“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.
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.
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.