Storm’s Comin’

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Storm’s Comin’ was inspired by thunderclouds rolling across Lake Muskoka before a deluge. 7″ x 10″ washable marker on watercolour paper © 2016 V. Barrett.


Favourite Things

For my entire life, DSC_9584 (6)I’ve known and loved this charming rocking chair. It lives at the family cottage and, like so much of the house’s early 20th century furnishings and trim, was originally painted deep burgundy-red. This was a popular colour of the time, and the paint – common and cheap – contained lead. Trouble was (aside from the health hazard, which no one knew about back then), all that darkness made the house seem very gloomy indeed, especially at night. My mother recalls evenings as a youngster, before the installation of electricity, reading by the feeble light of a coal-oil lamp. The room’s wood-panelled corners were shrouded in mysterious shadow; who knew what lurked there? How her youthful imagination must have taken flight – and set the gooseflesh to rising!

Those summer nights, perched cross-legged on that chair, my mom read and re-read one of her all-time favourite books, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. This novel was written in 1908 by John Fox, Jr. Billed as a “western romance”, it involves the encroachment of modern industrialism on a traditional Appalachian coal mining town, two feuding clans, and a good ol’, darn tootin’ Eliza Doolittle/Professor Higgins-style romance. Wildly popular, Lonesome Pine inspired a 1913 song and numerous subsequent stage and screen adaptations. My mother’s copy, which had graced the cottage bookshelf for decades, disappeared one summer, but about 20 years ago, she found a replacement (shown here) at a local antiques shop. I sheepishly admit that, in all my summers at the lake, I haven’t yet read this wonderful volume. But its yellowing pages are calling me now, and I know I’ll read it settled into the seat of that welcoming old rocker.

My grandfather, with the assistance of his then ten-year-old daughter, installed the chair’s rope seat when the original rushes wore out. My mom remembers helping to hold the ropes taut as he worked. They did an excellent job, because for more than seventy years, it’s stoically withstood summers on an open-air porch, mouse infestations, uninsulated winters and generations of soggy, bathing-suited bottoms.

As for all that dark red décor, it eventually fell out of fashion; light, creamy white was now in. But by then it was known that stripping lead paint was DSC_9455 (6)dangerous, so the red was simply covered over. And over. And over. Many years and layers of paint later, that deep burgundy still shows up where the white layers have chipped, or bleeds through in patches of pale pink. It’s as if the old finish – once desired and au courant – is part of the very lifeblood of the place, reminding us of our favourite things, and willfully refusing to be forgotten.

Photographing Jewelry II: Writer’s Necklace

As a writer who loves fine tools and ephemera of the craft – fountain pens, beautiful inks, old stamps, postcards, etc. – I’ve recently been craving a unique necklace with a writer’s theme. I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted in the marketplace, so I decided to make my own.

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Pen nib necklace, with 1913 penny postcard and cobalt blue fountain pen ink

For this piece, which would suit a drawing artist, too, I used a steel dip pen nib (512 Bowl Pointed Ex-Fine B nib, made by the Hunt Pen Company in the U.S. and sold under the Speedball brand) and added a stainless steel jump ring and rollo chain. It’s a little old-world, a bit steampunk, yet the material makes it sleek and modern. The nib I used is new, but I’ll be seeking out vintage specimens, too, to turn into more jewelry, perhaps to offer in my shop. In the meantime, I had fun shooting this vignette!

The Stone Cottage Syndrome

I’m attracted to stories in which the protagonist (usually a woman who’s divorced, widowed or otherwise on her own) flees her city life and heads deep into the British countryside or to a far-flung island to work through grief, research a paper, write a book, or inherit a deceased relative’s dilapidated cottage. Even before she crosses the sagging threshold, the heroine struggles to cope with the challenges of unfamiliar surroundings, eccentric villagers and the surly yet handsome neighbour who lives in tortured angst down the dank, hedgerowed lane. As our fish-out-of-water negotiates how to repair her leaky roof or feed the wheezing coin-operated boiler (encountering mysteries, ghosts and the occasional moonlit pagan ritual along the way), as she unblocks chimneys and scrubs ancient grime from the massive oak worktop, she gradually sweeps away the dusty echoes of the house’s – and her own – past. And as she cleans up the mess of her own life, she helps her odd neighbours come to terms with their respective wounds and secrets.

I call this recurring fixer-upper theme the Stone Cottage Syndrome. It’s not so much a syndrome as a device many authors I’ve read seem to use. It could very well be considered cliché, but, if done right, this motif can set a scene that’s both wildly romantic and hauntingly eerie. In other words, right up my ivy-covered alley.

DSC_7967 (7)From my bookshelf are some novels which use the cobweb-clearing Stone Cottage device to very satisfying effect:

  1. Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart, who’s permanently entrenched near the top of my list of favourite authors. The main characters of Stewart’s adventure romance novels – intelligent and determined females all – find mystery, peril and love in foreign climes. This one takes place on an isolated Hebrides island with no motorcars and post that comes by ferry thrice a week. (Hodder and Stoughton, 1991)
  2. Running Wild by Victoria Clayton. Leaving her unsuitable fiancé at the altar, the main character flees to a decrepit cottage in Dorset. (Orion 2001)
  3. As with Thornyhold (which I’ve discussed before but easily belongs in this category as well), the first time I read Mary Stewart’s Rose Cottage, I devoured it in a couple of hours and immediately went back for a second helping. And I learned what a green baize door is; you can’t have a proper English country house without one. (William Morrow, 1997)
  4. Mandy by Julie Edwards (otherwise known as singer/actress Julie Andrews) is a sweet children’s novel about a young English girl who stumbles upon and secretly fixes up an empty cottage and its overgrown garden. Shell rooms, wildflowers and plucky orphans – what could be better?! (Harper & Row, 1971)
  5. Speaking of resourceful kids, my next selection features three of them, stranded in Wales during a heavy blizzard. Snowed Up by Rosalie K. Fry (who also wrote The Secret of Roan Inish) doesn’t have an adult lead character, but young cousins who must work together to survive a frightening night in a freezing, abandoned stone farmhouse. This book made a huge impression on me when I was a kid and has survived many a zealous purge, remaining with me to this day. Plus, this tale taught me the meaning of the word ‘swede’. (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1970)
  6. When it comes to meticulously researched historical romance and superb storytelling, Ontario’s Susanna Kearsley is hands-down my favourite author. (BTW, this blog is a Harlequin-free zone; no ripped bodices and heaving bosoms here. Ever.) Beginning with her first novel, Mariana, each story features an element of time-slipping, ghosts or past-life regression. But, like the zombies of The Walking Dead, these suspension-of-disbelief devices take a backseat to the real story, which is about actual historical events – and true love. In The Winter Sea (Allison & Busby, 2008), my favourite of her works, all of these are expertly combined in a remote cottage setting, and there’s even a derelict Scottish castle thrown in for good measure. This story riveted me from the get-go, and I wept at the end. For half an hour. As if that weren’t enough, The Firebird (2014) is the sequel to The Winter Sea, and both share ties with 1997’s The Shadowy Horses. Go read these, and all of Kearsley’s books. Posthaste.

Honourable Mention:  In Veil of Time by Claire R. McDougall, not only does the heroine find herself holed up in a remote cottage complete with ancient standing stones, she astrally projects (in a cool, totally believable way) to 8th century Scotland as well. Many parts of this novel were entertaining, but I found the ending a tad abrupt and disappointing. (Gallery Books, 2014)

Crystal Clear

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Rock crystal a.k.a. clear quartz: the Perfect Jewel

Rock crystal (from Greek kruos and krustallos, ‘frost’ or ‘ice’), Earth’s purest form of quartz, is found worldwide and is the second most abundant mineral after feldspar. This colorless, transparent to translucent silicon oxide (SiO2) quartz, also known as pure or clear quartz, forms hexagonal prisms often ending in a pyramid. It measures 7 on the Mohs hardness scale.

The ancients believed pure quartz was superhard, petrified ice and that the gods lived in palaces of rock crystal; knapped tools and weapons such as arrowheads were made from it. The emperor Nero drank his wine from a rock crystal goblet, as this mineral was supposed to quench thirst, and wealthy Roman ladies carried it in their hands during hot weather because they thought it had cooling properties. Pure quartz is the traditional material used to make seers’ crystal balls; 11th century crusaders brought these objects back from the Holy Land, believing they possessed magical powers of divination and healing. Subsequently, clear quartz became popular in medieval Europe as a treatment for a slew of conditions including dysentery, colic, fever, pain, gout and kidney disease. For Native Americans, rock crystal is a good luck stone to be placed in a newborn baby’s cradle. Rock crystal is a symbol of purity, patience and perseverance for the Japanese, who call it tama, the Perfect Jewel. It is thought to open the heart and mind to higher guidance, and is used in the quest to achieve enlightenment.

Rock crystal is considered a semi-precious stone and can be left raw, shaped or tumbled smooth in jewelry, touchstones, carvings and meditation aids, or as decorative clusters or geodes. The genuine stone also had industrial applications and was used in timepieces, but most modern quartz movement watches and electronics now employ synthetic rock crystal.

Apothecary Adventures: Making a facial toner

There are a jillion recipes out there for DIY skincare, bath and body products, and all kinds of claims about what they’ll do for you. DSC_1705 (4)As my interest in traditional herbalism and back-to-basic home therapeutics deepens, I’ve been eager to try some of them (always with a skeptical eye toward snake-oil claims, of course). I’m pretty picky, though; I want a simple recipe using only a few ingredients that are plant-based, organic rather than synthetic (although that’s not always possible, especially when it comes to fragrance), easily-available and inexpensive. And if those ingredients or the final product can multitask, so much the better!

I decided to start my cauldron-stirring with a facial toner, which is odd, since I’ve never used one  ̶  except for a summer years ago when I fell in love with a cucumber toner from either Crabtree & Evelyn or The Body Shop (can’t remember which). Perhaps my dry, mature skin is calling out for it! Toners claim to cleanse, tighten, refresh, soften, hydrate, balance pH levels, glowify, reduce inflammation and control oil. That’s a lot to ask from one product, but only time will tell.

Many incarnations are possible, including cucumber, tea tree, lavender, calendula, aloe & green tea, apple cider vinegar & mint — you name it. For my first effort, I settled on a popular combination:  rosewater, witch hazel (both have been used for centuries) and vegetable glycerin, which is optional. All of these have uses on their own, but together they make a good cosmetic. Here are some of their supposed therapeutic properties, as well as notes on brands, availability and cost:

Rosewater:  soothes, cools and balances; cleanses oily skin; rejuvenates, softens and tones mature skin and helps reduce signs of aging; delicate fragrance calms, reduces stress and contributes to sounder sleep

  • If you’re willing to sacrifice lots of roses that you grow yourself (without pesticides), it’s easy to make your own steam-distilled hydrosol.
  • Purchase rosewater at health/natural product stores, some drugstores, Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food shops and online.
  • My source: Heritage Store’s Rose Petals™ Rosewater, which contains only water and Rosa damascena flower oil. This is a multitasker; use as-is for aromatherapy, perfume, body splash or a simple toner. A rosewater + glycerin option is also available. I paid CAD $12.99 for a 240 mL (8 fl. oz.) bottle at my local Whole Foods store.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana):  astringent; controls oil and may help acne; tannins constrict blood vessels, reducing swelling and inflammation and temporarily tightening skin; cleanses dirt and oil; cools; eases pain and itching; use undiluted as a dressing for bruises, sprains and muscle soreness, abrasions, swelling, insect bites, razor nicks, minor burns and sunburns

  • My source: 100 mL Life™ brand Witch Hazel (manufacturer’s standard) from Shopper’s Drug Mart for CAD $4.99; contains ethyl alcohol. (I couldn’t find an alcohol-free distilled version, but it does exist.) Look for witch hazel in the first aid aisle.
  • Witch hazel doesn’t have a particularly attractive fragrance – it smells rather earthy to me – and the alcohol gave my first batch a slight medicinal odour. I added more rosewater to counteract it.

Vegetable Glycerin:  acts as a humectant, attracting and holding moisture to the skin; cleanses; softens rough skin

  • Can make your products sticky, so don’t go overboard. If you add too much, increase the amount of rosewater.
  • My source: NOW® Solutions 100% Vegetable Glycerine, which is made from non-GMO palm, grapeseed or coconut oil and contains no additives. (I’m a big fan of NOW’s body oils and the spot-on fragrance of their essential oils, all of which are reasonably priced.) A 118 mL bottle cost me CAD $8.99 at Whole Foods.

Rosewater, Witch Hazel & Glycerin Toner

No recipe, of course, listed the exact amounts for the size of bottle I had on hand (I wanted a small batch with nothing left over); in fact, the numbers vary widely. Generally, the proportions go like this:  mostly rosewater, some witch hazel, and a smidgen of glycerin. (How’s that for a recipe?!) To make a larger batch (keep some; give some as gifts), try 1 cup of rosewater, ½ to ¾ cups witch hazel and 1 teaspoon of glycerin. For my small bottle, which holds 80 mL (about ¼ cup or 2 oz.), I experimented until I got the right feel and fragrance:  non-sticky, non-greasy, and pleasantly rose-scented. I used:

  • 50 – 60 mL rosewater
  • 20 – 30 mL witch hazel
  • 1/8 tsp (6 to 8 drops) vegetable glycerin

If the rose scent isn’t strong enough for you, or you don’t like the smell of witch hazel, try adding a drop of rose essential oil or any favourite complementary scent, like lavender or peppermint.

Start Concocting!  Add all ingredients to a bottle with or without a spray top. Secure lid and shake to combine.

To Use:  Shake before each use. Spritz or apply witDSC_1705 (5)h a cotton ball or makeup remover pad to face and neck, avoiding eyes and other mucous membranes. Use after cleansing, to help remove makeup, or whenever you need a lovely rose-scented boost. Keep tightly closed; does not need refrigeration.

Pretty little things

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Beautiful, tiny turned wood bowl made by my friend, Chris Arcand, a very talented teacher, wood- and leatherworker, chainmailler, musician and archer. The bowl is about 1.75” in diameter and is made of Claro walnut. I’m proud to own it!