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:

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.

Time Lapse Plants

After posting a blog almost every day for seven and a half years, there are topics that got lost. And some that should have gotten lost but still haunt me. And with more than 2,200 posts, I stumble across old ones every now and then.

In November, 2007, I moved to Phoenix. The following May, I flew back to D.C. for 10 days, leaving my new life–and plants–untended. This was a post from that time:

One of the things I enjoy is watch plants work busily on keeping the line going. After reading Barbara Kingsolver’s incredible book that affirms that we are what we eat, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I became even more interested in how plant life in the desert protects and keeps itself going.

sproutSometimes the seed pod would trigger on my drawing table. When that happened, I’d carefully gather the seeds and put them in a vacant lot to try for another generation. One day I came across a stray seed from some plant while I wasn’t on my way out the door. Looking at the tiny potential plant, I didn’t have the heart to throw it in the trash. I absently stuck it in my potted plant.

Neither had much of a chance. A friend gave me the plant, thinking I had a window in my apartment. The window is there, but it faces North, so it doesn’t get direct light. To make it worse, I live on a well-traveled sidewalk section of my complex, so for privacy’s sake, I keep the blinds drawn when I’m out or not in the mood to be on public display.

I stick the plant outside my door every night, and bring it in after my morning walk, assuring it a little early morning sun. It has to make do with that. It’s a dracena, so a little light goes a long way.

After being gone for 10 days, I came back to find the potted plant dried to the core. And leaning toward the closed blinds searching for a bit of light. I watered it and was plunking it outside for a bit of shaded light, when I noticed the sprout.

It doesn’t look like the rest of the plant. It looks like a long blade of thick grass. You can see it in the center of the picture–the green part that doesn’t look like the rest.

Remembering the seed, I began to plow my memory for what, exactly, I’d stuck into that pot. I can’t remember. It could be an aloe, or a tamarind. If it grows fast, I’ll have to add another pot to my plant-hostile apartment. Or just let them slug it out and see what happens. The one thing I did not think would happen was that a desert plant would find a pot that gets occasional watering and almost no light the right place to sprout. Maybe it was taking a chance. Let’s see what happens as it gets bigger. It may have been a worthwhile chance.

* * *
That was seven years ago. I thought you might want to see what happened to that tiny blade of brave new plant. It turned out to be a dragon tree, and it’s been growing in my back yard since I moved into the house. The dracena? It didn’t make it. You have to be tough to survive in the desert.


On the other hand, once you adapt to the desert, you can thrive. Adapting is the first step in thriving.

-Quinn McDonald thrives in the Sonoran Desert. She carries around a black basalt rock from the desert to remind her that the desert was once an ocean and different things lived there then.

Life Tetris

My first computer game was Tetris. My first computer-game skill was to find the sound button and turn it off. I’m not good at spacial relationships, and I was very bad at Tetris. Eventually I outgrew it.

tetris1If you have never played Tetris, it is a game in which differently-shaped two-dimensional objects drop down a screen, and you have to fit them together to complete full rows of squares.

Last week, I put it back on my iPad. The paid version. Because I kept thinking I needed it. As I gain skill, no, umm,  practice, waste time with this game, I am getting better. Much faster. What happened?

Two things. In the version I have, you can slow down the time it takes for the tiles to drop. I got familiar with both the shape itself and the negative space that it fills.

The second thing was learning patience. You have to fill in the row completely with whatever shape you get. The more holes you think you’ll get to later, the faster you lose.

I’m now up to a much faster speed, and working quickly.

So why in the world am I going on and on about Tetris? Because I suddenly saw Tetris_screen006the metaphor in the game:

1. To get better at anything, you need to practice. A lot. Even if people tell you it’s a waste of time.

2. Another word for “practice” is “shaping a habit.” And good habits are good to form. Good habits make life easier.

3. Start slowly–so slowly you feel like an idiot. You learn a lot from going slowly. You have time to observe and learn. You can speed up when you have the hang of the big picture.

4. Be ready to jettison your assumptions. That’s really hard. But when we look at the world expecting certain things, we generally find them. When we approach the world with an open mind, allowing the experience to form new ideas, we begin to see opportunities that we did not see before. Example: There are two Tetris pieces that are mirror images of each other. This confuses me. Every time. I keep putting them in the wrong-shaped space and then

  • noticing it doesn’t fit
  • then panicking
  • then not paying attention
  • then losing the game.

To fix this, I decided to try a new way of seeing the board–not by shape, but by color. At first it was confusing, then it got a lot easier. Had I simply berated myself for not being good at spacial relationships, I would have stayed stuck. By working with color, something I understand better, I advanced my skill.

Yes, computer games are time-wasters. But they also have some great metaphors buried in them. And you know how much I love a good metaphor.

—Quinn McDonald is thinking about Tetris synethesia and smiling.

Avoiding Shame

Embarrassment is knowing you screwed up and wishing it had worked out better.

Shame is hating yourself for being who you are.

One way a community–work, friends, even relatives–reacts to you if you show your-lifecourage, initiate change, stick to your writing or art, start over, is to shame you.

What? Right when you thought you were getting a crown? Yes, that’s the best time to apply shame. Just when you are ready to step up on the podium and reach for the crown. Slap! No crown. Instead, shame. Shame’s purpose is to get you to sit down, lie down, and shut up.

How can you avoid shame?  The easy way is to lie down and be quiet. Being quiet will not get you praise, but others will walk over you and not kick you. Probably. But being quiet is very hard when you have tasted the joy of working on your creative project for your own satisfaction.

The other way to avoid shame is to refuse to accept it. No one can shame you if you don’t accept the baggy sweatshirt with the big S on it and pull it over your head. Yes, this is a very hard idea. Yes, it is a tough reality. You can take the blame for making a mistake, for not hitting the deadline, for not winning the competition, but that’s blame. Shame is another matter.

Courage is continuing your creative work when you aren’t sure what the outcome will be, but the work is invigorating and meaningful, and you are doing it.

Some tips about shame:

1. If your tribe (audience, friends) try to shame you, they are the wrong group for you. Others cannot choose what is important to you. It works the other way around: you choose what is important to you and attract those for whom it is also important.

2. Be careful about thinking you need a mentor. A mentor is not going to discover you, change your life, or make other people respect you. That’s your job. A mentor may act like a tutor–help you figure out what you need, discover where you can get what you need.

3. There is no secret to success. You show up, work hard. You will fail, you will make mistakes, you will have luck, you will be brilliant, you will make progress and then backslide,  all on your way to success. But there is no secret, no one private word that you have to know.

4. It’s hard to be brave. It’s hard to be brave when you are heavily rewarded for shutting your eyes and doing what you are told. Brave is the opposite of shame. Be brave. That’s who you are.

-–Quinn McDonald is refusing the baggy sweatshirt of shame.

You Might Be a Writer If . . .

Think you are a writer? Maybe so, maybe not. But you may be a writer if . . .

. . . you go on your morning walk and discover this on someone’s lawn:

santahowitzerand your first thought is “where is that ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ sign when you really need one?”

—and your second thought is, “Is he going to run over that collapsed snowman and blame it on Santa?”

—and your third thought is “What’s that brown thing? Is that a wiener dog implicated in this tableau?”

You walk on and find this:

santaAnd your first thought is: “Good use of a Santa that can’t be inflated anymore!”

–and your second thought is: “Did that other Santa on the right fall off the roof earlier? Is he dead or does he just have the wind knocked out of him?  And if I give mouth-to-mouth, how long will it take me to inflate him?”

Being a writer is not easy. You will find yourself incredibly sensitive, even emotional, at odd moments. Simultaneously, you will have to have a very tough skin, because everyone you meet has advice for a writer, most of it negative.

You have to be curious about the world. You can’t be curious if you don’t know about the world. Which means you have to experience it, get involved, and yes, watch the news. No hiding from the magnificent, roiling combination of environmental, human, and geographical conflagration we partake in. You can’t grow an imagination on a steady diet of popular culture and celebrity. You’ll wind up writing lame fan fiction like Fifty Shades of Navy.

If you just thought, “Who cares if she can write, that lady is rolling in dough and sold her movie rights for millions!” you can’t be a writer. Writers care about content more than anything. Good content.

You might be a writer if you have a constant trickle of ideas as long as you don’t have a way to take notes. The instant you open your app or pull out paper, the great idea vanishes like steam over a subway grate.

You might be a writer if you narrate your life, and while you are at it, you constantly improve or change what’s happening, to make it “read” better.

And if you don’t want to be a writer, but keep running into them, here are five things never to say to a writer:

1. “So you write? Would you have written anything I’d read?”
For the love of sweet Mother of Pearl, how should I know what you read? Cereal boxes? Sales flyers?

2. Books are so expensive! Can you give me five for my friends? Oh, and sign them, would you? That way I won’t have to come to the book signing.
Yes. No. And no again. Buy the books, that’s how a writer earns a living.

3. So do you just sit there and wait until ideas show up?
No, you live a complicated life with many twists and turns and spend a lifetime taking notes. For every forty-four pounds of journaling, you’ll find half an ounce of good ideas. You think this is a bargain.

4. I’ve always wanted to write a book.
Great. Get busy. Books don’t write themselves.

5. Are your books just your life, but only better?
My life is like a book plot like a letter is like a sentence. It’s all raw material, but it’s not in the right order. That’s what a writer does. Put thoughts and ideas into the right order.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach.

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.


Postcard Swap

The postcard swap iHanna is running is in full swing! I got my postcard list today, and I’m ready to go. Here are the postcards I made, grouped by color or subject.

RedI made two predominantly red postcards. Red is way out of my comfort zone for me, I own no clothing or shoes in red. So I had to try it. Watercolor and pen.

PearsThen I made three pears, also in watercolor and when I got tired of pears, I resorted to a horned toad, because one of the names I got was in Switzerland and they probably haven’t seen one of those.

FeathersFinally, I did a words-and-image with feathers and, of course, to complete the group, a bird. All of them are watercolors–the Brusho dye colors I wrote about earlier. I’m loving this medium for its unpredictability. Hope they travel well!

diy-postcard-button-2014-5If you’ve counted, you’ll see there are nine and 10 are needed for the swap. I have another pear and another feather, but there was going to be too much of a good thing. Can’t wait to see the other postcards! (You can get a sneak peek here).

—Quinn McDonald loves a good postcard swap.