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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Can we Talk?

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I knew that writing about Harriet Tubman for my newest book, Before she Was Harriet (which releases today) would be a difficult task and that is exactly why I waited years to do it.  Since childhood, Harriet was my hero.  Courageous, rebellious, fierce, she was everything the anxiety-ridden, fearful me wanted to be.  Her story stood in stark contrast to others I’d read in my grade  school textbooks that in my child’s mind, portrayed enslaved peoples as willing participants in a system orchestrated by “savvy” whites over “docile” blacks.  As the only black in a classroom of whites, I felt shame wash over me during these lessons where my entire ancestry was painted as one of victimhood.  In all of these stories of slavery, Harriet Tubman emerged as the outlier, proof of a people with a rebellious, fighting spirit.

As the years passed and my education broadened to include a more accurate history, I often found myself engaged in heated discussions with many who clung to those textbook versions of historic events.  And in those arguments, I often came away battered and bruised and angrier.  But that is what difficult conversations do.

 

Slavery is the piece of history no likes to discuss.  It creates deep divisions and reopens wounds.  Emotions range from guilt to defensiveness to shame to fear.  But when is a good time to have difficult conversations?

Some of the most difficult conversations I have had are with one of my closest girlfriends who differs from me in nearly every way—racially, culturally, socioeconomically, geographically, religiously.  We met during our freshman year of college, and I was drawn to her assertive, politically incorrect style, which was in direct contrast cover

to my New England tact and liberalism.  She came armed with strong opinions and stereotypes, compassion and curiosity in equal measure at a time when I was raw with the pain of too many classrooms of people who didn’t look like me who told me told me that my history was less than when I now knew better.  We talked. We argued.  We challenged.  And surprisingly, it was as invigorating as it was respectful.  Through the years, we went our separate ways, moved away, made new friends, and came back together, stronger in our beliefs but softened too by how the ugliness of the world could be cushioned just a bit by a friend with whom you could ask hard questions and receive honest answers.  Gradually it was trust and then love that allowed us to talk without fear of judgment and have genuine discussions.    On many topics, we will never agree, but the difficult conversations continue to grow us in our understanding of each other and the worlds in which we live.

 

I will be the first to confess, I struggle with initiating more of these honest conversations outside of my echo chamber.  I am not all that interested in hearing why you believe (insert opposing political and social viewpoints here), but I do recognize the importance of having the  conversation.  They can clarify our thinking, help us sort through difficult topics,  remind us the world is full of people with a variety of viewpoints and every so often, those varying  thoughts can also offera new perspective.

.Conversations are a step in the right direction, but when we can’t find people with whom to share difficult conversations, an understanding of history may be the best weapon we have in combatting the “isms” we all face.

The writer Chinua Achebe once cited the African proverb, “Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”   As a child, all those years ago, the full story, the truth, was owed to every child in my classroom.  Not just the stories in the textbooks.  Not just Harriet’s.  But the many more that reflect the wide-ranging experiences of peoples that provide an accurate, alternative view of history to provide context and deeper content.

When is a good time to have difficult conversations?  Books for children that commemorate diverse historical figures may just be a good place to start.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Thanks for the Memories

I live in the past.  I am a keeper of mementos, a one woman storage facility of memories.  I often tease my siblings that should I die, they would have no recollection at all of our childhood.  Like a parlor trick, upon request I can recall the most mundane snatches of memory.  I’ve had friends call to ask the name of an old boyfriend or the name of a song we loved in college.

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Me, age 12 (photo courtesy of Kim Facey Witherspoon)

But as much as I Iike to boast about my sharp memory, it is a double-edged sword.  I am a highlight reel of every holiday tradition, car trip, and secret, but I also never forget the smallest  slight or unkind word.

A good memory is what writers rely on, but writers for children have to reach even further back in their memory banks to retrieve childhood moments.  The dreams, emotions and motivations of childhood are what we seek in order to write authentic voices for children.  Childhood is often fondly referred to as the most idyllic period of our lives, yet I remember how often I was scared, or felt vulnerable and powerless in face of adults.  How insecurity plagued me throughout middle school and my hopes and dreams seemed infinitely, impossibly far away.

How easy it is to forget who we once were.  This month I will gather for my annual getaway with my childhood girlfriends. And though the four of us live distinctly different lives, miles apart,  reunited we are once again exactly who we were in middle school.  In these women, I see a reflection of who I was all those years ago before I went off to college, moved away, married, became a mother.   In some ways I’m much the same—loud, opinionated, a storyteller.  But they remind me that I was also once carefree, fun-loving and spontaneous.

I often share with my children that once upon a time I made some bad decisions, was impulsive, and indecisive.  But for the most part, they continue to  see me as a rule follower, a straight arrow, structured and disciplined.  Recently when visiting the trendy Forever 21 store with my teenager, I pulled out a patent leather mini skirt and wistfully remarked,  “I love this.”

My daughter, looked at me shocked.  “Who are you?” she asked, confused.

But in my teenage years, that patent leather miniskirt was me, complete with boots, fishnets and a turtleneck, it was my look. Last time I checked, they weren’t selling them at Banana  Republic.  The years, or more specifically, the responsibilities of adulthood, have a way of erasing our former selves until all that’s left is a misty, watercolored memory.

Often when I write scenes with young characters and their parents, I reference my own.  And in doing so, remember how holding my mother’s hand could erase many of my fears.  The surge of guilt I felt every time I lied or disappointed them.  The rage I felt when I was grounded.  The pride of showing a good report card and how I looked to the stands to see my mother’s face after I ran and won my 200 meter heats.   When I write about the powerful moments between parents and children,  I remember the cool baths my mother ran for me on warm summer days and the hot cereal my father cooked on cold winter mornings.  When I write about setting, I remember the winters of my past, and my mother smearing Vaseline on my face before I walked to school to protect against biting wind and cold and listening on the radio with my brother and sister for word of a snow day and how I wished we lived in the town of Arlington or Belmont, so we wouldn’t have to wait quite as long to hear the name Malden, when they listed the school closings alphabetically.

Memories evoke powerful emotions.   And emotions evoke powerful memories.  I am grateful for memory and for the characters who demand that I remember the young girl I once was.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

 

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Love Thy Neighbor

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When  my family were asked to appear on the cover of a recent local publication, my kids were stumped.

“Why would anyone want to feature us on a cover?” they each asked.

“Probably because we are a writer and illustrator couple,” I offered.

But they were not convinced.  And with our many foibles and averageness, I can certainly understand their confusion.  Children’s book writers and illustrators aren’t typically those who receive the spotlight so we happily endured our share of teasing andrhinebeck living

accepted the compliments of our neighbors when the issue was released.  But what touched me most was being reminded of the beauty and warmth of community. How the noble purpose of this publication is to bring neighbors in closer contact with each other through images and stories.  In an age of social media and negative political discourse, face to face dialogue with the people who live in your community, seems to be going by the wayside.

Shortly after the issue was released, I walked into the grocery store and heard my name called.  I expected to see a friend, but instead, an unfamiliar man approached with a broad smile.

“I saw you on the magazine,” he said as he introduced himself.

We exchanged pleasantries, chatted a bit and discovered we had much in common. We talked about getting together one day and exchanged business cards. By the time I got home to unpack my groceries, the phone rang.

“Are you and James free for brunch tomorrow?” the grocery store man asked.  He and his wife lived nearby and so, despite my daughter’s concerns that we would become homicide victims,  we spent hours the next day at the home of newly found neighbors over mimosas and homemade blueberry muffins, talking, laughing and sharing.

Both James and I grew up in communities where people knew and cared for each other.  The type of community where a child’s behavior outside of his home was closely monitored by all adults.  Where word of misdeeds and successes traveled like wildfire.  I loved visiting my neighborhood shops where the owner of Saul’s market asked after my parents.  Where the salesman at Hanlon’s Shoes remembered my narrow feet and performed magic tricks while I tried on pairs,  and how at Mrs. Pendelton’s salon, her hot comb shaped my hair into the page boy style I loved.

Contrary to popular belief, communities aren’t only in small, rural towns.  They are in places where you feel at home and welcomed wherever you go.  Where people aren’t afraid to say “Good Morning,” and root for each other’s successes, both large and small.  It is the grocery clerk, a fellow New Englander, who provides me with weekly Patriots and Red Sox news each week when I do my shopping, and the  library volunteer who critiques my reading selections at check out and the  “local’s discount” provided at my favorite store in town, that make me feel like a celebrity.

Years ago, when my oldest began her college search, she insisted on applying only to very large schools.  After of years of living “under a microscope” in a small town, she longed for the anonymity of a large university, where she would go unnoticed.  Yet, not one year into her studies at that very large, university, whose size was nearly triple the population of her hometown, she felt lost.  She went from a town where neighbors reported when she ran a stop sign, which was often, to a campus, where no one noticed when she was sick for days on end.  It was only after graduating, that one by one, she found a community in her housemates, in the large home they share together in a large city.  That home has become the headquarters for them and many other friends to celebrate milestones, garden, cook and dream.  She commented recently that by just minding your own business, you sadly mind no one else’s.

In strong communities, the victory of one is the victory of all and neighbors earn celebrity status, not from being in the spotlight  but from battling a cancer diagnosis, graduating kindergarten, emerging intact from a devastating divorce or loss of a loved one, launching a new business venture, running for school board.   By opening our homes to each other, we open dialogue, we broaden our neighborhoods.  We experience belonging.

Home is where the heart is, but it takes heart to make a community a home.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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The End is Near

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 No, this is not the prelude to a political rant about how the current administration is sending us on a collision course with disaster.  But this is a blog about my beginnings with The End.  As in The End of Times.  As in the Apocalypse.

My fascination with the apocalypse could have begun as early as six years old when I read and reread the Chicken Little story.

“The sky is falling,” Chicken Little warned his friends Goosey Loosey and Ducky Lucky.  I guess I’ve been waiting for the sky to fall ever since.

Apparently I’m not waiting alone.  Sales of George Orwell’s novel,  1984 have drastically increased in recent months.  From my early years of Chicken Little’s foreboding prophecy, I’ve been contemplating the world’s demise via one dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel after the next.  Stories that explore our humanity, or lack thereof, in the midst of crisis, make me flip the pages as fast as my fingers can turn.  From The Lord of the Flies to The Giver, to every single Planet of the Apes film ever made,  imagining a future world overly reliant on technology, or a world absent of it, makes me ponder my own chances of survival.  The possibility of electromagnetic pulse malfunction, drought, virus, plague, nuclear weapons, governmental manipulation, political upheaval, or natural disasters have led me to think more about boosting my skill set in gardening, stockpiling, medicinal plants, self-defense, game hunting and archery.

The flip side to writing for children, is the exploration of the darkest parts of ourselves.  And how can we celebrate the best parts without understanding the worst?  Somehow, the darkest dystopian novels make me feel safe.  The world may be close to collapse, but I am still here, cooking, cleaning, parenting, writing.

I have reasoned that if I just read just one more book about how civilization can survive in the wake of a mysterious plague, I’ll at least have a store of knowledge, useful when the world comes crashing down around me.

Dozens of books later, I’m still reading and preparing and waiting.  Lucky for me there are no shortage of new titles for me and my fellow fatalists emerging each month.

Then again, maybe this is a blog about how the current administration is sending us a collision course with disaster….

Below some of my favs to read before the end arrives:

Adult–

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

One Second After by William R. Forstchen

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

California by Edan Lepucki

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

The Long Walk by Stephen King

Kindred by Octavia Butler

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Into the Forest by Jean Hegland

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

City of Savages by Lee Kelley

Underground Airlines by Ben Winter

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

Station Eleven by John Mandel

 

Young Adult–

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Life as we Knew it by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne

Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

 

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

 

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Nothing to Fear

Time_exiled_night_window_lightI’ve always been afraid of the dark. For as long as I can remember, I slept with a night-light. As a teenager, after seeing the movie The Exorcist, I crawled into bed with my parents for one week. Many of my fears are of the garden variety sort–bugs, owls, getting lost, the dentist.  But others have no basis in logic, like my fear of losing my finger to a circular saw, being abducted, falling off of a cliff at the Grand Canyon and choking on a butterscotch candy (an actual incident from my early childhood).

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” FDR said in his inaugural address.  But those words don’t slow a racing heart or stem the drenching sweat.

Fears aren’t exactly rational, but they do have their perks.   I will venture that fear can mask itself as courage. Let’s take for example the number one fear in the Fear Hall of Fame–public speaking. In grad school, I once so badly mumbled and jabbered my way through a presentation, my professor told me I had to present again the following day in words he could understand. But my fear of public speaking has prompted me to obsessively listen to others speak and study those who do it well. And I while I have yet to master Obamaesque oratory skills, I can now string together coherent sentences and, on occasion, offer a mildly entertaining presentation.

Fear of failure has made me work hard. Fear of poverty makes me save my money. Fear of germs makes me clean my kitchen. Fear of losing makes me competitive. Fear of my life spiraling out of control has makes me organized. I would love to relax into each moment,  but it seems I am afraid of being afraid.

For years I feared I would never be a writer. That despite all of my best efforts and my inner talk telling me my writing was good enough, good even, I was certain that editor after editor would read my manuscripts and laugh out loud while writing cruel rejection letters. I wrote multiple drafts, checked my punctuation, read it aloud, wrote new drafts, each time, terrified of the outcome. When I was finally ready to make my way to the post office, I would send it off secure in the knowledge I put everything I had on those sheets of paper, but still fearful of the envelope that would return from the editor. The boogeyman has nothing on a woman with a deep-seated fears and a vivid imagination.

All of that fear was funneled into a take my time approach to writing.  The sheer fear of sending it out made me sit with each piece just a little longer before submitting it. And giving myself the time with my writing has helped to strengthen it.

I no longer need a night-light, but lurking in the darkest corner of my psyche and perched on the steepest cliff of my subconscious sits fear, my harshest critic, my constant companion.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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The Root of the Story

In 1922, Edward Marshall Howard, a young man from Charlottesville, Virginia, left his home and travelled 150 miles to attend Hampton Institute, a college in Hampton, Virginia. Born in 1900, Edward was the son of Marshall, a chauffeur, and Lula, a schoolteacher, who wanted to study mechanical engineering.

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Edward Howard seated on left holding banner

He left behind his family and his girlfriend Anne Kelley, whom he’d known since childhood. At Hampton, he dived into his studies and joined the basketball, track and field and football teams.

 

In the 1920’s, only .1 percent of blacks held a four-year college degree. Today that number is 22.5 percent. Rampant discrimination and economic disadvantages were the primary reasons, but many other factors played an integral role.

In 1925, Edward married his sweetheart Anne who was expecting their child. Shortly after their daughter Ernestine was born in 1925, they divorced and Anne left Virginia with her daughter and headed North to find work. There, with her mother’s sister Harriet, Anne settled in Chelsea, Massachusetts and worked as a cook at the Chelsea Naval Hospital. At church, she was introduced to a northerner, Albert Theodore Sneed, who worked at the General Electric plant aviation unit, and the two married in 1930. Albert raised Ernestine as his own along with their five other children.

Ernestine went on to study nursing at the Boston City Hospital School of Nursing in 1947, and several years after she completed her education in 1950, met William Marshall Cline, who worked at Massachusetts General Hospital and was the son of Lizzie Cline, a cook, and Morris Pompey, a farmer in Shelby, North Carolina.  William and Ernestine, or Bill & Teeny, as they were known, shared a love of nursing and married in 1957.

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Anne Kelley and Ernestine

William and Ernestine Cline are my parents and their story and the story of their parents is also mine. Selecting which stories to write aren’t the greatest challenge writers face, it is how to tell the stories that matter to us. I believe the stories we tell are rooted in our histories.

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William & Ernestine, 1957

The story of our families, provide a wealth of history upon which to draw and offer a roadmap into our futures. My grandfather’s story of entering a historically black college at a time when opportunities for blacks were few or my grandmother’s trek north from the segregated south or my mother’s experience in a nearly all-white Boston suburb and my father’s rise from hospital orderly to LPN, are stories that have made their way into mine. Their quest for education and a better life helped me to write of Frederick’s Douglass’ burning desire to read in Words Set me Free and allowed me to outline the story of Rosa and her mother as slaves who sought literacy in a pit school in Light in the Darkness. I can hear the beautiful cadence of my mother-in-law, Margaret Williams’ language and her story of making her way to school only when the cotton season ended in the story of Paul and Lizzie’s miles long journey to school each day in Freedom’s School. The determination of my mother and grandmother to persist in the face of adversity are infused in an upcoming book about Harriet Tubman, Before She was Harriet. My grandfather’s and fatheCoverr-in-law James Williams’ passion for sports can be found on the pages of Satchel Paige, Major Taylor and Pele.  My New England roots and the joy I found spending time with my father made their way onto the pages of Whale Trails: Before and Now,  the story of a young girl and her father from Cape Cod aboard their whale watching tour boat. A household filled with my parent’s jazz trickled into Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson and Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong. 

I would wager you can find pieces of every writer’s history in the books they write. I am not attempting to rewrite history, but to weave in the ones that have shaped me. It’s what makes perspective important and strengthens the argument that the publishing world needs to encourage many voices to tell their stories. It’s why diverse books matter. Because in each and every one of us, the history of us is what makes us unique and enriches the lives of readers and  the stories we need to tell.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Me, Myself and I

new-year-resolutions1I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions.   They’ve always felt to me like daily reminders of my lack of discipline and perseverance. So when my daughter asked on January 1st what my New Year’s resolution was, I gave a speech from atop my soap box. She nodded, listened patiently, and then responded,

“My resolution this year is to be selfish.”

Not only was I appalled that she obviously hadn’t listened intently to my speech about the failure of resolutions, she forged ahead with her own. And from where I stood, it was brazenly self-centered.

“You want to be more selfish in the New Year?” I nearly screamed. Who was this narcissistic, prima donna I had spent twenty one years grooming to be kind, compassionate and selfless?

“Sometimes,” she continued, “ I feel like I put other people’s needs in front of my own.”

Is that a bad thing? I wondered aloud. Isn’t giving freely of yourself the best of us?  Certainly giving to others isn’t always convenient, but it is the hallmark of a civilized society. I shook my head, and considered my daughter a lost cause.

A few days later, at the crack of dawn I trekked to the gym. It was frigid and dark and I was exhausted, so I dragged my feet and got a late start. As I trudged along on the treadmill, I paid close attention to the clock on the wall above me. I needed to be home by 7:45 so that I could chop the kale and apples for my high schooler’s lunch. When the clock struck 7:40, I climbed off the treadmill, irritated I had to cut my workout short to get back home. I wish I could just be selfish.

My work day was crazy as I hurried to complete long overdue revisions. I needed a few more hours to really make a dent, but, it was the 5:00 witching hour and I needed to get dinner started. Again irritated, I shuffled into the kitchen to prepare a family dinner. James was working in the studio. One daughter was upstairs napping, the other working on her laptop. My son was listening to music. I banged the pots and cursed. I wish I could just be selfish.

The week went on, louder and busier than usual with the kids home still home from school  on holiday break. The work on my revisions were interrupted by questions about school assignments and SAT prep and doctor’s appointments and laundry and internship applications and cable channels and money borrowing and food shortages. I wish I could just be selfish.

And then, on another cold and frigid morning at the gym, eye on the clock, I realized, I am going to be selfish.   The selfishness my daughter was referencing wasn’t  necessarily about ignoring others, it was about paying attention to yourself. As the clock ticked past 7:45 I kept right on jogging. I will take care of myself first. I took my time, zipping my coat and driving home. And when I got there, my daughter was in the kitchen miraculously chopping her own kale. “I’m trying to be more selfish by making sure I get in a full workout,” I said bracing for the blowback.

“Okay,” she shrugged, continuing her chopping.

That night, when the witching hour arrived, I ignored it, staying instead at my desk to work.

“What’s for dinner,” my son asked, as he always does if it is 5:01 and he doesn’t smell anything savory coming from the kitchen.

“Figure it out, I’m working,” I told him.

He shrugged. I guess he went and found his one of his sisters because before I knew it, I heard the sizzle of a pan and turkey tacos were served.

This selfishness thing seemed to be working so well I continued. I took a long walk when I could have cleaned the house. I read a book in the middle of the day when I could have been working. I turned down social invites and stayed home and watched t.v. I said no, a lot.

I have now embraced selfishness in all it’s glory.  It doesn’t make me any less compassionate. In fact the opposite is true. I feel more willing to give to others knowing I have filled my own stores.

And the best part is, next year I will make a new year’s resolution: Listen to My Daughter.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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