Bastille Day in Essoyes


EssoyesJulyMistonFieldsBastille Day did not end peacefully in France this year, but it did begin that way, at least in “my” little village of Essoyes.

Of course the original Bastille Day was not peaceful either. But it is perhaps notable that it is not called Bastille Day in France, and I think the reason behind that is significant.

In France, the 14th of July is formally called la fête nationale, and most commonly referred to as le quatorze juillet. It is the anniversary both of the day the Bastille was stormed by a Parisian mob in 1789, and the day that celebrated the unity of the French people a year later (Fête de la Fédération). So one of the quatorze juillets is about destruction: the other is about unity, and peace after strife. (You who know your history will surely know that things did not exactly stay peaceful in France after 1790, and that they got worse, much worse, before they got better. Still, let’s hold onto the thought of celebrating unity and the building of something new and better, rather than destruction. Can we?)

In Essoyes celebration of the fête nationale began the night before, with the traditional parade of the children of the village carrying lanterns through the village streets. Prior to that, they had enjoyed taking rides on the amusement park manèges, scooping up little plastic ducks with numbers on their bottoms, and shooting toy rifles at the targets in the concessions that had been temporarily set up in front of the mairie. Then, when it finally became dark enough, around 11 p.m., the fireworks (feux artifices) began.


The next morning, around 11 a.m. the mayor, some local representatives of the Conseil Generale, the local unit of sapeurs pompiers (firefighters), and a flag bearer in uniform, along with a bugler, gathered in the village square, along with a small crowd of villagers.

As the sapeurs pompiers arrived in the square they proceeded to greet, with bonjours and the shaking of hands, each of the villagers (including me, l’américaine) who were waiting for the défilé to begin. And that is how I realized that one of them is a  highly skilled, extremely modest, and very industrious young man, a roofer who has helped us keep our roof in good repair. And that is when I realized that the firefighters in this area are volunteers.

I suppose I am not the only mostly urban dweller to be guilty of not having really thought much about who puts out fires in rural areas. (Thinking about it afterward, I believe my Uncle Lewey was a volunteer firefighter in his rural Wisconsin community. I will have to ask about that.) In any case, I suddenly realized, “This troupe of firefighters here, they have other jobs. This is volunteer work that they do.” And as I watched them quietly talking among themselves as they waited for the call to attention, I wondered which of them may have been among those who had saved my husband’s life eight years earlier, by administering emergency first aid and rushing him off to the hospital in Troyes, 45 minutes away, after he had a terrible accident in his studio.

Soon the colors were presented, the bugle was played, and the sapeurs pompiers led us through the streets of the village to the war memorial next to the church, where flowers were laid and two minutes of silence was observed. Then there was a procession back to the square, where two of the firefighters (including our roofer) were recognized and congratulated by the mayor: one of them for 20 years of service, the other for having achieved a new level of service.

Afterwards we were offered petit coupes de champagne and tables were arranged for a village picnic next to the green where the children play soccer.


That was in the morning.

In the evening, I watched and listened to the concert performed by the Orchestre de Paris at the Champ de Mars on television, and after that the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, which ended sometime between 11:30 and midnight. Before I went to bed, I breathed a sigh of relief that “something awful” had not happened. I did not hear of the dreadful tragedy in Nice until the next morning, and when I did, like almost everyone else, I assumed it was another act of political terrorism.

Twenty-four hours later that seems much less certain. As the evidence begins to mount, there seems to be a strong possibility that the murderous individual who drove a truck into a crowd of families and visitors celebrating the quatorze juillet in Nice was a disturbed loner who went over the edge and decided to kill a bunch of innocent people in a misguided attempt to gain the respect he felt he was lacking in his life. As one commentator said on the radio yesterday, it appears that he had “more like an American-style profile.”

I don’t know what to say about all this, and for a while yesterday I was actually stunned into a kind of helpless silence.

What I do know is that here, in “my” little village of Essoyes, there are a lot of good people who quietly go about their lives, doing mostly good, working hard, providing service to others, some paid, some not.

And I suspect–or should I say I still believe?–that all around this troubled world of ours, it is mostly the same in every village, and town, and city, on earth.

We are definitely facing some frightful challenges and experiencing a period of what feels like increased instability and strife in our world. Or perhaps it is just that the instability and strife that have plagued other parts of the world are beginning to be felt in places they were not felt as much before.

I don’t know really what we can do about it. Except for all of us to try to be the best people we can be. Refrain from judgment and from jumping to false conclusions. Help each other out in whatever ways we can, to the best of our ability.

And celebrate our common humanity, our joy in all the things there are to be joyful about, as much as we can, for as long as we live.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.

July 16, 2016 at 9:38 am 4 comments

Summertime in Essoyes


The first crop has been harvested, these bales of hay brought in just yesterday by the farmer. The fields of colza and wheat are continuing to ripen, and all along the edges of the fields, the streets of the town, pushing up through the stones in the cemetery, the wildflowers continue in their subtle, determined progression through the season.

The wildflowers here don’t take your breath away like in some tropical locations, with their overwhelming abundance and brilliance of color. No, they just whisper to you gently, of the scattered beauty of every day, every season, every landscape, everything in its own time. The predominant colors here are various shades of purple, quietly astonishing in their revelation of just how much  variety there can be within one color, and the fascinating borderlines of those colors: some of them raising the question, is it purple or is it blue? Is it purple or is it pink?


There are also many yellows, with the occasional bright orange poppies, made famous by Renoir, who painted them into the landscapes he created here.


Daisies have also begun to appear, making me think of my mother, and the image that comforted her in the last days of her life, an image of a little girl gathering daisies in a sunny field, an image she shared with me. Wouldn’t she love to see these daisies, and know how the sight of them makes me feel close to her again?


In the village preparations have begun for the quatorze juillet, the French celebration of independence, which Anglophones call Bastille Day. On the evening of the 13th there will be (I assume) the traditional procession of the flambeaux for the children of the village, and on the 14th of course fireworks, les feux artifices. Preparations have also begun for the Year of Renoir, a département-wide celebration of the Renoir legacy in this part of the world, timed to coincide with the reopening next spring of the Renoir home, which will be a wonderful new addition to Du Côté des Renoir. The workers have begun their travaux and the gates that were almost always closed before are now open much of the time to allow workers to come and go as they begin the work of restoration.


Evidence that the work has begun at the Maison Renoir: the closed gates are also evidence that it is lunchtime in France.

I attended a meeting designed to inspire the citizens of Essoyes–“motivate” was the word used–to all take part in this year-long celebration, to find ways to make Essoyes particularly beautiful and welcoming to the visitors who are expected to come from far and wide. There were about 50 people there, not bad for a village with a total population of just 750. There were the usual semi-comic moments of any exercise in democracy, which inevitably allows for old gripes to be aired and new gripes to be introduced, some relevant to the topic at hand, some not so much. All in all it was a wonderful example of small-town grassroots democracy in action, with both its irritating aspects and its beautiful ones: the idea that everyone’s voice is worth hearing; the practicing of patience with and tolerance for the ineloquent along with the eloquent; the occasional inspiring voice of reason calling the citizens to a higher plane. In any case, at this point in time there is nearly a year to prepare–and knowing the people of Essoyes as I do, I trust that they will make the Year of Renoir something worth celebrating.

There are many things to do in and around Essoyes during the summer months: I recently wrote about some of them here. I’m looking forward to welcoming some new visitors to Essoyes next month, through my “mini” writing workshops.


Wherever you are, I hope you are enjoying the sounds, sights, and sweet smells of summer. And hoping that at the end of each day you will find maybe a little bit of peace, and perhaps a beautiful sunset–whether observed from across an open field, over a beautiful body of water, or simply reflected in the windows and on the walls of city buildings.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing, and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.




July 6, 2016 at 12:15 pm Leave a comment

Spotlight on Cynthia Pierce Liefeld: Psychologist, Scuba Diver, Writing Workshop Creator


Cynthia Pierce Liefeld  (2nd from right), in Essoyes with fellow Writing from the Hearters and Janet Hulstrand (at left)

Cynthia Pierce Liefeld is a wife, mother, grandmother, developmental psychologist specializing in adolescence, scuba diver and underwater photographer, and the founder of the nonprofit organization A Day In My Shoes. Cynthia participated in my Writing from the Heart workshop in 2009. She recently took the time to answer my questions about what she learned through Writing from the Heart, and how she has applied it to her work with women who have experienced domestic abuse, both in the Pittsburgh area and in the Cayman Islands.

Janet Hulstrand: What brought you to Writing from the Heart in Essoyes? That is, what made you decide to come?

Cynthia Pierce Liefeld: I was a writer of sorts in all of my academic positions (researcher, curriculum developer, vice president for academic affairs), and I wanted to write for myself—as the writer and as the audience. I spoke with you before I made my final decision to go, and that clinched it for me. You assured me that other participants would be at various writing abilities and that we would all start together, as a group. Your  method of writing to a prompt and sharing the readings if desired, for feedback, was appealing to me. And I have to be honest, I love France, I visit France often, and this gave me the opportunity to combine travel to a new part of France for a fresh raison d’etre.

 Did you have a specific writing project in mind when you came to the workshop? If not, what did you gain from the experience?

I’ve wanted to write children’s stories for a long time, but I thought it would be best for me to put such a large goal aside and open myself up to “writing from the heart.” I found the writing prompts to be inspirations for reflecting on both my childhood and adulthood. I found them to be invitations to explore writing spontaneously and to see what showed up on paper. I knew I could take the prompts and apply them to characters I was thinking about, but found that writing about emotion, memories, hopes, losses, mistakes, dreams, and myself to be very centering. And what I took from that was that I could next write “outside” myself with what I had learned about myself.

I also appreciated the feedback from you and from the other writers in the class. No one offered negative criticism. It was all offered in the spirit of reaction to the writing piece. Sometimes, the feedback was enough for me to continue writing about the same theme in the next prompt you offered.

Can you tell me about the work you’ve done with women living in shelters, and about your work with women in the Cayman Islands? 

I kept writing after my trip to the workshop in Essoyes. I enrolled in an undergraduate class at the University of Pittsburgh on Writing for Young Adults. It provided guidance, structure, critique, and direction for me. I also attended a second writing workshop in Aix en Provence, based on the Amherst Writing (AWA) method. The method incorporated what I had learned during your workshop, but it was much more formal, structured, and directed. What I took away from that workshop was that I wanted to instruct using that method, but it would take me four years before I completed the five-day training. My life got in the way, mostly in good ways. And I kept writing.

What I discovered while I was training was that I wanted to work with the population of women that the non-profit I started focused its efforts on. The non-profit originally was (and is) a photography project to raise funding and increase awareness for women who have experienced domestic violence. We have since added a writing component, which is an extension of what I learned from you, in the format of the AWA. I learned from you that no matter what one puts on paper, truth or fiction, that writing comes from the heart. What I learned from the AWA method was how to apply it to unprotected populations.

I wrote a proposal that was accepted by a local women’s shelter in Pittsburgh, to run a writing workshop for a select group of volunteer participants. We met Monday nights for six weeks, writing to a set of prompts I selected that would help them grow, both in their opinions of themselves and their writing opportunities. All work was/is considered fiction. They were encouraged to read their responses to prompts for feedback based on only three questions: “What stood out for you in this writing? What resonates with you in the piece? What do you remember most about this piece?” (We don’t refer to the writer as “You” when giving feedback, we always use, “the narrator.” This adds a layer of anonymity, whether needed or not.) Some revealed their autobiographical pieces, but many chose to step beyond and write truly fictional responses to the prompts.

While the writing was not promoted as being therapeutic, many found it to be self-revelatory. I’m a psychologist, which I did not hide from the participants. I wrote with them and read my own work, opening it up to their feedback. At first they were not very brave about this, but with time there was trust, and with trust, they knew they could give me feedback too. I like to think this was an area of growth for many of them. While not an authority, I was “the teacher,” and few of them had experience with giving teachers feedback, as equals.

When the course ended, the women all believed they had become better writers. They also expressed a strong desire to have the workshop again. The changing nature of participants in evening workshops will likely prevent the same group from gathering again, but the shelter is open to my hosting another writing workshop.

I also taught the same workshop, in a condensed fashion, at a women’s shelter on Grand Cayman. The Cayman Islands have not recognized domestic abuse as a public health issue for very long; the shelter opened about seven years ago and houses up to four families at a time, though they have room for more women. Four women and one woman’s 13-year-old son wrote during the workshops. All of them committed to the AWA process and truly enjoyed keeping each other, and me, accountable. Sometimes the women, all of whom were from Honduras or Mexico, wrote in Spanish, and they would read them in Spanish to each other. Then they would share with me. This was an option I gave them, as writing in your second language often produces a different type of writing than in your first language. One staff member who was a survivor of domestic abuse also participated.

Both sets of women (in Pittsburgh and in Cayman) found it difficult at first to not write from their own perspective. I engaged them in prompts that required them to write in the voice of an animal, which helped them loosen up. Afterwards, each took a little more liberty with creation, unless the prompt resonated with them in a more profound way.

I did not purposely use prompts that would engage the participants in reflection on an abusive past. Sometimes it was hard to avoid. I truly wanted to avoid the “therapy” aspect of our time together. I always treated them gently, of course, and allowed for tears, and for those who chose not to read. However, I typically asked those who refused the first time, if after the others had read their writings, if maybe they would like to share. More often than not, almost everyone shared. The constructive and positive feedback to the fiction the participants wrote made for some heavy days, but for joyful ones as well.

As with the women from Pittsburgh, the Caymanian participants reflected that they enjoyed learning more about writing, about giving feedback, about using constructive criticism, and about engaging in an art that they had avoided in the past.

Both writing groups proved to be two of my most rewarding volunteer experiences. The non-profit is now positioning itself to incorporate writing groups into the services provided, in the hope of reducing the stigma associated with being a victim of domestic violence and empowering those survivors for achieving the most from their lives.

What do you think is most important for people to know about women who have been in abusive relationships? Perhaps another way of stating this is, what misconceptions do many people have about these women, about this issue? And how can we be helpful to them?

 It is never the victim’s fault. Victims come from every social class, race, age, and gender identity. Giving them a voice through writing seems to propel them into victors. Society needs to learn how to look at these women (or men) not as victims, but as survivors. In a perfect world, there would be no stigma attached to saying, “I was in a domestically abusive relationship.” But sadly, some people will always judge from their own perspectives.




Cynthia Pierce Liefeld transplanting elkhorn coral in the Cayman Islands.

In addition to your many other activities, you are a passionate fan of scuba diving and a very fine underwater photographer. Do you see any parallels between scuba diving and writing from the heart? 

Certainly, though the connection is really between writing and photography for me. Scuba diving takes precision to a new level, since one must depend on an essential set of skills to begin and complete a dive. I love the serenity of the descent into the blue, the smooth gliding through the warm water, the discovery of sea creatures or a seascape that deserves preservation by camera. Whether writing from the heart or taking underwater photographs and video, the focus is laser clear. Seeing the writing on paper (or on a screen) and seeing the photographs downloading from my camera to the computer is incredibly fulfilling for me. Polishing the writing  or editing the photographs is mind-intensive and very satisfying. Both writing and photographs are products of my heart, finished off with a bit of cognitive concentration.

What do you think is the most important thing people can gain from writing, especially writing from the heart?

Insight into themselves. Motivation. How to take feedback and use it to further your writing. Opening yourself up. Learning how to take risks, and doing it. Using a safety net if you need one. Telling a story, true or not, or half-true. Giving yourself license to tell what is inside of you. Giving yourself license to share your stories, to put them on paper, to recognize your voice, to communicate your joy, concern, imagination, depth and/or lack of knowledge, to travel—in your mind, in your heart, or in the world, with words. To know that putting into words all of these things can empower or guide you, and those around you.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing, and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region. This post is third in a series of interviews with past participants in her Writing from the Heart workshops. 

June 22, 2016 at 3:15 pm Leave a comment

Springtime in Essoyes


For the first time, I’ve been able to spend a whole spring here, and what a beautiful day-by-day evolution that has been to observe.

When I came here the plants in the fields next to our home were at a height somewhere between my ankles and my knees. Every day they grew, and every day you could see changes, sometimes ever so slight, sometimes–depending on the weather, the time of day, and the light–dramatic.

Unfortunately I did not have a working camera for my first few weeks here, so I cannot show you what I am talking about. I can only tell you that it was miraculous, in the miraculous everyday way of nature.

The fields I walk past every day are of wheat and colza, which is called “rape seed” in English,  and that is a word I hate. So I prefer to use the French word.

Colza is the grain from which canola oil is made, and when the flowers are in full bloom they make a person really understand the meaning of the words “yellow” (!) and “brilliant” (!) This is how colza looks from a distance, seen across a field of wheat, in springtime.


There are many pictures, and paintings, of these patchwork fields of green and yellow, which can be seen in spring throughout much of northern France, especially in Champagne, and in l’Yonne. One of the things that is so interesting about these fields is that while from a distance the yellow looks like a blanket tightly hugging the earth, when you are close to these plants, you can see that by late spring they are actually shoulder high. (I know this picture does not actually show anyone’s shoulder, nor does it give you the sense of the plants being shoulder-high. I tried to do a shoulder-high selfie, I tried several times in fact, and the result was just too ridiculous to share. You’ll have to just trust me on this.)


Eventually poppies begin to appear. (In French they are called coquelicots, a delightful word.) Here are the first ones I sighted, can you see them? (Okay, look, I am not a photographer, okay? Just do the best you can. That’s what I did:-) )


Meanwhile the vines on the surrounding hills are slowly beginning to turn green, and the forested hills, which were a kind of brownish gray in early spring, have already done so. And the wheat, which is bright green now, with broadish, flat stems, will turn to tufted stalks, and a color sort of midway between golden and amber (yes, as in “amber waves of grain”) before it is harvested in late summer.

That is (some of) the beauty of spring in this part of Champagne, the southern part, near Burgundy, which is called l’Aube.

Of course there are flowers too. And there are the bells ringing out from the village church, and there is the sweet singing of the birds.

But more about all that on another day.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing, and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.




May 22, 2016 at 1:25 pm 1 comment

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