I don’t know if I ever really think about my writing enough to deem something a series…but maybe consider this an accidental series and the second of three parts on my time in Bali, Indonesia. (You can see the accidental first part here.)
There were a million things I loved about Bali- their value of community, the honoring of time and culture on an island whose tourism developed faster than its road systems; but my favorite thing was the integration of seemingly meaningless and frivolous beauty.
Pebble sidewalks were paved with white stone flowers.
Statues were surrounded by hibiscus, plumeria, and other tropical flowers and vines.
Every. single. day. Balinese women hand-craft banana leaf offerings woven together in different shapes, filled with incense sticks, flowers (imagine that), and little treats. The mini banana leaf trays would be laid on the sidewalk or on the spirit house. They would then dip a flower in water, and with all the pride a Southern woman takes in carefully crafting her casserole, flick water from the flower to the offering. (I’ve been waiting to make that joke for a while.)
Recently, I was talking with a friend, who is an internationally known painter, about the process of creativity. He said, “I had a teacher tell me, ‘You have to find what’s beautiful.'”
It seems like Balinese people have that figured out, because everything was a little frivolously beautiful. I don’t mean frivolous in the sense that it was tacky or overbearing. I mean frivolous in the sense that maybe to make time to see beauty, create beauty, no matter how small, may be “unnecessary”, but maybe it’s what keeps us sane. I think Bali got that. There’s time to make and do beautiful things.
Personally, since the school year started, I’ve struggled with finding time for all the things that make a healthy and whole human- Time to exercise, time to have friendships, time to be good at my job, time to grow in the pursuit of writing and music. So I woke up at 5:45 to write this because I at least always want to try and make time for things that enrich the soul.
Regardless of technical skill or ability, participating in life is an active form of creativity.You’re alive. You’re living. You’re a creator. If our lives are a piece of art, what do they reflect of our values, our time, our priorities? We’re more than our job. We’re more than our paycheck. We’re more than the summation of our positive and negative relationships. We’re meant to experience, create, and explore beautiful things.
I’ve seen a lot of rice planted-Like weirdly more than the average person. Northern Vietnam. Thailand. Myanmar. Indonesia. I even lived in a village and planted rice in Laos. It’s vibrantly colored, its own work of terraced art, each long stem of waving green in a seamless row.
Recently, I was in Bali, Indonesia, meandering about in endless rice fields when my good friend, Emily, said, “You know what’s crazy? Someone planted each one of these by hand.” For some reason, I had never marveled at that fact before? I had experienced the tight hamstrings and sore back from bending over all day. I danced around the not-so-little spiders, trying to run up my legs, as we moved their stalks from one terrace to another. I knew how bad I was at making straight rows, how slow my hands worked, and how quickly the women made a little circle around me as if to say, “You’re kind of slowing us down, white person, but we want to include you, so here’s your little plot of land.” How had I not marveled at the wonder of standing in front of huge and endless mountains of rice paddies, knowing someone planted each and every individual stalk by hand? No tractor. No plow. No modern machinery. Just two pairs of hands.
What makes it even more intriguing to me is the significance of rice in many Asian cultures. A meal is not considered complete without rice. Breakfast, lunch, dinner- rice is present. The history of rice growing has shaped whole cultures and countries, even as modern technology and globalization has diminished the industry in practice, values still remain. In Japan, it’s considered rude or distasteful to douse your rice in soy sauce because of the labor behind it. In Thailand, the word for “food” and “rice” are the same. In Bali, rice is considered a vital function of the community. Each member of a village does their part in working the fields. The rice is then distributed evenly throughout the community when harvest comes. (Is it appropriate to site Eat, Pray, Love as an academic source?) What does it speak of a culture and people if their labor of love and sustenance is centered on the work of their hands within a greater community? A meal is not complete without the work of their neighbor.
As I clumsily wandered through Bali, I noticed rice is not the only aspect of life which is communal. Within a village are very small neighborhoods, where every house is connected facing inwards surrounding a temple. A Balinese person can’t walk out their front door without looking at a symbol of their faith and the face of their neighbor. Side-note: It can be very awkward to think you’re wandering up an alley, only to realize you just wandered into a whole neighborhood’s front yard.
This level of foundational community doesn’t exist in Western cultures. My food source isn’t tied to the well-being of my neighbor. Culturally, if someone is struggling whom we love and know, we will help, sometimes on the precept of being repaid when he or she “pulls themselves up by their bootstraps.” But on a macro-level, the individual is greater than the whole.
A few months ago, I wrote down “beauty comes from commitment.” I’m a very distracted, wandering, wondering person. I’m committed to people, ideas, communities, and am an incredibly loyal and value-oriented person. But ask me to accomplish a methodical, practical task in an orderly and systematic manner, and there’s approximately a 100% chance I will start 5 other small tasks, forget about what you asked me to do, leave it sitting out for a day, and then come back to finish it proclaiming, “oh shit! How did I forget to do that?!” aka I’d be the worst rice farmer of all time. It’s hours of bending over, methodically picking apart stalks of large clumps of rice, and replanting them in smaller pods, to grow large again, to then again, be replanted.
Rice is a commitment. It’s a commitment to your neighbor. You can’t mess up your own terrace and not hurt someone else’s. Hello, all water falls down hill. You better not mess up your neighbor’s terrace when you live across the temple from them. Rice is generational. Rice is communal. Rice is symbolic of a culture which is dependent on the whole over the individual. What if I was committed to the work of my hands, the betterment of my neighbor, and the sustainability of my community? What if my good, my faith, my food, was actively tied to the good, the faith, and the food of my neighbor? What if I couldn’t look my faith in the eye without looking my neighbor in the eye?
If you’ve been following along with me over the last few months, you’ll know I’ve been pursuing music more intentionally on various levels. If you’ve been within talking proximity to me, regardless of any personal relationship, I’ve probably cornered you as I’ve said “WHY AM I DOING THIS. AM I EVEN GOOD. HALP.”
The desire to pursue music came out of a few different factors. 1) I kept walking around town, listening to various people perform, and realizing “I have something unique I can contribute to this scene”. 2) A necessity of wellness and wholeness. I was sick, run down, burnt out, and when I gave myself the time of day to figure out what was going on, I realized “I’m not creating.”
One night I sat myself down and made a list of steps I could take to change my situation. If I have something to contribute, if it feels like an essential part to who I am, then something’s got to give, right?
Step Number 1: Be a student. Truly, the thought of music being something I’ll never fully “arrive” at was once more terrifying than inspiring or motivating. Instrumentally I have the virtuosity of a mediocre high-schooler. It’s cool. I can be honest with myself. I let being mediocre keep me from even trying for the longest time because I hated that I wasn’t good at it. Like why even try unless I’m the best right away, right? 😉
Whats next? I’m taking steps to change my mediocrity this summer. 1) I’m taking piano lessons (again) 2) I’m doing an internship in singing, songwriting, and performing 3) I’m listening to music. But like actually listening, ya feel?
Step Number 2: Perform. Lately, I’ve been performing as a duo with my good friend Billy, who’s an amazing classical and Brazilian style guitarist. As always, I’ve continually been sitting in with my dear friend and mentor, Tony G, and will keep it up throughout the summer and as long as he’ll have me.
What’s next? This summer I have a few gigs lined up, but ultimately, my goal is to improve myself, put in the work, show up, be humble, and be good.
Step Number 3: Connect with other artists.
This spring I was stoked to be invited to Vail Jazz’s advisory board. Vail Jazz is a local foundation which partners with local elementary schools, hosts a summer long jazz festival, and massive labor day party, all for the sake of “perpetuating” the art form that is jazz. I always joke around that I’m not important or fancy enough to hang with them, but ultimately, it’s kind of a dream. Ever since my junior year of college, I’ve thought “I want to live in Vail and sing jazz.” Check.
What’s next? Recently, I co-hosted an artist mixer, by turning my home into an art gallery for a night, with some friends for the purpose of collaboration, connection, and local appreciation. In a place like Vail, many things are always for someone else. Most musicians are apre’, background, or drinking music. I used to joke around the background is my favorite place to be. But the last few months, I’ve noticed a change. I want people to listen. The party was a hit and we’re looking to host another one but at a bigger venue.
What to be looking for: I started a Facebook page, Laura Miller Music, am hoping to record some demos this summer, create a website for myself as well as in partnership with Billy, and get this whole thing going.
I truly have no end goal with music other than to enjoy it, participate in it, and share it. But if you know me, you know I can’t not keep it real with people. I can’t not invite others along. And if you’re still reading this far, thank you. I’ve had such kind words of encouragement spoken to me over the last few months and I’m truly grateful.
I’ve spent much of my time being frustrated recently.
Frustrated I’m “just” a singer.
Frustrated my fingers aren’t calloused from the guitar yet.
Frustrated every lyric I write feels cheesy or fabricated.
Frustrated every melody feels like I took it from a song I heard the day before.
Frustrated my desire is great but my ability feels feeble.
Frustrated I live in a town which lends itself towards entertainment instead of artistry.
But I think it’s a holy frustration- a motivating frustration- a get off your ass and do something about it frustration.
Recently, a mentor asked me “Laura, why do you downplay literally everything you do?” As I sat with the question for a few days, I came up with the answer “because if I set the expectation low, if I sell myself short, I won’t ever be disappointing others or myself.” aka if I play it up like I suck, it won’t hurt as much if others think I do too. CLASSIC.
But once again, that’s not the way to live life, people! (She says mainly to herself)
Although I felt like crying angry tears over my guitar skills tonight, this season of life has been my most frustrating yet my most inspired. Also, it’s been terrifying because I suffer from the chronic condition of “caring too much what people think”. I’ve had to start telling myself “Laura, if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will.” BUT IT’S HARD TO SUBJECT MYSELF TO CRITICISM, OKAY?! I could live my whole life and never understand why people’s opinions are paralyzing to me.
All caps pouting aside, it’s a holy frustration I don’t want to lose because it’s making me better. I call it holy because I don’t think something always has to be “religious” to be sacred. You can disagree.
I believe each person in this whole wide world 1) was created 2) made to create. It’s just a matter of choice right? I actively choose, through decisions big and small, the life I create for myself. Regardless of artistic talent or ability, my existence makes me a creator. So are you, ya feel me?
Prayer and my relationship with God are a part of the creative process for me, which I’m still figuring out what “the creative process” even means for me. But I was praying and seeking a few months ago “what does it mean for me to be a creator?”
I came away with this:
God 1) meets me in creation (uh, hello I live in Colorado where even the sidewalk is stunning) 2) dares me to join in creating; to create beauty, to create kindness, to create peace.
Regardless of where any talent or ability ever takes me, I’m a creator and I am 100% down to create beauty, kindness, and peace any day.
All that rambling aside, if you find yourself, like me, engaged in a holy frustration, if you’re struggling with a desire to grow, I hope you lean into it. I’m beyond thankful for the loyal friendships who have encouraged me to lean into mine.
I’ve consequentially been listening to a LOT of music recently. If you’re looking to refresh your playlist, here are some artists new and “old” which have been inspiring me: Ingrid Michaelson (specifically her older album BE OK), Leon Bridges (Coming Home), Marian Hill, Lawrence (Breakfast album, check out the song Come on, Brother), Sylvan Esso, and PJ Morton. I also recently listened to a podcast featuring Robert Glasper called Side Effects of being an Innovator. Happy Listening!
“Khop khun kha” I said shyly to the flight attendant as she handed me my entry documents. What was I even doing saying that? Clearly, she spoke English.
“Sawatdee kha” I mumbled at half-past midnight to the incredibly over it hotel employee, holding a sign with my name on it, at the arrivals gate in Bangkok. He speaks to hundreds of foreigners a day, what did it matter how I spoke to him?
“Sabaidee, mai kha?” I said tiredly, confused, but a little more confidently to the van driver. “SABAIDEE KHAP!” He responded enthusiastically. “Poot Thai, dai mai khap?!” “You speak my language?!” He asked me. Only a little and not well, I responded. “Dai nit noi kha, dewah poot mai gang.” We talked the rest of the way to the hotel as my jetlagged brain was forging through my cloudy mind, only to be slow to understand and even slower to respond. “Poot Thai gang, Poot Thai gang!” She speaks Thai well, she speaks Thai well! he informed the hotel employees upon arrival. I’d found my voice and however feeble and clumsy it may have been, I knew a piece of me was home.
It’s funny how one’s mouth can miss a language. I didn’t even realize it had been thirsting for it until I took a sip. The sip turned into a fountain bubbling from my sloppy tones, tired brain, and fumbling words.
They say when someone learns a language, he or she develops almost an alternative identity, one that fits into the culture and language one’s speaking. How fascinating, right? When I learn a language, I develop a more socially appropriate version of myself to fit in. I’d like to think the version of speaking Thai ends up bowing a lot more, speaks slightly softer, and my total spaz of a person does my best to “jai yen yen”, cool my heart.
Learning a language gives an inside look into people’s lives and cultures, however small it may be. My favorite place in town is Wararot Market, where one can buy anything from Tribal Hmong textiles, frogs and turtles in large buckets, colorful flowers, temple offerings, to Northern Thai goods and food. I was buying shoes with a friend on my last day when we decided to sit down on the small wood stools and talk with the shop owner. Her seventy year-old mom walked in, sat next to me and began rambling on about her life, as all good grandmas do, regardless of how much I actually understood. I learned she had studied abroad in America while in college in Minnesota. I asked her “Chob pratet America, mai kha?” Do you like America? To which she replied with a heartfelt, enthusiastic, and drawn out “CHOOOOB!” YES! But she made sure to clarify she likes Thailand more because American is expensive and goi teaw, noodle soup, is only 40 baht in Thailand and 400 baht in America. The familiarity, kindness, and general laid-back-ness (that’s a word), of Thai culture speaks to the part of me that genuinely wishes four day work weeks were a thing, time doesn’t have to matter, and savoring memories in a slow-paced life is more important than productivity and work output ratio. I’m a horribly motivated American.
Learning a language takes out the aspect of “the other.” It removes the fear of the unknown. It makes me put my trust in the people around me. I get to relate to people on their level, which is what we all desire I think, and am forced to get over myself and actually sound like a toddler learning to speak.
People are immediately familiar. I’m no longer a stranger.
I’m not a New Years resolution kinda gal. The closest I get is my yearly halfhearted “this year I will be more disciplined” and eventually resign to my fate of leaving a trail of belongings most places I go. Although earlier this week I did tell a friend my belated goal was to stop dressing like a tired teacher on the weekends. Some would count that as progress.
This year was no exception to my “discipline” resolution. In addition, I had made a goal to run a half marathon but that didn’t really even have to do with the New Year. Side note- running at 8,000 feet sucks. My reason behind the half was just to prove to myself I could while practicing loving and being kind to myself in the process. That was it.
Here’s a secret. I’m not a runner. I’m slow. There’s no oxygen where I live. I had never run more than a 5k. I started training in January when we got 6 feet of snow and my first outdoor run after a few weeks on a treadmill was one of the more miserable experiences. I was cold. I was comparing. People literally run up mountains where I live, who I was to be worthy of running 13 miles? 4 miles seemed like 400. My friend practically drug me the whole way. It was ugly. There have been many runs since then which were ugly. But not only did I start training for something which for years seemed unattainable and formidable, I was talked into joining a local ski race series. The conversation went something like this,
Friend: “Hey Laura! You’re keeping up pretty well with us! Want to join the team?”
Me: “Are you serious? No.”
Friend: “C’mon! We’ll get less points if no one races than if you get last! There’s no pressure!”
My first race comes. I’m nervous. I’ve never raced in my life. My teammates I had just met that morning are giving me a pep talk and bestowing tips as we’re slipping the course. Their main piece of advise, “Don’t fall. All you have to do is finish and get a time.” We map out the course, I do my best to pay attention. I awkwardly slip on my race bib and with it put on an extra layer of “I hope I’m good enough.” Did I mention today was not a normal course? It was twice the length. Awesome. My time to race is up. The girl before me was a former Junior Olympian, even better. I begin. I’m doing well. I’m breathing. I haven’t fallen. I’m over halfway down, all I have to do is finish when all of a sudden my ski catches an edge. I fall, exactly what everyone told me not to do. I pop back up to finish when I notice I’m off balance, I look uphill to see my ski has popped off. I won’t get a time. I thought “now is the time to be kind to yourself. It’s okay you fell. You went fast, You went hard, and you fell because you were trying.” But on the gondola ride back up shame set in. How could I have fallen?! I was nervous about my second run down. The course was different, I was paralyzed with fear and the thought “Do. not. fall.” My second run came. I was horridly slow, I was nervous, but I didn’t fall. I finished.
I didn’t want to know my time. I didn’t want to know my place. I was embarrassed. My friend called me at the end of the day “Laura! You didn’t get last!” to which I assumed “I got next to last!!” which was met with a hearty “EXACTLY! But you didn’t get last!”
What I’m really saying is the beginning of this year was a bunch of failing.
By February, I was exhausted in the best possible way. I think I was having what Brene Brown refers to as “a vulnerability hangover” aka I’m really putting myself out there and it sucks. In less than two months, I was racing most Mondays, running three times a week, and consistently freaking out over the notion that if I ever want to date someone I actually have to let them know me. As I was talking to a friend I said “I just want to do something I’m good at! I just want to do something familiar!”
But that’s not really the point of all of this is it?
My half marathon is in 3 weeks. I’m still terrified and running still isn’t easy, but I will finish and I will be proud. I will also eat a whole pizza afterward and love every bite. Joining a ski team ended up being one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. It was one of my highlights of the seemingly endless winter and I ended up placing 8 out of 35 women for the series. My team placed 5th overall and trophied. Maybe doing things which scare you doesn’t end up so bad after all.
I would say being bold has been a cultivated force of habit. Since high school my continual prayer to God has been “take my timidity.” I could list a millennia of things I am afraid of ranging from getting a paper cut in my eye, a fork stuck in my teeth, to letting people down and being seen as flawed. But in this whole process, I have learned to love myself better. I have come to appreciate my body more than ever before. I have paused and reassessed my motivation, “Am I doing this to ‘keep up’ with the person next to me? Am I hustling for an opinion which doesn’t matter?” I’ve continually checked back in with myself and asked “Are you proud?” and worked my hardest to keep going until the answer was “yes.”
Everything came in pairs.
Two plane rides, two restless nights, two long car rides, and two days later we arrived. Electricity was a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. The toilet was a 100 yard walk down a steep muddy hill. Early foggy mornings and late dark nights meant the bathroom was never so intimidating. Water was the public spigot where bare bottomed babies were running, women were filling their pots, and men in their longyis were rinsing. Chickens ran almost as rampant as the children with no school to attend and no parental supervision. Rural was an understatement. Employment was but a dream. Signs with skulls and cross bones were passed indicating a previous landmine area. Abandoned cemeteries and casinos were littered along the drive. We weren’t in a village, we were in the confines of a region where the national government had no reign. We were in a camp in Kachin State in Northern Myanmar. The residents were victims of the longest civil war in modern history of which you’ve probably never even heard.
Internally displaced is who they are.
Camp leaders, village authority, and respected community members piled into our one room shelter. They brought gifts, food, clothing, their pride, and their family name. One by one, we were given a family, we were accepted into a household. We were given a name. An identity. A family line. As far as they were concerned, we were theirs. My name, Lasi Ja Seng Zin, beautiful smooth gold. My father was the camp leader, I had four younger siblings, a mother, and an aunt. My father spoke little English, but if he knew any, he had learned the word daughter. Anytime he saw me, he would smile and say “My daughter.” That night he had us over for dinner and again would smile and say “My daughter.” An instant loyalty was formed with a man I’d only known twelve hours.
The trip was short and a few days later we left. The whole village lined up. Bright reds, yellows, head dresses, and necklaces were the accessories of choice accentuated by instruments and singing. The tune still resides in my memory. We shook the multitudes of hands, attempting to say thank you in Kachin, a meager sign of gratitude for the hospitality we had been shown. At the end of the line waited our SUV. As we climbed in, hands were going through doors and windows still wanting a final good bye hand shake. In the crowd was my father, calm and steady. He reached his hand in the car, I grabbed it, and he kissed my hand. “My daughter.”
There are no words.
Two days, two car rides, and two planes later I arrived home to my comfy bed in Thailand. I had my fill. I was overwhelmed. The ability to process and decompress was non-existent. I had never held something so sacred before. I didn’t post about it. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t want the memory to be ruined by people who wouldn’t understand, nor the meaning to be stripped to likes on Facebook. Even now, I struggle with sharing the story knowing I will count the views and measure the worth of my words. All my brain could think was “I am responsible for this story. I am indebted to the refugee for the refugee is my ‘father’.” But how do I handle this in a responsible way? How do I set healthy boundaries and expectations? How do we even begin to keep in touch? Our lives could not be more separate yet it was the most significant experience of my life.
The refugee looks like my father. The refugee looks like my Jesus.
My Jesus came in the form of a displaced baby into a world which had no room for him. Not in their homes. Not in their hearts. His throne, the dinner table of animals. His audience, livestock and misfits. Yet in him was the fullest potential. In him was life upon life upon life. My Jesus looks like a refugee, and there’s still no room for him.
I am indebted to the refugee for he fed me, he clothed me, he gave me a name, he called me his own. My father, the refugee, sounds a lot like Jesus.
There are hundreds of thousands of refugee children who are being told “there is no room for you. Not in my heart. Not in my country. Not in my church.” You have the opportunity to tell them a different story. Check out Partners Relief and Development or Preemptive Love Coalition for more info and to make a difference a very tangible way.