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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Soul Sisters

jaime-and-maya-1The scars of childhood are ones that remain deeply burrowed in our psyches. Sharing a room with my older sister Linda is one of those scars. I was not only seven years younger, but the youngest of three, which meant I was an underling, an insignificant annoyance. Lindas’ job was to remind of this fact daily. At night when I longed to sleep, she, in all her teenaged glory, spent long hours chatting on Her phone. When I wanted to lie in bed and read a book, she wanted to listen to Natalie Cole, James Brown and Average White Band albums at full volume singing loudly until I finally covered my head with my pillow. I was powerless.  But, when I wasn’t seeing red, there were rare moments when I could see glimpses of the sisterhood I idealized from The Brady Bunch and Eight is Enough episodes. These were the times when Linda would let me borrow her very cool clothes or teach me dances in the kitchen. As a high school sophomore, she took me to visit colleges and convinced my parents to allow me to study fashion in New York City when they insisted I stay close to home. The one thing we both understood, was even at our worst, we would always have each other’s backs.

As we grew older and away from each other, and I had my own girls, I revisited our sisterhood through watching theirs. Where much of my sisterhood was eye rolling and anger, my girls’ was hand holding, hair braiding, talking into the night joy. I once rushed into their room as I heard the panicked cries of my oldest in the middle of the night.

“What happened,” I shouted?

“Maya won’t speak to me,” my daughter sobbed, gazing forlornly at her little sister’s dark shadow beneath her covers.

“Jaime,” I nearly laughed out loud in relief, “she fell asleep.”

When my youngest daughter was born, the older two watched, and fussed and pampered her with every ounce of affection they had. She grew strong and confident in that love and pushed them away when she’d had enough. I knew what sisters could provide—friendship, support, unflinching honesty, loyalty, and I wanted that for them. Whether nature or nurture, I’ll never know, but the three of them found their way to a kind, compassionate friendship of sorts that has endured it ups and down yet remains intact.

From friends and women I meet, I collect stories of sisterhood like gems to examine and treasure. In these stories I look for patterns, some common denominator that determines the degree of closeness. Is it age difference? Parental involvement? Socioeconomics? Personality types? The stories are all over the map.

I have not lived in the same state as my sister in over three decades which means I’ve had to cultivate a new breed of sisterhood for friendship, support, unflinching honesty and loyalty. It is these relationships that have sustained and strengthened me and have fostered my continued growth and evolution.

I’ve always felt lucky to be a woman. It is as if my entry into the world gained me instant admittance to the most exclusive club on earth.   At the risk of overgeneralization, I do love that as women we yearn for connection, that we boost each other up, that we are good listeners and our communication skills are strong.

So out in the world, alone without my sister, I found other sisters, not connected by blood, or parents, or familial ties, linked only by our spirit and our souls.

As a black woman, I do not take the term soul sister lightly, but on a recent Saturday in Washington D.C., my cousin Cheryl and I arrived at the National Mall and fell in step with hundreds of thousands of sisters at the Women’s March. Soul sisters. Many of us with vastly different agendas and priorities but still united, supportive, positive women who were there to uplift and communicate as one to the world that we will stand together. That we will speak for those who can’t or won’t speak for themselves. That we won’t be forgotten or ignored or overlooked or pushed aside. We are sisters after all. We take care of each other. We have each other’s backs.

My sister Linda couldn’t be there with me, but she may as well have been. Strong sisters breed strong sisters and create future generations of sisters who march and fight and wage war and love and make this world great, not just for sisters, but for all the men enriched by the heart and soul of women.

Dedicated to my number one soul sister, Linda Cline.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Room with a View

room-with-a-viewAfter months of obsessive media coverage and chest tightening election results coupled with razor thin deadlines and extensive revisions, I was worn thin, paralyzed by political fatigue and the overall disappointment of a nation divided. When days, then weeks then one month passed, and my notebook and word documents remained blank, I started to get worried. What does a writer do when writing a grocery list seems like a chore? Vacation to a far off isle was out of the question, but, the answer, I finally found, was much closer to home.

I expected like-minded friends to get me through. They were worse off than I was. I hoped the holidays would give me a boost. They didn’t.  Alcohol? Nope. Long walks. Numb. Dance music. Deaf to it. Day after day, I sat at my desk, wondering, What if I can never write another word? I spent an awful lot of time staring into space, seeking serenity and answers.

That’s when I decided to move. I packed up my books, my desktop, notebooks, every scrap of paper, every single pencil and pen and hired a mover. The mover happened to be my son, home on college break and the move happened down one flight of stairs from the corner of my bedroom to an underused room in my home, but it was a move. And it was a much needed one. A new year was beginning, a line had been crossed, and I wanted a creative fresh start.

One trip to Home Goods, two bookcases, two lamps and some rearranging later, I was settled in. And for the first time in my writing career,  my desk was situated in front of a window, nestled between two tall bookcases. From the first day, as I sat, gazing at my desktop, simultaneously gazing out the window at my new view, my head cleared. I could breathe. I pressed one key and then another and started writing.

I’m still angry. Still hurt. My chest is still tight. But there is work to be done in an office that is my new outpost for letters to be written. Petitions to sign. Voices to be heard. Fights to be fought. Stories to be written of history and resistance and perserverance and diversity and hope.  I may as well do it surrounded by books, in a new space with light, a fresh perspective and a great new view.

 

Knowing how to use words is powerful. Knowing how to reach people is powerful. That’s something I think about whenever I sit down to write, now more than ever. Some days there’s so much bad happening in the world that it’s hard to focus. But there’s still work to do, I think, still stories to write and maybe lives to change. Despite what’s going on around us — or maybe because of what’s going on around us — I have to believe my words make a difference, however small, for the readers who need them. Traci Chee, author of The Reader

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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A Brave New World

 

zentangle.jpg

Mandala from my Zentangle class

The older I get the more I want something new.  I thought with age came a certain complacency and comfort in the familiar, yet suddenly I crave novelty.  I want to find a new way to tell stories.  I want to redecorate the house.  I want adventurous, not relaxing vacations.  I want to be scared. I want to be engaged.   It’s not that I want to be young again.  It’s that I just don’t want to grow predictable.  Perhaps it is having three millennials and one gen-zer in my life who continue to challenge my perceptions and conventions.  Perhaps it is the scientific research pointing to altering routine in order to improve brain function.  Perhaps it pure, simple boredom.  Whatever the case, this year I found myself wanting to make new connections and have new experiences with people.  Make no mistake, my family and friendships are my lifeblood.  In that area, I have an abundance of riches, but no sooner had I expressed the desire aloud then it came true.

I found common ground with someone to whom I once stood in stark opposition. I reconnected with a family member I hadn’t spoken with in over a decade. A friend from middle school contacted me on facebook.  I took an art class and became friends with a woman who sat next to me.   Someone from my very first mommy group contacted me to get together for dinner.  I became friends with a couple who attended a book signing.  I attended the baby shower for the child of a former neighbor. My daughter introduced me to a couple she waited on during her summer job.  I met women at a conference and gathered with them over dinner in New York City.  I collaborated with a composer using one of my books.  I had lunches with a writer I admire.  I attended a celebration for someone I’d only spoken with at an annual holiday party.    Nothing earth shattering, but enough to remind me that my circle can always widen to welcome more.

Even though a return to my younger self has never been my goal, opening my world to new people has invigorated me in a way that youth never did.  I have found it is a gift to yourself to continue to grow and question and challenge.  As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” And she should know, Eleanor hit her stride in her fifties and kept right on going.

One of my fondest and most embarrassing memories of my mother occurred one afternoon when I returned home from high school with a group of my girlfriends.  About a block from my home, we heard the loud strains of what sounded like the theme music from Arabian Nights.  As we got closer, I realized the music was coming from my street, and, more specifically, my home.  I raced upstairs ahead of my friends to discover my then fifty-five year old mother, in our living room, swaying her hips and arms to music.  I’d forgotten she’d just signed up for bellydancing classes.  Too late, I realized my friends were behind me, watching, as I was, with a mix of horror, amusement and awe.  I was angry for nearly a week.  When the bellydancing classes ended, she began taking Spanish, then bread baking, yoga, tai chi.    At ninety-one, she still continues to take classes to keep her nursing credentials current.  “You never know…” she says.  As a tribute to her legacy,  At 40, I too signed up for a bellydancing class and watched  my son’s disgusted face with delight as he peered through the window of the classroom as my hips swayed and my arms waved.  My mother’s openess to new ideas, keeps her energized and engaged and reminds me that life  doesn’t shrink with age.  If you nurture it, will grow.

Here’s to novelty.  And the comfort  and beauty of the the familiar. And how those two worlds help each to blossom.

 

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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