Recognition for “Slow Swirl at the Edge of Time”


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I entered a local art show for the first time this month and was surprised and pleased to get recognition for my work, one of my personal favorites. I wrote about this work a few months ago, my first abstract painting, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Later I wrote about how I came to name it, although I “renamed” it for this show. The theme was “Light” so I called it “Light Swirl at the Edge of Time,” still fitting, I think (smile).

I used watercolor and oil pastel. so it was entered under a broad category of 3D, glass, and mixed media. During my turn as docent for the show one rainy day last week, I shot a few photos.

I’ve been doing more writing than painting these last few months. But the few I’ve worked on have all been watercolor and oil pastel. I love the texture it creates in combination, the way the watercolor washes over and puddles between the oil marks, the way the pastel adds sparkle, and how the two together sometimes gives the work an almost mosaic quality.

I’ll share some of these later, but for now my little “Swirl” gets center stage.



“Water Falling Through Sunlight” – Poem & Paintings for Troubled Times


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Sunrise with Sea Monsters is an 1845 painting by J.M.W. Turner, currently on display as part of a Turner show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

JMW Turner – Sunrise with sea Monstors

September, 1918

This afternoon was the color of water falling through sunlight;

The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;

The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,

And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.

Under a tree in the park,

Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,

Were carefully gathering red berries

To put in a pasteboard box.

Some day there will be no war,

Then I shall take out this afternoon

And turn it in my fingers,

And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,

And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.

Today I can only gather it

And put it into my lunch-box,

For I have time for nothing

But the endeavor to balance myself

Upon a broken world.

by Amy Lowell

Emil Nolde - Dark Mountain Landscape

Emil Nolde – Dark Mountain Landscape

Bearing Witness – Art that Hurts, Art that Heals


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So much of art-making is bearing witness–to things we love, to things that wound. And often they are the same things: The beauty that breaks your heart. The brutality that tears it open and lets the light in.

The image above, Rodin’s seven-foot bronze study for his most famous sculpture “The Burghers of Calais,” is art that hurts, and heals. It tells the story of how six citizens during France’s Hundred Year War with England volunteered to sacrifice themselves to save the town. The sculpture shows the pain and suffering, self-doubt and determination of the men as they are led away to captivity. It bears witness to that cruelty, that self-sacrifice, that love. How it’s all wrapped together.

This need to bear witness to how it’s all wrapped together is not new. It’s been written over and over again by poets and artists though the ages. I’ve written about it here on these pages, in my homage to Marc Clamage’s paintings of the homeless, in my meditations upon a deer’s scream and my mother’s death, and the beauty and brutality in the hills of Vietnam.

Not surprisingly I write about it in my novel From the Far Ends of the Earth. And I write about it there in terms of art-making, how turning the underbelly outward in our art can be a healing process, how it lets the light in. For the artist and the viewer.

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?” Franz Kafka once asked. “What we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves. . . . A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

Gwendolyn Brooks wrote:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.

What we see and experience out there in the world and in our own hearts bears witnessing. Not only the beauty, but the brutality as well. While the first lifts us up and makes us soar, the latter throws us down in the pit. It confounds us, it confuses us, it demolishes us.  It makes us want to stand up on our hind feet and howl. It makes us want to cut open our wrists and bleed out our anguish on the page. It makes us want to splash our pain in brilliant colors across the canvas.

It makes us rage against the night, and at the very same time trace the frgile broken bones of the milky way across the sky with awe and wonder.

It’s the roil of chaos that boils over into stars and star-dust, and becomes the tender, naked beauty of an infant’s breath.

We cannot help writing about it, welding it into our art, because it is us, and we are it. It’s the thing we were born to bear witness to, when we are awake to do so.


Perfect Pairings – Klee and cummings


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Paul Klee - Farmer Garden Personified

I’ve long been a huge fan of Paul Klee’s paintings and e.e. cummings’ poetry, and for similar reasons: their playfulness and sense of excitement, as if “bursting with something very important and precise to say.,” as one critic writes of cummings’ work.

They dared to take their art in new and often jarring directions, playing with syntax and form, with color and composition. The reader/viewer is forced to see things in a new way. To question old ways of looking at the world.

Beneath the playfulness, something deeper is going on. Each bends toward the light.

“Everything passes, and what remains of former times, what remains of life, is the spiritual. In everything we do, the claim of the Absolute is unchanging.” – Paul Klee

“Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun, more last than star.” – e.e. cummings

A few favorites of each follows.

Paul Klee 'Sky Flowers Over the Yellow House' 1917 Watercolor 15 x 23 cm

Paul Klee Mit Grunen Stumpfen 1939

Spärlich Belaub ~ Paul Klee,1934

[in Just-]


in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan whistles

The sirens of ships, 1917, by Paul Klee (Detail) Stuttgard, Staatgalerie (Art Gallery)

Paul Klee

paul klee art - Bing Images

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

By E. E. Cummings, 1894 – 1962

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain, has such small hands

Paul Klee

Paul Klee (Swiss:1879-1940), Landscape of the Past (Paysage du passé), 1918

Paul Klee

Shogun VS. Lincoln in the Bardo


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Oak Hill is the setting for a book inspired by a poignant time in Abraham Lincoln’s life.

I have two books on my nightstand, Shogun by James Clavell and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Both are historical novels, the first an epic adventure story set in feudal Japan in the 1600’s, the second a literary novel centering around the death of President Lincoln’s son, Willie. Both are highly acclaimed.

I began reading them around the same time. The first is 1210 pages, the second 342. Guess which I finished first? Yes, Shogun.

This surprises and disappoints me in some ways. But perhaps it shouldn’t. I had resisted buying, let along reading Bardo, for a long time, despite the fact I’m a huge Saunders’ fan. I fell in love with his short stories in The Tenth of December, especially the title piece and “Victory Lap,” which I wrote about in The Light-Craving Stories of George Saunders.

The reason I resisted reading his first novel, even though  I had read so many ecstatic reviews of the work, was because it just sounded so dark and somber. This despite knowing what a wild sense of humor Saunders has and how “heart-searing and heart-soaring” his light-emitting stories can be, as I had written earlier.

Still. The setting, a graveyard? Inhabited by souls lost in Limbo? A dead boy? A grieving father? I felt the ratchets of my mind closing down one by one: resist, resist, resist.

I’ve already written in my last post how a resisting reader almost always dooms a piece of writing. Here it wasn’t the writer I was resisting. I already knew the pleasures of reading Saunders. It was the subject matter I was resisting (as it was, come to think of it, in the Outlander example I wrote about in my last post.)

On the other hand, I came to Shogun, not as a new reader, as I’d already had the pleasure of reading the book 20 years ago or so. I already knew what to expect, but I was curious to see if it would still draw me in and keep my interest so many years later.

What I was really looking for, I believe now, was a book to binge on, like the series I liked to watch on TV–Game of Thrones, The Last Kingdom, Downton Abbey–with characters I cared about, and plot-lines that drew me deeper and deeper into the story. A ship-wrecked sailor cast upon shores of Feudal Japan had the potential to do that. A dead boy in Limbo, not so much.

So does it all just boil down to what kind of mood I’m in? Perhaps. But even more, it comes down to that ever-enduring quint-essential question that all writers, and all publishers, I dare say, grapple with: what keeps the reader turning pages and wanting more?

In Shogun I immediately became caught up in the plight of the sailor and the culture crash when West met East for the first time. I was caught up in the game-of-thrones-type warfare and strategic plotting that was taking place between the Lord Toranaga and his rival feudal lords. I was caught up in the tender and precarious relationship developing between Anjin-san, the ship-wrecked sailor, and his beautiful and wise translator, Marika. It wasn’t that I wanted to find out what was going to happen next. I knew that already. It was just because it was all so fascinating, and deep enough and rich enough that I felt well fed, and yet still craved for more. I’ve already started on the next book in Clavell’s Asian series, each book taking place a generation of so after the other.

But while I found the historical excerpts about President Lincoln and the loss of his son quite interesting, and I was amused and delighted by the array of misfit lost souls inhabiting the graveyard, and deeply touched by the young boy finding himself stranded between worlds while his hapless grief-stricken father holds his now lifeless body in his arms, I was not compelled to find out “what happens next.” The writing was deep enough and rich enough to make me feel well-fed, but not enough to make me crave more–to keep turning pages.

It’s a different kind of story, of course, and is meant to be. In so many ways comparing Bardo with Shogun is like comparing apples and oranges. The first is meant to “capture the pathos of everyday life,” as  Michiko Kakutani wrote in a New York Times review . Or as Saunders himself wrote in an email interview with The New York Times Book Review, to elucidate “that terrible conundrum: We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end. What do we do with that?”

Bardo is meant to make us ponder the deep, disturbing questions about life, and to deepen our capacity to have compassion for each other, to show us how, as I wrote before, that in the end, “when all the superficiality and fears and meanness are flayed from us, beneath that, we are light-craving creatures: people who are starving for the want of goodness, the want of grace in our lives.”

Bardo‘s purpose, perhaps, is to deepen our understanding of the human condition, first, and to entertain, second. While Shogun’s purpose, perhaps, is the other way around. But deepen our understanding it does nonetheless. The best books do both.

In 1975 Webster Schott wrote about Shogun in the New York Times: “I can’t remember when a novel has seized my mind like this one. . . . Clavell has a gift. It may be something that cannot be taught or earned. He breathes narrative. It’s almost impossible not to continue to read Shogun once having opened it. Yet it’s not only something that you read—you live it.”

Creating characters and plot lines that allow us to live and breathe through them, that compel us to ponder the deep, disturbing questions about human existence, and to leave us craving for more. Isn’t that what we all want when we pick up a book?

Isn’t that what we all want when we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) in our aspiration to write a novel?

The “Willing Suspension of Disbelief” in Fiction and Film


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Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) in the ‘Outlander’ ‘Wedding’ episode

What draws a reader into a story and compels her to keep tuning pages? This interests me both as a reader and a writer with a novel ready to publish. It interests me because so many novels I start I never finish. I’m beginning to wonder if the fault lies more with me as a reader than with the writer.

As a writer I’m used to reading my own work with a critical distance and a skeptical eye, which are essential to the purpose of revision, but deadly to the act of reading for enjoyment.  What’s essential there is what Coleridge coined “a willing suspension of disbelief,” or “poetic faith.”

But if what we bring to the table, instead of poetic faith, is a skeptical and critical disposition, the novel may be doomed before it’s ever given a chance to work its magic on us.

Perhaps the reason so many novels I pick up fall short is because I’m reading through the wrong lens, with a critical eye towards revision, toward rewriting the page in my own image, rather than that willing suspension of disbelief, allowing the writer to draw me into the story in her own way.

A case in point: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

I had been looking for a steamy romance with a literary bent, having found nothing lately within either of those genres–romantic or literary–that held my interest.

Someone suggested I try the Outlander series. I was highly skeptical from the start. A time-travelling romance? It sounded far-fetched. But since I had nothing better to read and the book came with so many 5 star reviews and a huge fan-base, I decided to give it a try.

I was not impressed. The writing was fine, the characters okay, but the pacing was extremely slow. It wasn’t at all the book that I wanted to read and I kept thinking how to revise it to better hold my interest. But I kept reading because I wanted to get to the juicy parts, to see how the author and protagonist would handle the time gap, the sudden jolt 200 years back into the past. And I wanted to see who her love interest would  be.

Well, needless to say, I was disappointed again. Claire seemed barely phased by the fact she had been transported back 200 years. She saw it more as a logistical problem, how to get home, rather than “am I losing my mind, this can’t be happening” response I had imagined and felt would ring more true. Then when the first person she meets, a captain in the British army, tries to rape her, the whole thing seemed so implausible, I almost stopped reading right there.

But who would be her love interest? That question kept me going until I discovered it was this low-level member of a rebel band who had managed to get himself wounded, and was clearly several years her junior. If I had been writing the book I would have chosen the daring, hot-headed leader of the group, who while years older, seemed more exciting. Clearly this was not the book I was hoping to read and I set it aside.

But when the film series about the Outlander came out on TV, I decided to give it another try, and the film easily sucked me in. The music, the scenery, the costumes, the actors chosen to play each part, all were perfectly pitched to draw me in and sweep me away. The resistance I had initially for the series, and the critical distance I held it, melted away. The willing suspension of disbelief so needed for my viewing pleasure was in full force.

By the time the first season ended, I was so enthralled, I eagerly picked up the book again and began reading. This time I thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t before.

I think we are more willing to suspend disbelief when viewing a movie than when reading a novel. The visual and auditory power of film-making does most of the work for us without the need to translate black letters on a white page into scenery or sounds. The musical score is an added bonus manipulating our emotions to match what the filmmaker wants us to feel, and when well-done it’s barely noticeable.

Much is required of both writer and filmmaker to make his or her creation “sing.” Both must learn their craft well and comply with the basic elements of story-telling, as I wrote about in my last post. But the filmmaker has more tools to entice the viewer into that willing suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy the film.

The writer has less to work with. So it’s essential for the reader, especially if the reader is a writer, to come to the work as a willing and eager partner. We must be willing to set aside our writerly prejudice to allow the story to work its magic on us.

Below are links to posts referenced here:

Sexy, Smart, Sweet, & Soulful

Speaking of Erotica . . .

Loss & Desire, and the Search for Something More in Life & Literature



Loss & Desire, and the Search for Something More, in Life & Literature


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These are the themes that run through so much of what I’m compelled to write about. No doubt because they are the great themes running through all the arts, through myth, religion, psychology–through life itself.

The poem below captures that so eloquently.

Meditation at Lagunitas

By Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

So much here resonates with me:

  • how “each particular erases the luminous clarity of a general idea,”
  • how each particular presence is “some tragic falling off from a first world of undivided light,”
  • how “a word is elegy to what it signifies,”
  • how “desire is full of endless distances,”
  • including “the moments when body is as numinous as words.”

I wrote a series of blog posts several years ago about how these themes are developed in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and Lacan’s Mirror State, starting with Some Tragic Falling Off into Difference and Desire.

I wrote in Our Quest for Wholeness:

Writers of fiction know that to create a compelling story that keeps readers turning pages we must:

  • Create a protagonist with an overarching need or desire (derived from some sense of loss, of being wounded, or incomplete)
  • beset by constant conflict that intensifies and delays achievement of that desire (to gain what was lost, find healing or wholeness)
  • until that need or desire is eventually realized (or not), but either way,
    leaving the protagonist in a better place (happier, wiser, more whole) than where she had been before the story began,
  • having learned something important or significant about herself, the world she lives in, or what it means to be human.

What drives the story and develops the character is a quest to return to wholeness, to regain what was lost. But what is regained is never simply what was lost, but “something more.” Some new realization– wisdom chiseled from the hard knocks and setbacks of a difficult journey, insights into human nature that will light her path moving forward.

Perhaps we find these stories so compelling because they parallel our own psychic development from the womb to maturity and beyond.

I should not have been surprised when rereading and editing my novel to find these themes repeated in each character’s journey from loss and desire to the search for “something more.”

But I was surprised. Perhaps even as we all are surprised to find it running through our own personal history and journeys. We are so close to it that even while we know it is there, we miss it in the particularity of the moment, in the ordinary humdrum of each day. We have to step back, way back, to see it, the path behind and before us. Even then, which fork will we take next? Which way will our lives unfold? It’s all part of the mystery of being, even being ourselves.

I’ll be exploring this more in future blog posts.

The Classical Grammys – Powerful Instrumental Performances


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Violin Painting - Still Life With Musical Instruments by Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten

Did you watch the Grammys this year? Any favorites among the winners and nominees?

Here are some Grammy winners and nominees that didn’t get a lot of press, but well worth your attention if you enjoy classical music.

Best Classical Instrumental Solo

Winner – Transcendental” — Daniil Trifonov


Nominee –  “Levina: The Piano Concertos” — Maria Lettberg (Ariane Matiakh, conductor, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin)

Here Lettberg is playing Etude Op. 8 No. 12 by Scriabin (alternate version)


Nominee – ”Haydn: Cello Concertos” — Steven Isserlis {Florian Donderer, conductor, The Deutsch Kammerphilharmonie Bremen)

Here Isserlis is playing with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra.


Walking Each Other Home – Why We Write


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Emil NoldeI’ve reread my novel after being away from it for well over a year.

I did so with some trepidation. Much earlier in the writing process, after I had completed and revised the first draft, I put it away for several months. Then read it with a fresh and very critical eye. The result was terrifying: I hated it.

Eventually I came to realize that if you approach any piece of writing with too critical an eye, from a disdaining or resisting distance, you fail to grasp the thing that connects reader/writer. There must be, at the very least, a willingness to allow the story to lead you forward.

I was pleased that my reading of the novel this time did grab hold and keep me reading, keep me involved. I’m going over it again for a final edit but finding little that wants or needs work. The place I’m spending the most time now are the those crucial opening pages, and these too I now feel are ready to go.

I plan to write more about this novel on these pages in the coming months. For I find that I enjoy writing about writing, as so many writers do. And the topics the novel touches upon and themes it explores are important to me, painful as they sometimes are: addiction, homelessness, poverty, life on the street, father-son-mother-daughter relationships, the inability of ever truly knowing anyone, loss and grief, art as self-discovery and redemption, love and romance, spiritual transformation.

In some ways, all I care about, all I am, why I write, why I care, are contained in these pages.

Recently I came across an essay on writing that captures so clearly why I write, and perhaps, why I read. The passages excerpted below reflect my own writing experience.

From Why Writers Write about Writing by Brianna Wiest

 Writing is speaking to yourself, but letting other people overhear the conversation.

The people who are compelled to write down what they feel are the ones who feel it hardest. They make up truths where they didn’t exist before. They put to words what would otherwise go muddled in their minds. Every single writer who can be honest can stand and ratify the fact that wedged between their words, laid subconsciously before them, were great loves and greater losses and deeper insecurities and projected fears. Nothing gets written without the intrinsic motivation to make something confusing and painful clear and beautiful.

I recently saw a quote that went like this: “we’re all just walking each other home.” And sometimes our maps and hands are offered in words. Sometimes we are lighthouses and sometimes we are lost sailors. Writers know you are best crafted out of being both.

And ultimately, the thing about writing is that it forces you to surrender yourself to uncertainty and vulnerability, which, if you ask me, is the most important task to master. My favorite writer . . . Cheryl Strayed once said something along those lines: that the place of unknowing is where the real work gets done — the vulnerable, uncertain place.

Because the best things are written out of the dark parts of us. Because things are always scary when they matter. Because things are inherently neutral and we assign value to them, and looking deeply into the words that touch us may be the greatest way — or the only way — of understanding those parts of us.

“To make something confusing and painful clear and beautiful.”

To help “walk each other home.”

That’s why I wrote this novel.


Ta-Da! My New Home Studio


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After having pumped it up, I hope it isn’t a let-down to those who have been waiting to see it, as promised.

Ir’s certainly not as exciting or whimsical as so many of the studios posted on these pages that have inspired me. But it’s mine. And it does say something about me, I think, being practical, inexpensive, yet filled with color and things I love that inspire me.

My husband made me this long wall-to-wall desk top out of pine planks stained a red oak. It sits on inexpensive Ikea knock-offs, purchased online through Office Depot that are surprisingly solid and well-made.


My studio features two work stations, one for writing and one for painting. I bought inexpensive cubes on Amazon to keep my desktop organized and to keep photos of ;my loved ones near. An odd assortment of cups and jars and baskets keep my paints and brushes tidy and handy.

I re-purposed this portable laptop table as a way to extend my painting work space. It slips under the desk when not in use.


The focal point of the room is this large blue wall hanging featuring two colorful molas from the San Blas islands when we were sailing through the Panama Canal.


The many layers of fabric cut and sewn together with such  tiny stitches amazes me.


Another fabric favorite hangs next to this old blue couch that I bought at Pier One Import years ago. It folds out into a single bed, not very comfortable, but well used over the years.


I bought the fabric hanging at a county fair years ago. Again, the tiny details amaze me.


The room also features the flags we saved from our around-the-world sailing adventure. They’ve been stored rolled up in a box till now.


When entering a new port it was protocol to fly the flag of the host county as well as our own. My daughter made several of these on an old portable foot-pumped sewing machine that fellow yachties gave her.


I’d planned on buying a counter-height craft table full of fun cubby holes for storing stuff that I found on Amazon. I wanted a place where I could stand to work when I wanted and extra space to create collage paper and spread out the pages of my novel-in-progess when in the process of reorganizing and revising pages.

But I couldn’t bear parting with the super-handy lateral filing cabinet that had been part of my old office. So my husband used that as  base for an island, putting it on wheels and using the old desk-top perched on extenders to create a large island that I could roll out of the way when not in use.


In this photo it’s holding the two thick binders with drafts of the novel I’m currently working on. In the cubbyhole beneath I store old paintings, magazines, etcetera.


When we bought this home in foreclosure all the closet doors were missing for some reason. So I put up a curtain instead and decided that I like it, and so it remains.

There’s my bookcase, of course, one of several throughout our home, more books than I’ll ever finish I’m sure, especially now since my Kindle is put to such good use too.


And then there’s my own artwork, scattered through-out the room. I have to hang it somewhere, and it does inspire me to want to create more.


I hope you enjoyed this little tour. The room is still a work in progress. I need new window coverings and a new desk chair. And I’m eager to shop through some flea markets and antique stores for more fun and inspiring containers and curiosities to add to my shelves and desktop. But essentially it’s done, and I’m happy with it.