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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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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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

 

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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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