Cocoons: Then and Now

On cold winter days, I like to curl up with a journal and a steaming cup of tea, to sort through the mental keepsakes I have collected over the years. Even though I can indulge in this pursuit anytime, there is something about an overcast sky that brings out my tendency to turn inward and begin the act I call cocoon building.

Like the caterpillar that spins his cocoon in a particular season, certain events and situations often precipitate my inner work. It could be something specific, like a job loss or leaving grad school; or it could be something more nebulous, like the feeling of losing direction or recovering from a period of depression. Sometimes, I thrash around–literally and figuratively–for quite a while before I begin the cocoon-building process. But it is when I take that step that the healing taking place. Within my cocoon, I can explore the ins and outs of my pain. I emerge stronger, willing to take risks that lead me in new directions, often beyond what I thought possible.

cacoon拷貝The first time I consciously explored the cocoon idea, as I wrote in Cocoons and Coffee Houses, the process moved me across the country from Seattle back to Michigan. Twenty years later, another cocoon experience would lead me halfway around the world. This time, I was exploring options after leaving graduate school. A ready-made cocoon came in the form of a three month house-sitting stint. With many of our things in storage, I focused my creative energy on cooking and crocheting as I explored job possibilities, while preparing applications, teaching demos, and lesson plans.

While lining up my references, one of them suggested I come to Taiwan to teach for a year or two. While I appreciated the idea, I was quick to discount it, at least in my own mind. It was too crazy. It was too far away. I was too old to live in a foreign country. I had lots of reasons why it couldn’t work. I thanked him and told him I’d think about it.

I had been to Taiwan before, so it wasn’t totally unknown to me, but the idea of leaving my family, my friends, my country–seemed to be overwhelming. Eventually, the moment came when the only thing keeping me from this opportunity was my desire–a STRONG desire–for certainty. I agreed to a phone interview. And then a second one with several committee members. I talked to my family. I updated my passport. My husband and I made plans for me to go for a year to test the waters. I prepared for my new adventure.

Well, this is year four for me, and it’s the second year for my husband. Now it’s time to build a new cocoon. My time here has been filled with projects and activities that I never could have imagined. And while I love many of them, I now fly from one thing to another, with little time to think or create or just be. I need to slow down and think about what I really want; how I want to live my life in the next few years. Become intentional about what I’d like to have happen next in my life, rather than getting up each day and going from one deadline to the next.

This time, my cocoon holds new ideas about how to organize my time, ideas, and space. I feel a pull to move inside, an invitation to stay indoors, think about a way to channel my creative energy into my quilting, and work on a new cocoon. And fix myself a cup of tea.

The drawings in this post are done by Rena Chen. She has a BA in Applied English from Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. She enjoys arts, crafts, movies, and surfing the Internet. She is currently preparing for the government exam for cultural administration and hopes to one day work either in a museum or in a county cultural affairs bureau.   

The Incubation Box

Photo credit:

As part of my efforts at getting back into quilting, I have indulged in a few online courses from Craftsy. I love these classes because they are containers of inspiration unto themselves. I can watch them whenever I want and as many as times I want. The Craftsy platform lets me take video notes, ask questions of the instructor and the other people in the class, and share photos of ideas in progress. I can also download course material and decide how much of it I want to print.

My latest acquisition from Craftsy is a course called Designing Modern Quilts with Weeks Ringle (pictured on left). Last night, I was taking a break from work (something I should do more often), and I started watching the first of the 10 lessons. The 34 minutes went quickly with lots of ideas about how we are going to approach the study of design as we incorporate the ideas into quilts and other projects. I enjoyed the video right from the start, but when she started sharing her thoughts about how important it is to make time in our days, our heads, and our homes for design work, she was already speaking my “container” language–for space (homes), ideas (heads) and time (days). I certainly felt as if I had chosen the right class!

Weeks showed several books and other resoures, including Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. One of the ideas from Twyla’s book is about the boxes she uses to maintain records of her choreography projects. In her words,

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses, I
fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance.This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me. The box documents the active research on every project.

-Twyler Tharp

Weeks talks about the incubation process in such a box. While the banker’s box works for some, she suggests a plastic box with a fitted lid, one that is somewhat see-through. Instead of putting items in that record the process, she put in a variety of things that act as inspiration for a design project.  I like this idea of assembling a box of creative paraphernalia that appeals to me and letting it percolate. Possible items I will include in my box: pattern ideas, pieces of fabric, a photo or two, perhaps a poem or a few words that seem right, and a few buttons or trinkets I like. It will be fun to see what happens. Even if it does nothing more than getting me thinking more creatively and moving me toward my next project, it will also be fun. And that in itself can be be a wise investment of time, materials, and thought.

Watch this space for an update on this project. In the meantime, you might want to check out Week’s blog, Craft Nectar.

Stories from the Past: Part 2

Located in my hometown of Bay City, Michigan.


The coffee shop where I incubated the most ideas is probably one in my hometown of Bay City, Michigan. Brewtopia has changed names and ownership over the years, but this coffee shop has been an ongoing part of my life since I returned to Michigan (from Seattle) in the late 80s. It’s a convenient spot for meeting people and catching up, and it provides a cocoon-like atmosphere for sorting, prioritizing, and planning.

I’ve visited many coffee houses over the years, and  these “containers of place” never seem to disappoint when it comes to a change of scenery and a fresh perspective. But they aren’t the only such containers that promote the creative process. For example, it doesn’t hurt at all that Brewtopia is just around the corner from one of the best fabric shops ever!

A fabric wonderland awaits you inside Fabric Fare.

The Fabric Fair has been in Bay City for years. This immense fabric container has room after room of textile treasures, including a room especially for quilters. I could get lost in the possibilities held in this room. Arranged in aisles and rows, the bolts of fabric lead the eye from one color family to another. Bright colors, pastels, bold patterns, small prints, large prints–how does one decide? In this container of place, the raw materials for quilts and other patchwork creations are practically endless.

As a child, I went to The Fabric Fare with my mother, who was an excellent seamstress. And while it was a fabric paradise then, when they added the quilting room, I not only began to understand my mother’s interest in fabric, I began sharing that interest even though we create with fabric in different ways.

Another place from my childhood is a place that made my childhood possible. St. Laurent’s Brothers Nut House. Their slogan: Nuts since 1904. The family “story” is that my paternal grandparents met there. My grandfather worked there, and in those early days, my future grandmother went to be a secretary at the company, and the rest is history. So, yes, my grandparents met at the nuthouse!

The Nut House! Nuts Since 1904!

St. Laurent Brothers is an amazing place. Full of barrels, bins, baskets, boxes, and other containers holding all kinds of candies, nuts, and other snacks. The old and new blend in this place with confections I remember from my childhood, along with an M&M display where you can personalize your own mix from a wide array of colors. My children have always loved our visits to St. Laurent Brothers. Over the years, I have also introduced many visitors to the Nut House, including a few students from Taiwan. Two other teachers and I accompanied 42 students to from Ming Chuan University in Taiwan to Saginaw Valley State University last summer for a 4-week study program. In addition to the field trips we did as a large group, a few students accompanied me on a two separate trips to Bay City. They loved St. Laurent Brothers and the treasures they found there. When they were finished with exploring the Nut House, they found me just a few blocks away, back at Brewtopia, sipping my coffee and making notes in my journal.

Today’s last “container of place” is the Sage Library. It is just one of the branches of the Bay Country Library System, but to me, it’s the most magnificent. When I was young, my parents brought us here every other Saturday morning, to bring back books and check out new ones. You see that turret on the second floor? That is where the children’s wing is. If you go up to that spot, you step up to a small alcove that contains rows of books under the windows. Those books were each containers in their own right, with information, stories, ideas, how-to’s, and puzzle books. We had worlds to explore in that glorious building. Our love of books and the wonders they held continued throughout our lives.

This concludes the tour of the containers of place from my home town. Each in its own way inspires creativity and imagination. Even though I now live in Taiwan, I make sure I return to Brewtopia and the other containers of place from my childhood.  Bay City, Michigan may be unique in some ways, but not in the mere presence of places that provide incubation and process. Every city and town has its own places that inspire possibility. And coffee shops are only one entry point to that world. While I will always find other coffee houses to explore, there is something comforting about the familiar, about returning over and over to the place where it all began.

Cocoons and Coffee Houses

My last post about containers as a place for processes to occur got me thinking about incubation again, and about eggs and other containers that occur in nature. After the egg hatches, its new container is a nest. Other natural containers include dens, marsupia,* and cocoons. Especially cocoons. They are about more than birth and growth; cocoons are about transformation.

In my cocoons, I don’t do such a literal transformation that my caterpillar self can’t even be recognized in the butterfly that emerges from her cocoon, but there are many types of transformation. In those quiet moments wrapped in the warmth and protection of my cocoon (made from a quilt, afghan, or fluffy blanket), many things happen as a result of just being present in the moment: the blending of ideas, the birth of a vision, the solution to a puzzle, a life-changing insight.

Lovely Beans, a coffee shop just around the corner from our apartment

One of the best discoveries I ever made was that coffee houses are ready-made cocoons. Although there are times when I meet friends for coffee and conversation, there is something transformational about heading to a coffee shop alone, armed with nothing more than a book or two, a notebook and some pens. Even a computer is optional. Cocoons and computers don’t necessarily go together. For me, it is the very act of getting away from the computer that lends itself so well to incubating ideas, transforming lethargy, and gaining a new perspective. The computer, along with all the other things on my to-do list, will be there when I come back.

What do I take to my coffee house cocoon? A very limited task list. I might take one or two projects that have been eluding me. Something that needs a creative breakthrough. A section of a chapter that isn’t quite coming together. A few ideas that need to be brainstormed. A journal. A stack of index cards. Pens in a few different colors.

I’ve never been in a coffee house with bad ambiance or with bad coffee, for that matter. The baristas are almost always good for a short, friendly conversation, but they also know when to let you slip away into your private space. They don’t bother people who are in their cocoons, quietly transforming.

And now the coffee shop becomes, for me, a container of sorts. A cocoon. It holds minimal distractions, but endless potential for discovery. Anyone for a latte?

*marsupium: the pouch where female marsupials (like kangaroos) carry their young. (pl. marsupia)

Containers as Incubators

My daughter a short time after she outgrew the crocheted dress.

Creativity needs time and space.

While some processes are fairly quick and straightforward, others require more time and maybe a container in which the process or change can occur.

With my quilting, the incubation period is never the same. When my daughter was a baby, I was coming to terms with the unexpected loss of a new job. I was happy to have the time with her and my young son, but I also wanted to find something creative to do with my time. So I found several patterns and ideas, gathered the materials, and made two small quilts–one for my son and one for a doll bed. I also crocheted a dress and bonnet for my daughter, along with a doll–complete with a handsewn dress and yarn hair. The incubation period was short, and I could move into a productive and satisfying time.

When my daughter had Logan, it took longer for the elements of his quilt to come together. I had a container with the fabric and a file to collect ideas, but the two just wouldn’t come together. The incubation period was longer, but in the end, it was the knowing I wanted to complete it in time to take it to him when I visited last summer. That was the impetus to push a little. Then I found the pattern, something that one would not think of for a child, but with the farm theme, I could make a few adjustments and turn it into just what I envisioned.

Recently, as I’m organizing my quilting fabric, I’m drawn to work on a quilt for my daughter. It means putting away a couple other half-baked ideas that are on my sewing table, but that’s ok. She originally asked me about a quilt several YEARS ago, so I think it’s time has come. I began collecting the fabric when she first mentioned it, but other things always came up. Some of that fabric has seen the inside of many different containers. I had actually figured she might not be interested anymore, so I was delighted last summer when she asked if I was still going to make her one. She even wanted it to be a little more traditional than Logan’s pattern. I found a few patterns that fit her request and the fabric. A much longer incubation process this time, but I’m ready to begin.

It turns out my writing is a lot like that. Today’s post started out as something totally different, but that idea needs more time to incubate. It needs a container of its own; it turns out that I was trying to put too much into one container–one post. I’m allowing time and space for the ideas to come together in their own way.

COMING UP NEXT: Cocoons and Coffee Houses

Finding Fabric

I enjoy quilting, and I love fabric. But since I love lots of things, I sometimes have to satisfy my love of quilting vicariously by looking at the work of other quilters, watching my quilting videos, going through quilting books, or—best of all, playing with fabric.

Mr Logan with the quilt I made him

That’s why when I made the move to Taiwan over three years ago, my fabric collection did not make the trip. To be fair, I only planned to be here for a year or two, so it didn’t make sense to bring a lot of stuff with me. But when I made the decision to come back to Taiwan for a third year of teaching, I also decided that it was time to get back into my quilting. Without a hobby, I was spending way too much time working.

In late fall of my second year in Taiwan, with my decision made to return for a third year, I started building a modest stash of fabric. When I got my first box of fabric from, I would go through the fabric and think about the possibilities.  The delivery box served as a home for my fabric treasure chest.

STORING: (November 2010)  Since my grandson, Logan, was on the way, my second order of fabric contained several John Deere prints, so I could make a quilt for his farm-themed nursery. The fabric stash, though still relatively small, could not fit entirely in either of the boxes. So my stash moved into a clear zippered, which made for a cheerful stack of color to look at, but not all that efficient for working with. But that was ok, because the apartment I was in at that time didn’t really have room to set up actually quilting space. But with my husband joining me in year three, a new apartment was in the plan.

February 2011: The new apartment was spacious in comparison, with lots of light and a western kitchen. I was sold from the moment I saw it. About the same time, I found a Singer sewing machine at Costco.

June 2011: I inherited many wonderful kitchen and household items from my friend, Diane. Among the treasures were three containers like the one you see here. This one would be the future home for my fabric stash which would grow when I returned in September with fabric from the US. It was handy and kept things contained, but when I wanted to find fabric for a project, it was not very convenient. It took me a lot of trial and error in the big plastic crate to find the fabrics to go along with the John Deere prints. But the quilttop for Logan was completed in February 2012. You can see above how excited he was to get it last summer, when Grandma was home visiting in the US.

COMPARTMENTALIZING:  (September 2012) After my summer in the US, I brought back the rest of my fabric. I used a bookcase to begin sorting the fabric by color families. And then we found the storage unit I really wanted for my fabric. And while the fabric isn’t really organized yet, it is getting there. And it’s become easier to find the fabric I want and to imagine projects I want to do. Those vibrant colors do a lot to get me thinking about future projects. 

ORGANIZING: (November 2012)  Once the quilting bug bites, I go for it. But then it might be a while before the bug really bites me again. But when it does, I’m ready. I can find what I need and see what I have. I suspect it won’t be long now before I finally get started on a quilt for my daughter.

One last thing, some of my fabric did come from the fabric district in Taipei. It’s a great place, like a mini mall of fabric. I’ve been there twice, and I’ll be going again. Yongle (the name of the district) means “forever happy” in Chinese. And now that my fabric is nearly organized, I can imagine being “forever happy” with my reestablished hobby.

Compartmentalizing or Organizing?

When my friend Joycelyn recently posted this cartoon in her blog,* she added a question. “What do you think, maybe not so much organized as compartmentalized?”

I really like the cartoon, and her question got me thinking about how containers work–and why they sometimes don’t. Maybe there is more to the challenge of organization than simply placing things inside of containers. After considering the possibilities, I ranked the ways I use containers in a hierarchy of increasing complexity: Storing, Compartmentalizing, and Organizing. Based on my list, I have to say that although the items in the cartoon are certainly stored and compartmentalized, they aren’t really organized. Organization might mean something more than dividing things into categories.

A simple packing box can serve as an illustration of my three-step hierarchy of container functions. At the most basic level, boxes simply hold things. The items don’t need to be organized or even sorted. At the compartmentalizing level, the things can be categorized and grouped with similar items. When it comes to organization, the categories are arranged in a way that allows for their contents to be used for their intended purpose, with little hassle. Here is how I use the hierarchy to deal with some of my own clutter issues—a topic I will return to in later posts.

STORING: As much as I hate to admit it, I regularly resort to taking a packing box (or three) and loading them up with all of the papers and odd items that collect on any flat surface throughout the apartment. Once I gather everything up, the boxes are holding the items. The apartment almost looks uncluttered, and I know where things are, even though it would take a LOT of time to find a particular item among the contents of the boxes involved. Out of sight, but never really out of mind. But a visitor to the apartment doesn’t know about the boxes stashed in the corner of the bedroom. Rats! Unless they read this post!

COMPARTMENTALIZING: I make a game out of the sorting so that it doesn’t become overwhelming. In fact, I often start out with five or ten items at a time, something that can be accomplished in just a few minutes. I try not to overthink things; instead focusing on broad categories that can be more specifically organized in the next step. If I am using a block of time, I make some piles outside of the boxes to make room for all of the categories.set up the piles outside of the boxes to divide the items into. Afterwards, the categories can be stacked back in the boxes, ready for the next step–organization. It would still take a lot of time to locate something I wanted, but the odds would be more in my favor.

ORGANIZING: I start with two or three categories of related items–things related to work, things related to household things, things related to my hobbies and interests. I start putting things away in their appropriate locations. Sometimes, the organized items will still be in one of the boxes, but often, their “homes” are in other containers, such as files, or drawers, or shelves, or other boxes—you get the idea! And the bonus is that I often discover ways to make the items more readily available. They are no longer just sitting in containers; they are more likely to get used. Sometimes, organizational ideas build on one another and even cross-pollinate.

Why is this important? Because there is more to life than work. In my next post, I will share how the hierarchy is making a significant contribution to my quilting hobby.

COMING UP NEXT: Quilting in the Hierarchy

*Joycelyn’s blog Nine Paths features all kinds of things about the Enneagram. Since personality obviously has a lot to do with the way we collect, use, and organize things, this can be a good resource for understanding your own take on containers and many other things. Visit her blog at


Stories from the Past: Part 1

Containers from my Grandmother!

Like me, you may be curious as to how I became so fascinated with containers. Maybe it’s because they are often like treasure chests. Sometimes those treasure chests are ready made, with wonderful things already dwelling inside. In other cases, a wonderful container comes into your life and invites you to fill it with self-selected treasures.

I realized that my history of containers definitely goes back into childhood. And two of my very favorite examples of such containers came to me through my grandmother, both of them as Christmas gifts. I find it particularly interesting because I don’t remember lots of specific gifts from my childhood, but these two made quite an impact.

One year, my grandmother gave my sister and me a shared gift. When we removed the wrapping paper, we saw a simple, but sturdy box with a hinged cover. Happily for us, even though it was the right size, this was not the kind of box that department stores give out as gift boxes for clothes. When we peeked inside, we were delighted by the colorful treasure that awaited us. We discovered construction paper, crayons, and markers in bright colors, along with scissors, a stapler, staples, paper clips, and a roll of tape.

We took it home and spent many hours happily engaged with the contents of our newly acquired treasure chest. And even when it wasn’t all neat and tidy, it was . . . . contained! I don’t remember any disputes with my sister over this treasure chest of creative possibility, but I do remember falling in love with all those colorful supplies. I can’t help wondering if that is why visits to office supply stores still make me smile to this day.

On another Christmas, my sister and I each received identical wooden jewelry boxes. Not only did it hold jewelry and other trinkets, but it was also a music box. When we opened the lid, a tiny plastic ballerina in a pink tutu twirled in circles to the music. In addition to the many compartments available once you lifted the lid, two small drawers on the front of the box provided additional space. For many years, the jewelry box from my grandmother was a home for my small keepsakes.

My current desire to get organized and prioritize my projects is fueled by the memory of how containers hold more than physical items.  They each store something of myself, something essential that I am drawn back to over and over again. Whether I’m sorting through mementos of events already experienced or considering how to combine ideas and materials for a future project, containers may offer a way to sort out the snarls and complications of my crazy schedule and find time to discover the treasures hiding right here in the present moment.

Thanks, Grandma!

COMING UP NEXT: Compartmentalizing vs. Organizing


Why a Blog about Containers?

I might as well tell you up front. I’m a geek when it comes to containers. When I go to someone else’s home, I always notice the plastic and glass containers in the kitchen; the bookshelves and baskets in the living room; the vases and bowls in the dining room. Heaven help me if these items are color-coordinated with each other and their surroundings. In the midst of coffee and conversation, I still take mental notes of how I can duplicate the organization in my own living space. I have to admit that sometimes, I actually feel twinges of container envy.

Now you can ask anyone who knows me. I’m not a big shopper. I love bookstores, but as for going shopping for the sake of shopping—definitely not me. But when I go into a container store or the container section of a shop, I am mesmerized by the colors, the textures, the possibilities. I can hardly tear myself away. I try to dream up some reason that I should buy one, or two, or a dozen.

Before you think that I need container therapy, let me assure you that I am not really as obsessive as it appears. But I have discovered that containers provide an interesting approach to the way I think about things—not just keeping things neat and organized, but also how to think about time, money, ideas, projects, and dreams.

I have accomplished many things in my life, but I often get bogged down with too many possibilities, too many ideas, and I become immobilized and overwhelmed. The result: ideas get buried instead of shared; dreams lie dormant instead of coming to fruition; and journeys are abandoned before they are begun. I plan to explore the use of various types of containers to organize and categorize my ideas, my supplies, my time, and my resources. I can sort out the materials that I collect for the projects that call to me. I can be in a position of making choices rather than one of spinning my wheels.

That is my reason for beginning Container Chronicles, to bring a sense of order, purpose, and excitement into my life. I look forward to sharing what I learn from this “container perspective.” I invite you to share in the discussion.