Yuletide Craft: Old-timey Trees

Yuletide Craft: Old-timey Trees

bottle-brush-trees-door-knobsI embarked upon the Yuletide season with a trip to the country and a bit of antiquing. My sister and I spent a festive afternoon exploring the garland- and light-bedecked market stalls, on the hunt for vintage Christmas ornaments with their faded colours, tarnished tinsel and that nostalgic old-world feel.

One of my favourite decorations at this time of year is the bottle brush tree. Whether they’re plain green, bleached ivory, or dyed soft pastel, have tips touched with snow or glitter, or are adorned with tiny glass balls in rose, pale green, blue, burnished gold and silver, they make wonderful decorations that can be displayed in so many ways. One vendor had this display of modern bottle brush trees cleverly fitted with antique door knob/cabinet pull bases, and I couldn’t resist bringing home the three on the right – even though I knew I could easily make something similar myself. (I loved the chipped red one, but alas, the state of my pocketbook ruled it out.) Indeed, the next day…

bottle-brush-tree-ornaments… I found some inexpensive yet good-looking cabinet knobs at a discount store. (Each style came in a pack of two – a true bargain.) One looks and feels like weathered bronze and is quite heavy; the other has a shiny brass finish which I briefly considered trying to scuff up and give an antique patina. (I decided I liked the play of all the different finishes, so I left it alone. Probably a good thing.)

The trees also came from the bargain store. (They and the cabinet pulls were the only items I had to purchase for everything I made here; all other supplies came from my disconcertingly large craft stash.) A dab of hot glue to affix the wire stems in the hole in the knobs, and I had instant old-timey décor!

diy-bottle-brush-treesI had some trees left over and didn’t have to look far to find more bases. And so… I “planted” the largest tree in an old glass inkwell that came from the same antique market on a previous trip. First, I filled it with glittery silver vase-filler pebbles, to give it a bit more interest. The cloudy glass and subtle glimmer (hard to fully appreciate in these photos) mimic the metallic sheen of mercury glass – one of my very favourite things ever. Not wanting to damage or mar the inkwell, I stuck the tree stem into a cork that just happened to be the right size (okay, I have about four bags of assorted craft corks), and wrapped the neck of the bottle with ivory lace. I’ll probably change out the red ribbon (all I had) to something a bit more aged looking, like dusty pink or celadon green.

The little round “topiary” is glued into a thimble that came from one of those emergency sewing kits. It was the perfect size for this tiny faerie tree! All it needs is a sprinkling of pixie dust, and the Wee Folk will be celebrating.

When I bought the bottle brush trees, I also found a sweet spirally wire tree ornament that fit one of my cabinet pulls. I removed the hanging loop and a jingle bell that was attached to the bottom. With a bit of hot glue, I had yet another type of door-knob tree in about one minute. (Of course, these and the bottle brush trees, with their various bases, would make lovely hanging ornaments, if they’re not too heavy.)

bottle-brush-tree-ideasI could have gone on making an entire forest of these adorable trees, which look so great grouped together, especially since they’re not all the same. I love the subdued mix of metals and glass, colours and textures, combined with the shimmery snow-tipped branches. For bases, there are so many other possibilities! Wooden spools, wine corks, (drilled) toy blocks, miniature teacups, shot glasses, tiny gift boxes or vases, apothecary or essential oil bottles, will all lend an old-time air. Use cork, florist foam, Styrofoam or sticky-tac putty for tree stem stabilization if necessary. I kept my trees fairly plain (except for one), but of course you can dress them up any way you wish, or go nuts with the glitter. In fact…

… see the ivory-coloured tree? I made that one! I’d read that bottle brush trees can be bleached to turn them pale green or white, but only if they are a natural material such as sisal. I’m pretty sure my trees are synthetic, in which case the bleach probably wouldn’t work, so… I dug out a roll of sisal twine and some craft wire, followed online instructions and made my own. My ivory tree needed some glitz, so I painted the tips with matte Mod Podge and sprinkled on some silver micro glitter (also hard to see in the photos). Okay, so it’s not exactly the classic bottle brush shape, but I’m pleased with my vintage-y sisal tree!

mason-jar-snow-domeAnd finally, I love snow globes and domes, and I’ve always wanted to try making one with a mason jar. First, I embellished a bottle brush tree with glued-on pearly “gems”, then hot-glued its base to the inside lid of a large mason jar. I wanted the tree to be just barely glimpsed through a perpetual snowflake swirl – as if the dome had just been shaken – so I painted the inside of the jar with a thin, even coat of gloss Mod Podge and threw in a few pinches of clear, iridescent glitter, quickly turning and rolling the jar to distribute the glitter where I wanted it. (Concentrating some of the glitter at the bottom makes it look like a snow-laden sky when the jar is inverted.) I was pretty heavy-handed with the glitter, but I rather like the misty, dreamy effect. After everything was dry, I tucked some fluffy faux snow around the base of the tree and screwed on the lid. Et voilà – instant waterless snowdome!

bottle-brush-trees-and-snowdomeStay tuned for more Yuletide crafts, coming soon!



Joining in with Wild Daffodil’s Photographic Monthly Meet-Up, the prompt for November is Patina. Age-worn metal, lovingly polished wood, and stone left to the elements all produce beautiful objects with the patina of time passed (and past).

vintage-advertising-signsThis century-old barn is home to the Cookstown Antique Market just north of Toronto, Ontario. You’ve seen some of the lovely things I’ve found inside the barn recently; this is the weathered exterior with vintage metal advertising signs showing lots of patina.

vintage-kitchen-tools-with-patinaI’ve also written plenty of times about our 107-year-old summer cottage in Muskoka. These well-used household implements gathered on a wood-burning iron stove in the kitchen certainly show their age; I added a vintage effect to the photo just for fun.

cathedral-door-detailNot forgetting the patina of old wood, here is a detail from a set of cathedral doors (built 1933) in Hamilton, Ontario.

mile-marker-at-Stonehenge-dated-1764Stone can develop patina, too. On a trip to England and Wales about 25 years ago (has it really been that long??), we found this distance marker at Stonehenge, beautifully weathered and covered with lichen. It’s dated 1764 – two centuries before I was born! – and shows the number of miles from London (seventy-nine, from what I can make out) plus an indistinguishable number from Andover. It would be interesting to know if any of my British blogger friends have also seen this monument!

Pins and Needles

Pins and Needles


Seen at the market: Shaker-style spool caddy with pincushion circa 1940

I promised to share my collection of pincushions – and here they are!

I’ve been collecting sewing implements for years, including a variety of pretty pincushions. I’m proud to own two antique examples, one of which – the shoe, below – I picked up just recently at an antique market. I was absolutely thrilled to add it to my collection!

There are other special ones, too, handmade by talented fabric and bead artists and given to me by my mother. I will treasure these one-of-a-kind gifts forever.

The last group consists of Pinterest-inspired projects. These Mason jar pincushions are fun and easy to make and require only fabric scraps, minimal sewing (there are no-sew methods, too), some stuffing and a bit of glue.

Pincushions have been documented in Europe since the Middle Ages and over the centuries were called pyn pillows, pimpilowes, pimpilos or pin-poppets. These sewing implements weren’t just practical; they were an opportunity to show off one’s collection of pins and needles, which, being made of metal, were expensive and rare. Early pincushions were often made of fine fabrics and embroidered with intricate designs, and could have a base of ivory, bone, wood, silver, pewter or porcelain in different shapes such as birds, baskets, dolls, tuffets, acorns or fruits. They were cherished objects that took pride of place in the lady’s parlour.

antique-pincushionsVintage and lovingly handmade (clockwise from bottom left): Early 20th century silver-plated Art Nouveau shoe pincushion made by Jennings Bros., a metal foundry established in 1891 in Connecticut. The bottom is marked “JB 515”, the company’s mark and model number  •  Victorian-style velvet apple pincushion with vintage glass-headed hatpins  •  Antique metal pincushion with original velvet cover and sawdust filling  •  Beaded strawberry by First Nations beadwork artist Naomi Smith who learned the craft from her mother. The strawberry is sacred to the Fish people, Naomi’s clan; the pincushion is a copy of an antique pattern. Following old ways, Naomi takes care never to make two pieces exactly alike.

pincushionsModern whimsy (clockwise from bottom): The iconic tomato-shaped pincushion that we all grew up with – and which is still commonly available today – was a Victorian invention. It was a folk custom to place a tomato on the mantel of a new home to keep evil spirits away and protect the household. When tomatoes weren’t in season, ladies made fabric tomatoes stuffed with sawdust, cotton, wool or horsehair instead. Often, they included a small strawberry filled with emery powder for keeping pin ends sharp and clean  •  Owl pincushion weighted with sand  •  Felted wool “geode” pincushion handmade by a friend of my mother’s. Lanolin in the sheep’s wool helps keep pins and needles conditioned and rust-free.

mason-jar-pincushionsDIY Mason jar pincushions: This Pinterest tutorial was the basis for these cheerful pincushion/storage jars, perfect for holding buttons, thread, pins, embroidery floss, bobbins, beads, clothes pins or other needlework tools. I made the largest jar into a basic sewing kit with thread, extra buttons, a needle pack, measuring tape, scissors, thimble and a seam ripper. How pretty would this be on the sewing table? It would also make a great gift for a sewing beginner or a student going off to college, and it could serve as a useful emergency kit at the office.

For the large- and medium-sized examples, I used Mason jars with two-part lids; the lid insert is placed inside the filled, gathered “pouff” which is then pushed up through the outer ring. The overstuffed cushion of the medium-sized jar stayed in place on its own and didn’t have to be glued; more modest domes will have to be hot-glued to the inner rim of the lid’s ring.

The smallest example is a reused honey jar with a regular metal lid. I put a cardboard circle a tad smaller than the lid’s diameter inside the pouff, hot-glued the whole thing to the top of the lid and added lace to cover the edge. The lid can still be removed with no problem.

Other objects such as teacups, egg cups, little terra cotta pots, wooden spools or small tins can be recruited for this idea, too.

All these needlework-related posts have got me in the mood – I just bought a new sewing machine! I’m on pins and needles waiting for it to arrive so I can start more cute and colourful little projects – it’ll be sew much fun!

Key Magick

“The key to happiness…”

A key can both unlock and lock, at the same time giving access to that which was previously hidden and setting boundaries or limits. Symbolically, a key is the means to a new realm of knowledge, spirituality or destiny; when we say something is the “key to happiness (success, etc.)”, we call upon its symbolic power to open the door to whatever it is we aspire. The key is a male symbol; a lock represents the feminine. Together, the lock and key possess a yin yang duality, i.e. one thing complementing the other, or the inability to function one without the other.


This collection includes antique and modern skeleton keys – some functional, some decorative. Can you spot the jailer’s key from the 1880s?

The skeleton key, which can be any shape, plain or decorative, both antique and modern, is designed to open any door, thereby symbolizing versatility. In magick, the skeleton key (’cause, you know – we can’t just use a plain one) represents gaining passage to unknown worlds or planes, secrets and arcane knowledge.

Cultural Keys
The Roman god Janus, with his two faces looking to the past and future, was the protector of gateways, doors and roads, and beginnings and endings (especially of conflict). His symbols are the staff and key. In the Roman Forum, an enclosure dedicated to Janus was opened during times of war and locked when there was peace. Christianity’s St. Peter, guardian of the Pearly Gates, is often shown with two keys: a gold one which gives the worthy access to heaven, and a silver one which locks out damned souls. The Hindu elephant god Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and is associated with keys. In Voodoo, Papa Legba – an elderly man bearing a cane and keys (and a dog) – is the gatekeeper between the physical and spiritual worlds. Hecate, queen of the witches, is another key-carrying gatekeeper. In Tarot, the Hierophant has a set of crossed keys at his feet – one gold (the Sun), one silver (the Moon). Their meaning has many interpretations: the keys to the kingdom, heaven or the temple of wisdom; the conscious and subconscious, etc.

“I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.” – Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

antique-key-with-bookKeys to the Castle
In antiquity, the person responsible for guarding a house’s keys was almost always female; this may stem from the Greek and Roman deities Hestia and Vesta, hearth goddesses of domesticity who kept the keys to household supplies. Upon marriage, Viking women became responsible for the family’s treasures and wore their keys conspicuously as a symbol of equality, respect and power. From the Middle Ages onward, the lady of the house or a head housekeeper (think: Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes) wore the keys on a chatelaine, a set of chains with a decorative clasp worn at the waist; she had the authority to direct servants and servicemen and decide who had access to what. Tea was once so expensive that only the woman of the house owned a key to the tea chest.

Bestowing the “key to the door” (presumably, the front door of the home) on a person’s 21st birthday is a traditional coming-of-age gift representing the attainment of adulthood and responsibility. Giving someone the keys to the city is a symbolic sign of trust and honour rewarding public service or a great deed.

Having the “keys to the kingdom” means you have everything you’ve ever wanted, with the world at your feet and all roads open to you.

“Love is the master key that opens the gates of happiness.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Love Locks
A movement which started in Rome in 2006 as a result of a book and film has couples attaching padlocks to bridge railings and other public places, and then throwing away the key as a symbol of their unbreakable affection. Paris’ Pont des Arts bridge is perhaps the most famous example of this charming yet destructive act of sentiment (let’s call it vandalism by devotion). Sadly, the added weight of hundreds or thousands of locks – over 700,000, in Paris – can cause the structure to which they’re attached to crumble and become a hazard and eyesore, so the locks eventually must be removed. However, some municipalities such as Niagara Falls, Ontario, embrace the locks as a tourist attraction, to the point of selling padlocks right next door!


Love locks on the Humber Bay Arch Bridge in Toronto, ON • Photo © Nancy Barrett Photography

Toronto has seen its share of love locks, too (see photo, taken by my sister). In the historic Distillery District, there’s a Love Lock public art installation which encourages visitors to add their own locks, customized with initials, dates or special message, to a large metal LOVE sign complete with giant heart. The padlocks are removed from time to time (and put in storage intact, according to the City) to make room for new ones, but ‘locking up your love’ is, after all, just a symbolic act.

“You unlock the door with the key of imagination.” – Rod Serling

The practice of divination using keys to uncover information, predict the future or tell fortunes is called Cleidomancy (Greek for ‘key prophecy’). It originated in Europe as a means of discovering the identity of a thief, and later spread to the New World. The basic method involves suspending a key like a pendulum and interpreting its movement in response to a simple question.

Bibliomantic Cleidomancy, still used today, involves inserting a skeleton key into a bible or other large book, with the loop protruding from the top of the pages. The book is wrapped tightly with a ribbon or string, and two people grasp the protruding key and suspend the book between them. The name of a possible guilty party or a yes/no question is uttered; if the key moves, turns or pulls out of the book, that person is deemed to be guilty, or the answer to the question is “yes”.

Good Luck
Old iron keys, especially rusty ones, are good luck. Any key that rusts easily (and stays that way despite cleaning) is a sign you will receive an inheritance • Giving someone a key is a sign that family or domestic relations will improve • Receiving a key indicates you will receive assistance from someone with means or influence • Finding a key represents enlightenment or gaining understanding. It can also predict an upcoming move of domicile • Dreaming of finding a key symbolizes a positive solution to a current problem • Dreaming about keys can mean a marriage is coming • Dreaming that you are responsible for a set of keys indicates a new position of authority.

Shut the Door!
Finding a key can sometimes mean a robbery; it could be a reminder to increase security measures • Dropping your keys is a bad luck omen • Worst still, breaking a key means an opportunity will be lost • Losing keys, the worst omen of all, indicates something unpleasant is about to happen, including being disappointed by a friend. In extreme cases, it can be a harbinger of disaster or death.

Harnessing Key Power
Hang a key on the interior wall above your doorway to protect the household, specifically to guard against losing the home • Wear a key as an amulet to remove obstacles, open doors to opportunity and protect you whilst travelling • Wear three keys together to unlock the doors to health, wealth and love • Place a large key under a sleeping child’s pillow to ward off evil spirits and nightmares (old European tradition) • Touch a key for comfort and to keep you safe, especially when entering a dangerous situation • Jangle your keys to repel negativity or evil. But don’t do it on a Wednesday; it will drive you mad! • When lost, throw your keys over your left shoulder; the longest key will point in the right direction • Wear a key necklace when searching for a new job; it will unlock new opportunities • Give a symbolic or decorative key as a housewarming or house blessing gift.silver-key-necklaceWhatever you do, don’t leave an extra house key outside (e.g. under a rock, above the door)! It’s the first place thieves will look. And don’t ever trust those magnetic boxes for storing car keys under the vehicle – they can fall or be knocked off easily.

“A very little key will open a very heavy door.” – Charles Dickens


I have to admit, this month’s prompt for Wild Daffodil’s Photographic Monthly Meet-Up was a bit perplexing. What, after all, could I do with a cue like Case?

I’ve got vintage and antiques on the brain lately, so much so that this blog’s theme for September is “Vintage Memories”. At the beginning of the month, I spent a leisurely afternoon at a country antiques market housed in a century-old barn. “The girls” and I used to go there fairly regularly, but those shopping excursions eventually stopped, and I hadn’t visited the place for about twenty years. So the act of returning to that barn – familiar yet new again – brought back very fond memories. For a couple of hours that day, I had a good browsle (that’s a browse + ramble). Or did I enjoy a good brummage (browse + rummage)? I went there with a particular couple of items in mind, and I happily scored good deals on a few small pieces. They’ll soon, no doubt, make their way into an upcoming post or two.

With vintage on my mind, and pondering the case for Case, I eventually realized that I do have something for this photo challenge!

Over the years I’ve gathered a modest collection of needle cases.

Aha! You were wondering where I was going with all this, weren’t you?! Here are several types of needle case – also known as an étui – along with other sewing implements I’ve gathered over the years.

antique-sewing-implementsClockwise from bottom: This dainty sterling silver Art Nouveau needle case belonged to my grandmother and bears her monogram; it came with a few old needles and a pin with a tiny grey pearlized head (topmost in case) • Although not technically a case, this pewter magnetic needle holder is sculpted in the shape of a lady mouse with sewing needle and spool of thread; I’ve used it for nigh on 30 years • A velvet apple pincushion holds antique glass-topped stick pins • These silvery embroidery scissors are embellished with leaves and the Tudor rose • The thimble is also an antique and came to me along with the needle case.

needle-cases-pincushionClockwise from top left: This roomy needle tube, made in France of turned boxwood, was a gift from my husband after I’d complained I had no container large enough to hold my hefty darning and leatherwork needles • The classic tomato pincushion comes with an emery-filled strawberry to keep needles sharp. It holds a tiny stork scissors lapel pin • This small wooden needle case came unfinished; I gave it a few coats of beeswax polish and use it to hold cross-stitch needles • Another lapel pin, this time in the shape of a sewing bird • Ever-popular gold-plated stork scissors have been a delightful tool for many a sewing project.

medieval-sewing-toolsClockwise from top right: This handmade 4.5” needle case of spalted maple with stopper on a leather thong is a rustic repository for forged iron and bone needles, part of my collection of Dark Ages and medieval living history ‘artifacts’. (Check out the wonderful Jelling Dragon for period-accurate Celtic and Viking supplies.) • Waxed linen thread for leatherwork • Forged iron snips with leather case, also from Jelling Dragon.

I have more pincushions, too, which I’ll share some day in another post. Since many of the bloggers I know are needle and fabric artists, I would love to see your collection of sewing implements!

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.

A Writer’s Life

“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” – Beatrix Potter

dsc_5172-4My love of books, of language, of the power of words, started very early. From the time I was a tiny tot, my parents read me a bedtime story every night. My favourite books back then were the charming tales by Beatrix Potter. Who could resist the likes of Mrs. Tiggywinkle and Squirrel Nutkin? To help prolong the life of these beloved volumes, my mother made covers for them from purple-flowered wallpaper left over from my room. The beautifully-illustrated little hardcover books still wear those slipcovers and occupy a special place on my bookshelves to this day.

Perhaps because my parents instilled a love of books in me from such an early age, I became adept at reading and writing. (My mom also encouraged me to sing before I could read, which I believe helped develop my ear for music.) Spelling always came easily, and I was never confounded by the rules of grammar.

“let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences” – Sylvia Plath

I took typing classes in high school. Throughout those years and in university, I wrote all my papers on a manual Underwood typewriter similar to the one pictured here. (The circa 1912 machine in the photos belonged to my husband’s grandfather, a clergyman who likely used it to compose his sermons and prayers.) Our old typewriter was already a relic when it was handed down to me; frustratingly, the e (the most frequently-used letter in the English language) always got stuck. Imagine how pleased I was later on when, with the proceeds of a stint as a community college English teacher, I was able to purchase – wonder of wonders! – an electric typewriter! This was before personal computers became a household staple, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.dsc_5220-3Although my language skills were pretty polished, I didn’t yet have a firm understanding of punctuation. In a university Old English course, as we studied the Venerable Bede, the Great Vowel Shift and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, I learned a valuable lesson. My professor (we’ll call him Æthelbert) handed back a graded essay of mine. The first couple of pages were covered in red Xs; after that, there was one last acerbic note from the prof. He was thoroughly exasperated with my overuse of commas, he said, and would I, please, stop using them, before he acted on his desperate urge, to commit a rather, unfortunate, violent act. His plea was followed by about a dozen exclamation points.

I took the hint and cleaned up my grammatical act. Thanks in part to Professor Æthelbert, I went on to earn my degree in languages, literature and translation.

I’ve always found it easier to write my thoughts down rather than express them verbally, especially if I’m struggling with a decision or when I’m upset. The process of getting thoughts, feelings and frustrations down on paper is cathartic and therapeutic. And I’ll often think – hours later – of what I should have said: a biting response or a witty bit of repartee. Far too late, I know, but churning words over in my mind and writing them down helps me work through problems and see things more clearly. No one will ever read those scribblings, but I almost always feel better.

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Around 2010, I began work on a novel. It’s based on dreams I had when I was much younger, and the fantasy has been growing and morphing and causing agonizing self-doubt about my writing abilities ever since. There have been days and nights when I sit down at my laptop, forgoing food and drink, conversation and participation in real life for long stretches. Suddenly, I’ll look up to find that, whilst I’ve been lost in my dream world of words, testing phrases on my tongue and searching for le mot juste, a full eight hours have flown by. My characters have lived, loved, fought and sometimes died, and I’ve rejoiced, struggled and wept along with them. Nothing else exists for me during this time, and I’m at my happiest when I’m tapping away in this world, alone yet not alone.dsc_5211-4

That novel is far from finished. Sometimes I go great guns, writing pages and pages; other times, I feel the thing is complete rubbish. Certainly the story has strayed far from where it started, and that doesn’t sit right with me. I know I need to make major changes to its plot and structure, but for the last couple of years I’ve been stricken with a terrible case of writer’s block, an inability to see how it can be done. There are other big issues going on in my life which are undoubtedly damming the creative flow. Perhaps when I sort those out, I can get back to doing what I love most.