Janet & Marian: A Tale of Two Houses

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.


Susan Weidener, Janet, and Merril Smith sharing photos
Susan Weidener, Janet, and Merril Smith sharing photos

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.


Signs and Wonders: Chincoteague Island

Once upon a time, there were five memoirists who met online through their writing websites. One of them, Janet Givens, who had a rustic log house on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, invited four blogging friends to join her for a writers’ retreat: Kathy Pooler, Joan Rough, Shirley Showalter and me.

According to Janet, “It was grand.” At the end of the week, we all agreed. Now, you ask, what made the week so special?

First of all, the spacious log house was charming: LogHouseChico.VA

And there is an enclosed porch where we ate breakfast overlooking a canal and the shimmering Oyster Bay facing east.


All around the house were clever or catty sayings on wooden plaques: GrumpySignSmokingFireSmokingMan

No one was voted off the Island. We all stayed!
No one was voted off the Island. We all stayed.

That’s right:  Everyone behaved!

As we began, we did have a plan to include the clichéd 3 F’s and a W: food, fun, fellowship – and writing, of course. In a joint effort, Shirley recorded on paper how our days might unfold.


Every day, we enjoyed breakfast together, one day with French toast oven-baked by our host Janet with Joan beaming her blessing:  FrenchBread

Then we had writing time and do-it-yourself lunches with afternoons for more writing or walks.

Some days it was cold!   MarianKathyJoan

One fairly warm day, we all took a hike into the Assateague Preserve to see the world-renowned ponies, made famous by Marguerite Henry’s Misty Books. According to one friend’s pedometer, we logged about 3 miles walking the beach and side trails.

And we enjoyed the exhibit at the Visitors’ Center:PonySignExhibit

Other Days, we wandered along the main road in Chincoteague. As we explored, we found some interesting sights.PianoWrapped

And a mailbox replicating the house of the owner in the distance:

Mailbox replica of house behind
Mailbox replica of house behind

Every evening, we had healthy meals: Chicken chili, frittata, stuffed sweet potatoes, pasta fagioli. This night, Joan is helping Shirley serve broccoli soup with Waldorf salad.     KitchenCooks

After dinner from Tuesday – Saturday, we gathered on the comfy sofa and chairs close to the wood stove. From 7 – 9:30 one of us had the spotlight with an opportunity to get feedback on our writing or blogging. As a beginning memoirist, on Tuesday night, I got clarity about the focus for my story. Distributing a preliminary outline, I asked, “Where in all this muddle is my true story?” Happily, I got wise words from three women who’ve already published memoirs (Kathy, Janet, and Shirley) and one (Joan) with a book poised for publication.


After struggling through revisions, my room-mate Kathy, gestures her approval of my story blurb and synopsis:


On Sunday, our last full day together, we joined Janet at the Sundial Book store for her author talk/book signing.



Afterwards we bought books and other gifts for our loved ones. Leaving the store, we spotted the theatre marquee across the street . . .


. . . and behind the store, outsized LOVE chairs by the bridge. (Think Lily Tomlin dwarfed in a big chair here.)


Finally, we gathered again to celebrate the productive week and our deepened friendships as we watched back-to-back episodes of Downton Abbey. As the week ended, we all wrote off into the sunset.

*  *  *

Our story, like Downton Abbey, proceeded in chronological time but with some flashbacks, like many good stories.

My version of The Week at Chincoteague is based on a variation of the story model by PIXAR, the moviemaker who tells perfect stories like Toy Story I and II. Since 1995, their storytelling wisdom has spawned many a tall/true tale. Yes, Shirley shared this link with me last week, which I pass on as a template for your own story. Here is the PIXAR prompt page.


My husband Cliff designed the cover for our photo albums of the week:

Alternate Title:  Cinco Chinco Chiques
Alternate Title: Cinco Chinco Chiques


In today’s post title, I promised you a Wonder, and here it is: 

Standing:  Janet Givens, Kathy Pooler, Marian Beaman    Seated: Shirley Showalter, Joan Rough
Standing: Janet Givens, Kathy Pooler, Marian Beaman
Seated: Shirley Showalter, Joan Rough

 Five writers, none of whom had met all the others, retreat to a magical island for a WONDERful time, honing their writing skills and deepening friendships.

Click HERE for more information on how to reserve Janet’s log house for a writers’ retreat or your own family vacation!



We love words! Share some of your thoughts here . . .  


Coming next: Purple Passages and a Weather Forecast

Visions of the Little Match Girl: 1846 and 2014

What do Trayvon Williams, Michael Brown and the Little Match Girl have in common?

Read on!

The Little Match Girl – Hans Christian Andersen, 1846

On a cold winter’s eve, a poor girl shivering on the street tries to sell matches afraid to return home to her father who would beat her for not selling all her matches.

Courtesy: Amazon Books
Cover: Courtesy Amazon Books

Finding shelter in a nook, she lights matches to warm herself. The matches ignite her imagination and she envisions a Christmas tree and a holiday feast. As she looks skyward, she spies a shooting star and recalls her dead grandmother remarking that such a star means someone is dying and going to heaven. As she lights the next match, she catches a vision of her grandmother, the only person ever to treat her with love and kindness. Finally running out of matches, she dies and her soul is carried to heaven. The next morning, passersby find the little girl dead in the street. They feel pity for her but cannot bring her back to life.

Lives Cut Short

Trayvon Williams and Michael Brown must have had visions of a better life, a bright future. Their visions will be unrealized, their lives cut short by a bullet. While there is still controversy over the details surrounding each case of police intervention, there is no doubt that the outcome raises questions about police reaction in a perceived threatening situation. It should be noted here that black officers, greatly outnumbered by whites in the police force, account for little more than 10% of all fatal police shootings according to one report. But of those they kill, 78 % are black. Main stream media, however, gives little attention to such stories or to those involving black officers and white offenders.

Author Mary Gottschalk speculates on what prompts these high profile shootings of black teens. In a recent blog post, she comments on the lack of respect for cultural differences and asks, “. . . is it a system that trains a white police officer in a black community, when confronted by what appears to be an angry or aggressive black man, to shoot first and ask questions later?”

One commenter to this essay, Janet Givens, offered one explanation: “I’d say fear plays a factor . . . the fact that we often fear what we don’t know: we demonize our enemy to feel morally superior so we can justify defending ourselves.”

And so the conversation continues . . . .

Another Time – A Different Story

We tend to believe that we live in the worst of times. Maybe this is true. Yet poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) documents a terrible time in our nation’s history, the Civil War, fought to secure freedom from slavery. He wrote one of his most famous poems, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, having survived the outbreak of the Civil War, the untimely death of his beloved wife Fanny during a house fire, and a severely wounded son Charles. Theses lyrics written in 1864 show the depth of his sorrow but suggest hope and peace as the stanzas progress:


At Christmastime 2014, celebrating peace and joy seems like a mockery given the tumultuous year we have experienced. But wars and unrest have always existed. “Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill toward men.” 

Yet, hearts open to hope can bring a renewed call to action toward peace.

Call to Action

Author Gottschalk in her post last week revealed the little-known personal details about Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, who “was not allowed to approach him as he lay in blazing sunshine in a public street for four hours. Once his body was removed from the street, she was not allowed to see it for two weeks.”

Shirley Showalter, another commenter on Mary’s post, demonstrates what a peaceful call to action looks like as she remarks:

Because of this essay and the story you told about Lesley McSpadden (the mother of Michael Brown), I am going to write her a letter. It’s a little thing, but I want her to feel how this story touched me. Thank you for writing.

Like the little match girl, none of the lives lost on our streets or in our schools can be brought back, but they leave a legacy that can motivate us to hopeful action.

For a shorter version (2′ 20″) of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Burl Ives, click below.

Your Turn

What is your take on any of these stories? An opposing viewpoint?

What other peaceful actions can you suggest?

Coming next: Downton Abbey Gala Redux: Season 5