A Writer’s Cabinet of Wonder

printer's tray
A cabinet of wonder seeds the imagination.

Do you know about Wunderkammern, Cabinets of Wonder? Earliest examples were  mini-museums for natural history objects–shells, bones, rocks, leaves, feathers. They could hold anything about which one was curious–hence, their other names, “Cabinets of Curiosities,” or “curio cabinets.” I like “cabinet of wonder” better; “curiosity” can mean “odd or strange” and “curios” can descend to the diminished status of trinkets and knick-knacks. A “cabinet of wonder” holds your attention, seeds the imagination, excites possibilities.

Cabinets of wonder came to mind this week, because I’ve just had hardwood flooring installed throughout the main floor of my home, and I had to empty all of the rooms to get it done–even my precious study. There’s nothing like new flooring to make old walls look dingy, so I followed behind with fresh paint. My north-facing study is now clothed in “Nautica White,” and boy, are these walls bare! I mean, really bare!

white room
I mean, really bare!

That’s kind of nice, though, because I have a blank canvas to work with. The pictures, books and memorabilia that I took down had been around me so long that I had stopped seeing them. There’s no inspiration in that!

Look around you a moment and see what your surroundings bring to mind. Are you closed in? Do you have a window you can gaze out, so your thoughts are encouraged to take flight? Do favorite objects encourage sentiment, adventure, reflection?

Version 2
I love writing here!

When creative thought matters, the environment matters, too. Space, light, color, sound, texture, and content all make a difference. Our visual environment, in particular, can wake up our imaginations and keep them producing.

Swimming pool
from The Art of Looking Sideways (Phaidon Press, 2007)


I do two things in my study: I research my family’s genealogy, and I write about Emilie Loring. The genealogy corner is ready–notebooks, scanner, charts, maps, and a few objects to keep my curiosity percolating.

The rest of the room is for Emilie Loring. The books I wrote about last week in “Our Selves in Our Libraries” (See it here) fill the corner behind me. One quick swivel, and I’m in their midst. If I need to read awhile, I have a deep, swivel rocker and a good reading light. A catamaran-striped rug (blue and white, of course!) lets me pretend my study is in Maine, where it ought to be.

But what shall I put on my walls? Where do my thoughts want to travel? What will get me over the finish line on Emilie Loring’s biography? (No, I already decided against a checkered flag.)

Maine quilt
My sister made this hanging for me, using my Maine photographs.

I start with a framed quotation that my eldest sister (a quilter) gave me:

“Every experience deeply felt in life needs to be passed along–whether it be through words and music, chiseled in stone, painted with a brush, or sewn with a needle…”  Thomas Jefferson

Emilie Loring’s books profoundly influenced me, and learning about her life deepened the experience. When inspiration lags on the biography, Jefferson reminds me that the hand-off is all-important.

I bought this Boston mug the first time I visited the city. I remember how excited I was to be where Emilie had lived, to discover each bit of information, and to first realize how much of her life she had written into her books. My mug brings back that “first time” feeling and also reminds me how far I have come.

The brass eagle was a gift from Emilie’s grandson Selden. It sat atop the ensign staff on the Lorings’ boat, the Sally Blanchard. The bird and the boat both suggest forward movement, and the origin of the gift is deeply personal–symbolic of Emilie, of course, but also of the relationships I’ve enjoyed with her family. “Let’s get going!” the eagle says to me.

Clara Endicott Sears’ tiny book, The Power Within, has traveled the country with me, and Emilie read her copy daily. I don’t have to open it to be reminded of Clara’s note on the title page, “This little volume must radiate serenity and happiness in order to fulfill its mission.” Serenity, happiness, the power within… Those are nice reminders. So are the Owen sisters’ photograph of Blue Hill from Emilie’s shore (ca. 1910) and my framed invitation to tea at Arcady!

Here are two more gifts from Selden and Tuulikki. The poster was from the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston. Wouldn’t it have been amazing to stand in line at one of her book signings? The photograph with her signature below, “Sincerely yours, Emilie Loring,” was taken at the height of her career. Those direct eyes, her determined mouth and chin, her four strands of pearls–all testify to her description of successful authorship:

“Work, work, work! With plenty of steam behind it.”

Sea glass

I add sea glass because… well, because I love it, but also because it was a happy,  unexpected discovery in this process. My jars of sea glass take me instantly to “my” beach in Blue Hill, let me feel the breeze off the Bay and smell the briny kelp that we all know from her books. If my walls are to be a “cabinet of wonder,” sea glass must surely be part of it.

After all of these additions to my “cabinet,” I’m afraid I still have quite a lot of white wall left, and maybe that’s a good thing. If you’re a writer, maybe you, too, feel a thrill when you have a brand-new, white page before you, ready for whatever you decide to put on it. There’s freedom in it–and an invitation.

I’ll go with the “negative space” for now. If I find something else that needs to be included, that’s where it goes.

My last addition goes on the floor. It’s my door stop. Magic beach rock

I got it on the beach near York, Maine, where Emilie Loring wrote To Love and To Honor. If you know about beach rocks, you may know that the ones with a stripe that goes all the way around it are considered lucky. Some people call them “wishing rocks” and say that if you trace the stripe with your finger and make a wish, it will come true. Just having it in your pocket as you make a wish is enough for others, and the version told first to me was that it brought good luck to the owner, wish or no.

As I push toward the biography’s finish line, I don’t mind giving the rock a chance.




10 thoughts on “A Writer’s Cabinet of Wonder

  1. I like your cabinet of wonder–nice phrase, too. And the quilt is quite lovely. I tend to put objects on my bookshelves in front of the books. They have to be real keepers to stay there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What fun! I love refreshing a room! And winter is a lovely time to do it too! Your study looks so nice and fresh. Love love the framed post of Emilie’s book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought the blue-and-white-striped rug might be too much, but it’s cheery! There can never be enough white, blue, or stripes for me! My rooms have been the same colors for too long. My study used to be a hazy blue-green, but it started feeling sleepy in there, and I need to be alert! White and stripes are doing the job. The whole house is getting new colors. I didn’t intend it, but they could all have come from Nautica paint’s Beach House collection. Just right when it’s chilling cold outside, and snow is coming. 🙂


  3. I have collected lake glass for so many years and have had fun creating
    so many “one of a kind” gifts for others. One creation I have not parted
    with is an old retro lamp that a friend gave me from a thrift shop. It has a
    large glass base that I filled with green and white lake glass. This lamp now
    weighs a ton but it holds wonderful memories of searching the shore for
    unexpected treasures. I too have “cabinets of wonder” and love to collect the
    unusual. Love to surround myself with happy things in our home that bring back
    wonderful memories. I must start searching for “wishing rocks” along the shore!
    Thank you for a great post! Now I want to paint a room to hurry winter along!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is the first I have heard of “lake glass.” I shouldn’t be surprised; my children and I collected smooth beach stones in Door County, Wisconsin, but I never thought to look for glass. Next time! I know what kind of lamp you mean. I’ve thought about filling one with shells, layered sand, smooth river pebbles… but green and white lake glass must really catch the light. Lovely! Now, wishing rocks can be on your Maine agenda!


  4. Patti I love your wonder cabinet. I have one also. I am here in Eleuthera with all my beach glass collections and drift wood treasures. They give me such a pleasure to create crafts with.
    Love Tuulikki

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Aloha, I enjoyed your comments this week. It sounds like you are having fun discovering your new creative space. After some down time last month, I am contemplating ways to freshen up my art studio. I’ve been decluttering, but had no real focus. I did do something that was just a note without much thought. I put my jars of Hawaii beach glass on the window ledge to let the light shine through. It was just moving them into my studio space from another room. It was amazing how much it helped me enjoy my space better. I also have a wide vase in the other room filled with objects I had collected on my beach walks over the years. ( I no longer live in that lovely place), but wanted to make it part of my studio heart. Couldn’t come up with a plan. Your reference to the , cabinets of wonder is perfect! Also considering , space, light, color, sound, texture as well as content, these are elements of design that make a difference. So I have objects that please me on my window ledge, paintings done by some friends and students alongside the favorites that I have kept of my own that inspire me, to appreciate as a start. Next I can reorganize the workspace to be more efficient. I was feeling a bit crowded. I began a series of large paintings , very ambitious, but did not think ahead for the space. I hit the wall, literally. So I took a break from the painting and did a smaller work, created a small rough book for a friend. She liked the result and I was refreshed by the ideas that kept flowing to my fingers to create it. Sometimes change is a remarkable catalyst for interesting creative thought. Fun results. I have one Emilie Loring book. I’m searching for more. My local library searches their consortium for titles they don’t have. I get books from all over the northwestern states. Sometimes there are pencil marks on certain passages from many years ago. Interesting to see what words impressed an idea on other readers over time. I love that. Happy creating! ThNk you, aloha, pam

    Sent from my iPad



    1. We have commonality in designing our spaces. Isn’t it neat, how much a few items can add to how the room feels? I’m curious about your art. If ever you’re willing, I’d love to see what you paint.


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