Easing my foot off the pedal

Tuesday, January 15, 2019 - 2:32pm

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Sherry Chen/Daily

The piano in my childhood home is tired. Her brown, fraying ivory sags with overuse and dulled keys sing softly — worn out from years of pounding fingers. Her exterior — covered in stickers and stamps and carved into with uncut fingernails — reeks of resignation. Old and abused, the bench squeaks with arthritic dejection when slid out into sunlight.

I have always been an extremely passionate person. The piano in my childhood home represents exactly the effects of this: After over a decade of fully-dedicated, emotional excess, the keys into which I poured my soul have started to give out. I used to get scolded by my mom, who would online shop on the computer near the music room, “Не се нахвърляй като гламава на пианото,” which translates to, “Don’t throw yourself onto the piano like a crazy person.” But throw myself I would, because I knew no other way. If I was going to do something, I would assert to her, why not do it with the utmost energy, emotion and excitement?

I lived my life like this for a while: in a hurricane of passion. I played my scales in the dynamic fortissimo. I tried to befriend every person I’d meet at a party. I banged out arpeggios to the frustration of my family. I would literally throw up after reading a book that moved me. I tried to memorize multiple sonatas at a time. I lay motionless on my bed as my heart strained over the latest boy I had decided to crush on.

While this approach to life, in which I felt everything amplified by 100, made everything more interesting, it was not sustainable. I soon came to realize this on the soccer field, another place where, like music, I found a home. Soccer was a passion, one that I never neglected: If we had a game, I would give it my all, even from the bench. If I was watching a game on TV with my dad, I’d exclaim loud commentary at the screen. To me, soccer was an outlet, an intersection between creativity, energy and community. I could play as hard as I wanted to, and my adolescent body would come out only with a couple of bruises and sore muscles. I could laugh and tease with my teammates, and sure, we’d have to run laps for it, but I’d leave practice with a feeling of warmth in my chest. Like piano, this exuberance reflected in my everyday life, and the world appeared vividly colorful to me because of it.

But rainbows are fleeting. With maturity and experience, my naive lens of joy began to give way to the darker clouds of cynicism. High school proved demanding; I had to quit playing music. Our family’s piano remained sad and dulled in the dim light of Michigan winters, untouched for months. High school soccer proved political, and no longer did I enjoy the feeling of sisterhood that I had indulged in for years. Rather, girls were nasty and mean, making fun of the “weirdness” I believed to be my shining characteristic.

As I grappled with my sense of self, losing footing in music, my life changed once again – this time, through soccer. At 6:00 a.m. on a winter morning in December, as the newly appointed captain of my varsity soccer team, I tried to rally 12 yawning girls into a dedicated and dynamic pre-season soccer game. What ensued, as I tried to exhibit enthusiasm with all my might, was that I finally crashed from the high I’d been riding for years.

On a simple corner kick play, I planted my leg to cut and felt a thudding pop – I had torn almost every ligament in my knee. In this moment, my body gave up against the overpowering force. Symbolically, it represented the imbalance in my approach to life: I was putting too much weight on a single ligament that couldn’t keep up. As I was wheeled off of the field, my teammates looked at me, dumbfounded. Later, they would tell me they thought nothing would be wrong — that I’d return to practice the next day entirely the same.

The truth is, after that event, I never did return to a soccer field in the same way. The months following my injury were humiliating, disillusioning and frustrating. I lay in bed for weeks popping Tylenols and ignoring the rash of purple-blue bruises that covered my swollen leg. I relied on my mom, whose love brought her to sleep downstairs with me on an uncomfortable couch for more than a month, to carry out activities as simple as going pee. I crutched around school out of breath and sweaty, trying to keep up with classroom banter but rather becoming the object of tease when I walked in with my full-leg brace. I felt beaten down, not just by those around me, but internally, too. I felt fully disconnected from my body. I didn’t recognize my frail and feeble legs. I yearned to jump up and down and dance and run.

I was ashamed that I couldn’t even take a shower on my own. To me, to be devoid of physical mobility meant to be devoid of my youth. I no longer felt strong, energetic and full of life. I felt like the rejected piano in my family home: weak, tired and resentful.

As I attended physical therapy three times a week, I slowly began to regain my physical strength. Along with it, I tried desperately to rebuild my identity, too. I was no longer the carefree, blindly headstrong girl I was before I quit piano and had my injury. I was more cautious, mistrusting and resigned. But I appreciated this newfound maturity, and as a result, I listened, observed and reflected more. I learned to conserve my energy and save pockets of it for the important things, like family, true friends and art. I revisited music, playing piano to divert my thoughts from the soccer games I was missing. Soon, I rediscovered my love for it.  

These self-discoveries, these adjustments to who I am, are still a work in progress. I continue to struggle to find outlets for my energy and to live out the everyday stressors of college life with positivity. I never want to lose my spirit — it is the essence of who I am — but in such a time of uncertainty and growth, it is easy to get lost in pessimistic thought. And isn’t that what we’re all doing here in college? Desperately grasping onto the innocent self that we know, love and admire while receiving blows of reality that knock us down?

Eventually, I returned to the soccer field, albeit a less frenzied player. I still play with the utmost passion, but I know how to control my previous recklessness. And though I had to give up that part of me, I now play more consciously, safely and therefore, effectively. Similarly, I have returned to the music bench. There, I play piano: when I want to, how I want to and with whomever I want to. The difference is, I’ve now realized there are more dynamics than just forte.

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