Thursday, November 24, 2011


This saying has been popping up on Pinterest lately and I've been trying to keep it in mind on a daily basis. We get so busy at our house trying to get through one thing in order to get to the next that I often whip through many of my daily tasks by rote without thinking much. Unfortunately, that sometimes includes my daily prayers. It's not that I don't recognize the ways I've been blessed but rather it's so easy to acknowledge those blessing cerebrally without giving myself time to feel them in my heart.

There have been a couple situations the past few weeks that have me all stirred up and feeling uncertain about what the future holds. And since I'm what I call a Pathological Worrier, I let these areas of uncertainty latch on to my thinking and take over my mind and heart. I don't sleep or eat and I feel constant stress. And, even worse, my worry becomes like a giant rolling snowball that gets away from me, careening down the hill of life picking up other petty worries, growing larger and more out of control as I go along.

I remember talking with my Zippy once when she was younger and mentioned in passing how I was worrying about something. She was silent for a few minutes and then she said, bless her heart, in a quiet timid voice, not wanting to call-out her mom, "Mrs. M (her first grade teacher) says that worrying is a sin." Ouch! As a Christian, my deep pathological worrying (and mine is pathological in the sense that it almost becomes a disease state) is not just bad for my health. It's an indication that I don't think God is in control or that He won't take care of me and mine. It's a failure of faith. Ouch again.

So this Thanksgiving I'm trying to remind myself of and express gratitude for the ways that I have been blessed and the ways in which I have been provided for. And honestly, I may not always have some of those same blessings but that doesn't mean there won't be others, perhaps even better. I believe in the providence of God and so in addition to being thankful, I'm trying to be more "trustful". The two go hand-in-hand for me at this time in my life and while the process makes me want to cry at times, I am thankful to my core for the lessons in trust and gratitude that I have been learning.

I encourage you this Thanksgiving to count your blessings and then spend time thinking about them. Dwell on them, mull them over, consider where they come from and what their impact has been on your life. Move from the intellectual acknowledgment that you have been granted good things in your life to a deep, heartfelt humility of how richly you have been blessed. Then open your heart to the idea that you can be blessed in other unforseen ways as well. There's always something to be thankful for.

And yes, I am genuinely thankful for each of you butterflies who come flittering through my jungle. Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pipe-Cleaner Christmas Trees

I never planned on such an early Christmas post but like it or not, Christmas is barreling down on us. I hate that I think of it that way sometimes but I not only have a personal Christmas, I also have Christmas at work- more trees and decorations, more food and festivities, more hustle and bustle. Any time I can cut the work load without sacrificing the holiday spirit- I'm all for it.

Cute and cheap and quick! That's the ticket! I found myself wanting "something more" for a centerpiece on the tables at work last year and came up with these little guys. They go together fairly quickly and I got plenty of compliments, particularly on the ones made with the white sparkly pipecleaner.

Important Bit- I honestly don't remember if I came up with this on my own or if I had seen it somewhere else and just didn't remember. All I know is that I was doing a centerpiece for a meal with the patients and it had to be super-duper inexpensive. If you've done this or have seen it some place, please let me know so I can give proper credit.

The bare minimum items that you need for each tree are:

Styro cones
Pipe cleaners

I used 6 inch cones for these trees and that size took 17 pipe cleaners. Of course I went with the sparkly ones.

Insert one end of the first pipe cleaner into the top of the cone about 1/2 an inch.

Bend the pipe cleaner over at a 90 degree angle,


and start curling it in a circle around in a circle on the flat top of the cone.


The stem will spring loose if you don't hold on to it so you'll need to "keep a holt of it" as they say out on the farm.

The first stem should make it over the edge of the flat top on the cone. The nice thing about the sparkly pipe cleaner is that it sort of sticks into the styro a bit to hold on. We'll talk in a minute about the softer pipe cleaner.

When you run out of stem, make an elbow about 1/4 inch long ...

and stick it into the cone.


Insert the next stem right beside the first one and continue to wrap the cone.


Be careful about leaving too much space between each stem or the cone will show through. If you're using white pipe cleaner that's not such an issue. I try to coil the stems so that the ends of the little bristles overlap just a tiny bit.  That seems to be a fairly economical way of doing it but of course you can wrap the pipe cleaner more densely if you prefer. Just remember that you will need more than 17 stems of pipe cleaner if you do.


Wrap the pipe cleaner all the way down to the base of the cone.

Turn about an inch or so of the last stem under the base and insert the end into the styro.

You can make toppers for your trees if you would like using whatever you have on hand. I had these small ornaments and just ran a pearl pin through each one and stuck it onto the top of the tree. 

You could decorate your tree with sequins or beads if you wanted to but I didn't do that so don't have any pics to show you how cute I'm sure it would be. 

The white tree you see above (in the middle) is made with the sparkly white pipecleaner and got lots of compliments. People had no idea what it was made from. Then we have a fun little Santa's Hat tree made from the softer pipe cleaner. There was a pom pom on top but it apparently went on back to the North Pole, never to be seen again. The white at the top of the Santa Hat tree gave me an ornery time- it didn't want to stay put.

Cut a piece of stem about half an inch, fold it into a "V" and use it to anchor your cantankerous section of stem into place.

For last year's patient Christmas Dinner table, I was working with a lime green and red theme but green Christmas trees are so expected so I made mine red.

We set up one long banquet table so I generally use a long centerpiece that stretches most of the length of the table. I ended up with about half a dozen more trees after I took this photo.

I bought the silver sparkle stars at Michael's. They're foam and a little hot glue gun action was all it took to get them to stay.

The Intern made this centerpiece for our overflow table. So simple but so festive. Maybe it would look nice if the entire thing were set on a silver or glass platter.

So there you go- easy little trees for your Christmas decorating needs. My mind is already churning for this year- maybe an entire Christmas tree forest with trees of different sizes, some fuzzy, some sparkly, maybe some wrapped with ribbon. Oh boy, the possibilities.

And even though this is a Christmas post, don't forget to have a beautiful Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chrysalis- and I Don't Mean Me

I just finished reading Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd. Maria Merian was born in Frankfurt, Germany and grew up in the family publishing business. Her artistic talents were encouraged and nurtured almost from the day she could hold a paint brush. Ms. Merian was also fascinated by butterflies, moths, caterpillars, and metamorphosis. As a young girl, Maria spent countless hours searching out caterpillars and cocoons to bring home, sketch, and observe, trying to unravel the mystery of insects.

Image via Ursus Books & Prints

Merian began working in her family's publishing business, learning the delicate task of engraving plates for printing and at the age of 28 published her first book, New Book of Flowers, a collection of her sketches, drawings, and paintings. Merian married early, began a family, moved to Nuremberg, divorced her husband, moved to a secluded cult compound, fled from there to Amsterdam, and finally, at the age of 52, travelled to Suriname in South America for the sole purpose of studying, painting, and exploring as many of the Amazonian butterflies, moths, and caterpillars as she could discover. She had metamorphosis fever.

Public domain image from German Wikipedia

Oh, did I mention that she left for Suriname in the year 1699? Yes, that's right, 1699.

Photo by Terry Dunn via Flickr

Now, there are two things in life for which I have a special passion. One is obviously butterflies. The other is the Amazonian River Basin. It's been a fantasy of mine since childhood to travel up the Amazon River to it's source, or as close as I can get. I read whatever I can about the early exploration and history of the Amazon River Basin and I know from my readings that the Amazon jungle, even now, is no place for the weak of body or faint of heart. Though it is still a wild and dangerous place (sometimes in ways that have nothing to do with geography), the Amazon jungle defeated more early European explorers than can be counted. It is a beautiful yet brutal place. In those early years of exploration,  the animals of the jungle such as leopards and snakes might get you but it was more likely that if the indigenous tribes didn't do away with you the insects and plant life would surely do the job. Savage, that's just all you can say about some of the ways the tiny fauna of the Amazon can dispense with you. And some of the fauna ain't so tiny.

 Note- After a photo search, I have decided to skip over inserting a visual aid at this point as even I was getting a bit freaked out. No need to illustrate giant insects  of the Amazon Jungle because I would like for y'all to come back to the Butterfly Jungle (where there are no giant insects).

With 90% of the animal species in the Amazon being insects, Merian was in her glory. A single square mile of rain forest has on average more than 50,000 insect species, with an estimated 4,000 of those being butterflies. Emphasis on "estimated". Merian had originally intended to stay in Suriname for five years and quickly established herself in the coastal capital of Paramaribo, developing relationships with the indigenous tribes along the rivers she travelled to the interior. Fearless, Merian hired guides to cut paths into the jungle. Merian sketched, painted, collected, observed, and interviewed. After only two years and weak from what was most likely malaria, Merian was forced to return home.

I picked up this book because the idea of a woman in her early 50's packing up and heading out into the Amazon Jungle in 1699 AD to study metamorphosis intrigued me- naturally. But this book is not just a biography of an acclaimed artist and self-taught entomology pioneer. It is also an exploration of the study of metamorphosis. At the time, the prevailing belief about where insects came from was that they arose from "spontaneous generation". In this context, "spontaneous generation" did not refer to the origin of life (life oozing up out of the primordial soup) but to the origin of the mice in your cupboard, for example. If you wrapped cheese and bread in rags and stashed them in a dark corner you would soon have mice in the rags and so- spontaneous generation of mice. Insects arose from rotting mud or fruit, old books, and dew. Old wool turned to moths, frogs arose from raindrops, flies were generated from old snow. Leave a woman's hair in the sunlight and it turned to snakes. Basil between two tiles held together with horse dung and placed in the cellar for a month gave you scorpions. To get a bee? Well, first you beat to death a three year old bull..... not kidding, there's a poem to help you remember the lurid details. These theories come from a casual observation of the natural world without a systematic investigation. Yes, if you leave trash in a heap you will get maggots but in the 17th century the curious-minded were only just beginning to say, "Wait a minute...." Bolstered by a growing contingency of theologians who reminded that all life was created by God, the debate and investigation were just getting under way. These early entomologists developed ingenious experiments to test their theories but Merian went a step further by seeking the association of caterpillar with its environment, the food it ate, the pupae they formed, the life that emerged from the cocoon. She sought to solve such mysteries as why, when she observed a caterpillar spin a cocoon, flies would on occasion emerge instead of a moth or butterfly. The depiction of these real life contexts are what made her paintings so revolutionary. Merian sought to depict all life stages from larva through the imago with the host plants in one painting. Merian's constant experimentation with pigments and style paved the way for her to soon be a much sought after and well-respected illustrator, in addition to her contributions to the understanding metamorphosis. During this period in history, insects were associated with witchcraft and the Devil, so Merian had to tread lightly to avoid being ostracized, particularly while she lived in Germany, where witch burnings were still taking place.

Stages of an Emperor Moth: Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensis, Plate XI
Image via

The book concludes with a very interesting discussion on just what does happen during metamorphosis. Ms. Todd points out that it is the caterpillar, not the butterfly, that is the engine of metamorphosis. Please, I can't even start talking about metamorphosis because it is so cool and I'll just never shut up. HOWEVER- did you know that a caterpillar is not just a goo-filled eating machine but that there are components of the imago, the finished butterfly, in the caterpillar before it winds itself into a cocoon? Oh please, it's all so fascinating! It's the caterpillar that does all the metamorphing- the butterfly just steps out and gets all the glory!

Image via The British Museum

The one disappointment about this book is that Merian's actual time in Suriname takes up only a small portion of the book. That disappointment most likely comes from my wanting to be there, to live vicariously through the descriptions of Merian's adventures and misadventures in the Amazon Jungle.

Image via Powell's Books

You can do an image search to explore more of Merian's paintings but I came across ArtCyclopedia that links to online museum collections which contain her prints.

SummerBirds(Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian) [Hardcover](2010)byMargarita Engle, Julie Paschkis 
For the kids, there's Summer Birds, Merian's story, by Margarita Engle.

Dover Publications also has a book and CD of Merian's prints.

Note- the books in this post link to Amazon but I am not an Amazon Associate and am not trying to sell you something so I can get one of those huge cuts of the pie from Amazon. The links take you to Amazon simply for your convenience should you be interested.

So OK, that's it. Go get a good book to read. See ya next time.