Posted in Keeping your sanity

A Fun Way to Relieve Stress

Things have been pretty crazy for everyone lately, to be sure. There are a world of unknowns, uncertainties, and every news report seems to be worse than the last, if that could even be possible. I was pretty down in my last blog post. I had considered taking it down — I like to be uplifting no matter what — but I also like honesty and openness, so I left it. Anyway, fast forward almost 2 weeks later, and I find myself in a much better place! I have definitely come out of my “funk” and am looking at the world through my optimistic eyes again. A few things have helped to get me here, I think — arrival of Spring, warmer weather, outside exercise, flowers opening, birds singing — but one additional activity has helped immensely: gardening!

Because of our stay-home order I shouldn’t go get all of the necessary gardening supplies I need. Usually I would be running out for organic soil, organic fertilizers, and the like, but there is still a lot I can do with what is around my yard right now. I’ve already moved my very young climbing rose. I transplanted some ornamental grass that started getting out-of-hand last year. And I think I am going to move some tulips that aren’t getting enough sun where they are anymore. All of that great digging, working the soil, planning, sunshine, and fresh air has done so much for my soul! There’s always that great anticipation that comes with every Spring season, and working outside in my flower beds just builds it even more and gets me excited for the next job. My new fig tree arrived, and I’ve just ordered roses, so I can’t wait until my first chance to plant them and watch them grow! I love just how much gardening has kept me encouraged and happy.

Yes, the world has been turned upside down, but there are little things we can do to help keep our spirits up. I definitely encourage you to go out and spend some time digging in your flower beds, or even create a new one! If you are in an apartment, the next time you go grocery shopping try bringing home a plant (or three) to take care of. Many grocery stores stock potted fresh herbs, so take some home, decorate a plain terra cotta pot and re-pot them. Try anything that gets you digging. You’ll be amazed at just how good you feel!

Posted in Health and Fitness, Keeping your sanity, Parenting, Working Parent

Picking My Life Back Up One Step at a Time

Unknowns. Leaving without Goodbyes. Cancelled Work. Isolation. Empty Shelves. Rationing. Depression. Parenting. Practicing. Moving Forward.

Corona virus (COVID-19) has left its mark on my house, as it has for millions of households around the world. I attended my last live performance right before our state was to go in a quasi-isolation, schools and universities closed. Life upended. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my students, one of whom this semester was our last together. We picked up and left, Skype our only means of seeing each other and teaching. I was devastated. I love my job, and I love my students. This was a tough transition for me, not only for its abruptness, but also for the lack of live human interaction, of laughing, playing together, just being. And when all my performance work was cancelled and my lost income mounting, I only too easily slipped into a world of dark cloudy days, wondering when (if?) the fog and dreariness would lift. Was I facing depression?

Parenting during this time of strain and uncertainty has also taken its toll. The strain of seeing empty grocery shelves and wondering how long food will be this scarce and having to ration food in the house is real and unnerving. The realization of lost income is scary. And when parents are stressed, kids can feel it. They get stressed too. During times like these, “cabin fever” also takes on a whole new meaning. They are even advised not to go on playgrounds! Kids act out when they are stressed. I felt like my neat little world was unraveling!

I had to take action. I had to pick up the pieces of what work was left to me, my teaching, and I had to get control over my own emotions, so I can still be the teacher and the parent that I want to be. If for no other reason, than to model how to be for my children in times of global stress. I made myself keep practicing. Knowing the positive effects of endorphins and sunshine, I forced myself to keep exercising and to get outside in my yard as much as possible. I have my kids go outside as much as possible. When they ask to play in the rain, I let them play in rain. Why not? Outside time is crucial for mental and physical well-being, and they need to get that extra energy out. The forced isolation has also given us plenty of opportunities (more than plenty!) to teach my children how to communicate effectively and politely to each other — how to best solve differences with each other. And you know what? It’s working. We have far fewer arguments as they are learning to compromise and solve problems together. The next thing we are working on pitching in a bit more around the house, since we are all always home and all contributing to the mess. We’re getting there… baby steps. As we have been through a few successful days of online teaching and gaining some control of our schedules back, I feel less uneasy and unsure, and the children are more themselves again.

I feel like I went through a kind of grief cycle. I was paying attention to the news, of course, and naturally I knew it would eventually effect us in the U.S. at some point, but the magnitude and the scope of the pandemic was overwhelming. I wanted to fight against having to leave the university, but there was no choice. I wanted to fight against home-schooling while schools are closed, but there was no choice. I wanted to believe that there would still be food on the shelves when I went to the store to pick up some regular groceries, but there was none. (Well, there was still some frozen okra.) I wanted to cry, but what would it help? By putting one foot in front other the other, so to speak, I slowly walked myself out of my slump and got on with life: keeping up with my practicing, keeping up with my exercising, keeping up with teaching to my best ability, keeping up with good parenting. Just as we all do. Just as we all have to. Baby steps.

Posted in Keeping your sanity, Parenting, Working Parent

How I Turned Dinnertime into a Fun World of Imagination

Big admission here: dinners at home were getting pretty dull or even frustrating. Some days we would just eat and leave. Other days the kids would talk or even begin to play, but then they would forget to eat! Mostly, it became an exasperating affair of start-and-stop chit-chat and interruptions to settle arguments, or just trying to get the kids to even stay at the table. Forget any real conversation and family time! We do have a no-phone, no-books-at-the-table rule at our house, but I kept catching my husband grabbing for his phone, and consequently because, “well, Daddy’s on his phone so I can read my book”, my daughter would immediately grab whatever reading material was nearest to her and start reading, completely ignoring everyone. Ugh! Dinner is supposed to be a respite from the day; a time to enjoy a meal together and each other’s company. But, it just wasn’t, and honestly, I was getting pretty sad and disappointed over it.

So, my daughter and I brainstormed some ways of having a more interesting and engaging dinnertime routine. Our answer? Conversation starters! Here’s what I mean. Most evenings, I would have my daughter sit down for a few minutes before dinner and write out on little bits of paper things that would be fun to talk about: What would be your favorite/ultimate dessert? What would be your perfect day? What mythological creature is your favorite and why? Favorite roller coaster? What do you like the most about [insert anything]? You get the idea. We fold the papers in half, then set them in the middle of the table. Once everyone is ready to eat, one-by-one we each take a paper, read what it says, answer it, then pass that question around for everyone else to answer.

This has proved to be a game-changer! Suddenly, we were laughing together about our ideas, or reminiscing on a perfect day. We would discuss our made-up events or just smile at the prospect of whatever crazy invention or scheme someone just laid out. We were enjoying each other! We were engaged in conversation. We were getting to know each other even better each evening. It was incredible! It has really become something that I look forward to. So, despite how challenging raising my kids can be at times, watching them open up their creativity and explore their imagination has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the day. We turned an often irksome time into some really fun memories that I can look back on and smile for years to come!

Posted in Keeping your sanity, Parenting, Practicing, Working Parent

The 4 Ways I Keep Myself Balanced

Between teaching at a university, playing in an orchestra, taking on freelance work, blogging, and being the mother of three active children, life gets a little hectic. And by “a little” I mean a lot. (Did I mention I am trying to continue building my French fluency, as well??) I love everything that I do, so I certainly don’t want to give anything up, but that means that I have to be on top of my time and organization. So, how DO I juggle it make it work? Here are the 4 ways I keep myself balanced and focused.

1. Prioritize. I set morning, afternoon, and evening goals for myself. My mornings that I don’t teach are almost always exclusively set aside for working out and practicing. It’s all that I do. I avoid setting appointments for this time block. It is sacred space and jealously guarded for that particular purpose. My afternoons are slated for grocery shopping (if needed), laundry, blogging, and/or cleaning. If I can arrange it the night before, I do try to use the grocery store’s pick-up service, where they will do the shopping for you. I definitely recommend this! It’s such a time-saver. If I don’t have rehearsals or a concert, my evenings are devoted to family: either taxiing kids around, making dinner, having special time, you name it. Prioritize your blocks of time, and stick to it!

2. Do your work in small chunks of time. Occasionally, life will throw you some wrenches in your plan. Your kids are home sick, or school has been cancelled due to weather, or you are called away unavoidably. Whatever the issue, stay calm and stay flexible. When I find I’m suddenly home with kids during the school day, I try to work in small chunks of time, grabbing 30-minute practice sessions here and there as I am able. It does interfere with my “block scheduling” as described above, but I find that it is much more efficacious to stay flexible and do work as I can manage it, while still being available to my children at home. Children are much more agreeable to their parents working in small batches of time, as opposed to all day, if they know their needs are going to be met sooner rather than much later. It works well for everyone.

3. Manage your time well. This seems an obvious one, right? Let me explain. On the days I am home (not teaching at the university) I decide what I am better able to accomplish while the children are at school, and what items are still manageable when they are home. For example, if I need to run errands, be on the computer for a while, practice, — work that needs my attention to be absolutely on the task at-hand — I work hard to finish those while the children are at school. Other tasks like laundry, dishes, a quick check at email, and the like, where I can have my attention diverted for a bit to help with the children if needed, those I save for after the children return home from school. I want to make sure they know that I am always available, and they can have my attention immediately if necessary, but I am realistic enough to know that they don’t want me hovering over them constantly and can continue with whatever I was doing previously.

4. Meditate. I can’t stress this one enough. Find time to meditate. Lately I have switched to meditating at night, which has greatly helped my sleep (I have blogged about it earlier), but there are definitely merits to meditating during the day. Meditating greatly reduces stress and anxiety, as it helps to put space between your mind and your day-to-day worries. It helps you to focus on the here-and-now and puts your body at ease. This is great for helping you to stay balanced and focused during your day. The more you practice mediation, the easier it gets to calm your mind and ease your body, so you can continue on with your day in a more relaxed and focused way.

This is just a small snapshot of how I stay balanced and focused as a busy working mom. Yes, my house may not always be perfectly tidy. Quite the contrary at times!! There is no hiding the fact that I have three busy and active kids running around. But, to me, an overly tidy house is not what is always important. Maintaining my professional level of playing, raising good kids in a loving and nurturing way, and keeping my relationship with my family and work healthy are important to me. I hope I have given you, my lovely readers, some good ideas to help you find that balance that works for you. What are some things you do to stay balanced? I want to hear about it!

Posted in Health and Fitness, Keeping your sanity, Practicing

How Meditation Helped Me To Chase Out the Demons Today

I’ve written a few blogs on why I meditate, as well as a great meditation app that I use. I appreciate the practice of meditation more and more each time I end my session and head to bed (read here about why I switched to meditating at night). With a clear head and a fully relaxed, tranquil body, I get to sleep faster and sleep more soundly than I have for years, and I’m so grateful for it!

Today, I was reminded why meditation can help so much with practicing (or whatever your line of work inside or outside the home may be). I started practicing my long tones like I do every morning, but it was a little rough. I had worked out using my favorite HIIT workout YouTube video and then followed that up with some upper body work (whew!), so I was pretty fatigued by the time I had my shower and started practicing. I didn’t think much of it once I took a little break and got some almond butter and some tea in me. But then while I was practicing technique work and still struggling a bit, those destructive inner thoughts started spiraling around in my head. Usually, I don’t even let those thoughts enter, but they found their way in.  It was really hard to concentrate, as you can imagine. And even while I was attempting to chase them away, it didn’t work. I was nearly in tears – oh, how those thoughts are so destructive! But, then it dawned on me: I am not in the “here and now”; I’m in a nonsense land that doesn’t even exist! After I realized what was happening, I was able to stop completely, lower my flute, take a few deep, calming breaths, and clear my head. It felt easy and wonderful – all thought leaving my head like clouds drifting away, and I was free to be me and start fresh again.

I am convinced that it gets easier and easier to clear my head the more I practice meditation. It’s absolutely vital in stressful situations (like a performance) to be able to put myself in the “here and now” and focus on what I need to do and be my best.

So, when you have days where you are fatigued or your body is tired and you inadvertently let those nasty (and probably untrue) thoughts pervade your mind, you can stop, breathe, and let them float away. Start meditating tonight, and practice clearing your mind, chase the demons away, and put yourself back into alignment with your true self.

Posted in Keeping your sanity, Parenting, Uncategorized

International Travel with Kids

When my husband and I moved back to the United States from living in England, we vowed that we would be back one day. That “one day” turned out to take a lot longer than we had anticipated. (Funny how having 3 babies within 46 months will do that!) But, we finally made it back just over a year ago, with all three kids in-tow. Never thought about taking kids overseas? If your children are in elementary school or older, it’s easier than you might think, and the educational value of the trip (not to mention all the eye-popping wonder and excitement) makes it so worth it. I’ll break down how we made it all work.

1. Flight miles. The very first step is to get a good flight miles card — one that earns at least 1.5x miles, but preferably 2x miles. The best flight-miles cards will come with annual fees, but your first free flight more than pays for that instantly. Don’t forget to pay in-full every month, so you don’t incur interest charges! We took our time collecting our miles, so we were able to fly our family of 5 out for not much out-of-pocket.

2. Backpack it. Yes, you read that correctly: backpack it. Why? Portability. We travelled all throughout England, from the southern coast up to the north using trains. There is a lot of walking involved, too, and there is nothing worse than lugging huge suitcases on and off trains and down old streets with uneven brick or pavement. Each person was responsible for his or her own backpack, and it was simple. We had each child bring their school backpacks, and we packed them with 3 changes of clothes only. Don’t fret, we had a way to wash our clothes (more on that below). The front pocket of each backpack held some mechanical pencils and their journal. Bringing journals was a great way to have them chronicle their experience while we were on a train or back at the flat, plus they liked to use them to draw in or play games. The grown-up backpacks carried our own clothes, of course, but they also carried our documents (only when we needed them) and a portable phone charger. The portable charger was essential, since I was using Google Maps and other GPS apps on my phone, along with my camera, all of which ate my battery. I kept my phone plugged into my charger in my backpack, which has a USB port, so I was never low on battery; I recharged the portable charger at night. Save buying your toiletries for when you get to your destination, and carry them in your shopping bag back to where you are staying. Just like at home!

3. Airbnb. If you want to keep costs down, I highly recommend using Airbnb, or another similar site. (We actually used HomeAway for most of our stay, which was a mistake, so I can’t recommend them for international travel.) I totally understand if you are skittish, and want to stay at hotels: they are predictable, offer loads of services, and you can always talk to a live person. But, if you want to keep costs down, I have to recommend arranging your lodging in a flat online. You usually can get the entire flat or apartment to yourself, so there is more privacy, you can feel like a local, you can cook your meals (saves a lot of money!), it can give you and your kids a feeling of having a home-away-from-home, and you can do your laundry at night. That last one was key for us! We specifically booked places that had en-suite laundry facilities, so we just did our laundry when we were in for the night. That helped to keep our packing light and portable.

4. Do your research at home, and try to buy as many of your experiences and train tickets online as possible before you leave. For example, we knew that while we were in London, we wanted to visit certain sites and take a ride on the London Eye. It is a giant time-saver to just sort out your trip itinerary and then book your experiences online before you leave. This helps you avoid long lines and frustration once you are there, and saves your kids from getting too cranky and frustrated themselves. Another thing to remember is that many museums are free or free-with-donation, so definitely seek those out, and be sure to plan for museums designed specifically for kids, which are great fun and educational! Also, if you are moving from city to city or country to country using trains, many offer ticket sales online. I would highly recommend you take advantage of this and order your tickets before you leave. Once you have your itinerary set, complete with your transportation and experiences details, save those on all of the devices you are taking with you (as a backup), and save all of your sales confirmation emails, and back those up as well. Finally, don’t forget to purchase a SIM card for your phone, if needed, so you can make local calls.

5. Locate playgrounds and take time for breaks. This was another biggie for us! I dubbed our trip to the UK a “Tour of Her Majesty’s Playgrounds.” Kids are kids no matter the circumstances, and they want to play. They need unstructured play to help them unwind and be themselves. So, you will do everyone a giant favor by using a maps app or Siri or Google to help you locate playgrounds near where you are. Even just 10-15 minutes of play will go a long way towards keeping your kids happy during your trip and less fussy. Another helpful tip is to make sure you take some breaks, too. We usually stopped for afternoon tea in a café and let them have juice and a snack. This gave everyone a chance to slow down, take in the experience, and recharge. Honestly, trying out all of the different cafés became one of the highlights of the trip for our kids!

Taking kids with you on international trips can be an amazing adventure and a sure way to create special moments they will never forget. By taking your time with saving flight miles, doing careful research, and doing a lot of planning ahead of time, you can have a great trip that is packed with fun, and have some restful moments, too! We already have another international trip in the works, and I can’t wait! What kind of exciting travel adventures would you love to give to your children?

**This is an update!** While we were at the airport, it really helped us to find play places where the kids could play a bit while waiting on our boarding. Not all airports have these, but I think more and more are starting to add places where kids can play a bit. I know the award-winning Indianapolis International Airport has a kids spot! Walking around as much as it is possible is helpful, since it helps to keep them busy and active, and when you do have to be near your gate, games and word searches are fantastic ways to help them keep busy. Finally, try not to board immediately if you can help it. Your kiddos already have to sit for a long time on the plane as it is, so adding an additional 20 or 30 minutes when they have to be in their seat is tough for them (although do make sure you take some laps in the aisle from time-to-time when it is safe to do so). Happy travelling!

Posted in Health and Fitness, Keeping your sanity, Working Parent

Why I’m Switching to Nighttime Meditation

I really love sleep. That blissful drifting to dreamland and waking up renewed… I do love it when I can get it. Yes, I blogged several months ago about how I defeated the insomnia demon. And I really thought I had! I blissfully slept reliably for 7-8 hours each night for weeks on end, after struggling and struggling with too little sleep. However, I have let the busyness of my life and my children’s school and athletic life take over. Does this sound familiar? And, of course, what is the result? For me, it’s increased stress, disorganization, and dropped routines — not my children’s routines, mind you, but my own. Sadly, the first thing I dropped was mindfulness practice. Big mistake!

The benefits of mindfulness are vast. A quick google search will bring up a whole host of articles to read, of course, and I’ve blogged about my experience here. What were the natural results of dropping the practice for weeks on end? Loss of concentration, loss of mindful control, and, most significantly, loss of sleep. It took me a while to realize what was happening. It wasn’t until my son accidentally dropped and broke my phone, and I was retrieving all of my apps for my “new” (to me) phone that I realized I hadn’t opened my Calm app in quite a while. Then it hit me: I hadn’t been practicing mindfulness.

So, a few nights ago, I had decided to switch from meditating in the afternoon, when I am just too busy either teaching, practicing, or being a mom, to meditating just before I go to bed. That small change has made such a difference in my sleep, and I love it! It has helped my mind to wind down significantly. Since I have nowhere else to go but my bed and my children are silently asleep in their beds, my thoughts don’t start to drift to where I have to be next or what I have to do later, so I have a much easier time clearing my racing head as I lay down. Just after 10-12 minutes of peaceful, quiet meditation, I am more relaxed, my breathing is slower, and I am better prepared to fall asleep. In fact, I would say it is so much more effective, for me, just before bed than in the middle of the day. Don’t get me wrong; there are certainly benefits to pausing in the middle of the day to unload and rest yourself, but those benefits simply won’t present themselves for you if you forget or your phone decides not to remind you that day. So, if you are someone who does practice mindfulness during the day or even someone who is new to meditation, give it a try at night and see what you think. Clear those racing thoughts and sleep better!