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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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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The Story Behind the Story

My husband took a touching, candid family portrait this summer. There we were, the five of us, gathered around a large table, eating breakfast. Some of the plates were piled with pancakes, bowls were filled with fruit and cereal. The morning was sun dappled as the photo showed us happily engaged in a family discussion. A real Polaroid moment.

My husband posted the photo on Facebook and friends commented on and off social media, “Loved that family photo!”, “I wish I had breakfasts like that with my family!”, and “This picture reminds me of a story that needs to be written and illustrated.” In writing, and in life (and in photos from life), there is often a story behind the story.
When I begin the research for each project, I start with certain impressions and ideas about my subjects based on job titles and excerpts of their lives. My hope is to flesh out these figures through biographies, historical reference, documentaries,  films and through visiting historic sites. More often than not, I end in a very different place than I began. The stories behind the stories are the ones I find most interesting. The often not so pretty lives of the figures and characters in books. But it is these imperfections that make people accessible. Research often yields the not so pretty truths–depression, infidelity, bad tempers, dishonesty, hurdles and hardships. In other words–the truth.
Back to the family photo. It was my daughter’s birthday. She requested buttermilk pancakes for breakfast. I don’t normally stock buttermilk in the fridge (and told her so in a not so friendly voice), but I did manage to find a bag of buttermilk pancake mix in the pantry. Another daughter insisted we eat outdoors. The rest of us complained. The pancakes were thin and inedible so they just ate the bacon, grumbling all the while. My son made his own batch but refused to make enough to share. More grumbling. Two poured cereal and sliced fruit. I made eggs. When we sat outdoors, we apparently interrupted a mega moth convention and they swarmed us. My daughters ran screaming inside to escape. I yelled, “And you wanted to eat outside? Just ignore them!” and returned to reading an article. Sarcastic comments were exchanged. When the girls were reseated, my husband decided now was as good a time as any to grab his camera for a nice, family photo. In defiance, we all refused to pose.
No matter how picture perfect the photo, the image, the accomplishments, there is always the truth, the reality, the story behind the story.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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The Birth of a Day

Today is my daughter’s birthday. And while that may seem like a joyous occasion, I have been approaching this day with drebillcline(74)ad. It is also my father’s birthday. My father, who passed away just a few short months ago.

On the day my youngest was born, I was thirty-five years old  and very, very tired. My newborn had three older siblings aged 3, 5, and 6 and I was fearful I’d never be able to balance all that was required. As was our routine, when labor began, I notified my parents, who lived four hours away in Massachusetts, that they should pack their bags.  I left the kids with our wonderful neighbor and headed to the hospital. I remember feeling sad that my daughter would have to share her birthday with my father. Her older sister’s birthday was on July 4th and no matter how many times you laugh and promise the fireworks are just for her, it doesn’t make up for  kids being away on the day of her birthday party or spending the day with relatives out of town at a family barbecue.  For my father, I was sad that my he had to travel to babysit on his own birthday. Sad that my daughter would always have to share her special day. That I’d always have to choose. That I would need to do combo celebrations. I thought that somehow each of their birthdays would minimize the others. On each July 22nd, I remember feeling guilty for every birthday I celebrated with my young daughter, away from my own father. How many birthdays would I have left to share with him, I morbidly wondered. But, for thirteen years, we worked it out and all was well.

When my father passed, I thought his death would make celebrating my daughter’s that much harder. But this morning, when I saw her sleepy fourteen year old face eating a birthday breakfast of pancakes, opening her presents, surrounded by her siblings, I thought, just maybe, this shared birthday was a gift.  The joy of her birthday eased the pain of losing him. It is as if he forbid me to be sad on a day when it would have been especially hard. I will not visit his grave, or spend the day in bed with the curtains drawn. I can’t. There is a cake to bake, a dinner to prepare,  smiles to be shared.
I will miss him today, and remember the joy he gave to this world and our family.  But I will also celebrate his legacy, a beautiful, young woman who shared a birthday with the most wonderful grandfather in the world.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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Patiently Impatient

Patience is a Virtue. All good things come to he who waits. Patience is bitter, but it’s fruit is sweet. I take value in moving at the speed of light. More things get done. I make more of my day. I am productive.

I am the person groaning in agony at the drop off lines at school. Why is the backpack in the trunk? With my kids in the backseat, primed and ready to dart as soon as I said “goodbye,” I used to shriek as parents slowly got out of the car to retrieve their child’s backpack from the trunk, slowly unbuckled their seatbelts, slowly kissed them goodbye, holding up the line while they waved until their little ones safely entered the building, while I slowly lost my mind. I’ve nearly screamed as I waited at an ATM behind those who not only searched endlessly for their bank cards, but upon receiving their cash, carefully scanned their receipts and counted their money. I will myself not to beep in the toll lane, (You honestly just realized you needed money to pay the toll?), not to tap my foot at the self serve check out at Stop & Shop, where people, who’ve never used self-check out, inevitably decide to try it for the first time the day they are in line in front of me.

Some may say the universe is trying to teach me to slow down. Or, as I like to believe, perhaps it is my calling to help others to hurry up. I’ve scraped the top of my car rushing into the garage as the super slow automated door creaks open. I finish the sentences of my family, and make the universal hand sign for hurry it up, when they tell long winded stories. I walk fast, read fast, speak faster. I have cursed, screamed, beeped, sped myself into a frenzy.

And where exactly am I rushing to? Nowhere in particular, I just don’t like waiting. I’ve tried counting, meditating and prayer to no avail. And now I’ve found this impatience extends to my writing. When I sit at my desk researching, writing, revising, I am so easily frustrated by the process. Why won’t the ideas come, the words, the next line…? The life of a writer is a life of waiting. After waiting for characters, and plots to develop from thoughts and words, another kind of waiting begins—waiting for comments back from editors, waiting for revisions, for contracts, the first advance, the final advance, the royalty check, the next book to be released….

Once, on our way out the door to a function, my Bostonian mother told me that I’ve become “very New York,” . There was a time in my youth when I would have taken that as a compliment, but I know that what my very polite, well mannered and patient mother really wanted to say is that “too New York” can be translated to mean, too impatient and crass. I may always be in a hurry but I still take time to read between the lines. “Hmmm”, I said, pretending to ponder her words. “You ready to go?”

For me, summer is a slow down month of lazy days and warm, lingering nights. The heat makes me too tired to rush. It is the time when I most want to live life at a snail’s pace. I recognize that I need the patience of finding a story, of letting the seed of that story blossom at it’s own pace.

“I think when you’re trying to do something prematurely, it just won’t come, writer Joyce Carol Oates once said, “Certain subjects just need time…You’ve got to wait before you write about them.” Perhaps that has everything to do with the quality of her work. The work I strive to do as a writer. And now, with summer and stories in full bloom, I impatiently wait for patience.

 

Lesa Cline-Ransome

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