Sunday, October 24, 2010

Our Family Portrait, Autumn 2010

Thad and I with our ten children, our son-in-law (the one with the beard), and our baby grandson.  Even our family van made it into the picture!  It might be autumn, but it's still pretty warm here in Florida.  We live in bare feet when we're at home!  :-)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Really Fishy Tale

Dear friends,

My kids love fish!  Not to eat, because I personally don't like seafood and rarely serve it.  I'm talking about the ones in aquariums.  We've had fish in small tanks on and off over the years, but in the past year, it's been more of a consuming focus for them.  They'll gladly pull weeds at a penny for every 2 so they can buy more fish and supplies.  Unfortunately, they had their aspirations for a BIG tank of fish, and were trying to figure out how to pool their resources (including next year's birthday money!) to pay upwards of $100 or more to get at least a 20 gallon one from Walmart.  Hmmm.   They had done a lot of research on-line about different kinds of fish and what they need to survive, which types can live with which, etc.  Quite impressively educational, I might say!

Then a few weeks ago, my friend Kim e-mailed and asked if I could let the folks on my local contact list know that she had a 55 gallon tank she wanted to give away.  No way!  We weren't going to spread the word, because we were going to claim it for ourselves!   (Mwa ha ha!)   Kim's tank came complete with all of the supplies and six convict cichlid fish, so named because their stripes make them look like jail birds -- um, I mean jail fish!

We went to pick up the goodies on a Saturday earlier this month.  Kim's husband transferred the cichlids into a small bucket and drained the tank so we could load it in the van.  While the adults were doing this, the kids were out in the back yard looking at their chickens and tortoise.

Back home, we gave everything a good cleaning out on the driveway, hauled it inside, and set it up in the dining room on a sturdy desk that one of my teenagers didn't need anymore.  I know virtually nothing about aquariums and my husband was out of town, so I was letting my 11 year old son call the shots.  He did well.  His research had paid off!  We conditioned the new water with the drops and then let it sit for several hours, as you're supposed to do.  Meanwhile, we put the fish into one of our smaller tanks to await resettlement in their home.  The littlest one didn't survive the trip to our house, so we were down to five convicts, one for each of the five younger kids.  They named them Wolfgang, Artemis, George, Einstein, and Pocahontas.

We also decided to move three rosy reds and a gourami from the smaller tanks into the big one.  Later, we were told that it's surprising the cichlids didn't eat them.  If they had tried to do that, we would have removed the little ones.  They haven't yet, so we not only left them in, we bought some more small fish (two platys, a molly, and a smaller firemouth cichlid) a week or so later.  So far so good!  The only snag was the the new firemouth got stuck underneath the elevated back of the gravel rack, which we then removed.

About the most excitment that happens in the tank is that the cichlids tend to be a bit agressive with each other.  Two of the bigger ones will often face off and swim at each other, then seem to bounce backwards.  They bounce back and forth several times like this and then swim away for a while.  This happens pretty continually.  I guess this is some kind of turf war over who gets to hang out in the castle or something.  Sometimes, there are two sets of fish doing this side by side, which reminds me of synchronized water ballet.

For the most part, the big cichlids leave the little fish alone.  The cheerful looking red and yellow platys (Spark and Sunshine) tend to swim with each other most of the time.  My elegant black molly, named Ink, wanders around with them sometimes, too.  And our snail just crawls along the glass munching algae.

It's really fun watching all the fish.  We keep a chair there at the desk just so someone can sit there and gaze at them.   We can even pull out the keyboard tray and use it as a place to eat or do school work while fish watching.  It's a great way to relax when you're stressed out, too.  Even watching the currents and bubbles from the filters is soothing.
And that's the end of my really fishy tale!

Virginia Knowles

P.S. A little update on the fishy tale: Two of them started nesting a few weeks ago.  They would pick up pieces of gravel in their mouths and move them somewhere else.  They dug a pit right near one of the hollow rocks so they could get inside from underneath it.  Then they laid eggs just outside it, and soon enough probably about 200 baby fish hatched! A couple of the other cichlids gobbled up lots of the babies, so we removed those two to another tank.  The mommy and daddy cichlid spent the first week or so very carefully and nervously guarding their babies, and they are still hovering nearby though they are letting them swim a little farther away.  If one would stray too far, they would suck baby into their mouths, swim back over to the designated nursery area, and spit them back out.  The parents have also banished all of the other adult fish to the other end of the tank, nipping at their tails if they dare come near.  The babies are still pretty small, probably less than 1 centimeter long still.  We'll have to find a good home for most of them soon, especially since I've seen the mommy and daddy nesting again!  The two aggressive fish that we moved to a smaller tank have also been nesting.   It's mesmerizing to sit and watch the fish and wonder what it would be like to have to guard such a large brood instead of just the 9 of our own kids we still have at home.  These fish parents are quite an example of vigilance to me!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Easy Autumn Decorating on a Dime

(Note: This post has been updated with three new pictures since I originally wrote it in September 2008.  I also wrote a new photo in October 2012 with more items here: Autumn: A Pretty Home and Yummy Food on a Budget.)

Welcome to our home! I know it's technically autumn in the northern hemisphere, but it sure doesn't feel that way in Florida. We're thankful for any cool breeze that comes our way, and if we want an autumn atmosphere, we have to make it ourselves. And so we decorate...

Let's start with our front door. I had been looking at autumn wreaths at Walmart, but didn't have it in the budget to pay the full price of $10-30. I did, however, find leaf garland for $3. I knew I had a red berry wreath at home, which I had bought at Target last year for $2.50. So I bought the garland and had Lydia wrap it around the wreath and hang it on the door.  We unwrap the garland again to turn it into a Christmasy wreath after Thanksgiving.  Our metal wreath hanger puts it at just the height to overlap the window, so we can actually see the wreath from inside the front hallway as well. I found garland for $1 at Dollar Tree, but it was more silky and less shiny, and not as natural looking. I bought one, along with a wicker wreath and a roll of autumn leaf silk ribbon for my sister-in-law Sue so she could make her own door hanging.

For many years, I had wanted to buy an autumn-themed flag to hang outside our door; but I never wanted to pay full price.   
I finally found one at a yard sale in spring 2009, brand new with the tags still on, for $2! I bought some spring flags, too.  If you are willing to wait, you can usually find a good deal! 

Much of the key to thrifty decorating is using what you already have. I don't remember when or where I got this cornhusk doll & corncob wall hanging. It was probably a gift. However, someone could make one easily enough. It hangs in our front hallway, between the sets of closet doors.

I purchased a bag of ornamental gourds from Walmart for about $3.  They are coated to preserve, but if they get bruised, they will rot.   I paired them with Indian corn on a long table in our front hallway.  I put more Indian corner on a tall antique cabinet across from it, along with some grains in an oriental style vase with autumny colors. Something different and something the same each year!  These two last pictures are from 2010. 

(Now back to 2008!) Also in our front hallway is another collection of what we already had, with the recent addition of two leaf shaped votive candle holders which were a birthday gift from my nine year old son Micah. (He bought them at Dollar General.) The small decoration at the right says, "Give Thanks" which is always a good harvest time reminder. The heart on the basket says, "A joyful heart is good medicine." I originally made this for my mother-in-law Ann when she was dying of cancer. She kept it on her bedside table. And she did have such a joyful heart in her final months. You can read more about that here: Tribute to Ann Knowles.

On top of this cabinet is the arrangement in the last photo. It is an antique radio cabinet originally belonging to my step-grandfather, Dr. Howard R. Driggs, who was born in the 1870s. It is at least 100 years old, I think. The lacy cover is a pillow sham probably made by Thad's maternal grandmother Madeline Scerra. There used to be doors at the bottom of this cabinet, but they were so badly damaged that we removed them. I arranged handmade quilts in it to cover up the rough insides. Occasionally I nestle a few quaint teddy bears down there. The chair is an heirloom from the Hess / Ransom side of the family. Did one of my great-grandfathers make it? I don't remember, but it's beautiful. We never sit on it because it is too fragile. We have another one in the master bedroom. What can you find in grandmother's attic? I should also note that this cabinet stores many of our decorative items and wedding crystal. I have at least two vintage easel picture frames from grandma's attic in there, but I bring them out in the springtime since I put in a welcome sign with spring flowers that I had printed out from our computer.

Across from the "big cabinet" in that last picture is a dresser that we got at a garage sale. I covered it with an autumn table cloth that we probably got from my Grandma Hess when they moved out of their Florida condo back to my mom's house in Maryland. (This dresser is no longer here in 2010.  It has been replaced with the table with the gourds on it further up in this post.) Our dear friend Tim Schutz gave us the painting as a wedding gift in 1985.  As you've probably guessed, I like to gather related items for decorative groupings. I love baskets!

I include this closeup photo to show you the picture which I cut out from a magazine, mounted on dark green scrapbooking paper, and put in a $3 wooden frame from Walmart. The lovely basket, filled with potpourri is a gift from Thad's sister Sue.

My mom always said that fresh dishtowels perk up a kitchen. (You can read more about this in my essay "My Glorious Dishtowel".) A few weeks ago I gave some, along with matching hotpads, to my daughter Mary, in the tradition of my own mother. I just bought this one for a dollar at Walmart and hung it next to my sink, where I use it to dry my hands after I wash them.

Moving on to the living room, we find more silk flowers, which I bought for about $5 at Walmart a few years ago. Next to it is a reprint of a picture of my great-grandparents, Charles and Mary Hess with two of their children, taken about 100 years ago. I mounted it on decorative scrapbook paper, and put it in a simple wooden frame. This picture usually sits on a shelf in my bedroom, across from my favorite reading chair. I don't like to leave it down where Melody can mangle it. The little round table is from Thad's family and was used as the communion table in Mary's wedding. I am looking for a round lace table cover to replace the one we misplaced there.

I found four of these small pillows at Target for $2.50 a piece last year in their "Dollar Spot." I bring them out in the autumn for a change from our usual ones.

Our home is filled with bookcases. This one in the living room has picture books, Bible story books, and lots of good paperback literature. The top shelf is reserved for heirloom books, like our Harvard Classics, as well as Live Language Lessons by Grandpa Driggs, Hero Tales from History (which belonged to my Grandpa Henry Hess when he was a boy), Heidi, Swiss Family Robinson, Aesop's Fables, Uncle Wiggly and His Friends (which belonged to my father as a boy), and others. Many of these books are about how people (and rabbits, in the case of Uncle Wiggly) are resourceful to use what they have. We can do that, too! We also use these shelves for country decorations. The fabric heart and wooden "faith, hope and love" angel were gifts from my sweet sister-in-law Dana, who is married to my brother John. There are two candles in jars, as well as a pair of artificial apples, an apple plate (a gift from my daughters), and an apple basket. You can see my other apple basket in the picture of my front hallway.

Our piano is below a window, and we use the sill for decorative items. The "Love is spoken here" sign is from the Target clearance shelf. I bought it to remind my children to speak with love, because they don't always do this. Most of the other pictures are nature photos that Joanna or I have taken, but Mary and Ryan's wedding invitation is there, too! A basket on the piano holds old hymnals.

My seven year old daughter Naomi painted this autumn tree for me.

In our bedroom, I hung a needlepoint that my sister Barb made for our autumn wedding in November 1985. Beneath it on the dresser is a candle arrangement made by my sister-in-law Sue. On a platter, she put a large glass vase. Inside this is a pillar candle with a silky ribbon tied around it. Then, around the vase is an assortment of chunky lemon-mint potpourri and ivory colored votive candles. I put the arrangement on a lace doily and added a few small jar candles around it. The other picture on the dresser is a greeting card of a praying woman that our friend Sue Schutz gave us when she married Tim, who gave us the painting in our front hallway. It's a great reminder for me to pray in reverence! The two doilies were most likely made by Thad's Grandma Scerra. It's always a challenge to keep flat surfaces like this clear from clutter, so they stay looking attractive. You can read more about that in the next blog post down, A Place for Everything. There is a digital clock in this dresser too, but it wasn't quite picturesque enough for my photo journal!

I hope that you have enjoyed this little tour of our autumn-decorated home. The things I hope I communicated with you in this blog post are that you can:

  • Decorate with things you already have, especially family heirlooms and thoughtful gifts.
  • Group related items together into a pleasing arrangement.
  • Create wonderful aromas with candles and potpourri!
  • Rotate your decorations seasonally so you have something different to see.
  • Use baskets for a homey look, especially since you can put things in them!
  • Gather new items little by little, and you will have quite a collection after several years.
  • Make your own decorations using materials from a dollar store, Walmart, or a craft store.
  • Keep your house tidy, since clutter distracts from beauty.
  • Frame family photographs, greeting cards, magazine photos, or nature pictures that you take.
  • You don't need anything fancy or expensive! Simplicity is beautiful!
I'd love to hear your ideas, too, so feel free to post a comment or two!

You can also see my holiday decorating from last year at Christmas Decorations. Same house, different season!
Virginia Knowles

Truth and Grace in the Stories of Our Lives

Truth and Grace in the Stories of Our Lives
by Virginia Knowles
(Written in April 2007)

“Every happening, great and small
is a parable whereby God speaks to us,
and the art of life is to get the message.”

~Malcolm Muggeridge

I’ve always said that God is in control, that he is Sovereign. Now it’s sinking in a little deeper, a little richer, a little more personally, as he is illuminating a fresh way to renew my mind. If you are like me, you have a Life Story with countless chapters, and more than a few of them swirl up your soul with confusion, fear, guilt, or bitterness.

    “What if?”

          “If only…”

                “Why, God, why?”

Compelling questions, to be sure, but what are the answers? I am learning to reinterpret the experiences of my life by searching out evidences of God’s truth and his grace in each situation, whether past or present. In his Awesome Providence, he has a plan for my life, and that includes the bumps and bruises along with way. So: truth and grace! What do I mean?

Truth: What actually happened (or is currently happening), apart from how I have perceived it? This requires a little objectivity because our feelings can be so deceptive! What details would someone else add to the story? This could either be someone who was involved in the situation, or a mature, trustworthy friend or pastoral counselor. Now, what would the Bible say about what has happened? I have to be careful not to pick out an isolated verse, but instead seek out the “whole counsel of Scripture” as various passages round out the picture. Truth requires acknowledging my own contribution to the problem rather than merely blaming someone else.  In that, there is hope: since the circumstances are not entirely out of my sphere of influence, then I can become a part of the solution, too. Another question: What truth did I learn from (and about) the Lord in this situation, and what does he still wants me to grasp even now?

Grace: How has God poured out his mercy and forgiveness on me during this time, even though I may not have recognized it or appreciated it yet? How has he used a proverbial “brick wall” (a blocked opportunity) to channel my life in a new direction? How has he brought about spiritual growth? How have I learned to lean harder on him, rather than rely on my own self-effort? How has he provided other people to bring encouragement, comfort and truth to me? How can I experience his grace and liberty freshly, even if much time has passed? How can I find a release from my bitterness through forgiving others? How can I overcome evil with good, and respond to an insult with a hearty blessing? How am I to extend this healing balm of grace to others who might be suffering as I have?

If you have been through a troublesome time that still weighs heavily on you, or if you are still rehashing uncomfortable details and feelings, you may have been encouraged just to forget it all and pretend it didn’t happen. That’s a nice thought, but it isn’t always possible or healthy to suppress painful memories. I believe that we can learn to reinterpret our life stories so we can release the bitterness, confusion, guilt, or fear from our minds without necessarily forgetting what happened. Then we can look back on the very same story with joy and gratitude over what God has done for us. This will enable us to move on in life with confidence that he will still be with us, working his quiet wonders! I think the story of Joseph and his spiteful brothers in Genesis illustrates this principle beautifully. No matter what he had suffered as the consequences of his brothers’ jealous hatred, he could say to them, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” He saw the providence of God in bringing him through slavery and prison to a position of power where he could preserve the lives of entire nations throughout a famine.

Try this little exercise. Pick a chapter from your life story that still bothers you – maybe not a big hairy one this first time, but something manageable. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you take time to evaluate it from a fresh perspective of truth and grace. (You can use the Truth and Grace questions above as a launching point.) Write your thoughts down if you can, and don’t rush through it. If you kept a journal during this time (which I highly recommend!) then read through it carefully to glean insight. If you need the perspective of someone else involved, ask for it if you can do so without undue conflict. After you have your thoughts organized in your head or on paper, start summarizing the key points. Now, write out a short “Authorized Version” – the “Grace And Truth Edition” of the story -- that you can quickly recall whenever this memory comes to mind again. I like to use the acronym GATE for “Grace And Truth Edition” because a gate is usually attached to a fence, which is a boundary designed to keep things and people secure. You can go in and out of a fenced area safely by walking through an open gate and staying on the path. Likewise, the Grace And Truth Edition of your story allows you to revisit your past on the Path of Providence, rather than veering off into destructive thorn bush thought patterns again. We must continually discipline our minds toward true and wholesome thinking, even after we know how. This is not a one shot deal, but the spiritual warfare of taking our thoughts captive to Christ Jesus. (See 2 Corinthians 10:5.)

I find these Scriptures helpful when I wonder why God is “dealing” with me in a certain way:

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things… I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." Philippians 4:4-8, 12-13

“For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” 2 Corinthians 1:8-11

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:26-39


I encourage you to meditate on these Scriptures and let them sink deeply into your heart! I think they are the key to understanding what God is doing in our lives through the hard times. You may also wish to read Christian biographies, such as The Hiding Place by Corrie tenBoom, in which she recounts God’s faithfulness during her years at the horrific Nazi concentration camps. She even thanked God for the tormenting fleas, and later found that this is what kept the guards out of their barracks, giving her free reign to minister the Messiah’s grace to the perishing women there. Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God by Noël Piper shares the stories of Lilias Trotter, Sarah Edwards, Gladys Aylward, Esther Ahn Kim, and Helen Roseveare. Each of these women faced trials in life that we could barely even imagine surviving, yet they not only endured but conquered with courage and thanksgiving.

Staying in God’s word, coming before His Throne in continual prayer, worshiping with songs full of sound doctrine, and receiving wise counsel and correction from mature Christians (through reading, church services, personal discussions, etc.) are excellent ways to keep yourself strong in truth and grace. Then, as new situations arise in your daily life, you will be prepared to deal with them rightly from the start, and spare yourself much future heartache and heartbreak. I know how easy it is to be plagued with fear and confusion about what will happen in the days and years to come, whether with my health, children, marriage, home schooling, ministry, finances, and whatever else touches so close to my heart. I want to be able to look forward in faith and confidence. And I can, because “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future!” God is great and God is good! I can trust His truth and grace!
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