It is probably quite telling that when the news broke about Biden’s victory, I was talking about compost.

All that week I had been thinking about practices of all kinds, in the garden and elsewhere, and the challenges of working well in a world full of distractions. Over and over again, anxious and irritable by an election and a week that wouldn’t fall neatly into place, I found myself returning to that old question I used to ask during bad migraines: OK, Amy so what can you do right now? I watered a lot of plants. I changed over my sight-reading library to include holiday music. I mopped the kitchen floor. Twice.

I also refreshed The New York Times election map, repeatedly looking for reassuring color changes and an end to the madness. I drugged myself with carbs and chocolate. I invented scary doomsday scenarios in my mind and nursed my skeptical attitude with large doses of negativity and an all-around crankiness. It was not a glowing example of my best self or practices.

We can really only deepen the practice when we don’t think we need the practice. Suffice to say, it has not been a time for deepening the practice. If it is not one thing, it’s another: the skyrocketing Covid numbers, a very sick cat, worry over a possible virus exposure. Last weekend, after the governor put New Mexico on Shelter-At-Home orders, I shut down the studio, returning us back to the days of on-line lessons. I’m stumbling forward, but truthfully, I am managing only the shallowest attempts at work, barely faking my way through the motions. The uncertain days seemed determine to thrust me headfirst into my most questionable patterns and minor addictions: the temptation to turn off my spinning mind in front of mindless Netflix options, the tendency to finish the day not with a long walk but instead with a glass of wine and a piece of chocolate, the habit of wanting to win conversations on cheap points, however right or wrong they might be. Who needs to become a hermit in order to face their demons or to give them the spiritual tools on which to sharpen their rough corners? The last eight months have been spiritual teacher enough. The weeks since the election, a spiritual teacher to the power of ten.

In Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, he speaks of “keystone habits,” or behaviors that nurture other behaviors, good or bad. He cites the example of studies about food diaries, and explains how without consciously making any other diet changes, people who keep food diaries are more likely to lose weight and keep it off. Duhigg’s point is that the mere act of keeping a food diary nudges folks into making better decisions about how they eat. Food diaries are Keystone Habits.

And so, of course, are practice charts, the bane of every music student’s existence. Practice charts can take a myriad of forms and structure in terms of what might be recorded (Times? Days? Sight-reading pages? Scale keys?), but the requirement alone changes the practice game. It provides tangible information—the compost, if you will—for both the student and the teacher and prevents the vague cheerful “Make sure you practice this week!” or the subsequent accusation of “Did you practice this week?” neither which ever go anywhere helpful. Practice charts assist in decoding the mystery of whether a student is having honest trouble with a particular something or whether they just need a better, more consistent practice week. Quite simply, practice charts are valuable keystone habits in a student’s musical education.

I find myself thinking about metaphoric practice charts a lot in these days of distraction and anxiety, pandemics and politics, when my own focus and direction get so blurred and distorted I can hardly find my true north of purpose and intention. But of course, this is why the work of gently reestablishing the keystone habits of our lives is such a grounding and fertile practice. Keystone habits demand not only discipline, but also accountability, the breakdown and examination of our sometimes less than robust or honest behaviors. It means asking tough questions of ourselves again and again and again, until we squirm uncomfortably. Assuring ourselves that “of course” we exercise regularly is different than acknowledging that it has really been two weeks since we swam laps. Telling ourselves that we “sometimes” reward a difficult day with wine or chocolate is less specific than seeing the written evidence in a daily food dairy. Assuming the proud identity of an avid reader is hard to prove if we can’t name the last book we read but we know we binge-watched five seasons of Breaking Bad last weekend. Practice charts make us accountable, give real information about the habits and patterns of our lives. No wonder we’d rather gloss over the details.

We haven’t had a lot of examples of asking tough questions and expecting honest answers the last few years, not a lot of good models of keystone habits, unless witnessing world leaders playing golf every weekend during times of national crisis counts. But friends, we have a fresh start in front of us. Time to reclaim the practice charts, the accountability questions, the keystone habits of our lives. Only then do we have a chance to dig deep through the compost of our practices instead of surfing aimlessly through our days and hours hitting refresh on election maps over and over again.

Next week is Thanksgiving, my hands-down favorite holiday. Yesterday, a precocious student asked me, “Miss Amy, why are there so many Christmas songs, but no ‘Yay, I’m thankful’ songs?” It’s a good point. In this strange time-warp year, I am embracing every heartwarming touchstone I can find, my version of singing ‘Yay, I’m thankful!’ at the top of my lungs. I’m taking long walks in the fall sunshine and inhaling the golden slanted light. I have hidden pumpkins like Easter eggs in my courtyard and planted pansies in every pot I own. I dug 100 bulbs into the ground outside my piano window, trusting that spring will indeed still come. “Because of Covid, we’re going to decorate for Halloween more than ever,” one young child exclaimed to me last month. That’s the spirit, kid.

Count me in. These days, I’m counting decorative gourds scattered around my house and days in my practice chart marking my own keystone habits. I’m counting glasses of wine drunk slowly during long conversations with Matt over dinner and the buds on my three Christmas cacti, ready to explode into color. I’m counting the eight blooming geraniums brought into the sunroom for the winter, the five square inches left to be completed on my latest needlepoint project, and the towering pile of books waiting to be read during the upcoming holidays. This week there will be apple-cranberry pies and garlands of dried cranberries strung with white lights draped across the mantle to ring in Advent. Change starts at home, maybe especially for those us who intentionally voted for change, and who spent a week hovering anxiously over color-coded maps.

“Make lying wrong again,” shouted the sign in our yard in the days prior to the election. Truth matters, our personal and collective reckoning is long overdue. Here’s to the unwritten Thanksgiving songs, the quiet heroes of our broken world, and the practice charts and keystone habits that help guide our way forward through these dark days.

Keep singing, friends. Keep singing.