How can you quantify life?

I learned a lot about research in my music therapy education. Research steers science and medicine. It proves things, which results in change in practice and policy. It’s crucial in music therapy because it legitimizes what we do. There are two kinds of research studies: qualitative and quantitative. In the simplest definition, qualitative studies record natural behaviors, observations in narrative form, experiences, interviews, that sort of thing. Quantitative studies can be summed up in one word: numbers. Quantitative studies result in statistics, facts, and clean bar graphs. For obvious reasons, quantitative research garners faster acceptance and change than qualitative research.

It’s much harder to conduct quantitative research studies in music therapy than qualitative studies because of the nature of the work. Especially in my field – hospice. Thankfully, researchers have come up with scales that can measure what would be considered qualitative data, but it’s still looked at as subjective and soft data. I can’t easily produce numbers and percentages in my work, but I can tell you lots of stories that would make a case for what I do.

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I spent a good part of my weekend watching the sessions from the IF Gathering that was held in Austin this weekend. It was just for women and all the speakers were women.

(Side note: What I loved the most was the complete omission of talking about how to be a godly woman, how we are different from men, what our role is…there was NONE of that. It was just about being a child of God and being obedient. I loved that. I am so tired of us putting gender before our faith in our identities. I’m not a woman who is a christian. I am a christian who happens to be a woman.)

One talk was about how we need to stop “measuring up.” We need to stop comparing ourselves to each other. The speaker said that if we judge another, we are usurping God. The talk began with the idea that the church has become an enterprise, or rather, a business. Businesses work with data. Businesses look at the bottom line. Businesses make transactions. Businesses don’t work for free.

We deal with numbers all the time, everywhere. Time, money, weather, miles, weight, spending, earning. I can get the 8 oz for 2.99 or I can save and get the 16 oz for 4.99. Numbers and measures are necessary for civilized life. Especially those two scoops of coffee grounds I put in my coffee maker each night for the next morning. Numbers guide businesses, weather patterns, sports, accomplishments. But are we using numbers in parts of life that we shouldn’t be? Are we trying to measure things that cannot be measured? Are we trying to quantify our lives?

I recently had a conversation with someone about common denominators. In a business, the common denominator is the product, the deliverable, the bottom line. In a church, the common denominator is Jesus. What is the common denominator in life? Survival? The American dream?  For whatever the common denominator is, that is what you serve. For me – someone who believes that God is the Creator – I consider Him to be the common denominator in life. We all come into this life the same way and we all die. What does this have to doing with numbers? We are all God’s, therefore we are all enough. We all measure the same.

So then, if we don’t compare and measure, how do we know if we’re doing a good job? Jesus. His life is the only one we can measure ours to. Nicky Gumbel, in an Alpha talk, used the analogy of a column, floor to ceiling, representing all of humanity, with the “bad” people at the very bottom and the “good” people at the top. Where would you put a serial killer? Where would you put Mother Teresa? Where would you put yourself? How do you measure up? Then, Nicky asked, where do you put Jesus? The answer? Jesus is not on the column. Jesus is the sky.

Jesus is love. How do you quantify love? Isn’t there a song in RENT about this? How do you quantify compassion, or humility, or obedience? When we try to quantify our lives using measures that are not designed for the human spirit we end up with skewed results that do not provide the answers we were looking for. In research terms this is called validity: Did the study actually answer the question that was asked? But when we use those results as a measurement for our lives we fall short. We are disappointed. We are hard on ourselves for not being better people.

Most things in this life that matter cannot be measured. Nor should they be. I just watched a documentary on a hospice program in a prison. Prisoners can volunteer with hospice and take care of their fellow inmates at the end of life. In an interview, the warden said, “You can provide skills and trades but then all you have is smarter criminals.” He said that the only thing that will change them is a change in morality. You can measure skills and trades through results, you cannot easily measure morality.

The speaker at the IF Gathering said, “Grace is the only one-way love that ends the transactional business model.” Grace cannot be measured, nor should it be. Grace doesn’t expect anything back. That idea doesn’t fit in our capitalist business culture. Very seldom is something given without expecting a return. You can’t record that data. It doesn’t provide statistics.

Numbers are important, but numbers are quantitative. And human beings are not. We are applying quantitative measures to our lives, but our lives are full of qualitative data. Instead of comparing and measuring up to the next person, remember that we all have the same common denominator. And He is fighting for us. He just wants us to be. He wants us to take care of each other – in a way that can’t be measured, nor should it be. Conversations, prayers, meals, relationships. If we constantly try to quantify our lives we will be left behind with the measuring tape. Abide in Jesus and reach out your hand so that others can feel the love of Him through you. And expect nothing in return.

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Obligatory inspirational end of the year blog post

Just kidding! I don’t have time for that crap, I have to go to work. I’m mostly relieved I got through another year (In a first world kind of way…you know, I didn’t have to worry about food or shelter on a daily basis…) 2013 wasn’t all sugar and sunshine and Instagram photos for me, how about you?

One thing that did help me get through the most transition-y year ever was the constancy of the blogs I read. May seem trite to some but these writers helped me a lot. I don’t have time to make a fancy list so I’ll just give you the writer who rocked my world the most – Richard Beck. He’s a psychologist and a professor as well as an author and doer of all kinds of other cool stuff like speaking and doing a prison ministry. This guy seriously knows what he’s talking about and he unpacks truth like a badass. Check him out at Experimental Theology. He writes every day.

He also wrote this book that changed me. Truth.

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It’s dense – think C. S. Lewis – but worth reading each sentence twice.

Happy New Year! I’ve got a feeling 2014 will be a good one. Catch ya on the flip side.

Iowa

I wrote this on Sunday night and then realized the time synchronicity would be off because it’s being published on Monday morning. But I’m too tired to change it all, so get in your Delorean and read this on Sunday night.

I’m sitting in a hotel room outside of Des Moines, Iowa. Tomorrow I start my new job as a hospice music therapist. I feel like one of those people who travels for work, with my carry-on and eating dinner in the hotel restaurant alone with a glass of wine (it was a stressful drive in the snow).

How in the world did I get here? So much has happened in the last two weeks I get worn out just thinking about it. Two weeks ago my internship ended very well – it was such an amazing and rewarding experience. The next day our family had Thanksgiving dinner. The next day I drove 8 hours to visit friends in Virginia and Maryland for a week. It was a great time of catching up, sitting around watching TV, and growing important relationships. The following Saturday I drove back to Ohio and 10 minutes after arriving, helped load a U-haul full of all my stuff. Sunday was spent resting and seeing “Frozen” with my mom. Monday I left at 6 am for Iowa, and got there 11 hours later. A couple hours later my parents arrived with the trailer and we unloaded everything into my new (nice!) apartment. The rest of the week was spent at my brother’s house in Nebraska, what will become my second haven after my apartment. Yesterday I drove back to my place and spent the rest of the day organizing my stuff and putting things away. I also put up my Christmas decorations, which made me feel a lot better. Today, I tried out a new church, unpacked some more, did laundry, and took off for the hotel. And here I am, watching HIMYM in a hotel room with 2 queen sized beds for little old me.

Not gonna lie, I feel pretty alone. I’m trying to focus on all the positive stuff – a JOB, having my own kitchen, being close to my family in Nebraska. But this is hard. Really hard. I remember saying 2 years ago: all I ask is not to have to move to a new place all by myself again. … And now here I am. I guess God needs me in Iowa.

I never expected to end up here, that’s for sure! But, the people in my small town are nice, the cost of living is low, and I’m close to my dear family.

So, there’s my quick update! Hopefully I’ll get back to music therapy and Jesus posts soon!

Oh, and I technically graduate next Saturday. Yay student loan six month grace period!

– Sarah

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Itchy.

a post for myself, but feel free to join me for the ride

I’m in the itchy part of this season. The honeymoon phase of my internship passed a long time ago. It’s going like clockwork now and I’m thankful for that. It’s making me itchy. I’m done. I’m ready to go. I have to keep reminding myself that I haven’t fulfilled my internship requirements yet, I still have a lot to learn, I have a lot left to do, I must live in the present.

I’ve been zooming in and out of the future the past couple weeks, kind of like the new app animation on iOS7, which makes me a little motion sick, by the way. I’ve started applying for jobs. There have been a surprising amount of hospice music therapy job openings. Each application is followed by a thorough investigation into the agency’s website, a search on Google Maps for distance between the location and my parents’ homes, my brother in Nebraska, and the nearest big city, and then perusing for apartments to get a ballpark on cost of living.

And then I have to go back to the internship the next day.

I’m itchy too because I’m tired. I’m just tired. I’ve done the real world thing before. I remember being tired like this then. I think the energy spent thinking about the giant chasm of unknown future contributes to my fatigue. Funny thing is, I should be used to that part. The contents of my future seem to be revealed to me only 6 months at a time. The current interval is quickly coming to its end though…then what?

Why am I doing this again? Why am I putting myself through all this work and stress? I’m so tired.

Have you been there? I was at this place 3 1/2 years ago sitting on the beach next to the Sea of Galilee.

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Right here. This is exactly where I was when I looked at my life as I knew it. At the time I was running around crazy trying to do the adult thing. God had been slowing forming my calling in the empty spaces and nooks and afterthoughts. And it was upon the waters where Jesus told Peter to have faith that I felt God asking me to do the same. To upend my life and step out onto the water.

Since then, and after telling my “story” a bunch of times to different people who said I was “brave” and “courageous” and “faithful,” I would say to them I am “relieved” that I finally know my calling and have figured out why God gave me a brain so full of music nerdiness and a heart so empathetic I can’t see an old man alone at Panera without crying.

I digress. All that to say – yay God and yay callings and yay music therapy. But. Right now?

I’m just so. tired. Sometimes I wonder about it all. Things about my life have been so transient, so un-grounded. When I moved to Winchester from DC I lost stuff – actual stuff (like my favorite underwear, true story) and relational stuff. I gained a lot of debt. When I moved to Ohio for my internship I had to leave my small delicate circle of friends I had carefully invested in while at school, and got even further away from the people I could always count on in DC. And I am so incredibly grateful to my family for being the emotional rock I’ve needed in this season. Even so…

I ache to settle, plant roots, to have a permanent address be permanent for more than 2 years. I long for the day when I can paint my apartment. Have regular stuff, like a regular grocery store, a regular bar, a regular church.

So I’m itchy. Before you counter my complaints with reassurance because you want to fix me, read my last post. Will you marinate with me on this? I have less than 2 months in my internship left. Pray that in that time I can secure a full-time job.

Please know I’ve grown so much in my faith during this. I talk to God all the time, usually giving him my crap (also in my last post) and so that’s why I don’t feel bad about writing a post like this. He can take it. He can take my feeling unsettled right now.

Thanks for listening, friend.

Validation

When a person gets older, they gradually, or in some cases instantly, lose control over certain things. Mobility, memory, independence, and decision making are just a few. Something else they lose which might not be obvious to many is the right to be heard. A man is admitted to hospice and the team does their job getting everything in order to care for this man the best way they know how. Often by this point, the family is already making most of the decisions. The patient may be in hospice care against his will. And many of our patients are stubborn, as we all are.

Everyone is bustling around and fussing over the patient and he is too tired or confused to put a fight so he just gives up and gives in. However, this isn’t usually the case. A majority of our patients are accepting of hospice care and appreciate all that we do. Others are so far gone in their dementia or Alzheimer’s they only have a vague notion that lots of people are taking care of them.

Whether the patient is docile or not, they will still go through a cornucopia of feelings throughout their dying journey. Family matters invariably may complicate things. Sometimes the family is healthy and coping well, getting along, and prepared for their loved one to die. Other times…I’ve seen denial, dysfunction, estrangement, insecurity, guilt, and simply poverty, significantly affect the experience of the patient.

It is in this context that I arrive for music therapy. The patient may be dealing with the new routine of nurse and aide visits, new medication, family members coming and going with their own emotions, and death waiting before them. They might have just had a bath, or a phone call, or a handful of pills, or a visit from a tearful son or daughter.

Upon being asked what song he would like to hear next, a patient of mine once said, “I don’t care what you sing, just don’t cry.”

I thought that was a very interesting statement. And this is where validation comes in. I could have said, “Oh, people are crying because they love you and are sad to see you sick,” or, “Sometimes people can’t help crying,” or, “Well, emotions are hard to control.” Or I could have ignored his statement. But none of these validate the patient.

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Validation

1. To declare or make legally valid.
2. To mark with an indication of official sanction.
3. To establish the soundness of; corroborate.

This third definition describes my use of validation in music therapy. To be clear (also I had look it up), corroborate means “to strengthen or support with other evidence; make more certain.” In this case, I corroborate with my patients by listening to and believing them.

Validation is the most common support I provide to my patients next to singing and playing songs. I said to the man, “You don’t like it when people cry?” He said, “No.” I said, “It’s hard to see people cry, isn’t it? Sometimes it might make you uncomfortable or you don’t know what to say. I can understand why you don’t want people to cry around you.” I can’t quite remember what he said after that, but I recall it was insightful and strengthened the rapport between us.

And then I sang a song. Probably “Ring of Fire” because he likes Johnny Cash.

Validation doesn’t come easily for me. I’m usually one of those people who is thinking of what I’m going to say while you’re talking. But in this internship I’ve learned to actually listen to people who are talking to me. It’s a lot less work because I don’t have to think of something witty to say or try to 1-up the person. Instead, I simply let them know they’ve been heard. It takes a lot of pressure off to be interesting, and the person appreciates the undivided attention. Charismatic people are experts at this, which is why we’re drawn to them.

Validation and music therapy naturally go together. Unlike the medical team in hospice, music therapists come to the patient to sit with them but not do anything to them. Music therapy is music, but it’s also talking. Partially because it’s a naturally social thing, and partially because music builds rapport and trust, and music will uniquely draw out conversation that may otherwise be suppressed or hidden behind barriers.

Two significant outcomes have resulted from my learning to validate. First, I’ve begun to validate my friends and family way more than I used to. The skill naturally spread into my whole life. I find myself talking less and listening more, and finding out more about the people I love.

Second, I’ve begun to validate myself. Part of this came from my therapist. Before, when I would have an emotion I didn’t like, I would be hard on myself and try to dismiss the feeling, which made me feel worse and like I was a terrible human being. Once I began validating my own feelings I gained a healthy confidence and respect for myself, and I didn’t feel like a weirdo all the time.

Now, when I experience an emotion, I acknowledge it instead of dismissing it. And in the times I’m really smart, I include God in the conversation. It usually goes something like this:

Me: God, I feel [emotion] because [of this situation], and….I don’t know what to do with it, so….here….I can’t – so….you.
God: Beloved, thank you for trusting me with this, let me take it from you and replace it with peace and a little clarity.

It’s amazing. It really is. And it works perfectly because God is really good with handling the stuff that doesn’t make sense. Guess who isn’t? Yah. And He gave us empathy and compassion and communication to validate each other so that we can support each other and grow through shared experiences.

So go forth and validate! Huzzah!

Break

I just saw 5 minutes ago that a study was published about Facebook and people being sad. How coincidental, because that’s part of the reason I’m taking a break. Facebook/Twitter/Instagram is fantastic for keeping in touch with people, but I spend way too much (precious) time on it and lately, it rarely makes me feel better. It’s a distraction, but perhaps not the healthiest one right now.

I turn 30 in one month. I don’t really know what that means. But it seems to be a good timeframe to take a break from social media. I tend to get very self-reflective around my birthday (even more than usual, which is saying something). When it’s a decade change…it’s inevitable I will reflect even more. I’ve gotten a lot done since I was 20. I’ve also…not gotten a lot done.

So instead of brooding all over you in my super-sonic self-reflection, I’ll stay quiet for a while.

Hopefully I’ll return recharged, a 30-something, with more so-audience-specific-it-guarantees-low-readership music therapy posts 🙂

(Incidentally, P.S., I just discovered that someone pinned one of my hospice music therapy posts! I’ve been Pinterest’d!)

My phone and email are on my Facebook profile if you need to get a hold of me.

Later,
Sarah 🙂

The Stewardship of Simplicity

This is not a music therapy post! 🙂 So if you’re bored with my MT stuff, read on!!

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

Matthew 6:25. We all know this verse. Actually, this verse always reminds me of Godspell and I immediately hear Chris Girardi exclaim slovenly, “Her body is more than clothes!” from when I did the show in DC six years ago. The interpretation of this passage that I’ve typically heard is from the perspective of those who do not have the means for basic needs – food, water, clothing, shelter. Don’t worry about getting food etc., God will provide. But I’ve had a thought revisiting me a lot lately that turns this interpretation upside down.

What does “worry” really translate to? King James says “take no thought” instead of “don’t worry” (as does Martin Luther’s German translation, thank you parallel Bible website and Google translate). Young’s Literal Translation says, “be not anxious.”

I feel like I’ve been nudged several times with the thought that “don’t worry” actually means “don’t fuss over” in this verse. Indeed, as I discovered 3 seconds ago after I looked up the interpretation in The Message…

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion.

Some may dismiss this translation, that’s fine. But have you ever thought of it that way? But why would Jesus care about the people who have stuff? Wasn’t he an advocate for the poor? Isn’t it more important to assure them that God will provide their basic needs? Why would he waste his breath with telling them not to fuss over their clothes?

(To put it in context, this was part of the Sermon on the Mount, after the Beatitudes, before the “don’t judge others” and “seek first the kingdom of God.” It’s actually pretty fantastic, Matthew 5-7. I would recommend re-reading it if you haven’t lately.)

This is my answer to the devil’s advocate questions above: When I spent the summer in Haiti with people who seriously had no food, water, clothing, shelter, do you know what they fussed over? Guess what: not on what they didn’t have. They focused on taking care of others. When my thin flip flops broke on the side of a muddy mountain due to the stickiness of the mud, a Haitian offered me his shoes. It’s not that they didn’t think about needing the basics of living, they just didn’t dwell, they didn’t fuss. Jesus knew it was those who had stuff, rather than those who didn’t, who really needed His guidance. The spiritual energy was so potent in Haiti because God truly was all they had. And they were joyful about it. It made me realize how much my concern for food, clothes, and shelter was a distraction from experiencing the joy of knowing God. It may seem trivial, but think about how much time we spend on something as ubiquitous as shopping…Amazon, iTunes, commercials, vacations, homes, Pinterest, movies, groceries, Christmas presents, birthday presents…

Warning: This is where my what if question appears.

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What if…we simplified our lives to the point where our pursuit of God was so strong that denying ourselves class and comfort wouldn’t be a sacrifice – it wouldn’t even be an issue? We simply wouldn’t care about those things.

Let me disclaim here that I am first and foremost writing this to myself. Although, with my current financial situation, I have not been able to indulge my materialistic inclinations lately. (And just to point out how hypocritical that statement is, my Haitian friends would be laughing at me over the fact I am alluding to not having any money.) Even so, I have a lot to learn, which is probably why God’s been placing this on my heart.

Clothes: Back to Haiti – when I was there 8 years ago, the daughter of the missionaries owned approximately 6 skirts and 10 shirts. I was impressed by the way she cleverly mixed and matched them to create different outfits for the 365 days in the year. Not as easy as the $5,000 wardrobe they give you on What Not to Wear.

Not too long ago, my sister-in-law was telling me about a book called “Seven,” in which the author chooses to simplify her life by limiting things to seven – seven meals in one month, seven outfits in one month, etc. I exclaimed to her how I had been thinking of doing a similar experiment – wearing the same outfit every Monday, same outfit every Tuesday, and so on, just to see what it would be like to wear 7 outfits and that’s it. Would it seem ridiculous to do that? Or refreshingly simple?

Shelter: I’ve been slightly obsessed over the past couple of years with the Tiny House Movement. The idea of living in less than 300 square feet is kind of appealing to me. Or at least a small apartment. I just need a kitchen, bathroom, and another room. But that’s just me. And also there would be less to clean. And heat/cool.

Food: And then there’s food. I’ll probably get a lot of eye rolls on this one. From the foodies. Sorry foodies. You can whole-heartedly disagree with me on this. After watching the documentary Forks Over Knives on Netflix last summer, I changed my diet. I had already given up beef and pork, now I don’t eat dairy either. I dare you to ask me how I get my calcium. I dare you. I eat some chicken and turkey, and I love fish. I’d rather not eat the poultry though; I try to be a pescatarian. I went about 48 hours this week with no meat, and I can’t put it any simpler: I just felt better. Anyway, this isn’t meant to be a healthy eating motivational speech. The gist is, my self-imposed restrictions have made my diet really boring. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and starches. I stopped drinking soda years ago and alcohol is too expensive, so I drink water, coffee, tea, and juice. I’ve left myself with very few choices at the store. And I couldn’t care less. But…I’ve never been a foodie, even back when I ate anything. I prefer simple home cooking to fancy restaurants. So, it’s not as big of a “sacrifice” for me. And, full disclosure, I still eat cheese. And creamer in my coffee.

This is the part where I’ll get in trouble because I’m going to ask you to consider scaling back on your limitless first-world choices and instead use your resources to help those who don’t have anything. Besides, you know you feel bad when you’re buying school supplies for the church program for needy kids at the Dollar Tree when you get your own at Target. It’s really an out-of-sight, out-of-mind scenario. Ever since I’ve drastically restricted myself on food and shopping (the shelter part is kind of a non-issue right now since I’m living with my parents during my internship), I honestly don’t even think about the stuff I’m missing. Because I’m not missing it.

What if Jesus wasn’t saying, “Don’t worry, God will provide”? What if Jesus was saying, “Don’t fuss, but live simply, so you can focus on more important things, like helping others”?

“This is all trivial,” you say. Is it? “These are just simple pleasures to make life more enriching.” Are they? Or are they truly satisfying a selfish desire for contentment? What if you look at this issue as a matter of stewardship? Our consumerism may seem to be at bay, but everything starts small. What if those of us who could stand to live more simply actually did? What kind of impact could our changes in lifestyle have on the world and how we take care of the least, last, and lost? Perhaps a much greater impact than any of us could imagine.