Thank you for the music…

…the songs I’m singing…I do love a bit of ABBA.

Last weekend was a particularly full one, comprising a double (triple?) dose of musical endeavors. Church band practise on Saturday morning, choir concert Saturday evening, and church band on Sunday. The choir concert started with me understudying a singing solo, and ended with us all singing patriotic British songs and waving Union Jacks. Church the following day saw me playing my usual trick of reading a chord sheet, improvising on my violin, and hoping for the best. Just another Sunday in the band!

Music has been an important part of my life since I was six. I was asked at school if I would be interested in violin lessons. Given that we were on benefits at the time, I’m not sure how my mum must have felt when I said yes before consulting her, but I went ahead with it, and before long, I had learned my very first song. It may have included only two different notes and not many more words. But it still counted.

As the years went by, I grew more adventurous, and was always quick to volunteer to play for any occasion. I played Morning Has Broken at my parents’ wedding all by myself. During my first year at my second primary school, aged nine, I played in the school talent show and won the “special commendation award.” At the time, I thought this was the greatest thing ever. Right now I find myself wondering why I didn’t qualify for first, second, or even third place…

I also started playing at my then-church’s junior music team. I frequently stopped playing in favour of daydreaming, and needed constant help from the child next to me. And our leader. And my mum. A few years ago I discovered a note from our leader at the time, expressing concern and thinking that I was only in it for the snacks afterwards. Perish the thought.

I hasten to add that my attention span, dedication, and awareness of other musicians have improved greatly since then. I have since been in two church music teams, and have not required parental supervision or food motivation once.

Once I got to secondary school, I joined not only the school orchestra, but also the steel pan band. It was an interesting life decision that resulted in years of steel pans lessons at unpredictable times, an issue that got mixed reactions from teachers in my regular lessons. I did have fun learning songs like I Have A Dream, Amarillo, Yesterday, and Rocking Around The Christmas Tree, though. And the memory of playing in the local shopping centre while Mum and her friend posed in tiaras and feather boas in a nearby accessories shop to embarrass me still makes me roll my eyes today.

And now I go to choir every Saturday, and play at church once a month. I have less time for music than I did, but I’ve never stopped finding the fun in it. It keeps my skills sharp – my stint in the Loughborough Orchestra taught me a lot about pretending to play classical music perfectly! It’s also given me some great experiences, and through my musical activities I have often found a sense of fellowship. I may not be a professional, but I will keep marching to the rhythm of my own violin. As the saying goes.

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As a child at Christmas

It’s Christmas Day, and I’m sitting here wishing my brain would move as quickly as it was at 1:30 this morning. I don’t know why overtiredness manifests itself in the form of sleepless nights, and I don’t appreciate the irony. I thought I’d grown out of being unable to sleep on Christmas Eve. To be fair though, the cause of my Christmas Eve insomnia has shifted from the anticipation of presents to being walked on by attention-starved cats, replaying any recent social interaction in my head, questioning my own decisions, trying to think of a Christmas themed blog post… You get the idea.

After a few hours of this, it was that contrast that got me thinking about experiencing Christmas as a child and as an adult. I mean, we usually keep it pretty simple every year – lunch, presents, family time, TV – and that’s how I like it. But kids don’t do Christmas by halves. They go over the top with excitement, they want to show off their Christmas presents, and they can scarcely contain themselves.

Unless they’re on the autistic spectrum. Especially if they’re anything like me.

As a child, present etiquette was a bit of a mystery to me. I loved presents as much as the next child, and if someone gave me one, knew I was happy about it. If I was feeling particularly on the ball, I even remembered to say thank you. So why were people so quick to assume I didn’t like it?

It was a while before I got it into my head that you have to look and sound excited when you receive a present, and look the giver right in the eye. A bit longer before I realised I didn’t do any of that. And even longer before I learned that having autism means that displaying body language comes no more naturally than reading it. But as a young adult, I think I’m getting it.

But hey, my lack of awareness back in the day proved advantageous for my mother. For a start, my present lists were basically the same every time. Soft toy, posh chocolates, plasticine. I was easily amused. And to cap it all, I was so unaware of the world around me, she could buy my presents right in front of me, and I would be none the wiser. As much as it was due to autism, my mum put it down to good parenting at the time.

Now the bar for her festive accomplishments has lowered. Now her biggest achievement is not tiring of the same joke year after year: handing me any distinctively rectangular present and telling me it’s a beachball. It seems that Mum was not content to leave it there this time, and so it was that among my presents I found – in a large rectangular box – one beachball. Brilliant.

Christmas performances have been a constant throughout my life. They’ve simply shifted from typical school/church nativities and carol services, to being “sixth narrator” in my primary school’s A Christmas Carol performance, to playing in the school orchestra/steel pan band in town, to singing almost in time with my current choir in the park.

As a child, I would need constant help keeping up with what was going on, with an adult or even a fellow child helping me focus, while I wondered when it would be finishing, so I could avail myself of any post-performance snacks. As an adult…no wait, nothing’s changed.

And so, as the Call the Midwife Christmas special draws ever nearer, I will wish you all the merriest of Christmases. Eat, drink, and be merry. May this be the start of a Christmas beachball trend! And a year of better sleeping.

Food, glorious food

My love for food first became apparent the day I was born. Having started things off while my mum was having dinner the night before, I made my debut at lunchtime, a fact that she – and my stepdad, upon learning about it – will not let me forget. Thus my reputation for being a big eater began.

Despite being an unemployed single parent for a while, my mum did a good job of getting healthy food down our throats, mainly in the form of lentils, wholegrains, and at least one fruit or vegetable per meal. My school, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. Being on benefits meant I was entitled to free school lunches, comprising stale, white sandwiches, a flapjack, a vividly purple or orange drink, and fruit so shrivelled, I decided I would rather save it for Mum as a “present”. The sandwiches were usually dry cheese; I looked forward to the rare occasions they had chocolate spread, not just because they were sweet, but because they were moist!

I don’t know how long this lasted, but apparently when it stopped, the frequency with which I caught colds and ear infections dropped significantly.

Being half British/half Taiwanese definitely manifests itself in my sense of taste. I’ve inherited my biological father’s love of spicy foods; I add garlic to every savoury dish, and will happily eat any chilis that come with takeaway curries or pizza. I love strong tasting, vegetable based recipes, and have never grown to love roasts, pies, crumbles, and other plain, stodgy British things. Yet unlike many (fully) Chinese/Taiwanese people, I love sweet things. Cake, chocolate, and posh ice cream are a sure-fire way to my heart.

As a teenager, I once made a New Year’s Resolution to learn how to cook. You could argue that it started with my first cooking lesson at school, attempting to make scone-based pizza. You could say the lesson was doomed when I tried cracking an egg by tapping it with a spoon. Or when I melted a plastic spoon when making the sauce. It’s better to focus on the positives, though, and once I belatedly removed the pizza from the oven I hadn’t set high enough, it tasted pretty good.

With the help of the various recipe books I’ve accumulated over the years, I think I’ve come a long way since then. I often make dinner, and love making things for special occasions – I’ve been decorating the Christmas cake since childhood, and have more recently taken to making roast tomato and garlic soup for our Christmas day starter. I’ve never fancied working in the culinary industry though. I’m notoriously bad at sharing the kitchen when cooking!

Meanwhile, one of my next culinary endeavours over the coming fortnight is to make fudge for not one, but three good causes: my job’s Halloween bake sale, a visiting gift for my stepbrother and sister in law, and to line my parents’ stomachs. I’ve made many things before, but fudge isn’t one of them. So this should be fun! If no kitchen utensils will be harmed in the process.

 

Last year’s Christmas cake

 

Cupcakes

 

My Mothers’ Day lasagne

Dear diary…

“Have just had my toughest experience ever: Mum sitting on me, squeezing my blackheads, with Rhian looking on!”

“Sometimes I wish time wouldn’t drag so, especially after the Easter hols…” 

Is this normal writing for a 13 year old?

My journals and I go back a very long way. Even as a kid, I loved the feeling of having a fresh new notebook, which I could decorate as frivolously as I wanted, before complaining to it about my life. And let’s face it, when you’re a teenager – and an autistic one trying not to be eaten alive by non-autistic ones, at that – there is a lot to complain about.

Actually, my first diary was more of a travel log, three days before I turned 11, just before adolescence became an issue. We were en route to New Zealand, and I was not letting a moment of our upcoming adventure go to waste. Amid jetlag from hell, day trips of a lifetime, and hours of travel by land, sea, and air, I was determined to write down everything we did. I don’t know why I wrote as if I was addressing the rest of my class at school (why the heck would they care how many bedrooms our third motel had?), but that aside, I’m glad I did it.

Since then, my journals have evolved considerably, and have seen me through nearly a decade of teenage angst, followed by my attempts at adulthood. Journaling is my main way of keeping myself writing every few days, and a testament to what a nerd I am is how I feel like I have a different relationship with each one, depending on a number of factors. Like how often I wrote. Or what stage of life I was at. Or how much written self-reflection I did. It makes me feel pretentious, putting it like that, but it’s true.

Through keeping it up, give or take a few slips, I’ve definitely benefitted a lot from journaling. For a start, it helps me remember. I love laughing at my old diaries! It also helps me regulate my thoughts and emotions, making them less overwhelming when I can see them on paper. I’ve written down hard learned life lessons, I’ve made important decisions through brainstorming, I’ve poured out my heart about many a difficult situation, and instantly felt calmer.

Most recently, I’ve come to realise that writing a diary has helped me be more honest with myself, because I can get my thoughts and feeling out without being heard. Or maybe practise getting them out until I’m ready for them to be heard. Sometimes I don’t feel like it, other times I get started and don’t stop for ages. Either way, it feels like a constructive habit, and if it keeps me writing and learning, long may it continue!

My diaries, minus my current one, two pocket notebooks, and a wad of cat shaped post it notes. Starting with my neon travel log, going clockwise, and finishing in the middle.

 

Summer goals: expectation versus reality

  1. Expectation: Have a massive clearout, paying particular attention to all the extra tat I acquired during my uni years (no, seriously, it will happen this year). Reality: Keep telling myself that every year.
  2. Expectation: Meet up with *insert friend*. Reality: Have lengthy text conversation with them about the days when one of us is free, but the other isn’t.
  3. Expectation: Get through reading list. Reality: Add more to said list than I cross off.
  4. Expectation: Take up singing lessons again to overcome fear of singing on my own. Reality: Wait until I’m alone in the house. Listen to Memory or The Sound of Music on my iPod. Mumble along too quietly to hear myself properly.
  5. Expectation: Improve at Chinese. Reality: Remind myself again of the difference between the words for “horse” and “mother”. Tell myself that at least I am far from meeting strangers’ assumptions about my mother tongue.
  6. Expectation: Get back into art. Reality: colour in a single object in one of my ten or so adult colouring books. Feel suitably accomplished.
  7. Expectation: Try to practise my violin more often. Reality: Practise once. Make notes on how to improve next time. Feel suitably accomplished. Forget about notes. Repeat process every month or two.
  8. Expectation: Work on my writing. Reality: make minor adjustments to the book plans I made last year. Convince myself that my life’s ambition of becoming an author is just around the corner. Feel suitably accomplished.

I think my heart sank a little bit when I scrutinised my previous journals for summer to-do lists, only to realise that they were nearly the same from year to year. But hey, this summer has already given me more than my share of fun and adventure, namely:

  • Visiting Jennie, and taking a train that had to stop and go back the other way. Getting off in the middle of nowhere and being told that replacement taxis would be arriving shortly. Having to be rescued by Jennie and Jan when the replacement taxi drivers had no memory of being booked.
  • Missing the train home and waiting an hour for the next one.
  • Taking my semi-Asian skin for granted, and accidentally giving it sunburn.
  • Finding out I have astigmatism as well as short sight.
  • Nearly being defeated by the Sainsbury’s self checkout, with the intervention of Sainsbury’s staff who were evidently too good to let me pay for the same item twice.

All riveting stuff. And now, after a draining few weeks, I find myself more in need of a holiday that I have felt in a long time. So until next time, happy summer everyone! Think you can cross off a summer list better than me?

Asperger’s and faith

Last year, during my weekly New Wine discipleship course, I had to lead morning devotions for one session, and I was asked to discuss how being on the autistic spectrum affects my faith. My immediate reaction was to think that having Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t relevant to every little thing in my life. I mean, there are plenty of factors that have shaped my beliefs, and my attitude towards church. But is AS really one of them?

It would be nice if I had some fascinating backstory of how I became a Christian, but the truth is, I was raised going to church. I was very lonely as a teenager, and it was while my confidence was at rock bottom that I got more involved with church youth activities. I went from being unable to talk about autism to being able to explain how it affected me without being afraid of judgement. Here was a social scene that was outside the norm, and as well as fitting right in, I was learning what being a Christian was really about. So in that sense, autism did have a role to play.

Churches in general are often a real mixed bag. From the outside, it would be easy to see Christians as either deluded, self righteous fools, or as people who cannot be anything but kind and inclusive to their neighbours. But people just aren’t that black and white, and Christians are no exception. And I would be lying if I said Christianity has been an easy ride for me, because it hasn’t. There are opinions I struggle to agree with, and many more issues I don’t even understand.

Besides, a church community is a social group like any other, and that means people, and mixed messages, and complex relationship dynamics. At the beginning of my discipleship course, I was surrounded by other young people who I would be spending a whole day with every week. Some people already knew each other, some didn’t, but we were encouraged to “go deeper” with each other from day one, and the very idea spooked me.

While other people bonded within the first month, I got off to a shaky start and I thought I’d never get used to it. It would have been so easy to withdraw and keep everyone at arm’s length, but I made myself get to know them, remember their names and make friends. Before I knew it, I had completed my first mission trip and was talking about everything I had learned in front of an audience. Seems that God really does see us through these things!

Which brings me back to my morning devotions talk. Having been on the course for three months, I reflected on my experiences at church so far, and the message I wanted to share came to me. So that morning, I got everyone to discuss the passage in Genesis in which Moses insists that he doesn’t have the skills to lead. And the thought I left open to discussion was: We all have something that shakes our confidence in our potential. Moses’s was his fear of public speaking. Mine is having a form of autism. What’s yours?

What I’ve learned about myself this year

What have you done this year to make you feel proud?

Feel free to break into song at this point.

For me, 2017 has been almost as significant a year as 2016. I went on my first mission trip. I finished my internship. I became the magazine News and Sports editor at my old university. I got my first job, then lost it on my second day. I saw my sister Rhian go from being dangerously ill in hospital to joining the professionals on stage. Ups and downs seem to come without much warning.

It may be clichéd, but you do learn more when key things happen in your life, and you find you’ve passed yet more milestones. I spend so much of my time these days feeling like I’m growing mentally stale with no schedule being written for me. But then something will happen that will challenge me emotionally, and spark off so many reflections that I cannot record them in my journal quickly enough.

Now I am no life guru, or self help professional. Nor do I aspire to be. I just thought I’d share a few self reflections that I have managed to pin down this year.

  1. I’ve often said that uni helped me be more assertive, and I stand by that. And it shows in my friendships; I’m less afraid of judgement, less inclined to want to keep the peace at all costs, and somehow more open and emotionally intimate with my friends.
  2. If I’m not careful, I have a tendency to accept sub-ideal conditions until they go from bad to worse. This can be in any situation, be it toxic friendships, volunteering somewhere where I get shouted at, or ignoring a malfunctioning lightbulb in my room until all three of them have died…
  3. I actually do have a taste for adventure, which I think was awakened during the Ukraine mission trip. I may have had a panic attack on the plane, struggled to find vegetarian food that wasn’t chips or cake, nearly got lost on the underground, and been out of my comfort zone spiritually and socially…*deep breath* yet I still see the appeal in seeing a new country with a group of friends without knowing what to expect.
  4. I like to think I’m emotionally intelligent, but if I’m in the thick of a bad time, I will see my emotions as invalid, and press on until I either get ill or have a panic attack. Or feel ill because I’m panicking. Or panic because I feel ill. You get the picture…
  5. My weaknesses don’t seem to have changed, and include handling conflict, socialising in groups, and self righteous anger about anything that goes against my morals. A couple of examples would be cat prejudice and misogyny, and perhaps they are worthy causes to fight for. But when I simmer with resentment over ways in which other Christians – whether I know them or not – treat others in ways that go against what the Bible says about compassion, I forget how much don’t understand the Bible, and how much I struggle with certain aspects of it.

And with all that in mind, onwards and upwards! Meanwhile, here are just a few of this year’s highlights:

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Last orchestra concert

 

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24th birthday

 

Ukraine mission trip

 

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Jennie and Jan’s wedding

 

 

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My sister, Princess Tiger Lilly!