My Favorite Summer Tradition Is Full of Trash and Treasures


My happily gloved environmentalists.
My happily gloved environmentalists.

“Who would do this?” Evan asks, picking up a smashed water bottle and dropping it into the plastic bag I’m carrying. We are walking to the end of our street, where it bends around a corner and spills into a gas station and convenience store. The boys insisted on starting this litter cleanup tradition a few weeks ago, fueled by a passion for the environment sparked in their elementary school. They are on summer break, but I’m finding that school is always in session for me.

This is the same half-mile stretch where nearly all of my runs begin. Here I start up my running app, and here I pause for the traffic light, and here I adjust the volume on my phone and pick a good pace song.

“Who would do this?” he says again, dropping a silver gum wrapper into the bag, and with sudden embarrassment I think about the earrings I tossed aside right here one day while jogging. They were an old pair, inexpensive, not my favorites, and I’d forgotten to take them off before leaving for my run. They were long and dangly and it took just ¼ mile of them jangling against my earbuds for me to become annoyed enough to discard them.

I pulled them out of my ears and tossed them toward the edge of the sidewalk, never breaking stride, feeling like a badass runner who sacrifices anything that gets in her way. I thought maybe I’d see them on my way back through and carry them home. But I never did.

I wasn’t a badass that day. I was part of the problem my kids are now diligently trying to solve, one stray wrapper at a time.

The bigger the find, the more incredulous the boy. "Someone threw THIS on the ground?"
The bigger the find, the more incredulous the boy. “Someone threw THIS on the ground?”

A few weeks ago they came to me and announced I had a new title. “You’re Reuse, Mommy,” Evan said. “Kostyn is Reduce, and I’m Recycle. So your job is to make old things into new things.”

“Uhhh,” I said. “OK.” Ever since then Kostyn has been turning out the lights and pestering me about water usage while brushing my teeth. Evan tries to recycle everything. Everything. And when cornered, I lamely point out how I reuse plastic grocery bags to pick up dog poop in the yard, and turn empty toilet paper rolls into mini helmets and cars for their smallest stuffed animals. It doesn’t feel like enough, but it’s something.

They walk a few paces ahead of me, both wearing thin black winter gloves they pulled out of the closet before we left. Kostyn is also wearing a winter hat – mine – which he says helps to keep the flies away from his head. I smile at the two of them, imagining what passing drivers think of my gloved environmentalists who occasionally stop to chase little brown bunnies through the empty field to our left.

Besides the rabbits, we see groundhogs and squirrels and bluejays and a pretty white cat Evan momentarily mistakes for a statue. We see wildflowers, and trails of ants, and berries I tell them not to eat. This has quickly become my favorite summer tradition.

“Maybe if people see us doing this they’ll want to do it too,” Kostyn says, picking up another cigarette “bottom.” I tell him that’s really the best way to teach somebody something, to lead by example, and what a great job they’re doing.

They ask a lot of questions about the cigarette butts, and I tell them smokers probably don’t think about the fact that the ends of their cigarettes contain chemicals and plastic and traces of tobacco. They look harmless, small things that don’t matter, discarded with a simple flick. Like cheap earrings, I think with shame.

The evening's haul.
The evening’s haul.

Our plastic bag is stuffed full by the time we reach the bend in the road. We cross the street hand in hand in hand, and I tie the bag’s handles together and toss it into the garbage bin, then offer to buy them a treat.

The first time I offered, Kostyn asked why they were getting treats, and I wanted to hug him, hard, for the intrinsic reward he’d already felt. This day when we walk into Sheetz, the teenager at the counter smiles.

“It’s the litter cleanup crew again,” she says.

“You remember them?” I ask, putting a Twix ice cream bar and an ice cream sandwich on the counter.

“Well, there aren’t many kids who come in here this time of year with shorts and gloves on,” she says. I smile and turn back toward them, but they are in mock battle with each other by the doors. The gloves have morphed into something else in their minds, and I rein in their superhero antics before a display gets knocked over.

On the way home I wave and call hello to an old man sitting on his front step. “Mommy, isn’t that a stranger?” Kostyn asks in a low voice.

“Well, yes, but he’s also a neighbor,” I say. It’s a difficult concept to understand, that we’re all strangers and neighbors. It is not just his yard. Or my earrings. Or your cigarette butt. It is their world. It is mine. It is ours. And every day, they are making me into something new.

Mother Nature does her best to make up for mankind's failings.
Mother Nature does her best to make up for mankind’s failings.

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Eight Things I Don’t Do Enough (Not Counting ‘Mop the Floor’)


I think if there was a dust-heart on every scale, the world would be a happier place.

A few weeks ago my sons pulled out the bathroom scale, which lives under a dresser in my bedroom gathering dust, and took turns seeing how much they weigh. Of course they wanted me to join in the fun. “Mommy, your turn! Let’s see your number!”

The next 1.3 seconds inside my head went something like this: “Noooo way I haven’t stepped on that in forever I don’t like scales they don’t like me my shoes are on should I take them off I’m wearing too many layers I just ate lunch the number would be wrong what if the boys say my weight when we’re in public I shouldn’t be weird about this don’t let them see how scared you are,” all while a slightly embarrassed smile, masked as amusement, was spreading across my face.

And then I declined. Stupidly. For no good reason. “Nahhh,” I said as casually as I could muster, as if the tone of voice I used made a difference in the way they understood my refusal.

They didn’t understand it, of course, and pleaded a couple more times before moving on to a new discovery, leaving me there in the bedroom staring at a dusty black scale and thinking about what I might have inadvertently just taught them – or missed out on teaching them – by what I didn’t do.

Unfortunately we don’t just learn from words and actions. We also learn from silence, refusal, inaction and disregard. And those lessons are perhaps scarier than the ones we actively, knowingly teach our kids, because we’re not really in charge of them. Sometimes we’re not even conscious of them. They’re just happening, right there in the middle of an ordinary Tuesday, because of the space we leave open to interpretation when we freeze, or stay silent, or appear oblivious, or say “Nahhh” with no reasonable explanation.

The realization bothered me so much that I came up with a whole list of things I don’t do very much that could very well be affecting the way my boys view themselves and the world around them. So this year, in a twist on the traditional New Year’s Resolution, here is a list of eight things I don’t do – or don’t do enough – that I will aim to do with both intention and frequency in 2015.

Eight Things I Don’t Do Enough

Pick up trash. I always thought I was pretty good at this one, until I went for a ½-mile walk with my kids last summer. That’s when I noticed that I picked up easy target items – an empty Gatorade bottle, a discarded plastic grocery bag – while my kids picked up every tiny piece of trash they saw. Everything. It must have taken us 40 minutes to walk that 1/2 mile, and that empty plastic bag I’d picked up was stretched full of straw wrappers and gum wrappers and receipts and broken pieces of godknowswhat. There is no difference too small to make in the world.

Say the compliment I am thinking. Everyone wants validation and words of affirmation. I’m pretty good about doling out compliments to the people I know, but not the people I don’t know. If I want my kids to be observant, kind-hearted and sincere, then I need to start modeling that, which means not just noticing someone’s pretty bracelet or well-behaved child, but telling them so. Every time you think something positive, say it.

Work toward my dreams. The other day my boys asked if I’d read them a children’s story I wrote long ago, which they love. So I brought my laptop over to the couch and opened the Microsoft Word file that houses my dream. Why is it still on my laptop instead of in the hands of a publisher or agent? I have long envisioned the day I could hand them a hardcover version of it, and they’d see their names inside and their mom’s on the cover, tangible evidence not just of imagination but tenacity. Don’t let your kids become the only dreams you work on.

Read. Not counting what’s on my laptop or iPhone, my kids rarely see me read. I have stacks of books I’d like to get to but don’t make the time. I don’t like what that is subtly telling them. Sometimes clichés are true: Knowledge is power, and reading is fundamental.

Put myself in the photo. When I look back on an archive of photos that document my kids’ growing up years, I want it to be apparent that I was there enjoying it with them, even when my hair was in a ponytail and I didn’t have lip gloss on. They do care about your appearance – but not your looks.

Cross traditional gender lines. My kids routinely ask me if my favorite color is pink, and are always shocked when I say “No.” Someday they’ll hopefully understand the subtle power and unseen strength in all that women do and are, but for now what they see is whether or not I hand the hammer to a man when it’s time to hang a picture. If you don’t want them to believe in stereotypes, don’t become one.

Pray out loud. I want my kids to grow up turning to God in times of gratitude and distress. How are they going to know how to do that if I don’t show them? Since they can’t hear all the silent prayers I send up – for them and others – I need to pray aloud, not just at the dinner table or at bedtime, but when I receive good news about a loved one. Or when we pass the aftermath of a car accident. Or when they tell me a friend is sick or hurting. When you get the urge to call on God, do it out loud.

Step on the scale. The fight against our culture’s barrage of messages that suggest women are largely imperfect (and objects to conquer) is a daunting one, yet frowning at the mirror or refusing to get on a scale only reinforces those lies. I want my sons to grow up believing all women are beautiful and deserve respect because they love and respect themselves. There is no numeric value attached to who you are.

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Dark Matter


“The universe is coming apart at the seams,” astronomy and astrophysics professor Robin Ciardullo says to the 20 people watching his PowerPoint presentation in a small classroom on Penn State’s campus. It’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday and we’re all listening to his lecture on how, after decades of research and billions of dollars in space exploration, astronomers have come to the conclusion that the universe actually doesn’t make as much sense as they’d hoped. You can tell by the way he’s flailing his arms and throwing bewildered looks around the room that this conclusion, at least for Ciardullo, is deeply unsettling.

It fills me with a relieved sense of calm.

I’m sitting in the front row of this insightful little show, just one of many offered during Astro Fest, a four-night astronomy event that coincides with Central Pennsylvania’s Festival of the Arts. Given that the universe itself is a work of art, local astronomers take the opportunity each year to showcase its brilliance, commiserate about its frustrating unpredictability and – through the magic of 3D movies and million-dollar telescopes – remind us of our relative insignificance.

“I just feel … insignificant,” I say to Chris almost exactly one year earlier, the day after the first flashback jolts my body with nausea in the present over a putrid memory just beginning to bubble up from the distant past.

We are on vacation at a beach in Delaware and I am staring at the vastness of the ocean and my sons building trenches in the sand. But all I can see are the shadows deep inside my psyche, disjointed waves of anxiety and fear and a sense of resigned worthlessness that until now have had no shore on which to crash.

Ciardullo presses a button and a new slide appears, explaining how gravity should be slowing the expansion of the universe, but instead the opposite is happening. For some reason, planets and stars and asteroids are flying apart at a faster and faster rate. Astronomers theorize that this is due to a mysterious dark matter, about which very little is known.

“Everything we see and know about is only about 4 percent of the universe,” Ciardullo says. I empathize with the strained effort it has taken to shift his view not just on the composition of the universe, but on the previously held belief that he understood it.

“It is hard to have the memories now,” I write to myself a couple weeks after the trip to the beach. “My brain has done such a good job of hiding them. And I always wanted to understand myself better but now I feel like I don’t know who I’ve been, like I am someone different than I thought I was all this time….”

Ciardullo is using numbers and ratios and scientifically proven data to preface and explain the existence of dark matter, something he says nobody can see. I sink lower in my faux leather armchair and stare at the percentages he has put up on the screen:

Constituents of the Universe:
Stars, Planets, Asteroids, etc. – 1.5% Mass
Gas, inside and outside of galaxies – 13.4% Mass
Dark Matter – 85% Mass

“Searches have proved that dark matter does not emit light, does not absorb light, and does not reflect light,” Ciardullo says. “It is totally invisible, aside from the fact that it has gravity.”

The journal is a lined writing pad, bound at the top with a spiral ring and cluttered inside with confessions, confusion and the crushing weight of a child’s pain. “The images are so far away, decades away, but chokingly vivid. I can hear him shushing me, forceful, I can feel how little he really saw me or cared about me. That little girl didn’t feel like a person in that moment, in that dark spare bedroom. She felt less than a living, breathing thing, lying there still and quiet, like a stuffed animal rather than an innocent child. That feeling of insignificance is so strong it weighs me down, even all these years later, and in the light of day.”

Scientists like Ciardullo are working hard to understand dark matter, this nonluminous material that makes up so much of who we are as a universe. The planets, the moons, the gaseous balls of light that we wish upon are really just the icing on a cake made of unknown ingredients, a vast shapeless sea that is at once holding things together and, it turns out, pushing them apart.

Dark matter is all around us, wrapped around our constellations and tucked into the folds of our memories. Unseen forces and hidden hurts and grave errors of judgment, black spaces we can’t see or refuse to see but can feel, taking up more room than they should, mystifying scientists and middle-aged women who spent their lives believing one truth and then painstakingly unraveling another.


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One Woman, Two Dreams, Seven Years: How ‘Working From Home’ Is Finally Just That

Kostyn, 7, took this picture of me working this summer. I pray this isn't the overriding memory they have of Mommy from these last several years we've spent together.
Kostyn, 7, took this picture of me working this summer. I pray this isn’t the overriding memory they have of Mommy from these last several years we’ve spent together.

In June 2006, I was promoted to features editor at the daily newspaper where I worked. I had been at the paper for seven years already, and had wanted that job even longer than that. After a decade of struggling to build something resembling a career in journalism, I felt like I’d finally made it. I had a small staff of my own, a talented assistant editor at my side, a Sunday column, and six weekly sections to assign, manage and proof. I was working 12-hour days and loving it; I imagined owning that desk for a long, long time.

Three months later I found out I was pregnant.

It was an unplanned, shocking pregnancy, and though we were thrilled, almost immediately an inner battle began brewing. The writer in me was not about to give up her dream. The mother in me wasn’t either, not even for a few hours a day.

I spent the next nine months in denial, not really making a decision about what I’d do. I told everyone I’d be coming back to the paper after my maternity leave was done, because that’s what I wanted to do. I said it so often and with such confidence that half of me believed it. But the other half knew I hadn’t called a single day care center or potential babysitter to line up child care for my supposed return to full-time employment.

The managing editor and copy desk chief threw a baby shower for me. In the weeks before the due date, I trained my assistant editor on how to handle everything in my absence. Meanwhile, I helped a team of consultants redesign the features section – “My baby,” I remember saying more than once – and generally continued the hectic daily newspaper pace until the day one of my editors, a mother herself, told me I really should take it easy. So I collected a round of hugs and left my desk cluttered with the various keepsakes, papers and awards I’d gathered over the years. “I’ll be back,” I said to everyone, including myself.

Five days later I gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and six weeks after that I called my boss, choking back tears, to tell him what half of me knew 10 months earlier: I wasn’t coming back.

Almost immediately, I was blessed to be given the opportunity to work from home part-time for the paper instead, and though I greatly missed the camaraderie of the newsroom and my beloved features desk, I was thankful for the chance to keep contributing to the family’s finances (a necessity) and retain at least some of my pre-baby identity.

What I didn’t realize then but quickly learned was that the single decision to become a work-from-home parent would be followed by a million smaller ones, every day, about how to do it. And those choices, more than the work and the kids combined, can really wear you down.

Do I try to squeeze in one more phone call, or bring the boys outside to play? Do I answer the phone and try to take notes in my car in the grocery store parking lot and pray the baby stays asleep, or let it go to voicemail and risk losing out on that potential job? Do I stop what I’m typing mid-sentence when my son wants me to look at the robot he’s building? How about now? And now? And now? And now?

Can I write one more business profile before lunch? Why does my editor always call when we just start reading books?? Will Evan’s nap time be reliable enough to schedule that phone interview I desperately need to get done? Can I finish all of this after bedtime, again?

I choose the playground over the research, but then I have to choose the last-minute research over the dance party. “Just give Mommy one minute to send this email.” “Mommy has to do a phone call for work, so you can finish your lunch and watch ONE EPISODE of ‘Superman’ and then we’ll play a game…”

For years I’ve been ping-ponging between the two roles, berating myself every day for falling short on both.

Being home with my sons has been an amazing gift. I’ve been able to rock and nurse and coo (and burp and change and feed and discipline and potty train) to my heart’s content. We’ve played, we’ve snuggled, we’ve explored. We’ve painted and danced and skipped and biked for hours and hours on end.

We’ve slept in, watched cartoons all morning, stayed in our PJs all day. We’ve been superheroes and robots and wild animals on the African plain. We’ve yelled at one another and whined about each other and laughed together. We’ve read and read and read and read and read. We’ve built snowmen and blanket forts and bonds so strong they will never be broken.

But still, the back and forth tug between working and mothering has been difficult (as it is for all working parents, no matter where you earn your paycheck).

After a summer of trying to take on extra work while also entertaining (and refereeing) my growing, energetic and very loud boys, my daily life now looks and sounds much different. Evan has started full-day kindergarten. Suddenly both of my sons are in school, away from the house for six hours a day. Six hours of silence. Six hours in a row to write. To conduct phone interviews. To email and edit and invoice and market myself for even more work.

In those first few minutes of silence last week, all I could hear was the absence of their laughter, and all I could feel was that familiar regret of parenthood, which somehow appears no matter what I do or how hard I try.

If only I hadn’t worked so much this summer, we would have had more time to play together, I lamented. I tried to assuage my guilt with a mental list of the fun things we had done, but it was overshadowed by all the ideas we’d had in the beginning of summer that never happened. Maybe if I’d been able to work more I could have at least afforded the swimming lessons I’d promised them.

The kids were gone, but my mind was still ping-ponging.

As I sat there at my desk, listening to the quiet and staring at a list of my latest assignments, my email inbox lit up with a message from LinkedIn. “Sue Jarrett congratulated you on your work anniversary!” it read.

My work anniversary? I thought. I haven’t had a real job in ages. Something in my profile must be outdated. Puzzled, I clicked on the link, and there it was: “Seven years ago this August, Robyn Passante became self-employed.”

I stared at the message, worded like it was an accomplishment. Seven years. For seven years I’ve been juggling diapers and dinosaurs and deadlines. In that moment I realized I haven’t been giving myself enough credit, as a mother or a professional. I not only do have a “real” job, I have TWO real jobs. I ping-pong between them because I love them both. For the first time, that isn’t an apology – it’s a declaration.

And after seven lucky, difficult, beautiful years, I am thankful to have the breathing room I need to help me do both of those jobs even better.

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Fuel For My Friend, Whom I Love

love-inspirational-dailyThere is a woman I know who breaks my heart.  She is beyond beautiful; she is luminescent. It is a quiet beauty that doesn’t need lipstick or 3-inch heels. It is the best kind of beauty, the kind that shines outward from deep within, where there is a soulful goodness, a grounded spiritual center that holds her upright when the waves of life come crashing against her. And they often do. It is crazy how much this woman has endured, and overcome.

She is proud of several things about herself – her heritage, her children, her friendships. But she can barely accept a compliment. She has worked hard to stop denying them outright, but her eyes betray her bashful “thank you.” They turn downward or shift slightly to the right, casting aside any perceived authenticity that came with the kind words.

She champions others, cares for others, cheers for others. She gives far more than she takes. She puts herself last when she deserves to be first.

The list of things she likes about herself is short and generic; she is careful to avoid thinking about it too much, lest anyone believe she’s full of herself. Yet the list of things she wishes she could change about herself is exhaustive and detailed. This list depresses her so she tries not to think about it, but always it’s there, a catalog of all the ways she’s not measuring up.

She hates that list, yet she clings to it. Somehow it has become her comfort, holding her down from being healthier, happier, respected, keeping her from being in love with herself as she is, and in love with someone who really loves her back.

I often think about this woman when I run, because I love her and I have been like her for most of my life. I know that she has tried to change things about herself that she hates, but that’s the reason it never works – because she’s trying to use hate and shame and guilt as fuel.  And they aren’t fuel.

She’ll never get anywhere with hate and shame and guilt. They are toxic. They are the source of the problem, the crack in her fuel line, the reason all her good intentions eventually drain away. They aren’t helpful. They aren’t healthy. They are a cancer, eating away at her brittle self-esteem and her time here on Earth, the very limited time she has to love herself freely and without apology.

Love is what she needs. Love is the only kind of fuel that will propel her forward with any sort of sustainable momentum. And I watch her give it all away, siphon it from her own tank until she’s running on fumes and berating herself, once again, for not being strong enough, good enough, for not having enough willpower or motivation or energy or time, when in fact all of these things would magically appear if she just found one thing and held it close: Love.

If I could I would reach inside and pull the choking vines of hate and shame and guilt that have flourished there with such resilience; I’d yank them by the roots, and she would be dizzy, almost fearful of how her existence feels without them. And then maybe she’d finally hear it, the heart within that beats a repeating love song just for her.

But I can’t do that. I can only keep telling her how beautiful she is, how powerful and amazing and brilliant, how her smile makes the world better because she means it.

There are so many things to love about her; all she has to do is pick one and harness the power of that love as fuel to do the next thing, the hard thing, the thing she’s been wanting and needing and yearning to do, whatever it is. Anything. Everything.

Maybe today is the day she’ll do it.

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