Posted in about me, connections, ebb & flow, exercise, mental health, mindset, motivation, tips

Wandering and staying focused: a working plan

In a conversation on Zoom this morning, we chatted about staying on track with work and life. A system I guess-and-checked my way into is working really well for me right now and seemed to resonate with others, so I thought I’d share it with you. Take what resonates, leave the rest.

First, I made a list of things that in my ideal life, I would do every day. It’s not a to-do list—there’s no way I can actually do all of these things every day. I left the list out on my desk for a few days and added to it and made notes as I thought of them.

I edited the list and organized it by section. This is what I ended up with:

Body

  • foam roll
  • move (walk, run, bike)
  • body weight exercises
  • stretch
  • Alexander Technique

Writing

  • prompts
  • book
  • blog
  • newsletter

Household

  • laundry
  • food
  • paperwork

Other

  • photography
  • music
  • Spanish
  • read
  • Forward Link
  • connect

I printed the list and put it in a picture frame (surely I’m not the only one who has extra picture frames hanging around?), because dry erase markers work well on glass. I keep it on my desk. If my desk was located differently in my house, I’d hang it on the wall next to my desk.

Any time I do something from the list, I check it off. On Monday, I check on the left side; on Tuesday, I check on the right. On Tuesday, I make a slightly larger effort to get to things that were neglected on Monday. At the end of Tuesday, I erase it all.

Wednesdays, the schedule here is off, so I check things on Wednesday and then erase it at the end of the day. Thursday and Friday are paired, Saturday and Sunday are paired.

Why did I make this list?

Because I’m working from home in a self-directed pursuit, I needed some structure. But I know myself well enough to know that a schedule wasn’t going to work; it’s too easy to get derailed. I found myself finishing a task and wandering around the house, wondering what I was forgetting to do next, and looking for a snack.

The list keeps me grounded. There are lots of options, for a variety of focus levels. All of them are good ways to spend time—I won’t feel like I’ve wasted an hour on any of them.

How did I make the list?

The first two sections—body and writing—I broke down into specifics, because these two are the most important and the easiest to blow off. Funny how that works. All the body pieces and the first two writing pieces I strive to do every day.

The blog sees a new post three days per week, but I’m writing or editing more often than that. It’s nearly daily.

The newsletter is every other week (sign up here) but I kept forgetting about it until the last minute. So I don’t need to work on it every day, or even close, but this keeps it on my radar which improves the quality of both my time and the newsletter.

Household. Just things that get backlogged. Except food, these aren’t things that need to get done every day, but again, they stay on my radar, and it feels good to check them off when I’ve done them. “Eh, I don’t feel like doing any of these things, let me go throw in some towels” is still forward motion.

In the other category are things I want to do regularly but don’t need to be as specific about, because any variation within them works for me. For example, under photography, some days I’ll take photos, some days I’ll work on the online course I bought a while back, and some days I’ll work on editing. If photography was my main thing, I’d have those listed separately, but it’s not, so I don’t. A day when I do any one of those three things is a good day.

Connect is a reminder to connect with people outside of my house. This was a thing before COVID, because traveling teachers can easily make it through the day without interacting with other adults in any meaningful way.

I’m working on connecting more via phone or video call and not relying on text as much. I hate making phone calls (though I love talking to most people most of the time once we’re talking) and have been pushing through the dread of dialing. Sometimes the calls have been short—I only have 10 or 15 minutes and just call to check in—but still, they’re something.

In the frame, there is room around the list to write things I want to remember—specific tasks that need to get done, things that pop into mind and just need to be recorded somewhere obvious—and that has jogged my memory quite a few times already.

Using some of this, I’ve created a morning routine that doesn’t involve screens. 

We already have a “no screens in the bedroom” policy (unless The Kid is sleeping in our room and needs a sleep meditation to get to sleep), so I’m already not on my phone before I get out of bed.

In the mornings, I’ve taken to coming to the living room before The Kid gets up and the day gets busy. I’ll do some foam rolling and stretching (check off two things right away!), and then in my notebook, I’ll do some writing or a writing prompt (check a third thing!). The whole process only lasts 20 minutes or half an hour, but it’s grounding for the day and gets everything moving nicely before I get sucked into screens.

Could I spend more time than that on any of those things? Of course. But I’m giving them all some time, which I was not doing before, and if I want or need to return to them later in the day, I can. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Either way, it’s OK.

I’ve used this plan for two weeks and I’m very happy with it. Hopefully there’s something here you can use, too!

Posted in about me, hope, mindset, storytelling

The beginning … and just the next day

8:30 a.m., January 1

I woke up around my usual time, the result of the relentless internal alarm clock. I used to sleep in whenever the alarm clock was blissfully unemployed, but years of waking at the same time seem to have taken their toll, and despite going to sleep after midnight, I was awake by six.

(The Kid has never been an early riser—can’t blame it on him.)

Sitting on the couch, my legs under The Kid’s new burrito blanket (literally a blanket that looks like a tortilla), one of the dogs asleep next to me on the couch. The other dog, The Climbing Daddy, and The Kid still asleep.

I’m both envious of their sleep and grateful for time to myself in a quiet house.

Most calendar milestones have never held a lot of sway for me. Birthdays are fun but the age is irrelevant (except 17, when I could get my drivers license).

Birthday, cancer-related milestones, and the beginning of the new year all offer me an excuse to be reflective (though there are certainly prompts many days that offer the same opportunity). The time around January 1 offers me a socially-acceptable time to talk about it.

Resolutions? Nah. When I want to make a change, I either start right away, or I wait until I’m ready, but the date has nothing to do with readiness.

All that said, this year is different than most. I resigned my teaching position due to COVID concerns, so on Monday, I don’t have a job to go to.

But I do have a book to edit.

Perhaps, at least for the beginning of 2021, I am a writer.

That feels weird. Not bad, just … different. Unexpected? A plot twist, if you will. It was set up beautifully, and I’m curious to see where it goes, where I go.

I know that before the end of 2021, I will have a completed book. Will I have another started? I have a lot to write about, but is any of the rest of it book material? Questions I have but don’t yet need to answer—I have enough to work on for the moment.

For 2021, I’ll also be continuing to improve my photography game. There’s a lot kicking around in my head about that as well, but it’s more muddled than the writing bits (which is good—one focus at a time). Regardless, I’ll continue to bring you along on the journey with my posts on Sundays.

I have goals for the state of the house, for relationships, for my inner state, for my habits. Those are ongoing—not new to today—and are always somewhat in a state of flux.

Except for clearing out the clutter. That is always the same, and no matter how much clutter I clear, there’s still more. I know, it means I’m not clearing out enough. Also, we have too much incoming. I’d like to think that if we hadn’t chosen to buy a relatively small house, we wouldn’t have this problem because we’d have room for all the stuff, but I know lack of space isn’t the problem—I just want it to be the problem.

Once ever in my life, or maybe ever in my adult life, I had everything put away.

Once! I met George Carlin once. I climbed a 100-foot rock face once. I moved across the country once. I gave birth once. And I put all my stuff away once.

When I moved into the condo where I lived prior to this house, I unpacked and got everything put away. Everything. Not a single little pile of “miscellaneous,” nor a box of it stuffed in a closet.

It felt so good.

I’ve gotten married more times than I’ve had every last thing in its place.

It’s hard. And with two other not-neat-freak people in the house, it’s harder.

Perhaps this will be the year of a place for everything and everything in its place. To make that happen, I need a plan. To make that viable, everyone needs to be on board with the plan. I foresee a family meeting.

Growing up, I hated family meetings. But they were only called when we were in trouble, or when we were consulted for something that generally kids shouldn’t be consulted for. The most noteworthy—my mom called a family meeting when I was in high school to ask us (my siblings and I) if my parents should get divorced.

So … there’s a little baggage that goes along with family meetings.

Back to clutter. If the house burned down, what would I replace? What is irreplaceable and worth keeping? Why can’t I just get rid of the rest? Every now and then, I get in a good frame of mind to purge and can go from five pair of scissors to two. (There’s always one pair just for cutting tape, because they end up sticky and I don’t want to deal with getting the stick off.) Most of the time, though, I can rationalize having five pairs of scissors.

The scissors, you understand, are just a placeholder in the story. It could be pens, glasses, crafting supplies, notebooks, shirts, socks without toes, winter pajamas, and on and on.

The household is waking. My quiet time is over. To that end, 2021 starts the same way 2020 ended—it’s just the next day.

Posted in about me, audience participation, ebb & flow, gratitude, know better do better, mental health, mindset, motivation

The sun is setting on 2020

It’s easy to see the bad parts of 2020. They’re on the news, they’re in articles, they’re in memes, they’re showing up in expected and unexpected places in our lives.

For the overwhelming majority of us, there were good parts to 2020 as well, even if some of them are double-edged.

For example, both of my fifth grade classes were fantastic—the first time that’s happened since I’ve been in this position. The other edge is that our year got cut short. But the third quarter was still part of 2020 (we all seem to be starting 2020 in March…), and teaching those kids was great.

Even though school was a mess, they were great sixth graders this year.

It seems to me that in some homes, there is a lot of complaining, a lot of gossiping, a lot of seeing negative, expecting to be cheated, swindled, taken advantage of, stolen from. Try to raise ourselves by making others lower.

Other homes are more loving, seeing the good in people, reliving the best parts of their days with each other. (This is not to say that they ignore bad things—that’s just as toxic as focusing on them—just that they don’t marinate.)

My house growing up was definitely negative. Good things spoken of others were few and far between, and every compliment had an asterisk. Most commentary was degrading and judgmental.

And so to some extent, this became my outlook. Judge, put down, roll eyes, cluck tongue. Be aware of our superiority to them.

Little pieces of how this is dysfunctional came into my consciousness over time, and today, I am happy to say that much of the time, I see positivity in many things, I can wonder what in people’s story leads them to where they are, I can give benefit of the doubt.

I am certainly not saintly and still have more negative undercurrent than I’d like, but it’s much better, and I’m much happier. I actively work to make my household one that sees the good.

My life is better with this shift.

Experience combined with introspection have also given me the solid knowledge that challenges are opportunities to grow, and that life-upending challenges are both the hardest and have the biggest payout. Sure, occasionally you win $1,000,000 on the nickel slots, but not often enough to make it a financial plan.

Enter pandemic.

I’ve been frustrated for nine months that we, culturally, are smashing our heads against the proverbial wall, trying to make things as close to “normal” as possible, missing so many opportunities to redesign the systems, to redesign our lives for the better instead of for the “have to.” Especially when our cultural “normal” wasn’t all that great to start with.

So tell me: what was good in 2020? Whether a result of pandemic or not. I’ll go first.

The Kid and I got to spend way more time together than is normally available. We did projects together, learned new things together, ran together, and still had time to do our own things off in our own corners.

Friends who don’t live nearby were part of game night, along with the usual crew. We’re really restricted on what we can play online (do you have any suggestions?), but we always had a good time.

I learned so many new technologies! (Definitely double-edged.) I got to figure out ways to try to engage with kids through the computer.

I took the opportunity to teach bucket drumming. It was so much fun (and so much work to figure out) and something I wouldn’t have done if not for necessity.

Through a weekly Zoom call, I got to talk with a small group of friends every week. It was more than I would have gotten to talk with these lovely ladies in regular real life.

I participated in The Creative’s Workshop, which was truly an amazing experience. I met people from all over the world, got to see other’s work, got feedback on my own work, made friends.

Related but deserving of its own paragraph: I wrote a book. Beginning the process of editing now. It’s been in my head for at least a decade, and now it’s out.

We had a pool put in, just in time for the record number of 110-degree days and 100-degree days. The joy of The Kid—both in watching it be built and in using it—was infectious.

Taking the same walk around the neighborhood and up the canal most days in the spring, I got to see the duck families born and grow.

That’s off the top of my head. I’m sure there’s more, but this is a good start.

So tell me—what was good for you in 2020?

And then tell me—what’s good for you today?

Leave a comment, send me an email. Do it today. Do it again tomorrow. And the next day. What’s good? There’s no avoiding what’s bad—but is marinating in the bad really where you want to live?

Posted in about me, connections, ebb & flow

A hundred concerts

In a normal year, my social media feed would be full of posts from music teacher friends and parents of music students. It’s concert season.

Band, orchestra, choir, drama, and others. Schools, churches, and others. Cute little ones, well-refined older ones, the ones in between who have neither the charm of the littles nor the skill of the bigs.

Those are my students. The ones in between. I love them.

A winter concert for beginning band—at least when I’m running it—is 20 to 30 minutes, enough music to show off what the students have accomplished, solos from students who are capable and willing, and whatever else we come up with that year. Students make the majority of announcements—parents are there to see kids, not me—and audience members have the what and why of a good audience in their program. 

I use my “teacher look” on the audience if they’re noisy while my students are performing.

The announcements and program are in both English and Spanish. I tell students they’re nervous about performing on their instruments, and I’m nervous about addressing their parents in Spanish, and no matter who messes up, we’re all going to be OK.

In my career, I’ve organized and executed almost 100 concerts. At this point, most of them blur together. Especially when there are two or three in one week.

While any given concert might be my 75th or my 90th or my centennial, the December concert is still the first for the fifth graders. I offer my excitement to them accordingly and we prepare both music and mindset for the stage.

I don’t remember my first concert, but I still have my music and the program from it. 

The only elementary concert I actually remember is from the year we played Sweet Caroline

My grandmother—my dad’s mom—was my biggest fan. She was also a huge fan of Neil Diamond, and I was excited to be playing a song that she would love.

Being 11 years old, I didn’t consider that the elementary band version might not be the most exciting performance she could attend of Sweet Caroline, and she didn’t say a thing about it.

My grandmom—Mom-mom—came to every performance I had through all of elementary school, middle school, and high school. She didn’t drive, so she recruited someone to pick her up for each one. As a musician herself, she would always give me a little bit more feedback than “good job.” Always enough for me to feel like it was the best performance ever.

Mom-mom was the only relative who supported my decision to go to college for music education. I was supposed to be a genetic engineer or an accountant.

When I graduated from college, she gave me a gift: a scrapbook of all of the programs from all of those concerts. She had saved them all.

The following Christmas, just a week after my first concerts as a band teacher, she said to me quietly, off to the side, “Good for you for doing what you wanted to do.”

My social media feed in 2020 (or, perhaps, 2019) of winter concerts is downstream from that first concert in 1984, of everyone’s first concert. My feed is full of concerts that have parents or grandparents or neighbors who might enjoy better-polished music but wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else that evening.

Posted in about me, differences, ebb & flow, food, mindset, storytelling

Thanksgiving 2020

Climbing Daddy and I have a tradition of going to a National Park or Monument or something similar for Thanksgiving; Tall Daddy and The Kid go to his family’s Thanksgiving.

We decided we wouldn’t go this year. The parks have never been crowded on Thanksgiving Day, but we’d have to stay somewhere. Camping is always an option, but it’s too cold to camp anywhere driving distance from here (at least, driving distance for a 2- or 3-day trip). Maybe or maybe not for Climbing Daddy; definitely for me.

Also, because the world is out of whack, maybe the parks were more crowded than usual this year. That would be sad irony.

The tradition of going to a park—and hunting for somewhere in these sparsely populated areas to eat Thanksgiving dinner—has done an excellent job of breaking the painful connections of holidays with my family.

As such, I didn’t feel obligated to even celebrate the holiday at all. No inner tension or conflict. Felt great!

But it’s not all about me (what?!), and Tall Daddy was joining us, so we made a menu.

The Kid and I made spaghetti from scratch. We made the dough as a joint effort, and aside from the one or two pieces I demonstrated on, The Kid rolled and cut all of the spaghetti himself! He was proud of his work.

Also in the morning, we made the apple pie from PostSecret. It was easy to make and tasted delicious. I decided to buy a pie crust instead of making one, in light of all the other things we were making from scratch, and that was a good choice.

The Kid went to Tall Daddy’s to spend a few hours in the afternoon (where he chopped veggies for salad) and I made two-hour crockpot bread and sauce for the spaghetti.

Climbing Daddy made some caprese on toothpicks with basil from the garden (tomatoes aren’t ready yet; hoping they ripen before it frosts). He realized The Kid wouldn’t have anything while we ate caprese (The Kid doesn’t like them—whose kid is this?!) and made toothpick snacks from apple, orange, and kiwi instead.

The meal was ample and delicious, and it kept with the tradition of spending a lot of time preparing food for one meal. That wasn’t a goal, but we did create this menu because it’s too time-intensive to have on a typical day.

I joke that I went back to my roots for Thanksgiving this year (my dad’s mom’s side of the family is all Italian), but we always had American Thanksgiving growing up, no matter which grandparents we shared the meal with. I’ve heard stories about Italian Thanksgiving prepared by the generation before, but that baton had been passed on by the time I was around.

We ate all of the salad and caprese, but we have enough of everything else left over for another meal, maybe two.

After dinner, we Zoomed with some friends and played Code Names online. (That link takes you to the game, but there aren’t directions if you don’t already know how to play the game.)

Also in the morning, in the midst of food prep, The Kid and I ran a “turkey trot.” The intention was 5k, but he hasn’t been running much and it wasn’t worth it. We ran just over two miles, and that was plenty.

Thanksgiving this year was not at all what we expected it would be, based on recent years, but we pivoted and had a great day.

How did your day turn out?