Category Archives: Creativity

Ideas, thoughts, ‘Aha!’ moments

Thanksgiving for One

Today’s post is for people who are going to be alone on Thanksgiving. Dealing with a huge family fest will be posted tomorrow.

Going to be alone this Thanksgiving? No problem, unless you are dreading it. There is a cultural press to partake in some sort of perfect Norman-Rockwell-fantasy dinner, with food magically prepared and shared by a big, friendly, supportive, charming, happy family. The fact that this fantasy is exactly that–a figment of someone’s imagination–does not ease your pain. In your head, it is what you deserve, and you are feeling bad because you don’t have it.

first_thanksgivingSome years ago, I was alone at Thanksgiving. I’d moved to the Southwest ahead of my husband and was house-sitting for a friend. I didn’t want to mess up someone else’s stove, and part of me didn’t want to admit I hated being alone. But I also didn’t want to be at someone else’s table, feeling like the fifth wheel. I created a fun day for myself, and still remember it fondly. It makes me smile to think that there are many people around me who do not remember last Thanksgiving fondly, or can’t remember exactly what happened at all. And I can remember Thanksgiving 2007 with great joy.

Here are some suggestions to help make Thanksgiving a good day for you:

1. Plan ahead. Decide the kind of day you want to have and work on creating it. No Thanksgiving comes together without planning, and you don’t want to wind up standing in the grocery store aisle half an hour before the store closes.

2. You don’t have to cook an elaborate meal for 10 and eat it all by yourself. Kent McDonald, a personal chef in the Phoenix area, has some suggestions for an easy, special Thanksgiving meal you can make without a lot of fuss. Yes, Kent is my husband and he’s cooking this year.

3. Ignore it in style. Stay out of the kitchen–or the entire house–during the dinner hour. Go to the movies, take a bubble bath and give yourself a pedicure, plan that big art or craft project, take a walk with your camera, go to the library now and check out a book or DVD, and spend the time doing something appealing to you. Time to spend on yourself or your favorite pastime is precious and rare, use it with delight.

4. Plan a project. Paint the kitchen, or your bedroom. Organize your closet, your desk, your attic, your garage. Tackling a big project will make you feel organized and satisfied. Not a bad plan.

5. Make the turkey dinner happen. Let friends know you’ll be alone. Make it sound like you are available rather than desperate. Offer to help cook, clean up, bring a dish, or take the dog for a walk. Make yourself useful and you’ll be eating with a big, noisy, arguing dysfunctional family before you can say ‘turkey.’

The secret to having the Thanksgiving is to decide what you want and create it. Don’t let others define your joy.  Decide what you want, and make it happen, traditional or not. Celebrate yourself and allow yourself to enjoy.

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who has celebrated a lot of different Thanksgivings.

–Image: The First Thanksgiving, reproduction of an oil painting by J.L.G. Ferris, early 20th century. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZC4-4961)

 

Check That Progress

To-do lists are my saving grace. I love them. I keep them, work them, check them off and grin. Occasionally, I am guilty of putting things on my to-do list that I have already done, just so I can check it off and feel like I’ve started doing something.

strugglequoteThe trouble with that, of course, is you are never satisfied, always living in the next step, and striving ahead without a break. It’s exhausting. And I still love them.

Which is why I started a to-don’t list, often before I travel, so give myself permission to put some work on hold so I can actually live in the present and do the work at hand–traveling.

Now I’ve come up with something almost as fun as a to-do list: a “it’s done” list. Research shows that a real boost to meaningful work is keeping track of progress. What went right. What you did that was smart. What worked well. Most of us don’t do that. If things work out, we just keep going. There’s no learning in that.

True, I learn a lot by making mistakes. The reason? When things go right, I just workInProgress-150x150breeze ahead. When I stumble and fall, I have to figure out what went wrong, how it went wrong and how to notice it early enough next time not to do it again.

Imagine if you did that for getting it right. Progress is an important step in meaning-making. Knowing you have made progress and admitting it, even taking satisfaction in it, is another thing entirely. Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to keep track of what went right. Your good decisions. Your progress. See if more of them don’t start showing up.

—Quinn McDonald is moving forward on several projects.

 

 

It’s Time to Say “No”

Next week is Thanksgiving, and the season of weird requests begins.

“I’m bringing my friend along to Thanksgiving dinner. She doesn’t eat meat, milk, eggs, wheat, vegetables that begin with a “b,” or anything red or brown. You won’t mind, will you–cooking her a special meal?”

“You are going to his parents this year? We have a tradition that you always come here for Thanksgiving, but go ahead. We can eat alone.”

This is the time of year when you brush off your spine and develop the ability to say, “No.” Even better is saying “No” and meaning it.

Of course you want to be compassionate, friendly and helpful. But right at the 9168751-black-orange-white-private-property-hanging-signedge of those characteristics is a boundary. And the boundary marker is “No.”

If you have trouble saying it, you can add, “I’d love to help, but . . .No.” You do not owe explanations past that one word. It takes strength and courage to say it, and I’ve failed many times. And each time I didn’t honor my boundary, I paid a price. Sometimes I overextend what I can do and regret it. Sometimes I cave and say Yes and then do a bad job, which is worse than saying No.

You do not have to say, “I need to spend a whole morning in bed, so I can’t bake six pies for you,” because the other person will not accept that as a good reason. So don’t give a reason. Simply stick to “I’m so sorry, but No.” The holidays will run a lot smoother. And you will feel a lot healthier.

-Quinn McDonald knows the power of paying attention to your limits.

 

Starting Your Gratitude Journal

When I first wrote about gratitude journals, it was about my own experience, from grumpy doubter to believer. There’s considerable proof that saying “thank you,” and finding things to be grateful for reduces blood pressure, makes you feel better and actually can improve your mood.

Now that we are close to Thanksgiving, a time when people who are alone orCHR75reg2__06130_zoom overwhelmed may not feel so thankful, I thought it might be useful to spell out how to keep a gratitude journal. Of course, you can keep it any way that works, but working with a lot of coaching clients, I’ve found a few tips that really work well.

1. Keep it small and keep it with you. A small spiral-bound notebook is inexpensive and easy to carry with you. That makes it more likely you will have it with you when you need it. I like a 4-inch by 6-inch size.

2. Leave the first page blank. That way, you won’t feel so pressured to make it perfect. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be there for you.

3. Write it down when it happens. In the beginning, when you feel more exhausted, angry or hurt than grateful, write down the slightest thing you feel grateful for. Write it down as soon as it happens. Noting your gratitude will help sharpen your senses to things that make you grateful, and make more events available to you.

4. Write every day. Look for anything that makes you feel better or grateful. Some days you may have to search really hard, and that’s OK. Comfortable shoes, someone holding a door open for you, a smile from a stranger can be a big event in a life gone awry. Look for them so you will experience them more often.

5. Look back over what you are grateful for. Many people find that they start out small, then realize there is more and more. If that happens, it’s, well, something to be grateful for.

6. Be the stranger to smile at someone. Wouldn’t it be nice to wind up in someone’s gratitude journal?

If you have good results, let me know. It can be a boost to others. We’re in some tough times right now, not through any fault of our own. It takes a little more effort to be cheerful and grateful, but it’s worth it.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who has learned to be grateful

 

After Class

What does an instructor do after a long day of teaching? Don’t know what every instructor does, and I’m pretty sure at least some of us head for bars. Now that I no longer drink, I’ve found other things to do. Last week I was in southeastern Arizona, in a high-desert town flanked by mountains on two sides and rolling hills into the New Mexico desert on a third.

cotton1What surprised me is the amount of cotton. Pima cotton, the beautiful, long-fiber cotton much sought after for the textile it produces, is named after both the Pima Indians who brought it from Peru and for Pima County, where a lot of it is grown.

November is cotton-picking season, and the ginning machines run long into the night, the fields lit by the headlights of the huge machines.

The machines munch up the cotton plants–dry and prickly, studded with longcotton2 shreds of cotton. And they bale them in huge round cylinders or neatly packed into tight units that fit into the containers moved by train.

There were fields of sorghum, which from a distance looks like corn, but with a fat seed head. Corn fields are being cut, and every field that is threshed leaves food for sandhill cranes, which are now arriving. They are a little late this year, but they are arriving in long strands of 50 or 60.  The cranes feed in threshed fields during the day and then group and settle near water as it gets dark. Protection in numbers.

cotton3Driving past the cotton fields, I felt I was driving into the past. The road I was on has been used for hundreds of years–for the mail stagecoach, for the Conestoga wagons, for gold-seekers, miners,  and army deserters who moved West to hide, to start over, to leave their past someplace along the trail.

Duncan is a small town that still has old street lights, the gas mantles replaced by bulbs. The shops were made of stones, two stories with wood roofs. I turned North, then East, and drove into the farmland beyond. I saw the first birds lift out of the field and head toward a riparian area of cottonwood trees.

This is not my photo, but it is sandhill cranes. The photo is © carol parafenko and you can see more of her photography at: http://carolparafenko.com/blog%202010%20fall.html

This is not my photo, but it is sandhill cranes. The photo is © carol parafenko and you can see more of her photography at: http://carolparafenko.com/blog%202010%20fall.html

In the next half hour, I saw four more small groups. And then the sun began to turn the sky salmon and pink, and the road turned West, and rose up 600 feet. The top of the crest showed  the mountains looming on the horizon and I saw the skein of birds, making that warbling, running-water sound that catches your breath and speeds up your heart. I pulled the car over, already in shadow, and looked up at the graceful, long-legged, long-winged birds find shelter for the night. I did not want to see  if my camera could catch the birds at sunset. I did not want to take my eyes off them. I listened and waited and they flew overhead, and they and I were the only thing from horizon to horizon.

They settled past me, along the Gila River in New Mexico, leaving me to drive back, smiling, into the dark. And that’s what I did after class one day last week.

Note: Congratulations to Carol Michaud, of Soul Stories by Carol, who is the winner of David Maisel’s Life Purpose Boot Camp. Drop me an email with your physical address, and I’ll send out the book!

—Quinn McDonald is a naturalist, writer, and creativity coach who will drive 87 miles to see a flock of migrating birds.

Define Yourself By What You Are

Language reflects the culture. We make up words, we abandon them. And there are fads in the language–awesome used to be an important word, indicating deep emotion. Now it’s a filler word, like “ummm” or “OK.”

We’ve also begun to use negatives to frame our possibilities. We say, “I don’t 7747no sign - jobhouseunderstand,” instead of “Could you explain it again?” Or, “We close at 5 p.m.” instead of “We are open till 5 p.m.” The other day someone agreed with me by saying “You aren’t wrong.”

The other day, I found myself reciting a list of what I cannot eat to a befuddled waiter. Had I listed what I can eat, which is a much shorter list, he would have been able to know what was in the kitchen and find a match. Instead, hearing only what I could not eat, he stared at me blankly.

YES_sign1It’s easy to let the negative creep into how we think of ourselves. And then we begin to define ourselves by what we don’t like, won’t accept, reject outright, or want to distance ourselves from. “I don’t like country music,” doesn’t define your musical taste–it tells someone what you won’t put up with.

It’s far more exciting and clarifying to define yourself through positives–what you like, what you want to do, what your plans are. Defend what you like and what you want to protect and project. It clears your head and your heart. Being clear on what you want, who you are is such a more positive way to face the world.

—Quinn McDonald is fascinated by language and how it defines us.

 

 

Creating Heart While Traveling

Being on the road is tough. Not whining, but opening the door of yet another anonymous hotel room, eating by yourself in another restaurant where the only thing on the menu that fits the diet and the budget is yet another Cesar Salad, and the reward after a day of teaching is driving two hours to the next venue–it makes you reach in deep and suck it up.

“Eating Bitter” is a Chinese expression of working hard for what you want, sucking it up and knowing that you chose this life and you are making meaning even if it is a lot more effort than you want.

One of the ways I get through the chore of eating bitter and find a bit of sweetness is creating routines–I make an effort to walk every morning, even if I am a thousand miles from home. When the world shrinks to classroom-restaurant-car, it’s important to have a camera. I photograph small moment that seem important and use them in my Commonplace Book. The photo is something that makes me smile, or that serves as a metaphor. I love doing this for many reasons–it connects me to a strange place and it is comforting to find some small shred of beauty in an everyday place.

From my most recent trip: photos and notes that I put in the Commonplace Book for further development.

cactus1Heart on a cactus. Look at that backlighting! Thorns make a halo. Combination of thorns and love.  Being tough can still work as soft. Being uncommon can attract the right thoughts.

cactusDamaged heart. Look at that texture! Damage is dramatic, but can be beautiful, if you look at it the right way. Even nature makes a collage of color and texture. A cactus will root months after the piece breaks off. Life after damage exists, can even thrive.

light1Love the texture on the mid-century lamp. It warms up the whole photo. The flatness of the photograph makes the cactus in the background look like it’s outside, but it is really painted on the window. Illusion of paint–make it work and you believe in it.

window1Even the very ordinary items in a hotel room can be given a new perspective. This is the bathroom window over the shower. The “grass” is a palm tree, and the light is from a passing car. The moment was fleeting, but perfect. Glad I was there to see it and catch it.

A lot of comfort on a trip is creating a piece of life that is comforting and interesting, no matter where you are.

–Quinn McDonald has made friends with the road.

 

 

Pace Yourself

poplars

Trees and the moon, Fort Worden, Washington. © Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved.

The long and winding road (including airplane aisles) has gotten the best of my exercise routine. If I’m getting up at 5 a.m. in Dallas, my body thinks it’s 3 a.m. I’m not going to push my luck and run on a treadmill.

When I’m in Flagstaff at dawn, I’m not walking in freezing weather in an unfamiliar neighborhood. But I’ve been home for three days, so it’s back to the discipline of to-do lists and travel laundry, chores that didn’t get done while I was gone, and answering accumulated emails. And walking.

When I started out this morning, my knees protested. They began to convince me that a short walk around the block would be enough. I told them that the airplane rides and teaching yesterday had been long, so they might be creaky today. Halfway around the park one of my knees began to send threatening messages–serious pain every step. I thought of turning back. And then I had another idea. I slowed down. Stopped. Stretched by standing on my toes. And began to walk slowly ahead.

The other knee chimed in, encouraging me to turn back, go home. I took another step ahead. Slowly. No longer in aerobic territory. Hardly classifying in the exercise category at all. But it was forward motion. I continued at this snail’s pace around the rest of the park.

Cloud stepping-stones. © Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved

Cloud stepping-stones. © Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved

At the intersection, I stepped off the curb. No pain. I walked deliberately across the street. Worked just fine. With each block I stepped it up a speed–first purposeful,  then stride, then arm-swinging walking, then aerobic walking. Letting my knees catch up with my determination had done the trick. No complaints from them for the rest of the three-mile walk.

When you face creative work, you may hear the same complaints from your heart–it’s too hard, you need a rest, it’s not great timing. Don’t leave the studio. Slow down, put hand to paper in an exercise, then begin to move slowly ahead. Push ahead to do some thinking about what you are creating, pick up the pace, and keep moving. Pushing ahead clears the road, and the mind. You can push through the frustration and reluctance. You can. If you leave the studio, it will be that much harder to come back to it.

-–Quinn McDonald talks to her knees frequently. She keeps them in action pretty much the same way she encourages her coaching clients to stay in action.

Quotes for Writers

Every writer needs some encouragement, warmth and a reason to write. Here are some quotes, especially if you are involved in NaNoWriMo:

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I

Fencepost cactus flower photographed with iPhone, no flash. Illumination with flashlight. © Quinn McDonald 2014

Fencepost cactus flower photographed with iPhone, no flash. Illumination with flashlight. © Quinn McDonald 2014

hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”
Neil Gaiman

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
Benjamin Franklin

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  ― Saul Bellow

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Anton Chekhov

“The first draft of anything is shit.”   ― Ernest Hemingway

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Mary Oliver

“To be nobody but
yourself in a world
which is doing its best day and night to make you like
everybody else means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”
E.E. Cummings

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach.

 

Sleep: Discipline is Needed

When I”m overloaded with work, the first thing I do is cut my sleep short. Waking doesn’t require an alarm clock in the summer,  cats know that first light means food, so lacking opposable thumbs, they wake me. The earlier the sun comes up, the earlier I get up, often at 4:30 a.m. Luckily, now that the nights are longer, the fur beasts snooze till I get up.

The heart is where the juice starts. © Quinn McDonald, all rights reserved.

The heart is where the juice starts. © Quinn McDonald, all rights reserved.

Trouble is, I’m a night person. I can easily work till past midnight, but not if I have to get up to teach, usually around 5 a.m.

I cannot burn the candle at both ends. Sure, it makes a lovely light, but a lovely light is no longer enough. I need combustion to fuel the day. So, I’m forcing the discipline of an earlier bed time. It rarely works, but it’s necessary. I’ve been through it before.

Self-discipline is rarely amusing or fun. But it is the heart of success, whatever your success might be. Without a good rest, without rich and complex dreams, we become shaky and weak. It’s harder to think, to plan, to appreciate, to imagine the future. It’s impossible to concentrate, to do good work without enough sleep.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of those splendid people who can live on five hours of sleep. I need seven, and eight is welcome.

Knowing what you need and giving it to yourself is not self-indulgence. It is a discipline you need for happiness and to thrive.

Check out these 10 signs of sleep deprivation.

—Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach whose energy drains without enough sleep. There is always a well that needs filling, isn’t there?