Gathering Strangers to My Home: A Cultural Perspective

Have you ever asked a stranger to tea?


Ever spent the night with someone you’d only just met?  (Wait, that came out wrong.)


How about deciding to gather together folks you’d (mostly) never met for a week. Six nights!


Why would you do such a thing?


Why did I?


That one I can answer.



Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.


Was it Yeats who said that first?  Someone I read in high school English.  But it’s long been a sentiment I resonate with. I like people. I like my quiet time too, but I like meeting new people. I find them endlessly fascinating.

I particularly enjoy  that moment with a person I’ve just met when I realize the mutual affinity is tangible; somehow I  know this is a friendship that can last. I just like her. Or him. Have you found that? 


Last year’s retreat was such a success, I wanted to do it again.

Eventually, given the crush of schedules and the press of illness, the starting field narrowed itself to six.  Including me.


Six writers.


Six women.


Six bloggers I’d heard of through the magic that social media is now. (Well, two hadn’t been blogging for a while, but I’d met them back when they were blogging. That was good enough for me. I still wanted to meet.)




The excitement of the new called: New voices, new energy, new ideas.


And so we gathered: from the south, the Midwest, the east coast, and the northeast.


One of the first things I noticed as we got comfortable with each other was that, thanks to two of them, I had become a “tall person.”  It had been ten years since I had had that opportunity and I joked about how it offered me a new perspective.



Here we are, my 2016 Ladies-In-Writing band of merry souls. I’m the tall one in the back row. (I’ve never gotten to say that before).



 A new perspective.
I liked the idea, so it became my theme for the week. What would I discover through this “new perspective?” I wondered. And what I did, surprised me.

As I had done last year, other than how we were going to eat, I didn’t specifically plan this retreat week. These were competent, engaging women who had different needs and much life experience. We would, I trusted, find a routine that worked for all of us.

Besides, what quicker way is there to disappointment, than to hold tight to a specific expectation?  



Soon enough, my new perspective
gave me two surprising revelations: 


(1) I didn’t feel as if I were welcoming people into my home.



Don’t worry; I wasn’t rude.  It’s the word “HOME” I struggled with.


I am, it turns out, a one-home kind of girl. And that home is in Vermont with my dog at my feet, my husband by my side, and my mother around the bend. That’s a big reason why this house is no longer being rented and is now on the market (i.e., FOR SALE — contact me; we’ll talk.)


The structure, this little log cabin on the shores of Oyster Bay (Virginia) was our home the year and a half before we went into Peace Corps and for the year following our return. I fussed over it, tended her gardens, bought stock in Pottery Barn to furnish it (or should have, by the time I was done).

But it has been a rental property since Woody and I moved to Vermont nine years ago. During this retreat week, I felt less that I was at home than that I was simply the first of the group to get there. 

I grew keenly aware that this house had become like the old boyfriend from our past (our very distant past, if we are lucky) — the one we remember occasionally, when we think about how good we now have it — the one we had to break away from, say good-bye to, once we recognized how much he was depleting us rather than helping us grow. And we can still be sad; we can still miss him.


For the week, I strived to set my sadness aside.


Having my Ladies-In-Writing — as Woody dubbed them — helped.

Once together, we were on equal footing. And that I liked very much. It wasn’t hard either. It’s not like we had enormous cultural barriers to cross. Not at all. We were, after all:

* born and bred in America (I think; we never actually talked about that),

* from the same generation (ah, that we did talk about — all of us in the broad category of “midlife“), and

* holding to a similar world view (yes indeed; big topic).



And, when I really listened, my new perspective
also let me know that


(2) I did not want to be seen as “the hostess,” or (worse) “the owner.” I wanted to be one of the group, one of the girls.


Here I was, the inviter; how could I NOT adopt the role of hostess? I found it was not difficult.


What is, exactly, the role of hostess? I know how I played hostess when I was a suburban housewife with two small kids and a working husband. I did it the way my mother-in-law did it. For that was how it was done.



I couldn’t help but compare my experience to
the one I’d had as a Peace Corps volunteer, living and working in Kazakhstan.


In Kazakhstan, you might remember from my memoir At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, a guest is treated like a gift from God.




It’s not a metaphor.


No matter where we gathered, Woody and I were greeted royally and warmly, ushered to our seat, and waited on “hand and foot” throughout the meal, our every need anticipated and answered and welcomed.  And, we were welcomed even more if we just dropped in. For then we were truly a gift from God.


I acclimated to this fairly quickly (Really).


But this was NOT how it worked this past week.


Here’s what I came up with, guest roles first, then hostess’ …


In Kazakhstan, guests have only one responsibility: to eat.

In America, guests have additional responsibilities.


Guests are expected to participate in conversations, not just listen. We listen, of course, but then we are expected to add to the story, embellish the point, contrast the experience in a way that is either entertaining or educational (and God bless the guest who can do both!).


Guests are encouraged to “Make yourselves at home.” Have you said this, as hostess?  I do it all the time and I certainly served under that umbrella during this past week. “Thirsty? Here’s what we have. Please help yourself.”  “Need a walk? Let us know; we may want to join you.” Again, working towards the moment when “guests” can participate actively; without needing to be asked.


In Holland (and probably other countries), if the host has done the cooking, the guest generally cleans up. While America hasn’t come quite that far, we often see guests participate in the cooking.


I’m a big “pot luck” person. My parties are generally “pot luck” suppers and my writers’ retreats are a form of that as well.

I cooked the first night’s meal while my “ladies” got settled. Then they took turns, one had Thursday, one had Saturday, one had Monday. But I noticed no one cooked alone. Someone popped up to help chop, someone stirred, someone set the table. We were connected sufficiently to know what needed doing and it got done.  THAT is synergy.


But what about the American hostess? She has responsibilities too.


I came up with three four.


To welcome them. Eager to have them under my roof. Glad to see them.  (This I cannot do authentically if I don’t know they are coming; very different from the communal cultures).


To orient them to a new surrounding: “Here’s the bathroom; we compost here; the password for the WiFi is …  here’s the Mr. Coffee.”


To connect with each one. After all, why get together if not to connect? Anything else is sheer utility; and no one likes to be used. This involves active listening. And caring.


To clean the house before their arrival.  I will also be the one to clean again once they depart. This fourth one is not nearly as much fun as the other three.



And so, as I write this, they have all gone, heading back to their respective homes. My little log shell is empty — and quiet — and I am once again adjusting to a new surrounding.  But one filled with a wealth of new memories.


We have each taken different things away from this week. And if you have some time, I encourage you to visit their websites. Each one has things to say.



Before I list the links, here are a few photos that are just fun to see: - Gathering around the dining table, Saturday night.
Gathering around the dining table, Saturday night.
Marian Merril
Marian and Merril, out and about.
Horses 4
A few of the horses of Assateague Island came out to visit.
Here's Susan at a sign we found in the woods.
Here’s Susan enjoying a sign we found in the woods, far from the beach.
Beach Bikes 3
Carol, Mary, and I got in a quick bike ride to the beach (and then some).

Here then, in alphabetical order, are my 2016 Ladies-in-Writing links:

Carol Bodensteiner

Marian Beaman

Mary Gottschalk

Merril D Smith

Susan  Weidener


How about you? Have you ever examined your role as host/hostess? And as guest? Do tell. 


23 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Awwww–I’m already feeling nostalgic reading this, Janet.
    About hostess duties–I think all of us would have felt uncomfortable if you had been waiting on us and treating us like “gifts from God.” It was great to be able to wander down in the morning and make the coffee–and stay in my p.j.’s without anyone minding. However, you certainly did welcome us!

    A million thanks for making this week possible, for opening your [vacation] home, and for giving us all the opportunity to meet, mingle, engage, play, eat, and think together! I’m glad to have helped you feel tall. 🙂

    (I’m whispering here, I think you mean Yeats.) 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril. I noticed that the Russians in Kstan did it more the “American” way (though I’m sure they’d be offended to hear it referred to that way) and how much more comfortable that felt. Familiar.

      • Merril Smith
        | Reply

        It was amazing (to me) how comfortable and familiar I think we all felt–and so quickly. I love how Marian has said elsewhere that our virtual selves are now real 3-D people! And I agree with Susan that stumbling across the ponies was an extra bonus!

        Thank you again for making this week possible!

  2. Susan Weidener
    | Reply

    Janet, I’ll always treasure the wonderful week in your “little log shell” – a “shell” of inspiration and camaraderie – a sacred container, if you will, where women writers gather to share the journey of the feminine. The lack of structure, along with your easy hospitality and willingness to let each of us “do our thing” as the days and evenings unfolded, helped make this a truly welcoming experience. It is a gift from God when we can meet across the miles and the myriad experiences and gather together, light the candle and delve into the written word. Brava! You did it. (And stumbling by chance upon the ponies was an added bonus!)

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Susan. That was beautifully put. And the ponies! They did seem to cap the week. You and Madeline Sharples are now forever separate, unique individuals in my eyes. 🙂

  3. Nancy McBride
    | Reply

    I first remember strangers being welcomed into my childhood home as a result of an ice storm. There was a fancy lady and her little dog, and a truck driver, as my memory goes. Its not important who they were but that we spent a few days together, trapped by the weather, without electricity, and like refugees, we each adjusted to our environment, shared, and it all worked it out. Everyone got along, got fed and bedded down, and when they left, with full stomachs and full tanks of gas—my father’s way of caring for strangers without hugging them—the house felt a little empty. That open door policy continued throughout my life.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh Nancy. So, your warm, welcoming embrace is actually genetic!

      I thought of you often that week. How my stop over at your house on the way down helped gear me up. And how you’d have fit right in. We had an extra bed too. I’m sorry. 🙁

  4. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    You are a generous hostess both in Chincoteague and Kazakhstan though you chafe at such a title. And to think I was invited to your VA abode not once but twice, each time a rich experience.

    I felt a twinge of guilt at the mention of cleaning before and after. Let’s just say you are welcome to our home in Jacksonville when you come to Florida.

    When our children were young we invited European strangers into our home through Mennonite Your Way. The teens, giddy at being in America, got free food and lodging and taught our kids that they have much in common with other cultures.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I really don’t chafe at the title, Marian; I think I just define it differently. I’d love to hear more of how you see the role differently.

      And I’m curious where my earlier reply went. I know I wrote one to you. Hmmm. “Gremlins and magic” as my web designer tells me.

  5. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    What started out as a whim last year has turned into a well-sought after event in writing circles! Our retreat last year is still with me. You may not consider yourself as the “hostess” but you certainly set the tone for a relaxing, yet productive and fun time. Actually, it was magical and I see the same magic occurred this year. I think you have started something that begs to be repeated…wherever that may occur. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You know, Kathy, I do believe I first bounced the idea off of either you or Joan; then Shirley. And with your enthusiastic responses, I was propelled. So, I’m particularly pleased that you were able to join us that one evening via Skype. It was only right. 🙂

  6. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I absolutely loved, Loved, LOVED reading this post. And then re-reading with another cuppa tea!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Awwww. And I loved, loved, loved hearing you say that, Laurie. Now I’ve got a hankering for tea too. Thanks.

  7. Carol Bodensteiner
    | Reply

    I like your way of being a hostess, Janet. You made us welcome and also let us be on our own. When you joined Mary and me for a bike ride, you connected with us and also served as a guide. We really appreciated that. The headwind on the way back, not so much. ? Many fond memories and new connections from our time with you and the other writers.

    Thanks again for making it all possible. Maybe that’s what a hostess really does – make it possible.

  8. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    I think Americans are particularly programmed for that “being on our own” part. The cowboy individualism perhaps? I’m very glad you enjoyed your time with us, Carol. And particularly impressed how you took the lead against that headwind. Brava! Glad it all worked out. It always does, just not always the way we imagined. 🙂

  9. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    I’m sorry to say I wasn’t with you this year, but rememberings from last year haven’t gotten lost in the dust of time. I remember last years retreat as one of the best times of my writing life, a building of community, and making friends who have stayed with me, even though there is a huge distance between us.

    Your style of hosting is something I need to learn – letting everyone be themselves, being part and parcel of the event, and not getting hung up on anyone else’s needs. Letting people do what they want, rather than entertaining them is the way to go and you shine at it, Janet.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Joan, you pay me a fine compliment and I thank you. And, I also recall fondly those few days I spent with you, following our retreat, “snowed in” from being able to continue north. You and Bill were gracious in your hospitality. I don’t think there’s a “right way.” There is only the way we know; how we best take care of our own selves in the process. I’m so glad you weighed in. We did miss you this year, as you know.

  10. Elaine Mansfield
    | Reply

    Wonderful, Janet. I look forward to other accounts. What a nutritious week it must have been. Women, writers, friends.

    I’m part of a women’s mythology class that’s kept a class going for over 25 years. It’s a little smaller than it used to be, but there are still nine stalwarts and we meet for 4 hours every other week. About once a year we have a retreat. We tried a center, but mostly we’ve met at my house since Vic died. I have room for everyone and there are spaces big enough to meet, write, discuss, do an art project, and prepare food. And lots of places for long walks. I prepare the space and try to just be one of the group. We co-lead these workshops and share responsibility. I’ve noticed, though, that I like to sleep in my own bed (my matriarchal grandparent’s bed), so I do that now.

    What a wonderful way to use your unsold house–and I hope you sell it soon.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Elaine, and welcome. I’m honored you dropped in. What a great resource you’ve created: over 25 years; I’m quite impressed. I dare say there are few of those around. I find these past few years that’s it’s important to me to include in my life the energy of good women. How I do that varies from year to year, but I know how important it is. And I love the mystery that descends upon me at about this time, for I don’t have any idea what it’ll look like next. Part of that grand mystery of life.

  11. Pamela
    | Reply

    Delightful! I had a similar experience of getting together this past summer with six women whom I knew only from the blogging world. The one who gathered us lives in North Dakota, but we all met at her brother’s home in Delaware. Huh? But it worked: the rest of us came from Boston and NYC and Virginia and Pennsylvania. So Karen was the hostess, in that she planned the writing workshop and chose the six of us, yet she wasn’t the hostess, since it wasn’t in her home. We all had a ball that weekend. Perspectives were changed. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I wonder if it’s something in the midatlantic coast that attracts women to congregate and connect? That east coast air? I’m so glad you joined us, Pamela. I believe I just today discovered you over at Laurie Buchanan’s Tuesdays with Laurie, “Intentional Kindness” post. I liked your comment and popped over to your blog to find (and read) your recent story, “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID” which scared the bejeebies out of me. I recommend it to the other readers here. And that’s all I’m sayin’ ’bout it. 🙂

  12. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    Janet, I thought I had left a comment here but couldn’t find it. You have a great talent for both hospitality and friendship. The experience I had in your lovely home last year will always stay with me. Thanks for sharing and continuing the tradition. I would love to hear your laughter pealing through the house again.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh Shirley, please instead start praying that we sell it. For then I can take that trip to Cuba I’ve so long wanted!

      In the meantime, I thank you for your kind words. We writers, I think, live so much in isolation; I love (and need) to bring people of like minds and hearts around me and I feel very grateful that I have such a place that makes it doable. Feels funny even saying that, big proponent of “difference” that I am. But we can always find differences. And, we can always find similarities. And both are delightful ways to spend time. Particularly with women I want to know better. I missed you this year.

      We’re thinking of putting up a yurt on our property here in Vermont. So, perhaps these annual gatherings may continue. I’d certainly like that. Or, we could just choose a book fair or conference and just meet. Many options. The beach in Cuba, the south of France, the top of the Empire State building (no; that’s been done). So many options, so little …

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