Category Archives: In My Life

Map Your World

The newspaper had stories on  The Cape Verde Islands. I couldn’t remember if the Seychelles are close to Cape Verde islands (they aren’t.)  The story didn’t have a map,  but it would have made for a clearer story if there had been one. A map adds context. But we are no longer used to maps. We rely on photos for emotional food, but we dieted away our spatial-relationship food.

We may not need paper maps as long as there is a GPS system to tell us how to get where we want to go. But don’t we need to know where we were and how we got here? If life is a journey, don’t we want a map of the trip?

My dirty secret is that I hate using GPS systems. They make me feel dizzy and disoriented. I have the same problem as digital clocks– I need to know where I’m not as well as where I am. I need to have a sense of connection, of space, of logic on the freeway as well as downtown. A few days ago a friend and I were driving to the airport. She had mistakenly programmed her GPS system for someplace else. And while we could both clearly see the airplanes landing a few miles away, she headed in the other direction because her GPS system told her to. I don’t own a GPS and don’t miss it, either.

My favorite three reasons to use lots of maps:

desert_portraits1. Maps help us figure out the world around us. Most people who don’t live in Arizona think the entire state is desert, with saguaro cactus and drifting sand, like the Sahara. (The Sahara doesn’t have saguaros, but that’s another blog.) When they hear it snows in Flagstaff and that the road to the Grand Canyon is closed due to snow starting in November, they think I’m making it up. A topographical map, showing elevations, helps explain why that is.

2. Maps help us figure out where to go next. This isn’t necessary about physical geography, this is also true in writing. I use a mind map to organize almost everything I write, and once I organize the studio, I can complete the map of where things are. This is a goofy map I’m making because the room is small and doubles as the guest room, so I often have to disappear things in a closet. Astrict rule of putting things in the same place every time and an Excel spread sheet (I can search for items in different ways) helps me locate gesso, spray bottles and sponge brushes once the guests are gone.

3. Maps help us know what’s beyond the horizon. We usually care about our houses and our back yards. It’s also important to know what’s in your back yard, what’s in the next state, the location of the nearest earthquake fault, water source, and windbreak.  A good map can do that, particularly if you add to it or draw it yourself.

Which reminds me. Draw your own maps. They don’t have to be elaborate or even exact. Drawing a map helps you think spatially, locally and globally. And that has to be a good thing.

-–Quinn McDonald draws her own maps of everything from city streets to location of bathrooms and water dispensers in places she teaches.






Choosing a Book by its Cover


The journal as it was originally

Digging through my piles of partially-started journals, I found one I really liked. Why didn’t I continue using it? I liked the paper inside–heavy enough for sketches and light washes, provided they don’t require a lot of scrubbing. The top paper layer did dissolve, but I generally don’t soak my journal pages.

Why had I abandoned this journal? After staring at it for a minute, I realized the cover was too busy, the paint stencil over the newspaper-print butterflies didn’t suit the delicate swirls on the cover.

Most of my journal covers are dark brown or black. If I make the journal myself, I use a dark color–it shows less wear. Even when I loose-leaf journal, the covers or carriers are usually dark.

The big circle is much greener, but color correction can only do so much.

The big circle is much greener, but color correction can only do so much.

Yep, I was that shallow–judging a book by its cover. And not using it because I didn’t like the cover. Milliseconds later, I grabbed paper and collaged the cover, leaving the pretty purple color and swirls in space and covering the butterflies with geometric shapes.

Some color richness is missing here, too, but you get the idea.

Some color richness is missing here, too, but you get the idea.

Since then, I’ve been using it regularly. Who knew that such a small thing could make such a big difference? As an artist, I should have. But I was embarrassed at 4972f961f1e56b004aaa0323977ed746my own “shallowness.” Until I thought about it. We buy by preference–color, texture, shading.  I wouldn’t buy the shoes on the left, for example, although someone did. And wore them with great flair.

My experiment of book-cover altering bring up another idea: the things we use have to fit our hands, our hearts, and our pleasures. Or we won’t use them. It’s not always about practical and usefulness. Sometimes it’s about sheer pleasure.

--Quinn McDonald judges a book by its cover. She tries not to do the same for people.



Alone Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Neither literally  nor figuratively. “Alone” is an experience fast disappearing from our culture.  For an entire generation who grew up in sports teams, group after-school activities, study clubs, and went from that to living in college dorms, parties and more sports teams, there is a big surprise. When you have graduated, when you are done with work, you’ll find yourself alone. I know that people now have roommates instead of a studio apartment, I know that work is now a 24/7 activity, largely to avoid being alone, but sooner or later, you will find yourself alone.

One of my friends is terrified of being alone. She will do almost everything to avoid that evening spent alone. Call friends, spend four hours on Facebook, go on a date with someone she doesn’t like. All this because it’s better than being alone.

For some of us, alone is a time to recharge and regroup. After I’ve taught for eight hours, I need to spend time alone. But I’m in the vast minority.

Food52Whether it’s divorce, or death,  a fight, or just life, at some point you will be alone. And you can love it. You don’t have to live in dread or fear, being alone can be a delicious break from having people crowded around you, talking all the time.

Some early steps to comfort yourself when you are alone:

1. What do you like to do? Read? Cook? Hike? You can do almost anything alone that you used to do with friends. Except this time you can do it your way. An activity really can be all about you. You can hike at your pace, turn on your music, cook what you like. Take a deep breath and think–do you remember your preferences? Or are they blurred by what all your friends told you was right?

2. Quit looking at the clock. Instead, choose an activity and plan how to savor it. Decide which book to read. Spend some time choosing it. Decide where you want to read it. Outside? Inside on the couch, stretched out? Decide what is best for you. Then do it. Read till you are tired. Fall asleep. Wake up and keep reading. What did you like about the book? What didn’t you like?

3. Decide what you will eat. No more junk, on the run. Choose something you like that’s good for you. Make a grocery list. Go buy groceries. Cook it thoughtfully. Set the table. Sit at a table with candlelight. Play music if you like. You choose. The joy of preparing food and choosing what will nourish you deliberately is a deeply refreshing experience.

Those three are enough for now. Life alone is not something to be rushed, or avoided. There is much to learn when the journey has only your footprints along the path.

Note: When I searched for photos for this blog, all I could find was people alone, crying at dinner, or eating out of cans. Not even Google sees the joy of alone-ness.

–Quinn McDonald loves people, but she also loves being alone. Particularly after spending 12 hours on airplanes with 560 strangers this week.

Battling the Battle

The Phoenix newspaper probably has a higher share of obituaries than other papers in the U.S., because our population skews a bit older than some other cities. There are two striking facts that jump off the page:

The Battle of Minas Tirith.

The Battle of Minas Tirith.

1. Whatever you do, don’t call it “death” or “dying.” I have never seen so many euphemisms for dying. Passing on, passing over, going home, going to meet her maker, going to meet her husband, shuffling off the mortal coil (the writer must have been a Hamlet enthusiast), going to his just reward–the list is endless. But no one dies.

Death makes most people uncomfortable. We like our “stuff” and death means no more stuff. And as a culture, we see very few people die (except on TV). So I can understand we want to make it something else other than the very permanent death.

2. Everyone “battles” a disease. Usually it’s a heroic battle or a long battle.

When my time comes, I don’t want to have “battled” anything. It sets a bad precedent. It pits me against a disease, and I may not want to start a war with my own life. As no one came here to stay, “battling” is going to, at some point, be a losing proposition. And the idea that someone “loses the battle against disease” seems a little harsh. Eventually, it means we are all losers. Heroes that failed. That’s not how I want to look at my life. Or my death.

True,  I have a life-altering, non-curable disease. I am not “battling” it. I am adjusting to it, adapting my life and habits, accepting it, dealing with it, living with it. Diabetes is now a companion, something I check in with before I decide what to eat, how long to exercise, and how much stress I have going on in my life. But I am not battling it. That would be futile. Better to collaborate with diabetes that to struggle against it. I will live longer, feel better, be healthier and not exhaust myself in a “battle” that I can’t win.

-–Quinn McDonald knows her days are numbered. She just doesn’t know the number, and is making the most of every day she has. She thinks about death frequently, to get to know it without terror or resentment. And she hopes to live many interesting years to come.


The Skill of Self-Soothing

My cat Buster misses Aretha. Before she died, they didn’t always get along, but they loved chasing each other or having a “surprise” stand-off, each of them backing around each other, lifting a paw as if to strike. Both would growl threateningly. And then, just as quickly as it started, they each pretended to find something more interesting and walk away. After the stand-off, Buster would find a patch of sun or an air conditioning draft and take a nap.

Now that Aretha is gone, Buster can no longer soothe himself. He is awake mostBustertub of the day, following me and meowing. When I ask him what he needs, he either runs to the tub for water, or to the door to be let out. But it’s not what he wants. He’s lost the ability to soothe himself.  I pick him up and talk to him, stroke him, but it’s not enough.

“Self soothing” is a term used for babies who manage to go to sleep using their own methods. They don’t fight sleep, they don’t cry themselves to sleep, they talk to themselves and just calm themselves down until they fall asleep.

My son was not one of those babies, and neither was I. My mother always said I was afraid I’d miss something by sleeping. My son needed a bath, a story, a song, another story and then maybe, just maybe he would stay in bed. He fought sleep with the best of them. No self soothers in our family.

The cat loves a warm patio in the winter.

The cat loves a warm patio in the winter.

It took me years to learn self-soothing. To keep calm. To not choose “frantic.” To deliberately turn away from drama. It takes a lot of practice. I start by going silent and disconnecting from all electronic gear. While I’m still up, I go to the studio and write down all my worries. That way, they are captured and I don’t need to rewind and re-run them. The next morning, I tear them up, after reviewing them to make sure I still have them all.

After I write down the worries, it’s time to find either the prayer mala or my seed pod necklace and rub the surface. This simply motion, moving my fingers over a smooth surface, helps me focus on texture. I then think of calming scenes, of things that went well in the day, or, if I am fighting sleep, of a book, turning the pages. On each page, I “find” a word that is calming. Then I mentally turn the page. This exercise, which is a form of meditation or prayer, usually works. Sleep comes and finds me.

Buster’s anguish makes me sad for him. He hasn’t learned the skill, so I’m being a bit more patient with him. Because, God knows, self soothing is a life-long learning procedure.

Quinn McDonald finds traveling a barricade to self-soothing.



Moving Forward

Every morning when I slip into the pool to exercise, I do a lap (back and forth the length of the pool) to get my mind into a stillness so I can exercise without having my mind run ahead into the day.

One of my exercises is to run, lifting my knees very high and pumping my arms. Since I’m in water over my head, I do not race ahead. I move sluggishly, surrounded by water that holds me in place. Resists my progress, while it’s building up muscles.

1445800And as I ran, it occurred to me that frantic running–in or out of the water–doesn’t achieve anything except exercise. Frantic running is not productive. It doesn’t get work done faster, or with more accuracy. We’ve all raced around only to make the situation worse instead of better. And wasted time on top of everything else.

When I sit on airplanes, I see people who are frantically busy. They stay on their phones till the flight attendants ask them to shut them off–for the second time. They pull out their laptops and work the entire flight. As soon as the flight touches down, they are back on the phone. I asked the man next to me how much he had accomplished. “Not enough,” he said, “and I’m late.” He ran off, pushing down the aisle.

In the running of the bulls, people run, bulls run, and then the bulls are killed in the afternoon.© Washington Post

In the running of the bulls, people run, bulls run, and then the bulls are killed in the afternoon.© Washington Post

I saw him again a few minutes later, mopping up his suit with a coffee stain on it. He was furious. As he grabbed more napkins, he knocked over a ketchup container. It just got worse.

Moving forward is a deliberate act. It combines planning and thinking and often, not doing anything at all. And as I run in the pool in the morning, struggling to make headway, I know that when I get out of the pool, my actions need to be far more deliberate. Sometimes, when I get out, I deliberately move very slowly, feeling each exercised muscle do its work. And it feels like I’ve accomplished something.
–Quinn McDonald is moving ahead. Sometimes faster than others.

Before You Commit

Some wisdom I’ve known for a long time: Pay very close attention to the way people treat you before they hire you, marry you, work with you, or take a class from you. Everyone’s behavior changes with familiarity, but if your future mate, work partner, client, or boss doesn’t treat you well before you agree to the commitment, it is going to go downhill after you commit.

The door closes from both sides--you can close it as well at the person on the other side.

The door closes from both sides–you can close it as well at the person on the other side.

Often, when we want the job, the guy (or girl), the friend, we deny our own wants and goals and give them up in order to get that short-term goal. “So what if this deal has some thorns?” we think. “Even roses have thorns,” we reason. “And I sure want that armload of roses to carry down the runway.” And then comes the job offer or the class or the friendship, and we are so blinded with the short-term victory, we miss the opportunity to ask ourselves if this behavior is really OK with us. Most often, it isn’t OK. And it’s not a runway, it’s a long hard road and the petals fall off the roses and we are carrying an armful of thorns.

But that short-term victory is huge and ego-inflating.  And right after that, when we want respect, it’s not there. We’ve signed the contract, accepted the lower pay, given up what we really wanted and it’s not going to come your way now. Negotiations are over. Work has started. You have settled for less than you wanted, and you will not get that upgrade. Why should they? You voluntarily gave up your values to get the short-term rush of pleasure. When it fades, the rest of the duration will look bleak.

You may have to open your own window to let a fresh breeze blow in.

You may have to open your own window to let a fresh breeze blow in.

Know your values and stick to them. Your values make up your character, your spine, your self-worth. Give it up to someone and they won’t give it back anytime soon.

Jim Rohn got it just right when he said: “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”

If you read the blog regularly, a few weeks ago I had a post that asked “Is it a book?” the answer is it will be a book, but it will be someone else’s book. Not mine. And now that I’ve looked over the values I cherish, I’m just fine with it. No hard feelings on my part, wishing the author much success. My inner critic is screaming at me, “You lost the opportunity to go with a huge publishing company! Are you nuts?” But away from the closing door, the Holder of Deep Values (one of my inner heroes) is opening the window and saying, “Be glad. You did not give up what is important to you, and that is always up to you to choose, decide and protect.”

-–Quinn McDonald is seeing a door close and is waiting for the window to open. She trusts the wisdom of the Holder of Deep Values.



Five More Things Not to Say to a Diabetic

The first time I wrote “Five Things Never to Say to a Diabetic,” I thought it was a one-time thing. After five dumb things people say, they run out of dumb things to say. Oh, how I wish that had been true. Alas, it was not. So, five more things never to say to a diabetic.

51928726af28afada97d091a9a2ecfcb1. “You shouldn’t say you are diabetic. You have diabetes.”  Yes, it’s popular right now not to be “identified by” your disease. But deciding that is the option of the person with the disease. Not you. Even if you are also diabetic. I am a diabetic because in many ways, it does identify me: no drinking, no desserts, no birthday cake. And I’m fine with it. But it is an important part of how I think, eat and behave.

Reply:  “Thanks for pointing that out.” While I believe that setting people straight is a good idea, I do not believe that I can change everyone’s mind about their opinion. Choose your battles.

2. “You can’t stick to that diet all the time. It’s not healthy.” This is a switchback message. The speaker is not ready to accept that you have changed, and wants the old behavior back. That remark is not about you, it’s about the speaker. The speaker also doesn’t know what is or is not healthy.

Reply: Smile, then, “I’m pretty healthy, so I think I’ll stick with it.”

3. “How much weight have you lost?” This is a question no one should ask.306fedaa78da35dd31cf4a490d515086 But they do. If you answer, they will know someone who lost at least 10 pounds more, probably 20.

Reply: “Just enough to have the perfect BMI if I were three inches taller.” The topic will then switch to the irrelevance of BMI, and you will be off the hook.

4.  “So now that you’ve lost the weight, you aren’t diabetic any more, right?” In our culture, we like to be rewarded for hard work. So if you dieted, well, then, your diabetes must be gone. Whew, they don’t have to worry about that anymore. If you continue to be diabetic, you must have made bad choices.

Reply: “I will be diabetic the rest of my life.” It’s hard for some people to hear the truth, but sometimes it’s the best thing to tell them.

5. “So you eat Paleo, right?” People like categories, and they like to label. Once they know which diet you are on, they can try to compare or get you to switch to theirs.

Reply: “What diet are you on?” Most people who want to label your diet also want to talk about theirs. It’s a lot easier to talk to people about their diets because they will not like yours.

Diabetes is a tricky disease that is different for everyone. Each person has a private way to deal with their particular requirements. It’s a thin line between being curious and being intrusive. Your best bet is not to offer advice unless you are the physician for the diabetic. Offer support. That’s always the right thing to say.

Quinn McDonald occasionally runs out of patience.

Remembering Paper Bowls

Way back in the last century (really!), I made paper bowls. Most of them were made from paper I also handmade. In those years, I had a big garden and grew vegetables and after picking the summer’s bounty, I’d cook the stems down, beat the fiber into usable paper fiber and make handmade bowls.

Yesterday, a reader asked me if she could find instructions for how I made the bowls. Surprisingly, I’d never posted it. High time to help more people make handmade paper bowls! Here’s how I did it way back then:

Lotus bowl, layered.

Lotus bowl, layered. © Quinn McDonald

You can make or buy handmade paper. Some machine made papers will work, but nothing with a distinct print on it.  Rice paper, the kind with visible threads is very thin. You’ll need lots of layers to make it work, but it is beautiful.

Don’t use the really thick bark papers as you will have to soak them and the bowl will warp. It’s best to use the same kind of paper to make the whole bowl.

Chose a small bowl, about 3 inches in diameter and about 3-4 inches high.
Coat is lightly with Vaseline on the inside only. Lightly is the key word. Rub it on so there is a sheen of it on the bowl.
You will build your bowl on the inside of the bowl.

Inside view of lotus bowl. © Quinn McDonald

Inside view of lotus bowl. © Quinn McDonald

Tear the handmade paper into small, round-ish pieces. Not strips. The pieces should be about 1.5 inches in diameter. You can use squarish pieces, too, but you don’t want any distinct corners.

Pour a tablespoon of white glue (I like PVA glue, bookbinders glue) into a container (like a clean, small yogurt dish) and add a teaspoon or two of filtered water. Mix so the resulting mixture is as thick as light cream.

Using a flat paintbrush (like you would use for painting acrylic paint) about 0.5 inch broad, dip the brush into glue, put a piece of paper at the bottom of the bowl, and paint over it with the glue. Overlap other pieces of paper over the first, working in a circle around the bottom, then up the sides. When you have one layer in the bowl, stop and let it dry completely. Add at least a total of three layers to form a substantial bowl. Tear the top edge so it appears to be deckled, but keep it even around the edge.

Inside view of blossom-coated bowl.

Inside view of blossom-coated bowl. © Quinn McDonald

When the last layer is completely dry, slip a palette knife in between the bowl and paper and slide the knife around the edge like you do to release a cake from the cake form.

Gently remove the paper bowl from the ceramic bowl and put the paper bowl on the bottom, outside of the ceramic bowl. The paper bowl is now outside and the ceramic bowl inside. In most shape, it won’t be a tight fit, but you are looking to keep the rim stable. Now add another layer of paper and glue to the outside. Allow to dry completely.

Coral bowl © Quinn McDonald

Coral bowl © Quinn McDonald

You can coat the bowl with polyurethane, but bowls should not be used to hold wet or damp items. I don’t use them for food, either. They can hold soap, paper clips, and other small items. I like them empty, with the sun coming through them. When I still made them and people asked what they would hold, I’d say, “They hold your attention, not liquids or food.”

-–Quinn McDonald has wondered about Monsoon Papers and bowls. But she really doesn’t make bowls anymore. Lately.

Do It Again

When you were little, you found something you liked and you did it over and over again, often yelling, “Watch me! Watch me!” If you needed help, you’d finish one round and cheerfully yell “Do it again!” Whether it was jumping into the pool, or pedaling down the block, you loved the work that made you better at what you did. If someone was watching you, it made you even more proud.

Children are great at practicing to get better. Somehow, as we grow up, we want to be able to do things perfectly the first time. OK, we’re patient till the third time. Then, it needs to be just right.

Pear © Quinn McDonald, 2014

Pear © Quinn McDonald, 2014

This weekend, I’m enjoying practicing both the letter collages and the minimalist collage. I love the practice. I love the different effects. I love seeing the result and knowing that some other approach will change the outcome. Are they perfect? Not even on the radar.

High Desert Mesa © Quinn McDonald, 2014

High Desert Mesa © Quinn McDonald, 2014

It’s practice. Practice with the paper and colors and shapes. Practice with larger and more complex subjects, practice with shading and shadows. And mostly, it’s fun to keep experimenting.

Quinn McDonald is practicing collage. Still.