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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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

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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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Big Dreams

Nearly five years ago my life took an unexpected turn and I became an adoptive mother. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have enough on my plate with work, kids, travel and the daily fires in my life, but I wanted more. I wanted a dog.

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Since the loss of my beloved Dalmatian, Clinton, years earlier, I wasn’t sure I could ever withstand the loss of a pet again. But I noticed I loved visiting friends who had dogs. On occasion I pet sat for friends away on vacation. I petted and cooed at the dogs of strangers until they nervously walked away. I was definitely ready. My family, not so much.

My dreams tend toward the super-sized. When I dreamed of owning a home, I bought a huge Victorian. When I dreamed of a family car (anything but a minivan) I wound up with a truck so large a friend teased that it needed a back up beeper when I put it in reverse. And who has four kids nowadays? Queen of Big Dreams, that’s who. So when I dreamed of owning a dog, I imagined big dog, lovable and gentle. And it just so happened that my big dream coincided with a friend’s big dream of giving away a very big, lovable, and gentle dog.
My big dreams yielded Nola. Big, lovable, and gentle, but also a nervous, clingy, messy, untrainable, snoring Saint Bernard desperate for a family to love and a belly to be scratched all day….every day.
It was a love affair that mystified most.

“Do you smell her?” family members asked. I didn’t.

“Doesn’t that snoring bother you?” they inquired. I thought it was cute.

What they didn’t see was the constant companionship she provided. How she labors upstairs to sit with me while I work. How when she places her big paw on my lap and gazes into my eyes, my heart soars with love. I am often short on time and she is often short on stamina, so our daily walks are a brief, welcome reprieve from work. When twice she became gravely ill, she reminded me to pay attention to the ones you love. As a big girl, she’s not a squirrel chaser, but watching her sit on the deck each morning after her breakfast, observing the squirrels run and contemplating the deer grazing while the wind ruffles her fur, reminds me to slow down and appreciate nature. When we leave her alone, she sleeps peacefully to a nice jazz station until we return. She barks only when absolutely necessary, (as in when she’s ready to go out on the deck to observe squirrels), which reminds me that my constant barking at the kids and my husband is often unnecessary. When she stretches her girth in the middle of the kitchen floor, forcing each of us to step and stumble over her, she reminds me that we all like to sometimes feel we are at the center of someone’s universe. She reminds me that a good long nap does a body good. She reminds me that a family who loves you, a good meal, music, fresh air and relaxation are the basic necessities of life. End of story.

Bigger is not always better. I’ll never stop dreaming big, but it took Nola to help me realize that sometimes, big dreams can help you see the beauty in the small.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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The Daily Habit

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I owe much of my writing career to Saturday mornings that began with frosted flakes cereal and cartoons. My father was a stickler for Saturday morning chores. Chores done promptly after breakfast and thoroughly each and every week. Friends would ring the doorbell or, in my teenage years, call to ask if I was ready to go shopping in downtown Boston. “Not done with my chores yet,” meant they had to wait just a little bit longer.

When the rest of my family grumbled about chores and cleaning, I said very little, preferring the look and feel of swept floors and the smell of Old English furniture polish. This weekly routine continued long after my brother and sister had each left for college and I was the last child left.  I believe it was the simple act of Saturday morning chores that lent itself to an appreciation of routine.

In college, my roommate laughed as I insisted on cleaning every Saturday morning. Newly married, I toted laundry up and down the steps of our fourth floor walk-up apartment each and every Saturday.  After the kids were born, my attempts at creating the same routines in my own household had a shaky foundation. By the time the kids were old enough to help out with cleaning, Saturday morning practices, meets and part time jobs caused disruptions so I switched to Friday. But as the kids got older nearly no one came home after school, preferring to visit friends or head into town for pizza or there were piles of homework that needed to be completed. I dug in. All Chores Must Be Completed by Sunday In Order To Receive Allowance, I proclaimed. In return, I got shoddy, rushed work, masked with bleach or pushed under beds. Complaints that we were the only family in New York State without a housekeeper did little to dissuade me, but it still felt like a losing battle.

And so, one morning last week, with music blasting from pandora, as I mopped the kichen floor, wiped down kitchen cabinets, stacked newspapers in recycling and ran the vacuum, I realized my youngest was still sound asleep in bed while I did the chores. The sounds of my cleaning did little to rouse her. From what I could tell, it elicited little guilt. It was Saturday after all, her day to sleep in. I picked up the broom. Ive failed her, I thought. Failed all of my kids. And not just about helping them grasp the value of maintaining your household, but about the importance of routine. I had failed to demonstrate how daily habits can ultimately help in creating order in our domestic, professional and academic lives.

What some might call neuroses (or one friend even calls OCD), I call routine: Whole wheat pancakes every Sunday morning, a Dvr’ed episode of House Hunters with cookies and tea every Tuesday at 9:00, Friday night date night with James, and then, of course, my Saturday morning grocery shopping and chores. I hate when these weekly routines are disrupted. I take great comfort in their predictability.

As a freelancer, the importance of routine is particularly crucial. In my first few years of writing, my plan of action was to write after I had gotten the kids dressed and fed, washed some breakfast dishes, and put in a load of laundry. But, by the time I completed those tasks, it was time to start on lunch, put clothes in the dryer and get dinner organized. If I added errands or a doctors appointment to the list, I lost the entire day. I believed I could only concentrate on my writing after I made sure everyone else was okay. It’s a trap into which many women writers fall.

Many years ago, a writer friend gave me the book, A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood by Judith Pierce Rosenberg. I read it from cover to cover and then observed and asked questions of other freelancers to figure if what worked for them could actually work for me. In my observations, I made particular note of my husband.

A freelancer since college, he is incredibly productive. Up each morning at 6:00 a.m., he makes his way to the studio, spends some time on correspondence, some time on his students and the rest of the day at his easel. He somehow manages to illustrate and teach with little disruption to his schedule. He doesn’t cook dinner or do laundry however. Doesn’t know the names of the kids’ teachers or college roommates, rarely gets together with friends, and often forgets my birthday (and his), but in terms of output, he is a master. Not exactly the type of balance I was seeking, but his discipline impressed me.

After many failed attempts, I finally made the leap. I established a routine for my writing. My work would begin in the morning, preferably after exercise and breakfast, when I was at my peak mentally. I would save all of the mind numbing work for the times when I could switch to auto pilot. I would not go out to play until I had completed my writing chore.

Not suprisingly, my productivity increased.  Now, instead of one book a year, I’ve managed to complete two, and sometimes three. I am not sure my father could have ever imagined that the unglamorous, monotony of weekly chores that added polish and sparkle to our home, now adds the same to my writing.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Letters from Home

I’ve sat on many panels at book festivals and conferences discusing the role of research in my writing.  Enough to know that I appear to know something about the topic.  I write picture book biographies and historical fiction primarily, yet research is a topic that presents infinite challenges for writers,

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teachers and students.  Locating needed materials, reconciling conflicting accounts, grasping for the details needed to flesh out a story, navigating the murky waters of child appropriate material.  Letters and diaries, or primary sources, are a window into a subject’s innermost thoughts and heartfelt sentiments and they are the type of research I find most intriguing.  It feeds my inner voyeur.  But, for many decades now, letter writing has become history, an ancient artifact.

In college, my mother sent me weekly letters from home. I waited on them eagerly, as much for the crisp bill folded inside as for the sight of my mother’s slanted handwriting.  I did wonder why she wasted her time providing me with minutiae from the town I’d fled in my desperate need for a life far  from the Boston suburbs.  By nature a quiet woman, on paper, her words exploded.  My mother’s chatty prose included details of last night’s supper, the health news of neighbors, her nutty patients from Boston City Hospital and the petty annoyances of my father. They somehow made me feel as if I were sitting at our kitchen table after school.  My eccentric mother often signed her name with various aliases.  Her favorite was Ernestine Clineski, with the postscript, I’m feeling Russian today.  Those letters bridged the distance between Malden, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York.  They are tucked away now, hidden in an attic to be rediscovered sometime in the distant future.

My own correspondence with my children began similarly.  Each of my four children has a memory box in their closets, packed with the momentous events in their lives.  The preschool graduation diplomas, tickets stubs, favorite drawings, newspaper clippings, journals, certificates, Christmas lists, birthday cards from grandparents, postcards from every city I visited (We rode bikes yesterday at Versailles and had un boule du chocolat glace…)and letters to lonely campers (don’t forget your deodorant—your cabinmates will thank you.) In one box I found three pages listing the times of my contractions the night I went into labor.  These are the tokens of their lives I hope they will one day cherish. I am a sentimental soul, but I do hope these articles also serve as a reminder of who they once were, how they existed within their family, their school and the world beyond.  In these boxes I hope they rediscover a history of their early dreams and successes.

But, over the past several years, the items added to their boxes have tapered to a trickle and our correspondence consists of text messages and emails.  Still in letterwriting mode, my texts are long and preachy.  More daily reminders and reprimands ( I hope u remember to…) than idle ramblings. Their one word responses (K…Got it…Yup…) offer no hint at any familial connection. What will these ephemeral exchanges mean to future generations? How will they impact research and history? What will they reveal about the nature of our relationships?

Years from now, I often wonder what documents will be left for writers to use in tracing the lives of those they research if all meaningful exchanges transpired on snapchat and Instagram. And all of our snapshots from family vacations, graduations and sacred moments existed on our phones.

For now, I am grateful for the letters from my past, from a wildly eccentric mother and a taste of humdrum life that hold within them a unique history and the keys to a life lived and loved.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Sunday Routine

 

Sunday Routine is the column I read every Sunday while James flips pancakes and the water boils for my tea.  In it, I read about the lives of New Yorkers, some famous (Edie Falco, Al Sharpton, Betsey Johnson, Pete Hamill), some not so, as they are interviewed about how they spend their

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Sundays. Reading the Sunday routine column, eating pancakes—this is my Sunday routine.  After eating breakfast, James and I go our separate ways, doing what must be done and we meet up again for dinner.  Recently I read about a CEO of a fashion retail chain.  He begins his day with an hour long mediation, follows it with a cup of chai, reads magazines, plays backgammon with his wife, drives his Ferrari to pick up bagels, goes on a bike ride and has lunch with friends.  I don’t know if I’ve ever had a day that combined so many pleasures within one 24-hour period. The really great columns I read aloud to James, hoping he will be inspired by the couple who stroll to the farmer’s market, spontaneously invite friends for dinner on their rooftop deck, take long walks their dogs, have cocktails in front of the Sunday game.“It’s a fantasy,” he tells me.  “Do you really believe they live like that?”But I do. At least I want to.  Or I need to.  If my Sundays are laundry, work, cooking and cleaning, at least someone else should be eating scones and heading to matinees.The wave of guilt I feel when I do sit and read the newspaper is suffocating.  Most weekends I vow to make Friday and Saturday my housework days, leaving Sunday completely open and guilt free, or, as I like to call it a “Sunday Routine” Sunday. But the overflow makes it impossible.

I visited a friend in NYC recently for a weekend.  We relaxed and talked in his apartment, slept late and lounged some more.  Sometime early Saturday afternoon we headed out for lunch.  Except in NYC, no one serves lunch on a weekend, only brunch.  I was irritated.  I was in the mood for a burger, not eggs.  But once we sat, and a cocktail was poured and eggs benedict was served, I was nearly overcome with emotion.  I am eating Sunday brunch. In New York City.  With a day to do as I please.   It was indeed my very first Sunday Routine day.

I know my SR days are coming.  When the work and family needs will subside, but until then, the lives of others and my weekend getaways will have to serve as my guidepost.

There is no shame in the covetous quality of my reading.  Sometimes I am inspired.  Sometimes I am envious. But for the most part, it does make me reflect on how I spend my time and my days.  Sometimes craving a life outside your own is a great motivation to create the life you dream.

 

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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