Tag Archives: Crafts

So Many Projects, So Little Time…

I feel like I’ve been gone for ages – and I guess I have! With the world on hold through lockdown, more than just our social calendar seems to have been turned topsy-turvy. I’m sure I’m not alone in that, but it seems like a lot of routines, such as writing weekly blogs, went on hold as we tried to get our lives back on track through the time of lockdown, of switching to home-office and the changed schedules that brought with it. On one hand, I seemed to have more time on my hands (what with our social agendas being cancelled wholesale), but on the other hand, projects that had been put off wanted tackling. Lockdown is the perfect time to do things like clean out the cellar or deal with household repairs.

One thing I tackled was my craft room: I do a lot of crafts, and I also help people do crafts for projects – whether it’s a personal gift they want to make but don’t know how, or stage props, or repairs to jewellery or baby albums, or making the table settings for celebration dinner parties or anything in between. Because of that, I have a good supply of most supplies I might need. I also do a lot of upcycling crafts – aka tons of plastics, metals, etc. All of that requires space. It went from this…

…to this:

Everything in the cupboard and to the right of it was made in the past 3 weeks. The employees at our local grocery store got used to me raiding their cardboard stacks on my weekly shopping trips! All of the material used was free; to decorate, I used old wrapping papers, magazine pages, old craft book pages, outdated maps, brochures and old music sheets. Handles were made out of everything from old jewellery to cardboard to bottle caps. The boxes atop the dresser (below) were made previously, using beer advent calendar boxes (my husband got the beer, I got the boxes – win-win!).

Now that that sizeable project is done, I’m looking forward to getting back into a full writing rhythm, including blogs! I apologize for my long silence, but as you can see, it wasn’t idle time. While working on paper maché, I was percolating ideas for both my novel and for interesting topics to investigate for this blog – so keep your eyes on this space – there will be more to come soon! 🙂

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History Undusted: Bubble Wrap

I do a lot of crafts. I mean, a lot variety-wise, and a lot quantity-wise. When I’m not writing, managing our household, planning meetings or teaching students (I’m a vocal coach and an English teacher for adults), I’m usually doing some kind of craft, and it more often than not involves some form of upcycling – turning “trash” into “treasures”. Recently, I’ve been making sheets of plastic-confetti-filled bubble wrap, ironed into what’s known as “ploth” (plastic cloth). These can then be sewn into bags, etc. It got me to thinking about just how bubble wrap came to be. I have tons of the stuff, stashed here and there in the craft room, for such projects – and I’m constantly on the lookout for creative uses for that poppable fun.

Did you know that originally it wasn’t intended as packing material but as wallpaper? In 1957, Swiss chemist Marc Chavannes and his business partner, Alfred Fielding, wanted to make a wallpaper that would appeal to the emerging Beat culture [for those of you unfamiliar with that term, it was a generation of post-war, anti-establishment rebels who were more or less the precursor to the 60’s hippie and counterculture movements]. What the partners did was simple enough: They put two layers of a plastic shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine. But it came out in what they first saw as a failure, with air bubbles trapped between the two layers. They figured they were onto something, failure or not, and so they got a patent and then began experimenting to find other uses. Wallpaper wasn’t popular; neither was their suggestion to use it as insulation for greenhouses (perhaps that was simply a matter of marketing to the wrong demographic). Then, around 1960, IBM began shipping their newly-designed 1410 computers and needed a way to protect the delicate dinosaurs – eh, I mean, computing mammoths. That’s a LOT of bubble wrap. The rest is, as they say, history. And in case you’re wondering, yes, people have been popping the bubbles from the beginning, just for fun. So much fun, in fact, that the last Monday of every January is officially “Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day”.

Click on the image below to watch an IBM recruiting film (1 minute), from 1960. You can also see one of IBM’s massive scientific mainframes being used by the original “computers” of NASA in the film “Hidden Figures“.

IBM 1401 unit - History of Computer Museum archive photo

IBM’s 1410 computer promotional photo, 1959. Credit, Computer History Museum archives

 

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How to be Eco-Friendlier in 2020

First of all, Happy New Year! If you’ve made resolutions, take steps to keep them. One of my resolves this year is to be more eco-friendly in our household than we already are. One step I plan to take is making unpaper towels – if you don’t know what that is, read on!

We Swiss are very environmentally conscious; there’s a caricature, not far off the mark, that goes like this: When a Swiss has a tea, they then put the tea leaves in the compost, the string in the cloth collection, the tag in the cardboard collection, the staple in the metal collection, and the bag in the paper collection. We’re not that extreme – we drink tea without bags! [On a side note to tea bags: A news article recently highlighted a shocking find: One tea bag in a cup of hot water can produce BILLIONS of microparticles of plastic. No joke. I’ve started taking the teas we have and making my own loose-tea mix… I’ll buy loose tea from now on.]

But seriously, the amount of waste one produces in a year is horrendous. How each country deals with their own waste would probably shock you, too; many don’t burn it, or even bury it; they export it… to Asia, to Africa – whoever has the best price. How they deal with your rubbish is then out of your government’s hands – they’ve just flipped the problem onto someone else. How much of that rubbish ends up blown or dumped into the ocean. I don’t want to know, honestly – it would probably sicken me. Switzerland, as far as I have been able to find out, doesn’t practice export; we have incinerators that turn the rubbish into steam energy.

So the best solution is to begin solving the problem at home. Any movement that is successful starts with the individual – starts with changing the mindset of a culture one person at a time. I keep my eyes open for innovative ways to be more eco-friendly; I do a LOT of upcycling crafts, using most plastic (including magazine wraps, product packaging, plastic rings, produce nets, etc.), and everything else; my Pinterest boards will give you inspiration if you’re looking for ways to upcycle creatively. But if you’re not into crafts, there are still a lot of ways to become more environmentally friendly, and here are a few:

  • Plastic wrap replacements: Beeswax-infused cloth
  • Unpaper-Towels: Cloth towels in the kitchen – reusable, washable, no waste!
  • Drinking Straws: Purchase metal straws; they usually come with a small scrub brush, and are easy to clean. I keep a microfiber cloth on my drying rack to set smaller things on to dry. If you google metal drinking straws, you can either find a shop near you that sells them, or you can buy them online; just keep in mind shipping waste if online-shopping.
  • Cloth Napkins / Serviettes instead of paper napkins.
  • Water Conservation: Take shorter showers, turning off the water stream when you’re soaping or shampooing; turn off the sink water in between actually using it. If washing a lot of dishes, either fill your dishwasher space-efficiently and to capacity, or use a larger bowl, etc. to reuse soapy water in the sink; when it’s dirty, dump it and allow the bowl to refill as you wash more dishes. Fill your clothes washing machine to capacity – never wash only a few items at a time! I have a machine that tells me if a load is too heavy for a particular setting; I can choose anywhere between 3 and 9 kilos, and it will conserve water by the settings I choose.
  • Cleaning Chemicals: Either purchase refillable, natural cleaning liquids (remember, it all goes into the water canals) or make your own from vinegar and water and baking soda, adding lemon juice or a few drops of lemon essential oils for that clean aroma.
  • Room-to-Room Guide to a Zero Waste Home
  • Junk Mail: If you get unwanted mail, mark it “cancel” and “return to sender”. Just recycling it doesn’t solve the main issue, which is the flood of destroyed trees… Send the message to the perpetrators that it is unwanted.

Here are a few visuals to add food for thought; as with all things reduced to a j-peg, some of these make sense, while others don’t. Take them with a grain of salt, and be inspired to try helpful ideas out in your own home:

Eco-Friendly Tips to Save CashGlass vs PlasticGreen Your HouseHow Long Until It's GoneJunk MailPlastic BagsPlastic Spoons, ProcessReduce your wasteSingle Use SwapsTrees Saved

Turtles and Plastic Bags

Please let me know in the comments below what you do to be more eco-friendly and conserve the environment!  Have a great 2020 – and let’s make it one step closer to caring for the planet and the animals we share it with!

 

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How It’s Made: Rubber Bands

Rubber bands are ubiquitous; everyone has them and occasionally uses them. They come in nearly every shape and size; they’ve even become a craft accessory out of which creative shapes can be formed (just google “rainbow loom designs”).

But have you ever stopped to think about how they’re made? Are they made from natural or synthetic materials? You might be tempted to think that they’re some kind of plastic or silicone, but most rubber bands are made out of the sap of rubber tree plants; that sap, specifically, is latex. Trees are “tapped” – a slice of bark removed – every two days, and the latex gathers in bowls attached below the cut. It will flow for an hour or two and then heals over.

The actual process to turn rubber latex into uniform rubberbands is a complex one; it’s a process that evolved over time, trial, and error into a well-oiled machine – literally. To learn more, click on the following links:

Alliance Rubber Company – The birthplace of the modern rubber band

YouTube: How It’s Made

As with anything, we should take care to use what we buy, and buy what we’ll use. Rubber bands are produced by the millions each day (the factory featured in the YouTube video produces 40 million per day), so use the ones you have wisely!Rubber band ball If you’re curious as to how to make a rubber band ball like this image, just click here. I have several of these around the house, and they’re practical and easy to make. Enjoy!

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Calligram # 1: Ticino

For those of you unfamiliar with calligrams, they are images created out of spatially-arranged text, usually related to the image they create.

I began doing calligrams several years ago, and enjoy the “bite-sized” research involved in gathering facts, history and general information about a subject. The first one I made was probably a Viking ship or the wassail tree; the latter, I accidentally found being used as the back cover design of an art magazine online out of Romania; I asked them to attach my web address and credit the image to me, and they did so, but it taught me a valuable lesson: embed my name into the calligram!

Below is one that I did recently while on holiday in Lugano. You’ll hear more about that soon, but in the meantime, enjoy this calligram!  Just click on it to enlarge it. The image itself is based on a vintage postcard collage.

If anyone would like to use this in any way, please contact me through the comments below; whenever using any image, please give credit – whenever possible – where credit is due!

Ticino Brighter

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The Renaissance Value of Crafts

When you hear the word “crafts”, what comes to mind?  Is it a positive or a negative connotation?  Is it a waste of time, or something only people do who have too much time to kill? Or is it thought of in terms of hourly wage, selling at craft fairs or online at sites like Etsy or Ebay, and otherwise it’s just a hobby? Are crafts merely frivolous decorations, or can they also be practical?

The dictionary actually has a lot to say about the word; here are some of the terms used to describe it: Skill; art; ability; skilfulness – especially in making plans and carrying them into execution; ingenuity in constructing; dexterity; work or product of art; a branch of skilled work or trade, especially one requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.

In the past decades, there have been many schools that have cut crafts from their curriculum due to budget constraints; such an act reflects society’s general opinion of the activity. But what educators fail to realize is that when they cut out teaching crafts, they cut out a few life skills that cannot be learned in mathematics class or history class or English class: Crafts teach decision-making skills, planning and execution skills, hand-eye coordination, the ability to see or detect possible alternative solutions to a challenge, and above all, the self-confidence that such skills can be learned. Creativity begets creativity – not just for crafts, but those skills translate into life on many levels. With this generation spending an unhealthy amount of time staring at their phone screens (as of 2017, the average was over 4 hours every day), these skills are necessary to be taught during school hours now more than ever.

I also see a vital historical aspect that is quickly disappearing from society: Skills passed from one generation to the next – the wisdom of experience that’s being lost in the mists of time, with even some skills being lost altogether.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that a global internet crash happens; with it goes online connection, but also online commerce – many businesses rely on the internet for advertisements, sales and networking with suppliers, or buying and selling their component parts from here to Timbuktu. If there were a breakdown of the global market, how many of us know how to plant, tend and harvest a crop to feed our families? How to preserve foods over the winter? How to make something needed out of something on hand, like a basket, or altering clothes, or a meal out of random ingredients that are seasonal? Crafts cover a wide range of both practical and decorative areas that touch every aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not.

The good news is that we still have the internet (woo-hoo!), and because of it, we live in a global village. If you want to learn a skill, a few clicks on YouTube can find you teachers from Spain to Russia to India to Hawaii to Maine to Timbuktu.  Whether or not you speak their language, chances are they can show you how to do something; they can teach you how to sew, weave, crochet, knit, turn bramble vines into baskets, which wild plants are edible and how to use them, how to make an earthen flooring (whether for a house, or a summer shack) and what advantages that kind of floor has over carpet or wood. You can learn survival skills, cooking skills, life hacks for just about anything, and so much more.

If creativity begets creativity, curiosity begets knowledge, which begets curiosity, which begets skills. That is also known as a renaissance man/woman – someone with an extraordinary broad and comprehensive knowledge.  The fundamental flaw of our modern society is that people have become specialists; they get a degree in law but can’t cook; they become a chef but can’t keep a houseplant alive… you get the idea. But the more we expand our personal knowledge base, the more we will benefit personally, become a benefit to society and eventually the next generation, by passing on our skills – whether we have children or not. And if, God forbid, there ever is a global market crash, such craft skills can be used to barter for the crops you haven’t grown, or the butter, or bread, or whatever it is you’ll need. The more renaissance people, the better off we’ll all be!

“To know how much there is to know is the beginning of learning to live.”

Dorothy West

Da Vinci Vitruvian Man

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Thoughts about Props

The past fortnight I’ve been doing something that requires occasional brain-power but mostly just time, hands and space:  I’ve been making props (see below) – to be precise, a stage-prop sized crown (that will serve as a piñata, and then an offering basket), and a life-sized helmet, shield, and sword (the latter is still in progress).  In between those times of brain-work, I started to wonder where the word prop came from, and where it’s gone over its lifetime in English. And when did props become another word for congratulations, good job? It’s a noun, a verb, and an entire phrase or concept.

As an object used in a play, it came into English as properties and was in use in that theatrical context from the early 15th century; it became props around 1840 (we’re not the only generation to shorten words for convenience). In German, the word is “das Requisit” which is related to the English word “requisite” (indispensable, required, essential) which is kinda the point of theatre props.  Prop can also be used to mean support, both literally (for plants and the like) and figuratively (e.g. when a person is in a position of either authority or notoriety for no reason – yet not quite the same as a goldbrick, shirker, malingerer, or tool).  It can be the shortened term for a propeller (e.g. prop plane or turboprop), or proposal (e.g. a political issue up for vote). Props as a shortened slang for proper respect due for (a job well done) started popping up around 1999. In that context, it’s closely related to kudos (an uncountable noun meaning praise or accolades), which entered English as university slang in 1799, and comes from the Greek kydos meaning glory or fame (in battle).

That’s what I love about English – a simple word can have quite a pedigree!

DSCN9991DSCN9994DSCN9996DSCN0004

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Life & All that Jazz

I’ve been silent awhile; sometimes I just need a change of pace from daily writing, and blogging, to retank creative energy.  Life has been full in that time, so it’s not as if I’ve been sitting around in a toga eating grapes and reading a book… the whole time.  I’ve been doing crafts; I do a lot of all kinds of crafts, and my craft room has a bit of a reputation – it’s packed neatly with more supplies than any craft store I know of in Switzerland, literally.  People come to me when they need things repaired, or when they don’t know how to make something, or when e.g. their school class needs party decorations on a large scale, or large paper maché stage props. Here’s a small corner of my craft room… (just click on any of the images below to enlarge and have a snoop!) – everything you see is practical; the bear on the shelf is a ratchet screwdriver with 6 heads tucked into the belly; the grass blades are pens; the wooden bowls are great for sorting bits & bobs… you get the idea!

  Craft room, April 2018

And here’s our front door sign; the sign itself is decoupaged with the inside of security envelopes, and the large beads are made of paper.  This is our current sign, though the straps and dangles are interchangeable, as I have several sets (dangling from the metal ring in the photo above), depending on the season and my mood.

Spring 2018 Welcome Sign

I do a lot of practical crafts for our home – from coasters to tea caddies to curtains; here are a few images of things I’ve made from paper and cardboard:

Tea Caddy 1 - SmallCraft Cupboard, April 2018 1 - SmallCraft Cupboard, April 2018 3 - SmallLibrary Shade 1

Electrical Plug Prop, April 2018 - Small

The colourful doors are on my craft room book shelf; each cubby holds a world of crafts supplies! The giant electrical plug & socket are stage props for an upcoming musical production based on my husband’s first CD; that week, I’ll be busy as well, vocal coaching the soloists as well as the choir.  On the final evening, the plug will reveal that it is actually a piñata, stuffed with bags of toys and chocolates. Peeking out from behind the socket is the neck of a paper maché ukelele case I made and then doodled, as well as a bouquet of paper rolls ready for another project similar to the library’s round window shade…

Besides crafts, we’ve had a party and a few evenings with guests; the party was for part of my husband’s work gang and their partners, and I made a Mexican fiesta (here’s my menu, for those interested).

Kitchen Sign.JPG

This magnetic sign is now on my stove; I found it in a quaint little vintage café in Bremgarten, when my husband took me out for a day of surprises for our 25th wedding anniversary!  He’s good at keeping secrets… he’d invited two couples to celebrate with us: One for lunch in Bremgarten in a restaurant along the river, and one for dinner, at the Wörth Schlössli Restaurant at the base of Rhein Falls. We had a great day together, as always! In between, we went to downtown Zürich to spend a gift certificate I’d received from friends on my birthday; it was, of course, in an art shop!

So, that’s just a glimpse of some of the things I’ve been doing (when not in my toga eating grapes and reading).  Now that my mini hiatus is over, I’m tucking back into writing and all the bits and bobs that turn “writing” into novels!

 

 

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5 Life Hacks for Productivity

Let’s face it… humans are creatures of habit.  That phrase often has a negative connotation; in a conference that lasts several days, people will tend to sit within a few chairs of the seats they sat in on the first day, whether they like the location or not; once a person starts hanging the loo roll on the dispenser either top or bottom, the other way is just wrong.  But habits can also work to our advantage, if we form good ones:  Cleaning up after ourselves should have been a habit formed in our childhoods; brushing our teeth, pushing a chair in after we leave the table, and dozens of other little habits are hygienic, energy-saving, and contribute to more harmonious relationships within our social and environmental landscapes.

Those of us who express ourselves through creative media (such as writing, arts or crafts) might tend to see ourselves or the expression of our craft as outsiders, or at least mavericks, when it comes to business practices.  However, there are many tools (such as the SWOT) and principles for increasing productivity in the business sector that we can and should apply to our creative streaks (if the intention is to take them beyond the level of hobby to a more serious endeavour).  One of those principles involves forming good habits.  Below, I’ve listed five things that I do to keep my creativity fresh, and thus keep the time that I spend writing more productive than it would otherwise be (I know from experience).  For practical purposes I’ll refer to the expressions from the perspective of a writer, but these hacks apply to any creative discipline.

5 Productivity Life Hacks

I’ve taken the liberty of making a “cheat sheet” as a reminder of these principles; if it’s helpful for you, feel free to print it out and hang it up where you work or write.

1)   Find your most productive time.

Are you an early bird, or a night owl?  Or are you a late-afternoon type?  Most people have 9-to-5 jobs that dictate when they have free time; but when you are looking for time to write, try to schedule it in your most productive time of the day.  I am an extreme night owl; I need very little sleep and work at home, so my time is flexible; yet my most productive time of the day is between 01:00 and 04:00, with the second-most productive period being late-afternoons. I know this about myself, so I use the less-productive times to get other things done that are no-brainers (housework, shopping, etc.).

2)  Use time management apps to focus your energy.

I have two (android) apps that I use:  “Clear Focus” and “aTimeLogger”.  The first app counts down from the time I set, with a five-minute break following; every three sessions, it encourages me to take a longer break of fifteen minutes.  The second app allows me to log how much time I spend in a particular activity; I have added customized activities such as editing and blogging.  I use these apps especially when I’ve got a dozen incongruous tasks on my to-do list – it helps me focus on the task at hand, thus being more productive.

3)  Learn a new skill.

That may sound a bit odd; after all, it takes time to learn a new skill, right?  But bear with me a moment:  The current thinking of today is that one should become a specialist; the thinking goes that if you focus your energy into learning one skill to a high degree, you will be successful in it.  But I have one word in answer to that:  Renaissance.  During the Renaissance it was considered ideal for one to pursue multiple disciplines; a gentleman of the time was expected to speak several languages, be well-versed in various scientific disciplines such as astronomy, botany, or medicine, and be eloquent with words through writing poetry, play a musical instrument, study philosophy, theology, and so on.  The standard was set, and met – think of all that was accomplished, discovered, and invented during that age!  Variety is the spice of life, and I find that iron sharpens iron – that one skill hones another.  So take some time to learn something new; it will stir the creative juices and get them flowing much more productively than if you stagnate in specialization.  And in gathering new skills, you will add to your arsenal of personal experience from which to draw on when fleshing out characters, worlds, scenes and dialogues.

4)  Create a music playlist.

Spotify is a great invention!  I have dozens of playlists, and depending on what I’m working on, I’ll turn on music to set the mood for a scene I’m writing (for me, it has to be just right or it can be counter-productive), or to speed me up or slow me down.  Music stimulates our creative energy, and helps our minds become more curious and more imaginative.  It affects our moods, and thus can influence the way we approach a particular scene or dialogue.  Just for the record, as I write this, I’m listening to the album Grace by Steven Sharp Nelson (of the Piano Guys).

5) Take breaks.

This is another habit that runs counterintuitively to conventional wisdom, but being “so close to the forest that you can’t see the trees” is never a good thing; staring too long at a problem, or a blank page, will get you nowhere fast.  Frustration builds, making any mental block that much thicker.  Set it aside; get some fresh air and exercise, airing both your mind and body.  By putting space between ourselves and the issue, we often gain fresh perspective.  Think of it as a backward approach to moving forward.  As Steven Spielberg advises, contemplation time is essential in the creative process – don’t fill it with brain work that distracts.  Take a bath.  Do the laundry.  Draw; doodle; do a craft.  Some of my best solutions or plot twists have come while doing a craft.  By the way, crafts encourage abstract thinking, problem solving, and creative perspectives.  To apply this, take a 20-30 minute break after you complete a particular element; sometimes it actually helps me to start that new element before taking a break – it gives my mind time to percolate away from the computer, yet gives me a starting point when I return to work.

I hope these hacks encourage you in developing and honing your craft.  Keep writing!

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Just Around the Corner

Christmas is just around the corner, and I’m enjoying the different pace of life that comes with the season; my husband’s work is winding down toward the end of the year, which means he can come home earlier than usual (he works 10+ hours a day, so early is 7:30 pm!); and people seem to relax around this time of the year, too – they’re less stressed, more genial, and become more aware of their fellow man – which is as it should be all year round.

It’s cold outside but still no sign of snow, though the sun coming through the windows and threatening to melt our chocolate Christmas tree ornaments doesn’t deter me from listening to Christmas music!  My favourites this year are the new Pentatonix album,  “That’s Christmas to Me”, and Idina Menzel’s “Holiday Wishes”, both on Spotify.  I take more time to read, to watch films, to slow down, to do crafts, to simplify life.  One thing I simplified recently is our CD collection; I eliminated several hundred (!), because I found them on Spotify (if you don’t know it and love music, welcome to “life just got grand”!  Check it out on http://www.spotify.com); we have the premium version, which means no adverts, and the artists get paid for their work (which is important to us).

Being the crafter I am, I figured that that amount of CDs would come in handy for something; I’m using some to make coasters, but keep my eyes open for other up-cycling ideas.  I sleep very little (I jokingly refer to myself as “half-vampire” as I only need about 4-5 hours a day), so I have a lot of time on my hands, which I enjoy as fully as possible in all of the above!

Below is a panorama of where I now sit; my work space is at the top of a short flight of stairs, and just behind my computer is a round window that looks out over our town and toward the international airport at the other side of the valley.  Just behind the computer you’ll notice a cat hammock; it’s one of two on that railing, and it’s usually full… our cats enjoy watching the sunrise through the round window.  To the right of my desk is a set of drawers, atop of which is a cat bed; it’s also usually full, with Allegra.

Whatever your circumstances, whether you’re alone, or with family or friends, my wish for you this season is that you can find time to enjoy your own company.  If you’re alone I know it can be difficult at such times in the year; I’ve been there, and spent a fairly dismal Christmas alone in the middle of nowhere one year; but it can be a time of discovery, if you choose to let it be.  Go somewhere out of the ordinary, even if it’s just a new corner of your own town; shake things up, or come to rest – whichever you need most.  And whatever you do, wherever you are, remember the Reason for the Season.

Merry Christmas!

2014-01-16 Library Panorama

Our library, with my work space up in the “eagle’s nest”

 

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