In spring 2008, I won a music competition at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was studying piano performance. Now it is called Calvin University, but back then it was one of the finest private liberal arts school in the States. A liberal arts education meant the school offered well-rounded approach to the undergraduate degree, equipping the student with various disciplines of knowledge not only the major she / he is pursuing. For someone like me, this meant that even though I majored in music, I also had to take classes in world literature, philosophy, sciences, psychology, and even fun sports classes like tennis and karate.
The piece I won with was the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major by Dmitri Shostakovich. I worked on this piece intensively with my piano teacher Ms. Hyesook Kim. By intensive I meant 6-8 hours a day, no matter what day, for about a year. I remember one cold winter-and winters are FREEZING in Michigan- when I was practicing with my eyes closed to focus on memorization of the piece. I felt the piano keys getting sticky, and when I opened my eyes I was surprised to see blood on the white keys. My fingers were dry and the skin was cracked. The vulnerable skin must have gotten caught while doing fast passages on the wooden keys, causing them to bleed without my notice. That was how much effort I put into the concerto.
However that year for me was especially meaningful not only due to winning and performing the piece with the Calvin College Orchestra (under the direction of Robert Nordling). It was important because that was the first time I really focused and worked SO HARD on something, with amazing results. For the first time in my life I tasted the feeling of satisfaction and how good it felt to have my hard work acknowledged. “Success breeds success” is a well known Suzuki concept in the music education world. For me, though, the success was more than musical.
For the first time in my life I tasted the satisfaction of having my hard work acknowledged. I had been a bulimic since my junior-high years in Bandung, Indonesia, way back from 2001. I tried to stop, but was constantly met with my own failure. In 2008, my daily piano practice routine was mixed with hours of binging and purging. I go into more detail in another post about my journey of healing, which included loving friends who struggled side by side with me. What I would like to point out here is that my success with the piano concerto boosted my confidence and happiness. The more I played piano, the happier I became. A happy Airin grew to be a strong Airin who would eventually win her 10 year battle with the disorder.
In 2018, exactly a decade later, Maestro Robert Nordling invited me to perform this piece again with the Lake Forest Civic Orchestra in Illinois. The performance is available here for your listening and enjoyment. The blue haired pianist is happy, strong, and very proud of herself.
Do you know what makes YOURSELF happy? Do you remember moments when you were very proud of your hard work?
Ask me how many calories are in a pineapple smoothie. Or a bowl of noodles. Or a blueberry muffin. I can rattle the numbers off the top of my head, because I am obsessed with the food I consume.
There is an app called MyPlate which helps me calculate calories throughout a given day. It breaks down the information to the macro and micro nutrients level, so I can monitor if I had too much of any one element. I then average throughout the week according to suggested health guidelines, factoring exercise and water intake. The result : I never have to guess or worry whether I ate too much. I just look at the record.
This is me now, in my early 30s, implementing some heavy duty Military Discipline.
Let’s rewind back a decade, to a Me in her early 20s.
She’s in the bathroom, kneeling over the toilet bowl. Two fingers are in her mouth, poking her own throat to stimulate gagging. Her stomach complies, and starts to throw up. In reverse order, the Thanksgiving meal came back out. Brownies,pumpkin pie, the meat. The sour cream and chips which were appetizers her American hosts had prepared. They had a tradition of inviting international students over for Thanksgiving meals. Airin was an Indonesian student on F1 visa, studying piano performance in Michigan. Her fingers were long and beautiful – they looked like they were made for the keys.
They didn’t know her fingers were also adept at making her digestive system throw up every meal, every single day. On bad days, she would be hogging the common bathroom. It was common because she always lived with roommates and apartment mates, some of whom noticed very quickly her queer bathroom habits.
Back then, I looked in the mirror and hated who I saw. The binging and purging which started in my early teens stayed with me for 10 years. I had no control over myself, my mind, my eating habits. I lost the daily war with my own beast. And it made me hate myself more.
My saving grace came first in black. Seriously. It was a house mate who reached out to me. She was Ghanaian, and No, I was not participating in any intentional cross cultural living programs, although that semester many eyebrows were raised when I moved in to live with 3 African girls. They were loud, noisy, and laughed so much. They constantly fretted about their hair. My introverted Asian self was thrilled and amused, at the same time thoroughly out of place. We’re friends until now, keeping the Accra – Bandung connection alive via Whatsapp and regular Zoom calls.
She first reached out to me, asking me if I needed help. I denied everything, but she wouldn’t buy it. It also didn’t help that I left my diary lying around – for this I credit myself. At least I wrote. I wrote in my diary, and I accidentally left it on the common kitchen counter. So Ghanaian eyes had solid proof, and her loving heart wouldn’t let me off the hook that easily.
To have other people know my flaws and harmful habits was essential to breaking that hellish prison of the mind. The next semester I started living with other friends- lo and behold fate brought another fellow bulimic. This time I was the one who reached out to her. Together we stumbled, fell apart, held hands, picked each other back up, and began our healing journeys. Our sisterhood held strong over the years until now, across the vast Pacific.
The final unseen, powerful force which carried me to my liberation was Music. With capital M, because I believe Music is is not just sounds, or instruments, or musicians, or microphones. Its more than what you see on stage, on a computer screen, or on a piece of paper. Its more than what you hear with your ears, or through your headset, or blasting through gargantuan sound systems in a stadium.
Its something like the sweat drenching the drummers’ back, the drop of blood from the clarinetist’s lip, or the calloused left fingertips of the cellist. Its something like the chirping birds, the deep notes of the blue whales, the shrieks of the winter wind.
Its something like the silence after Amen, the unheard overtones of the harmonic fifths in the air, the rhythm of the rolling waves.
This Music is the language of the universe itself, and I was so privileged to experience shimmers here and there in my studies as a concert pianist. Being so close to such a force slowly yet steadily awakened my inner voice. The joy of a Bach prelude, the pathos of a Brahms intermezzo, the sublimity of a Beethoven sonata… The time I spent with Music continued to strengthen my inner voice, until I was slowly able to master, love, and be at peace with my one and only, dear self.
Published in FemAsia Magazine July 2020. With thanks to Devika Brendon. Click here to view.
I walked to greet some of the wedding guests, seated spread apart across the Heritage Kitchen and Gallery’s garden. It was a hot sunny day, not ideal for sensitive skin but much better than rain, at least for this occasion, on this location. My heels sunk into the soft earth, and I almost lost my balance.
Darn! I thought.
I am not a fan of heels, but today, my wedding day, I pulled out these 8 inch white T straps. They were a perfect match with the asymmetric layered Carla top and white palazzo pants. Pants! I loved wearing pants for my wedding. The loose fabric of the wide cut allowed me to sit, stand, or dance comfortably anywhere around the garden.
One of my favorite moments was during the ceremony when we had to put on the wedding rings. Except in Cung and my case, we both agreed no rings. We had bracelets instead. And I put them in a lovely pouch in the pockets of my palazzo pants. No standing uncomfortably still looking lovely while waiting for the groom.
Not this time.
This time I paid for most of the wedding necessities: food, venue, photographers, church certificates, you name it. Last time my father paid for most of it.
This time I had semi casual outfit, last time it was a princess gown dress by Harry Lam, a top designer.
This time I wore almost no make up, since most of my face was covered by the mask required for Covid Protocol. Last time I woke up at 3 AM and started the 2 hour make up process with the make up artist.
This time, I married Cung, a one eyed rebel architect-historian-curator. Three years ago, I married Oky, a gentle genius architect.
Oky, my first husband died two years after we got married. I became a widow.
So what am I now? A once widow? An ex widow? A wife? A second wife ?
I am all the above. Life, love, and death does not fit neat categories boxes, nor timelines. They defy our expectations, and we are left wondering: What Happened?
Rumi, a 13th century poet and scholar once said “sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment.”
The white heels was the only article of clothing which I wore for both weddings. Custom made by the maker, it fit the contour of my feet perfectly. Amazingly, they stayed clean the whole afternoon, even after several more times sinking into the lawn. The heels endured.
With them, I walked towards the guests sitting at the far end of the lawn, one of whom was wearing an avocado around her neck. Avocado was the theme of my second wedding. Guests continued to ask : why avocado?
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It was Idul Fitri holidays, June 2017. This most festive of Indonesian holidays is celebrated after a month of fasting called Ramadhan. I was living with my husband Oky Kusprianto in a beautiful house he designed himself. He named it Gupondoro which means Home of Pigeons. Gupondoro was located in the middle of a village in Lembang, is a highland area to the west of Bandung city. Lembang is known for its forests, proximity to volcanoes, and cool weather.
Lembang is also a top tourist destination during holidays. With largely underdeveloped small mountain roads, this meant serious traffic jam. Of the horrific type where you are stuck for hours. Since neither Oky nor I wanted to get caught in tourist traffic, we planned to stay home for the week. Oky caught up on his designs while I practiced piano for an upcoming chamber music festival in New Hampshire, USA.
One particular day after an intense practice session, I gave myself a break by looking around our backyard.
“Huh!” I thought to myself. “There are berries in those trees!” I called to Oky, who was drawing as usual.
“Oky, did you plant those trees?”
“What trees?” He asked. I pointed impatiently at the blooming trees in our backyard.
“I didn’t plant any thing there… did YOU plant those trees?” He turned to me. I laughed.
“Are you serious? I‘m on the piano all the time. I have to take care of my hands and fingers.” I replied. As a professional pianist, I was always worrying about my hands because even the smallest cut or blister made it awkward to play. Of course later the joke was on me because I retired from performing and grew to love gardening.
Oky asked our housemate Ari, who lived on the bottom floor. Ari didn’t know about the trees either. This confirmed it to be quite a mysterious case indeed. After extensive research via our gardener, Oky discovered that the trees were planted by a village farmer who owed money to a local mafia. The berries from the trees were to be a form of payment.
This was an interesting predicament, because those trees were planted on our land.
“The fruit tastes really good. I sometimes take some and my wife makes it into jam,” our gardener whispered to us.
The situation kept getting weirder and weirder, albeit in a comical sort of way. I decided to go along with it.
“Can I try the jam?” I asked our gardener. He nodded.
“I’ll pick secretly before they notice and bring some jam here.”
“Ok. Thank you!” I said. “Make sure you don’t get caught…”
The next day his wife brought over some incredibly delicious mulberry jam. I tasted a spoon and fell in love. I knew it was worthy to be sold. Oky proceeded by settling off the farmer’s debt to the mafia. He also bought the grown trees so they formally belonged to us. We then asked our gardener to plant more mulberries in Gupondoro.
Since that time both Oky and the gardener’s wife have died, but I decided to continue with the trees and the jam. It was a way for me to keep feeling connected to him, while making some money on the side. Mulberries in Gupondoro bloom twice a year, and if you are in Bandung you will be lucky enough to taste it.
The first time Oky brought me to this house was a couple months after we started dating. I had gotten the brief from his friends: he designed an amazing house-office for himself. But nothing could have prepared me for experiencing Gupon (as was the nickname for the house) for the first time. Coming from the side, it stood alone on the top of the hill. The entrance felt like a mysterious passageway in which one merged smoothly from nature and the outdoors into a cozy wooden cabin. I called it a treehouse for the longest of time.
The stairs of the cabin revealed nothing of what the living room and loft was like. It was a clear night, and the glass walls allowed the sexy twinkles of city lights to seduce me. This was the second breathless moment, after that magical passageway. Later on there would be other moments in which Gupon stole my heart. As if it was a person you could get to know from various different angles. On that night though, I simply thought I could definitely live here. It just needed a piano…