Category Archives: In My Life

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.

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.

tree3

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.

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.

December: Running Toward 2015

Rabbit, rabbit. OK, that’s taken care of. (It’s a wish for good luck for the whole month. You can read more about this English custom at Yankee magazine.)

sower2014 is heading toward the end of its run and into a new year. Now is a good time to start thinking of a new word for 2015. Don’t share yet–there will be a blog later in the month with a random giveaway, in which we talk about words and choices.

You can, however, post your old word (someone might want it for next year), and mention how the word worked for you. Good, bad, or indifferent, keeping that word in front of you is an excellent way to steer your life.

Maybe you changed your word, like I did. The first one (scatter) wore me outDistill and the next, a metaphorical opposite (distill) served me in many ways. It still is serving me, and I’m glad I changed.

Whether you are a writer, an artist, own your business, are independently wealthy, it’s good to ask yourself a few questions before you start next year. A few questions will help you decide where to spend your energy well, and unless you are too young to read, or you are a kitten, your energy is limited.

What’s the most surprising thing you found out about yourself this year?  When did it happen? What surprised you?

What do you want to change about yourself in 2015? Even if your plans are to change the world, the best place to start is with yourself. You’ll probably need some tools and protective gear for big changes.

What steps will make that change happen? No good engineer works without a plan. No good artist does, either.

How do you plan on putting those steps into action? A plan without a deadline is a daydream. What are some milestones and what are realistic time periods?

Who will be your support in making change? We don’t live in a world alone. Your change will ripple out and find support and criticism.

If you plan on taking on more of something (more work, another child, helping a parent), what will you give up to make room for this change in your life? This is an important part of taking on something new. Your time won’t magically expand, so it’s good to think about what you will let go.

—Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who gets very busy at this time of year.

 

 

Retirement? Maybe Not Ever

imagesWe were all waiting for our dinners to arrive, when the young couple sharing the restaurant table asked us about the blue wristbands. We’d been at the Desert Botanical Garden’s Las Noches de las Luminarias, which is a beautiful holiday experience. They were both civil engineers planning on driving across the desert tonight to be in Los Angeles tomorrow.

“Are you guys still working?” they asked anxiously. When I confirmed that we were, and that we both owned businesses and weren’t planning on retiring, we got “the look.” After all, a lot of people move to Phoenix to retire. So why aren’t we retired? Retirement is the reward you get after hating your job for 30 years. How horribly sad that thought is.

Many of my friends are taking early retirement. Tired of the work world and

Mural of birds on a wall in downtown Phoenix.

Mural of birds on a wall in downtown Phoenix.

filled with a desire to travel, garden, or enjoy their houses, they are bailing out of the rat race, because, they tell me, the rats are winning.

For the first month, retirement is bliss. Often, though, the dreams about retirement begin to thin out. It’s hard to live without a regular income. Most of my friends aren’t wealthy, and the lack of a regular paycheck can’t easily be replaced by penny pinching.

For the retirees who are wealthy, there is often a vacuum created by a lack of identity. We are our jobs after a while. It’s how we think of ourselves. It’s what we do most of our waking hours. And often, it’s what we ignore our families for.

When your hobby, which was fit into stolen moments, suddenly has to bear the burden of making you feel worthwhile, it can’t hold up its side of the bargain to amuse, entertain, and keep you busy.

At that point, retirement doesn’t look like the promise you’ve pursued all your working life.

I love what I do, and because I do several things–develop training courses, teach those courses, coach creative souls (and those who think they aren’t), and write—I don’t get bored. Work is fascinating because I’m endlessly curious and problem solving is a major part of my work.

Retire? Not me. Working, learning, exploring all fascinate me. I don’t have to work crossword puzzles as long as I’m figuring out how to solve a training problem for one client, researching an article I’m writing, and figuring out what to ask a client who wants to transition into retirement. And I like the boss.

-–Quinn McDonald helps people figure out how to change their lives, in retirement, or in the middle of their careers. She did, and will live longer for it.

 

Take the Fresh One

It was 3:00 in the afternoon and I was hungry. That horrible mid-afternoon munchy that makes you think you are starving. I headed for the fridge for my usual snack–a red pepper. Sometimes it gets a dab of peanut butter, sometimes a smear of soft cheese. Other times, just plain. A sweet red pepper is a perfect thing.

pepperAs I reached into the crisper drawer, I noticed a wrinkled pepper, older, slowing exhaling its crunchy texture in exchange for wrinkles shooting across its skin.

Automatically, I reach for it. Training from long ago. We were not allowed to eat the fresh, new fruit. No, we were to eat the older, mushy fruit or vegetable first. That way, nothing went to waste. Waste, of course, was an epic transgression of the laws of nature. I know, I know, but you didn’t know my parents and how close they had lived to starvation for years.

The result? We never ate anything fresh. We constantly foraged for the spotted, the almost inedible, and saved it from the trash by eating it.

I hesitated, my hand over the older pepper. I knew it would not be crunchy, and the bright red taste had faded to a tougher skin and limp texture. And then it struck me: there are omelets, soups, garnishes, juices that could benefit from the older pepper. But the firm one, the one glowing in the corner is meant to be eaten now. Not broken down by cooking, but celebrated for its perfection of temperature, color, and happiness.

So, with my Mother tsk-tsking in my memory, I pulled out the fresh pepper and enjoyed every fresh, juicy, refreshing bite. Life. Enjoy it while it’s fresh.

-–Quinn McDonald sees big lessons in small places.

 

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?

 

 

 

Nothing Personal?

That odd little phrase. . .”It’s not personal”

Of course it’s personal. If it weren’t personal, no one would waste breath doing Godfather_09the setup. Distancing. Pushing responsibility back on the listener. Acting as if what is about to be said is somehow not coming out of the speaker’s mouth and not causing a painful reaction in the person being talked to. Because, honestly, have those words ever been spoken in praise or admiration?

We all take our work personally. We all put emotion and effort into what we do to make a living. We want to take pride in our work. When someone starts a sentence with “Nothing personal, but . . .” it is a shortcut to being OK with saying “I am about to attack you and I expect you to sit and take it, and oh, you may not cry or fight back.”

We pretend that business is objective and logical, but it is not. Someone can understand your plan, but unless they have emotional buy-in, they won’t take action. The very expectations of business–taking favorable action–is emotional.

It’s so much easier to hide behind the thin veneer of logic and objectivity.  We want it both ways–deliver a gut punch and look objective.  It doesn’t work that way. Passive aggressive is as passive aggressive does. Own up to your emotions and opinions. They are yours. But “It’s not personal” does not free you of the responsibility of hurting someone else.

seth-godin-personallyTo avoid confusion, let’s be clear about using “It’s not personal.”
—Back to basics: If you wouldn’t want the phrase that contains INP said to you, don’t say it to the other person.
—If it’s about anything the other person said, did, drew, wrote,  or created in any way, don’t use INP.
—Replace  INP with “In my opinion. . .” and stand behind your words.
—If you want to point to a flaw, mistake, or gaffe, make sure you speak to the person in private. Ask for permission to point out the flaw. Have a suggestion ready for how you would fix it, but don’t offer it till you are asked.

“It’s not personal” almost always warns the listener about the slap that’s coming. Put it down. You have better phrases then that.

—Quinn McDonald hears a lot about what goes on in people’s lives. It’s not always good or helpful.

Blooming Late and Loving It

Kids want to grow up fast. Do what adults do. Feel powerful. Unfortunately, most adults don’t feel so powerful. They feel helpless, burdened with responsibility but not so much authority.

A true late bloomer: this organ pipe cactus blooms at night.

A true late bloomer: this organ pipe cactus blooms at night. © Quinn McDonald, 2014

I skipped grades when I was younger, got out of high school early and college really early. It didn’t make any difference, of course.

Every job made me “start over” and “prove myself.” For years, I thought this was a lack of ability on my part to show I was smart and capable. It took years to figure out that all the proof rested on thorny cultural facets–that women deserve less pay, that women need to prove themselves more than men, that women as seen as weak and hysterical.

Worse, I was a late bloomer. The youngest in my class, and slow to develop curves, I had to use wit, humor and smarts to negotiate my life. Unfortunately, I was also impatient, perfectionistic and, well, angry at all this nonsense.  Why couldn’t employers just use my skills? That attitude didn’t help.

As I got older, I began to see the advantage of being a late bloomer. You draw different battle lines in different places. You waste less energy. You spend more time solving the real problem–the underlying problem, rather than the superficial drama. In fact, you don’t care about the drama so much any more. You’ve seen so much drama, little of it fresh, and most of it is not about you.

As a late bloomer, you give up the need to prove who you are by words, and focus on doing. What you do becomes your proof statement, and people interested in results begin to pay attention. People interested in externals still shrill loudly, but it matters less, because there are those results. (My favorite was the woman who looked at my generous hips and hissed, “If you can’t control what you put in your mouth, how can you control the people who work for you?” to which I replied, ” Not a problem, as I wasn’t planning on eating them.”)

Now that I own my business, I am grateful to have been a late bloomer. I know how to pace a project, I know how to separate “urgent” from “important.” I stay calm when others amp the histrionics, as I’m not interested in the attention. I get work done. I work with a better quality of people. Yes, many years were spent fraught and living in disappointment. But I’m a late bloomer and life is good.

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. She travels the Americas, teaching.

Journal Ideas on the Run

The last year has seen a steep increase in my travel time. Which means I fly a lot and stay in a lot of hotels. Traveling can be lonely, and eating out every night is not the luxury it might seem. I don’t have a fat expense account, my diet is pretty rigid, and after a while, the idea of another Cesar salad makes me scowl. But this post is not about traveling, it’s about journal ideas when I’m traveling.

A muted wallpaper with several shades of blue and gray.

A muted wallpaper with several shades of blue and gray.

Hotels have a practical purpose to their carpets–they have to hide dirt and look trendy. Wallpaper has to be background to art and doorways and bedspreads are vanishing in favor of the bedroom equivalent of a table runner–a piece of fabric placed across the foot of the bed to remind you that there used to be bedspreads.

I photograph the patterns and then copy the idea into my journal. I may use different colors, sometimes I alter the scale, and sometimes I print out the photo and simply transfer it into my journal for color and shape use in a future project.

hotel2No matter how tired I am or how reluctant my brain is to write, the colors and patterns of walls, bedcovers, and floors provide endless design interest. Sometimes the design seems to emerge from the way-back machine (when, exactly, did that carpet above debut?).

hotel4On the other hand, from a design standpoint, the carpet above is interesting. I like the circles within circles, and the lines in the background gives depth to the whole thing. It was, in fact, the beginning of an idea for a Gelli Plate pattern I worked on. With different colors, it had an updated look.

hotel6Sometimes the wallpaper is simply interesting. This one was pleated, but irregularly. I loved the effect, which was limited to the elevator area. A whole hallways of orange and gold would have been too much–this wasn’t Vegas, it was Washington, D.C.

hotel1This coverlet detail above reminds me of my favorite “I can’t cut straight lines” solution. The fact that it is not symmetrical makes it even more appealing.

hotel5Oranges and earthtones seem to be having their heyday. Again. Which is why I liked this neutral-with-red striped bed covering in Dallas. The rest of the room picked up colors from this palette and made it effective for a small room. Another palette I’m saving for later use. I would not have mixed the pale gray-green into this mix, and the bit of pale apricot really works.

hotel7Bold works, too. I wouldn’t want this carpet in my home, but it was the inspiration for a collage I did that wound up in Joan Bess’s book, Gelli Plate Printing. The pattern-within-a-pattern was appealing.

Pg124Bessbk(p. 124 of Joan Bess’s book with my poppy collage, above). Inspiration is just that–an idea that you like, reworked in some other way. Because the poppy-carpet photo-transfer was in my journal, I began to play with the idea of poppies in collage. You never know where it will lead you.

Who would have thought that wallpaper and carpeting would be such an interesting addition to a journal? These walls did talk, after all!

-Quinn McDonald is a training developer and trainer. She teaches writing all over the U.S. and Canada. She is a certified creativity coach.