German 101

In a household where everyone is often running just a few minutes late for nearly everything, I was confronted with the unique challenge of hosting a German Music Exchange student in the midst of a summer filled with kid’s work and internship schedules, college classes, summer camps, getaways, driver’s ed and swim team.  While I was initially excited at the prospect of the second of my children participating in a cross cultural exchange (last summer my son visited our student’s home in Rheinbach, Germany), I could feel my anxiety level rising as I reviewed the very full itinerary and rehearsal schedule planned for the German guests visitng Rhinebeck this summer.

To make matters worse, our truck died a slow, painful death just three days before his arrival leaving us with one car and seven very busy passengers.  I complained, I groaned, I fretted and lost more than one night’s sleep.  I comforted myself with the notion that my son would have a unique hosting opportunity and he would learn and be enriched  as a result of this experience. I also acknowledged that I could forget the idea of getting much writing done for the two weeks  our guest was in town.  So I put on my chauffeur cap, grumbling all the while and waited for my son and children to be wowed by German music, language and culture.

They weren’t.  Don’t get me wrong.  They enjoyed our guest.  Were even  kind and gracious, but they were typical “not impressed” American teenagers.  While I drilled our guest on questions about his family, food preferences, hobbies and the like, they twirled their pasta.  While I laughed with our guest while trying to learn German and he tried out new American phrases (think “YOLO” and “square dancing” and “tacos”), they were peering at their text messages.  By the time his stay came to an end, I had learned so much from him, the exchange, the shared love of music, that I can barely wait for the next.

With the help of friends, everyone got where they needed to be and a good time was had by all.  But as I snapped the last photo,  exchanged one last hug before he boarded the bus and wiped away more than one tear, I thought about all the things I learned from his visit.

He taught me the importance of being prompt.  And in order to be prompt, you need to be prepared.  Plan the night before what you’ll need, set your alarm, don’t complicate things by reinventing the wheel each morning (eggs or a bagel? protein shake or yogurt? Chinese flower or decaffinated green tea? ) “Toast and a little marmalade please,” each morning are all that’s needed to start a day and be on time.

He taught me to be a good guest. Make the bed.  Keep your room neat.  Bring a good book to read, compliment a home cooked meal by asking for seconds (and thirds!)

Never underestimate the value of a  family dinner.  I noticed during one meal as the dinner conversation took a turn into a heated debate, our guest sat, quietly observing.  When I gestured that he was free to leave and not subject himself to a seemingly endless debate, he opted to stay put.  “Do you have family dinners like this at home?” I asked.  “Yes.” he smiled.  “Only not so loud.”   I would wager those family dinners taught him as much about American culture and family than any visit to Times Square/Empire State Building/Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty combined.

Send a postcard.  Even in the age of facebook, twitter and Instagram, there’s nothing like taking the time to write a note, stamp and address it and put it in a mailbox.  Small gestures go a long way.

Speak the language.  Or at least try.  Or at least pretend to try.

And finally, when in doubt, Smile.  It is the international symbol to relax people, ease tension and make others smile in return.

Complete with all the sarcasm they could muster, my children suggested that since I so enjoyed this experience,  (all comparisons to our German guest are now strictly verboten), perhaps on the next exchange in four years, I should consider going as a chaperone.  My kids may never learn to make it out of the house on time or make make a bed daily, but they do make excellent suggestions….

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Great Adventures

me on the steps of the Duomo

me on the steps of the Duomo

I wanted an adventure.  Not a James Bond thrill ride adventure, but an experience that would knock me loose from my everyday routine.  After years of researching risk takers like Frederick Douglass, Louis Armstrong and Helen Keller, I was inspired to take some risks of my own.  As a woman whose idea of risk taking was venturing outside on an overcast day without an umbrella, I vowed my time had come. I confided my wish to no one, hoping to find some way in the new year to do more things out of the ordinary.  To lead with an open, fun loving spirit and a carefree attitude.  I couldn’t quite picture just what this adventurous existence would look like, but I trusted that the universe would provide. And then Christmas came.  Literally, December 25th.  I wasn’t expecting a bonanza of gifts, but I hoped someone in my family noticed I needed jeans, excercise gear and the newest Barefoot Contessa cookbook.  My husband James handed me his present in an oversized, carefully wrapped box.  In our household we know that when it comes to gift giving, James believes in the element of surprise–huge boxes holding eensy weensy baubles, leftover shoe boxes containing electronic toys, a camera box housing socks. So when he placed the big box on my lap, I figured it must be the earrings I asked for.  But it wasn’t.  Mountains of paper filled the inside and then a plain, red envelope.  Hmmmm….I was nervous.  I cracked the seal to find an itinerary.  A flight itinerary.  A flight itinerary to Florence, Italy! James had been asked to escort students over to his university’s abroad program in January and he thought I’d like to fly separately and meet him there. Here it was, my adventure handed to me in a gift wrapped box.

Was I excited?  Chomping at the bit to board the plane? Nope–just terrified.  Apparently this adventure quest requires a little more nerve than I possessed.  I hemmed and hawed.  What about the kids?  My sister volunteered to come and stay. Could we afford it? Got a cheapo flight. The only thing I could do was shut up and find my passport.

I rarely travel alone.  I rarely eat alone.  I am rarely quiet for more than one hour at a stretch. And now I was being asked  to do all three for my nearly three days travel time. Apparently the cheapo flight James booked involved a seven hour layover at Heathrow airport in London, and on the return trip, an eighteen hour layover in Germany. I would travel for longer than I was visiting Italy. The internet was my saving grace.  I could rent a pod at the Yotel in London by the hour to sleep and relax.  I contacted the wonderful German host family my son visited who lived not too far from the airport and they agreed to pick me up to spend the night at their home during my very long layover.

I took a car to the train to the bus to the airport–four hous.  Waited two hours. Flew six.  Booked a Yotel pod to sleep for six hours. Flew for two more. No luggage at Amerigo Vespucci airport in Florence, but I didn’t have time to worry about it.  I had two glorious days to soak in Florence.  I did as much as I could–the Duomo, Mercato Centrale, the statue of David at the Academia, the Ufizzi, Ponte Vecchio, a magical dinner with colleagues, cappucino, wine, pasta, leather shopping, more wine, every single second I was thinking, Now this is an adventure!

In Germany, my exchange son’s family were every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped.  Even more so.  We walked the streets of Rheinbach, shared stories, laughed, ate a lovingly prepared German meal, played a game of Biberbande.  After a shower and a restful night’s sleep in a comfy bed and a bountiful breakfast, I again boarded the plane.

When I returned home, I snuggled in my dog’s fur, kissed the kids and handed out souvenirs.  But it wasn’t long before I blended back into the household routine.  I had bills to pay, meals to cook, research for a new project to begin, mountains of laundry, a presentation to prepare. Somewhere around the twentieth email I was replying to, I realized that Italy, London and Germany were the easy parts, free from life’s harshest realities. My everyday life is an adventure filled with a theme park of emotional highs and lows and the obstacles and challenges I face each and every day.  The adventure for me isn’t in the strolling through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Florence or navigating an extended travel itineary.  It is the deadlines, parenting woes, health concerns, financial worries, ailing parents, long overdue home repairs.  Sure Frederick Douglass, Louis Armstrong, and Helen Keller knew a thing or two about adventure.  It is the fear of the unknown that makes our hearts race, and the pushing past our limitations that causes our blood pressure to rise.  Whether it is staying up at night waiting for a newly licensed driver to return home, sitting in an emergency room awaiting results, holding the hand of a sobbing, heartbroken teenager or recieving unwelcome news from a late night phone call, adventure comes in boxes large and small, giftwrapped or not.

I guess it wasn’t so much an adventure I needed–I wanted a retreat.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Undeclared Major

Like the Donny and Marie song, A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Rock and Roll, my son is a little bit science nerd, a little bit hip hop.  A little bit engineer, a little bit artist.   So it came as no surprise this fall during the college application process that he struggled in deciding on a major.  I am incredibly grateful for the varied academic options available to prospective college students. Yet I often wonder if all of the choices make it difficult to, well…, choose.  And how does someone decide at the age of seventeen what they want to do for the rest of their lives?

My own college application process was the polar opposite of my children’s experience.  I vaguely remember even meeting my guidance counselor. My applications and essays were completed at my kitchen table alone with barely a passing glance from parents. They trusted my ability to successfully and independently navigate the process. And I did.  I chose a major, a few solid schools, applied, was accepted into good programs, finished in four years, marketing degree in hand. I congratulated myself—I had my life all figured out.  After my graduation, I was intent on following my carefully chosen career path, yet I worked as proofreader, advertising copywriter, pre school teacher, elementary substitute, grad student, publicist, lecturer and writing teacher, not one of which had anything to do with my degree. I guess the good news is that though you may start off in one direction, life’s path often twists and turns and hopefully leads you exactly where you need to be.

On a recent walk with girlfriends I complained bitterly about a to do list the length of the Old Testament.  I bemoaned the fact that if I check off everything on my list, I will lose an entire precious workday.  My girlfriends made a novel suggestion:  Instead of trying to juggle many jobs, take the day and do just one— be a Mother,  that incredibly broad job description that in itself encompasses several jobs taking care of everyone and everything.  And as a mother, my girlfriend therapy continued,  spend the  day making the appointments, running the errands, tending to the home  and when that job is completed,  go back to being a writer.

 There are the days when I wish I had just one job.  Where my sole purpose was to get up in the morning and write.  Or my one and only role was to get up in the morning and care for my children.  Or I needed to only focus my attention on nurturing my marriage.  But instead I’m a little bit mommy and partner and a little bit writer.  An Undeclared Major.

There are many mothers I admire from afar. So laser focused on kids and home, you can see everything they touch sparkling from the attention.  And there are the women I know who are so driven and focused on career, you just know they could change the world by the sheer force of their creative energy. I alternate between wanting to do one thing really well and being happy and  wanting to do many things just well enough and being fulfilled.

I want to do teach a college writing course. I want to be a lecturer, travelling the country speaking at schools and conferences. I want to rescue dogs, get my PhD, be a professional blogger, foster parent, a midwife, study anthropology and linguistics, volunteer. And even though I can barely run a 5k, I religiously watch the New York City marathon, and think, One day….   And it is equally important to me to be a loving partner, a good friend, a dutiful daughter, and a supportive sister.  I may not be sure about what I want to be but I am certain that exploring the many different parts of myself answers more questions than it raises.  It is impossible to choose between the joys of laughing in the kitchen with my kids, embarking on a new adventure with my husband and the satisfaction I feel when a germ of an idea evolves into a story I can be proud of.  In so many ways, each experience adds richness to the others.

Maria Shriver once said in an interview years ago, “You can have it all, just not at the same time.”

I took the day to be a mother and even added a few more days to complete my list.  It was a much needed effort that served my family well, yet it was a temporary reprieve from what  I knew awaited—Reality.  Deadlines loomed, emails piled up in my inbox, joint decisions needed to be made. And though I may not get the balance quite right, I longed to return to my other jobs and the tightrope act that has become my life.  At age seventeen or forty eight, an undeclared major looks the same. With so many choices,  you don’t need to be in a rush to decide.

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Independence Day

As a mother, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find ways to help my children gain independence and eventually prepare them to leave home strong, sure and confident in their choices as young adults.  This task has not been an easy one. Apparently the idea of independence makes some kids anxious.  Others want too much too soon. My husband loves to make the sound of helicopter blades on the occasions he hears me interfering in their decision making.  And my kids let me know when I overstep my boundaries and crowd their space.  Shouldn’t a parent help with course selection? Weigh in on friendships and dating? A Whatever You Think Is Best mom I am not.

But lately isn’t their independence that worries me.  It is my own. Or should I say, my lack of it.  Frequently in my car, when one of many favorite song plays on the radio, I’ll think, Ive got to get someone  to put this on my ipod.  I often yell for help to the nearest passing kid when I can’t immediately access my recorded shows on DVR or when I want to change the background on my phone.  Netflix on Xbox? Wallpaper? Apps?  Not the language of my youth.  Not too long ago I had an issue with my computer and lost nearly an entire day of work waiting for my son to return home from school and fix the problem. I often feel as if I am stumbling through a mysterious digital world without access to a gps.

“What are you going to do when I leave for college next year?” my son and ipod/pc/tablet tech advisor asked, irritated he once again had to add more songs to my playlist.

“I’ll figure it out by then.”  I said, handing him my list.

But the sad truth is I said the same thing when my first daughter and social media specialist left for college and said something similar when my second daughter and Verizon/fashion consultant left this year.  At this rate, I’ll need to start a new family just to get anything done.

Last weekend I was an invited speaker at the National Book Festival in DC.  I’d written a speech on my desktop and was prepared to print out hard copies to read from the podium.  But then I took a step toward the twenty first century.  I’d gotten a tablet for my birthday.  My youngest had given me a brief tutorial.  Why not? My speech and book excerpt readings could all be combined on one neat little device.  When I packed, I simply threw my tablet and charger in my purse and was out the door. But after my arrival in DC, tucked in my hotel,  reworking my speech, I had difficulty formatting the text.  My son didn’t pick up his phone. Why would the geniuses at Samsung make copying and pasting documents so difficult? I banged and cursed the touch screen. These devices were supposed to make life easier?  I realized I was angry,  not at the tablet, but for being a person who let technology pass me by while I clung to landlines and pocket calendars and answering machines.  As the hours passed (yes hours) and I frantically tried to decode smart technology, I made the miraculous discovery of google voice typing.  Just speak into my tablet and Voila!–the printed word. I stuck with it and made other discoveries.  On my own.

On the day of my speech, after a lovely introduction by a local news anchor, I nervously proceeded to the stage, tablet in hand.  I may have stumbled, scrolled the touch screen a little too fast, accidentally highlighted text while reading, but I finished my speech, dignity intact.  And just a little more independent.

It is a fine line parents walk between offering guidance and hindering growth.  It is a line my kids have been forced to walk as well.  Finding my way toward independence meant that I finally understood  what the kids have been saying all along–Asking for help doesn’t always mean you are asking for the answer.  Sometimes it just means you need to stumble until you find your own way.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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The Art of Doing Nothing

I am a list maker, an agenda keeper, a doer.  Multitasking is my middle name.  And when I am not making lists for myself, I’m making them for my kids and husband.  The way I see it,  productivity is a virtue.  Getting Things Done is a priority.  I relish the busyness of a day.  Though I complain, the running and racing to and fro seems to both wear and energize me.  So when a dear friend invited me to his summer rental on Fire Island, I thought it would be the perfect way to wind down at the end of a busy summer.   I packed my bathing suit, summery tunics, flip flops and one bag filled to capacity with a book group selection I needed to complete, one magazine, the previous week’s New York Times book review, two reference books for a picture book biography I was working on, my tablet, my journal and one “just for me” book.  When I met my friend at Penn Station, he looked startled.  “Just some beach reading,” I assured him. I fully expected to go hop on a ferry and uncharacteristically leave all my cares behind.  But along with my book filled bag, I had unwittingly packed my agenda.

“What do you want to do now?” I asked almost as soon as we arrived.

My friend smiled patiently, “We relax.”

So, I dutifully gathered up my books, found a comfy chaise, and read the book review, wrote in my journal, and read a few pages of my book group book.  There, I applauded myself–I was done with relaxing. Check.

“Now what?” I asked.

We went to dinner.  We went shopping for groceries.  We talked, we laughed.  We walked along the beach.  When we sleepily arrived back at his place, I began, “So tomorrow…..?”  He didn’t respond.

I awoke early, made a mental  list of all I wanted to do for the day.  I would start by working on my manuscript.  So, off I went onto the deck with my tablet and reference books and worked for an hour.   He ambled out to the deck, sleepy eyed and pajama’d.  Before we’d even thought about breakfast, I needed to know,

“So what are we going to do today?”

“I come here to do nothing.” he replied lazily.

“Do nothing?”  I’d never thought of that as an activity.  “You mean you sit and read?”

“Nope. I sit outside and look at the clouds and think.”

“Think?”  This was getting more confusing by the minute.  “Don’t you go to the beach?”

“If I’m in the mood.  But, if I’m not, I just sit outside and look at the clouds and think.”

Was I trapped for an entire weekend on a tiny island with a mad man?  When he went back inside, I sat back on my favorite chaise, took out my book, leaned back to get comfortable and looked up.  There above me were the most beautiful clouds nestled in the bluest of skies.  I rested the open book on my lap.  Periodically I heard the rumblings of activity indoors, the ipod, the shower, dishes being washed.  But I never stopped staring at the clouds.  I felt strangely relaxed. When he came out, I hastily sat up, ready to start the day.

Throughout the day, I thought about the quieter moments this summer where I sat outside in the early morning hours with a cup of tea or just after the sun had set,  staring into space.  Exhausted from a restless night or tired from the 24-hour Mommy taxi service, these were the times when I had to be still because I was just too tired to do.  And so I sat and listened and thought, that is, until I heard the dog whining to be let out, James pouring his morning cereal or the kids shouting, “Mom” throughout the house, wondering where I ccould possibly be.  Those moments were short lived but they stayed with me.

As the weekend progressed, I watched my friend like an investigative reporter trailing a subject, intent on disovering how a person does Nothing.  I took notes.  Subject took a long walk, laid in the sun, had lunch, bought more supplies, had a nap.   Subject sipped cold drinks outdoors barefoot while gazing at the sun.

On the day of my departure, I realized that with all of my investigative reporting,  I hadn’t completed one thing on my weekend checklist.  But my friend was busy doing Nothing, so he pointed me in the right direction, and off I went to conquer the beach.  With my beach chair and bag of books I headed out, determined once again to multitask–sun on the beach, read and write–check, check, and check.

I found the perfect spot on a not too crowded beach, next to a couple with a dog.  I set up my chair and my water, checked my text messages, sent a few, wrote in my journal, read a few pages.  But somehow I just couldn’t focus.  The sound of the water lapping ashore was distracting.  I preferred watching my beach neighbors toss a ball to their dog.  I returned to my book but the sun felt so perfect, I took off my cover up and stretched out in the sand.  I watched joggers, and couples strolling, the water, the sun, the dog.  I checked my watch.  Only two hours till the next ferry and I had yet to complete a chapter.  But the sun, the water….  When I checked my watch again, it was time to go.  Did I just waste two precious hours doing nothing?  When I packed the books back in my bag and folded my towel and beach chair, I was smiling.  I did it.  I did Nothing

fire island feet

and it was glorious.  I was clear and relaxed and happy.  And strangely the time had allowed my mind to wander and create and dream.  All the things that never make it onto my never ending lists, but should.

When I returned, my friend was lounging in bed, sipping a cold drink.

“Well, how was it?” he asked.

“Just perfect,” I answered.

I had finally discovered the Art of Doing Nothing and the realization that in life it is less about Doing than it is about Being. Check.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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15 and counting

My idea of heaven on earth is a good book, a cup of tea and a snowstorm raging outdoors, (maybe add a few warm chocoloate chip cookies).  So, it was a recent discussion, aka argument, with my son about reading that prompted me to begin a new challenge.  The conversation went something like this:

Me:  You really should be reading more.  If nothing else, it will help you with your SAT vocabulary.

Him:  I already read for my English class.

Me:  But that’s not the same as reading for yourself.  Do you know the average person reads fifteen books per year.   Are you even anywhere near that number?

Him:  (unconvincingly)…er…maybe.  (defensively) Are you?

Me:  Of course I am! I probably read twice that amount!

Him:  Name them…

At this point I start rattling off titles, some from previous years, just to prove a point.

Me:  Now that I think about it, I probably average a book a week.

Him: I doubt it.

My son is sixteen and could really care less how much I read. In fact, he is so pleased the conversation has taken a turn away from his own reading he’d be willing to continue this conversation all evening if it means avoiding a trip to the library with his mother.  But, now I am already too far in…

Me:  I am going to read one book every week for the rest of the year and then we’ll see.

We’ll see what?  That I read more books than the average American? That I have committed myself to a year of missing deadlines, takeout and a dirty house?

Him:  A big teenaged smirk.

Teenagers have a way of throwing you off your game.  One second you have the upper hand and the next, you are raging about something completely off topic or pledging to commit to an activity you have absolutely no time for.  Being a mother of my word, I have been working dilligently toward of my goal of reading a book a week (in addition to  proving his point that I am overcompetitive and petty).

Here’s where I am so far.  I am counting Partial Reads, as long as I’ve read more than half.  Life is too short to waste on books I don’t connect with.  With the daily challenges of life, you will note that I am several books shy of my weekly goal.  Hopefully I will make some headway this summer.  Surprisingly, I do still manage to get some writing done, cook a decent meal, and straighten up the house now and then.  As for my son, he has still not  read a single page…

My titles since January:

Young Adult

Son by Lois Lowry

What’s Left of Me by Kat Zhang

Will Sparrow’s Road by Karen Cushman

Serafina’s Promise by Ann Burg (out in September)

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

Adult

The Middlesteins by Jaim Attenburgh

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Partial Reads:

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Wash by Margaret Wrinkle

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Listening in Quiet

As the youngest of three, I learned early on how to listen.  And by listening I mean eavesdropping on my sister’s phone calls and my brother’s conversations with friends,  their endless teasing, and my parents private concerns about broken curfews, disciplinary problems and report cards.

You can learn a lot from listening.  I remember loud family gatherings in Providence, Rhode Island where aunts and uncles told stories at kitchen tables, cousins shared secrets, people argued and made up and I sat, just on the perimeter, listening.  I never seemed to know how to insert my voice into any of the conversations and felt drowned out  by the much louder voice of my boisterous father.

“Why can’t you say something?” he sometimes roared on the car ride home.  He didn’t understand that it wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say.  There were plenty of  conversations  rolling around in my head,  all of them incredibly witty and insightful, but they were under the lock and key of shyness. It would be years before shyness loosened it’s hold on me.  My kids and husband can barely believe there was ever a time I was silent.

Playdates were painful, as were birthday parties, doctor visits, even first dates.  Somehow shyness raises suspicions in others, makes them wary, which in turn creates even greater shyness.   In my post shyness period, I was always wiling to share an opinion, wage a debate, right any percieved wrong and I could finally give voice to all of those witty, insightful interior conversations.

But years of silence lingers on in ways I never expected.  I am still drawn to shy people, respectful of those who don’t feel the need to fill a space with meaningless chatter. There’s nothing I love more than sitting on  a train, a playground, a coffee shop, just listening to the cadence, dialect, unique interractions of strangers in their most unguarded moments.  And when I read, I always feel as if I am eavesdropping on the way writers speak through the private lives and inner workings of their characters.  My own writing is enriched simply by being quiet.

Having children forced me out my shyness.  It is difficult to speak up for them if you can’t speak up for yourself.  But, I still have moments, often right before entering a roomful of strangers or having to speak in front of a group or when being introduced to someone for the first time, where I get that panicky sensation.  But now that I have found my voice, I can tuck away the shy Lesa.  I take a deep breath, speak, and always remember to listen.

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