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Friday, July 15, 2016

Living Amongst The Beasts Of Suburbia

Finally released from the captivity of school, wrestling with their newfound freedom, and each other, our children have resorted to one of their favorite summer pastimes—non-stop bickering about everything from who used all the scotch tape to who gets the iPad first—making my husband and I feel like our house has been transformed into “Meerkat Manor,” where a “battle royale of competition and survival” daily plays out.

Actual and sometimes harrowing encounters with the wildlife that brazenly roams our neighborhood in sultry weather, enacting Darwin’s theory of natural selection right before our suburban eyes, has only enhanced this sensation.

Rabbits hop through our yard, digging up our plants and bulbs. Grey and black squirrels scurry about, gorging on berries and buried nuts, as well as food scraps our kids make a practice of scattering when we dine al fresco. Groundhogs trundle out of my path when I run along the Cynwyd Heritage Trail.

The other morning I saw a curious hole in the grass outside our back door and peered in. I was rewarded with a chipmunk darting up into my face, as I leaped back, startled, recalling the time as a child I gazed into a similar opening—that one the home of a snake.

Thus, I am no stranger to animals cozying up to me in and around the urban and suburban shelters I have occupied throughout my life.

As a graduate student in New York, my roommates and I unwillingly discovered that the scratching sounds we heard in the kitchen each night came from a family of mice nesting in the paper bags we stored under our sink.

When I was growing up in Seattle, my mother tried to drown a rat she’d caught in a long cage in our attic in a bucket of water. But when she traipsed up hours later in her nightgown, the cage was empty.

The specter of that vanished rat still haunts my nightmares, as do the memories of the flying squirrels that infested the 110-year-old Bala Cynwyd house I now live in. We spent thousands of dollars and several months trying to evict them with the help of two separate exterminating companies.

So I was practically unfazed when a friend showed me a picture on her cell phone of a decomposing baby fox skull she had discovered in her yard one recent morning.

“Coyotes,” I said knowingly, recalling that I had heard somewhere—maybe from an unreliable neighbor, maybe on NPR—that these animals were lately moving into the suburbs across the country.

A few mornings later, my husband and I spotted a hawk on the street in front of our house, snacking on the putrid corpse of a squirrel.

By now, seeing a bird of prey taking its breakfast on our doorstep seemed the natural course of events. So we paused to snap pictures.

Then the other day, as I lugged a laden laundry basket to the basement washer, I spied a brown snake coiled near the steps to our Bilco doors.

I dashed upstairs, thinking only that the snake better be there when I returned or I’d never sleep again, knowing that it could still be slinking around our house. After grabbing a handful of plastic grocery sacks, I plunged back down, two steps at a time, and scooped up the snake, feeling its fleshy weight in my covered hand.

Outside on the strip of grass near the road, I danced around, frantically shaking out all three bags—hoping that none of our three kids were looking out the windows—ever more frantic as the snake failed to appear.

And then, abruptly, there it was, complacently slinking away.

“What have you got?” inquired a neighbor who had the bad manners to be sauntering by at this vulnerable moment.

“Looks like your common garter,” he said, taking a look, charitably adding after seeing my stricken expression that “anyone would be scared by that.”

I had been too frenzied to even think of calling or texting my husband at work for assistance. So that evening, I revised the story into one that illustrated my immense composure and bravery, still wondering exactly how a snake had sneaked into our basement.

Then a couple of nights later, after a particularly grueling afternoon of refereeing our children’s sparring, I heard what sounded like a baby screeching or maybe a woman shrieking in labor.

Our dog sat up on his bed, ears cocked.

“What is that?” I called to my husband, who came upstairs and listened at the open window until the hair-raising call sounded again.

“A fox,” Jeff said.

And with that, my husband matter-of-factly punctuated what suddenly seemed like just another day in the wilds of our neighborhood and our home.

Connect with Courtenay Harris Bond on Facebook.

When Children Amaze

One of the ways that children render their existence tolerable to their parents—giving us the stamina to endure their fiery outbursts and relentless demands—is through their uncanny ability to amaze us at the most unexpected times.

For instance, my 9-year-old son suddenly decided the other morning to declare a temporary détente in his ongoing war with his younger sister and actually help her with something.

Griffin sat on the floor with Jane, 5, before school and guided her through the excruciating process of learning to tie her shoes, a task I had tried to assist her with countless times before and failed.

To my surprise, however, Griffin not only exhibited patience, but also met with success.

“Now make two bunny ears and wrap them around each other,” he calmly instructed.

“I did it!” Jane exclaimed.

And I was left to marvel at their unforeseen collaboration, temporarily basking in the warmth of their shared accomplishment.

But the next day, when Jane and I were alone, she started to get discouraged all over again.

“They keep coming undone!” Jane wailed.

“I know it’s frustrating,” I said, unable to resist adding the cliché that “practice makes perfect.”

“No,” Jane retorted. “Practice doesn’t make perfect because nothing’s perfect. Practice makes better.”

I found myself vigorously nodding at her wisdom, encountering one of those parental moments when you realize that your children are only masquerading as annoying idiots but are actually miniature sages.

My husband and I frequently experience such epiphanies with Griffin’s twin sister, Georgia, who often seems much older than her 9 years as she lets us in on secrets that we forgot we knew—or never even knew at all.

In a book she made for Mother’s Day, Georgia said that if I were a food, I would be a “Belgium” waffle. And I immediately understood that not only was she correct, but that I also wanted one right then and there.

Georgia’s perceptiveness occasionally takes a more serious turn, such as when she lets me know that I’m not actually listening to what she is saying and helps me slow down enough to hear what she is feeling.

In these moments, Georgia reminds me that my talking is not as important as her talking—that if I cannot resolve the frustration she is experiencing, at least I can let her release it into the open air, which is often the best remedy of all.

For example, the other day after school Georgia was crying about how much she hated homework, how tired she was of all the worksheets and how hard the assignments sometimes were.

I kept asking, “Do you want me to help?” I kept urging her to take a break. “Go out in the yard and play,” I kept saying.

“No, I want to do my homework,” Georgia finally looked up at me and blubbered. “But I want to keep crying about it. That will make me feel better.”

And I realized how she made such perfect sense: that sometimes we don’t want to take care of the tasks life confronts us with, the ones that intrude with their compulsory inevitability. We know we have to execute these duties, but whining about them a little bit helps make them more palatable.

Furthermore, my children’s insights sometimes offer me a greater sense of self-awareness, even if that knowledge ends up being painful.

“I circled ‘patient,’” Georgia told me when she gave me the Mother’s Day book that had a list of adjectives she was supposed to select from to describe me. “You aren’t really very patient, but I felt bad not choosing it.”

I got the point, just as my son’s Mother’s Day project clarified for me exactly how my OCD affects him.

In response to the prompt, “I’m not quite sure why mom always…” Griffin wrote, “cleans the house when it’s already clean.”

And to, “The most interesting thing about my mom’s life so far is,” he responded, “that she’s almost never late.”

Though these were not the personality traits and life experiences I would have hoped my son would highlight, I really couldn't quibble with their accuracy. My husband and I just shook our heads and laughed.

And ultimately, that is the most amazing part of having children, when they indicate that it may be time to lighten up and stop worrying so much because they really are smarter than you already—and pretty much squared away.

Connect with Courtenay Harris Bond on Facebook.

Light Through The Cracks

I am up at 3 a.m., looking at our rain-slick deck and wondering why I cannot sleep, a fairly frequent occurrence in my middle age when worries often chase me through the early morning hours.

As I listen to the hush of my husband and three children peacefully at rest, sometimes I will peek at my oldest daughter twisted sideways in her bed, her comforter yanked out from where I had so carefully secured it the previous morning.

I have to resist the urge to straighten it and risk disturbing the magical slumber of childhood that now eludes me with such regularity. Instead, I try to take in the mystical quiet of the moment.

I feel a powerful tenderness for my kids when I gaze at them at night, their faces turned up but not seeing me through their tangled dreams—a purity of love that sometimes eludes me during daylight hours when I often feel irritated by the commotion and messes they create.

Lately, I find myself repeating the words that someone once told me—that there are “no straight lines in nature”—almost like a mantra to combat my compulsive need for order, one so challenged by raising boy-girl twins and a third.

Against my better judgment, I am constantly trying to put everything back in place, only to have my kids disrupt the toys and books and dishes again as they whirl through our living space.

I know the tidiness I crave, almost like a drug, stems from growing up in a chaotic environment.

Early on, I tried to impose symmetry on the only aspects of my life that I could control, neatly stacking my books, folding my clothes, aligning my pencils. Focusing on these tasks made me feel like I was in charge of the outcome of my day and distracted me from more fundamental problems that I could not fix.

And in some ways, these compulsions have served me well as an adult.

I pay bills the day they arrive. I meet deadlines. On the mornings my children trudge off to school, I clean up in record time.

But order is ephemeral, bound to be unsettled. And as soon as my kids return with their overflowing backpacks, sticky fingers and muddy shoes, I have to remind myself that while it is alright to insist that they clear their plates and pick up their toys, scolding them for squirming and spreading and occasionally spilling is less ok.

With my children, I have tried to suspend my compulsive tendencies. I wait until they are out of the house or in bed to bustle around wiping counters, boxing crayons, fluffing pillows—aligning everything once again.

I cannot completely eradicate my need to establish equilibrium. So I’ve struck a devil’s bargain where I restore all the bits to their proper perches whenever I get the chance.

It is a Sisyphean task, ultimately futile in its nature, but one that expends my anxious energy and makes me feel temporarily in control.

Until the middle of the night, that is, when I find myself awake and contemplating life’s more consequential problems, whatever happens to be troubling one or more of our children at the moment.

To distract myself, I reach for the reading material is at hand, which the other morning was a mailing from Schoolhouse Electric, a Portland, Ore., furnishings company that embraces “scratches, fading and other signs of wear as badges of character.”

Somewhat shamefully, I realized I was having an epiphany in the middle of the night over a furniture catalogue, grasping with sudden clarity that the peeling paint, tumbled LEGOs, laugh lines and frayed nerves were actually the gifts that family life delivers.

I remembered what, of course, I’d long known, that our flaws are what make us unique, that we learn from our mistakes, that our own pain deepens our empathy.

“There is a crack in everything,” says Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.”

And so I vowed, at least for now, to try to stop cleaning up my children's messes and watch more closely what they discover through making them—to try to stop repairing the cracks and peer into them, instead, to see what lies on the other side.

Connect with Courtenay Harris Bond on Facebook.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Shifting Shades Of Success

My 9-year-old daughter recently managed to drop one of her socks in the toilet while simultaneously removing them from her feet and going to the bathroom.

Luckily, she also has a habit of not flushing. So I spotted the floater and fished it out with a plastic bag wrapped around my hand, before this unsavory situation became a calamity.

I was particularly relieved because the last time I was making small talk with the plumber while he unclogged our toilet he exclaimed, “Wow! You’re 44? I wouldn’t have guessed you were a day over 39!”

And I was feeling especially vulnerable to this kind of backward compliment because I was about to turn 45 and had just discovered that my 20th journalism school reunion—not high school or college, but graduate school—was arriving in a couple of weeks.

I suspected that I was already experiencing a sort of mid-life crisis, suffering from a depression that I guessed might have to do, at least in part, with the hormone shifts of early menopause.

I also noticed that my neck had started to slacken over the past few months and that by pulling up the skin around my cheeks in a poor woman’s pantomime of a face-lift, I shed years from my appearance.

I can no longer read my iPhone without the aid of magnifying glasses, the prescription for which I recently had to boost. And my youngest child will start full-time school in the fall, while I still have no career to speak of, after spending nine years as a stay-at-home mother of three.

“I like your mom posts,” a former journalism school classmate said the other day. “Those are pretty funny.”

Though his remark was good natured, it also touched a particularly tender nerve, since my blogging over the past several years has served as a lifeline—a reminder that I still have intellectual skills I can exercise in the world—even though my approach, more often than not, has been tongue-in-cheek.

I merely want to write. And on my rational days, I tell myself that every time I compose a coherent piece, that effort in and of itself is a success, regardless of where it ends up in the blogosphere.

I wasn’t always so unsure of myself. As a newspaper reporter for several suburban dailies, I used to fantasize about investigating heroin epidemics and sex trafficking rings for The Atlantic Monthly or The New York Times.

Instead, 15 years later, I am writing about toilet training and tantrums with the hope that my narratives about the unrelenting nature of motherhood will find an empathetic audience.

I would kill for my first newspaper job, covering local politics for an 8,000-circulation paper in Manassas, Va. And now I face the prospect of joining other Columbia Journalism School graduates at our 20th reunion, where I will hear about their latest book deals and cover stories.

After years of reporting for the New York Daily News, one classmate has just extended his contract with NY1. Another friend has written a popular column for The Wall Street Journal. Another has had a long tenure at People and just shadow wrote a book for Teresa Guidice, one of the most volatile Real Housewives on Bravo TV—practically the only channel that, in my degraded state, I now watch.

I have to admit that while I am genuinely happy for my former classmates and impressed by their accomplishments, I have also often felt demoralized by them.

In this state of diminishing self-esteem—bleary from being up all night with our twins when they were babies or dousing the flames of their resentment at our introducing a third child into the family—I have found it hard to congratulate myself on my own hard work.

The grimy reality of parenting day in and day out with no paycheck and often little more reward than slender arms hugging me at bedtime sometimes just doesn’t feel like enough. Which is why I have continued to write, even if mostly for myself and mostly about my “beat” of the moment, the slice-of-life parenting material at hand.

During my bouts of self-doubt, I remember that when I became a mom, I was lucky enough to be able to make parenting my ultimate priority. Although raising three kids has proven rocky at times, on some fundamental level, I do know that my husband and I are succeeding at creating a safe and loving home. And while my career may seem at a standstill, my children have enriched my life and deepened my capacity for empathy in ways no other kind of job ever could.

So when I hear about another Columbia graduate’s exploits in a war zone, I try to recall Leo Tolstoy’s admonition that “happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them.”

I remind myself that success assumes many forms and that life has many chapters—and that perhaps I will soon begin to write my next one.