Not Always the Overcomer

Coffee in Carmel on our first post-Covid outing 🙂

I’ve started several follow-up posts after the piano video, but this is the first I’ve finished. It’s difficult to know where to begin, since taking a blogging break was one of the hardest things I’ve done after I started writing in 2017. My message has been the same for the four years: Life isn’t about what happens to you, it’s about what you do with it. God’s given me a unique perspective on this topic, although it’s not the kind of perspective I would volunteer for. Nevertheless, He’s sustained me and my family through a difficult recovery, and given us vibrant lives after some of my limitations became permanent. 

This past March, I made the mistake of thinking Ivan and I had “arrived.” I knew that purchasing an affordable condo in an expensive city was a gift from God, but something in my heart whispered that we’d earned it. After all, how many couples spend their first five years of marriage on a medical rollercoaster? But we quickly realized that our miracle condo with the perfect indoor lighting and beautiful neighborhood park came with a psychological hazard that was far more sinister than our old complex’s fluorescent lights and busy downtown streets. And this hazard sparked a downturn that I wasn’t mentally or emotionally strong enough to write through.

For the first time since my accident, I found myself asking “Why?”

Why couldn’t something go right, just this once? Why did I always lose what mattered most – first violin, now writing? Why was TBI finally taking its toll on me and Ivan after all these years? Why was I so alone?

Hopefully you can see those questions aren’t accurate. Everything about the actual condo was still “perfect” after Ivan and Dad took care of the neighbor situation. I hadn’t “lost” writing at all, I was just taking a break from the blog. Yes, my brain injury was taking a toll on us, but we were also getting help to manage the recent trauma. And even if no one else could completely grasp the severity of what I was experiencing, I was absolutely not alone.

The writer of Hebrews says Jesus faced all the same trials we do without surrendering to self-pity or bitterness. He completely understands our pain, and empowers us to persevere – if we’re humble enough to ask.

Over the past six weeks I’ve realized that the stories I present here are usually the “overcomer” stories that end with a smile or are tied with a bow. I still believe these are some of the most important stories because they illustrate how God uses all things for good. On the other hand, God uses all things for good – even the stories when I don’t feel or act like an overcomer. Moving forward, I hope to share more of both sides of our life so that you can fully grasp the scope of what He’s doing in and through our lives. As always, thank you for being a part of the Walking with Grace family!

Writing Between the Lines

Grateful for time together now that Ivan’s on summer break 🙂

“Loneliness feeds on itself like a dark star.” This is sentence is out of character for me, even though my creative work has evolved at SCAD and sounds noticeably different from what I write on the blog. What hasn’t changed is the way my faith influences what I write – a fact that’s increasingly controversial as I begin planning my thesis. 

You can probably imagine my colleagues’ curiosity last quarter when I finally showed signs of cracking. Even though I took a break from the blog during my TBI downturn, I didn’t have that flexibility with school: skipping a quarter or dropping a class meant forfeiting future financial aid. Art mimics life, and all I could portray was what I was experiencing each day: loneliness, fear, disappointment. Part of me knew that those feelings wouldn’t last forever, that eventually God would heal like He always did. But that knowledge didn’t overcome my present emotional morass. Brain injuries make it very difficult to think about hypotheticals, including the future. (For those of you who’ve read the blog a long time, you might have noticed that the only time I mention the future is when we’ve made specific plans.)

As I wrote about my current isolation instead of about Ivan and I overcoming past obstacles, I noticed my reviews improved. “So much more believable!” was the general consensus. (Even though I’m specializing in nonfiction, I’m still graded on character development like a novelist.) After a couple of assignments, I realized the isolation pieces were portraying a one-dimensional picture of my current situation; my best solution was to switch to writing about violin for the rest of the quarter. Most students stick to their thesis topic after a certain point in their degree, but I couldn’t keep producing work that suggested my earlier “overcoming” pieces were less than honest. 

Nevertheless, as I thought about this quarter’s “believable” pieces, I realized they weren’t entirely dishonest. Loneliness does feed on itself – or at least mine did. The more I dwelt on how no one understood what it was like to be secretly harassed, or how the situation wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I didn’t have a brain injury, or how Ivan should have figured out what was going on even if I couldn’t tell him – the more I dwelt on those things, the lonelier I  became. 

I don’t know if I will clarify my work this past quarter and remind my colleagues that writing about my accident is more complicated than faking success or admitting defeat. The limitations of distance learning may mean letting this quarter go and trusting my completed thesis will speak for itself. In the meantime, I’ve been reminded that words on a page last longer than notes in a practice room or even a concert hall. Violin used to be my release during crises; now writing has taken its place, even if imperfectly. But unlike old recitals, my words will exist long after I write them. They’ll also impact how others view my past and future work, and ultimately my testimony as a Christian writer. 

Thanks for sticking with some heavier posts recently – next time I’ll be sharing some exciting updates we’d originally planned to post in March. 🙂

The Healing Power of Music

Me and my piano teacher after my one and only piano competition in high school. 🙂

Hello, Blogging Family! I’ve missed y’all very much over the past few weeks. Although I’m still in therapy for the TBI issues Ivan mentioned in his last post, I’m glad to be writing again. I’m also excited to share what I’ve been doing in the meantime.

Many of you know that my sister studied piano seriously throughout high school, including a couple of years at Colburn when she and my parents moved to California.

Few (if any) of you know that I also studied piano in high school. My career was not noteworthy whatsoever, but between preparing for my own lessons and sitting through Anna’s, I left for college with a respectable knowledge of the instrument. 

Fast forward to this past March: After we brought home Ivan’s Wurlitzer, I wondered if I could relearn piano even though I haven’t succeeded with relearning violin after my accident. Without getting too technical, piano and violin are distinct because pianists can see both hands, while violinists can’t see either hand in a meaningful way. I can somewhat control my left hand if I’m looking at it, so…

“Humoresque” by Rodion Schedrin

After a bit of trial and error, I’ve learned a children’s piece called a “Humoresque.” These pieces are supposed to sound like little jokes, which I thought would be appropriate for my amateur re-debut. It’s far from perfect since I’m still learning to control two hands simultaneously, but I’m grateful God’s brought music back into my life, and I’m excited to keep developing. 

P.S. A huge thank you to Mom for lending her piano for this video!

TBI Update

Throwback to our beach day in December 🙂

Hello friends, I wanted to give a brief update about Grace’s status. Back in February, a resident in our condo complex complained about a “maintenance issue” that the previous owners had left unresolved. The resident also became aware of Grace’s disabilities, and began harassing her daily while I was at work. This behavior continued even though the “maintenance issue” was being addressed; Grace was so distressed and intimidated that she couldn’t adequately communicate to me the severity of the situation. Unfortunately, this meant that it lasted over a month before we addressed it decisively.

Although the resident has stopped their harmful behavior, their actions imprinted on Grace’s brain to the point that Grace is unable to function at her normal baseline. Grace’s TBI symptoms are still highly aggravated, and she’s undergoing professional treatment to help her return to daily life without being in a constant state of “fight or flight.” She misses you all, and looks forward to writing here again as soon as she feels better. Thank you so much for your prayers and support!

We’ll Be Back…

Hello friends, I hope you had a wonderful Easter weekend 🙂 Grace is going to be taking a break from posting on the blog for some time because we’ve encountered some circumstances since our move that have really aggravated her TBI. We appreciate all your prayers and support so much and look forward to returning once things settle down a bit.

God is good, and no detail of our lives escapes His notice, or falls outside His plan. His grace is always more than enough, and each day brings us closer to our true home with Him in Heaven. Blessings to you all as we start a new month!

Ivan Gets a Piano

“You can get a free piano on NextDoor, you know.” The Wi-Fi was atypically clear that morning, so I could tell Anna wasn’t being sarcastic. 

What?” I couldn’t imagine why Anna would browse the Millennial’s version of Craigslist for a free instrument since she’d studied the piano every bit as seriously as I‘d studied violin. 

“Grands, everything.” She must have been adjusting her phone, because for a minute I got a breathtaking closeup of her left hand. “I was actually about to pull the trigger on one before Mom offered me the Kawai.”

Even the Kawai, a relatively new baby grand, had been a significant downgrade from the 6’4” Baldwin that Anna played until my parents moved to California in 2012. High-end Baldwins used to be considered one step below Steinways, and we’d been blessed to find Anna a piano that had been refurbished by a Steinway technician – the perfect compromise for her talent and our budget. But California housing is California housing, and that Baldwin was a good 12” too big to fit in any of our tiny rooms. But downgrade aside, I still couldn’t figure out why Anna had been willing to settle for a free piano before Mom offered to give up the Kawai. 

“And there’s really worthwhile stuff on NextDoor?”

“Yeah…just broaden your search to ‘Greater San Jose’ so you start picking up estate sales.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Most kids just want to get rid of their parents’ stuff. I’ve seen Mason & Hamlin, even Baldwin. No Steinway yet, but maybe if it was banged up or something.”

I texted Ivan after Anna and I finished our weekly FaceTime: How do you feel about a free piano? Perhaps I should have been more specific, but I’ve inherited Mom’s penchant for creating suspense. Besides, this really was too complicated to explain over text. We’ve always planned to buy Ivan a “real” piano since he’s been playing on a decrepit keyboard since we got married; still, the best plan we could come up with was to save up enough to buy an upright Steinway from the San Francisco Conservatory when they rotate their practice room pianos. Our old plan would leave Ivan on his keyboard for a few more years, but NextDoor – that could give him a piano in a matter of days. 

Although the piano question has always rumbled around the back of our minds, purchasing a two-bedroom condo made it even harder to ignore. “We could even have a piano room one day!” we’d agreed as we surveyed the second bedroom during the final walk-through. After we moved in, the room had felt cavernous with nothing but Ivan’s rickety keyboard at one end and two shelves of sheet music and my four-years-silent violin lurking at the other. My parents’ Kawai was out of the question since Anna deserved first dibs on her own piano once she and Robert had space for it. Plus, moving any sort of grand into a condo probably wasn’t the best way to make friends with our new neighbors.

But regardless of the neighbors, there was no question that Ivan needed a piano at some point in his career. It might seem redundant to say that every musician – professional or not – needs an instrument, but many pianists find themselves in a quandary in that regard. Universities or conservatories boast concert grands that are infinitely better than what many students could ever hope to buy, but the same can’t always be said for the instruments in the practice rooms. And, unlike vocalists or other instrumentalists, many pianists don’t have a way to practice off-campus unless they happen to live near school. 

The problem only compounds after graduation when some variant of “starving artist” syndrome haunts most music majors  – and many apartment complexes don’t appreciate residents who bang out Rachmaninoff. Hence Ivan’s keyboard for our first five years of marriage. 

But none of these factors kept a free piano from sounding like some sort of flimsy scam when Anna brought it up. “Can you actually try them?” I probed.

“Why would I consider something I hadn’t tried?” She looked insulted that I even asked. “It’s a good thing Mom finally offered the Kawai because I was having a hard time narrowing down my top five.”

That’s more like it. I remembered how Miss Larisa, Anna’s and my favorite piano teacher, had complained for weeks after our music school swapped out her decades-old Steinway for a “better one” that had just arrived from a donor. Miss Larisa boasted an also almost implacable taste in instruments, in addition to her PhD from the Moscow Conservatory.

“Why won’t they give me old one back?” She’d lamented. “This one – I can do nothing with it. It’s bright and students play and don’t have to work to get sound. It gives me headache.” Poor Miss Larisa never got her piano back, but I’m fairly sure all the other teachers would have killed for her new one. 

I tried not to imagine Anna waltzing into five different estate sales and subjecting their pianos to a similar analysis. 

Our choices on NextDoor were much more limited than Anna’s since we were searching for uprights. Weeding out PUO’s (pianos of undecipherable origin) left us with three options: a poorly-photographed Baldwin, a cherrywood Wurlitzer, and a Capen that looked like a set piece from a Victorian film. I’ve already noted the merits of a Baldwin, so our interest in that one goes without saying.

Wurlitzers are typically a giant step down from Baldwins, except that the owner claimed this one was built in 1925. This puts it right in the middle of “The Golden Age” of pianos. If that were true, then the piano might play surprisingly well and would be a lot closer in value to a Baldwin or Mason & Hamlin from the same time period. But this all depended on how well it had been maintained – and if it was indeed from the Golden Age. 

The third piano on our list was a Capen from the 1890’s. I’d dismissed the Capen as a PUO since I’d never heard of the name and therefore assumed it couldn’t be a legit piano maker. Nevertheless, Ivan was fascinated by the age and insisted on trying it “just in case.” His curiosity elicited much heated debate, which suggests Miss Larisa had rubbed off on me as well as Anna.

The short version of our conflict-laden weekend was this: The Baldwin would have met both our criteria in a perfect world, but it got voted “off the condo” once we discovered the owner was keeping it in a storage unit. (Pianos can be permanently damaged if they aren’t kept in a climate-controlled room.)

The Wurlitzer was indeed made in 1925 – the current owners even provided papers to prove it – and was in surprisingly good condition. I conceded that it needed a whole lot more than a good tuning to maximize its potential, but it was decently playable as-is. I know this because I insisted on trying it for myself. Perhaps the the owner thought I was crazy for playing half of a decently complex piece with my right hand, but Ivan and I come from very different schools of playing, so I refused to take his word for it. (Miss Larisa strikes again.) 

I never retracted my appraisal of the Capen as a PUO, so Ivan trekked out to test it for himself after promising to text a video if he found himself even considering the piano that I’d discovered was manufactured by an Industrial Revolution-era furniture company. He looked appropriately sheepish when he returned.

  “You were right.” He sighed. “Well, I actually liked the bass register, but I mean, compared to the Wurlitzer, it was obviously the lesser piano.” Looking back, I hope that he sincerely believed that and wasn’t just placating my refined taste in free pianos.  

But however we actually arrived at the decision, Ivan now has a piano for the very first time in his adult life. The Wurlitzer arrived Saturday and our piano room looks pleasantly crowded with the two bookshelves full of our collective sheet music taking up one wall, my violin and bright yellow music stand in an adjacent corner, and the cherrywood Wurlitzer taking up the other, previously-barren wall. As for that rickety old keyboard, it found a new home within four hours thanks to NextDoor. 

We plan to let the piano settle for a month, then tune it in April and get an estimate on what it needs in the way of refurbishing. In the meantime, we’ve been doing some soundproofing in the piano room since our condo has all vinyl flooring – great for reverb, but terrible for neighbors. We still haven’t relinquished our Steinway dream, either, although it’s probably several more years down the road.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. Ivan didn’t have any shot at any piano two weeks ago. As usual, God provided more than we’d asked, when we’d least expected. 

Home Sweet Home

Wrapping up Moving Day! My big regret is that we forgot a family selfie.

Hello Blogging Family! This morning was the seventh morning we woke up in our new condo. My last post promised a detailed description of how we made it “home” after seven months and a devastating legal interruption, so I’m excited to be writing to you all this afternoon. Thanks for waiting me out! 🙂

***

            “Personally, I think you guys should start looking for another condo. If you ‘wait this thing out’ like that construction rep is saying, then you could be sitting around for months. And I highly doubt that any builder could to finish that complex before your contract expires.” Ivan and I looked at each other. Dad spent twenty years in resort management before he became a pastor, so he’s our resident expert on real estate. Besides, we were all eating dinner with half the lights turned off since I had a migraine. I hated that my parents had been living like this for the past six months.

But browsing existing properties in San Jose presented its own set of challenges. First of all, we wanted either a first floor unit or a unit near an elevator. Then, we preferred it to be near  my parents’ condo or Ivan’s school. Third (and this was the real kicker), we needed a unit that was less expensive than our original purchase since we didn’t know when the fraud case would resolve. For those of you who don’t live in San Jose, finding something that fulfills this list is like finding a needle in a haystack, and is further complicated by the fact that properties often sell the day they’re listed.

 Nevertheless, we were still on the market.

“Hmmm…I guess this could work. I mean, it’s a tight fit, but I’m over being picky.” Ivan and I were looking at Option #1, a two-bedroom in our favorite complex. The upside was that the complex was located within five minutes of Kaiser, Mom and Dad, and VCS. The downside? Apparently the previous owners didn’t mind showering with their laundry machine. (I’m not kidding. They had about 18” of clearance.) I also wasn’t sold on the idea of a two-bedroom. We’ve thrived in one-bedrooms so far, and after all, weren’t we trying to economize? Still, it would be wonderful for Ivan to have his own “piano room” one day. We went home, slept on it, and texted our realtor the next morning. The condo was already gone.

The next weekend we meant business – as in business business. It was already the end of January and we’d told my parents that we’d be out by March. That made this our last chance to find the elusive dream condo, assuming it took thirty days to close. But our extensive set of  “needs” yielded only two viable options that Saturday. The first was a lemon, although we both tried to convince ourselves otherwise. Option #1 was in that same favorite complex, but I’m not sure if any amount of downsizing could have made 560 square feet livable for two cats and two adults – one of whom does not work or even go outside very much. “Just wait,” our realtor smiled. “I think you might really like the other one. I desperately hoped she wasn’t just trying to pull a worse à better = sale job.

She wasn’t.

We woke up in “the other one” this morning. Property #2 was also a two-bedroom, and it still met every one of those “needle in a haystack” expectations that I mentioned earlier. Not only that, but the owners seem to have been a younger couple who’d just updated their kitchen and bathroom. Example: Our bathroom has trendy fleur-de-lis tile floors instead of the aforementioned micro shower scenario. Nevertheless, the best part was the location. Ever since we moved to San Jose, Mom and Ivan have been driving me to a walking trail near a historic hotel known as “Hayes Mansion.” We couldn’t see for sure, but Mom thought there was either a condo complex or a traditional neighborhood behind the mansion. Wouldn’t it be nice for Ivan and I to live there, she’d always teased. Ivan and I never gave it more than half a thought. If there were indeed neighborhoods back there, they were probably expensive. Apparently we were wrong, because our complex has a gate leading to the park.

I feel blessed – almost to the point of being guilty – as I write this post. God would have been incredibly gracious to provide for even some of our needs, or at least just meet our truncated time table. The fact that He chose to go above and beyond, especially when loss and disappointment have been widespread for almost a year now, is difficult to comprehend. On a human level, we’re incredibly grateful to my parents for hosting us for seven months…AND to Anna and Robert for helping us move and for being available for last minute home repairs. We couldn’t have made it through last weekend or gotten settled this week without the four of them.

As always, thank you all for your prayers and support! You’ve been a tremendous blessing over the past months, and it’s been a huge example for us to receive encouragement when many of you are going through your own trials.

***

P.S. I’ll continue sharing updates through Facebook and Instagram as long as I can, but I’d like to encourage you to subscribe since I’ve had to petition Facebook to be allowed to continue posting.

Subscribing is super easy! Just click the “Follow” button at the lower right hand corner of your screen and enter your email address. 🙂

A Condo for Valentine’s Day

We’re the bottom unit!

Happy early Valentine’s Day, everyone!

Ivan and I have always been rather low key around February 14th, not because we’re annoyed by the holiday, but rather because life events have typically made that date rather inconvenient. For example, Ivan had his hearing for his senior recital on our very first Valentine’s Day (any musician can tell you how stressful that is!), school events overlapped with our second, and after that my disabilities quashed the idea of a romantic night out. And thus we adopted the motto that love is something you should celebrate all day, every day – even if some might say we got there a few decades too early! 😉

Well, this year, we actually are doing something for Valentine’s Day. This year we’re closing on a condo. Those of you who’ve been following our housing journey over the past seven months know what a GIANT deal this is for us, especially after the devastating news we received at the beginning of January. My brain injury makes it difficult to write here extensively in the midst of an open-ended situation like a move, but I’ll be back soon with the story of how God provided a new, affordable place in what seemed like an impossible situation. (And a cuter picture!)

In the meantime, thanks as always for your prayers and support. We appreciate you all so much!

The First Publishing Update!

First off, Ivan and I would like to thank you for your kind words and messages after my last post. It means more than we can say that you continue to encourage and pray for us even though many of you are also facing difficult times emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  Thank you so very much! 

On a brighter note, I wanted to share a writing update. One of my nonfiction short stories was published this month in Kaleidoscope, an international magazine that features rising artists with disabilities. I’m not sure you can access the magazine without a subscription, so I’ve attached a pdf version of my story here if you’d like to check it out. I submitted it in February 2020, so this experience has also taught me a lot about the publishing process!

I’m incredibly grateful to God for the opportunity to have my work appear in this magazine. It’s very timely reminder that He sends blessings in all seasons, and that experiencing a trial in one area doesn’t mean that I should conclude trials will permeate all areas of my life.

On a human level, I’m also grateful to my professors at SCAD for pouring so much energy into developing their students. And as always, thanks to my blogging family for walking with me and Ivan every step of the way! 

Yes, He’s Still Good.

We hadn’t been to the beach since 2016!

My December post noted that our past anniversaries are memorable for their lack of traditional romance: three out of four took place during a medical emergency. December 30th, 2020 was different. Anxiety over construction delays, dissertation deadlines, and health fluctuations evaporated as we marveled at the glorious Pacific Ocean. Surely our problems would soon be swept away by the loving God who sent six-foot waves every four hours to one tiny beach in Northern California.

Most transcendent moments come crashing back to reality, and that was true when we opened our laptops the following Monday. Ivan still had a prospectus due. People still had sick family members in my online prayer group. I still had a doctor’s appointment. Then we got the email: our builder was being investigated for fraud. Although we can’t share details, the summary is that Ivan and I are unable to keep the condo. 

But when I logged onto my prayer group that Tuesday, I realized we weren’t the only ones reeling. There were more sick family members and lost jobs than I remembered before the holiday break. And none of us could have predicted the violence flooding TVs the following Wednesday. The God of that peaceful beach felt infinitely far away. 

But feelings aren’t facts, and I don’t think He is.

As we continue to face a plethora of trials, I’d like to remind us of a story that’s gotten me through many tough times. I first posted it in February 2017 when I was told I wouldn’t walk as soon as doctors had first predicted. 

The book of Daniel tells us about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three Jewish men who were advisors to the king of Babylon. The king decreed that all his subjects worship him as a god. You can probably guess that these advisors said no. The king overreacted just a little bit and threatened to throw them into a blazing furnace unless they changed their minds. I love the advisors’ response:

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 4:17-18)

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego looked beyond their specific circumstances – imminent death – and trusted that God had an ultimately good plan, even if they couldn’t see it. This may seem like blind faith, but it wasn’t. Babylonian advisors were some of the most highly educated men of their day. As Jews, they were also familiar with God’s promise to save a fallen world. When God put their faith to the test, they stuck with what they knew. 

I hope the same can be true of us. We’re extremely blessed that our trials probably don’t include real fiery furnaces, even if they do test our faith in God’s character. Sometimes it feels impossible to look at our specific circumstances and trust that God has an ultimately good plan, but He does. He’s already given us salvation through Jesus, and I can’t think of a better guarantee that everything will be made right, even if we only see the “big picture” in Heaven.

P.S. For those of you who are still worried about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, God got them out of that furnace. You should check it out! 🙂