Fearless

When I arrived at the PVG Shanghai airport on Thursday, a wave of relief swept over me. Yes, I've been to Shanghai only twice before, but it's something about China. It makes me happy, fulfilled. It is comfortable. Memories of standing by the Wai Tan over the Shanghai skyline at night and drinking tea with my host mom in Zhuhai in the evenings and my group of students winning the Changshu scavenger hunt fill my mind whenever I breathe in the air.

Although I feel comfortable and nostalgic being in China, it also saddens me because so much of this language that I love is slipping away slowly from my mind. I think wistful is the perfect word to describe it. Waiting for our car after dinner tonight, standing on the side of the road as bright Chinese mall signs around us lit up a dark night sky, I was sad. I took deep breaths, taking in air that smelled familiar, the way that sandalwood does in India. Learning Chinese for me has meant being able to communicate with an additional 1 billion people in the world, and it strengths my global connections. It has meant priding myself in learning and having good pronunciation in a language that is one of the most difficult to learn in the world. It has meant being proficient in a language of which I love the musicality, expressiveness and the way it rolls off my tongue. It's difficult for me to explain the connection I feel toward China and the Chinese language. All I know is that if I lose this language as I make my way through medical school, I will have lost something that feels like a part of me. 

I suppose part of the feeling is that I never thought I would be confident speaking a language I did not grow up with, unafraid of rejection even if I made mistakes. Chinese culture makes me comfortable, sometimes more than my own. I took Spanish for 5 years but still would never try to speak it in a Spanish speaking country because the tenses and conjugation were too much to think about to make it sounds right. Mandarin feels like it was meant to be on my lips. It begs for more vocabulary, more comprehension, more fluency that my mind cannot provide yet. It drives me absolutely insane that I don't have greater proficiency. I haven't had much of a chance to speak it here nor will I as I'm at an English speaking camp. It makes me miss living with a host family, which was one of the most wonderful things I have done during my time in China. 

My passion for the Chinese language reminds me a lot of the passion I have for dance. It is raw, and that saddens me. I have struggled with this my whole life - having several skills and talents, but none to the point of excellence. Now it is on a deeper level where it is my passions, things I feel such deep emotions for, that I seem to have not the time nor opportunity to develop to excellence. I talked about dance in my last post, about how I had not danced or choreographed very much throughout my entire gap year and was worried that this meant I was drawing away from having dance in my life. The same thing happened with Mandarin, and I'm afraid I don't see myself having a chance to study further once medical school begins. It feels like when you cook a meal, and if there are too many separate parts to prepare. When everything comes together in the end, it might be cold and taste mediocre compared to a dish that had few parts but stayed hot and delicious. Not a great simile, but sometimes it is how I feel - mediocre at all the things that I love to do. I strive for excellence, it's who I am, but in many ways, I never seem to get there. 

Especially after Japan, where I really struggled in many ways, it was wonderful to come to a place that felt familiar, even though I've never been to the Duke Kunshan campus before. Duke is familiar and China is familiar and that seemed to be enough for me. I hope for many more years in China after this one so perhaps one day I can live out a dream of fluency. 
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Clearly, I've neglected to write this year, and here I am again almost exactly 1 full year later hoping that writing will help quell my anxieties and help me make sense of the things that have happened this year. This is the last week I have at home before I more or less start with the next chapter of my life - medical school.

I spent my gap year on three things specifically: my clinical knowledge, my family and myself. It was refreshing to spend time doing things I loved, without the time limitations and weight of a project deadline or homework assignment due the next day or preparation for an exam. I traveled to see my friends and to see the world. I got closer to my mom this year, and now we're going to have trouble leaving each other. My job as a scribe in a Rheumatology clinic was truly valuable and I loved the diversity and comfort of the people whom I worked with. There, I saw an environment I knew that I could thrive in.

Even after a year in Rheumatology, I've seen how the knowledge of medicine will affect my life, in both good and bad ways. To see patients and realize how prevalent pain and medical problems are in the society around us is eye-opening. I feel that it has increased my awareness of others and self. Ideas I got from patients in the clinic helped me help my mom with her chronic costochondritis and I could not have wished for anything more. I felt helpful, and I knew I wanted to spend my whole life doing what the physician in the clinic did. It helps to know my resolve is strong to study medicine because once it starts it is a long, hard road.

The negative was that I was becoming too self-aware. I started worrying that every little thing that happened to me was part of a bigger problem. It does concern me that this will happen in medical school and that I will be empathetic to the point of making myself ill. It will take time and some desensitization, but I hope I'll be able to overcome it. It's best to leave one's own health to another doctor to solve and focus on the people on your table. I suppose the anxious, worried, empathetic type are the ones to become good doctors in the first place, so it'll just take some practice. Applying to medical school was grueling, but I'm finally sure it was the right decision.


The best thing I did this year was to focus on myself. I started to crochet and knit again. I cooked - all the time. I made macarons, croissants, soufflé, and had the time to teach myself endless other culinary techniques. I had a chance to read for leisure again. I had the time to have mindfulness sessions and drink tea in the evenings. I got to travel to Montreal, Vancouver, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo. Best of all, I had the time to workout every single day with Cassey Ho and eat HEALTHY. 

During school, we often feel so busy that there's just no time to do anything but study, socialize a little and sleep. It is difficult to prioritize what is important to us because there are so many things that need to be prioritized. For me, exercising was never that high of a priority but that's probably also the cause of the 30 pound weight gain I had during college. That and the fact that it is so difficult to eat well in college. I started POP Pilates and changed my eating habits last summer because I knew that getting back to the weight I was before college began was one of my primary goals for the gap year. It was a process, but I felt and saw change. Losing weight and gaining muscle tone is such a difficult thing to keep up, but seeing that change is incredibly motivating. I started loving my workouts after and I saw and felt the changes in my body. POP Pilates has made exercise a priority for me because I love how strong and fulfilled it makes me feel.

On top of that, having the time to cook healthy recipes (with the occasional indulgent butter croissant or lemon pound cake) has also been a way for me to destress and also help my mom out at home. She's going to miss the deliciousness without lifting a finger when she gets home from work for sure! What is most fulfilling about cooking is having others enjoy what I've made. I certainly have a more sophisticated palate than I once did and that's also a plus, but I love sharing my food with others. The number of times I've personally asked my mom to host her friends for a dinner party (because I have no friends to cook for here) is countless. I'm sure that if I wasn't going into medicine, I certainly would have considered a career in the culinary arts.


Starting to complete tasks for starting medical school has been so exciting because it feels like another new beginning. It's the same way I felt when I started Duke, where no one knows you and you can be whomever you want. I think I'm now someone who is more confident and better at communication than I once was. After a lot of time to introspect, I'm comfortable with who I am now. The biggest thing I've struggled with is a seriously impeding social anticipatory anxiety. So many times this year I've wanted to go to these events and classes around Austin but as the day arrived, I usually could not bring myself to go because of crippling anxiety. I start constantly thinking about arriving and being by myself in a room full of strangers. The funny thing is, I don't think I would feel nearly as bad if there were even one other person to come with me - a friend. I read this book recently called Quiet by Susan Cain, the woman who did a TED talk on introversion (I recommend this book highly for anyone interested in human psychology). She talks about the ins and outs of the qualities and strengths and life of introverts in a world that lives by an extrovert ideal. It validated me, surely, that what I was feeling was not wrong, but simply an object of my personality. But it did suggest that I could make changes, which is what I'm hoping to do during my trip abroad alone and once I get to school. The book has helped me understand the dynamics of my parents, my sister and the people around me. I love better understanding the world around me, and I feel that human psychology is one of the best ways to do that.

Ironically, I think it has also become so difficult for me this year to be alone. Whether it's just my sister in her room upstairs or my mom watching television in the next room, I've felt that I need a presence of another to feel safe and comfortable. I've been very alone outside of my family, and maybe that culture shock from having friends around constantly in college to having only family was part of this new feeling. Of course, it is not feasible to have company constantly, especially since I'm going abroad in a few days - alone. Everyone says it will be a wonderful, introspective, freeing experience and while I believe them, I worry about lacking social communication. Ironic, isn't it? That I have such difficulty with initiating social interactions yet I also am uncomfortable being alone with my thoughts and feelings. I've even started leaving episodes of Friends on while I fall asleep for the sound. How can this be? I understand it like this: what I want is the comfort of those close to me around, but not the effort that needs to be exerted to make new social connections. It's basically the introvert manifesto. Not to worry, I will continue to work to find my balance. 

I am upset that I didn't dance more this year, again partly due to my social anxiety. I missed classes and workshops because I didn't want to go alone or didn't want to drive that far. My own sensitivity and fear of not being good enough drive me up the wall. How can you overcome something like that, especially on your own? My insecurities about my dance ability were something I struggled with immensely last summer during the camp in China where I taught a dance workshop and maybe they lingered and hindered. I didn't make time to dance without a team behind me, does that mean I don't love it? Does that mean I'm not as committed or as passionate as the others? Constantly questioning myself has exhausted me. Maybe I was meant for something different, and dance is just a hobby. Maybe I shouldn't try so hard to force it. Should I try to accept that? But those few classes I did go to had my adrenaline racing and my smile glowing so why didn't I keep dancing? So many times this year I went to the studio and put on music, intent to choreograph a piece and show myself that I could but left uninspired and disappointed in myself. Still insecure, still upset with myself and not sure that I should be. No conclusion here.

On Saturday I leave for a 1.5 month trip to San Francisco to see friends, Tokyo to explore a new place, and then China to staff at the Duke TIP program at the DKU campus. Until two weeks ago, I was uncertain if I was even going to go due to some health issues I was having. In the span of that time, I felt what it was truly like to have constant anxiety and panic attacks. I was constantly worried about if the GI and dizziness symptoms I was having would come back and what would happen to me if I had a panic attack abroad, and this made everything all the worse. I've gotten things under control, I think primarily from removing dairy from my diet, and I've felt great the last two weeks. I've been able to get back to my daily POP Pilates routines and feel wonderful. I missed exercise every day for the 1 month I was struggling with these health issues and it felt like a part of my day was missing. I feel that in every stage of my life I've picked up and dropped ways to destress and relax. In high school I played tennis, in college I danced, and this year I've used pilates and yoga and cooking. But how can I find consistency? Of these many skills that are still unpolished and raw, why is it so difficult to find one to take all the way?

Who knows what is to come, but I'm trying to take it day by day with a positive outlook. Until next time.

Here are some things that I did -- click for more food pics yas

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Today I want to write about something that is a bit more personal than most things I write. It's something I think about almost every night when I slip into bed and often fall asleep with these thoughts in my head. Relationships.

I remember how it felt in high school: having a year long crush on the same guy and wanting to be in a relationship - mostly for the sake of being in a relationship. Things felt like they would be so much better and happier if someone cared for me romantically. My self-worth was so defined by the way that others saw me, particularly boys. If boys didn't "like like" me, it meant something was wrong with me. Yes, in retrospect, it sounds horrible, but let's be honest with ourselves, a lot of the time that is how we felt. I hated feeling that way, I knew it was wrong, but I craved attention from a guy. I wanted to feel wanted in that way. Yes, raging hormones and the whole adolescence ordeal was happening too, but I never really thought much about the physicality of a relationship - how incredible it felt to be held in someone's arms, to hold someone in yours, and feel intimacy that was unlike any friendship. Wanting something I had never had before was difficult because I didn't know what exactly I wanted, but also easy, because without it I wasn't missing anything.

And now here I am - out of an almost 3 year long relationship, laying in my bed every night, and craving what I once had. This is both difficult and easy too but for the opposite reasons - easier because I know what I want from a relationship now, but difficult because I miss having it. It's not like high school anymore, thank goodness, because men will never again create my definition of myself. But it feels like a more mature of everything I felt in high school. I especially miss the intimacy, which I suppose makes sense since my top love languages are physical touch and quality time. It's strange - I crave it, but I don't ache for "love" like before because I can live off of the emotions and feelings in my memories. Memories are truly a powerful thing; they make you yearn, fill you with nostalgia, but their emotions are satisfying. Or at least, satisfying enough for now. I'll be patient, really, but I still worry about finding someone who will live up to these standards in my head. Ironically, even though being in a relationship taught me to stop being so idealistic in my standards for guys, learning from things that went wrong also raised my standards in other ways. I guess these standards are more mature and realistic. They're about communication styles, love languages, and lifestyle habits. It's really most important just to be honest with yourself about whether those things are there or not.

Anyway, I guess I'm just feeling lonely more than anything because I don't have friends around right now or a job to keep my mind busy. It's weird remembering what it feels like to have so much free time... I don't like it. Give me productivity or give me death. Just kidding. 
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This title is relevant in so many different ways right now.

I'm sitting around at home, job searching, watching TV, wasting time. You know the feeling we have during college when you wake up on a Monday morning and you know your week will be productive in one way or another because you have classes to go to and extracurricular meetings to attend? You wish that you had some time just to sit back and relax. Well, I'm relaxing now and it is driving me CRAZY! It's not like I'm a workaholic who needs to be doing something all the time, but after a week or so of watching nonstop TV, I feel like I need to be filling my time with something else. I've started drawing again, started reading books, going to the gym, but what I really want is 1) a job acceptance, 2) medical school acceptances, 3) friends in Austin, and 4) somewhere to go. I have my sister, yes, but I miss having friends - college life. Maybe this is withdrawal I'm feeling - the urge to download Tinder just to have someone around here to talk to. I don't think I can go without friends here much longer. Being stuck in the middle of college and a job/medical school is surprisingly draining and mind-numbing. I've gotten mad at my mom the past two days for super dumb reasons, and I feel like some sort of intense restlessness is developing inside of me. It's frustration with myself for feeling like I should have a job by now and not knowing if my personal statement was good enough and not putting myself out there enough - it's reflecting off of everyone else. Ironic right? Graduate from Duke, and then feel inadequacy. It's hard to tease apart my confidence and my inadequacy. Stuck in the middle. Ugh.

Well that got deep fast. Another thing that I've realized since I've been back home is how I've become stuck between these adult and kid roles. I just got out of being a kid, but I still remember exactly what it's like. In trying to solve the problems between my parents and my sister, I'm forced to pick sides, but how can you pick a side when you relate to both of them? Let me give you an example: my sister wants to wake up at 1 pm every day because it is her summer vacation and that's what all of her friends do. My parents think that is ridiculous because you're wasting the entire morning sleeping. Don't get me wrong, I slept until 1 pm many days in the past 4 years, but I agree that there are so many things that can get done in the morning if you don't sleep until the afternoon. I remember wanting to wake up late on weekends and summers in high school, but my parents waking me up with loud music and vacuum cleaners at 9 am. How do you appease everyone? You don't. You get stuck in the middle and everyone hates you. Just kidding, but really, being the oldest child has its own challenges, especially with the 6 year age gap I have with my sister. My sister who just wants to text her friends all the time, wants to Skype in the middle of the night, doesn't want to practice her instrument, doesn't want to do the dishes. It's difficult to oppose my now "adult" instincts and remind myself that I wanted all the things she did when she was her age, but I turned out fine. Well, mostly.

In other news, I started watching The Flash. The guy is really cute. Story is not bad. It's a bit unsettling how many guys I follow on Instagram just because they're attractive - Ryan Reynolds, Grant Gustin, Wesley Chan, Grayson Allen, Colin O'Donoghue, Justin Baldoni (but he doesn't REALLY count because he's basically the most incredible person in the world). See, they're not just attractive, they have so many other talents going for them. Sigh, y'all just think I'm shallow now, don't you?

Peace out.
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Not even going to pretend like I too busy to write for four months; I really just started watching too much television...

So welcome to summer y'all, hope it's going really well for you so far. I've honestly been putting off writing about graduation and things ending because I know I'm going to get nostalgic and cry if I think about it too much. I didn't really say a true goodbye to anyone because it doesn't feel like this is the last time we will see each other. This country is big, for sure, but we find ways to get around to see the people we care about. Plus, technology is so developed now that you can always feel connected to your friends in some way or another. When I graduated as a senior in high school, I cried whenever I heard "Friends Forever" by Vitamin C. The difference between then and now is that I really think I'll be staying connected with people in college, whereas most of my high school friends have lost touch. College is where you change, and sometimes the friendships you thought once made sense don't seem to once you've fully grown into your own skin. That's certainly how I felt. I think my emotional college song has got to be "See You Again" by Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa. I cry every time. 

After our final performance in Zhuhai last summer, I posted a blog post with these words at the end:

"People often don’t realize how much work and effort goes into making a performance happen, not just a task list, but also emotional investment. When you put the label “final” on the performance, signaling that something wonderful was coming to an end, it adds a whole new layer of emotions like longing and despair and sadness. I want to remember this final performance not only for all of the confidence and talent it showcased from the students, but also for this bittersweet feeling that makes me want to cry, but also smile. I don’t think this performance is an end, but rather a means for our students to be motivated to push themselves more out of their comfort zones. There is so much about this program that is not “final” in the most literal sense."

I have to say that it's a parallel to how graduation felt. I can't wait to see what incredible things my friends have in their futures, but it's easier to think about it as a new beginning rather than an ending. We are constantly preparing for the next performance in our lives whether it be medical school or a job interview or getting married. Every performance has emotional investment; it isn't a frozen pizza you throw in the oven, but the culmination of delicate knife cuts, careful seasoning, and a beautiful presentation. Every new step should be something we are proud of. I'm proud of learning everything I did at Duke and graduating a month ago. But sometimes it is frustrating, because we just want a break from preparing! You think a gap year means you get to take a little break before applying to medical school, but in fact you're busy at work on a personal statement the week right after you graduate...

Sometimes the preparation and journey is just as enjoyable as the end result. In the case of cooking, which I have been doing a lot of recently, this is certainly the case. I've only recently started letting myself experiment with recipes and new foods, and it has been incredibly therapeutic, the preparation even more than the eating itself. I even decided to start a food blog to log my foodventures. Cooking is really an art, and I've always loved the creativity and personality that the arts let us shine through. But I feel about cooking how I feel about dancing: I honestly love it, but I don't think I've had enough guidance to have the finesse that I want. I don't mind the working hard at it bit, but finesse is quite expensive and time-consuming. If I'm going to medical school, I don't know if I'm going to have the cash or time to pursue these hobbies further. 

Which brings the question, do I feel this way about medicine/why do I want to be a doctor? Yes, I just wrote my personal statement on it, and it is both of the things I just mentioned (expensive and time-consuming). I made a metaphor between dance and medicine in my statement - how there are tasks to get done, but they are incomplete without compassion and heart. Yes, I want to go to medical school to find finesse in a career that will help make people's lives better, hopefully. But if you ask me for the moment I knew, or for one distinct answer, I really just don't know. I just know it feels right. How do you put that in a 5000 character statement? I don't want my career to be about me; I've never wanted anything to be just about me. It's about sharing any talent I might have with others, and that's how it has always been. I cook to feed others more than myself, because the fulfillment comes from big smiles and the "mmm" sound of satisfaction. That's what I want from medicine. Fingers crossed that someone wants me back.

So back to where I've strayed so, SO far from: graduation. Commencement itself wasn't very heart-wrenching because a group of 2500 of us were just namelessly sitting in the morning sun in Wallace Wade. The neuroscience graduation was more personal; I was prouder to be leaving as a neuroscience major with distinction. All of graduation weekend, I only cried once - when I was leaving my roommate Yolanda for the last time. Usually if I think about something sad or emotional hard enough, I can get myself to tear up, but this was real, pouring down my face, tears. I wasn't thinking about the memories we had together, I just knew I was going to miss living with her the way we had for the past four years. Four years! Some people can't even make it through a year with the same roommate. I was lucky enough to have four years with her. Now if that's not a lifelong friendship in the making, I don't know what is. 

Whenever I look back over a period of time like college or high school, I most regret not taking better advantage of the opportunities I was given. It's like I made lemonade out of the lemons, but I could've made an even more delicious lemon meringue if I worked a little harder. I could've done this extra volunteering or shadowing or extracurricular. But like they say, in the end it doesn't matter and I'm sure things will be okay moving forward. If I think about about every semester of Duke on its own, the negatives seem to be the first thing that come to mind. Sophomore fall I fell into a sophomore social slump. Junior fall was an emotional roller-coaster because of my first time planning the Dhoom Awaaz performance. Junior spring scandal after scandal disconnected me from a positive Duke environment. But when I think about my time here overall, I think it was pretty incredible. We won a goddamn national championship. I went to China. I LEARNED stuff. I'm more qualified to do stuff now, and that's pretty incredible. The "satisfaction of competence" is pretty wonderful. Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. 

I don't regret anything in my social life nor my relationship, because they made my Duke experience incredibly valuable. Friends that offer to bring you chicken soup when you're sick (lookin at you Yolo hehe) and stay up until 4 am listening to you rant and support you through everything. I was blessed. I'm going to miss my dance team -- there's rarely the opportunity outside of undergrad to be part of that kind of team, especially when you're off to medical school. We never had drama, only love and fun and laughs. Some tears, yes, but ones that we wiped away for each other. Those freshmen and sophomores especially - Raj, Emily, Wendy, Wenfei, Deeksha, Cheenu - have grown such an incredible amount in the short amount of time I've known them, as dancers, as leaders, and as people. I will never stop thinking of you guys as my little brother and sisters. You have such greatness within you - make sure Dhoom gets some of it! Also please add me to the new Groupme...

There's a lot more I can reflect on, but for now I'm going to head to sleep. I watched a lot of TV today, and I really need a job soon. What's new?




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THE PYGMY TREE
            There once was a beautiful maiden who lived in a small cottage in a small town at the edge of the kingdom with her father. They had little money to spend on extravagance, so they made their living by knitting hats and selling them to traders that came through the town on their way to the royal palace. One day when the girl was out to the market, a proud and arrogant queen came by their cottage to buy a hat for her son, the prince. She had heard this cottage had the finest craftsmanship of all in the kingdom and thus demanded that the father hand over his most beautiful hat that had taken him seven years to make. The old man hesitated and timidly asked if he could receive some payment for the hat that was his prized possession. The queen was outraged and turned red with anger. “How dare you ask a queen for payment? I’ll show you what it means to talk back to me that way!” The queen was trained in magic and put a spell on the cottage that froze it in time. The clock stopped ticking, the water stopped dripping and the old man was frozen in his tracks. The queen took the beautiful hat and said,
“No one will ever be able to undo this spell.
To do so he’d have to find the pygmy tree,
And complete the tasks the tree asks of he,
Or not for seven years will this curse reverse,
But no one knows this but me, me, me!”  
            When the maiden returned to her cottage, she found everything very still. When she saw her father was frozen and unable to move or speak, she sunk down to her knees and began to sob. At seeing such a beautiful girl cry, two mice crawled toward her and told her they had heard the queen say how the spell could be undone. The maiden vowed not to return until she had found the tree that could save her dear old father.
            She set off into the forest to find the pygmy tree. She searched long and hard, walked for miles and miles, but could not find any tree that looked unlike all the others. When night came, she thought it best to rest so she could search again the next day. The next morning, she again searched long and hard, walked for miles and miles, but could not find any tree that looked unlike all the others. When the second night came, she again thought it best to rest so she could search again the following day. The third morning, as she awoke and began to search, she saw a small tree in a clearing in the forest that was surrounded by a magical glow. She approached the tree and asked, “Are you the pygmy tree?” The tree shook and extended its branches and said, “I am the pygmy tree. I know the queen has put a curse on your house, and I will offer you a spell to undo it if only you complete for me three difficult tasks.” The maiden promised she would do anything to remove the curse. The tree said to this,
            “If this is so, then first fetch me the apple from the highest branch of the tallest tree in the forest. Only if you can do this, can I help you lift the curse.” The maiden was shocked to hear this task, for there was no chance she could reach the highest branch of the tallest tree. She sat and she wept, until a bird flying through the forest heard her cries. At seeing such a beautiful girl cry, the bird found the highest branch of the tallest tree, and brought the girl the apple in its mouth. The maiden thanked the bird and brought the apple back to the pygmy tree. The tree was impressed, and asked the maiden to complete a second task.
            “You have done well, but now you must find me the stone as pure as gold from deepest, darkest hole in the forest. Only if you can do this, can I help you lift the curse.” The maiden was shocked to hear this task as well, for there was no possible way for her to climb back up once she had gone down the deepest, darkest hole in the forest. She sat and cried once more, until a mole crawling around the forest heard her sobs. At seeing such a beautiful girl cry, the mole crawled into the deepest, darkest hole in the forest and brought the girl the stone in its mouth. The maiden thanked the mole and brought the stone back to the pygmy tree. The tree was amazed she was able to complete such a difficult task, and asked the girl to find one last thing.
            “You have amazed me with your ability, but now you must do the most difficult thing of all. Bring me the heart of the oldest rabbit in the forest. Once you do this, I can help you lift the curse.” The maiden couldn’t believe her ears, for this meant she would have to kill to save her father. She sat and cried, trying to decide what to do. At seeing such a beautiful girl cry, the oldest rabbit in the forest told her that she should take his heart because he would die soon regardless. The idea of killing the rabbit was unthinkable to the maiden because of how pure she was of heart. He assured her that she was indeed worth the sacrifice and cut out his heart so she could take it. The maiden wept over the loss of the rabbit as she brought the heart back to the pygmy tree. As she placed it down next to the apple and golden stone, winds started to sweep around the tree and surround it in a white fog. Once the fog had cleared, the girl saw that the tree had disappeared, but in its place stood a tall man wearing a cape and hood. He said to her,
            “I am a wizard from a far-away land. The queen turned me into a pygmy tree when I visited the palace for she was threatened by my magical powers. By bringing me the apple, the stone and the rabbit’s heart, you have saved me.” The maiden replied, “But what of the rabbit? He sacrificed his life for me.” The wizard was kind so he said, “For your pure heart and his bravery, I will bring him back to life and give him the gift of youth.” The wizard said a spell and the oldest rabbit in the forest that had died came back to life and became a young rabbit once again. The wizard then said to the maiden, “You have saved me so I will give you a spell to lift the queen’s curse. When you return to your cottage, touch the front gate with two fingers and say the words,
‘Abble, babble, friends below and above,
Free my home from stillness so my father I again may love.’”
The maiden thanked him and hurried back to her cottage to free her father from the queen’s curse. She stood at the front gate, touched it with two fingers, and repeated the spell the tree had given her.
“Abble, babble, friends below and above,
Free my home from stillness so my father I again may love!”
            Suddenly, the cottage shook slightly and the girl heard her father call out her name. She ran inside and embraced him. At that moment, the prince of the kingdom came into the cottage in search of another beautiful hat for his brother. His mother, the queen, had told him of a tiny house at the edge of the kingdom where she had gotten one for him. Right as he entered, he saw the young maiden and was overwhelmed by her beauty. He proclaimed that they marry at once and took her back to the royal palace with him. They were married with great festivities and splendor and lived together happily for the rest of their lives. As for the queen, the wizard she had turned into a pygmy tree returned to the palace and turned her into a mouse to forever scurry around in the courtyard. While many thought the queen had left the kingdom on a long trip, she stayed in the courtyard for years, eventually gobbled up by the royal family’s cat. 
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It's only half past six and I had already started pulling ingredients out of the cabinets to prepare to make what needed to be a dinner beyond the regular vegetable stir fry and rice or quesadillas that I put together most nights. I was having trouble deciding where in the process I should be when he arrived. Should I be pretty much done and have the table set and ready? No, that would be incredibly formal and leave no room for cute, awkward small talk. 

I paced back over to the refrigerator, clutching the handle and deciding whether to open it again or not. Should I start when he came so we could talk while we cook? No, I invited him over so I should at least be headed in some semblance of a direction by the time he gets here. I opened the refrigerator door and pulled out the mushrooms, tomatoes  and all the other vegetables I had bought the night before in anticipation of this dinner. I knew exactly what the menu was going to be. I had spent two hours on the Food Network website the week before looking up perfect date foods. Hopefully nothing would take me by surprise, but in cooking new recipes, it seems like things always did. 

As my hands mechanically began to wash and chop the vegetables one by one, my mind drifted, thinking back to when we had tea at the local coffee shop. For six dollars he paid for our tea that I could have made equally as well, if not better, in my own apartment... But "casual" first meetings are usually better conducted outside of personal dwellings. It's more about getting a feel for first impressions, finding out what you have in common, and deciding if the person is someone you would be interested in pursuing further. 

He had told me about his interest in photography and how his parents had him have an annual photoshoot for his younger sister while she was growing up. He showed me some of the photos of her -- colorful scenery, rich, natural lighting, and an adorable model. I was thoroughly impressed. I had told him about my passion for dance and how I couldn't imagine my life without it. He smiled at this with a smile that reached his eyes. He said he was a dancer in college too, though he hadn't danced much since then. It had been an important part of his life back then, but things got busier as he got older. Typical growing up stuff. 

I put the chopped tomatoes and peppers aside and started on the green onions. 

He was genuine in his laugh and his compliments and his interest in me. He had a way of making me feel comfortable to open up even though I had just met him two weeks ago. He dressed impeccably and with a unique style, a delicate cross between classy and cool. He was calm and relaxed when he spoke, but still made jokes and had depth in his laugh. He was everything I had been looking for, but I knew from experience not to get my hopes up too soon. I looked forward to getting to know him more, and I hoped that he did too.

I put potatoes in the oven to start baking. Done with all the prep work, I washed my hands and glanced at the time. I only had an hour left until eight. It seemed like such a short time, but I knew my stomach would turn a million times in those sixty minutes. I went into the bedroom to change into the dress I had picked out for tonight. It was a navy blue shift dress that I intended to look elegant but still casual enough to wear it well without any shoes. I carefully retouched my makeup from this morning, adding some extra color to my eyes and lips. I'm not one for half hour makeup routines, but they say it should just accentuate your features so I just put on whatever kept my face looking natural. 

I checked my phone and saw a text from him reminding me playfully that he was bringing dessert so I shouldn't worry about it. He had said it was something he was famous for among his family and friends. I was intrigued as to what it might be. It made my heart jump that he could cook too. 

I put on some of my favorite pop ballads at an ambient volume on my speaker. That and the low yellow light of my lamp would set a nice mood in the apartment --  casual but with a clear intent. I headed back to the harshly lit kitchen and started sautéing the onions, tomatoes, peppers and spinach, adding a nice array of spices and herbs that would elevate their flavors. I had bought a bottle of red wine a few days before that a friend had recommended. I put that on the counter and figured I would ask him to open it, to prevent myself the embarrassment of being unable to. 

As I started to mix together my filling and stuff it onto the portobello mushroom caps, I remembered that he'd probably ask to help out if he cooks at home, and that'd be a good way to keep things light and casual before dinner. He could help with the salad -- an easy, non-messy part of any meal to be a part of. As I put the tray of stuffed mushroom caps into the oven, I heard a knock on my door. I quickly washed my hands, smoothed my dress, and fixed my hair. I took a deep breath and walked over to the door. No matter what happened, I was sure it would be a great night. 
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