleefully through the grocery store isles.

After dinner, I opened up the freezer to inaugurate the beginning of a beautiful mochi-filled life and have some for desert. I invited Jess to try one with me, and before we ate, she bumped her mochi to mine as if we were clinking champaign glasses. I took my first bite.

Reader, it was heavenly. It was everything I could ask for and more.

The world is often a frightening, overwhelming place, and we have so much work we are called to do. Small joys like music and mochi cannot change these facts, but they can help gird us through our fallow, restful months and teach us to keep wondering at the world.

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Eating salad during a heart attack

Today was a particularly busy day for me, laden with layers of anxiety and prefaced by a restless sleep. So, as I sipped my jasmine tea this morning, I turned my thoughts to gratitude. I listed the things I was thankful for: the capacity to do the work required of me, a dedicated team of co-workers, helpful and understanding roommates, a fantastic new apartment to move into—I mentally moved through my schedule, thanking God for the aspects of my life that made each part of my day possible. And after just a few more tastes of tea, the miracle happened: I felt better. My stress level fell and my face slipped more naturally into a smile.

I have heard the benefits of gratitude touted by everyone from my mom to the Dalai Lama, and while I believed them, I often thought that maybe I just wasn’t grateful enough. Creating lists of things I was thankful for hasn’t really had an effect on my overall mood, except perhaps to make me feel guilty for feeling bad because look at all these things I have to be thankful for!!!! That is, until this morning.

I could think up a variety of theories to explain why my gratitude list was so helpful today, but a likely candidate is that my depression is the most under control I believe it has ever been in my adult life. Gratitude is often upheld as an important antidote to depression, and while I do believe it is a necessary practice, I don’t know how effective it is against a severe depressive episode.

Practicing gratitude might be a little like eating a nourishing salad—it is undoubtedly beneficial to your health, but it’s not going to do you much good when you’re having a heart attack. Sure, eating a salad during a heart attack probably isn’t going to make things worse, and most assuredly eating a diet rich in nutritious vegetables will contribute to your heart’s overall health. But when you are experiencing the acute distress of a heart attack, you need specialized medical attention before eating a salad will have a noticeable effect on your general wellbeing.

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Now that the acute distress of my severe depression has been lifted through a network of interventions, gratitude can take its full place as a meaningful practice to maintain my mental health. In moments of stress, being thankful releases my being’s innate healing capacity and connects me to God’s renewing presence. I’m glad I practiced gratitude in the midst of my hardest depression—you don’t stop eating salad just because you discover you have a blocked artery, after all. But I’m also delighted that, when my health is strong, being thankful can actually make a marked difference to my experience of the day.

So be ever thankful, my friends. But also be ever mindful of the webs of care you might need to hold you up and help you to flourish. If you’re having a heart attack, don’t beat yourself up because your salad consumption isn’t making a difference. Get the immediate help you need, and then keep eating all the salad you want.

be ever thankful?

One of the most common pieces of advice I see in those “10 ways to change your life” or “5 practices of happy people” or “17 guaranteed ways to looks as bright and shining as the airbrushed person in this stock photo”articles is to keep a gratitude list.  As I’ve said elsewhere, practicing thankfulness is the first thing my mom always suggests when I find myself in a challenging mental space.

What does it mean to live in gratitude?  Is it simply saying “thank you” when good and/or beautiful things happen or appear?  Is it about being grateful in specifics or in general?  And what are the implications of thanking God for good things?  What about when gifts seem to be withheld, or when bad things come?  Who is responsible?

A couple weeks ago, my sister posted a picture to facebook that showed her plant named Roselyn, a gift from a fellow student.  Her caption read: “I’ve had Roselyn for about a year and half now, and this the first time she’s ever blossomed.  I didn’t know she was supposed to!  For once I think she may not be struggling for her life.”  In the picture, the dark burgundy leafy stalks sheltered a small bloom, pink and tentative and still opening up.  My dad left a comment underneath: “See.  We all bloom eventually.”  My sister had not written the words “thank you” or “gratitude” anywhere in her post, but something of thankfulness was evident in her surprise and delight and in my dad’s choice to see a universal truth speaking through a specific moment.

But what if Roselyn had never bloomed?  Or what if a bud had appeared but never opened?  What if we don’t all bloom eventually?  What if my sister’s plant had died?

dscf4911I am reminded of the kadish prayer, recited at a Jewish funeral, which praises God for the goodness of God and the world God has made.

Perhaps we are called not so much to be grateful for things that seem good and beautiful but for life when it is real and true.  For those times when the blinders of our fear, busyness, self-absorption, pessimism, optimism, dishonest perfectionism, all these fall away for a moment and we are confronted with the rawness of life, in all its terror and miracle.  So we give thanks when we laugh until we can’t breathe, and we give thanks when we shake and heave with sobbing.  We give thanks when a newborn wails its way into being, when a loved one breathes their last, tender words, when we hold a delicate flower and when we ride out a devastating storm.  Our stance of gratitude is based not on how well things are going but on how alive we are in this wild world.  And we give thanks to the One who is the true center of this aliveness.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he told us. Gratitude is the choice to live attentive to God’s aliveness in us.

be ever thankful (3)

I was on a holiday – a full holiday from work and a partial holiday from electronic devices. And now I have returned – with a celebration of all things advent-y and Christmas-y.  I am thankful for:

– Advent candles; even in the middle of summer, the smell of a freshly-extinguished candle reminds me of an Advent wreath.  The end of the Advent season got a little busy for my family, and for the first time I remember, we didn’t finish lighting all the candles.  But we started out admirably and with a new (for us) concept.  Instead of reading an Advent liturgy, we simply discussed the meaning of the words associated with each candle: hope, peace, joy, love.  We often stayed late around the kitchen table on a Sunday night talking about our own experiences, understandings, and questions.

– an email from my Hungarian-Ukrainian friend Ildiko with an update from her family.  The email itself came as a great surprise – Ildiko’s family does not have email nor access to the internet; I had not expect to hear much from them and despaired of a letter ever getting past the crazy Ukrainian post offices.  However, Ildiko was able to borrow both the computer and email address from a neighbor.   Her short Hungarian phrases were easy for me to read and full of love and care;  I read that email several times and imagined the people and places it came from.  I didn’t realize how disconnected I had felt from my life in Transcarpathia until I got that email and felt the rush of warmth (and tears) that accompanied it.

– the Advent season’s defiance of one definitive emotional space.  We celebrate hope and peace and joy and love as we light each candle, but we are not required to feel those things, just to acknowledge them.  In Advent we do not pretend to have arrived anywhere, or even to be sure that we are going somewhere.  Of course we know that, liturgically, Christmas comes next, but Advent gives us plenty of space to wait and lament and fume and marvel.  Christmas may be a season we associate with coming home and settling in with family, but Advent shares the same root as adventure, adventitious, venture, avenue, invent … it is a word of movement, of restlessness, of not-yet-arriving. Advent is the only season I know that takes discontent and holds it until it finally grows into something else.

– Christmas music, even the cheesy kind like Manheim Steamroller – as Mama and I always say, the Christmas season is perfectly adapted to cheese.

– Game nights with the fami-lami-ly; my favorites include long, late nights trying to memorize the capitals of all the Asian countries and the pictionary-telephone game that started with a minister serving communion and ended with a dancing goul perparing breakfast.

– Car rides + books on cd, especially Harry Potter.  My sister the Bird and I, having listened to said cd during said car ride, have effectively addicted Mama to Harry Potter.

– sand castles and leaf flags; my brother Mr. Gershwin, the Bird, and I had grand sand castle dreams and labored long to bring them into fruition.  The contrast between that golden leaf and that vibrant aqua sea kept calling me back again and again into wonder and praise.

Be ever thankful (2)

This week I was thankful for:

– a long phone call to a faraway friend; sometimes it’s easy to pretend that we’re actually just sitting across the couch from each other

– a mother who lets me decorate for Christmas as part of my rent

– a workplace that lets me decorate for Christmas as part of my job

– clementines; it’s so easy for me to imagine how these little orange spheres of goodness featured so prominently in Christmas stockings of old

– the book The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ’s Coming by Wendy M. Wright; I’ve been wanting to read this book during Advent for probably about 10 years, and I finally pulled it off the shelf in time for the beginning of the season.    This slim but full volume has provided me ideas to rejoice over and chew on, and I probably don’t do it justice by reading it just before I fall asleep.

Advent, the season of waiting and preparation that comes before Christmas; as someone who often finds herself in in-between spaces, it is comforting to know that there is an entire liturgical season that the church has dedicated to in-between-ness.  More on that later.

be ever thankful (1)

It’s always easier to be where you are when you know where you are.  (Say what, Yogi?) And what better way to know where you are than to recognize what you are thankful for.  Every week, a new list.  Every day, a new brick. (See be ever thankful tab.)

Things I am thankful for this week:

– improving health (being sick is dumb)

– noodles (especially: the slurping of noodles)

– Miracles on Maple Hill, a delightful children’s book that kept me company one of my sick days

– woolly socks

– a mother whose acts-of-service love language was speaking loud and clear this week

– a flexible and understanding workplace

– the return of sunshine

– a moment during the sunrise this morning when the too-large red sun behind the bare trees started setting upwards behind a cloud

– frost

– peppermint tea