Talisman: Stone and Gold

In the years I was a young, single mother, I traveled a lot, internationally. The trips were rushed and I often didn’t have time to shop for a gift for my son. One day, I saw a small stone on the path–a type of stone we didn’t see at home. It came home with me, and I made a story about the stone’s family and how it always wanted to travel. My son enjoyed the story, and a tradition started.

Every trip I took, I brought home a rock and a story. It became a habit to scan the ground for interesting stones. When I hike, I still do.

I’m not a happy airline traveler. But it’s still the fastest way from here to there, so I brave the TSA, the delays, and the bumpy flights. Some years ago, on my way to the airport, I scooped up a rock from the front yard and put it in my pocket. When I got home, I tossed it back in the yard. It became a way for me to assure myself that I’d come back to return the rock. I’d hold the rock during take-off and landing, and it helped keep me calm.

A few weeks ago, during walking meditation, a rock caught my eye. It was unusual, because it was a good 50 feet away, and it was a small stone. I walked over and picked it up. It was remarkably smooth, rectangular, and split halfway down the length. The split created a landscape of a mesa and a distant mountain.

stone1The rock came home with me, got washed, and put in my pocket. It was a good rock. Everybody needs a rock. It went on one trip with me, and another. It did the job of grounding me. One night, I put it under my pillow and dreamed of the most amazing sunrise. I was standing on a Mesa and watched the sun rise, filling me with strength and courage. I left the hotel the next morning and had to dash back to retrieve the stone–I needed it to remind me of the dawns that come after the darkest night, and of strength and courage.

As I often do with special work, I called Matt Muralt, who does custom jewelry in Mesa, Arizona. I explained I wanted a sunrise put into the stone. A thin line of gold inset into the stone face to outline the top of the mesa and the far-away mountain. Matt also drilled a hole in the top for the bail and lined the hole to avoid having the stone wear out the silver bail. Matt had made my pencil amulet, and he transformed this stone into a talisman. From a distance, it looks like a minimalist piece of jewelry. But in my hand, it is the stone that will bring me safely home, with strength and courage.

-Quinn McDonald knows the value of amulets and talismans.

When Your Journal Talks to You

Listening to your journal is a skill missed by the very people who would benefit from it. We write a lot in our journals, but then we put them on the shelf and forget about them.  We are used to writing, asking to be heard, seen–praying for answers. We often miss the answer when it shows up. And it will show up. That’s one of the benefits of  journaling.

someprayersFor a while, all the writing is pouring out of you in an endless flow. One day, you will find yourself thinking about what you are writing–the words aren’t pouring out on their own. You are paying attention. And all of a sudden, you write something interesting. Profound. An answer to a question you had. You are now in a deep connection to your own wisdom or a wisdom greater than yourself. You have tunneled deep enough to be away from the distraction, and you just dug up an important truth.

Truth is surprising. We recognize it and blink. Sometimes we wish it were something else. But the flash of recognition is the key. You will know. Maybe it’s not the answer you had hoped for, maybe it’s exactly what you need.

Your pen may race on, while your mind hangs on to the answer. You may not want to listen, but you will. You will be drawn back to those words, that flash of recognition. It can be an answer, a key to an answer, or simply a truth you have not believed.

And there it is, on the page in front of you. Underline it. Save it. You may have to finish your thought, your paragraph, your page, but the answer is right there.

You have created the start of a habit. A habit of writing and listening. And when you listen, you’ll find answers. You might have to write a long time to learn to trust yourself, but once you start to listen, you will hear your answers.

-–Quinn McDonald keeps a journal and is surprised when it shows her something big.

I’ll Ride With You

While the hostages were still being held in Sydney and all that was known was that the hostage-taker was Muslim, Central Sydney was in lockdown. And then, as must happen, innocent and good Muslims began to be afraid. Women who wear the hijab wondered what would happen if they rode on public transportation.

I’ve seen this before, right after 9/11, in Washington, D.C. I also know the fear of seeing some crime committed and cringing, holding by breath and thinking, “please don’t let it be [my ethnic group].”

Fear is an ugly thing. Its only reaction is anger. But what I began to see in Sydney gave me real hope for the goodness in people. Tweets began to appear, people volunteering to sit with Muslim women (and men) on public transportation.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 10.44.03 PMPeople who would provide friendly company and companionship, and yes, protection. Because a White person sitting next to a person of color (or wearing a headscarf) and speaking with them reduces the fear level.

The Tweets grew. The hashtag was #Illridewithyou. Hundreds of people began to post their public transportation routes, to identify themselves with photos, scarves, signs on bags and briefcases.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 10.44.26 PMThis was not a sanctioned, public, government movement. It was started by one woman and picked up by others who wanted to help. Because help is something everyone can do. Not a big heroic move, just sitting with someone who is scared. Making them feel normal. Because they are. Reducing fear and anger in others.

We can all do small things to reduce fear and anger. Not passing fear on is one way. Margaret Mead, the anthropologist said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I might be 7,800 miles from that coffee shop that held hostages, but I love those people I don’t even know. They have heart. Big heart. #I’llridewithyou.

—Quinn McDonald knows that it takes small acts of love to make big moves of courage.

The Past (Tense?) of The Word of the Year

Note: Congratulations to snicklefritzen43! She’s the winner of the Natalie Goldberg book. I hope your word of the year brighten with the book! Contact me at quinncreative [at] yahoo [dot] com with a mailing address and the book will be on the way!

Many of you have chosen your Word for 2015. Some of you are trying out the last cull from the ones you thought of. This is excellent work, thinking about the word or phrase that will serve you well for 2015. How it will fit you, how you will have to make room for it in your life.

2014-calendarBefore we leave 2014, let’s think about the year that is quickly coming to a close. What word would you use to describe 2014? Did the word you chose for 2014 match your experience?

Was it close? It doesn’t have to be, after all. You could have had a big intention word and constantly worked on it, while 2014 plotted against you.

Or maybe your word was not big enough and it was an easy word, but not a challenge. Not everything has to be a challenge. Some things can be a treat.

How would you describe 2014 if you thought of it in an overall sense? Was it a year that pushed you to grow? One that you negotiated with a bit of stress but made it through? I like to pit my chosen Word of 2014 against the word (phrase) I’d use to describe 2014 and see how thy line up. Then see if that balance is reflected in my Word for 2015.

Here’s my own example. I started 2014 with the word Scatter, with the Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 2.22.31 PMintention of broadcasting ideas like seeds–in big, joyous arcs. Halfway through the year, I felt too scattered. I was doing too much, too little, not doing enough well enough and feeling confused. I switched the word to Distill, which I loved doing for the rest of the year.

The year 2014 had some tough challenges for me. There were a few big, crushing disappointments, and a few pleasant, unexpected developments. If I had to choose a phrase for 2014, I’d choose “Give up control.” Every time I try to control the future, the path is too narrow, too paved, too engineered. And every time I think I want that, I experience a big tear in my plans that shows just how foolish that idea is in my life.

Summary: My words for 2014 were both Scatter and Distill and the year was a year of Giving Up Control. The words were a good match for what I experienced, but it felt a bit removed from digging in.

Moving Ahead: My Word for 2015 is Heart.  Yes, I am the one who hates heart shapes, I have no talismans shaped as hearts (to my view), I don’t use them in my artwork. So why choose that word? Because I am working on a book, and I have slowly discovered that I need to write it with Heart, because that will make it come alive, while writing it with brain will just make it accurate. Because passing ideas through my heart will show me what my work really is, not what I think it should be. In a world where I give up control, when I do not compete, or become attached to winning, Heart will help me find balance at the point where I so often fail–going with what is soul-satifying instead of career building. Because soul-satifying will attract the participants who build career. And it’s time for the Tribe. You know, the one you are part of on this blog.

Quinn McDonald is a writer who keeps a Commonplace Journal.

Seeing the World

About a year ago, I got new eyes. To be exact, I had lens implants. When I could no longer drive at night, distinguish brown from purple, and thought every traffic light was huge and fuzzy and had six lights, I went to an eye doctor who told me my eyesight was “near normal.” It could not be. Three doctors later, I met one who asked what I did. I told her I was a writer and then added, slowly, “and an artist.”

Cypress at dawn. © Quinn McDonald, 2014

Cypress at dawn. © Quinn McDonald, 2014 There are no lights in this photo. Natural light and rain lit up the cypress. The pink is a Bougainvillaea blossom.

“You see the world differently,” she said, “and you need to see the world clearly.” I could not believe that anyone who saw the world as I did at the time could survive. Because I had brought my blood sugar under control and lost a lot of weight, the lens implant surgery was recommended and my life changed overnight. I had clear, color-correct vision back.

Since then, there has not been a single day that I have not been grateful for my eyesight.


Sparkling branches. © 2014

But I keep thinking about how artists, sensitive people, and people who are “different” see the world. This morning I noticed how hard it was to get these photos right. I could see them very clearly, but the camera could not.

Cypress against palm tree. © Quinn McDonald 2014

Cypress against palm tree. © Quinn McDonald 2014

This is not the first time this has happened. The camera and I do not see the same things. Sure, lighting can be tricky. Angles have to be just right. But so often I see an image that the camera cannot seem to capture. I wonder if I do see the world differently.

--Quinn McDonald likes the world she sees, even if her camera doesn’t see the same thing.

Possibility Starts Now

Peter Callesan is a paper artist who cuts images out of paper and uses both the positive and negative space. CreativeGreed has a series of his work. You can also see different sculptures at Peter Callesan’s website.

Paper art by Peter Callesan

Paper art by Peter Callesan

His sense of humor combined with his talent turns ordinary  A4 sheets of paper into clever art.

We all know the commentors on this blog are smart, sharp and verbal. So are my coaching clients. Last week, one of my clients was talking about changing her approach to creativity. She’s done some wrestling with her Inner Critic over the past few weeks. “I want to get back to possibility,” she said.

And just like that, I knew it was a brilliant. We wake up in the morning and start thinking what we are not and what we don’t have–“I’m still tired, I didn’t get enough sleep,” or “I’m late,” or “I don’t have time for breakfast,” or  “It’s not Friday, and I hate work.” Imagine if we woke up and got back to possibility.

“It’s a new day, and I wonder what will happen today?” or “If I don’t check my email, I can get to work on time and avoid the stink eye. That would be nice!” The place of possibility is right under the wet blanket we toss on the smouldering resentment of our lives. You don’t have to fear the place of possibility–it doesn’t obligate you. It just has. . . a fresh possibility.

--Quinn McDonald thinks possibility is almost as good as a cappuccino first thing in the morning.

Dissolving the Bad Day

The business trip had been bone-wrackingly tough. Flight delays. Cranky people. The airlines insisted on gate-checking my bag (no space in steerage for more bags), then broke a wheel on my suitcase, which means I had to carry it instead of roll it. My lock was cut off. I was the random “let’s dig through the bag” person at the TSA. Long day at the client. Delayed lunch. Last-minute extra paperwork. At the end of the day, I am carrying a heavy suitcase down the street, wearing a backpack, puffing hard on the three-block walk and feeling sorry for myself.

I am not thinking of the successful class, the people who thanked me, the person who asked me to autograph the workbook. No, I am focusing on all the mistakes, flaws, and the damn heavy suitcase that no longer rolls. I am, admittedly, in Full Pity Party Mode.

Moon2The sun is setting; I have never loved the late afternoon. I’m a morning person who loves the dawn, and by sundown I’m tired, particularly after a long, intense day teaching business writing.

In this frame of mind, I begin to think of Sundowner’s Syndrome, the depressed state of dementia patients who become agitated in the late afternoon. My mom had Alzheimer’s, so my thought goes right to the idea that I may be next. Maybe I’m already in decline.

The Christmas lights come on in office buildings on the traffic-packed, noisy street. White, twinkly lights wink in tall buildings. Beautiful and cheering, but I refuse to move out of my full-on grump. As I look around, I see a woman sitting against a sturdy stanchion so often seen around big buildings. She is crying. Dressed in just a ragged T-shirt and sweatpants in the winter chill, she looks desperate. I approach and ask if she needs help.

She shakes her head. I put down the suitcase and ask her what’s wrong. She hasMoon1 just come from a state assistance office where she was turned down for help. She is being evicted–before Christmas–and the story is one of bureaucratic mess. She is angry and frustrated. Doesn’t know what to do next. Needs to protect her young son. She’s cold and angry and hungry and I recognize that desperate mix.

Suddenly my own troubles are less threatening. The relentlessly twinkling lights remind me that it’s my job to bring warmth into the world along with light. I ask her when she last ate. More than 24 hours ago. I can do one small thing for her. I bring her into the very fancy hotel with me, the one with the airport shuttle stop. I ask her to carry my backpack (yes, with my wallet and phone) so we can enter looking like we belong together. I’m in business dress, so the hotel concierge raises an eyebrow but says nothing. We stop at the hotel food shop and pick up a healthy dinner for her boy. Then we sit down for dinner in the plush lobby restaurant. I wasn’t planning on eating there, but sharing the decorated and lighted space feels right. And sharing a meal so she will not feel beholden makes the evening seem cozy and not so depressing. We chat about being mothers and chili, and if it should have beans or not.

She wants to thank me and I tell her that she helped me more than she could know. I thank her for keeping me company and helping me see the world in a different way. We walk out and I give her bus fare to get home. We trade my backpack for her son’s dinner and walk in different directions, into different worlds. And mine begins to look a lot brighter.

—Quinn McDonald travels for business and learns more than she teaches.

The Talisman

Part I: The Seed
The seed, all rounded shoulders and protective back
curled over generations of  plant history.
Years ago, or maybe just last year, the survival of the fittest key
fit in the evolutionary lock and ticked over, guaranteeing
this seed space in time.


It send up a single tendril, like Noah’s bird, to taste the air and rain
and guess the chance of survival up on the curved horizon.

Yes, it says. Yes, go. Go now.

A flourish of leaves, the next generation, follows.
Learning what it needs to survive, form seeds, continue.

The kernel fueled the webbing–roots that  hold the earth.
One-of-a-kind, seen or unseen, it grows, thrives.

Part II: The heart and spoon
The maker lifts the soup spoon and considers
Bowl: to hold. Stem: to guide.
He sees another shape that holds and guides,
melts down the spoon, intent on forming it.
Across the surface rises a forgotten taste of copper in the mouth.
Into a curve, a flash of heat runs through a seam, a flaw

that cracks the heart but does not break it.
Despite the flaws, the heart takes courage from the maker
who tops it with flames: focus, strength, and constancy.

Whose damaged heart would not be better off crowned with those flames
to prove it can survive, just for itself?


Part III: Talisman

“What is that thing around your neck?” I’m asked, and answer
“What do you see?”

“A beet!” says one. Adds, “I hate beets,” scowling, leaves.
Another says, “The sacred heart of Jesus, you must be Catholic!”
No need to answer, he has his answer all wrapped up, so sure and smiling.

Another says, “It’s messed up, like, discolored, and did you see the crack?
And you still paid for that? Man, he must have seen you coming.”

He did. He saw me coming. And he recognized
the love of the worn, well-used,  imperfect heart.
The creator only fails if he quits creating.
The creator’s dings and flaws and cracks speak of experience,
as do the mottled hands, chipped nails, and the well-worn heart.

A talisman reminds us, through our touch
And fired by imagination,
who we are, and who we change to be.

* * *  Talisman by George Wilhelm, sculptor

-–Quinn McDonald is a believer in talismans.

Word of 2015: Ready? (and a Giveaway)

We are still weeks from the New Year. You are probably overwhelmed with cards and holiday planning. It’s about a week from the beginning of Hanukkah and two and a half weeks to Christmas. So why start thinking of the Word of the Year?

Words make the portrait. "Zappa" by konstantinek: http://bit.ly/1vDDdLq

Words make the portrait. “Zappa” by konstantinek.

Because you can’t come up with it overnight. It takes a bit of planning, thinking, and trying on a few to see how they fit before you choose the right one.

Here are some ways to start choosing words:

1. Write down words you like. You can like the sound or the meaning, or just feel attracted to the word. Write them down without numbering them, scattered across the page, not in any order: Torque, branch, flood, heart, live, thrive, shine. Any words that appeal to you. Do that for at least a day.

2. Around each word, write some words you associate with the word you wrote. Let’s use “torque” as an example. You might write “revolution,” “turn,” “twist.”

Decide if any of those words are interesting for you. Let’s say you like the idea of “turn.” So write a few phrases with the word you like. “Turn around,” or “turn your head,” or even “do a good turn,” and “a turn for the better.” Keep working on word groups and phrases for a day or so.

3. Try out a few words and see if they fit. Do any phrases strike you as important, even if you don’t know why? Do they feel like words you’d love to use a lot? Words that call to you require a fitting session. Write the word on a piece of paper and carry it around for a day. Every time you touch the paper, think if the word fits you.

4. Narrow your words down. Choose a few–no more than three.  Work from there. Talk to your friends about what they think when they hear the word. You might get new ideas. Type it into Google and see what happens.

5. Sleep on it. Put the piece of paper with the word written on it under your pillow. Any interesting dreams? Any ideas or association within an hour of waking up?

The final word has to be rich and deep–something you can chew on for weeks51wed0j1hTL and months.

The Giveaway. Leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments, along with the word, when you choose it. You have some time–but not enough to put it off.  On December 15th, I’ll choose one of the comments to win Wild Mind–Living The Writer’s Life a book by writer and writing teacher Natalie Goldberg.

The book is a great addition to your head and heart–how to balance daily responsibility with a commitment to write, coming to terms with success and failure, and how to find time to write.

—Quinn McDonald is choosing her word for next year.


The alarm rang at 4 a.m. pulling me from the depths of a dream in which I held a burning heart, over which green flames moved. It was a pleasant dream; the alarm felt like a hook that pulled me from a deep, deep place.

It was time.  I gathered my clothing, tried to remember where the motel bathroom was as I navigated around the room; I made it without breaking a toe or bashing a shin.

Forty minutes later, dressed and ready, I got into the car and drove down the still-dark, freezing road. Shadows of deer and something else–a cougar? a bear?–swept across the edge of my vision.

bird3Cold as it was, I rolled down the window. And I heard them. The gentle whirring, water-running sound of Sandhill Cranes. Mixed in with it where the more gravelly sounds of Snow Geese. In this small patch of New Mexico, known as El Bosque de Apache, 40,000 snow geese sweep through from Siberia, many of them staying at the Bosque for weeks. About 10,000 Sandhill Cranes travel through on their migration from the northern shore of Alaska.

The pond was dark. I barely found a place to park, slipping in as one of the last spectators. Photographers, with huge cameras on tripods, were outlines as patches of dark against the darker. It was just after 6 a.m.

bird2As the sun thought about breaking over the horizon, I saw the white geese first. After a few minutes, I could see the light gray cranes, slowly walking through the water, nudging the geese aside as they passed. From the distance, they looked like ostriches moving through clumps of snow.

One of the tricks I learned from photographers is to turn around and look behind you. Often interesting sites are happening right behind you. I turned around and saw hundreds of geese, circling and then landing in the pond.

In another half hour, the pond was full of milling birds. The sun was about to break over the horizon. I thought the geese would leave at dawn, but they allowed the tension to build.

The audience was restive, waiting for “blast off” –the moment when the geese gave themselves a signal and took off–all at once. The cranes travel in smaller groups, but not the geese. A few people left, tired of waiting, tired of being cold. Waiting for nature to be amazing is not a sport for those who love instant gratification. I stayed.

birdblastAnd then, just as I had hoped, without any warning at all, the 10,000 geese sitting on two ponds shot into the air, as one.  The world was filled with the sound of beating wings that drowned out the calls of the birds.The sound was that of a thousand pillows being beaten–heavy, solid feathers pushing air to gain altitude.

That none of them ran into each other was a miracle. The noise of a the photographers’ auto drives were drowned out by the beating wings. The mass of white birds, each with black-tipped wings, flew directly over our heads, breaking into Vs as they gained altitude. In two minutes, the pond was silent.

The patient cranes stood in groups, still walking toward a spit of land. They ran a few steps, and flapping their long wings, rose carefully into the sky, calling each other.

What an amazing combination of instinct and survival urge, and what a gift of sound and sight.

-–Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and writer who teaches writing. She is a creativity coach to clients around the world.