“There is music wherever there is rhythm, as there is life wherever there beats a pulse.” – Igor Stravinsky, from his notes accompanying The Rite of Spring
In what now feels like a former life, I had one of my dream jobs: teaching piano lessons from home. Did I suddenly desire self-employment or hearing clunky renditions of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Lightly Row”? Not exactly. I’d already spent countless hours on my own piano practicing, composing, competing, and earning a college degree, long before I hung out my shingle. Any piano student remembers the repetition required for proficiency: there are five-finger patterns, then scales, then arpeggios; songs in C-major, then A-flat, then F-sharp; works from Mozart, then Beethoven, then Chopin, then Stravinsky.
For all the music I’ve played in the past, I haven’t touched a piano in a year. There aren’t a lot of good ways to “improve work-life balance” with children as small and needy as mine. My baby insists on nursing only (and often), so I’m on call every few hours, all day, every day. I could look at my limits and give up – someday the kids will get bigger and the baby will wean, or my husband will get a raise, or I’ll start teaching, or we’ll settle into our new town… then I’ll be able to take care of myself.
Limits make music what it is, too, and no one thinks that’s a bad thing. A song is defined by the pitches it doesn’t use just as much as the ones it does, and even by the silent resting beats, which give space and meaning to the notes around them. What I can’t do is just as much a gift as what I can.
My limits mean my self-care measures are usually small. They will not be sufficient as-is forever, but faithful disciplines become mastery in the long run. Five-finger patterns, then scales, then arpeggios. This will grow as time goes on. Someday I might have more time and energy “for myself,” and I’ll be grateful for these initial starting measures. Or, maybe I won’t have more time, and I’ll be grateful that I already have healthy patterns in place. For now the rhythms that preserve my sanity are guided by the same instructions I gave piano students:
Play your notes with strong fingers! Efficiency in homemaking, with strategic menu plans, a capsule uniform-ish wardrobe, and a streamlined plan for my kids’ clothing means I’m never wasting precious moments wondering what to cook or washing unnecessary laundry. While a menu system is not the first thing “self care” brings to mind, as a homemaker I must ask – why not? By faithfully adhering to my system, I’m giving myself the gift of never panicking about an upcoming meal, never hauling the kids for an emergency 4:00 grocery run, never feeding everyone PB&J’s for supper. (Not that there is anything wrong with that from time to time, friends!) When my kids nap together, dinner is often already on the stove. I can read alone, or work ahead on laundry folding to get myself in bed sooner that night. That feels like a very loving way to treat myself, indeed.
What do your ears tell you? Taking a cue from Kim John Payne’s excellent book Simplicity Parenting, I am very proactive about culling the background noise in our home. When the kids wake, I start playing some classical music (I made a YouTube playlist for some mornings, and we have Pandora stations for some of our favorite composers like Aaron Copland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Gustav Holst) and keep the “words” (pop music, radio, TV, Netflix, podcasts) minimal. This was difficult at first. We’ve moved twice in the last two years, so I’m lonely and it was nice to “hear” other grown-ups talking sometimes. But the children enjoy this more than I expected and it helps me remain present, focusing on our play instead of escaping in a podcast or other series (even with innocent or religiously-oriented programming). When I have time alone now, I don’t need to decompress from endless words and stories floating through my head anymore, either. Switching words to music leaves me more centered and calm.
Focus on smooth patterns. Quickly identifying problem areas of my homemaking and daily routine has helped me carve out space for myself, too. As a coffee snob it was bittersweet to pack up my grinder and french press pot, but that routine interrupted other things I needed to do. Nowadays, setting a programmable Mr. Coffee percolator before bed means I can actually drink my cuppa most mornings before anyone else is up. And if not? At least I’m not trying to make coffee with a hungry baby wailing at my feet!
Keep your eyes on the page! Piano students are often distracted watching their fingers on the keys, but they can’t actually play smoothly unless their eyes are carefully set on the sheet music before them. Until a piece is memorized, fingers must follow the eyes, not the other way around. The same stumbling happens if I’m only looking at my life and not scripture. While daily in-depth Bible study is not always realistic habit right now, I can read a little bit every day, even if it’s just with the kids at bedtime. I also love the audio reader from my ESV Bible App, which is easier to actively hear when I’m not dulled by so many other words during the day.
Practice with the end in mind. My life purpose is not to be an expert shopper or social media consumer, so my free time now shouldn’t be focused there. When I do have slivers of time here-and-there, I want to use it holistically, aligned with my callings and gifts. It’s one thing to say I would tackle hefty writing projects “if I had more time,” but I can still jot down a few thoughts for an occasional essay, or slowly read a book chapter-by-chapter, if that’s really something I value.
The blessing of these limits is in seeing truly that I’m not waiting for some elusive concert to start: this is my life, the song God is writing for me. It’s happening right now, notes and rests. Healthy living involves both, and these rhythms of working hard and resting purposefully within my limits makes even sweeter music of my life.
Abby Hummel is a musician, homemaker, DIY enthusiast, and naptime writer in St. Louis, MO. In eight years of marriage to Aaron, she’s had five zip codes, four “home” states (Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri), three miscarriages, three mortgages, two small children, and one ridiculous chocolate Lab named Max. She blogs at www.abbyhummel.com and (very occasionally) tweets @_abbyhummel.
Photo c/o Joanna Christine Photography