Three years

If I’ve asked myself once, I’ve asked myself a thousand times: Where does the time go? I was reading through my archive of posts the other day when I realized this past June 21 marked the third year I’ve been writing here. I am a little disappointed that I didn’t notice before the actual anniversary date had come and gone, as dates tend to do. Three years. Astounding.

summertime viewSeeing that, and the list of 152 or so posts I’ve accumulated during that time, made me feel like I should take a breather to, first, thank you for being here. Whether you’ve been reading since the beginning or this is your first time, I am so grateful you’ve stopped by. Please, pour a glass of iced tea and stay awhile.

And second, I want to say how much I enjoy writing here. When I started this blog, my second child was almost a year old; I was a mom of two. I was on the tail end of what you might call a personal economic downswing that had me questioning everything I thought I knew about being successful and rethinking how to keep myself solvent–and also happy–as a writer. At that point in my life, I needed somewhere I could collect and share, a place to visit and think and keep track of what’s important to me and what I notice.

Three years ago was also around the time I started getting really busy as a mom. Two kids, they always say, is more than double the work of one. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that two kids is a lot of work. When I was a mom of one, I had time to go to graduate school. Graduate school! I was working as a freelance writer and working on my MFA and my kid hadn’t even gone to kindergarten yet. I thought I was busy then–I had no idea what busy was. Did I even realize how much free time I had? I would never have the energy to go back to school after baby number two. The point is, I started this blog at a time when I’d never been busier. And three years later, now with three children, I am busier still.

We’re all busy, but the fact is I don’t come around as much as I’d like to. I have broken countless promises to myself about posting on a schedule. I have ideas about posts that I never get around to writing. Oftentimes, by the time I can sneak away to write a few paragraphs, I’m so tired my brain is no longer capable of forming sentences.

One thing I have learned for sure is that we must give our attention to what we love the most. I have to count this blog as one of them. So here I am–three years in. Still trying to figure out how to steal time.

The summer list

Welcome, summer! We spent last week in West Virginia visiting family and cooling off in that crisp Appalachian air. And now, back at home, the solstice has come and gone. The crepe myrtles are ablaze in blooms. The heat is astounding. Summer.

summer

And of course the children have no teachers to occupy them or homework to keep them busy. As a writer who works at home with three children, stealing an hour at a time during a nap or while the kids are playing nice together, summer means those inevitable spans of time during which I just want to dive headlong into spinning sentences and they–my adorable little darlings–want nothing more than my undivided attention for some crisis over the shoe that fell off or the book we must read for the tenth time that morning. They are my most profound joy, and yet they are so demanding. There are sweet moments–the little questions and the adorable lingering around you. But children can be tricky when you’re trying to muster creative and productive energy. The fighting and bickering and taking of each other’s toys. The constant need for snacks and beverages. For me, there is no way around it. Summer means tending the seeds I’ve planted.

I find the day to day is most simple and enjoyable when I have a plan and some readily available activities that I can pull out when they need a distraction. So for weeks I’ve been compiling this list of things to do on those desperate dog days.

  1. Visit the Coastal Discovery Museum, one of our favorite places on Hilton Head Island.
  2. Eat breakfast on the beach.
  3. Go on a photo safari–this, I’m hoping, will make our regular daily walk a little more exciting than our regular daily walk.
  4. Crafts, crafts, and more crafts!
  5. Walk through the maritime forest to the beach at Fish Haul Creek Park.
  6. Visit the Audubon Newhall Preserve on Hilton Head.
  7. We also plan on getting out of town and visiting the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island.
  8. The Charleston Aquarium.
  9. The Columbia Zoo.
  10. See local wildlife up close at Oatland Island in Savannah.
  11. Take a birding walk.
  12. Go on a nature scavenger hunt.
  13. Participate in the firefly count–though so far we haven’t seen a single one in South Carolina.
  14. Take a low tide beach walk.
  15. Explore Hunting Island State Park and picnic on the beach.
  16. Play at the Palmetto Bluff Treehouse.
  17. Microscope investigations.
  18. Play in the rain.
  19. Painting with water.
  20. Go the the Sandbox Children’s Museum on Hilton Head.
  21. Take a hike.
  22. Go on an insect safari.
  23. Make a squirrel feeder.
  24. Make a bird feeder.
  25. Make a butterfly feeder.
  26. Make mud pies.
  27. Explore the yard with a magnifying glass.
  28. Start a nature collection box or jar.
  29. Leaf rubbings with crayons and paper.
  30. Make a nature weave.
  31. Pressing leaves in a book.
  32. Follow the moon phases.
  33. Learn the bird songs.
  34. Make fossils with paper clay, or whatever clay you have handy.
  35. Sand painting.
  36. Painted sticks project.
  37. Play in the sprinkler.
  38. Sun printing on construction paper.
  39.  Visit the library.
  40.  Find a new section of the library to explore, like the local history or travel section.
  41. Read about a new topic and then do a project–so far I have a solar system on the list. And here’s a list of toddler-friendly animal crafts I found: 35 Easy Animal Crafts for Kids.
  42.  Bubbles–such a handy when-all-else-fails activity!
  43. Read outside.
  44. Craft with natural objects.
  45. Collect and paint sea shells.
  46. Fly a kite.
  47. Shop for local food at the farmers market and make a meal from scratch.
  48. Pick berries–we’ve already found a blackberry patch near our house.
  49. Stamp with vegetables, such as lettuce, peppers, potatoes, and celery.
  50. Plant a terrarium.
  51. An after-dinner trip to the beach.

Turtle freedom

Now, the conclusion to our turtle hatchling adventure: the release.

As we know, all good things must come to an end. The boys loved the turtles so much, though, that I thought for sure they’d convince their father to go down to PetSmart and buy a bigger tank. But, we held strong, and the time to say goodbye came a few weeks ago.

turtle release day

Each boy got to carry three turtles down to the water, where we lined them up on the bank, facing their future.

turtle release day2

Our turtles, who’d spent all their days thus far on our kitchen counter, were timid at first, staying tucked in their shells. But once they got that first whiff of freedom, they were on their way and that was that. We haven’t seen them since, but trust that they’re out there in the pond doing their turtle thing.

turtle freedom

This is how to live sustainably

How to make Earth Day every day–in other words, how to live sustainably on earth–is, I believe, one of the most important questions facing modern society. And it’s something I’ve been dedicated extra thought energy to in the past few months. 

Annette del Sur publicizing salvage

At the start of this year, I resolved to ramp up my efforts to go green around the house. At the time, I had a few specific ungreen practices in mind: the cat litter, cleaning products, and food waste. I think we were doing an okay job before. The garden has always been organic and chemical free, but other household products and processes weren’t so clean. We have always used cloth napkins and reusable plates and tableware even for kid parties. However, until I switched to cloth a few months ago, we used disposable diapers on all three kids. We compost vegetable scraps and yard waste, but we were still throwing away lots of leftovers and food that, until now, I didn’t know could be composted.

Around this time, I discovered the book Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, which taught me quite a few things. The Johnson family started as a typical American family with a big house filled with stuff, but over the years they have reduced consumption with the goal of creating, like the book states, zero waste. They now produce about a quart of garbage a year, which is amazing, considering the prevalence of packaging in our lives. Needless to say, she’s taken it a little further than bringing your own bags to the grocery store.

I’m pretty sure my family won’t ever achieve that level of green living, but what I liked best about the book was the way she makes zero waste an ideal that anyone can aspire to in any endeavor. And she’s very practical about it. She even tells you how to insist the grocery store employees allow you to use your own containers. The book has raised my consciousness and given me many ideas for making my home less wasteful.

It’s been a bit of a slippery slope. Once I started looking at our lifestyle, I found wasteful habits and room for improvement everywhere. And so in honor of Earth Day earlier this month, and because Earth Day should be every day, I thought I would share some of the work I’ve been doing around the house.

recycling plant Islamorada FL--national archive

Reduce Food Waste

Food waste is a big problem for us. With small children, some waste is unavoidable because you almost never know what they’re going to eat. But we were also throwing away leftovers every week. Perhaps because I buy and cook and clean up 95 percent of the food eaten in our house, food waste makes me crazy. Throwing away food is like throwing my time and money in a landfill, and I don’t have enough of either to do that.

Since deciding to tackle this problem, I’ve stopped cooking so frequently. And starting this week–although I haven’t made the official household announcement yet–we’re adding a new arm to our compost system that will allow us to compost all food scraps, even meat, oil, and dairy, which I never knew could be composted until I learned about Bokashi composting in Johnson’s book.

I should back up for a minute and explain that I love my existing compost system. Love it. After trying a few different containers, I devised an amazing system that makes me happy every time I think about it. I will have to tell you about it another time, because right now I’m even more excited about the potential of the Bokashi method. If it works the way they say it will, this is going to solve the food waste problem that has plagued me for years. It’s just that powerful, folks. I am even going to make my own containers using stuff I’ve had lying around, which makes this whole project even more exciting. Don’t worry, I’ll post pictures.

Stop Buying Garbage

I had a moment of clarity one day late last year when Matt and I stopped at Target for diapers. We chose two big boxes, about a six week supply, because they were on sale, and we carted them to the checkout line. When the total came to almost sixty dollars, it dawned on me that we were spending a lot of money on stuff that was going to end up in a landfill. I have since tried to stop purchasing this sort of thing altogether. It started with cloth diapers and wipes, and it has since cascaded onto other disposable products. Let me tell you, there’s a whole world of reusable products out there that I never knew existed.

I’ve always considered myself pretty crunchy. I’ve been known to make my own deodorant out of corn starch and baking soda, and, to the shock of my friends and family, I don’t shower daily or shave regularly. But now that I’ve vowed to stop buying garbage, I’m faced with questions like: Am I crunchy enough to use a sea sponge as a tampon? Am I the kind of person who makes her own shampoo, body wash . . . everything? And could I really forego impulse purchases and shopping trips forever? Questions like these, ladies, really show us what we’re made of.

I’ve also become more conscious about packaging. As Johnson describes in her book, even recyclable isn’t always good enough, and many companies that care about organic and chemical-free ingredients, don’t always care so much about their packaging. She doesn’t buy any packaging at all, which I’ve come to realize is quite impressive. Everything, everywhere I look, is packaged or stickered or tagged. Because I live in a small town, we don’t have any bulk shopping options close by, but we are getting a Whole Foods later this year, so I’m looking forward to that. In the meantime, I have added recycling and compost bins to the bathrooms upstairs and put a reusable bag for recyclables in the van.

Voting with Your Dollars

Annette del Sur doing salvage pr in CA

Last night I was soaking in the bathtub, enjoying the paraben, phthalate, and sulfate free bubble bath I recently procured, and reading an old issue of OnEarth (I seem to be perpetually behind on my reading). The article was about how chemical exposure affects brain function and it was written by Florence Williams, who also wrote a book I want to read. Anyways, the article was about lead and other common chemicals that could be making us sick.

One reason the article caught my eye was Florence Williams’s byline. When her book came out, I heard her talking on the radio about harmful chemicals in everyday items. One example she gave was upholstered furniture–couch cushions and the like are all treated with flame retardant chemicals that still linger and absorb into our bodies when we bring the items home. (You know that new car smell? It’s apparently chemicals.) And I remember Williams saying these chemicals are found in breast milk. This example stuck with me because I thought about our furniture, which is now old, but when my son was a baby we bought it new, unknowingly exposing ourselves to dangerous chemicals. Big problems like these affect everyone, and yet they are so large, with government regulations and manufacturing companies and lobbying groups involved, solving the problem won’t be easy or fast.

Reading about issues like these always frustrates me because, as a citizen breathing the air, I feel like I have so little control over what’s in it. Thinking about all the changes I’d made around the house, I felt like a fool for worrying so much about what was in our soap when the air we breathe is filled with god knows what. From there my mind went straight to the world is going to hell in a hand basket and there’s nothing I can do. I never fail to feel small and insignificant against such large and complicated issues.

Now that we’re a family of five, we have been looking for another couch so everyone has a place to sit. I’m sure chemical-free furniture is made somewhere, but I’m also sure it’s not available in Bluffton, South Carolina. So what can I do? Write to congress? Tell the furniture salesperson I am looking for chemical-free furniture? As a person who believes change starts at the bottom, I know small actions add up and if enough people complain someone will do something about the problem, which is in this case changing manufacturing industry standards for what chemicals are allowed in household products. But those actions alone won’t get me a safe couch, and they won’t solve the problem unless a lot of other people do that too. Before I knew it, my relaxing bath had become quite stressful.

Then I took a whiff of my bubble bath and remembered something Johnson wrote about voting with our dollars. I may not be able to directly solve the big environmental problems, but I can choose not to partake by not spending my money in ways that support the problem. My best option for getting a new couch–the one Bea Johnson recommends in her book–is buy secondhand so the chemicals are already gone before they enter the house. Who cares if it’s a little dirty if it’s chemical free, right? And it keeps one more couch from being built out of precious natural resources. Although my couch purchase, in the grand scheme, feels insignificant, it stands for something.

I may not be able to clean the air, but I can clean out the house. I can change my behavior. I can question my long-held beliefs about what objects and purchases are necessary. I can write a blog post that you, and hopefully others, will read and maybe think about. And I can seek to answer the question–how to live sustainably on earth–with every decision I make. That will have to do for now.

Happy belated Earth Day, dearest reader! Did you do anything to celebrate?

Turtle misidentification

Back in November, right before it got cold for the winter, my sons found a turtle nest filled with new hatchlings near the base of their slide. The boys were playing in the backyard when they noticed the hole with six little turtles peeking out.

turtle nest

We were all surprised to find them, particularly that time of year. And they must have just hatched because they weren’t much bigger than quarters. Who knows what compelled their mother to place the eggs so far into our yard from the water and so late in the year. Knowing they might not survive the cold–their nest, even if they could have overwintered inside, had been thoroughly excavated by my excited children–Matt brought them in and set them up in a tank. He’s an experienced turtle keeper.

fall turtle hatchlings

The turtles have been with us since before Thanksgiving. The picture above was taken on their first day on our kitchen counter. It’s not the best shot of these guys, but I think their charm is still evident. Turtle hatchlings are hard not to adore, and so I willingly gave up my counter space.

The turtles’ most distinct marking was a red patch of color on the sides of their handsome little heads. So we assumed they must be Red-eared sliders, an identification none of us further researched or questioned.

The holidays came and went before I sat down to read about the turtles living in my kitchen. This was when the turtles started to lose their charm. Red-eared sliders are, it turns out, a problematic invasive species that outcompetes native Yellow-bellied sliders. Because they’re popular pets, Red-eared sliders are often released in neighborhood ponds and rivers when pet owners tire of them. Then the hardy Red-eared sliders reach sexual maturity faster, produce more offspring, and outsize the natives, establishing themselves readily outside their natural range. Red-eared sliders belong in Mississippi, not in South Carolina.

This knowledge was hard to take. Our turtles were growing fast, and we’d been planning to set them free once the weather warmed up. What would we do with them now? I didn’t want to set them free and perpetuate the problem. And making soup didn’t feel right; the kids really like these turtles. My best idea was to take a road trip to Mississippi, where we could put the turtles back where they belong. It would be about a nine-hour drive. I could do that.

Then the plot thickened. Our little turtles, which had such distinct red markings as hatchlings, started to look less like Red-eared sliders. As they’ve grown–and they’ve nearly quadrupled in size–the red spots have faded to a barely noticeable orange blush. And when I started comparing photos of Yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) with those of Red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), it seemed we could have been wrong. Our turtles look more like Yellow-bellied sliders than their red-eared and bothersome cousins. And so the springtime release, it seemed, was back on.

However, the turtle identification problem doesn’t end there. Last weekend I spent some time with my good friend Kimberly who happens to be a turtle expert. She didn’t see my hatchlings, but I told her about our identification challenge, and she shed a little light on the situation.

She said that, around here, it’s hard to find a pure population of Yellow-bellied sliders, particularly in neighborhood lagoon systems, because Red-eared sliders are such popular pets. The two species are similar enough that they can interbreed and hybridize. So our turtles are likely a little of both.

cramped turtle tank

I’m not sure what this means for our turtles, though probably the release is still on as soon as it warms up. I can’t drop six hybrid turtles in the Mississippi, if that’s what they are. But on the other hand, dropping them in the backyard is kind of wrong too, right? Maybe the problem is much bigger than me and my six turtles. Or maybe every turtle counts. The turtles are too big for the tank now, and they’ve started nipping at each other because they’re cramped and grumpy. We have to do something. Tension is mounting in the turtle tank . . .