Read The Notes, Child.

My 7-year-old has been taking piano lessons for about a year and a half. She’s got a good ear, not extraordinary, but good enough to play pieces without having to rely on reading the notes. She uses the trial and error approach. Try a note, if doesn’t sound right, try another until something rings true. It’s not the most efficient method of learning a new song. She’s perfectly capable of reading music, but chooses not to. She’d rather feel her way through, mess around and experiment than read the notes.

Her trial and error method really bugs me.

My internal monologue goes something like this: There’s a map right in front of you, child, read the map, the map has all the answers, why try this road and that road when the map is right there telling you what notes to play? You’re going to end up being one of those people who refuses to read the Ikea manual before assembling your furniture or follow a recipe or read the fine print on a contract or even read the contract. You’re going to end up taking shortcuts, aren’t you, shortcuts that will end up consuming more time and energy. You’re going to jump right in without assessing risks, make a trail of mistakes, and say oh-well to the consequences. You’re going to end up with a tattoo you regret. Read the notes, child.

When I talked to my husband about this, he said, “That sounds like you.”

Guess who else that sounds like? My father. His trial-and-error spirit drove him to uproot his wife and two kids from their home to immigrate to another country with very little English, little money, and a map that was nothing but a vague sensation in his gut. It’s unnerving to have a father like that. It’s also unnerving having a daughter like that. It’s even more unnerving to be like that.

Am I trying to correct the me in my daughter?

Sure. My kids are like little mirrors reflecting the strong and the weak in me. Most of the time, I like what I see. Sometimes, I don’t and want to make adjustments. However, there is a little voice in me that says to let them be. Leave them alone. They’re not you. They’re not mirrors. They are themselves. Yes, they are themselves, but they’re not islands. They’re deeply entangled and connected to me and the world in ways I will never fully understand. I legally have an 18-year window of influence over them, and I want to do everything I can to make sure my daughters grow to be better than I am, better at trial-and-error, better at following their guts, and yes, even better at reading the notes.

Published in: on September 7, 2012 at 12:56 pm  Comments (8)  


After about an hour of reading this:

my daughter sculpts these:

I recognize this need to put a book or pen down or walk away from the computer to go make something with your hands. My daughter does it instinctively. Unlike me, there is no conflict of shoulds informing her. I should read another chapter. I should write another paragraph. As natural as taking the next breath, she switches engagements, putting the book down and picking up the clay. After some time immersed in words, she re-enters the three dimensional world in a tangible way. She plays with clay. There is much to be learned from this moment. Vital to the creative process is re-engagement with the physical world.

Jamaica Kincaid gardens. Emily Dickinson loved to bake. Flannery O’Connor ran a bird farm. I can imagine her getting up from two hours of writing and going outside to pet her peacocks. Barbara Kingsolver farms. Nabokov chased butterflies.

Without hesitation, I shall now leave my words and go chop some celery.

Published in: on November 30, 2011 at 11:17 am  Leave a Comment  

The Purple Ice Pack

This morning while packing the girls’ lunches, my younger daughter inquired, “How come Sophie gets the purple ice pack?” I answered, “Because your lunch bag is bigger and needs a bigger ice pack. The purple one is too small.” She still wanted the purple hockey puck of a freezer pack. And if she’d seen me putting the purple one in her bag, she would’ve asked, “How come Sophie gets the big white ice pack?” Can’t win.

Being a younger sister myself, I know what Ellie feels. “How come Nan…” was my mantra growing up. My illusions of being treated second best dominated my childhood. Although it trained me to be more aggressive, stand up for myself, and get my share, it did take its toll. My mother told me a story of going shopping with me back in Korea. I was two or three years old. When she picked up one pair of underwear or socks to purchase, I’d stare her down until she bought two, knowing full well the one was going to my older sister. The you’d-better-give-me-mine-woman look in my eyes made her pick up another pair. As a parent, I understand perfectly well why she would buy one pair rather than two. It has nothing to do with love. Looking back, I wish my mother hadn’t been so easily swayed by the emotional irrationality of a three-year-old. Did her compliance justify my feelings? Did it give me a taste for the kind of victory I’d seek for the rest of my childhood? I never really snapped out of my misperception until Ellie came along.

My mother also told me this story. A month before she was leaving Korea to come to live in America, her mother bought her younger sister a refrigerator. This broke her heart. She cried like a baby because she wanted a refrigerator, too. How come she gets one? How come I don’t get one? Her mother said, “What are you going to do with a refrigerator? Take it to America?” A refrigerator was a senseless gift a month before departure. Nevertheless, it broke my mother’s heart because it represented the care and attention she would miss out on by leaving the country. Years later, she was able to see the source of her sadness, but at the time, she wanted that frig.

When Sophie has her “How come Ellie…?” moments, I can reason her out of them. Ellie is getting a new pair of sneakers because her old ones don’t fit anymore. Your shoes still fit your feet just fine. When you grow out of yours, you’ll get a new pair. But Ellie is different. When she feels something, it’s reality. She won’t reason. I was just like that; I refused to be reasoned out of my feelings. So, do I give her the purple ice pack on Monday? As much as I want to end the grievance and simply give her what she wants, I’m troubled by the long term effect it may have on her. After all, the birth of her second child is a long way off.

The stare down.

Published in: on April 8, 2011 at 11:51 am  Comments (7)  

Chicken Pox

When I was eleven years old, I had a bad enough fever one night to have my parents squatting at my bedside, my dad’s eyes welling up with tears. The next morning, they went to work at their carry-out, while I stayed home alone and slept in, missing school. My dad later left work right after the lunch rush to pick me up and take me to the doctor’s. Dr. Choi, a deacon from our church, diagnosed me with chicken pox. I remember my dad laughing and smiling and rubbing my head, as we left the doctor’s office. He then took me to work with him, where my mom made me a cheeseburger. I ate so much that afternoon I had to unbutton my jeans.

That evening after dinner, my dad went to Woolco and brought home a latch hook rug kit for me to work on the coming week. I’d have to stay home alone. I’d get bored. My hands needed to keep busy so I wouldn’t scratch. Don’t scratch. Scratching scars. I loved that kit. The box included a canvas with the image of a puppy, a hook needle, and pre-cut yarn bundled by color in plastic casings. I got started right away.

My parents couldn’t miss a single day of work. They had to trust me to stay home alone and take care of myself. I felt the weight of their worry and regret. It was heavy. And I wanted to do my part in lightening it by assuring them that I would be all right. The week went quickly. The rug was finished after the second day. Phone calls from my mom and dad every two to three hours. Lots of TV.

I suppose I could remember that week with ambivalence, but I don’t. I remember it very fondly.

I’m home with my kids. I don’t have to work. This is not an immigrant’s life I lead. However, I want to make memories for them that are just as indelibly dear as my latch-hook-kit memory. Otherwise, twenty years from now, they may write: When I was six years old and fell ill with a mysterious fever, my mother transformed into a robot.

Not the actual rug, but close enough.

Published in: on March 16, 2011 at 8:10 pm  Comments (7)  


Two nights ago, my six-year-old’s temperature peaked to 106.4 degrees. That’s high. The highest we’d ever seen. Ellie was surprisingly awake, lucid and chatty. The girl loves to chat. Our doctor’s visit ruled out meningitis and strep. She had a stomach virus. She was in no real danger.

When my children or husband get sick, I have a peculiar way of detaching. There are those mothers who are naturals at babying, caring, sympathizing, tending, and nursing the sick back to health. And then, there is me. I wish I were a natural. But I am more like Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I kick in to robotic mode. I will water, feed, clean and medicate you, but don’t expect warm fuzzies. And the sicker you are, the more mechanical my care will be. I am this way because I am afraid. When I feel I am edging too close to witnessing the fragility of life, I temporarily shut down parts of me that might debilitate function. And I need to function.

I must learn to strike a balance.

Ellie has gone eleven straight hours with a normal temperature. She’s kept all her food down today. I hear her chatting with Sophie and her stuffed animals downstairs. I want to go to her and give her a hug. She needs a hug. Or maybe I need one.

In recovery.

Published in: on March 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Harp Teacher

When I was a kid, I took piano for three years. I hated it. The stress made me sweat profusely during the lessons. The white keys were brown by the end of the torturous half hour. So, I quit.

If I had had Sophie’s harp teacher, I may have actually enjoyed playing music. During lessons, April Vega says things like: The fingering is tricky, but it’s so cool. Try this, it’s really neat. Which song do you like better? Imagine a story in your head when you’re playing this, or else it’ll get boring, and if you get bored, we get bored. She encourages my 9-year-old to turn music into moving pictures and give it meaning and feeling by bringing in her own personal narrative. Sophie’s been taking harp lessons for about nine months. She plays harp better than I ever played piano in my third year. I love that.

The best teachers live multiple lives. April also plays with a band called Harp 46, is working on the release of her 5th cd, and is a candidate for a PhD in Religion and Culture at Catholic University of America. On top of that, she’s raising a three-year-old.

Check her out at and

Published in: on March 3, 2011 at 8:37 pm  Comments (6)  
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