Good Boy!

My dog Baxter doesn’t concern himself with pandemics. He’s oblivious to the changing landscape of masks, vaccines, stimulus checks, or social distancing.

In fact, I’m pretty sure if he was able to talk, he’d tell us the last year has been the best year ever.

Baxter is a 7 year-old German Shepherd/Yellow Lab mix. When we adopted him, his golden fur was baby soft and he had one ear that stood straight up and another ear that stuck out to the side, making him look like he was questioning everything around him.

Starting in March, my husband, myself, and our two teenagers living at home have been, well, home more. School moved to a remote format. My high schooler and middle schooler attend school from our couch or from our dining room table. I work from home most days. My husband’s teaching job has vacillated between hybrid and remote. All our evening obligations, the ones that kept us running, forcing us to eat sandwiches in the car, water or coffee in thermal cups with tightly fitting lids so they didn’t spill on the interior of our vehicle—they all vanished. Sometimes we go days without seeing humans outside our little family unit.

On the flipside, Baxter went from his routine of welcoming us back from our busy lives, tail wagging, tongue lolling — with equal excitement whether we’d been gone for hours or minutes — to having us barely leave the house at all.

I wonder what Baxter thought about this. I wondered if at first he was annoyed, that we were suddenly around all the time: causing a commotion when he was used to at least 6 hours a day of uninterrupted quiet, allowing him to sleep on the couch, or bark with reckless abandon to scare away the squirrels who visited our garden. Now, we were helping ourselves to his couch real estate, and his ferocious barks were generally frowned upon. They interrupted our Zoom calls, after all.

If we annoyed him, he didn’t let on. In fact, overall, I’d say Baxter has had a pretty good year. Baxter went on a 10-day camping trip with our family over the summer. He surprised us (and himself) by learning he is a fantastic swimmer. We discovered this when he saw our kids swimming in Lake Michigan. He took it upon himself to “rescue” them, not seeming to give it a moment’s thought that he’d never jumped in a lake before.

If I were to characterize Baxter’s place in the family before the pandemic, I’d describe him as “beloved family dog.” He’s a classic good boy. Now, however? I’d describe him as “essential.” Stroking his velvety ears when he rests his head on your lap is 100% effective in lowering stress levels. Watching my daughter do yoga in the living room over Zoom while her dog tries to lick her face is guaranteed to get a few smiles out of everyone. Baxter’s intense eagerness to perform all the tricks he knows for a tiny dog treat is something that makes me laugh every time. Asking him to simply “sit” gets you a sit-shake-jump-roll over combo. A true overachiever.

In these early days of 2021, I’m still recovering from this past year. We all are. It’s been a year of change, loss, and disappointment, with an unhealthy dose of fear thrown in. But my dog, my goofy dog with ears that stick out in all directions depending on his mood, has been the purest, most uncomplicated thing in my life. He looks up at me with absolute love in his deep brown eyes as I read a few chapters before I drift off to sleep at night. He’s there wagging his tail the first thing when I wake up. He pulls me along at the end of his leash and gets me outside, moving forward, especially on the days I really don’t want to.

How do I thank him for all he’s done to keep our family going when everything else feels like it’s been standing still? I’d like to give him the world, when all he really wants is a belly rub, a treat, and a “good boy.”

Originally published Jan. 11, 2021 at MyHuntleyNews.

Hunkering Down

Matthew Henry – Unsplash

Years ago, toward the end of each one of my pregnancies, I’d get the strong, uncontrollable urge to “nest”: I’d clean drawers, bake casseroles to keep in the freezer, wash bedding, fold blankets. Despite my bulging belly and aching back, it was an instinct to do these things. I don’t think I could’ve stopped if I tried. Something deep in my DNA was demanding that I prepare, as if my brain and my body comprehended on a cellular level how I could get ready now to help out my future self, who would be both exhausted and lovestruck with a new precious baby. These things had to happen before I headed to the hospital. Now.

This week I decided to make bone broth—chop up onion, carrot, and celery, and garlic, then boil the bones until all the flavor and marrow are extracted. Out of my stockpot came a rich, golden liquid, which I then poured into jars. I’m not sure if it was the dreamy smell or the way the afternoon sunlight made those jars glow a warm amber color, but I felt that same nesting instinct I’d felt all those years ago before the babies were born. At that moment, I felt like I was born to make bone broth. I decided right there and then that I would make more bone broth with the ardent fervor of a Prohibition-era bootlegger. I can’t help but wonder: what is the street value of bone broth sold out of the trunk of my car?

This instinct to hunker down and nest makes perfect sense. As the pandemic still rages across the country, we are being told to stay home. We are asked to forego our usual family gatherings at the holidays to curb further spread of the virus. I’m approaching the coming months with trepidation. Our traditions may have to be put on pause this year; or at least adapted.

I’m going to require a plan heading into these next few months. I need new ways to keep my spirits up and make these dark, cold months feel warm and special. But other than bone broth, I don’t have further tricks up my sleeve. I decided to ask my friends how they were preparing for this season of “hunkering down.”

The responses I got were wonderful.

Kendra has already washed her flannel sheets, and moved her cold-weather clothes to the top drawers where they are easier to reach.

Jennifer is planning outdoor adventures like visiting a tree farm and taking in light shows at the arboretum and the zoo. She’s also treated herself to some new festive pillows to create a cozy “hot cocoa zone” on her front porch.

Dulce’s family is getting matching raccoon onesies to wear, a lighthearted tradition that can continue this year, since it’s all about staying home and being cozy.

Catherine and her friends are ordering takeout food so they can all enjoy the same meal remotely. Karen is finding “Escape Rooms in a Box” that can be done at home in place of their traditional family Escape Room activity.

A few friends are using the extra time they’ll have to better themselves. Jayne and Terri are both learning Spanish. Heidi is going to focus on her mental health with medication, therapy, and joyful movement.

Ellen already has a fragrant rosemary bush at her place, decorated with tiny lights and decorations. She says it will get her through the tough days.

Liz says she’ll miss being with extended family, but she won’t miss “having to peel and mash ten pounds of potatoes.”

Terri is reminiscing about her late mother-in-law and she upcycles costume jewelry into family keepsake ornaments. Liz is sorting and organizing old pictures. When she texts a photo to a relative, they swap stories and memories, proving to be a good way to stay connected remotely.

These ideas from my dear friends give me hope. Sure, 2020 isn’t the year we bargained for, but we can prepare, get a few tricks up our sleeve to make even this season a joyful one to remember. We need light, warmth, coziness, shared memories, and definitely some fun and laughter.

Hunker down, folks. Stay cozy. Make some new memories.

Originally published November 24 on MyHuntleyNews.com

One Last Bouquet

The zinnias I planted in early summer are still holding on. Out my window, I see them reaching awkwardly up to the heavens, scraggly and too tall, like a teenager whose feet have grown too fast and are out of proportion with his body.

The zinnia is my favorite flower. It is a reliable annual, pretty easy to grow from seed, even with my less-than-stellar gardening skills. In spring, I start buying seed packets from garden shops, choosing different varieties: Sunbow Mix. Envy. Dwarf. Peppermint. The bright oranges, yellows, pinks, and reds of zinnias are pure color therapy for me—the epitome of hope. The summer of 2020, I planted twice as many zinnias as usual, nestling tiny seeds into every available square inch of soil in my garden because I knew I needed twice as much hope. I needed bright, showy colors to soldier on through what I hoped would be a brief pandemic.

Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

Like a fulfilled promise, they poked through the dirt, unfurled their emerald arms, and smiled right at me with their dazzling blooms.

I share my love of zinnias with delicate monarch butterflies and shimmering hummingbirds who were drawn to the sweet nectar and visited my garden daily throughout August.

But the butterflies and hummingbirds don’t come any more. They haven’t for a while. Summer is over, and my bright, brave zinnias are holding on even as the wind grows colder and damp October rains threaten to wilt their petals. The gold and crimson maple trees nearby hover overhead and toss their leaves, the biggest show-offs on the playground. They try to outshine the beauty of my zinnias, but they can’t, really. The leaves and the zinnias can coexist peacefully; the world can’t have too much color, after all.

I know it’s just a matter of time before the frost comes, nipping at the flowers’ dazzling colors, forcing them to fade. I don’t know if I can bear the sight.

So I will gather my zinnias, arrange them in my nicest vase and make one last bouquet. They will stand bravely for a few more days, maybe a week, relying on the stores of energy remaining in their stems. Their beauty will have one last hoorah inside my warm house, the best accommodation I can give them to repay them for all they’ve given me. They’ll be at my table, where I work on my laptop, pay bills, and eat meals with my family. Perhaps I’ll even whisper thank you to my last bouquet, to honor the summer, and the good things that happened in spite of the bad.

Creating my last bouquet of the year is an act of hope, too. I will clear away the scraggly stems and smooth out the soil, in preparation for cold November rains, and the snow of winter.

Then, come spring, I will scour garden shops for even more zinnia seed packets, with even more vibrant colors and shapes and sizes. I’ll find any available square inch of soil in my garden and nestle the seeds just below the surface.

Then I will wait — and hope.

Originally published October 26 on MyHuntleyNews.com

Savoring Senseless Beauty

Practice random kindness & senseless acts of beauty.

~Anne Herbert

On a nondescript weeknight, a young man, probably barely over the age of 20, set up a chair beside a bike path. With a single microphone, an amplifier, and his guitar, he began playing — with no explanation — exquisite classical music.

There was nothing about this young man that would indicate that he was capable of this stunning music. His sneakers were scuffed, his hair a shaggy reminder that haircuts in the time of COVID are not necessarily essential.

But his fingers flew up and down the fretboard and coaxed such lyrical musical phrases out of his guitar strings that I was compelled to sit down on a nearby bench and take in this unexpected performance.

The guitarist had no music in front of him, and his eyes closed as he played. I found it fascinating. Wasn’t he wondering who was listening? Would he sneak a peek to see if an audience had gathered?

He did not. In fact, I wasn’t sure why he was even there. His guitar case was closed, so money didn’t seem to be his objective.

Then I thought: does there have to be a reason? Could it be that this young musician felt the urge to play and decided to share it with strangers for the sheer joy of it?

As he played song after song, I observed his serendipitous audience, the people who happened to walk or bike on that exact path at the exact moment that brought their evening to a cosmic convergence with this mysterious musician.

A dad passed by, pushing a stroller while the little girl in the seat leaned over to get a better view.

One man in bike shorts rode past with headphones on. He never even noticed what he missed.

A grandmother walked by with her three young grandsons. They stopped, smiled, listened, then began dancing. I liked the way the grandmother threw her head back in laughter when the boys tried to spin her. More people stopped: couples holding hands, individuals, families. People with dogs on leashes.

Even though the music was recital hall quality, this was a come-as-you-are venue: No fancy clothes or tickets or hushed voices required. Out in the open, the beauty of the music seemed even more striking — more part of this world, even — as the sound of barking dogs, passing cars, laughing children, and crickets singing their evening song provided a strange, discordant accompaniment.

I thought, what if I had walked in the other direction? What if I’d stayed home? I would’ve missed this.

I’m glad I didn’t miss it. I’m glad I accidentally stumbled upon senseless beauty. Thank goodness I wasn’t in a hurry and had time to sit down and be transported somewhere else for a few moments.

As the days turn cooler and the uncertainty of 2020 seems never ending, I’m worrying a lot. The tension in my neck and shoulders is always there. I find myself sighing throughout the day, just out of habit.

But there is still beauty in this world. There is beauty for no other purpose than to just be; it asks nothing in return, just serves as a reminder of our humanity—the way even strangers can feel connected in a solitary moment over a single shared experience. It makes me want to wake up, get outside, and seek out even more beauty. Or perhaps I will commit my own senseless act of beauty to make a stranger stop and smile. Just because.

Originally published Sept. 23, 2020 on MyHuntleyNews.com

Remote Learning Results in Unexpected Closeness

This isn’t the school year we planned for.

My work partner, focused and in the zone

Instead of new shoes, piles of fresh notebooks, pencil cases, locker organizers, and backpacks, this year started off more with a tiptoe than a bang. Come to think of it, I never took a “First Day of School” picture like I usually do. On the first day of classes, two of my kids woke up, showered, and unceremoniously walked to the dining room table a few feet away from where they’d just grabbed the milk for their breakfast cereal. Our school, like many across the country during the pandemic, is starting the year out with remote learning, allowing students to stay home and attend classes virtually.

Whereas our house used to wait empty most days, now our entire life seems to play out in two rooms of our house. My son sets up his high school learning command center in our sunroom, while my daughter sits across the dining room table from me. As I clack away on my laptop working remotely for my job at a public library, she attends Zoom classes and reviews Google Classroom for her middle school assignments.

When I check social media groups, parents seem outraged, signified by the number of exclamation points they use.

“We are failing our children!!” writes one mom. 

“E-learning is not working!!” says another. 

“My son isn’t being challenged enough!!” says a father.

I understand the frustration during these times of frequent handwashing and canceled plans. Still, I can’t muster the level of anger some are feeling. In fact, I actually appreciate the surprising advantages of remote learning.

I look over my laptop to see my daughter with her head cocked at a thoughtful angle. She is listening intently to her teacher over a Zoom call as she lazily reaches over to a bowl of sliced peaches positioned between us. We’ve started a new quiet routine with unspoken rules: when heading to the kitchen for a snack, always bring back enough to share with your “co-workers.”

Her classes are the soundtrack to my day—I’ve become accustomed to the voice of her Industrial Tech teacher, who tells stories about his various summer jobs when he was a teen. The social studies teacher always sings “Good morning, Good morning!” before taking attendance. The English teacher affectionately calls the students “my babies” (pronounced BAY-bez).

How often do our plans really work out anyway?

Carol Pavlik

This isn’t the school year we planned for. But how often do our plans really work out anyway? I’m taking this year as it comes, holding on to the things I know to be true: We are safe. We are healthy (today, anyway). We get to be together when normally, we’d be too busy for more than a quick hello before going on to our next obligation. Instead, I get a front-row seat to the expression of bravery on my kid’s face when she pipes up to answer a question, or the way she furrows her brow when she doesn’t understand something. Sometimes, I know how to help her. Other times, her eighth grade curriculum leaves me in the dust and I have to admit that I don’t know.

Remote learning has brought a closeness to my teenagers that I didn’t know was possible. As much as I long to get back to “normal,” I’m trying to hold these days of togetherness close to my heart. I have a feeling I’ll kind of miss them when they’re gone.

Originally published Sept. 10, 2020 on MyHuntleyNews.com

IKEA Builds Character

Photo by Alexander Isreb from Pexels

The Swedish store Ikea might be known for its assemble-your-own furniture, but in my house, each project turns into what could only be classified as “Assemble-Your-Own Rollercoaster of Emotions.”

Since our family downsized to a modest 2-bedroom home five years ago, Ikea and its compact line of furniture with a minimalist mindset has been a crucial ingredient in our ongoing quest to live life in a smaller space. I have to admit that I love the way Ikea items come in compact boxes with just a booklet of illustrated instructions, an Allen wrench, and a variety of bolts, brackets, and pegs. Such a vote of confidence! It’s as if to say, We believe in you. We know you can build this!

Until recently, our four children haven’t had the luxury of their own room. But now that our oldest two are adults living in their own apartments, our two youngest, ages 13 and 16, are gleefully spreading out, one claiming a small but sunny bedroom on the main floor, the other setting up an impressive “man cave” down in our partially finished basement.

Reese is 16. His basement man cave consists of a favorite Van Gogh print, a record player for his impressive vinyl collection, a bean bag chair, and a video game system. All it lacked, it seemed, was a bed. He’d graduated from the bunk bed that served him well until a growth spurt catapulted him into the stratosphere. It was time for a real bed, replete with built-in drawers and shelves.

This was a job for IKEA — and Reese, who would have to assemble his own bed.

My son started the task with a certain expression of excitement, hope, and determination on his face. He tore into the boxes, quickly opened the instruction booklet, and set to work.

“Do you need any help?” I asked.

“No Mom, I’ve got this,” said Reese. “This is my challenge for the day.”

Two hours later: “Need any help?”

“Nope! This is going to take longer than I thought, but I’m fine!”

By lunch time, I hadn’t seen him emerge from the man cave. From the top of the stairs, I could hear muffled muttering. I tiptoed down the stairs. Did I just hear a curse word?? I wasn’t going to press the issue. I recognized the flush of frustration in my son’s face as his eyes darted back and forth between the partially assembled bed, the instructions, then back to the bed. His shoulders sagged.

“Why is this side a whole inch lower than the other side?” he asked me. The bed was unmistakably lopsided. We spent a few minutes comparing the structure to the line drawings in the booklet. We located an upside-down piece. Crisis averted. Sighing deeply, my son took up the Allen wrench and set to the task of disassembling a few pieces in order to fix the errant board. I decided to back away slowly. A few minutes later, I brought him some lunch and a cold drink. He was going to need nourishment for the afternoon ahead.

Thirty minutes later: “How’s it going?”

“Better, Mom! Thanks for lunch. I’m not going to let this bed win. I know I can do this!”

The afternoon progressed with occasional scuffling and banging noises coming from the man cave. On a bright note, I didn’t hear any more muttering or cursing.

This is the genius of Ikea. A humble item of furniture becomes so much more — it is transformed into an object of prey: Something that must be chased, wrangled, and dominated. My son went into the arena armed only with an Allen wrench and a firmly set jaw. He came out beaten, battered … but victorious.

Later that evening, I visited Reese in his man cave. He was surrounded by the trappings of his very own kingdom: the vinyl collection, the video games, and the beanbag chair. But there, as he proudly displayed the completely assembled bed, he looked different to me. His eyes were brighter, his shoulders broader. There was a swagger that hadn’t been there before.

He had assembled the rollercoaster of emotions, clung tightly during the twists and turns — and came out triumphant.

Originally published Aug. 20, 2020 on MyHuntleyNews.com

Minimalists: This is Our Moment

Photo by Fernando Rodrigues on Unsplash

Fellow minimalists: We didn’t realize it, but the way we’ve been editing our lives down, tossing out the extra, non-essentials in our lives has uncannily prepared us perfectly for this wave of COVID-19, the pandemic that is keeping most of us at home right now.

There was no way we could’ve guessed.

As I’ve said before, minimalism is an ongoing process, and one person’s minimalism may be completely different than another’s version. But the thread that binds us all together is our desire to get rid of the extra—because we’ve realized that having too much actually takes away from our happiness and peace of mind.

Here are a few ways our practice of minimalism has made this trying time of social distancing a little more bearable—especially those of us hunkered down with our families.

We’ve cleared the clutter
There is more room in our house to play and create. There are clear surfaces for puzzles, games, and art.

We’ve cleared our schedule
We’ve already taken steps to clear our calendars of extra obligations. We’ve had some practice not using busy-ness as a badge of honor. We’re comfortable with moments of stillness and rest.

We’ve practiced sharing space
Our smaller house has one bathroom, and we share bedrooms. We’ve got this whole “living in close quarters with others” down cold.

We know how to communicate with our roommates
Since our house is small, we’ve already learned to say, “I need a few minutes of quiet,” or, “I’m planning to take a long, relaxing bubble bath. Anyone need to get in the bathroom before I start?”

We have a safety net
Minimalism, for us, had a lot to do with finances. We’ve cut down our spending by a lot (hellooooo, small house mortgage payment!), which means that we’re not spending every dollar we earn as soon as we earn it. In these uncertain times, that helps me sleep a little better at night. 

But most importantly …

We’re all doing the best we can.
No one knew this was going to happen. Not really. We’re all just winging it. We’re all coming up with a new normal for right now that works for us. There are no wrong answers! 

If anything good comes from this period of social distancing, let it be that we discover that we’re more resourceful than we thought. We’ll probably discover we are more connected to our neighbors than we originally thought, too. And with all this time at home living a slower pace, I have a feeling some new beauty will be created.

Stay well, my friends. Be kind to yourself and others.

Xoxo,

Carol

Small Groups with Big Hearts

Last Friday night, 134 people gathered in a room in our local public library for the sole purpose of sharing music with each other. Most of these were students, along with parents, grandparents, and community members who maybe were surprised to hear live music floating through the air at an otherwise quiet public library.

Mr. Band Director will tell you that this might be the best teaching he’s ever done—when he stands back and doesn’t teach at all: these Friday night monthly gigs at the library are the result of his initiative to get kids playing in small groups, completely self-led. Many of the students playing found their own music (or wrote their own!), set up rehearsal time, and are completely autonomous.

What I see at each of these small concerts are musicians taking risks, showing their vulnerability by performing some of their own work, and displaying how much communication can be relayed without a single word. I see students who stand up and introduce their groups, their faces flush with nervousness from public speaking, only to immediately look more relaxed when their instrument is in hand. I see tall, lanky boys go to their grandmothers in the audience, leaning over to kiss their cheek as Grandma grins proudly, holding his face in her hands. I see little sisters watching their older siblings, and I wonder if they are imagining their future selves up in front.

How it started

A few years ago, my husband, decided that if he wanted his students to continue including music in their lives beyond high school and college, he would have to show them a different way of using their skill than just in a large group of musicians like a concert band or marching band. It’s much easier to participate in band when it’s a class during your scheduled day in school, but as adults, how can you find time to fit music into your life, especially if your career is in a non music-related field?

One of the first small groups he developed was our own boys: He took Clark, a bass player, and Ben, a guitar player, to our local homeless shelter on Saturday nights. Later, they added in our third son, Reese, who plays cajon, a small Peruvian hand drum. Those Saturday nights were magical. My four guys, plus a rotating cast of friends would play instruments, reading charts they’d pull up on the internet. They’d play classic rock like Beatles or Eagles. The guests would join in with singing. Soon, the Saturday night jam sessions became a routine, and each night ended with one of the guests always singing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Another guest, Rich, turned out to be a gifted guitar player. Someone would bring a guitar each week for him to play, and for an hour or two, Rich’s face looked less drawn and tired as he poured himself into the music.

Mr. Band Director is a huge fan of synergy and mutually beneficial situations, so he started looking up literature that could be used for small chamber ensembles from musicians in his larger bands. From there, small groups began practicing on their own, all working towards “gigs.” These groups would go to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, churches. To make a game of it, he made it into a challenge.

Read about his 100 Gig Challenge here.

These young musicians are why I will argue loudly to anyone who disparages “kids these days.” The kids I know are talented and hard-working. They want to be part of something that has purpose. They want a better world. They want to have ownership over authentic experiences. They want to challenge others and be challenged.

When you don’t have time for a break

Tips for Taking 10-Minute Mini Vacations

I saw a meme this week about making this a “No”vember—saying no to too much, therefore saying no to stress and overwhelm. Buying our small house was our way of saying “no” to a crippling mortgage bill, and our family has said “no” to overconsumption and keeping up with the Joneses. But, the idea of an actual “No” vember just doesn’t seem possible. The rhythm of our life as a Library Marketer, a High School Band Director, two active kids living at home and two more active adult children living nearby means that November is filled with play rehearsals, band rehearsals, performance after performance, on top of all our regular events and commitments. I mean, these are all things we enjoy doing. It’s just … there’s so much of it all at once.

And I’m just talking about November. I’m not letting myself think about December yet.

I figure this is as good a time as any to remind myself, and you, my dear readers, that it’s these times when you don’t have time to take a break that it’s most important to take a break!

Sure, you want to pack your bags and hop on the nearest plane and leave everything behind. But that’s going to have to wait until later, when things calm down. Right now, break your “vacation” into chunks. Ten minute chunks. You have ten minutes, don’t you?


1. Soak your feet
I have a bag of scented epsom salts in my linen closet. Use a clean tub big enough to fit both your feet and make the water as hot as you can stand it. The steam, combined with the luxurious warmth, plus the aroma of the scent (my favorite is peppermint, but lavender is lovely, too) can take your mind away from it all for a few moments. Don’t forget to have a fluffy towel and some lotion nearby!

2. Make a cup of tea
And don’t use just any cup, either. Put the tea in a proper china cup, or use your favorite mug. It should be pretty to look at and feel good in your hands. Hold the cup with both hands. Breathe deeply and sip slowly!

3. Do ONE THING, start to finish
This is something I struggle with—multitasking! I usually have something in the oven, a load in the washer, the vacuum out, and I’m trying to do everything at the same time. If I’m on my laptop, I routinely have 20 tabs open. Shake it up: pick ONE THING, then do it. Start it, then finish it, all in one sitting. I’m always surprised at how accomplished I feel when I do this, instead of my normal routine of starting 50 projects and finishing none of them.

4. Make a list. Use a good pen.
Do you love lists? I do! I make at least one every day. (I probably love them too much.) I’ve found making shorter lists get better results. Think about (maybe while you sip your tea?) three things that are a priority today. Write them down. Oh, and always use a good pen. I love gel pens, or Sharpie pens. I love my fountain pen the most, but not for lists. The fountain pen is for writing letters.

5. Write a letter
Or a note, or just a postcard. It feels good to let someone else know you’re thinking of them. It doesn’t even have to be their birthday.

6. Go for a walk
My dog makes sure I stick to this routine, but of course, you can take a walk alone, too. Skip the earbuds and listen to the sounds in your neighborhood. Take deep breaths, too. When I’m at work, I try at least once a day to walk through the building to hand deliver something or ask someone a question in person instead of sending an email. Gets the blood flowing, and gets you in touch with your surroundings!

7. Set a timer and take a cat nap
I admit, sometimes my catnaps turn into mega-naps. Because, well, naps. I live for them! But even just putting your feet up, laying back and closing your eyes for 10 minutes can recharge you. Don’t use the time to worry or plan or check email. Just be. And if you find that hard to do, play some soothing music to keep your mind focused.

How do you treat yourself to a mini-vacation? Share in the comments!

Music Builds Cathedrals

Being a band director’s wife, there is no shortage of music in my life–thank goodness!

Last weekend in a span of less than 24 hours, I had two very different back-to-back musical experiences. On Saturday, we were given primo floor-level tickets to Symphony Center in Chicago, arguably one of the best and most beautiful performance spaces. We heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform music by Dmitri Shostakovich: loud, brash, passionate, and stirring. The way the brass played with such power that the sound pummeled the walls behind us then dissipated in swirls around our ears, had my trumpeter husband just as enthused as you might imagine someone cheering on their favorite team in the last moments of a neck-and-neck championship game.

Players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra warm up before performing Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony

Sunday, however, there were no tuxedos or stages or conductor podiums or glasses of wine poured at intermission; Sunday we went to an assisted living facility just a mile or so from home. Like many times before, Mr. Band Director invited his students to volunteer to come on a sunny Sunday to play a piece of music or two for the residents.

If anyone ever sighs, “Kids these days!” Mr. Band Director and I will argue that the kids we know, the band kids, have hearts of gold and will take our world into the future in excellent fashion, thank you very much. Carrying their instruments and music stands, a small army of students followed my husband to the second floor, where folks were already gathered, canes and walkers cast aside, brakes secured on wheelchairs. The room is used for programs, concerts, and parties, and the stained glass window nestled in the crux of the vaulted ceiling gives the insinuation of a chapel.

Teaching band at the local high school means my husband stands before large groups of kids for concert band, jazz band, pep band, even marching band. But the small groups that form–perhaps a couple flutists, or a group of woodwinds, maybe a brass quartet–is the stuff that produces some of the largest educational leaps in his students. Since Mr. Band Director grew up taking his music to nursing homes–unlikely cathedrals–he knows this is something worth doing.

The music begins. Smiles spread across faces. Eyes sparkle. Toes tap.

A group of students play an instrumental arrangement of “Havana,” by Camila Cabello. It’s unlikely any of the residents recognized the Top 40 hit, but no matter; the students sound good, and the tune has a catchy groove. More toes tap.

At the sound of an old favorite hymn–“Morning Has Broken”–a collective sigh ripples through the crowd.

Ahhhh, I remember this one!

Before long, the imaginary wall between audience and performer breaks down.

What kind of saxophone is that? a woman asks.

I used to play clarinet, says another woman to the students. My sister played flute.

A man in back doesn’t say a word. But there are tears in his eyes.

And who’s to say which is better, the concert hall or the retirement home? There are arguments for each. Symphony Center takes my breath away at the domed ceiling, bright lights, and the sheer lifelong, grueling commitment of all the musicians to study and hone their craft in order to join and remain in one of the finest Symphony Orchestras.

And yet.

The students didn’t come that Sunday for a grade or for a paycheck. They volunteered–said yes–to sharing their music. Some didn’t know what to expect, but they came anyway. Some had only one song prepared, but the one song came out sweet and strong and clear.

I think these young musicians already know that music can exist among tuxedos, stages, and box seats, but it doesn’t need to. This beautiful connective force called music belongs in unexpected places, among the hearing aids and orthopedic shoes, on a quiet street, in a homeless shelter. You can bring the music to the cathedral, or you can build the cathedral with the music.

Mr. Band Director knew it all along. Off to the side, he’s giddy with excitement, cheering on his team.