Matt and I spent Christmas week in New York City freezing. Yes, we also went to concerts and shows, visited museums and my sister and nephew, saw friends and ate really, really well. But mostly we froze. With wind chill temperatures in the single digits and no snow, it felt like an insult to have all of the winter pain and no beauty.

Perhaps I had it coming. For several months now, I have been complaining about the relentless sunshine in New Mexico. It’s been over three months since we’ve had any moisture whatsoever. The ski slopes are dry, devoid of white fluffy stuff that isn’t artificially produced. There have been no cozy grey days watching snowflakes fall from the sky while napping on the couch. On one hand, I have not had to scrape the car at 5:50am on my way to the swimming pool. On the other hand, I have not had to scrape the car at 5:50am on my way to the swimming pool. Yesterday I spotted six inches of green shoots coming up in the garden in their quest to become daffodils. It is January. Something is not right here.

So perhaps I had it coming, that bitter cold trip to NYC. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great trip, maybe the best one ever. Over dinner one night before we left, Matt and I counted the number of times we had been to NYC together starting with the first trip we made in January 1994 before we were married. That time we slept on the floor of friends who lived on the Upper West Side. We went to the Metropolitan Opera and saw Angels in America on Broadway. We went to the Met to see Degas’ dancers and out to Brooklyn to hear BargeMusic. We stood in line for hours trying to get tickets to David Letterman. We trudged through Central Park and piles of dirty, black snow. We brought totally inappropriate clothing for winter in NYC (top of my bad choices: white stirrup pants and purple velvet flats. I thought I was so stylish. I was. For the Midwest in April.). We loved every minute of it.

This was our 11th trip to NYC, we think. At least our 11th trip together, not counting about another half-dozen each of us has made on our own. Some of the magic is gone, for sure, but then we dress more appropriately. Even without the edge of novelty, last week was maybe the best trip ever. “What made it so great?” a friend asked. “I dunno,” I answered. “The fact that it was our 11th trip?”

There might be something to that, after all. Case in point: one afternoon we were on the Upper East Side. We had several destinations that afternoon including a trip to the Frick, my favorite museum in the city. Wednesday afternoon was Pay As You Want day, a nice enticement, and as we approached the museum in sub-zero temperatures, we saw that there was a line around the block to get in. A line that was not moving. Nope, we thought. Forget about it.

You can make choices like that on your 11th trip. We no longer go to NYC with an agenda. We’ve been to the Frick, like, five times. We can skip it on the 11th trip. That is the magic of the 11th Trip.

Or maybe the 11th Trip is a metaphor for the stage of our lives we now find ourselves in. Jokingly, I tell Matt that we are in the years of the diminishing returns. After twenty-some years spent trying to figure out what we wanted to do and then how to do it, now we get up and, day in and day out, week in and week out, and do our work. “It has taken me half a lifetime merely to find out what is best worth doing, and a good slice out of another half to puzzle out the ways of doing it,” said gardener Gertrude Jekyll. I can relate. We are hardly resting on our accomplishments, and indeed are constantly seeking ways to better ourselves and our practices, but the thrill of jumping new hurdles is largely gone. I know how to run a piano studio smoothly, how to get students from point A to point B with little drama or fuss. I know how to learn concertos in time for orchestral gigs or to prepare multiple chamber programs at the same time. The question “Can I do this?” no longer produces anxiety or adrenaline.

In other words, we are in the years of the diminishing returns. Instead of making huge leaps in terms of growth and proficiency, the return is smaller, less measureable. In life, we are on the 11th Trip.

I thought of this a lot over the holiday break. It was one of those years where the Albuquerque Public Schools granted us (and by extension the Ten Thousand Stars Studio) almost three weeks of break from school, lessons, regular routines and schedules. Lovely. But if I have spent the last twenty-some years figuring out how to do my work in the world well, I have also spent the last twenty-some years figuring out how to be an adult. I can put dinner on the table, keep fish and cats alive, maintain a garden with tulips blooming every spring. I have an acupuncturist and a gynecologist. I get pedicures and massages. I file my taxes on time. In so many ways, I’ve got this adult thing down.

But never do I rub up against the trappings of adulthood more sharply than at the holidays when I am faced with the cultural traditions and rituals that the world assumes and expects (Will I put up a Christmas tree? No. Send holiday cards? Yes. String white lights around the front door? Yep. Bake cookies? No way. Force paper whites? You better believe it.).

Around here holidays also mean a revolving door of former students coming to visit, perhaps the best tradition of all (“You don’t really get a break from us, do you?” one insightful student commented.). Every single former student, no matter how tall or grown-up, comes right into the house without knocking, slamming the screen door behind them, as if they were just here for a lesson the previous week. This year, I held the First Annual Piano Christmas Tea for all former students home for the holidays. Honestly, the idea was a self-serving one, a way to see more kids at once instead of having multiple visits spread out over a number of weeks, but I hope it is a new annual tradition (the name will catch on if nothing else. It simply dances off one’s tongue.).

The kids who crowded in my living room that day were all students who had grown up in the studio, who had played countless recitals together and sat through numerous performance classes and recitations of Five Fun Facts. These days they talk about roommates and theory classes, switching majors and transferring schools. “My piano teacher wants me to change my right hand fingering on C# melodic scale so it’s the same going up and down. Does this even make sense, Amy?” College should be all about new ideas, I said. Why not try it out? But inside I cringe, wanting to keep her safe forever from all crazy ideas. We counted the number of years of piano lessons (with me exclusively) those kids represented and came up with 60, a number that makes me shudder. Twenty years ago, managing to successfully teach any kid anything was a thrill, looking around the room that afternoon, I realized sharply that 11th Trip thrills are different, but equally dear.

“What were you doing when you were our age?” asked one kid. She is in between college and graduate school, weighing the countless options the future might hold. “Getting married and teaching piano,” I told her. “I somehow skipped out on making any really tough decisions.”

Of course, that isn’t really true, although as one colleague and friend used to be fond of saying, “No one here is bleeding from the head.” Piano lessons aren’t surgery, though both have the capacity to rearrange the molecules of our hearts.

Holiday break behind us, a new year lies before us. I know how to do this, our 11th Trip, our time of diminishing returns. Perhaps the best time ever.