My writer friend Janet Givens and I have both said Goodbye to houses this summer. She, to a vacation house on a canal in Chincoteague Island, Virginia, and me to our family homestead 12 miles from the beach in Jacksonville, Florida, geographically about 750 miles apart as the crow flies.
Our meeting in 2014 was also geographical – and digital. I responded to Janet’s post about her Peace Corps experience in Kazakhstan, linking her experience to my trip to Ukraine, both countries with a Soviet-era history. From there the connection continued on each other’s blogs. That was until I, along with 5-6 other writers, were invited to her cozy log house on the Island. You can view the view memories of that magical first trip here.
I know many of the nooks and crannies of Janet’s special place and feel I’m such a lucky duck to accept her invitation not once but twice to the spacious log house for a writers’ retreat. I can understand her bittersweet sentiments as she lets go of it now.
On both trips, we spent time writing, eating healthy food, talking and laughing in the sunroom, and gazing at the sparkly bay, which leads out to the Atlantic.
Ah, and seeing the ponies, personal and close up:
A Vermonter, Janet is bidding farewell to her second home after 22 years. We’ve lived in our house, our primary residence, for 37 years. Pencil marks on the kitchen door record our kids heights from ages 8 and 9 ½ until they were teens. Photos of our long history there fill family albums.
Of course it’s a cliché, but life really is all about trade-offs and feeling gratitude for what is now. I think Janet would agree with the J. R. R. Tolkien quote below. I know I do!
Maybe you have had attachments to a house in your past, perhaps a childhood home or one you used to own or visit.
Golly, it could be the one you live it right now. Grab a cup of something cool or warm and let’s have a chat! 🙂
Above all, do check out Janet’s own thoughts about her love affair with the Chincoteague house here on her blog. You can also find a link to her memoir there: At Home on the Kazakh Steppe.
Writers find real life images to compare what happens as they mold life events into stories:
To fabric (thread and weaving)
To clay (molding a lump into a recognizable form)
To construction (building a house from the foundation up)
Finding the right shape for telling our story is a critical step in the memoir writing process. Writers call it the narrative arc.
Paging through a photo album of my trip to Switzerland, I have found another metaphor for structuring my memoir: Contours of the Swiss Alps
Climbing the Alps fits with the theme and title of Journey of Memoir by Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner. “One of the most challenging aspects of writing a memoir, which of course is based on true and real events in your life, is to create a plot out of what happened.” (104)
I know my life story. I don’t have to make up events and characters. Through trial and error, I have decided that my theme is the quest for my true self as a sheltered Mennonite girl growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Still, I have to mold my tale into a story of transformation, one that will grip readers’ imagination and keep them turning the pages.
* * *
Aristotle affirms that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end: Act One, Act Two, Act Three.
Stories that intrigue have conflict too. For example, when you saw a play like Our Town or Macbeth, you were transported into another world through exposition, rising action (the story builds), a crisis, a climax, and finally a resolution.
My 7 Steps . . .
I created a timeline of vivid memories in my life. This is how I hoped to arrive at my turning points, moments of significant change. As I drew, I thought in terms of chronology. What is my first memory? What stands out in elementary school? What family events pop up? Who looms large as a mentor? Answers to these questions could become turning points, I believed.
Then I thought about scenes. On colored stickies I randomly wrote phrases that came to mind. For example: The phrase “Daddy yodeling” could turn into a scene about my sisters and me taking turns singing with Daddy at the piano, relating to the impact of music upon my formative years.
3. Next I gathered random scenes into a sensible order. Writers choose scenes based on how well they relate to their theme, the message of their memoir. For example, a theme can be traveling and what you learned on the journey, recovering from a challenging situation like an illness or abuse, or the struggles of becoming a chef. My own theme can be stated as a question: How can a girl from a sheltered and restrictive Mennonite culture find her place in an emerging new life?
A memoir is not an autobiography. I couldn’t include every detail of my entire life. I selected only those scenes that related to my theme. I write about this in a previous post.
Sometimes I felt stuck. Fatigue sets in on a long climb. Air is more rare as one moves into the higher altitudes (Alp-titude in Swiss terms). Sometimes I felt faint-hearted.
I constructed a narrative arc composed of scenes relating to my theme. A narrative arc can take several forms: curvy like a hill or jagged like the Swiss Alps.
The core of mine turned into an upside-down V-shape, rather like a peak in the Swiss Alps
The sticky notes make it possible for me to move ideas around easily. In fact, I’ve moved some notes into a different order since the photo was taken.
6. I’ve printed out copies of drafts. As I’ve progressed, I’ve stored manuscripts in labeled folders on my computer desktop. But I’ve also printed out copies of my drafts from my laptop because I find it helpful to touch the pages and make marginal notes in colored ink. Pages in the binders feel book-like, real.
7. I try to overlook messiness in my work space. Generally, I’m a neatnik, but worries about order, except in my writing, distract from my creative process.
So, that’s where I am now!
I began with an impulse to tell my story which progressed from
Journals –> Blog posts –> Memoir Drafts
At the moment, I’m in the muddy middle, aiming to complete the journey across the Alpine-scape of memoir.
More to come . . .
How about you?
Have you made a similar journey with memoir? How would you chart your narrative arc?
Coming next: Moments of Discovery, a Bubble, a Dome, a Mirror
On Christmas Day 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida, the temperature stood at 85, at least twenty degrees above the normal daytime thermometer reading for this time of year.
Over most of the USA, Christmas day was warmer than usual, the forecasters predicting a near record-breaking temperature of 62 degrees for Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, once my hometown.
Years ago when our young family left Florida’s palm trees and beachy sand during the Christmas holiday, we hoped for Pennsylvania snow, praying for enough inches for sledding and making a snowman.
One Christmas (1973) my husband Cliff and brother-in-law Bill sculpted an Easter Bunny from snow, a photo that made it into the now defunct Elizabethtown Chronicle.
Snow slows everything down.
Snow descends from the skies in soothing swirls, no two flakes alike. The morning after a snowfall is quiet – traffic slows, the earth sits snug in silence, wrapped in beauty.
German Carols about snow are soothing too. Grandma Longenecker sang the first verse of Stille Nacht in German to us as tots, a carol of three stanzas we learned well enough to sing for Christmas programs at Rheems Elementary School. Now in my memory a warm spot remains where I hear Grandma’s voice singing the words to “Stile, Stile, Stile,” a lullaby that evokes the image of gently falling snow in the still of the night.
Whether the weather is dull or delightful, songs from the olden days can help carry us through.
How was your weather during this holiday week? Weather stories during a childhood Christmas or Hanukkah celebration may have popped into your mind too. There’s always more to the story when you join in.
“I have always relied on the kindness of strangers,” admits Blanche DuBois, an aging belle in Tennessee Williams’ classic play A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche has had the props knocked from under her and has nowhere to turn except to her sister Stella, also living in reduced circumstances.
In a far, far different context and definitely not because they have the slightest desire to do so, refugees from all over the world have been forced to rely on the kindness of strangers as they flee terrifying conditions in their homelands.
Such has been the case of Sabah Jabri, who with her husband and children left bomb-scarred Baghdad, Iraq in 2007 with just identification documents and the clothes on their backs and fled to Syria, ironically back then a peaceful respite from warfare.
Sabah, an accountant, and her husband Alaa, a civil engineer, fled Baghdad when fighting between Sunni and Shiite militias made daily life unbearable. They ended up in Syria for a year, cared for by a family whose home – and whose soup – they shared, a dish they called “yakhni.”
After a year in Syria, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees assigned the family to emigrate again to Ephrata in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch County.
Currently, Sabah is manager of the Café at Ten Thousand Villages in Ephrata, where you can be sure this soup is on the menu. The article in Lancaster Online did not include the recipe (Of course not!) but the ingredients were listed: chunks of chicken breast, potatoes, carrots, onions and chickpeas in a hearty broth. Incidentally, Ten Thousand Villages in Ephrata offers fair trade items worldwide for sale.
More than sixty years ago, a visionary named Edna Ruth Byler worked through the Mennonite Central Committee to begin an enterprise which has mushroomed into Ten Thousand Villages.
. . . [She] believed that she could provide sustainable economic opportunities for artisans in developing countries by creating a viable marketplace for their products in North America. She began a grassroots campaign among her family and friends in the United States by selling handcrafted products out of the trunk of her car. Byler made a concerted effort to educate her community about the lives of artisans around the world.
Ten thousand Villages is the result, an undertaking that has grown well beyond the tiny house of its inception and offers for sale baskets, jewelry scarves, bags, kitchen & dining articles, toys and other items from artisans, particularly women, around the world.
Mother also knew the nutritional heartiness of soup and often had vegetable soup waiting for us when we drove or flew up from Florida at Christmastime. Within five minutes of our arrival, one of us would fly into the kitchen and open the Frigidaire to see whether there was a ceramic pull-out drawer full of soup in the bottom left.
Chicken corn soup was also her specialty, with hard-boiled eggs and rivels, doughy droplets made from flour . . .
Author, editor, and cookbook writer Melodie Davis has recently featured savory Spanish lentil soup on her website where the recipe for the dish below appears.
It’s true! St. Marys, Georgia is idyllic. Only a 40-minute drive north of Jacksonville, Florida . . .
. . . historic St. Marys has a storybook setting on the St. Marys River – white picket fences, charming Victorian inns, and majestic magnolia trees and live oaks welcome you to an atmosphere perfumed by fragrant salt air. Here you’ll discover legends of forgotten battles and daring pirates as you kayak by moonlight with sea turtles for company.
Treasures in the historic district include the Georgia Radio Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Cumberland Island Seashore Museum the gateway to ferry departure point for the Cumberland Island adventure, the southern-most barrier island in Georgia. St. Marys Submarine Museum, showcases the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base located about three miles north of St. Marys, a town of just over 17,000 people.
Near where we had lunch at Cedar Oak Cafe was an old Victorian house nestled among trees draped with Spanish moss, typical of the historic residences.
Lunch at Cedar Oak Cafe on Osbourne Street where even the bacon attempts to hold a shape . . .
The Cumberland Island Seashore Museum leads down to the St. Marys River harbor where travelers can board the Cumberland Queen for a unique day-trip adventure to the Island.
We are bound for Jekyll Island farther up the coast near Brunswick . . .
. . . but first, time out for cherry licorice, a dab of chocolate candy and a look at some show-stopping sayings at Market on the Square Shop at the end of Osbourne Street.
Some Signs We Found
An anatomical figure of speech, to be sure . . .
And finally some refinement . . .
Elsie de Wolfe’s signature is displayed on other quotable lines too: “Be pretty if you can, be witty if you must, but be gracious if it kills you.” Elsie De Wolfe
Ms. de Wolfe is said to have invented the art of interior design with the publication of The House in Good Taste (1913) along with standards for manners, yet Ruth Franklin in a New Yorker magazine article suggests that she had a wild side. At “the age of fifty-six, she was plucky enough to perform headstands in public.” She furnished homes from Manhattan to Paris, Saint-Tropez to Beverly Hills and liked “to wear short white gloves and to carry at least one little dog.” In her old age, she tinted “her hair blue or lavender to match her outfit–one of many trends that she initiated.”
As an activist, she fought “for woman’s suffrage, and during the First World War . . . offered the Villa Trianon to the Red Cross for use as a hospital and volunteered as a nurse in a burn unit (for which she received the Légion de’Honneur).”
Along the street . . .
Aha, he (or she) took the hint . . .
These photos including the one below were snapped on November 7, with Christmas about seven weeks away and temperatures in the mid-80s!
Is it just my imagination or do holiday decorations surface earlier and earlier every year?
Another saying or quote to add to the signs above?
Coming next: A Random Act of Kindness, Pudgy Hands and an Invitation
Every week, The New Yorker magazine features a Cartoon Caption Contest, inviting readers to submit a caption for consideration. After three finalists are chosen, readers vote for the winning caption.
Recently, in my cache of Kodak carousels I found a slide from the 1960s in dire need of a caption. Clearly, the season is autumn, and the family including Grandma Longenecker, my mother, brother Mark, and my dad are on a Sunday afternoon outing, judging by their dress. No one’s expression conveys a feeling of alarm over the possibility of Grandma’s imminent slide down the steep hill.
“What was going on here?” I ask. Everyone in the photograph registers a different band-width on the emotional scale, but most seem clueless about Grandma’s precarious position.
Help me solve the puzzle with a winning caption here.
Think free for all, not free fall!
* * *
If you would rather not submit a caption, you might speculate about what is going on here, who the photographer may have been, or offer a story about a memorable family outing you recall.
Pictures don’t lie, or do they?
Coming next: Signs & a Wonder in St. Mary’s, Georgia
Dr. Seuss explores the maze of life in his famous book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! On the first page he assures readers:
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
And that’s just what Jenna and Ian did when they visited Conner’s A-Maizing Acres this past October near Hilliard, Florida guiding their grand-parents from one station to the next. (Yes, they did learn “maize” is a type of corn.)
During the one-hour trip in the car, Ian read poems from The Random House Book of Poetry for Children to his cousin Jenna. He didn’t read from Dr. Seuss’ book, though whose wise words weave a web throughout this travelogue.
Then, a snapshot at the entrance . . .
The Conner Barn offers much to keep little hands busy . . .
After a hayride to the field, we tackle the maze . . .
There were Rules and a Life-Guard at the entrance to make sure we didn’t get hopelessly lost or ejected!
Jenna and Ian steered us away from blind alleys, saving us false steps and loss of sanity. No danger of losing our way with these two at the lead!
Like Dr. Seuss explains, it’s easy to take missteps and get lost.
You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.
But we had such good guides, not a chance this would happen to us fortunately!
Next, while Jenna and I shopped for pumpkins, Ian bounced around on the spider web . . .
We also visited the Micro Farm with an aquaponic system:
Aquaponics: Growing plants in water and gravel, clay pebbles or lava rock.
We learned King Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon with an aquaponic system as a tribute to his wife.
One of their favorite pauses: The horse farm . . .
Dr. Seuss continues . . . I’m sorry to say so / but, sadly, it’s true / that Bang-ups and Hang-ups / happen to you.
No, the Hang-up didn’t happen to either Jenna or Ian. It happened to their NaNa. The Cylinder-on-Rollers looked exciting and easy . . . until I got into one and right from the start, felt disoriented and dizzy and not very smart. Still, Jenna and I persisted through to the end – with less than wonderful results.
I’m physically fit and strong for my age (so I’m told),
but when I exited the roller I felt much less bold!
I had to wonder the truth of the Seuss line “You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” Yet, I suppose these closing lines below from Dr. Seuss still would apply to us. We made it to the end of the course, more or less . . .
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)
Seuss’ shouts optimism and assurance on his last page:
Today is your day!
So . . . get on your way!
Have you done something lately to get out of your comfort zone, maybe even made a fool of yourself? Any memories of antics in times past?
I knew we were in trouble when the rotary path took us around Buckingham Palace and not directly to the Comfort Inn, Hyde Park, where we were aiming to roost for our stay. Never mind that the steering wheel on our dark blue Vauxhall was set to the right, opposite the American style. Or that Cliff drove on the left side of the road in order to turn right. Or that I as volunteer navigator was gripping the fine print of a touring map of London, my head bobbing up and down trying to match street signs with landmarks, occasionally screaming.
Our kids were through college, we had celebrated Joel’s wedding just days earlier, so as empty nesters off to London we flew in early August. We were not exactly neophytes to travel out of the country. After all, we’d been to Montreal, Banff, and Jasper in Canada. Why England should be a snap. They speak English there too, and I love the British accent.
We got some rest that evening and were up the next morning eager to explore London. The concierge at the hotel recommended a nice place to get some lunch. We finally found a car park (aka parking lot) close to our hotel before having lunch at the Swan Pub.
Now we had to figure out whether there was a parking time limit on the spot we had chosen. Okay, it looked like we were in a 2-hour time limit parking zone, plenty of time. So we got a sticker for one hour from the kiosk and affixed it to the windshield as directed. Mind you, we paid in British pounds sterling (clinky-clanky coins – not paper) so we heard the payment registering in the kiosk like in a slot machine.
Lunch was taking longer than we expected, so I leaped over to the car park to buy another windshield sticker to extend our parking time. Of course, we wouldn’t want to get ticketed on our first full day in London.
On our return, we were relieved to see that there was no parking violation displayed on the windshield. But we looked again, and “Oh, no,” we groaned, “there IS a suspicious piece of paper hidden under one of the windshield wipers!” I sprung into action and yelled to Cliff, “This must have just happened. I’m going to track down the policeman who gave us the ticket!”
Galloping down the sidewalk with citation in hand, I spied a London bobby who looked as though he could be on our parking patrol.
“Sir, (trying to hold my emotions in check) you gave us this parking violation ticket, but we have paid for two hours of parking, sufficient for the time used.” I urged him to check our windshield and he complied, walking back to the car with me.
With careful scrutiny, he replied, “I realize, Ma’m, that you paid the full amount, but the total parking time has to be reflected on one sticker, not two, even though the amount you paid was sufficient.”
“Well, that makes no sense at all,” I retorted. “We have paid the City of Westminster/London the full amount, why should it matter how many stickers are displayed on the car?”
Unruffled, the gentle bobby restated his case, emphasizing once again the city’s policy.
Now I have shifted into a higher gear of ire. “Well, I am shocked that you do not recognize that you have received payment in full. This is not right. I want to speak to your supervisor,” I insisted.
Reasonable, the patrolman made an effort to accommodate me. “I can call him, but you’ll have to wait. He is not available right now.”
“Fine! I’ll wait for as long as it takes,” I retorted, now more determined than ever. With this assurance, Cliff and I drove back to the street by our hotel, awaiting justice.
Soon I saw two bobbies both in black jackets, official hats, and shiny badges heading toward me.
By now, husband Cliff, usually the confrontational one, had ambled slowly toward our room in the hotel. Oh, so I see he’s not getting involved in this brouhaha. In fact, the next time I saw my husband was out of the corner of my eye as he was filming the spectacle from the second floor of our hotel while I was shouting at the bobby and his supervisor on the street below.
Determined, I stated my case again to both, and I was going to make sure that Mr. Bobby Supervisor saw my point of view. “I want you to rescind this ticket. The City has gotten more than enough pounds for the time our car was parked. It is unjust to give us this citation when we have done nothing wrong.”
And so it went on:
They: But you . . .
Me: But we . . .
At one point I was aware of being out of control but felt powerless to stop myself. So, like a crazy woman, I dug myself in deeper.
Apparently the officers had met deranged travelers before and to be conciliatory, they concluded that “By the time your case comes up in court, you will be gone.” Were they going to shoot us?
Moral of the story: When jet lag and culture shock collide, watch out for an explosion!
Can you relate to this experience? Do you have a tale of your own to tell? Add your story to my confessional . . .
Gladys asks me, “Would you like to drive up to Cataloochee National Park to see the elk sometime this week? We have to go at dusk because that’s when they come out to feed.”
I’m quick to respond: “Sounds good to me.” I’ve never seen elk up close. Besides I thought they lived in Colorado or Wyoming. “I’m game!”
After many decades, I have reconnected in North Carolina with Gladys Graybill Schofield, whom I have known in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania since our early teens. Gladys lives in the Smoky Mountains and has agreed to be our personal guide for the evening. Who can resist!
She and I have gone to Laurelville Mennonite Camp together during Girls’ Week. We were even baptized together at Bossler Mennonite Church. She still has that sweet smile I remember. This will be another adventure together over dozens of switch-backs and rough terrain to see the elk.
The peaceful Cataloochee Valley, surrounded by 6000-foot peaks, has preserved historic homes, barns, and churches. We were surprised to find much more than elk here in this Park.
Built in 1903, the Caldwell house has no front door, grainy hardwood floors, and several hearths for an earlier family to heat the bedrooms and cook in the kitchen. It seems haunted, like an artifact in a museum – no sign of life within. We don’t linger.
Close by, I snoop around what appears to be a two-story tobacco barn:
No elk close-up yet, so the forest ranger gives us a tutorial illustrated with authentic stage props displayed here by an old buck.
Antlers fall off male elk in March and regenerate before winter.
Because of over-hunting and loss of habitat, elk disappeared from the southern Appalachians in the 1700s. Our national park service chose to re-introduce elk in 2001 by importing 25 elk from the Kentucky-Tennessee border and 27 more from Alberta, Canada.The park currently preserves 52 elk. One might call it “the return of the native.”
Ah, we see elk in the distance . . .
And then we spot a female grazing along a bubbling stream . . .
Before we leave at dusk, a male with velvety antlers grazes along the roadside. Elk at 500-700 pounds are formidable creatures if they feel threatened, so we keep our distance.
We gape, and click our iPhones. Quick!
Leaving the park at twilight, Gladys and I see up in front of her vehicle a black wooly creature bounding across the gravel road and up a ravine.
We are spending the week in the cool Smoky Mountains, savoring the beauties of nature in Waynesville, North Carolina. Nothing breaks the silence except birdsong. Rhododendron buds unfold into blossom, a walking stick is a great companion, just like Laurelville Camp in the Fifties.
You’re invited on a nature walk today . . .
Echinacea, used by native Americans for centuries, has medicinal powers, say lovers of natural remedies. Its leaves, flowers, and roots can be used to boost the immune system. Some devotees take echinacea at the first sign of a cold. Others use it fight viral infections, chronic fatigue, or skin wounds.
Bring on the graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows. Toast some S’mores!
Something’s missing here: Add your own quote, verse of scripture or story that came to mind as you read this post. Gather around the camp-fire!