Now that I’ve seen Malaysia and my weeks in Asia are dwindling, I’ve become more conscious of how I spend my time — I’m brutal now.
No swiping through my phone during breakfast; in Kota Kinabalu, Em lay in bed for hours on Facebook until I turned the lights on or off. We are more productive travellers without the internet, believe me. But I look at our addiction to technology and I don’t see a solution.
The most surreal moments are foggy until I relive it in a photo. Did I really teach myself to drive a jet ski? I recall watching the choppy waves and reminding myself to ride across them, then my eyes stinging with salty water and Em clutching my waist for dear life.
At night in Malaysia, I get bored of scrolling through my phone and switch to writing in my travel journal, then reading the bestseller novel I got in Hong Kong. How many side projects can I be doing during the time I’m re-editing a photo on my phone?
So I got to thinking that we keep saying we’re time-deprived, but there are so many crevices of time that we forget about, and each is a chance to take charge.
1. Get excited about a new piece of music.
As much as we love music, we often skip practice because we don’t know what to play. I mean, if you ask me why I’m not working on a side project, I will probably tell you that I haven’t decided what to work on next. Choice can be both enabling and dangerous.
Imagine a menu that lists all the music you could possibly play, and pick what you want to play most. Listen to new playlists.
Let’s be real — we flew to Malaysia because the Pinterest photos matched my impression of a National Geographic award exhibition I saw last year. A shark caught in a boat’s chains, in blue water, to be specific. I sent Em a list of activities in Malaysia. “I want to swim with tropical fish and get bracelets at the night market,” I say.
When we land in Kota Kinabalu, we are exhausted. “I want to look at the tour shop,” Em says.
“I’m not a fan of being herded on and off a bus.” The tour menu outlines days of activities, and Em is excited about seeing monkeys on a river.
I think to myself that it won’t matter whether we’re travelling with annoying tourists because I’ll be diving; it’ll only be during the animal tour that we may bear the unbearable.
We walk away mostly excited about all the things we’re going to do in Kota Kinabalu.
2. Do mental practice.
Imagining yourself practicing — moving your fingers and hearing the sounds — can be just as effective as physically practicing. Because you will need to know the notes and keys well to be able to draw them from thin air. Some studies suggest that the same regions of the brain are activated when you practice mentally and physically.
One of my favourite ways to practice performing on the piano is to close the lid and play the piece normally.
I bring up mental practice because Em and I have so much free time before bed that I could easily play an entire concerto in my head, plus a sonata just for kicks, in the time that we spend laying there in bed; me writing and reading, and her on the tablet.
3. Learn just enough to make you happy.
When I presented twenty-plus pages of La Campanella to my piano teacher forever ago, she exhaled from her nose with recognition and maybe a smidge of a snicker. She told me to pick a simpler piece in light of our time frame, and gave me a piece that I wasn’t as excited about but was less technically challenging.
She commented to my mother that I have a big “野心,” which literally means having a “wild heart” in the sense that I was eyeing things that don’t belong to me. Ridiculous ambition, if you will.
At home, I sightread the first two pages with the tingling octaves, then played them up to speed and even perfected the accents to my liking. Then I played it over and over because that was what I loved about the piece. And I was satisfied having not touched the rest of the music for years afterwards.
There’s nothing wrong with learning bits of music if that’s what makes you happy. Who wants to spend their weekend slow-counting insane scales when you can be playing the melody that makes your insides sparkle?
Perhaps a wild heart is not a bad thing. How will you grow, if you will not eye things that are out of reach?
4. Try something impossible.
Two weeks before flying to Malaysia together, Em said, “I can’t swim.”
“That’s like saying you can’t ride a bike,” I said. “Can you?” I try not to appear dismayed as she jeopardizes the sole reason I’m visiting Malaysia: water.
“Haven’t been on a bike for years,” she said.
“We’re snorkelling at least,” I say. “It’s easy.”
At the beach in Malaysia, we squeeze into lifejackets, and sure, it takes a half hour for Em to soak her hair, but the world underneath with fishies swimming around our legs is magical. Em kicks around once she sees there’s no way she could drown. “I haven’t been in the water in years,” she says.
“Fish are biting my legs,” I say. “I didn’t know fish could bite.” The next day, we’re on a wooden boat returning from the bay, and our tour guide, Jeff, hands me a thick white hook to retrieve a cage we’d set out earlier.
“It rarely catches,” Jeff says. I notice that Em has been quiet for a while, holding a phone, and our boat is nearing the cage.
“Can’t I have a go?” Em says, staring up at the tour guide. Jeff looks uncertain, but I hand the hook to Em, if touching that dripping cage will make her happy.
“Don’t fall in,” Jeff says. Twice.
Ah, I forget her inability to survive in water. If she falls in now, I’ll have to jump in behind her (in my head I quickly review the one-person rescue carry). Em is the girl who clutches railings on both sides when boarding a tiny boat — that’s why Jeff carries her bag and oversized Pepsi.
When the cage is in front of us, Em hooks it to the deck precariously (but safely), and inside, there’s a large fish flopping around; it’s the length of my forearm, which is saying something since we hadn’t seen any fish in the bay earlier. Everyone aboard the boat cheers and some luxe tourist attempts to snatch the cage from us while his wife screams at him to get away, and in the midst of the huzzbuzz Jeff insists on snapping a photo of us.
The photo turns out monochrome. Like many things, it’s not what I would’ve chosen but works just fine. Em has now seen monkeys and eaten crab and splashed in the ocean for the first time.
That makes me think how much of the world I take for granted and how hungry I am for adventure, still.
I challenge you to go to the place in your heart where you are wild and ambitious and hungry for adventure. Maybe you will find it in the practice room with your new favourite piece of music. Maybe you will visit the coffee shop and perform spontaneously for the pretty barista. Maybe you will write a new piece of music for your next family gathering. Or maybe, just maybe, you will pack your bags for another part of the world to see things your eyes have never seen.
Because I bet your eyes are tired of staring at the screen on your phone. Keep pushing boundaries, because the world is too remarkable to stay safe.