Spring cleaning and chickadees

From where I’m sitting at my desk, I notice the movement around the birdhouse in the oak out front. A tiny bird–a Carolina chickadee–peeks out the round hole at the front, disappears back inside, and then reappears a second later. Then it flies from the birdhouse, where chickadees have nested every spring since we placed it in the tree seven or eight years ago and disappears from sight. Carolina chickadees are slightly smaller than black-capped chickadees because they don’t need the extra weight to survive our mild Carolina winters. They spend the year in this area, which means I spend a lot of time watching them out my window.

spring dogwood

Outside, it’s all nesting birds, daffodils, dogwood blossoms, and, of course, pollen. Everything is covered in yellow pollen that disperses in clouds as the wind blows through the pine trees. You can dust it off your shoulders after being outside. Spring comes fast in the Lowcountry. Overnight. You go to bed one winter day, and then wake up to a warm, dust-covered world. Spring comes so fast that the pictures I took on a walk two weeks ago look look like winter compared to what I see outside today. Everything is much more colorful this week. The oaks, overnight it seemed, have sprouted bright green, brand-new leaves. One day, you couldn’t tell a dogwood from any other tree, and the next they’re the prettiest trees in the landscape. Spring, you’ve taken me by surprise.

spring carolina jessamine

Inside, we’ve been spring cleaning. Or, I’ve been cleaning and bribing the other people who live here to help me. In either case, the stove has been scrubbed, the baseboards have been detailed with a toothbrush (by my kid…who wants to earn money!?), and a load of donations have been dropped off at the charity thrift store.

Something about spring, every year I get the same buzz from turning up the music and cleaning like mad. This year, it’s been Abbey Road and Emotionalism. Last year I went on a pretty serious all-natural kick–I think my crunchiness level rose from like a six to an eight–and so this year I didn’t have to buy a single cleaning product from The Man to make the house shine.

Everyone spent a large part of this past weekend cleaning, in fact. I’m sorry but I can’t help myself: It was clean, family fun! I felt like I was living a chapter from Little House on the Prairie, with everyone doing their own little jobs. And of course, there’s nothing so satisfying as a clean house. It took me many years to figure out the whole domesticity thing, and I’m no expert. But sometimes my acquired passion for a good clean surprises even myself. What’s most surprising about spending the weekend cleaning is that, no matter how much we’ve done, I can still look around and see so much more we need to do. Life is, as they say, maintenance.

So while the chickadees are busy with their housework, gathering the soft moss that grows along the north side of the house and tucking it into their nest, I will be busy finding the filth that’s eluded me since the last deep clean and sneaking outside to watch, astonished as always, as the season brings such rapid and lovely change. And these tiny birds in our birdhouse are–of all the seasonal delights–the best thing about the arrival of spring.

By the way, I scrubbed my kitchen to a shine using nothing but a scrubbing cloth and a paste made of equal parts baking soda, salt, and water. I have no idea what my mother did without the internet. It was like magic.

My very serious blog mission

morning writing

When I heard the whisper–“Mom, can I sleep with you?”–the clock read 3:04. My little boy, the one who still doesn’t reliably sleep through the night, climbed in and commenced a fitful, tossing-and-turning sort of sleep that was impossible to sleep next to. So by 4:00, I was downstairs heating up water for coffee, reading advice to new writers from someone at The New Yorker that I found while scrolling on my phone, and waiting for my computer to start up. I promised myself, if I was getting out of bed inhumanly early, I was going to write and not, absolutely not, get sucked into reading online. But I got far enough into the article–which was about being patient and having a purpose and the importance of living an interesting life–to gather that the most important thing I needed to be doing in those wee hours, was writing. I settled into the recliner with my laptop and put the iPhone down when the document containing my work in progress appeared on the screen.

Getting to work, at least for me, involves orienting myself first–figuring out where I am in the work and what I should do next. Once I get through that, the inevitable period of questioning myself arrives. I think all writers and artists have to deal with self-doubt. We all face the questions: Why am I doing this? What’s the point? Can I even pull this off? Do I suck? I have come to understand that these thoughts are not actual signs that I suck and just part of the process I have to go through every time I sit down to write. Silencing the doubt, at least for me, is a huge part of what being a writer is about. This understanding doesn’t, however, make it easier.

Dealing with self-doubt could be my professional theme for the week. Wednesday night a wonderful Gullah native poet and motivational speaker came to my writer’s group meeting and talked to us about how important it is to write for the pleasure of writing and to believe in yourself and to nurture and share your own unique gifts regardless of what other people think. I left that meeting feeling my spirit renewed and hopeful. So this morning, when my self-doubt seemed especially loud in my quiet house, I reminded myself to take myself seriously, and I wrote a few decent paragraphs before the kids got up.

I’ve read that part of being serious is having a clear mission. Knowing why I write and what I want to accomplish. This is important information for a writer to know about herself. Let’s take the blog, for example. Life List is kind of vague blog title, especially since this isn’t exactly about birding. I chose the title because I’m a dreamer, I’m always making lists of things I want to do and things I want to remember, and because I like to write about nature, including birds–my original tag line was, “Animals I’ve seen so far and notes on the writing life.” At the time, I thought Life List was just vague enough to let me figure it out as I went along. Now I want to try putting a little more strategy behind this blog and see where, if anywhere, I can take it. So back to that blog mission…

I write, in general, to entertain and inform. I’m passionate about a lot of things–food, classic rock n’ roll, crafts, Appalachia, Saturday Night Live–and I want to write about it all. Maybe I will someday. The big questions I try to answer with my writing, at least thus far, have been about nature and how what we know about nature and science intersects, or doesn’t, with how we live our lives. I am an environmentalist; I worry about sea levels rising and sprawl and the state of our wildlife and natural landscapes, but I also worry about how my everyday lifestyle decisions affect those bigger problems. I come at these issues as an artist–a poet, not a scientist. Often what I write and share here relates to that, and one of the reasons I wanted to start Life List in the first place is because it is a place for me to write about whatever I want.

You could call it a nature blog, a mommy blog, a writer blog, or even a lifestyle blog. But the blog is really just about me. It’s about my life in Bluffton, South Carolina, and what interests me, what I’m doing and writing. I write about life with my kids, mundane stuff that I try to make interesting. Life List is about me figuring out how to live a happy and mindful life on our one and only earth, and hopefully, by writing about my own experiences and explorations, inspiring other people to care about the natural world and be mindful citizens of earth too. I guess you can call it personal essay.

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What I’ve learned as a mom of three

mom of three

My baby’s second birthday was last week, which not only means I should be phasing out the “baby” label but also that I’ve been at this mom-of-three thing for two years now. My eldest was born in 2005, when I was a young and ambitious twenty-five. Five years later, my second was born when I was thirty. And then baby girl–the baby that really needs to be my last–came along in March of 2013. So here I am, thirty-five, not so young anymore, with some real-world mom experience under my belt.

I admit that it took me a while to get used to having so many kids. Maybe I’m still getting used to being a mom of three. Sometimes I’ll be fetching something for one, another will be tugging at my pant-leg with an entirely different request, while the third can only be heard screaming from another part of the house, and I’ll pause for a moment to try to assess my situation, as one does when in the weeds, and feel a little surprised, and delighted of course, that my life has ended up here. But I’m different than I was ten years ago before I had any kids, and I’m different than I was two years ago when I didn’t have so many.

I am no longer a night-owl. Before I had kids, I spent a summer shelving books at Barnes and Noble, a job that required clocking in at 6:30. I thought getting up that early was going to kill me. I remember feeling physically sick about driving to work when it was still dark outside. I love books and it was the worst job ever because I had to get there so early, so very early. Now, regardless of what time I go to bed, I am up by 5:45, long before the sun. Even on a crazy morning, I will have written and served meals and completed most of my daily housewife duties all before noon. And that means I’m usually yawning by 8:00 p.m. Seriously, it’s like I’m broken. Or maybe I’m fixed. It depends on what time of day you ask me.

My to-do list has gotten much shorter. I still have a ton of stuff I want to do and big dreams and all that, and I still like to stretch my capabilities, but I’ve also had to learn how to expect less from myself. I read somewhere that you can only really be great at two things at a time, like you can only be a great mom and a great writer by giving up being a great housekeeper and having a great body. Several times over the years, I’ve had to reconsider what really matters to me, what I really want to spend my life doing. What’s most important. I’ve dropped projects and stopped pursuing business ventures. I know what I can accomplish in any given day is not nearly as much as I wish I could accomplish. I’ve minimized in that way, lowered my expectations.

But I’ve also maximized. I know how precious my time is, how quickly the days will pass. I know how to make the most of my hours and minutes by developing routines and knowing how to focus and refocus. I write every day. I hit deadlines for clients. I read and try to stay active. Our meals are healthy, often made from scratch (though very, very simple, I assure you), and planned in advance. The house is moderately clean at any given time. My kids are usually behaving themselves, and if they aren’t, I know it’s not my fault. I know how to squeeze a lot of productivity into the little time I have. And I know how to take pleasure in the simple act of doing all of this.

motherhood

Being a mom isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time and energy to make sure everyone in the house feels loved and has what he or she needs to feel confident and good about life. As they grow, they need help and support at various levels. Parents have to be available for guidance and encouragement. It’s a big job, bigger than I ever expected. Every day I feel so grateful for these three little people, so hopeful for their potential, so in love with each of them. No pursuit has been so deeply satisfying. Nothing has paid off like this; I can say that already and I’m only ten years into motherhood.

The most important thing I’ve learned, as the number of my children has increased, is the importance of stopping every once in a while to celebrate what we’ve accomplished, the simple fact that we’ve made it this far.

Sick days

Earth from space

February: this month it seemed as if the people in my house just couldn’t get well. There have been colds, pink eyes, fevers, aches, and coughs. Sick for days. And it culminated this past week in a stomach virus that caught all five of us. It was horrible, and I promise not to bore you with it for another second.

Instead, here are a few things I’ve found that are worlds more interesting to read about than the past week, month, of my life.

1. It turns out, according to an astronaut, life on earth is two-dimensional. In other words, things get smaller, and concern us less, as they get further away from us. This explains some strange occurrences, like how people care more when it’s in their backyard and how seeing impoverished people is so troubling in person and yet most of us don’t think very much about human suffering when we’re back at home. That astronaut, Ron Garan, has actually written a book about how if we can change this distortion in our perception, we can save the world.

2. Speaking of outer space…you just have to read this.

3. About a year-and-a-half ago my subscription to The New Yorker lapsed and I just always seemed to have something more pressing to buy. Without access to the physical magazine, though, my bathtub reading took a real dive. This past Christmas my mom got me a subscription (thanks, mom!!), so I’m thrilled to be back on their mailing list. I could go on and on about how much I love cracking open a beer after a long day and sinking into the tub to read it. But apparently, not everyone feels the same TNY love.

4. So, the Saharan Desert and the Amazon rainforest have this cool thing going on where dust from the desert blows across the ocean and fertilizes the soil with phosphorus and other nutrients, replacing what is washed away by the heavy rainfall. Recently scientists have calculated how much dust makes it from Africa to South America, and the answer is a whopping 22,000 tons. Earth is so fantastic!

With that, my brain has used the last of its strength for completing thoughts. Goodbye, February. Here’s to a healthier March.

Reading On Immunity with Mark Zuckerberg

Dr. Schreiber vaccine San Augustine

Mark Zuckerberg caused quite a ripple in the book world when he announced at the beginning of the year that he was starting a book club. I for one think it’s great that Mark Zuckerberg is reading! Awesome news! But it gets better.

Yesterday I read that he’s chosen On Immunity by Eula Biss as one of his selections, which is significant because, as you’ve perhaps heard, people are getting sick with the measles because other people are, in growing numbers, deciding not to vaccinate their kids. Perhaps you’ve heard all about it on Facebook. If not, lots of strong opinions have been thrown around, and for good reason. Well, it just so happens that I recently read On Immunity.

The book is an essay about the fear of vaccination, disease, contamination, toxin, and the establishment that examines the issues from all angles. It was written around a recent era of high skepticism–the mid-2000s. There was a huge outbreak of worry over a swine flu epidemic that didn’t amount to much, oil was spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, BPA was in our water bottles, the country was fighting a war because of weapons that didn’t exist. I know I remember the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that Biss describes. This was around the same time that I first heard people were skeptical about vaccines. Like Biss, I had my first child around that time.

I’m all for skepticism. But immunization is not the sort of thing I ever questioned or doubted, as a mother or as a person. Everyone in my house has had all their shots, and when a new vaccine comes out, we all get it without question. I was raised by a nurse; vaccines are not something about which to be skeptical. If I have any questions or concerns, I have a trusted medical professional (my mom) readily available to put my mind at ease.

I have, of course, heard of parents not vaccinating their children, but for some reason I assumed that was their decision and their problem. My personal philosophy on most things is not to judge, and ten years ago, no one seemed to care if people got vaccinated. Now that kids are getting sick with measles, it seems vaccination has become everyone’s business. The fact that the risk seems real (everyone on Facebook is talking about it, after all) is what led me to pick up Biss’s book in the first place.

The risk of some people choosing not to vaccinate is that as more and more don’t, the vaccines I (and everyone else) rely upon become less effective. We’ve all certainly heard about herd immunity. Here’s how Biss described how it works:

“Any given vaccine can fail to produce immunity in an individual, and some vaccines, like the influenza vaccine, are less effective than others. But when enough people are vaccinated with even a relatively ineffective vaccine, viruses have trouble moving from host to host and cease to spread, sparing both the unvaccinated and those in whom vaccination has not produced immunity. This is why the chances of contracting measles can be higher for a vaccinated person living in a largely unvaccinated community than they are for an unvaccinated person living in a largely vaccinated community.”

Biss approaches the idea of immunity as a skeptical mother facing the paralyzing fear that goes with parenting. She delves into the history of vaccination and, with empathy and grace (the kind of empathy that lacks in most recent discussion on vaccination–ahem, Facebook, again), dispels the myths surrounding it. The fear of vaccination, Biss explains to us in lovely prose, is unwarranted and misplaced.

Biss’s book has already won awards and gained acclaim for its literary merit. The fact that Mark Zuckerberg and I have, it turns out, similar reading tastes makes me feel oddly cutting-edge. But the most important thing about Zuckerberg’s choice is that he is delivering the message to the masses and hopefully people who are skeptical of vaccines will get it too. They will at least hear about it on Facebook.

Image from the Library of Congress.