Finding Magick in the New Year

Finding Magick in the New Year

Scandinavian-star-Christmas-tree-ornamentsThe weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year’s were hectic and full of busy-ness, as they are for most of us. For me, they were a whirlwind of work deadlines (it’s our busiest season), enduring oral surgery and the ongoing healing process (I never want to eat pudding or jello again), organizing family gatherings, and spending late nights in the elves’ workshop finishing handmade gifts. Boxing Day brought shock and sadness with the sudden loss of a beloved cousin, and our Christmas get-together on the 30th saw tears and nostalgic remembrance alongside the laughter and celebration.

Although my family opted out of gift giving years ago, there are still some of us who sneak in “just because” gifts. This year, I wanted to put my sewing machine to good use, and I dusted off long-unused knitting needles. My focus was winter warmth, so each person received something designed to be cozy and comforting. There were rice-filled microwaveable hot packs/hand warmers for those wintry aches and pains, flannel infinity scarves in colourful plaids, knitted alpaca fibre leg warmers, and fabric bookmarks for a long evening’s read. Each one was a warm hug from me to my loved ones, and it brought me joy to give them.

Scandinavian-birdseed-good-luck-traditionI wasn’t the only one to “break the rules” and slip in a small gift here and there. My sister handed out these adorable good luck seed packets. There is a Scandinavian tradition that says that feeding the birds on Christmas morning, thus including them in the feasting that takes place inside your home, is an act of kindness which brings luck for the coming year. On New Year’s Day, I will be sure to scatter these seeds on our apartment balcony for the sparrows who often come to visit.

In 2018, I have tried to bring a little bit of magick into everyday living. Magick can take many forms, from small – like brewing a soothing cup of tea or giving a pair of snuggly socks to an aging mom – to the more showy and grandiose. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m all about rustic simplicity and the wisdom and tradition of the past, so I like to keep my “magick” on the uncomplicated, more mundane side.

plaid-flannel-with-oil-lampWhat do I find magickal? Pausing for a few moments at night to stargaze and pay homage to the Moon. Spending my lunch break at the local new age emporium, letting the crystals and gemstones tumble through my fingers. Soaking up the past in an antiques shop. Breathing in mint-scented fog, loving the rain, or wondering at the beauty of first snow. Gathering a nosegay of wildflowers and “weeds” for a homey bouquet. Filling my pockets with pebbles, acorns, moss or bark from a woodland walk. Hearing an owl call outside my window. The aroma of grassy meadows. Sunlight sparkling like diamonds on water. The warmth of a cat’s fur, and the bliss of its purr. Old typewriters. Eating my first macaron. Making an old family recipe, or working my way through a new craft project. Battered wooden tables, honey, rosewater and flannel. Stained glass. Peeling paint. Parchment and frankincense. Children’s laughter and the kindness of strangers. A new day, rife with possibility. Doing a job, and doing it to the best of my ability – then learning how to do it better.

Are you looking forward to the New Year? One of my faults is that I’m too pessimistic; I tend to “sweat the small stuff” – and I don’t suffer fools gladly. A comment from my brother last night about how he handles bad drivers (he doesn’t let anyone ruffle his feathers) inspired me to lighten up a little. Letting go of the stuff that doesn’t matter and focusing on the good – and the magick – in them, and in all of us, will go a long way to making 2019 a healthy and happy year.

Blessed be.

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The Story Owl

The Story Owl


Nancy Barrett, my photographer sister, very kindly let me share her work for this post. She has photographed many species of owls (and just about every other bird species in Ontario, wild and captive), including these Eastern Screech Owls. This rescued pair is cared for at the Mountsberg Raptor Centre.

Owls appear frequently in mythology and folklore, carrying both good and bad meaning. In some cultures, they are keepers of sacred knowledge and symbols of wisdom, protection, healing and good luck. In others – probably because owls are nocturnal – they are associated with witchcraft and dark magick, carrying messages between sorcerers and the spirit world; an owl hanging around or hooting announces the presence of a shaman or witch. Some traditions – native North American, in particular – say that owls assist with divination and prophecy. These birds are even supposed to predict the weather: a screeching owl means foul weather is coming, and an owl heard during a storm predicts an abrupt change in conditions.

Owls have also long been omens of disaster and death. The Romans believed that if travellers dreamt about an owl, they would be robbed or shipwrecked. An owl was supposed to have foretold the death of Julius Caesar and other emperors. (The birds appear as doomsayers in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth, as well as works by Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth and others.) It was believed that an owl flying past or calling at the window of a sick person predicted their imminent demise. An Appalachian superstition says that an owl flying by day brings bad news, and an owl calling at midnight foretells coming death. On Samhain night, when spirits roam the world, owls fly down to eat the souls of the dead.


Eastern Screech Owls can also be rufous. This little fellow hangs out with a grey buddy at a local cemetery!

I believe that owls are beautiful, wonderful beasts – and that imbues them with some kind of magick! I’m fortunate to have seen and heard many of the species occurring in southern Ontario, including Great Horned, Snowy, Barred, Eastern Screech, Boreal and Northern Saw-whet (our smallest, at 7” to 8” tall). I’m very certain I shall never see a wild Barn Owl, as they are incredibly rare and listed as endangered. And during a long-ago trip to England, I even heard a Tawny Owl outside our hotel! These birds are elegant, skillful hunters, and any encounter with one is very special.

I’ve had two such recent encounters, in fact, both whilst comfortably seated in my living room! Some of you may know that I started a new blog to showcase my writing a few weeks ago, and my first post was a ghost story. As I was putting the finishing touches on the post, I heard, through the slightly-ajar window next to me, an owl’s call in the night. I knew from its distinctive descending trill that it was an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), a species I’ve seen and heard several times before, but never outside the home we’ve occupied for 25 years. I listened to it “talking” (possibly calling to a partner) for several minutes, and even recorded it on my phone. I was mesmerized and felt so lucky to have heard from this captivating creature.

Over the next couple of weeks, I wrote another ghostly tale, finishing it just in time for Hallowe’en. I posted it a few minutes before midnight, and continued tweaking the post for another hour or so. It was in this quiet hour that – you guessed it – the wee screechie started calling again!

Eastern-Screech-Owl-greyWell, I was bowled over, and, I have to say, just a little freaked out. Some people might say that the “coincidence” was interesting at most, but nothing other than normal. I don’t agree! The same owl (it had to be), calling for the first time as I worked on my first ghost story, then calling again as I worked on the second – at Hallowe’en, of all times – was so serendipitous that I’m still wondering at it!

Owls are non-migratory, so I’m hoping that this little owl will hang around; I know from the frequent presence of hawks that our suburban neighbourhood, with its trees, fields and even a golf course, will support birds of prey. My sister, whose gorgeous photos you see here, tells me to listen in late winter to early spring for the screech owl’s mating calls. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a pair set up their love-nest nearby?

Could this bird be some kind of totem, or spirit animal? I have decided to call this midnight visitor my Story Owl. I’m currently working on my third ghost story … what do you think will happen when it goes online???

If you would like to see more of Nancy’s nature photography, please visit her here.

Stay tuned for more owls of a different kind, coming soon!


Welcome, October – my favourite month! A season of jewel-coloured days and inky nights, crisp apples and snuggly sweaters and pumpkin everything, ghosties, ghoulies and cackling ’round the cauldron. ’Tis the Witching Month, the time of Samhain, and it’s when I truly come alive.

Over the next 31 days, I’ll be reading a volume of ghost stories by M.R. James, whose spine-tingling work is considered some of the best in the genre.

I’m expecting my new sewing machine to arrive any day now, so I’ll be trying some basic projects to get used to its features. (I sewed a lot when I was much younger but haven’t done any machine stitching for many years.) I hope to share some of the results. A good way to keep busy as the days get colder!

October is also Pumpkin Month, so I’ll be doing a couple of craft projects involving pumpkins – both real and, well, not.

There’ll be some witchy stuff, too, including another installment in my “Magick” series – a really spooky one, in keeping with the situation!

And, if the weather permits and I can get out to my favourite places, perhaps I’ll share pictures of a country jaunt, or the changing leaves using a new photographic technique which will nicely fit Wild Daffodil’s Photographic Monthly Meet-Up prompt of “Tree”.

In the meantime, here is a sampling of Octobers past.autumn-fall-October

Wishing you the most comfortably cosy, deliciously eerie and shiveringly scary October!


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Time for Tea

french-macarons-with-blue-willow-tea-setA while back, I wrote about my Basket List, a few things – nothing elaborate or outrageous – I’d like to do, own or experience.

Finding some reasonably-priced French macarons at the grocery store bakery means I’ve checked off one of those items, at least!

A few of you commented that I shouldn’t bother, that macarons are expensive bits of tasteless cardboard. I’m happy to report that these ones were fresh and tasty, with a pleasing texture. They were flavoured with lemon meringue, pistachio and strawberry-rhubarb and were quite rich and sweet, so one or two are all that’s needed. On a cool, grey and rainy afternoon, they were just the thing with a nice cup of hot tea.

I hope that on this Sunday, you take the time for some restful relaxation and a well-deserved treat!

Basket List

Some people, especially as they approach the second half of their lives, make “bucket lists”. I, too, have a running list of aspirations – things I’d like to find, see, experience, accomplish, but they’re not particularly grandiose. No travelling to exotic lands, skydiving or climbing Mount Everest for me, oh no! Instead of a highfalutin bucket list, I keep what I like to call a Basket List (wicker, preferably), brimming with small whimsies, little hopes and dreams which are apt to change frequently. Right now, it goes something like this:

Hag stone from the Sea of Azov, Ukraine / CC BY-SA 3.0

1. Holey Stone
Also known as hag or adder stones, these small river or beach rocks have naturally-occurring holes made by wave action or friction with smaller pebbles. They are considered lucky and can be carried or worn as amulets for protection. A holey stone features in one of my favourite novels, The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, and ever since I read it, I’ve been on the lookout for one of my own. Sadly, our local waterways don’t seem to produce the kind of motion necessary to create such holes, but every time I’m on a bank or shore, you can be sure I’ll be keeping an eye out!

Witch window in Irasville, Vermont / CC BY-SA 3.0

2. Witch Window
I might have a tough time seeing a witch window, unless I take myself off to New England. Also known as Vermont or coffin windows, these narrow windows are placed on the diagonal in a gabled wall. They are found mostly in 19th century farmhouses, almost exclusively in the state of Vermont. These windows were supposed to protect homes against witches, as it was thought they couldn’t fly their broomsticks through crooked windows. (Because, you know … they couldn’t simply use a doorway!) It’s also believed they may have been used to remove coffins from upper floors, thus avoiding narrow or winding staircases. A more realistic reason for these odd constructions is that they allow light and ventilation in upper storeys where there may not be enough wall space for conventional windows.

French macarons © Nicholas Halftermeyer / CC BY-SA 3.0

3. French Macarons
The sheer elegance of these smooth, delicately-hued meringue and buttercream confections (not to be confused with coconut macaroons) are something to admire, but I’ve yet to taste one. They come in such dreamy pastel colours of sunshine yellow, pink, lavender, pistachio, even chocolate! As soon as someone presents me with a small white box, tied neatly with baker’s twine, I’ll be having one … or two … or three of these for high tea!

4. Join-Up
No, I have no wish to enlist in a society or become an army cadet. What I’m talking about is the technique known as Join-Up®, in which a rider learns the body cues of her horse and teaches it to accept gentle authority, thus establishing a strong trust bond. I first saw it demonstrated by Monty Roberts, who developed this humane “breaking” process, in the television series, Martin Clunes: Horsepower. It was done so sweetly, I was enchanted. There’s just one small problem with this plan: I have to learn how to ride first.

European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) © Gaudete / CC BY-SA 2.5

5. Hedgehog
These adorable wee creatures aren’t native to North America, so I’d have to get myself to England or Europe to see Mrs. Tiggywinkle in her natural environment. I might even join up with one. And it would give me the opportunity to see #6.

So close, and yet so far! One day, perhaps, I’ll visit Cheat’s Lane, Coffee Yard or Black Horse Passage – just three of the 50+ snickelways of York.

6. Snickelways of York
I’ve been to York, England – once, long ago. My sister, a friend and I had planned our 3-week itinerary, focused mainly on ancient or medieval sites in England and Wales, for months in advance. Our visit to York did include the Jorvik Viking Centre, which was fabulous, and The Shambles, a picturesque medieval street of 14th century buildings. Oh, how I wish I’d known then about snickelways, those narrow passages winding through the city’s heart! Several of them are accessed by The Shambles; we must have walked right by them. If I ever return, I’ll be using my autographed copy of the comprehensive guidebook, The Complete Snickelways of York by Mark W. Jones, who coined the term “snickelway”.

7. Dig It
One of my favourite programs is Time Team. I just love Sir Tony, Phil Harding and his hat, and the sound of trowels scraping against stone. I’ve always wanted to participate in an archaeological dig. My husband has done it – sort of; for a university Physics & Archaeology course, he took some magnetometer and resistivity readings at old Fort York, where they found a buried sewer system. Geo Fizz!

This desire to dig up the past and find stuff is closely related to my fascination with beachcombing and my desire to take up metal detecting.

Fairy ring, Brisbane, Australia / Public Domain

8. Magic Mushrooms
The fairy ring is a circle of mushrooms, sometimes over 10 m (33 ft) across, caused by the underground spreading of their mycelium, the fungus’ vegetative, fibre-like growth. Legend has it that these circles are the site of moonlit elven dances, and that they’re dangerous to enter and thus best avoided. Once inside, mortals will be enthralled by the Wee Folk and transported to their realm, where time passes very slowly. If they escape, they’ll find they have not aged, yet everything and everyone they once knew has long since faded away. I’ve found partial fairy rings but never a complete one. If I do, you betcha I’ll be investigating – but, according to folk wisdom, I must run around it nine times, deosil (clockwise), to make it safe!

I also yearn to find bioluminescent fungi, which means I’ll have to venture out along with hordes of mosquito vampires into the night forest to look for their greenish glow. There are only about 80 known species of these light-emitting wonders, and some of them grow here, such as the bitter oyster (Panellus stipticus) and jack-o’lantern (Omphalotus illudens). Sadly, the glow is usually pretty faint and only happens for a short period of time under the right conditions, so the chances of actually finding one are about as great as being carried off to marry a Fairy King.


Odds and Sods

Really bad joke of the day (Mrs. Cobs, are you listening?): What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary? A thesaurus.

As an aspiring writer and longtime editor, I own several thesauri. A few years ago, I purchased Roget’s Super Thesaurus (4th Edition), a thick compendium that promised to be the thesaurus-to-end-all-thesauri. It’s okay, but my go-to reference volume is and always has been Webster’s New Thesaurus (Concise Edition), a worn and well-thumbed paperback. (To give you an idea how long I’ve had it, the front cover boasts “New for the 1990’s.”) This beloved volume may not have as many entries, but it always delivers when I’m seeking le mot juste.

I meant to get this post up at the beginning of the month. Regular Gillyflower readers will know that I like to blog according to a monthly theme. June might offer many possibilities theme-wise, but I can’t pick just one. So, let this month’s theme be, well, themeless. Anti-thematic. My posts will be a mishmash of miscellany, a plethora of potpourri, an omnibus of odds and sods.

The novel that I’ve been trying to write since 2010 has been languishing on hiatus for some time now. For the first few years, I worked on it furiously in my spare time, day or night, writing, editing, refining, writing, etc. But then the plot started taking on a life of its own, and I grew increasingly unhappy with the direction it was going. There were also plenty of periods of angst and self-doubt that I’m sure most writers experience: Is it good enough? Do I have the energy to finish this? Will anyone want to read it? I knew I needed to make serious decisions – and major rewrites – but by that time I was paralyzed with writer’s block, and so I put the story away and haven’t worked on it since.

Not long ago, I took it out again and started to read. Just the first few chapters, but I liked it. And I started editing again. I’m still not sure what to do with the problematic remainder, though. Perhaps, like Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame (not that I’m making any comparisons between that Goddess and me), I might approach this effort as an exercise in how to write (or how not to write), with no other aspirations.

From the start, however, my goal has been to get published, so I’ve always guarded the work-in-progress jealously, not even letting my husband or family read it. I’d like to publish some excerpts on this blog, however – perhaps I’ll create a new blog dedicated solely to the book. But I’m leery of “giving away” this cherished work once it goes online. What assurances do I have that my material – if someone deems it good enough – won’t be stolen?

My sister, an avid nature photographer who posts her clearly-copyrighted, metadata-embedded images frequently on multiple websites, can tell you that she’s been the victim of intellectual/artistic copyright theft several times: by “friends” who’ve claimed her images as their own, by companies for their advertising, and by news outlets who refused to cease and desist or pay her when she complained. (One agency finally backed down and gave her photo credit, thank you so very much.) Signatures, watermarks and statements of copyright should and do protect our property, but of course there are legions of unscrupulous people who don’t give a fig about rules or ethics and take our stuff anyway. And by that time, it’s usually too late.

Perhaps I’m flattering myself when I think anyone would want to plagiarize my work. But I’m a cautious lass. Before I blog parts of my story, I’d like to hear from you. Are you concerned about what happens to your creative efforts once you publish them? What systems of protection have you put in place – and do you feel confident that they do the job?

A Blue and White Love Affair

A little granite island on Lake Muskoka, home to tall pines, majestic oaks and maple, aromatic cedar, scrubby juniper and an active population of pixies, has been in my family since my great-grandfather purchased it in 1911. His son, my mother’s dad, built the sturdy wooden cottage a couple of years later, and other than the addition of a screened-in porch, the house has stood unchanged and resolute throughout the decades. My mother has spent every summer of her life there, as have her three children. Other branches of the family have also enjoyed it, and we all have rich and long-lasting memories of such a magickal place.

Over the years, for example, there have been three marriages performed at the cottage; one of those brides carried fragrant white water-lilies, plucked from a local bay, as her bouquet. I chose to be married in the nearby town of Gravenhurst and have our reception on the (now) 131-year-old Royal Mail Ship Segwun, an elegant and graceful steamer that’s been plying the lakes since the logging days. My sister held her wedding and reception on the same ship, which cruises past our island on every voyage. The cottage has also been the perfect location for honeymoons; on warm summer nights when the moon spreads her silvery splendour across silent waters while loons call out emphatic yet rather haunting encouragement, what could be more idyllic?

As far as I know, no children (human, anyway) have ever been born on the island, but a passel of kids has certainly grown up there. Along its wave-lapped shores, we learned how to swim, paddle canoes, ply oars and run the motorboat. We picked up frogs, crayfish and snapping turtles with naïve hands and caught our first pike in its waters. We ran willy-nilly down the sloping dock path at unstoppable speed, skinning our knees, and we swung to and fro and twirled around on the old rope swing, then got sick all over the dinner table. Clad only in wet bathing suits, we raced through the woods on scavenger hunts and spent idle afternoons in the hammock or perched on a favourite rock, devouring ripe blueberries, juicy blackberries and oh! so many novels. At night we fell, sunburnt and exhausted, into creaky wrought iron beds with lumpy mattresses and were lulled to sleep by the cries of distant gulls.

The cottage’s furnishings haven’t changed much since the old days, except the occasional coat of white paint (the porch rafters were given a distinct marine feel with the addition of lake-blue stripes). When the kids got older, however, we converted a no-longer-needed “bedroom” – a corner of the porch – into a quiet reading nook, complete with white wicker chairs, blue cushions and a view of the lake. From this north-facing aspect, the water is sometimes cobalt, calmly reflecting a sparkling summer sky, and sometimes it’s a dark, moody slate, with a whipped topping of whitecaps foreshadowing an approaching storm.

Like most summer places, the cottage has been the repository of household items the thriftier generations thought “too good” to throw away. Drawers and cupboards are jammed with all sorts of utilitarian bits and pieces such as dented pots, an ancient egg beater, a rusty ladle, heavy stoneware jugs, a chipped enamelware colander and umpteen different patterns of silverware. There’s even a 19th century zinc washboard hanging around, and each bedroom still has its original chamber pot – or “thunder mug”, as we’ve always called them.

All of these things carry their own memories and rustic charm. But there’s one group of items that has graced the kitchen cabinets for as long as anyone can remember: a mismatched collection of blue and white china. Among this classic transferware crockery, the nearest and dearest to my heart has to be Blue Willow.

The story of Blue Willow (or just “Willow”, as it’s properly known) is a popular and romantic fable involving runaway lovers, a secluded island and, sad to say, their doomed end. Despite this melancholy tale, I’ve always found it a cheerful experience drinking my morning tea and eating light summer meals from such classic and fresh blue and white ware. The fact that some of our pieces are at least 100 years old and still in use (we’ve only had to retire one cracked dish) attests to the family’s fondness for the “cottage china”. (There’s good reason this pattern is often used on-screen to evoke old-time hominess and domesticity.)

When I married, I chose the Blue Willow pattern as my own household dinnerware, and for years I scoured antique fairs for rarer, more unique pieces to add to a growing collection. To me, this pattern will forever speak of that little white house on that wooded island in that deep, blue lake – and I will always love them both.