How’s Your Summer Going? – Artist Check-In

Hi! This is different from my usual posts. I felt like it was time for a bit of personal reflection, so here it is!

Question: How’s your summer going?

Overall, this summer is shaping up to be a very creative one for me. I think it’s great! Here’s a quick look at what that means in terms of my writing.

1 – I’m pushing myself to write something almost every day.

For me, this is highly unusual! In the past, I would just write “whenever I felt like it,” and while I do believe that the writing process should flow naturally, I think taking this season to push myself more will help me grow and expand my abilities for whatever comes next.

2 – I’ve introduced myself to poetry, which is an art form I’ve never tried before.

Because I’m new at it, it’s very difficult, and in comparison with my prose pieces (which I’ve had 8+ years of experience with) I think I have a lot of room for improvement. I’m not happy with my poems, and hopefully I never will be. However, I am finding that poetry is a good way to express my feelings toward certain current events: for instance, Rally for Democracy expressed my thoughts toward the extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, and At the Edge of the Earth reflected my feelings about the tragic KyoAni arson attack a few days ago. It’s not a perfect form for me yet, so I’ll keep working on it!

On a related note, art as a tool for activism has been heavy on my mind this summer… but I’ll have to write a separate post for that one.

3 – I’ve experimented with zuihitsu more.

I’ve loved this genre ever since I read Kamo-no-Chomei’s Hojoki in the summer after 11th grade. Eleventh grade for me was all about social justice, exploring all of the failures of America, all of the false promises, all of the human rights violations, all of the (largely successful) attempts to cover them up. The bitter hypocrisy of the American Dream was weighing heavily on my mind, and I was starting to feel depressed again. For me in this vulnerable state, Hojoki was like a lifesaver. It freely explored many of the unanswerable questions I’d been dealing with for ages, and it painted a picture of zuihitsu as a genre through which I could explore them, too. I figured I’d give it a try, and this project evolved into Life = Suffering + Love, a 25-entry zuihitsu collection I wrote for my friend’s birthday.

My modern, personal interpretation of zuihitsu is definitely different from what the genre was originally, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I believe it’s important that genres evolve with the times, and it’s also important that artists don’t feel limited by the genre/s in which they write (or speak or sing or play or…).

At any rate, while working with zuihitsu initially came very easily to me, I’ve recently discovered that it’s not something I can just write whenever I want to write it. It might sound strange, but zuihitsu is easiest or most natural to me when I’m depressed. If I’m not depressed, it’s harder to convey my thoughts in that genre… so even though I love it and want to keep working with it, I can’t promise zuihitsu as a regular feature or anything like that. There might be long gaps in between zuihitsu entries sometimes, but really, for me, that’s not so bad.

4 – I’ve begun working with short stories.

Believe it or not, short stories are pretty new to me, too! Prior to this year, everything I wrote would be novel-length or at least in a long novel-like style. I wrote my first short story, Life Beyond the Setting Sun, sometime this past spring. It was inspired by a comment my friend made about shadows, as well as “The Chrysanthemum Pledge,” a story out of Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain. I spent only two or three hours on it, with very minimal editing, and immediately handed it to my friend the next time I saw her. (She didn’t like it very much, ahhaha…)

Actually, I didn’t like it very much either, at the time. I thought it was great for a first try at a short story, but I think I was trying to do too many things with it, and as a result I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the finished product. However, I did send it to one of my long-distance friends, and he recently got back to me saying he’d read it and loved it. Unlike most readers, who just say “I thought it was great!” or “Meh, not really my thing,” he spent ages carefully detailing all the reasons why he liked it. Because of his words, I dug the story up from my files and reread it for the first time since, and I’ve come to conclude that it’s a pretty passable, enjoyable story, a good first effort, and something I’d be willing to put up on my blog.

My friend’s encouraging words also led me to write a second short story: Songs Without End. Now this one I really like! Actually I was a little rushed to finish it, so there are definitely some parts I’m not happy with. But in the end, I’m pretty proud of it, and now I’m looking into writing more short stories. Even though I’ve only published two, I think short stories suit my style pretty well. What do you think?

That’s where I’m at with my writing so far. This summer, I’ve also reconnected with music on many different levels. Here’s what I mean by that.

1 – I’m exploring and expanding my musical interests.

I’m listening to music everyday, thoroughly immersing myself in new artists, watching videos of their concerts and listening to their songs. Before this year, while I was kind of into music having grown up in a musical household and played two instruments, I’d never really had any famous musicians or genres I really liked, besides a vague “I like songs from the romantic era” and “RADWIMPS is a powerful band.” But at the beginning of the year (or maybe the end of last, I don’t remember, haha), I almost simultaneously discovered X JAPAN and GACKT. I was immediately hooked! And, you know, one thing leads to the next, right? Before I knew it, my playlist also included songs by sukekiyo and LUNA SEA as well as the individual works of artists like HYDE, Sugizo, ToshI, MIYAVI, Kyo, hide, and Chachamaru. And I have a long, long list of bands and artists I’ve yet to listen to!

2 – I’m playing piano more often.

Honestly, I used to hate playing piano… but it wasn’t the instrument itself or the music that I hated. I hated having to practice and perform songs that I didn’t actually want to play. I also hated being made to compete – competitions and competitive pursuits were never my thing. My shoulder also made playing and practicing difficult sometimes, so for most of last year I stayed away from the instrument as much as I could. However, this summer, I’m actually playing a lot! This is in part because of my new musical interests, and also because I’ve taken it upon myself to find my own music. I search up sheet music for songs that I like and artists I know, and then I’ll sight read them for fun. If I really like the piece, I’ll go on to learn it. Of course, I’m not a professional pianist, and I have a lot of room for growth – but being able to play the things I want to play makes me really happy.

3 – I’m exploring music as a way to deal with depression.

Music as therapy has been on my mind recently. Songs, and the human voice in general, are really powerful, don’t you think? Even though the lyrics are sad or the background of the artist is tragic or the melody is melancholy, I always feel some kind of peace in my heart and mind after listening to such songs. I wonder why?

4 – I’m exploring music as a way to connect with other people and the past.

As Ryū says, music is communal. I love making music with other people – I think it takes on a very special meaning. The interaction between musician and listener is also meaningful – in the past I’ve made efforts to learn songs my friends like for their birthdays, and I want to continue doing so. Music is the universal language, that’s what I think. It transcends all barriers and reaches deep into your soul and makes you feel. Even if there are no lyrics, or the lyrics are in a different language that you don’t understand… there’s still something there that is so incredible I don’t know how to describe it. I want to think about this more!

So, this is basically how my summer is going. Writing and music are my life.

As for mental health… I’m doing pretty good right now. I haven’t felt seriously depressed or suicidal in several months. I’m pretty comfortable where I am, and I can recognize when my thoughts are starting to head towards chaos. (Of course, sometimes I can’t do anything about it, but so far this summer, music, writing, and comedy have been working pretty well for me!) Hopefully, this good trend will continue.

Maybe this is off-topic, but I wanted to mention something else. Today my mother made dinner for me and after taking a few bites I told her that it was really delicious. But even as those words were coming out of my mouth, I started to think, Do I really mean that? Of course it was true that the meal was very delicious. But I had a feeling that I wasn’t truly enjoying it to the best of my ability. I was kind of scarfing my food down, without taking the time to thoroughly chew it and taste the flavors. I want to pay more attention to my food from now on and savor it for all the work that has been put into creating it, from farm to table. Towards the end of the meal I also started to think, If this is my last meal, I want to enjoy it more…

Hm, maybe that’s a bit of a depressing way to end this post. But, I’m getting rather tired, so I think I’ll sign off here. This is how my summer is going – how about yours? I hope everyone is doing well.

Take care of yourself!


Underwater Moments

I’m busy at the piano when he arrives, deep into a piano arrangement of “Forever Love” that I’ve been learning recently. I always play when I’m expecting guests, my way of saying I’m here, you’re at the right house, I’m waiting for you. My phone is on the music stand, so I see when he texts me that he’s here. He says that someone is playing the piano and he doesn’t want to interrupt by ringing the doorbell. I smile, stop in the middle of the chorus, and get up to greet him at the door.

He smiles at me a little shyly; we haven’t seen each other since graduation. I explain that nobody else is home, so it’s just the two of us. I ask if he wants a house tour, since this is his first time here, and he says yes. I show him around.

When we’re done I ask him what he wants to do. I say that I have video games; he shakes his head, laughing, and tells me, “I’m not a gamer.” He says, “How about we just sit and talk?”

We sit on the couch together. I’m grateful for his suggestion – most people these days seem to not understand the value of just having a conversation, and I’m so glad that he does. We talk about everything – what we’ve been up to, what we plan to do this summer, places we want to travel to. We spend ages reminiscing about the books we read in our childhood – books like Septimus Heap and Eragon, books I haven’t thought about in years, books I can’t name or even vaguely summarize anymore. When we tire of the couch we go outside and sit in the backyard. We talk for over an hour, and I treasure every second of it.

When the conversation starts to taper off I check the time and then ask him, “Can you eat now?” He’s told me that he eats at odd hours, so I want to make sure I’m not forcing him at a time when he’s full. But he nods and says sure, he can eat, so we go inside and I boil water to make pasta. He takes my phone while I’m cooking and takes pictures of both of us.

The pasta is ready before long. I offer him my two usual sauces, yuzukosho and mentaiko, and he says, “I think I’ll just have butter.” I put yuzukosho on mine and we sit at the table to eat a decent lunch. We talk sparingly, just enjoying the meal and the company, and we both have seconds.

By the time we’re finished with lunch, the clouds have cleared and I think the pool is warm enough for swimming. After we’ve changed into our swimwear I ask him if he wants to go in the jacuzzi too, and he says yes. Then I ask if he wants bubbles, and he laughs at me. “Do you have to ask?” he says. I turn on the spa mode and we head outside.

He goes into the jacuzzi first, and I follow him. The water heats up slowly around us. He brings up how if you put a frog in a pot and turn up the heat slowly, it supposedly won’t jump out – it’ll just boil to death because it can’t sense gradual changes in temperature. I laugh. He says a friend gave him his swim trunks for his birthday, but they’re a little too small. I say that my swimsuit is way too small for me now. We talk about bleaching hair and getting tattoos.

After a while he gets up to go in the pool, and I follow. I yelp as I step into the shallow end, because it feels ice cold compared to the jacuzzi. I say we probably should’ve gotten in the pool first and he nods in agreement. He throws himself into the cold water and adjusts well ahead of me. He wipes his face with one hand, looks at me, and says, “This is refreshing!” He goes back to the jacuzzi while I’m still crouched in the shallows, trying to acclimate to the colder temperature.

After a few minutes I’m finally able to dunk myself in the pool. I tread water and swim around a little; he watches me and smiles. I rejoin him in the jacuzzi and we talk for a little while longer. Then the heat starts putting us both to sleep, so we go back to the pool again. This time it doesn’t take me as long to adjust. We swim towards the center of the pool and he dunks himself beneath the surface, eyes closed; I go down with my goggles on and look at him underwater. His shirt drifts up in the current, revealing the snake tattoo on his hip. I think to myself that this is one gorgeous image, something I’d like to remember forever.

We surface together and swim to the side of the pool, looking out over the city below us and the mountains in the distance. I say, “Sometimes you need to just stop and appreciate life.” He passionately agrees. We go back to the jacuzzi, joke about boiling like frogs, and when it gets too hot we get up and go back inside.

I put the dishes away while he’s changing in the bathroom. I don’t change out of my swimsuit, planning to take a shower later, but I put a shirt on over it and try not to drip all over the kitchen. He comes back in his normal clothes, sits on the island, and I sit on the counter and we talk for another forty minutes. I give him the letter I had planned to write him before graduation. He reads it and hugs me.

Before long he says he has to go. I walk him to the door, and we hug again. He says maybe next time he’ll play Dynasty Warriors with me.

I hope there’s a next time. Even in the summer, such beautiful days are hard to plan.

Jazz Night

He sits alone at the piano, his fingers gracing the keys. Roughly thirty audience members sit watching him. The mood is casual but at the same time reverent. The nighttime valley wind blows on and off; I lean back into the folding chair and throw a blanket over my knees, hoping to keep the cold away.

The pianist is wonderful. I’ve played with him before, and I would like to again – but tonight is all about him. He plays through three classical pieces, pausing only briefly between each, blushing awkwardly when the audience applauds. Unlike other performers I’ve seen, he wastes no time – as soon as his nimble fingers touch the keys he begins to play without hesitation. When his memory lapses or his hands fail him he saves himself with great skill, moving fluidly to the next section or the beginning of the previous. I smile to myself, thinking that someone who hasn’t heard the piece before probably wouldn’t be able to tell he’d made a mistake. He plays at times with great strength, thundering out the notes when the piece requires it, but he’s also capable of playing with great reservation – soft, delicate, compassionate. He’s not perfect, but nobody is, and I much prefer listening to him than to an oft-self-righteous stranger.

He brings the third piece to a conclusion beautifully. We applaud again, everyone beaming. He stands up, blushing, waves his hands, and announces that he’d like to invite three of his friends up to play jazz.

They’re an amateur band of close friends, and they’ve only practiced once – today. The pianist reaches for a book of music, announces the first jazz piece, and sits back down at the keyboard. The bassist adjusts the volume of his speaker; the saxophone player blows a warm-up. The drummer sits quietly, waiting.

The first song is a classic. The drummer sets the beat, the bassist fills in the harmony, and the sax player starts on the familiar melody, my pianist friend accompanying him. The audience members settle back into their chairs, listening with rapt attention, some people nodding their heads or tapping along to the beat. The players move on to a second song, a third, a fourth, each one better than the last. Jazz is fun for the audience as well as for the band – we smile, clap, and cheer together, the mood lifted and joyous. I want to close my eyes so that I can focus on the sound of the song, but at the same time I want to keep my eyes open, watching the band members and their happiness as they play.

They start a fifth piece, moving their bodies to the rhythm. By this time they’ve adjusted, and they play wonderfully together, supporting each other, signaling with their eyes. We cheer enthusiastically.

Then comes the sixth and final song. This one is loose and haphazard – clearly not planned, they play just for the fun of it. The sax player weaves in and out with the melody and a dramatic solo part. My pianist friend runs through a beautiful solo himself, the bassist turning around to tell the drummer to quiet down while he plays. Then it’s the bassist’s turn. He’s not the most technically skilled, but he clearly enjoys performing, and the audience enjoys watching him. The bassist concludes, nods to the sax player expecting a return to the full melody, but that’s not what he gets. As if on impulse, the sax player turns to the drummer and says – though the audience can’t hear him – “Drum solo!” The drummer replies, “Yeah!” and starts thundering. The audience applauds appreciatively. All four instruments come back together again, and it seems like the band members aren’t sure how to end the piece. The pianist improvises a chord progression and a flourishing arpeggio to finish it off, and I laugh, clapping hard at my friend’s artistry. We give a standing ovation.

The night is over. Everyone gathers around, talking and hugging and thanking, but I don’t know anyone in the audience and it’s not my place to stay. I tell my pianist friend I’m headed home. He follows me back into the house and asks, “How was it?”

“The jazz was fun,” I say. “It was great.”

“Really?” He blushes.

I smile. “Yes.”

It’s our last time seeing each other for a while, and we both know it. “I’ll text you,” he says.

I nod. “See you around.”

This goodbye might be forever, but in my mind it’s not. I walk outside into the darkness of night, heading back to my car, and as I treasure the memory of this moment I can’t wipe the smile off my face.

Thank you, I say silently. It was wonderful. Really.

Happy, For Now

I sit on the piano bench, let loose my fingers on the black-and-white keys. For a moment I feel detached from myself – listening to the music as if I’m not the one creating it. The melody washes over me. I breathe slowly, feeling a powerful calm, treasuring the moment.

Two songs later I pause for a break, and he takes advantage of the moment to say, “You should stop now.”

I feel my face flush. “I know.”

He stares at me, amber eyes burning, and gives a wry smile. “You aren’t going to stop, are you?”

I laugh and lay my fingers back onto the keys. Another song fills the air, charged with sorrow and pain, almost haunting. I fumble on some of the notes, the piece still new to me, and struggle to turn the pages of my sheet music while retaining the heavy emotional mood.

Behind me he says, “You’ll pay for it later.

I ignore him and continue on. I wish he would make himself useful and turn the pages for me.

When at last I land on the final tragic chord I look over at him and say angrily, “I’m not stupid.”

“You sure look like it,” he retorts. “What are you doing with yourself?”

“Making myself happy,” I reply. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Making yourself happy? You won’t be happy tonight when your shoulder hurts so bad you can’t sleep. You’re an idiot.”

I’m happy right now,” I say. “Isn’t that enough? Wouldn’t you rather be happy now and miserable later than miserable all the time?”

He quiets for a moment. “I don’t understand how you live,” he says.

For some reason I find the statement ridiculously funny. “I don’t understand how I live either,” I say amusedly. “But why do I have to try to understand anything? Why can’t I just live?”

He reddens and looks away. “If you’re going to keep playing, shut up and play.”

I shut up and play, and the day wears on.