Advent Wreath

Happy 1st Sunday of Advent! Today marks the beginning of a season of waiting, preparing, and anticipating the hope of Christmas who came as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

On the theme of waiting, some of you may also have been waiting a while for my next blog post! I’ve been getting my craft on lately with a bunch of DIY Christmas projects and gifts, so I haven’t been on here as much.

But I did want to share with you the advent wreath that the Artist and I made (okay, mostly the Artist) to kick off this new season in the church’s liturgical calendar.

We went to our favourite local park, Fraser River Park, to collect evergreen boughs from pine and hemlock trees.


It was a crisp but beautiful walk in the noonday sun. We happened to look up at what we thought were barren trees, but to our delight, they weren’t so barren after all. The Artist & I had just been talking about how great it would be to have some red holly berries in our wreath, and even though these aren’t holly berries, they’re small and red and would do just the trick!


We then picked up some small pine cones and brought our treasure home to assemble on our living room floor.


And voilà! This is the wreath we made. The Artist used small pieces of wire (you could even use twist ties) to attach the boughs together in a circular shape. No need for a wire frame! Then he stuck more greenery in to give it more fullness.


We wove some purple ribbon around it (the traditional liturgical colour for Advent) and then embellished it with pine cones and those little red berries.


We’ve put some votive candles in it for now until we buy some of the long, thin kind to stick in—the first of which we’ll light tonight!





Taking me aboard, this ship to wreck

As soon as I heard “Ship to Wreck” by British indie rock band Florence and the Machine, I was in love. Musically and lyrically.

The song pulls you in right away with an upbeat, folk rock tempo. And then you hear the lyrics and there’s a slight dissonance between what is said and how it’s said:


And oh my love remind me, what was it that I said?
I can’t help but pull the earth around me, to make my bed
And oh my love remind me, what was it that I did?
Did I drink too much?
Am I losing touch?
Did I build this ship to wreck?

(View full lyrics here).

Normally I like a song’s content to match the form more, but in this case, it works because the chorus begins with a major chord, then moves to 2 minor ones before ending up on a major one again (C-Dm-Am-F). In other words, the song doesn’t stay in major, brilliantly shining happy notes, nor does it linger in the darker, melancholic chords. It swings between both, navigating that fine tension between creating and destroying, hoping and despairing.

Florence Welch talks about this tension in a press release about the song:

I was thinking about my own self destructive side, and how you can make something only to tear it down, enjoy/destroy, create/devastate etc. When you’re in that whirlwind, you often end up breaking the thing you love the most.

The recurring question in the song: Did I build this ship to wreck? captures this idea beautifully. Who thinks of building a ship to wreck when you’re first embarking on something? No one. It’s only in hindsight that you realize this.

Florence Welch says in a New York Times article:

“I’m fun up to a point, and then it gets destructive,” she said. “That’s how I wrote ‘Ship to Wreck.’ It was: ‘What have I done? Oh my God! Why do I keep doing this?’ It’s that feeling that you love something so much, and it’s always the first thing to break.”

“Ship to Wreck” is the second single off Florence and the Machine’s new album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. As much as I love the melody, it’s the lyrics that really drew me in. Maybe it’s because a lot of the pop songs I listen to have the catchy tune but not the depth and vulnerability of the words, nor the use of literary forms like extended metaphors and personification. As a writer, I really appreciate these things! (And a slight side note, yes, it is a melancholic song, but I think that’s a big part of what gives it its depth. Read the recent article “The Case for Melancholy” in the New York Times by Laren Stover and I think you can apply the notion of “mental steeping, like tea” to the kind of fiercely introspective yet acutely relatable art Florence makes.


The title is a simple but evocative play on “shipwreck,” setting the listener up for a water motif that was common on her previous album Ceremonials. I wonder if it’s because water can save or destroy, awesome and fearsome at the same time. (Apparently the band’s new producer told Florence not to write any more songs about water for the new album, but she convinced him to let “Ship to Wreck” be an exception). Florence carries the metaphor all the way through, from the beginning lines of “great white sharks swimming in the bed” to the second verse of “the chair is an island darling, you can’t touch the floor” and the full-instrumental bridge that makes you feel you are there, dashed upon the rocks:

Good god, under starry skies we are lost
Into the breach we got tossed,
And the water’s coming in fast!

And then the music strips down to acoustic guitar and Florence’s haunting voice asks in the wake of the storm:

And oh my love remind me, what was it that I said?
I can’t help but pull the earth around me, to make my bed.

That second line of the chorus is my favourite one, where the earth is personified as a blanket. Florence mixes a familiar and intimate image of childlike comfort (tucking yourself into bed), with a macrocosmic image of the whole earth. But the image of the ends of the earth curling up and wrapping around yourself is also an unsettling picture, as if it’s a rug pulled out from everyone else’s feet, sweeping them up in your personal drama. So is the earth more like a blanket or a shroud? Is this a hopeful or an ominous image? As a listener, I feel both a sense of comfort and foreboding when I hear this phrase. I’m still thinking about what it means, and that, to me, is a mark of good songwriting.

To add to the intimacy of the song, the music video was filmed in Florence’s home. The bed, the “island” chair, the tumultuous relationship with a lover—and with herself—are all there, all her own.

A Grove of 16 Trees

The Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel in Vancouver is not a stranger to public art. In one of my very first blog posts (way back in 2011!) I talked about the poem by Liam Gillick that wraps around 17 stories of the hotel, inspiring my foray into architexture.


Now there’s another public artwork in the plaza of the hotel, unveiled in March of this year. 16 is the name of this stainless steel and glass grove of trees that run the 30 metre length of the hotel’s main entrance in downtown Vancouver. Designed by Omer Arbel of the boutique design company Bocci, 16 is a permanent installation whose name reflects the 16 stainless steel frames or “armatures” on which hang glass apples fitted with an LED light so they illuminate at night.


I have yet to see the artwork at night, but based on the images from Bocci’s website, it looks stunning. Even during the day, it stopped me in my tracks to take in these abstract trees with their flattened proportions. The 480 apple leaves are made of 3 separate layers of molten glass, individually poured on top of each other so that no leaf is identical to the other leaf (very much the way nature works). There are some cool videos you can watch on the website as well that show that the tree and branch system is made up of tinier segments that click into place, allowing someone to rearrange the trees in different configurations.


This thin and lightweight-looking orchard of trees is an elegant solution of bringing visual interest and conversation to the hotel’s outdoor plaza. And yet because of the mythic proportions that an apple tree carries in Western culture, along with my interest (okay, maybe addiction) to the TV series Once Upon a Time, the trees in 16 seem to carry a magical and mysterious quality to them, as if I am stepping back into a fairy tale time where I’m looking at these artificial constructions with a mixture of awe and suspicion.


Soaking it all in at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference

I just got back from the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC).

My body and mind are exhausted but in the best possible way. I’ve never been to a writers’ conference before so I have nothing to compare this one to, but based on what I experienced, it was well, well worth the money.

Never have I been in a room with 400 or so people passionate for words and the stories we tell through them. There were people of all ages and stages in their writing journeys, and each and every one was made to feel welcomed. Many were already published authors, wanting to learn branding and marketing strategies, and many had just completed novels, looking for first-time publication. And then there were still others like me, working on bits and pieces and soaking in as much wisdom as we could from the presenters and fellow attendees.


My autographed copy of Shaena Lambert’s award-winning short story collection.

I attended 10 workshops over 2.5 days, and they were all fabulous. From workshops on making scenes and crafting formal poetry to panels on writing humour and un-put-down-able books, there was a great variety. Presenters included Hallie Ephron, Anne Perry, Jasper Fforde, Jack Whyte, Danika Dinsmore, Kate Braid, Terry Fallis, Stephen Galloway, Liza Palmer, and Michael Slade, to name a few. You can see the whole list here. And yes, it really is an “international” conference with presenters coming as far away as the UK.

What I particularly loved about the conference is the informal atmosphere where you can mingle with authors, editors, and agents over meals, after a class, or in the line-up for the washroom or some other unexpected place.

And not to mention the opportunity for every single attendee to have a published author edit the first few pages of his/her story AND pitch your work to one of the 16 or so agents that were there. How many times does that happen?

Among all the genre writers of speculative fiction, fantasy, YA, suspense, thriller, and the like, I was in the minority with the kind of writing I do—literary fiction. It’s a hard market to publish in, and yet I was encouraged by Beverly Jenkins‘s words of wisdom in her keynote speech: “Follow your heart, not the market.”

And the big icing on the cake of all of this? My short story, “Perfect Symmetry” received an honourable mention in the SiWC writing contest, judged by Jack Whyte, author of a historical fiction series about King Arthur, and Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series. Yeah, my mouth dropped open too. Still riding that huge wave of affirmation. You can read my story, along with the other 2 award winners, over here for about a month.

Now to channel all this inspiration back into the daily grind, that is the challenge! Onwards and upwards!

How to Turn an Old Window into a Picture Frame

And now for something completely different.

I’ve had this old window sitting in my basement for almost a year. I bought it at Folk Art Interiors in West Point Grey with the intention of turning it into a picture frame like you see on many Pinterest pages.

This past summer, I finally did it. It was my first time stripping and staining wood, and I gotta say I’m pretty proud of my work!

Here’s what it looked like when I bought it:


Broken glass pane, badly chipped paint. I brought it to my parents’ place out in Langley because they have the space to do DIY projects like this. The first step was taking out all the glass.



I left this job to the men

I knew I wanted to put new glass in it anyway, but it turned out it was helpful to remove it so that it was easier to peel, sand, and stain the wood. I used my dad’s heating gun to get all the old paint off, or as much as I could. The heat from the gun caused the paint to bubble, making it slide right off. I also used a chisel and a wire brush.


I didn’t want to take all the white paint off because the point is that it’s supposed to look old and vintage. But the walls in our apartment are white, so I wanted to strip it down to let the natural wood colour come through.


Then I used this electric sander to smooth it out, which is so much more fun than rubbing by hand:



And ta-da:


I liked how it looked as is, but I was curious to try a natural wood stain and see how that would look. So I applied two coats back at our apartment. It was interesting to work with a stain rather than paint because stain only sticks to the parts of the wood that are sanded well. Otherwise, the wood doesn’t absorb it. You can definitely tell that it’s not an even colour in different places, but that’s part of the charm.


Then I used a clear satin finish on it to seal the stain.


Next step was to add the glass panes. We brought the frame into a glass shop and got six panes cut perfectly to fit. This was the most expensive and trickiest part of the process, especially when two panels break on you as you’re trying to put them in. But eventually we got them all put in smoothly and secured with Glazier’s steel push points. These little guys are hard to find but Home Depot carried them. They’re a subtle solution that you don’t see from the good side. We didn’t putty the glass since we weren’t sealing in this window from the elements.

glass halfway in

glass halfway in


inserting the push points

I ordered some 11″x14″ wedding photos from Shutterfly, centred those into the six frames, and then mounted some leftover black scrapbooking paper behind them. We used good ol’ scotch tape to attach the photos & backings to the window.

IMG_2344It held up great, and this is what you see on the other side:

IMG_2349I’m really pleased with it and love the addition it makes to our dining room wall:


Alone at Last: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

We are pretty familiar with the genre of books called bildungsroman, a German word for a novel of education or coming-of-age. Think Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, The Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter. We are less familiar with the subgenre of bildungsroman called künstlerroman, a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity.

IMG_2325 - Version 2

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man makes it clear from the title that this book by 20th century Irish writer James Joyce is a künstlerroman. Loosely based on Joyce’s own experiences, this experimental novel written in stream-of-consciousness style chronicles Stephen Dedalus’s journey. It is a journey from boyhood to adulthood; from innocence to experience; from society to individualism; and more precisely, from religiosity to artistry.

This development towards an artistic life is hinted at early with Stephen Dedalus’s name. In Greek mythology, Daedalus is a skilled craftsman or artist who built the labyrinth for Minos, King of Crete. Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus, but they escaped on wings of wax that Daedalus made. Icarus however, flew too close to the sun and died.

Portrait is divided into five sections and it is in the fourth where Stephen embraces his mythic father Daedalus (and by extension, renounces his earthly father) and his identity as an artist: “To discover the mode of life or of art whereby [my] spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom.”

Stephen’s journey towards this revelation is what comprises the plot. We meet him when he is a young boy attending the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College in a pleasant suburban neighbourhood of Dublin. He is a smart student, eager to please his teachers. His father soon runs into debt and the family moves to Dublin, where, through the help of a priest from his old school, Stephen enrolls in Belvedere College. Although “his soul was still disquieted and cast down by the dull phenomenon of Dublin,” Stephen excels in school and receives a cash prize, which he squanders on gifts for his family and prostitutes for himself. Joyce uses animal-like language to describe Stephen’s passage from innocence to experience in Dublin’s red light district:

He wandered up and down the dark slimy streets peering into the gloom of lanes and doorways, listening eagerly for any sound. He moaned to himself like some baffled prowling beast. He wanted to sin with another of his kind, to force another being to sin with him and to exult with her in sin.

Stephen’s sexual forays continue for some time. When the boys at his College are taken on a spiritual retreat and are forced to listen to sermon upon sermon about the spiritual and physical sufferings in hell, then Stephen is frightened into repentance. He confesses his sins to a priest and does a complete turnaround. Uncoincidentally, Joyce uses sexual language to describe Stephen’s spiritual awakening, complicating easy categories of the sacred and the profane:

Meek and abased by this consciousness of the one eternal omnipresent perfect reality his soul took up again the burden of pieties, masses and prayers and sacraments and mortifications, and only then for the first time since he had brooded on the great mystery of love did he feel within him a warm movement like that of some newly born life or virtue of the soul itself. The attitude of rapture in sacred art, the raised and parted hands, the parted lips and eyes as of one about to swoon, became for him an image of the soul in prayer, humiliated and faint before her Creator.

Stephen’s transformation is so extreme that you wonder if it’s going to last, and if it’s even healthy. His heart isn’t in it. He acts out of fear, not love, and while he keeps up the form of the rituals, the content soon loses its meaning. The priest at the school don’t know that though, and he takes Stephen aside to ask him to consider the priestly calling. While Stephen’s pride is stroked, he knows better.

It was a grave and ordered and passionless life that awaited him, a life without material cares. . . His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders. The wisdom of the priest’s appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world. The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall.

I was relieved to read this. Every part of me cried out, “No Stephen, don’t do it!” when he got the offer because there’s nothing worse than somebody who doesn’t believe in the office they are called to. Stephen takes time to make his decision. While he is out for a walk, he hears his name and sees a beautiful woman wading in the water that affirms his aesthetic calling—”to recreate life out of life.”

His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her graveclothes. Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable . . .

Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call.

Instead of pursuing a profession with the church, Stephen enters the university where he develops his aesthetic theories, while increasingly disillusioned with that institution as well. There are long sections where Stephen discusses what beauty, art, and pity mean with his peers—almost like a Platonic dialogue where the fictional world is made subordinate to get the author’s philosophical views across. (Joyce is at his best when he’s telling a story and not teaching us philosophy).

Stephen grows more insular as the novel progresses. He disengages with his classmates, and because the story is told through his perspective in 3rd person narrative, the reader feels more distant from him as well. One character says to him, “Dedalus, you’re an anti-social being, wrapped up in yourself.” We hear Stephen’s thoughts through interior monologue, but it is through relationships with others that a character is most nuanced and human, so my sympathy for Stephen waned as the novel developed.

The completion of Stephen’s artistic journey is self-imposed exile from Ireland, an ending not very surprising given the misunderstood artist trope. He gives his manifesto about his decision to his friend Cranly in the novel’s final section:

I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile and cunning.

It is a bittersweet ending. Stephen comes into his vocation as an artist, but is there a way to do so without rejecting society, family, and friends? He says he is not afraid of being alone, but does being an artist necessitate aloneness?