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Declutter with Purpose

March 29, 2019

Wisconsin has finally unthawed! Tulips and daffodils are emerging after a long winter’s nap, the Milwaukee Brewers are back on the field, and indoors, many of us have begun that ritual known as spring cleaning. Along with the usual washing, dusting, yard cleanup and the like, Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has spearheaded a decluttering trend, which some of us include on our spring cleaning chore lists. After careful purging, sorting, and packing stacks of those material objects that no longer spark joy, now what?

A first step most of us take is to donate items to a local resale or thrift shop. Most of those stores are affiliated with a nonprofit group that is partially funded through the sales from store merchandise. This, of course, is an awesome way to help support the mission of a nonprofit organization doing great work. Although in January, the “Today” show reported how second-hand stores have reported a dramatic uptick in donations, possibly due to Kondo’s book and new Netflix series, “Tidying Up.” Maybe it’s time to spread the bounty around a bit, so here are some other ideas for repurposing clothing and household items:

  1. Homeless shelters, emergency services, and community church pantries: Many shelters are in need of gently used clothing for their homeless or indigent guests. Rather than reselling items to the public to make money, these services give donated clothing, shoes, or coats directly to those in need. Some shelters serve just men, some provide emergency shelter for women, and some serve families and accept clothing for children and infants.
  2. TerraCycle: This company provides a zero waste answer for unwanted clothing and fabric. You can order one of their recycling boxes online ( for your unwanted items. Once the company receives the items, they sort them and recycle, upcycle, or reuse as appropriate.
  3. Clothing swaps: Invite some friends over for a glass of wine, and have them bring a bag of unwanted clothes. Arrange the clothing on a table and tell everyone to have at it. There are also swap events throughout the area.
  4. Fix or repair: A small tear or a missing button are easy fixes and can extend the life of a garment. Keep a basic sewing kit on hand with a couple of different sized needles and basic colors of thread. If you don’t know how to sew, no problem—many people do, so chances are you know someone who can help you out. There are also tailoring shops income communities, and many dry cleaners also offer tailoring and alteration services.
  5. Rags: If there’s an item that’s no longer usable, cut it into squares for rages to use for washing the car, dusting, or other chores.

I always have a sense of accomplishment after purging drawers and closets and sending items on to a new life. But the ideal solution is to choose our consumables carefully and not generate so much unnecessary clutter in the first place. When shopping for new clothing, try to avoid fast fashion that will quickly go out of style (looking at you, cutout shoulder tops!) and choose classic looks that can be mixed and matched. Be conscious while shopping and consider whether you really need that eighth pair of dress shoes or T-shirts in every color of a box of crayons. Shop out of necessity rather than just for fun. Spending our money on experiences instead of excessive consumables can create memories more fulfilling than buying a new pair of jeans, and memories from those experiences can ultimately spark joy for years to come.

Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.



Who Said All Bacteria Were Bad? A Microscopic Solution to the Macroscopic Plastic Problem

February 19, 2019

Hiking along the tracks of bodies of water across the world, we, as humans, are no longer in the hustle and bustle of a city. Instead, we are whisked away to a natural sanctuary, where we are belittled by towering trees, calmed by the soft flow of the waves, filled with the music of benign birds, and blanketed by a faint breeze. However, travel further and one will see sure-fire signs of human touch; entire sections of rivers that are covered by water bottles, chip bags, and grocery bags. The world has produced a total of 8.3 billion tons of plastic, but only about 21 percent is dealt with in the U.S., according to a study in the prestigious Science Advances Journal. The rest, 6.3 billion, ends up in the landfills around the world, also according the same study. That is the same as about 3 billion U.S. cars, or two billion elephants. And the largest purchaser of this plastic is currently not accepting it anymore; after the China ban, we may have a new 111 million ton-plastic problem by 2030, according to a study by the University of Georgia.

The current myriad production of plastic is choking wildlife, polluting waterways and overall pushing the environment to the brink of instability. It is a self-made pandemic that scientists are eager to cure, and they have come up with some viable options, ranging from biodegradable plastic to large industrial floating nets to clean up waterways. However, there is a newly discovered solution, with something so small people cannot see it with their naked eye.

In contrast with large nets, a microorganism could be a potential solution.  A team of Japanese researchers stumbled upon a species of bacteria, which produces enzymes to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the most common forms of plastic. It conceals itself amongst large piles of plastic bottles and in benthic mud on banks of rivers. The bacteria has been given the name Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, which only savvy ecologists would understand. Put in common language, this bacteria has been put under the recently created category of Geobacter, a group of bacteria with extraordinary applications. These same Japanese researchers had to put their discovery to the test. They conducted a study to determine the hydrolysis (breaking down) time of PET plastics with these extraordinary bacteria­ but to their dismay, it took close to six weeks to break down an entire water bottle. 

After these results, one may be thinking that this isn’t viable option. Most experts would concur. However, next time you go to the grocery store, take a look at those labels in the meat section. “No GMOs” are proudly paraded on most of the packaging. Science has revolutionized the size of animals, making them bigger, or more resilient to disease; they have genetically modify organisms! Who knows, with some growth hormones to beef up these tiny guys, they might be ready to knock out plastic water bottles like Muhammad Ali, and as intrinsic to the survival of the planet as water is to humans.  

Also, there is an added bonus to these bacteria; when breaking down molecules, they produce electricity, putting them in the vanguard of discoveries of the power of bacteria. Solutions like biodegradable plastic are novel discoveries. Activism to recycle more plastic and use less plastic are necessary. But those are for the future, not cleaning up the mess we have already made. These bacteria may be the cure for our planet. What do you think? I hope this article gave a scope into the usefulness of nature, and the many coexistent species yet.

Akul Goel is a freelance writer. 


Relationships and Words

February 14, 2019

When steam builds up, the tea kettle whistles.

It’s nature’s way, and ours.

We’ve all said words we regret. They came out of a time, a moment, when we were not feeling loved, cherished, and adored. It’s often little things that build up. Whatever set our emotions off was something minor, normally no big deal–except that day it was.

Low Emotional Reserves

It caught us with low reserves of feeling loved, secure, safe, respected, strong; of feeling appreciated, heard, or valued—all those basic emotional needs.

After the steam blows.

Our tendency is to point a finger and blame another person…

Except that visually and metaphorically, when we point a finger at someone, anyone, there are three pointing back at us.

In other words, at its root cause is something in our emotional selves that’s hurting—perhaps from another time or relationship—and this day, in that moment, we reacted from the OLD hurt . . .  or just being too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT), when no one is at their best. An innocent turn of phrase, touch, action triggered it. It happens.

Revelation comes to us only in hindsight, by the way. The steam kettle boiled, and you know you’re just majorly overreacted in a situation, maybe saw a dark side of you come through that totally out of character. Tears, angry words, hurtful, unfair ones.

Step back.

Take the kettle off the stove and let the water cool for a bit–when making tea and in the moment. Breathe, or let tears flow. They might be torrential ones when emotions are clearing, releasing. Grab a box of tissues; let it out. Tears, waterworks, releasing held-in emotions.

Communicate that you know you overreacted and you’re not sure, yet, where it came from. And that you need some time and space for now. Then give each other some space and alone time–a long walk, a work out; something physical to continue the release of adrenaline and emotions.

Ask for Insight

In your alone time, ask for insight and go within to figure out who and what you reacted so strongly to. It may surprise you.

Some find writing helps process emotions, allowing whatever is inside to flow onto a page. Let it out, all of it; no judgment or filters or writing class censors. Pages of scrap paper work well. Scrap paper, serving a purpose; to recycle, toss, or tear up later.

When you’re done, read what you wrote . . . or not. Was there an “ah-ha” insight in there? Maybe it will take more time. Allow yourself what you need and eventually, insight will drop in; you’ll know which past hurt triggered such strong emotion. Be gentle with yourself.

And then have another conversation and share the story.

Saying You’re Sorry

This may come earlier or now. Either way, healthy happy relationships include saying we’re sorry . . . for things we’re actually sorry for. (That famous Love Story movie quote had to be written by someone very inexperienced in relationships . . . just saying.)

If a refresher is helpful, here’s a cute little ‘How to Apologize’ video. She suggests writing a script for yourself. To make it easier.


There will be new understandings coming out of this, with another layer of depth in your relationship. And future emotional triggers will be easier to recognize. You may even have a secret phrase you’ll use to diffuse next time much quicker. As in, “Who are we paying for this time?” (Smile here. You now know that somebody, and a situation in your past, is the real culprit.)

An interesting thing happens when we name something and bring it into the light; it’s not so scary or powerful anymore.

Gold and the Sun

Great love relationships are gold and sunlight of our lives; priceless treasures. So is our ability to love.  Be mindful of this. We are everyday players on a center stage — and peripheral stages—of each other’s lives, in both grand and ordinary adventures. We are our storytellers and actors.

Enjoy, play, dance, grieve when you must, create scripts, treat yourself and one another as best you can.

Happy Valentine’s week. Hope you’ve enjoyed these Relationships Center-Stage posts. I’ve enjoyed creating them. Love always

Anne Wondra is owner of WonderSpirit coaching and writing. Connect with her at or

Outdoor Play in Winter

February 8, 2019

I work at a small nature preschool in the greater Milwaukee area.  Our curriculum revolves around the natural world. Nature is our teaching partner, helping to strengthen everything from our sense of community and emotional well-being, to gross motor skills and environmental awareness. We use nature to help teach mathematical skills, as well as emerging literacy. We use nature to help promote empathy.

We strive to connect young children to nature while also supporting their developmental needs. When we dip nets into ponds, we are not only learning about the pond ecosystem, we are practicing balance, and self-regulation. When we chase the waves on the shores of Lake Michigan, we are strengthening coordination and large motor skills. We are also providing opportunities for free and joyful play while encouraging a deeper connection to nature.

This means that going outdoors, rain or shine, is part of the core of our program. It also means that at least once a month I am asked, “but what about the winter?”

Adults are sometimes surprised to learn that we still go outside when the temperature plummets. In fact, we go outside every day except in the case of hazardous weather. And the fact is, there is seldom anyone better bundled than a preschool child in winter. With a good pair of waterproof mittens, snow pants, a coat, warm boots, a neck warmer, and hat, preschool children are more prepared than just about anyone to play outdoors all winter long.

And there are so many amazing ways to play outside on cold days! Here are some of our favorites, tried and tested over the past fifteen years with hundreds of preschool children. It is our hope that parents and other educators might be inspired to try a few (in fact, we know several who already do). For while Wisconsin winters may be long, childhood is all too short. Playing outside should be part of it.

  • Look for animal tracks in the snow
  • If you find one, make a cast of that track (we use Plaster-of-Paris powder, premeasured into baggies and easily mixed with a cup of water).
  • Follow the tracks and see where they lead. Can you find winter dens and nests?
  • Collect snowflakes on sheets of black felt and study them with magnifying lenses (tip: put the felt in the freezer beforehand)
  • Break up partially frozen ice with sticks
  • Sled down hills—with or without sleds
  • Boot skate on frozen ponds (Make sure an adult is present and has tested the ice in advance. We hammer in a pre-measured railroad tie to check the thickness, and like the ice to be at least four inches deep before we take children on it; two inches or less means stay off!)
  • Take, draw, or paint pictures of your neighborhood in spring, summer, and fall, and then take a winter walk. Compare the changes in the landscape.
  • Paint outside in the winter. A heavy piece of cardboard makes a good easel.
  • Take a winter listening hike. How does the sound of winter compare with spring, summer, and fall? How does winter sound just before and just after a snowstorm?
  • Play music outside in winter. We like to use shakers, rain sticks, drums, bells, etc.
  • Collect snow in a bowl or bucket. Make predictions (and mark with a piece of tape) where the waterline will be after it melts. Test your prediction
  • Use colored water in spray bottles, eye-droppers, etc. to create paintings in the snow
  • Fill Bundt pans with water, add cranberries, orange slices, bird seed, etc. and set them out to freeze. Use warm water to release the ice, then hang your art/bird feeders from trees
  • Fill balloons with colored water. Place them outside, allow them to freeze, then cut the balloons apart. Race your ice balls down a hill or set up an outdoor bowling area
  • Create colored ice sculptures by filling different molds, pans, etc. with colored water. Invite neighbors and friends to add to your design.
  • Visit Lake Michigan in winter
  • Build fairy houses and gnome homes

Run, climb, jump, slide, sculpt, touch, taste, create, experiment, explore, and play!

Catherine Koons Hubbard is the preschool director for the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, in Bayside. As director, she strives to see more children spending time outdoors, playing in nature, or in the neighborhood, throughout all seasons.

The Man in the Tree Just Watches, Like Me

January 8, 2019

There is something to be said for doing nothing because out of nothingness usually comes something-ness. If we are willing to wait and be the observer of the moment, interesting things can take shape.

One soggy summer Sunday, I was enjoying just that: a whole lot of nothingness. It was drizzling and so a good day for staring out the window.

From my living room couch, I have a relatively pleasant view out my patio doors of the balcony. Beyond the balcony there are several very tall shady ash trees, home to crows, hummingbirds, cardinals, robins, squirrels, nuthatches, cicadas, and other assorted winged creatures. There is always something going on and worth watching in those trees.

On this day, lying on my couch, I stared out the patio doors to allow daydreams to percolate in my mind. Or, more realistically, I lay there and thought about things I should be doing instead of lying on my couch.

I shifted my gaze to focus on the beautiful trees swaying in the breeze. Gradually, I zeroed in on one area of the ash directly in front of the balcony—and saw something intriguing. Someone was staring back at me. Camouflaged among the fluttering leaves in shades of dark and light green, a solemn face emerged from the branches.

It was . . . a man . . .  a green leafy man.

I looked twice, then squinted once more at the tree. I opened the screen and peered at the tree more closely. The face peered back at me as if to say, “What do you see, in this green tree?”

A tingling sensation ran up my spine, and after several minutes of watching the green face, I grabbed my phone. I needed a witness, because I thought he would be gone once the winds picked up. I returned to snap a photo and he was still there, patiently watching from his hiding place, minding his own business. My jaw dropped, yet he maintained his composure.

After a half-hour or so, I became accustomed to him. Like the natural creatures that we both are, we went back to waiting and watching, doing little else that afternoon but listening to the rain drip from the leaves of the ash trees.

This winter, the city tree trimmers came up the street and pruned all of the trees. What used to be green leafy branches are now just stubs. The good news is spring will bring forth new leaves; however, it remains to be seen if the green leafy man will be among them.

Trees are good with change, aren’t they? Every season, they evolve by letting go; for them, it’s as natural as breathing . I, on the other hand, am still learning this lesson. It’s not necessarily fun to let go of attachments, I’ve discovered, but as time goes by I begin to see the value in it. If the trees do it, than so must I.

Heidi L. Friedrichs is a Milwaukee-based author. 

Repurposed Wrapping

December 20, 2018

Over Christmas gatherings, some of the elders in my family caught some playful jabs for oh-so-carefully opening their presents to preserve the beautiful wrapping paper. While others intensely ripped at their presents, discarding the paper and ribbons, folks like my great-Aunt Stella carefully slit the tape and folded the paper, saving every sheet large or small for future use. Relatives reminded her that she could afford to buy new wrapping paper next December, but for our Great Depression-era relatives, it wasn’t always about the comfort of having disposable income in their later years. They grew up in a time when reuse and recycle was regular habit, and I always try to incorporate their beliefs to create a less-wasteful holiday.

I also occasionally save paper from gifts and definitely repurpose any ribbons or bows that had not been torn or crushed. Other Earth-friendly options can I have fun with are old maps, the Sunday funnies, and scarves and scrap fabric to wrap gifts. Local thrift shops usually have good selections of used children’s books, and when I find one with colorful illustrations, I tear those pages out to wrap gifts for kids. I also collect spools and remnants of fabric craft ribbon to pretty up the packages, instead of using store-bought bows. Colorful bakers twine can add a fun twist to a gift, and the string can be repurposed for kitchen use.

Sheet music makes fun wrap for gifts for the musician or music lover in the family. I’ve also torn maps out of atlases found at resale shops to wrap gifts for the explorer or someone who has a trip planned for the coming year. Holiday touches can be added with sprigs of artificial holly, a poinsettia flower, or repurposed flat ornaments like snowflakes. I’ve also found unique rolls of vintage holiday wrap at rummage sales and antique shops. I just trimmed off any yellowed edges, and the paper was still perfectly good.

Everyone might not have the time or want to use Aunt Stella’s technique of saving wrapping paper, but remember that most wrapping paper is recyclable, except for foil wrap. But ribbons and bows generally are not recyclable, and stringy objects like ribbon can get caught in machinery at materials recovery facilities. Check with your local municipality for more specific guidelines about recycling holiday wrappings.

Cheers to a joyful, safe, and eco-friendly holiday!

Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.




Shop Local This Holiday Season

November 24, 2018

With Black Friday sales dominating television news footage and internet ads, it’s easy to get drawn in by that deal on a new smart TV, or housewares at 50 percent off. Big-box and national chain retailers can offer smokin’ deals, but the best value for our communities comes through spending you money at locally owned shops. Milwaukee is lucky to have a wealth of small, locally owned businesses throughout the city that can hook you up with unique clothing, household goods, music, bicycles, food, cards, holiday décor and more, each offering one-of-a-kind gifts often not mass-produced or shipped halfway around the globe, thus lessening our carbon footprints.

By patronizing locally owned businesses whenever possible, whether it be restaurants or retail, you’re sustaining your local economy. For every $100 you spend at locally owned businesses, $68 stays in the community. According to Local First Milwaukee, an alliance of independently owned businesses and nonprofits, “money spent with a local business generates 75 percent more state and local tax revenues and is far more likely to be re-spent locally.”

Local businesses, owned by neighborhood entrepreneurs, create vibrant communities by occupying storefronts and hosting events. Because small business entrepreneurs often specialize in specific goods or services, they are very knowledgeable about what they sell and take the time to assist customers. Small business entrepreneurs have no shareholders to answer to, so customers, as well as their employees, are truly valued. Shopping locally also boots environmental sustainability, since many small businesses are right in neighborhoods, often within walking distance or a short drive. So bundle up, take a walk and explore the fine small businesses through Small Business Saturday:

For shops participating in Small Business Saturday by neighborhood, Milwaukee Magazine has published a convenient guide:

Also, check out Nest Holiday Pop-up Shop from Marquette University students at 157 S. 1st St., from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Milwaukee Makers Market at Discovery World from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

If you happen to miss Small Business Saturday, don’t fret—you can shop locally any time during the holiday season—and throughout the year.

Sheila Julson is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.