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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The Edges of the Day

I’ve been waiting.  Waiting for kids to grow, for the perfect office space, for the Big Idea, for the kids to leave for college, for a husband to share equitably in the household duties, and for the most part, I’m still waiting.  Three in college and one at home means my days feel infinitely longer.  But,  after years of waiting for the quiet and serenity that now fills my days, I am finding there is an awful lot of day to fill.  In the flow of writing,  I am so accustomed to writing with one eye on the clock, one foot out the door, that to sit uninterrupted in the quiet of the day before my desktop is disquieting.  By nature, I am a multitasker.  A woman who seemingly functions best with limited time and scarce resources.  I credit my New England roots for the ability to make something out of nothing.  I now wonder If some of my best prewriting was done while loading up the washing machine and unloading the dishwasher.  I have volumes of notebooks I filled while sitting at swim meets, and volleyball games and doctor’s appointments.  I created some of my best stories while helping with homework vocabulary, taking a temperature and cheering for a first place finish or winning serve.

Toni Morrison once wrote of her experience as a writer and single mother of two young boys, that she found the time to write “in the edges of the day.”  Perhaps I write best in the stolen moments, around the edges.  The quiet can be a good place for meditative time and the gathering of thoughts and  I trust that there will come a time when I will need this space to create and grow as a writer.  That  the days will once again be filled to the brim.  The transition into this quiet period has not necessarily provided the yield I once hoped but it has led me to the realization that the best writing may not always come under ideal circumstances, but in the unexpected times,  while waiting for the space to create.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

 

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The Story Behind the Story

My husband took a touching, candid family portrait this summer. There we were, the five of us, gathered around a large table, eating breakfast. Some of the plates were piled with pancakes, bowls were filled with fruit and cereal. The morning was sun dappled as the photo showed us happily engaged in a family discussion. A real Polaroid moment.

My husband posted the photo on Facebook and friends commented on and off social media, “Loved that family photo!”, “I wish I had breakfasts like that with my family!”, and “This picture reminds me of a story that needs to be written and illustrated.” In writing, and in life (and in photos from life), there is often a story behind the story.
When I begin the research for each project, I start with certain impressions and ideas about my subjects based on job titles and excerpts of their lives. My hope is to flesh out these figures through biographies, historical reference, documentaries,  films and through visiting historic sites. More often than not, I end in a very different place than I began. The stories behind the stories are the ones I find most interesting. The often not so pretty lives of the figures and characters in books. But it is these imperfections that make people accessible. Research often yields the not so pretty truths–depression, infidelity, bad tempers, dishonesty, hurdles and hardships. In other words–the truth.
Back to the family photo. It was my daughter’s birthday. She requested buttermilk pancakes for breakfast. I don’t normally stock buttermilk in the fridge (and told her so in a not so friendly voice), but I did manage to find a bag of buttermilk pancake mix in the pantry. Another daughter insisted we eat outdoors. The rest of us complained. The pancakes were thin and inedible so they just ate the bacon, grumbling all the while. My son made his own batch but refused to make enough to share. More grumbling. Two poured cereal and sliced fruit. I made eggs. When we sat outdoors, we apparently interrupted a mega moth convention and they swarmed us. My daughters ran screaming inside to escape. I yelled, “And you wanted to eat outside? Just ignore them!” and returned to reading an article. Sarcastic comments were exchanged. When the girls were reseated, my husband decided now was as good a time as any to grab his camera for a nice, family photo. In defiance, we all refused to pose.
No matter how picture perfect the photo, the image, the accomplishments, there is always the truth, the reality, the story behind the story.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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The Birth of a Day

Today is my daughter’s birthday. And while that may seem like a joyous occasion, I have been approaching this day with drebillcline(74)ad. It is also my father’s birthday. My father, who passed away just a few short months ago.

On the day my youngest was born, I was thirty-five years old  and very, very tired. My newborn had three older siblings aged 3, 5, and 6 and I was fearful I’d never be able to balance all that was required. As was our routine, when labor began, I notified my parents, who lived four hours away in Massachusetts, that they should pack their bags.  I left the kids with our wonderful neighbor and headed to the hospital. I remember feeling sad that my daughter would have to share her birthday with my father. Her older sister’s birthday was on July 4th and no matter how many times you laugh and promise the fireworks are just for her, it doesn’t make up for  kids being away on the day of her birthday party or spending the day with relatives out of town at a family barbecue.  For my father, I was sad that my he had to travel to babysit on his own birthday. Sad that my daughter would always have to share her special day. That I’d always have to choose. That I would need to do combo celebrations. I thought that somehow each of their birthdays would minimize the others. On each July 22nd, I remember feeling guilty for every birthday I celebrated with my young daughter, away from my own father. How many birthdays would I have left to share with him, I morbidly wondered. But, for thirteen years, we worked it out and all was well.

When my father passed, I thought his death would make celebrating my daughter’s that much harder. But this morning, when I saw her sleepy fourteen year old face eating a birthday breakfast of pancakes, opening her presents, surrounded by her siblings, I thought, just maybe, this shared birthday was a gift.  The joy of her birthday eased the pain of losing him. It is as if he forbid me to be sad on a day when it would have been especially hard. I will not visit his grave, or spend the day in bed with the curtains drawn. I can’t. There is a cake to bake, a dinner to prepare,  smiles to be shared.
I will miss him today, and remember the joy he gave to this world and our family.  But I will also celebrate his legacy, a beautiful, young woman who shared a birthday with the most wonderful grandfather in the world.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Patiently Impatient

Patience is a Virtue. All good things come to he who waits. Patience is bitter, but it’s fruit is sweet. I take value in moving at the speed of light. More things get done. I make more of my day. I am productive.

I am the person groaning in agony at the drop off lines at school. Why is the backpack in the trunk? With my kids in the backseat, primed and ready to dart as soon as I said “goodbye,” I used to shriek as parents slowly got out of the car to retrieve their child’s backpack from the trunk, slowly unbuckled their seatbelts, slowly kissed them goodbye, holding up the line while they waved until their little ones safely entered the building, while I slowly lost my mind. I’ve nearly screamed as I waited at an ATM behind those who not only searched endlessly for their bank cards, but upon receiving their cash, carefully scanned their receipts and counted their money. I will myself not to beep in the toll lane, (You honestly just realized you needed money to pay the toll?), not to tap my foot at the self serve check out at Stop & Shop, where people, who’ve never used self-check out, inevitably decide to try it for the first time the day they are in line in front of me.

Some may say the universe is trying to teach me to slow down. Or, as I like to believe, perhaps it is my calling to help others to hurry up. I’ve scraped the top of my car rushing into the garage as the super slow automated door creaks open. I finish the sentences of my family, and make the universal hand sign for hurry it up, when they tell long winded stories. I walk fast, read fast, speak faster. I have cursed, screamed, beeped, sped myself into a frenzy.

And where exactly am I rushing to? Nowhere in particular, I just don’t like waiting. I’ve tried counting, meditating and prayer to no avail. And now I’ve found this impatience extends to my writing. When I sit at my desk researching, writing, revising, I am so easily frustrated by the process. Why won’t the ideas come, the words, the next line…? The life of a writer is a life of waiting. After waiting for characters, and plots to develop from thoughts and words, another kind of waiting begins—waiting for comments back from editors, waiting for revisions, for contracts, the first advance, the final advance, the royalty check, the next book to be released….

Once, on our way out the door to a function, my Bostonian mother told me that I’ve become “very New York,” . There was a time in my youth when I would have taken that as a compliment, but I know that what my very polite, well mannered and patient mother really wanted to say is that “too New York” can be translated to mean, too impatient and crass. I may always be in a hurry but I still take time to read between the lines. “Hmmm”, I said, pretending to ponder her words. “You ready to go?”

For me, summer is a slow down month of lazy days and warm, lingering nights. The heat makes me too tired to rush. It is the time when I most want to live life at a snail’s pace. I recognize that I need the patience of finding a story, of letting the seed of that story blossom at it’s own pace.

“I think when you’re trying to do something prematurely, it just won’t come, writer Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Certain subjects just need time…You’ve got to wait before you write about them.” Perhaps that has everything to do with the quality of her work. The work I strive to do as a writer. And now, with summer and stories in full bloom, I impatiently wait for patience.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Spring Cleaning

stanton 3With the first breath of spring, comes the talk of spring cleaning.  The idea of decluttering and refreshing a home to usher in a new season, in theory,  sounds both practical and cathartic.  In practice, it’s another matter altogether.

I like to straighten and tidy, so that it looks pretty good, but it isn’t really clean. I often complain that if the house is spotless it means I haven’t done a lick of writing.  And if I have made some great headway with research and writing, probably no one in my family has had a halfway decent meal.  If I spend my days cooking great meals  and connecting with my family, the house looks like a construction zone.  And then I ask myself the age old question—How do women manage to do it all?

During spring break, when everyone else was heading south to warmer climes, my youngest daughter and I, travelled north to Seneca Falls on what we called our Women’s Rights Road Trip.  Other members of my family called it The Nerdy Road Trip, but we wrote them off and packed our bags,  excited to visit the birthplace of the suffragette movement and discover more about the these trailblazing women.

First stop—National Women’s Rights National Historic Park Visitor Center. Second stop—home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founders of the Women’s Rights movement.

Elizabeth was an elite, part of a class of women who had servants to wait on her every need.  Concerned about her husband’s health and his political ambitions, she packed up her family and moved to tranquil Seneca Falls, NY.  But, unlike Boston, where she spent much of her youth,  servants were difficult to find in this small, rural town.  Elizabeth had seven children, a large home,  a husband who travelled quite a bit, and was miles from her family.  She had aspirations of her own.  Her sharp mind and independent will were dulled by the unending care of a household.  She liked to host discussion groups in her home, and entertain abolitionists like Frederick Douglass  and William Lloyd Garrison, and her friends Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson.   She wanted property rights.  She wanted her daughters to be able to attend college.  She wanted the right to vote.  But she had kids to care for, a house to clean.

I pace up and down these two chambers of mine like a caged lioness, longing to bring nursing and housekeeping cares to a close, she once wrote.

Never before had she realized the true plight of most women and mothers of the era, who had no access to hired help.  She had never before experienced the delicate balancing act between household, work and family.  She didn’t let that get in her way.  She hung up her dishrags, rolled up her sleeves and started planning.

The way I see it, Elizabeth Cady Stanton hated cleaning so much, she started a women’s rights movement.  Now this was a woman I could admire.

Amelia Bloomer, who lived in town (and later created women’s pants or “bloomers”) introduced her to Susan B. Anthony (who lived not much farther north in Rochester).  She met  Lucretia Mott and they sat and talked, maybe while the kids ran around out back and dinner was cooking on the stove and  put together the Declaration of Sentiments modeled after the Declaration of Independence .  In it, they wrote their demands for equality and shook a nation.   It was delivered at the first Women’s Right Convention in 1848.  And perhaps, because she couldn’t find childcare, the convention was held not far from Elizabeth’s home in Seneca Falls.

While her younger children napped,  Susan B. Anthony looked out for the older ones and Elizabeth wrote.  When she had dinner parties, she enlisted her children to serve.  She let much of the housework go while she  planned and organized and helped change the sentiment of a nation.

Women are often expected to create and dream while vacuuming rugs and cleaning windows.

So this spring, I’d like to offer a warm thank you to suffragettes  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth who taught women and men  a little something about priorities.  I am waging a movement against spring cleaning. Let the dust bunnies gather.  Who has time to clean the toilets when there is work to be done?

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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