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  • Coping with grief (amidst a pandemic)  

    by Chantal Bufe Day 254759 of lockdown - or at least it is starting to feel that way. While I am so incredibly grateful that my family is healthy, safe, and lucky in so many respects during this extraordinary time, I am the first one to admit that there have been many challenging moments during the past weeks. There are tough days homeschooling (not only for the children), repetitive household chores that have me questioning my sanity (didn't I just do this?) and regular temper tantrums (pick a child: one of our three kids has one emotional outburst at least once a day). The most challenging moment during the last weeks, however, was born out of true pain: my paternal grandmother passed away due to old age. Her health had been declining for months and while we were somewhat prepared for her death, we never anticipated not being able to say our goodbyes when the time came - which is exactly what happened: the imposed lockdown due to Covid- 19 had made a visit to the palliative care station impossible and my grandmother died alone. For some time after, I grappled with the knowledge of her passing without any family by her side. And I grieved. And during this grieving process, something interesting happened: I did not feel the bottomless loneliness that usually accompanies my grief. On the contrary, I felt the powerful energy of a unified entity around me and it occurred to me that this was because I really was not alone! While I was sitting in solitude (in literal isolation!) - grieving the loss of my grandmother - I realized that indeed a much larger, collective grief was taking place synchronously as each and every one of us is currently grieving something - loved ones, jobs, old lives, old selves. In essence, we are grieving one and the same thing: time. Time as we used to know it (and used to spend it); the time we may think we are currently losing by living in isolation/unlike before and the uncertain times that still lie ahead of us. Unquestionably, we are all currently wondering what our new reality, our future, will look like after this pandemic. So when we look closely (inwards and outwards), grief - or shades of its notorious seven stages - are all around us: some people are still in shock or denial while others feel anger and pain. Some find themselves depressed, lonely, or in deep reflection while others are accepting and optimistically hopeful. And as we currently mourn time, those who have grieved before know that it takes just that - time - to get to the relieving final stages of grief: calming acceptance and affirmative hope. Still, during a particularly challenging moment last week - as I was missing my grandmother - I tried to remember: Besides putting our faith solely in time, what else is there that we can proactively - consciously! - do in order to inch ourselves closer to acceptance, to hope? And then I remembered a letter that I received in 2016 which holds the answer to this very question. 2016 had been a particularly challenging year with the passing of my father in March, my best friend's father passing in April, and my maternal grandmother passing in May. Three deaths of three very important people and three funerals within less than three months. I remember life turning very dark for a while. Grief hit - so very hard and so very loud - and when it did, I remember not even knowing where to begin. There was so much pain and confusion and pure resistance on my part that I remember thinking (and saying out loud, my apologies here to anyone who was around me at the time): "No matter who dies now, I AM NOT GOING!!!" And amidst my resistance - which had me running in circles - my brothers and I received a letter from my mother in which she reminded us that - while our pain may seem insurmountable - there was indeed something we could do to move through our pain, heal our wounds and lessen the scars. This is what my mothers' letter read: To my children, As mentioned I would love to share some thoughts with you that may be useful in guiding us through this time: As you know, all of us collect experiences throughout our entire life. Some are beautiful ones and some less so. Most often, it is the painful experiences that let us come into contact with true reality, one that allows us the deepest insight and most profound understanding of the circumstances and connections around us. Experiences let us consciously feel life: we suffer, and it is these painful experiences that help us learn and help us grow. People come into our lives and they also leave our lives. And when these moments, days, months, years, or decades end, it is the memories that remain. And our entire life consists of memories. And during this life, all humans face different fates: babies can pass away, young people can pass away and elderly people can pass away. And then there are people who go on to live a hundred years or more. Whatever fate, life just is. Grief comes in waves and not everyone grieves the same way or at the same time as the rest of the family. There are days when you may feel lighter and more positive and then, on other days, grief just overcomes you and you feel all of its phases: anger and bargaining; depression/reflection/loneliness; pain and guilt; shock and denial. These moments are moments of truth that require us to really look at what is happening with us: what is it that I feel? And to let that pain happen, which means to admit: yes, it is painful; yes, it makes me feel depressed; yes, it makes me feel desperate; yes, it makes me feel hopeless. In this case, letting the pain happen means upright recognition, honest recognition! Upright means: realizing that I can recognize pain objectively and subjectively. I have a choice. Upright means: to not fall into the trap of self-pity (which is subjective) and to put yourself into the position of the victim (for then you enter a depressing, downward spiral towards increased helplessness). And by recognizing the pain, in an upright and self- determined manner (which is objective) I can open myself up for the future and decide: at this very moment, what would help me feel better? At times this can be sitting at home - by myself, quiet and cozy - at other times I need a friend to talk to or I need to go out or I need to do sports.... as long as choose consciously and in an upright manner, I am able to choose best what really serves me at that very moment. It is a mistake to believe that we can control or influence every aspect of our life. We may think we can, but we can not. Life happens around us, so many things happen around us, none of which we have any power over. BUT these things can and will influence our lives so remember that wherever life may take us, we are always FREE to choose.... which path do we want to walk? This is our chance! This is our possibility! My children, may these words serve as a reminder to stand upright and choose your future; a future filled with confidence and optimism. Embracing you always, Your loving mother In 2016, this was my mother's message to her children. Today, amidst a worldwide pandemic - one that has so many people in shock, in denial, bargaining with fate, guilty, angry or depressed - these life lessons remain just as relevant. 1. Life just is. While we would like to control every aspect of our lives, especially painful and challenging experiences, we really can't. And while we can choose resistance as our response to discomfort or torment, we really shouldn't. If our goal is happiness, we must remember to stand upright in order to feel deeply, accept fully, and love wholly. 2. Grieve is undeniably the most personal of emotions - only next to love - a human being can experience. Its uniqueness makes it impossible for any other person to fully comprehend: I will never know the shade or depth of my friend's grief only because I once had the experience of grieving myself. And for this very reason, there can never ever be judgment where there is grief. This is extremely important to remember at this moment in time: while you may disapprove of or simply not comprehend why a person around you is currently behaving they way they are, remind yourself that that person may be struggling, grieving for something in one way or another. So instead of quick judgment why not offer kindness and compassion in its place? That person may need your generosity of heart more than you can fathom. 3: We do not know what the future will hold. All we can do is to remain open for it and to remember that we are always free to choose. (Photo: Kristina Tripcovik/Unsplash)

  • 4 nature walk activities for Earth Day

    By Chantal Bufe April 22nd marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and it seems like Southern California's nature just waited for this milestone in order to celebrate with an explosion of sunshine, vibrant colors, and the sweetest smells. It is truly quite incredible to witness. We can not believe that these flowers are growing in our garden right now! Together with my beloved palm trees, of course. But here is the deal: while I count down the minutes to our daily family walk, finally getting out into nature after long mornings of homeschooling in front of computers and iPads, our kids have become much less excited about our daily outings - for we have taken more or less the same route for weeks now. And there are of course good reasons for this, as we keep explaining to our children: Southern California's strict lockdown rules stipulate staying close to home when outside and to not go into other neighborhoods for recreation as this is said to increase the risk of virus spread. And in order to help everyone, our family firmly obeys these rules. Especially since we are incredibly lucky to have a beautiful 5km trail (which is still open!) nestled inside a gorgeous canyon right in front of our house! And while I don't care much for - or indulge in - my kid's complaints about the monotony of our daily route (our children are so lucky during these times in every respect) I worry at the possibility of them growing bored of nature, of ever not wanting to explore it and worse of all... of forgetting to appreciate it for all that it is and for all that it offers us. So. Since I have am currently wearing a big fat teacher hat anyway, I have been looking for fun and educational ways to mix up our route routine. And in hopes that they will help your little ones rediscover a bit of flora & fauna fun, I am sharing four activities that we are currently exploring. 1. ...go on a basic scavenger hunt Since the point of our nature walk, these days is first and foremost a bit of exercise, we need activities that don't slow us down too much but allow us to keep moving. And a basic scavenger hunt offers just that and - in the spirit of sibling rivalry - even encourages going faster than intended. And this is what our kids definitely need right now: ways to release their energy! We used below scavenger hunt chart template (and adjusted it a little) and the kids loved it. Fini (8) and Flo (5), especially, rode their bikes up and down the trail yesterday eager to find all they needed to complete their scavenger hunt. Their highlight? The 159 lizards and 49 snails they encountered (and dutifully counted) during their walk/ride. Download the chart here at teachstarter.com 2. ...use your senses! In the below chart the children are encouraged to note what they see but also what they hear, smell, and - most importantly - feel when they are outdoors. Do you hear the birds chirping, leaves rustling, or water gurgling? And if so, can we find out where the sounds are coming from? Do you smell the scent of flowers or fresh-cut grass in the air? And how does being outside make you feel (also compared to how you were feeling before)? This is a really sweet activity to encourage children to pay attention to their environment and understand that our external surroundings have the power to influence our internal state. When I recently asked Fini how she was doing on one of our nature walks - this was after a particularly difficult day of homeschooling during which she was unable to let go of her negative emotions - she simply replied: "I am better now, mummy, the wind made it better." When we are stuck in a negative mental place, before going inwards the key is to also check our external environment. Am I surrounded by what I know I need in order to feel happy? If not, what can I do right now that I know will make me feel more positive? We can teach even our young children, that there is usually a thing or two that we can actively do to feel better. This can be as easy as going for a walk, taking in the fresh air, hearing the sound of birds, and letting the wind take care of the rest... Download the chart here teachstarter.com. 3. ...find your treemate This activity is a fun and hopefully meaningful one, as it is all about connection: each child picks a tree he or she likes and then start to inquire. Why did I choose this tree? What makes it so special to me? What kind of tree is it and/or how can I find out? The tree can be visited again later when the child can see if anything changed. Is the color still the same, are new leaves growing, are the same birds living in it? We found that this is a sweet bonding exercise for our children who - at this point - really miss their friends as well as the daily connections with the people they are used to having around, be it their amazing classroom teacher or the kids from their soccer team. And while nothing can replace a best friend's embrace, it is a lovely way for children to express their care and compassion for a living element outside of their home. Oh, and if your kids are old enough, check out Judi Dench's documentary My Passion for Trees (2017) which provides a beautiful insight into the magic of trees. Download the leaf id sheet here: woodlandtrust.org 4. ... take responsibility and action! Lastly, we want to encourage our children to think of ways of how to play an active role in protecting our environment, and with this in mind, the below chart provides a fun game. It lets the child identify a plant or an animal and asks why is it important to this earth? and how can you take care of it? On our last walk, for instance, the children saw a swarm of bees and we spoke about why they were significant and how we could protect them, or more, help them thrive. We could start cultivating bee-friendly plants or supporting our local beekepers? We find that once we heighten the children's awareness of what is around them in nature, a larger conversation about human responsibility naturally opens up (given our children's age). Last week, Fini asked about whether our family should be eating less meat (she was concerned about the animals and then happily surprised to hear that this would also help lower the emission of greenhouse gases, i.e. be better for our planet). We talked about how to recycle more effectively - which we find much harder to do in California than in Germany! - and if there is a possibility of creating a compost pile (also tricky here). There are endless reasons why children should spend time outside in nature and our family believes that these are not only benefits but a necessity. While it is still unclear (to me, at least) how exactly nature manages to influence our cognitive functioning while improving our mood, I do know this: our children seem more confident in nature, less tired and anxious and simply free (for a lack of a better word). They show tremendous creativity and imagination, playing with leaves and rocks, cones, and sticks, designing little shelters for bugs in the most inventive ways. They seem to care more for the plants and animals around them, whether big or small, than ever before. So just remember when your kids whine about having to go outside, along the same route, again and again, that they will feel better the minute they start walking for in every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks. - John Muir (Photo: Noah Buscher/ Unsplash)

  • Gratitude: scavenger hunt for kids

    by Chantal Bufe Practicing gratitude is an essential element to leading a fulfilled and content life, and as parents, we can teach our children about gratitude, how to practice it and where to find it (in our lives and our hearts). When we continuously recognize and celebrate all the things we are lucky to have, we can live a life more prosperous than we could have imagined. There are many ways to encourage our children to walk around with open eyes, notice, see and appreciate all the things they are lucky to have in their lives and be grateful for them. From saying 'grace' before a meal, making them earn their pocket money or any other materialistic item they may want. From teaching them kindness and the importance of being of service to others to exposing them (in an age-appropriate way) to some of the realities of this world. I found that a beautiful way to encourage gratitude in our children is through their senses: what do you feel, see, hear, smell or taste? When you bake (and smell the delicious cookies in the oven that you made), when you skate (and feel the wind in your hair as you fly down the road), when you draw (and see what you have created with your own hands)? There are also games and activities to playfully encourage gratitude, like a gratitude card game or a gratitude mason jar (which your child can fill daily with little notes of thanks). Our favorite is this Gratitude Scavenger Hunt by Natural Beach Living. Such a sweet and fun way to encourage our children to be thankful for what they have! (Photo: Pro Church Media/Unsplash)

  • 5 tips for a healthy media diet

    by Chantal Bufe In 2016 Steven Stosny coined the phrase headline stress disorder to describe the negative impact of the severe and exasperating onslaught of news on news consumers post the US presidential elections. It identified fear and anxiety as two main effects, and Stosny advised that it was all downhill from there. And he was right: today, provocative news is selling better and faster than ever, and whether the information provided is factually correct appears to be of decreasing relevance to an increasing number of people: fake news, yellow journalism, information pollution. I wonder how Stosny would describe the state and effects of news consumption today, in 2020? During an information explosion due to a pandemic that has the entire world holding its breath? Or, more constructively, I wonder how we can all stay informed - especially during these extraordinary times - without causing harm to our mental health? We have been trying to establish healthy/-ier habits when it comes to news consumption for some time now, and this pursuit has become acute as we are feeling the adverse effects the circulated information around COVID -19 are having on us, on our families, and our friends. While we can not change the reporting or the distribution of overwhelming/negative/false/ information, each of us can regulate how we consume our news. So here are five things that we have consciously changed to stay informed and mentally well at the same time: 1. Choose the news outlets that you trust 'Check your sources!' - if there is one phrase that all of my professors used repetitively and insistently, it is that one. Be an active news user. Go and make an effort to find those news outlets that you deem most trustworthy and reliable. Look into the writers and contributors whose words you are letting into your homes and minds - pay attention to what and whom you are consuming (and what/ whose information you are possibly passing on!). This is especially important to remember at this moment in time as news around COVID -19 becomes increasingly harder to distinguish: real or fake? Not everyone who claims to be knowledgeable about a specific topic is a trustworthy source. So, rely on sources of experts and - unless you are one! - keep a low profile and refrain from passing on any half-truths. They are immensely dangerous, can curb feelings of deceit, fear and even lead to panic and chaos. And this is not what any of us want. Not now. Not ever. 2. Consume news at a time of day when you know you will be the least stressed We all have been told repeatedly about the dangerous effects of consuming negative information in the morning on our physical and mental wellbeing: anxiety, stress, nervousness, laziness - the list is long. Instead, experts advise us to establish a healthy morning routine and then set aside dedicated time during the day (when we know we are the least likely to get stressed) to consume news. Reading intense news when you are in a strong (ok, let's settle for good/stable/awake) mental place throughout the day is a very different experience than 'eyes-barely-open' news consumption. Time and health are our two most precious assets, and we should not wait to appreciate them until they've been depleted but change our bad habits now. 3. Limit your news consumption - to decrease negative feelings We all know that consuming too much negative news is terrible for us in many ways: feelings of stress and frustration, anxiety, and angst increase. Especially at this moment in time, intense and exasperating news highlight and augment our worries and can lead to making us feel (even more) unsafe. And with so much misinformation circulating right now, we may even notice feelings of deceit when certain information (which we may have even passed onto other people!) turns out false. Find reliable news sources that you trust, set a time limit for yourself, and stick to it. 4. Limit your news consumption - to increase creativity Excessive media/news consumption destroys our productivity. While this is nothing new, it is oh, so true: if we dedicate too much time to the screen, we do not get to the things done that a) we would like to do and b) that make us happy. What on earth do you mean, dear lady? I hear you ask while (hopefully!) sitting somewhere in confinement and wondering what I could be referring to. This is what I mean: creation. Instead of just absorbing (i.e., putting yourself in a passive state), start actively creating: write, sketch, draw, paint, cook, bake, learn/play an instrument, sing, dance - for crying out loud!). Whatever it is that gets your heart smiling, your mind overflowing and your dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins into a happiness rage, get on it. Start creating (whatever it is/whatever it may look like) and start sharing it with your loved ones, friends, and strangers. There is no being embarrassed about being your authentic self and doing what you love, remember? Not always, but especially not during this point in time. We are all living this current situation individually, but once we start creating, we are contributing something special and unique to our collective whole's wellbeing. Your art has the magic to bring so much encouragement and light into someone else's life. Someone who might need it today. Creativity is the key to all things unique: besides distracting us from the surrealism (and adverse side effects) of this extraordinary situation, imagination is said to make us better problem solvers; it makes us more confident and can extend our lifespan. Our entire life is meant to be lived creating. And never more than right now. 5. Balance your news consumption What do I mean by that? Next to all the negative news, we consume, why not try sourcing some positive news too? Check out the Huffington Post's Good News webpage or Daily Good for positive news from around the globe, or the World Best news for information from developing countries. Our family is fond of the Good News Network (GNN) and if you are on Instagram, check out the #goodnews_movement. Be distracted, laugh for joy, cry for you are moved - get goosebumps, tears, and tenderness. And remember: you alone decide what you allow into your home, your family, your mind, and your whole being. You remain in charge. Even of the news.

  • 4 things to do instantly when you feel anxious

    by Chantal Bufe The thing about anxiety is that it comes in so many shades that it is challenging to identify. From excessive worrying to difficulty sleeping and restlessness to fatigue and concentration issues. From irritability and tension to increased heart rate and palpitations to sweating and hot flashes. From trembling and shaking to chest pains and shortness of breath to feelings of terror and impending doom. Seeking therapy or medical help are essential steps to consider when there is a chance of chronic anxiety. However, the source of our feelings that are commonly associated with anxiety is often linked to a specific scenario, like keeping safe during a pandemic. With this scenario in mind, there are four things you can do instantly to make yourself feel calmer. 1. Remember that our anxieties are often reactions to past regrets or a future that has not happened yet. Be mindful and get yourself into the Now where things ok for the moment and from where life will unfold just the way it should. We are unable to control most things in life (even when we think we do), but when we surrender, we start to relax into what is meant for us, and "life begins to flow with joy and ease." - Eckhart Tolle 2. Try and separate your thoughts from yourself. Remind yourself that your reaction to a specific situation is just that: a response you chose to outside circumstances. While we think we can control people or situations, most of the time, we have no influence thereof, no matter how hard we want to alter the course of a circumstance or change someone else's mind. So, remind yourself and make use of your superpower you have as a human, which is the freedom to chose your attitude at any given time in any given circumstance. You can chose again and again, repeatedly, until your new response matches what you want to feel: calm and optimistic. 3. Try and remember all the things that you can be grateful for. This will help you refocus your thoughts on all the positives you have in your life. This will remind you that what you might have perceived as unfavorable is usually a construct of your mind and not reality. Even in a dire situation, there is always something to be thankful for this very instant. And by shifting to a positive mindset fuelled by gratitude, you move both your thoughts and energy, and you will notice life flowing more easily. 4. Take a breath. PS: Breathe: the 4 - 7 - 8 breathing technique (Photo: Boram Kim/ Unsplash)

  • Wise words for when you need a cup of hope

    by Chantal Bufe I am wondering how you are holding up today. How are you feeling, dear friend? I have been feeling a little discouraged lately with the news of an extended lockdown and homeschooling slowly stealing the last of my energy and sanity. I always say that we can not control our circumstances, only how we react to them. So, if you've been feeling the same way lately, let's try this together and shift our mood and mindset towards optimism and hope. And where better to find some encouragement than inside the uplifting words of some very wise people? Below are 15 of my favorite quotes on hope, and I would love to hear yours... "There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something better tomorrow."- Orison Swett Marden "The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don't wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope." - Barack Obama "Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for." - Epicurus "I think it's a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one's self." - Arthur Miller "You are not here merely to make a living, you are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand." - Woodrow Wilson "Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all." - Dale Carnegie "I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward." - Nelson Mandela "I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death." - Robert Fulghum "Remember, Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." - Stephen King "Courage is like love; it must have hope for nourishment." – Napoleon Bonaparte "They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for." – Tom Bodett "Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today." – Thich Nhat Hanh "It's always something, to know you've done the most you could. But, don't leave off hoping, or it's of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last!"—Charles Dickens "The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof." - Barbara Kingsolver "We dream to give ourselves hope. To stop dreaming—well, that's like saying you can never change your fate." —Amy Tan. (Photo: Chris Liu / Unsplash)

  • Finally a yoga practice that kids LOVE

    by Chantal Bufe A year ago or so, I was looking for a way to introduce our children to yoga (and mindfulness), and we came across Cosmic Kids – a wonderful yoga YouTube Channel and online app for children - and we have been following creator Jaime ever since. Cosmic Kids takes children on enticing and entertaining yoga and mindfulness adventures by way of (at times familiar) stories: Moana, Trolls, and Harry Potter – there is something for everyone, there are all kinds of themes: Fini loves the sequence that caters to her great love of dogs, and Flori likes to go on a bear hunt while Nicolas prefers the Star Wars practice. And needless to say, we must have watched and practiced the Cosmic Kids Frozen Adventure a thousand times. So while the children are indulging in something fun, they are still moving their bodies the entire time (while also becoming familiar with some yoga poses!). I especially cherish Cosmic Kids’ Zen Den, a series that teaches children mindfulness, relaxation, and visualization techniques playfully and lovingly. Training your inner Ninja encourages children to be strong in challenging times, Be The Pond teaches children how they are separate from their feelings, Movies in my mind bring them closer to learning about meditation. And there is so much more! And what better tools to give our little ones than to strengthen the ones they already carry inside of themselves. And if you are also looking for some yoga books for your little ones, check out Babies to Bookworms, which discuss various beautiful books. Our five-year-old Flori keeps returning to the Yoga Bug Board Book Series. Although we discovered it two years ago, Flori still likes to look at the books once in a while and mimic the animal/yoga poses. Whatever keeps her moving!

  • How to get your children to (really!) talk about their school day

    by Chantal Bufe I used to say that I miss my kids while they are in school (and I meant it). Now, after almost a year of homeschooling, not so much. But the time will come when school will resume and when I will want to know how they are doing. I used to love pick-up time, eager to see my little one's faces and to hear all about their day, even trying to make my answers so that a yes or no reply is impossible: - what was the funniest thing that happened today? - what was the most helpful thing you did for someone else? - who made you smile today? - what challenged you today? - what would you rate your day on a scale of 1 to 10? And why? - if you had the chance to be the teacher tomorrow, what would you teach the class? - if the school were a ride at the fair, which ride would you be? Why? - tell me something you learned about a friend today. - when did you feel most proud of yourself today? - what is one thing you hope to know before the school year is over? I tried these questions with my children, but didn't get anywhere. My children's answers remained just as short, were not informative or helpful in any way. So, I tried it with a game: you ask your kids to share four facts about their day, but one out of the four of these questions has to be a lie. And the parent has to guess which one. It really works like a charm and (pre-Covid) my children shared more information about their school day than ever before. I found out what they do, who they hang out with, which classes they like and dislike, who their favourite teacher is. And yes, I finally also know what each of my children had for lunch.

  • Book guide: The Story Orchestra

    by Chantal Bufe I am always delighted when I come across a meaningful and memorable item in a constant quest for unique children's gifts. One of these gems, which our five-year-old Flori has recently fallen in love with (also because it was given to her by her beloved godmother), is Katy Flints' The Story Orchestra. Beautifully illustrated by the talented Jessica Courtney Tickle, this series of books introduces children to famous composers' music, such as Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker,' 'Swanlake' or 'Sleeping Beauty.' With a (firm!) press of a button, a small clip of perfectly selected classical music plays, bringing to life each scene as the entire story unfolds before the child's eyes. A vivid fairytale for little princes and princesses! One of our favorite parts about the books is the last two pages, containing a short biography of the composer and a glossary of terms relevant to classical music (what is a ballet, a rhythm, a waltz, a phrase?). So much to see, so much to learn! Also, there are short explanations of how the various instruments help tell each act's storyline (do you hear the two flutes that play a fast, fluttering melody, just like a canary singing a tune?). So much to hear, so much to learn! In a 'plastic -fantastic' world where most toys capture the children's attention for mere hours, this series of books will have your little ones returning for its magic again and again. More from The Story Orchestra: The Story Orchestra: The Sleeping Beauty: Press the note to hear Tchaikovsky's music The Story Orchestra: Swan Lake: Press the note to hear Tchaikovsky's music The Story Orchestra: Four Seasons in One Day: Press the note to hear Vivaldi's music

  • 3 tips on how to make your international move with your kids easy

    by Chantal Bufe Tip 1: Prioritize Whereas one can organize a local move quickly (depending on how far you are moving), an international move requires advanced planning. It sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, you would be surprised by just how much time specific issues take – we sure were! Visa Visa application is the obvious one here, and indeed, the amount of paperwork we had to request, obtain, complete, submit and eventually wait for was immense! And this was regarding me! (Luckily, my husband and our children are US citizens). I had anticipated that the Green Card process would be intense, even as a Canadian, but frankly, I did not think that it would take the time and effort that is required: from filling out endless forms, obtaining proof of clean criminal records from every (!) country I have ever lived in, proof of immunizations, immigration medical check-ups (including a tuberculosis test) and a final interview at the US embassy in Frankfurt (Green Card style! And here I am referring to the movie!), it was a long and at times stressful process. In the end, I received my visa approval two weeks before our flight to the US. Overall, it had taken approximately six months for all the paperwork to go through! Customs Obtaining the visa approval was also important as we needed to provide our moving company/ US customs with proof of entry admittance to the US, including a copy of our passports, proof of relocation, and a very detailed list of inventory items to be shipped. Especially the latter involved an elaborate process of assessing every single thing in our home. Health In addition to the visa, we needed to make sure that we had all medical papers required to enter the US, such as all the necessary vaccinations and immunizations. I also had all of the children's German vaccination booklets translated into English as most US schools require proof of immunization before attendance. School Another important issue we took on as soon as we found out that we were relocating was finding a suitable school for our three children for two reasons: knowing where our children would happily continue their education would provide us with much-needed, parental peace of mind - their wellbeing was our priority above all! Secondly, the school's location would determine our house's location, and consequently, our entire infrastructure (such as doctor offices, sports clubs, etc.) - with five people, there is quite a bit of a new foundation to set up! And so we immediately dove into doing intense research, setting up phone calls with potential schools, interviewing people for advice, and starting the application processes. In the end, we had found an excellent school and had more than enough time to find and move into a home close in the vicinity. Tip 2: Do the research! When you are not familiar with the country you are moving to, its language and culture, make sure you do your research to avoid problems, fines, or pitfalls. Although we lived in the US (New York State) in the past, we were surprised to find many rules and regulations (in general and specific to California) that we were previously unaware of. One example: Cars and … We contemplated bringing our cars to the US, but after doing our research, we quickly decided against doing so: the transportation costs, as well as the import costs into the US, are very high, and customs is rigorous (and there is a chance that if your car does not meet specific requirements, it can be altered, sent back to where it came from or even destroyed). We did not want to take that risk! … driver's license! After double-checking, we also realized that we would need to get a new car in the US and a new driver's license as California does not acknowledge a foreign or international license as valid once you become a permanent resident in the Golden State. This meant studying for the written test, followed by a 'behind – the wheel – test' with an instructor once you pass. Check out the DMV apps, and you will be good to... drive. What happens when you don't do your research? Topping our list as the strangest fun fact, we would have liked to know ahead of time was our neighbors' common knowledge that we were all sharing our living space with coyotes! To a European, that was frankly quite the shocker. Our area even distributes a little booklet, lovingly labeled "Coyotes Among Us', which includes tips and tricks on navigating living with safely...well, larger wildlife. As we have come to understand, the main rule is not to leave your small children (or small pets for that matter) outside unsupervised - especially at dusk and at dawn. This piece of information not only set back our plans to get a small dog indefinitely but boy, can you be sure we are watching our little Flori a little closer than usual - especially during the Tarantino hours. Tip 3: Purge, purge, purge! An international move naturally forces you to purge: to throw out, gift, recycle or sell anything that you no longer want or need - and we highly recommend it! Not only do you save a few bucks on shipping when you leave either large or unwanted items behind, but moreover, it is an incredibly freeing feeling. For many, many weeks before our move, we went through the entire house, consciously taking each item into our hands and deciding whether it brought us joy or not (full-on KonMari style!) and whether to keep it or purge. Once we arrived in Southern California, it was wonderful to unpack only our cherished items and give each their dedicated place in our new home. And with more than 500 boxes to unpack, that was helpful! (Photo: Handiwork NYC/Unsplash)