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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Up For the Challenge

images[4]Challenges are a funny thing. They push us to rise to our best selves. Help us to realize things about ourselves we never knew. Like, for example, that restarting Zumba after a five year hiatus makes you feel like a drunken sailor on a Saturday night. Somewhere between a hip swivel and a pelvic thrust, I thought about never coming back to class and finding some other form of cardio that didn’t make me look a completely uncoordinated fool.

Only then did I realize that I only like challenges when I am successful with the result. I remembered many years ago, my husband James encouraged me to take tennis lessons. He’d been playing and thought it would be a fun activity for us to share. It wasn’t. Hand eye coordinated sports—softball, volleyball, basketball—have never been my thing. In fact the only sports I’ve ever had excelled in were track. And bowling. Running in a straight line. Throwing a ball in a straight line. I took the tennis lessons and then told James, “I don’t love it.”

“Why,” he asked. “We had fun playing.”

“But I’m not good at it.” I replied.

“You can only have fun if you’re good at something?” he asked somewhat disgustedly.

Generally speaking, yes. But as I continued a clumsy grapevine across the dance studio to a Latin beat, I couldn’t deny an energizing, sweat drenching, dizzying euphoria. Not exactly a good time, but the work needed to be done.

Recently I began a new project of a much larger scope than which I was accustomed. I relished the opportunity to finally push past my writing boundaries. I felt encouraged by my editor, supported, up for the challenge. And when all that died down and the research and writing began, I just felt scared. Scared of failing. In public. Reviewers would skewer my writing. Other authors would snicker behind my back. But the contract said I needed to finish. By a specific date. And the contract didn’t factor in my level of enjoyment. So I spend my days pushing to rise to my best self. And realizing things about myself I never knew.

Challenges are opportunities for growth, but sometimes they just mean you have to sit at your desk, work hard, and swivel your hips. Maybe the best part of a challenge is not the fun in winning, or a head thrown back in laughter or creating lasting memories for a scrapbook, or scaling the tallest mountain, but the real beauty in taking on a challenge is simply completing what needs to be done.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

 

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My Princely Legacy

His call came at 1:00. I was sitting at my desk, revising a manuscript when I answered. I still get little shockwaves of panic whenever one of the kids call my cell. A million and one scenarios cross my mind in the split second it takes to answer,

“Hello.”

“Did you hear?” my son asked. “Prince died.”

Again a million and one thoughts—Prince Harry? Prince William? Since when was my son interested in the royal family?

“Your Prince,” he said.

“That’s not true,” I shouted into the phone. “Prince isn’t dead.” He couldn’t be. I did a quick search online. No. My son offered his condolences and we hung up.

My daughter called next.

“Mom, are you okay?” she asked concerned.

My other daughter called on her way home from work. “I’m sorry mom.” she offered.

Prince wasn’t a friend or a relative. Outside of my fantasies, we had no romantic entanglements, but he was part of my kids’ legacy.lesajamesprince

Years before they could even utter the words Prince or sing the lyrics to When the Doves Cry, or Purple Rain, I sat in an apartment in Malden, Massachusetts with my best friend Kim, listening again and again to the Dirty Mind album while staring longingly at his cover. I grew to love purple because of Prince, dated a Prince fanatic who only wrote in Prince shorthand-this is 4 u. But it was at age nineteen while a sophomore at Pratt Institute, that their connection to Prince began. It was Saturday night, and mourning a recent break up, I planned to spend the night in bed crying. My roommate insisted I go with her to the Prince Purple Rain party on campus. Sure, I loved Prince, but could I really spend the night dancing to his songs with a broken heart?

Apparently so, because when a handsome illustration major asked me to dance, I did. And then we danced some more. And talked a little too. And the next day he stopped by to say hello. And then I stopped by his room to say hello. And the rest, as they say is history.

I loved Prince, but he loved the spin off group The Time. We had epic arguments over who was the better artist Prince or Michael Jackson (you know my vote.) And I worried I couldn’t move forward with someone who didn’t fully understand the greatness of His Royal Purpleness.

But we did move forward. Past college into marriage. A dog, a house, one kid, then three more in rapid succession. On family trips, our six CD changer was filled with Prince and the songs that were once mine, became ours. My oldest says she still counts Kiss as one of her all-time greats. I remember my frustration with having to skip past International Lover. I liked to sing solo on How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore. This six of us bobbed and danced and sang his entire repertoire over bridges, to family reunions in North Carolina, sightseeing in Williamsburg, Virginia, summer vacations in Massachusetts.

“You guys wouldn’t be here without Prince,” we once told them.

Their condolences meant he was an integral part of my past, our family, and their legacy.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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The Theory of Evolution

I pulled into a parking spot in town readying myself to head into my appointment.  As I rummaged through my purse the sounds of children’s shrieks reached me.  The Montessori school across the street was letting out for the day and the three and four year olds raced towards the swing set in the play area.

Not so long ago, my youngest daughter raced for that same swing set, while she kept one eye trained on the parking lot waiting for my car to arrive.  She hated nursery school.  Hated leaving home.  Hated the art projects and the snack times and making friends. And I hated the daily cheerleader role I had to play.

“You’re going to have so much fun today!” ‘What should we pack for your snack?” I rooted each morning while she glumly looked on.

By the time she entered public school, she was labeled a “reevolutionreluctant kindergartner.” Pedagogical terms aside, it simply meant that during her kindergarten registration interview, she mumbled and grumbled that she didn’t want to come to school.  Unlike her older siblings, she dreaded the first day of school. She plodded through each year.  But, by fifth grade, she expressed a reserved excitement about entering middle school. In middle school, she was engaged and attentive. By the time she entered high school she had evolved into an avid reader, skilled debater, critical thinker and straight A student.

Evolution is a crucial component of human existence and can occur over millennia, centuries, decades, or in my daughter’s case, several years.

We all like to believe we evolve.  When I completed the manuscript for my first book, I assumed I had finally achieved my dream.  I took a germ of an idea, completed research, shaped it into a story and revised until it was accepted by an editor. I congratulated myself.  I did it.  But then came the second book and the third.

During those early years, I spent more time worrying about the “right” way to tell a story than just telling the story.  I used to wish I could go back and change every word I had written—all the tight phrases, overwriting and stilted dialogue, but then I realized that the growth comes in the mistakes.  With each book I learned to relax my writing and to explore new ways of storytelling.  Looking back on my work from those days, I can chart the growth, see the emerging, ever evolving writer.

“Let the rocks guide you,” writes Georgia Heard in her book, Writing Towards Home.

Each book can be a stepping stone to the next and hopefully the foundation for stories that capitalize on past mistakes.  When the boxes of newly published books arrive from the publisher, I tear them open, closely examine the cover, flip to the first page, take a couple to add to my bookcase and store the rest.  I am too afraid of the writing I may find if I look too closely.  The writer from years prior. The writer who hadn’t yet been caressed with the poetry of Brown Girl Dreaming and Crossover.  Blinked back tears from The Warmth of Other Suns. Felt the rage of Between the World and Me.  Been swallowed whole by In Zanesville, Dear Sugar, Dog Stars and Americanah.   I don’t want to read the writing from that person who hadn’t yet read Girl With all the Gifts,  The Orchardist, Benediction or Day of Tears.  Having been touched by the words of beautiful writing speeds a writer’s evolutionary process.

On rare occasions I will read through my old manuscripts and be happily surprised with what I find.  The words bear little resemblance to those early stages of rough drafts and research notes.  Of head in hand agonizing over each word.  I can accept a certain pride in wrangling a good story from pages of dry research.  And finding within that research a morsel that on another day may have been overlooked.

Evolution comes too slow for some (i.e politicians), too fast for others.  Either through maturity, patience, and persistence or some combination of the three we hopefully evolve as parents, partners, thinkers.  For me and my daughter, it was rocky at first, but the steadier footing came and we are still evolving at a pace all our own.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

 

 

 

 

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Shut Up

No one has ever accused me of biting my tongue.  No one has ever said to me, You should really speak your mind.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard, Spit it out Lesa.  My mouth is my greatest asset and also my biggest foe.

As a writerBlahlarge of picture books, selecting just the right words is crucial to telling a strong yet concise story.  The picture book writer can have  many jobs—create a narrative, teach a lesson, share a piece of history, connect the past to the present, make a reader laugh, highlight illustrations, share the power and beauty of language.  All this in 32 pages.  So the temptation to write more often persists.

In debates with friends, I need to offer just one more thought.  With my husband, I need to argue just one more point.  With my kids, I need to share just one more piece of profound knowledge from my unlimited cache of wisdom.   But it is only after I add that extra line to the text message, say the one more thing, do I immediately wish I could pull it back.  The key to successful relationships?  Shut up.   It doesn’t result in winning the debate.  No one is the better for it. There are no great epiphanies.    My family and friends have proven to be my best editors, only they don’t need a pen because their  deep sighs, unanswered texts and eye rolls cut deeper than any proofreading marks.  They remind me that, if I can’t always edit my thoughts, I can certainly edit my words.

In writing, not every word should make it onto the page.  Some material is beautifully crafted yet not a good fit, some,  the seeds of other stories, some don’t  help to propel the story along, some useless trivia.  Saying less can make each word that much more meaningful. So I try to shut up, and write only what must be written.  It has taken a long time to learn that the absence of words is often the most powerful tool a writer has.

And even though I feel the need to add just a little more here…I won’t.  I promise.  That’s it.  No more. Right after I say,  The End.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Aging Out

Nothing makes you feel quite as grown up as signing your will.  That’s what I did recently, just shy of my 50th birthday.  For so many years, I’ve been anticipating my 50th more than any other year.  It seemed to me to be the age at which women are truly free.  Certainly freer from parenting responsibilities, self-doubt and body image issues.

But the closer I get to fifty, the less enthusiastic I feel.  At fifty, I am a different demographic.  I check a different box.  All around me I see the optimism—“50 and fabulous”.  “50 is the new 40” And now, if recent research holds true, sixty, not fifty, is now considered middle-aged.   But suppose 50 isn’t fabulous? Suppose 50 is the new 50?  For the most part,  50 looks good.  Brooke Shields, Viola Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker.  But  I’m finding fifty has another, not so pretty face.  Sure, fifty is freedom, confidence, self-awareness and strength but 50 is also,  signing a will, burying a parent,attending the high school and college graduations of your children, getting a colonoscopy and root canals. getting a stress fracture in your ankle from running around a track aYoung Lesa.jpgnd the orthopedist suggesting that a woman your age should no longer be running, but doing aqua aerobics.  Some mornings I wake up and wonder, didn’t I just graduate from college?

The truth is that turning fifty is less about the sadness of what was left behind but the fear of what lies ahead.  My 20s were blurred by newfound freedom and ambition.   My 30’s, a rush of diapers and childcare. My late 40’s found me reclaiming some portions of self while carving out more time as a writer. I don’t ever want to revisit my 20’s (well, maybe some portions), but I wouldn’t mind a bit of that fearlessness. That confidence that life will work out exactly the way I’d hoped.

What will the 50’s hold?  Who knows, but based on intensive research, I’ve compiled a list of the best things about turning 50.

  1. You have a half century of friendships.
  2. You get to say things like “half a century.”
  3. You were there for the advent of rap and disco.
  4. You were the beneficiary of Title IX, cable tv, the internet, satellite radio, yet you still know how to play a record, operate a VCR and write a letter.

The good news is that I have a few friends who are younger, several my age, but for the most part, my friends are older which means I get a front row seat for my future self.  And from what I can tell, it’s an active, strong, balanced life full of many of life’s greatest pleasures….and colonoscopies.

Please add to the list of the best things about turning fifty.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Mother’s Day Graduation

I spent my Mother’s Day up to my neck in tissues.  The antihistamines I had taken did little to ease the discomfort of allergies, and so, as I sat propped on my couch, I had an awful lot of time to sip tea, blow my nose andIMG_9003 think.  Mother’s Day is the one day of the year when I indulge myself.  I insist on breakfast in bed, time alone, a home cooked meal.  No cleaning, no laundry, and no guilt, just a day of pure relaxation.  But this was a Mother’s Day of firsts.  It coincided with the college graduation of my eldest daughter.  It was the first mother’s day where I wasn’t focused solely on celebrating me.  It was the first mother’s day I had spent in decades with my mother and sister.  And what better way to spend it than with the two women who have seen me through this motherhood journey for the past twenty-one years. When my daughter walked across the Syracuse stage to accept her diploma, we cheered loudly.  She hadn’t had an easy time of it which meant that neither had I.  But with the support of my mother and sister, my daughter and I made it through.  It felt as if it were the three of us who walked across that stage with her.  We’d been on the rollercoaster ride together, buckled in for the fun and fear of seeing a child through their journey to adulthood.  For twenty-one years, they talked me through, cheered me on, scolded, and encouraged me when I didn’t know which way to turn.  When I was tired, they came. When I needed to work, they took a load off.   When I didn’t have enough, they chipped in.  The role of fathers of course, is equally valuable, but it feels like motherhood is more of a  group effort.  I believe it takes a village, a family and a whole lot of friends.

When my oldest was an infant, I joined a playgroup.  I was new to the area, away from my family and the women I met with weekly were strangers.  We were different racially and culturally and united only by our first time mom status. Some were relaxed, others were neurotic.  But in our times together, clustered on the floor, babies crawling around us,  we shared our insecurities about navigating the world of motherhood.  Eventually, I confided to the moms in my playgroup that before having a baby,  I imagined motherhood would be a breeze. I pictured long walks, my cheerful baby in tow, strolling through the park.  A white linen dress was involved as were smells of freshly baked bread when I returned to my meticulous home.  Somehow, in the midst of breast-feeding, diaper changes and sleep deprivation, my pristine dream dissolved.   My vivid imagination is most often an asset to my writing, but applying those same fantasies to the real world of parenting can only lead to disappointment and feelings of failure.  As a group, we figured out that perfection is not what we should be striving for.  And that through all our differences, we each needed to find our own way as mothers.

But that discovery didn’t take away the worry. That persistent, gnawing fear that began early and continued through teething, first words and steps and mushroomed into concerns about kindergarten and teachers.  And then it was friendships and sports, and onto dating, drugs and college admissions.   Through it all, I’ve met scores of other mothers, whose views, attitudes and differing parenting styles have impacted my own. Their honest assessments often helped me shortcut a world of heartache.  The benefit of an alternative perspective is a gift to our children.  To see our children through someone else’s eyes is to experience them in a new, often less critical light.   For the most part, mothers and women are an honest lot, willing to share their own struggles to help you through yours.  I’ve been brought to tears when talking to another mother about one parenting woe or another and she says the two most beautiful words you can say to a person in crisis—“me too.” Some mothers though strive for the ever elusive perfection.  Children, homes marriages–Perfect, perfect and perfect.  Maybe they’ve figured out some magic formulas the rest of haven’t, but I doubt it. To share with other mothers the hardships and challenges you face, says less about your failure as a mother than it does about the simple fact that this motherhood thing is no easy ride.   Sometimes it is, but a lot of times it isn’t.  And if you are prepared for that reality, you are better equipped to hold on tight when life goes into freefall.

With my mother and sister seated beside me, I cheered as much for my daughter as I did for the role they played in getting her across that stage.  The role we should all play in getting each other through.  We are all to be celebrated for striving to make it across life’s stage knowing we did the absolute best we could do. And maybe, if we are lucky, our kids will recognize it, and give us a hand for the effort.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Learning Curve

 

Last month, at a rest stop on the New York Thruway, I bought my very first Popular Mechanics magazine. I rushed back to the car.   Grinning, I showed my husband the cover– 42 Things You Should Know How to Do at Every Age.  Just as I expected, he looked puzzled.  I’m not sure even he

puzzle 3

knows the extent of my passion for learning new things.  But I have begun to wonder if my quickly aging brain has slowed my learning curve?  And, if so, will I ever have enough time to learn everything I want to know?

I’ve always fancied myself a woman who knows how to do just a little bit of everything, but only recently have I recognized that the harsh truth is, I’m not.  I can do a couple of things relatively well, but for the most part, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by all that I don’t know how to do.  According to the Popular Mechanics magazine by my age I should probably know how to drive a stick shift, paddle a canoe, light fireworks, throw a punch, read a river, fell a tree and sail.  In fact, of the 42 items listed, I could competently do 4—ride a bike, tie a shoe, change a diaper and hammer a nail.

Each time I read yet another dystopian novel (The Dog Stars, One Second After, Not a Drop to Drink, The Road, Station Eleven, Oryx and Crake), I am again reminded how I lack the ability to survive without the benefit of four walls, heat and a pantry stocked with food.  Or perhaps it began with my fascination with survival shows.  Drop two strangers on a remote island with only rudimentary tools and watch their struggle to survive (Naked and Afraid and Survivor).  Or enlist two people to race around the world completing physical and mental challenges to win one million dollars (Amazing Race).  I dream of competing on these shows but then I remember that I cannot read a compass or a map.  I can’t identify plants. I don’t know how to start a fire.  I can’t even whistle.   I’m too ashamed to go on.  What was I doing all those years when I should have been learning these valuable skills?

Overconfidence, delusion, denial, I’m not sure which of these best applies, but I still forge ahead toward each new task with the expectation that I will and can excel.  This year it was Pilates, where as a newbie I was somehow certain this would be an exercise regime easy to grasp.  I clung to every word of my very supportive Pilates instructor, made mental notes. But how exactly does one simultaneously pull in abs, tuck a pelvis, extend arms, curl a neck, drop shoulders while remembering to breathe?  I pretend not to notice that I am the only one in the class who needs reminders, adjustments and corrections. My mental picture and physical reality have serious communication issues.

Did I once have a vast store of knowledge and somehow just forgot?  I went to Camp Grotonwood every year.  I attended Girl Scout camp. Surely, I should have learned how to tie a knot, or pitch a tent.

To reboot my brain, I dusted off an intricate 1000 piece puzzle.  I’m great at puzzles, I announced to my family.  But after struggling to piece together four pathetic pieces, there it sat, untouched for one full month, a reminder of my failure.  When my son came home for spring break, he put the puzzle together in 24 hours while watching tv, eating plate after junk food plate, and entertaining friends.

The day after my mother’s 90th birthday last month, she, my sister and daughter went on a college visit to a school in Boston.  They had the opportunity to visit a lab and meet with professors who discussed current research trends.  As inspired by the visit as my 14-year old daughter, my mother announced she would like to go back to school to get her biology degree. The only problem that she could see was that pursuing a degree may interfere with the swimming lessons she just started at our local pool.

They say that with age comes wisdom, so my hope is that I will soon be wise enough to either accept what I will never know or, like my mother, realize that
perhaps I have as long as it takes.

And in case you’re wondering, the complete Popular Mechanics list below:

Make a great paper airplane, tie your shoes, ride a bike, shoot a bb gun, hammer a nail, paddle a canoe, properly load a dishwasher, do a donut, drive a stick, survive alone in the woods, jump start a car, locate yourself on a map, get down from a mountain, throw a curveball, fell a tree, unsnap a bra with one hand, throw a punch, plan the perfect road trip, fit a couch through a door, light fireworks, bowl a hook, make a batched cocktail, butcher a pig, plane a door, whistle with two fingers, fix a sink drain, make a roux, golf, use a circular saw, change a diaper, play poker, teach something, build a stone wall, drive 100 mph, identify plants, sail, read a river, make hand cut dovetails, fly fish.

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