Thanksgiving Week

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Free of gifts, religious strife, or guilt, it is a holiday to give thanks and share meals. Oh, wait, that was 20 years ago. We have now managed to crank up even this holiday with angst, fear, and stress.

thanksgiving-turkey-prozacThe whole Black Friday thing? I avoid it entirely. I don’t shop at any mall on weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Reduces stress. When I do go (during the week), I am determinately cheerful, greet strangers, and help people carry packages. The look on their faces are worth the effort. Sometimes I need a nap when I get home.

I refuse to pick fights. I let people cut in front of me in line, take that parking spot I had in mind, and refuse to engage in any hate speech. Which means when I say “Happy Holidays,” and someone snaps at me, “It’s ‘Merry Christmas’ and NOT Happy Holidays,” I tell myself that this is their problem and not mine. I’ve told myself that three times already and it’s not even Thanksgiving.

What stuns me is how much people complain about Thanksgiving and Christmas. How much they claim to hate it, while decorating up a storm and baking themselves into a frenzy.

The food we eat, the diet we follow is both personal and public. I struggle between being an advocate for a healthy diabetic diet and not making anyone change their way of eating for my sake. Which means I bring my own food if I am invited to dinner. I love eating and I don’t want to offend a hostess–and who doesn’t have at least one delicious carb-fest dish on a Thanksgiving table?

A former acquaintance used to “prove” how silly people’s diets were by putting sugar in dishes for diabetics and serving pork to religious Jews and Muslims and insisting it was veal. I no longer visit her. In fact, I don’t speak to her anymore.

This is the week that we choose how much stress we want to handle. You don’t have to be a hero; you can be quiet, change the subject, laugh along, stand up for yourself, set boundaries, don’t take crap from anyone, or go on the attack. It’s all up to you. Just remember what the holiday is for and keep an eye on that.

—Quinn McDonald is looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner and the amazing sandwiches afterwards. Without the bread.

 

Small Shreds of Life

Poetry takes a small shred of life and makes it important. Even if it is unimportant. Even if it is something we don’t know and still wonder about. That’s why I love the poems of Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.

unusual-tombstonesIn the last several weeks, I’ve given some thought to death and dying. No, no, nothing is wrong, but several of my friends have had friends die recently, or a spouse, or someone they loved. And while I conducted the memorial service, I thought how little we know about the dead and their lives.

I love the descriptions in David Brockmeir’s  A Brief History of the Dead--that as long as someone tells stories about the dead, they live in a place much like earth, where they know they are remembered. And the day the last person who knew them dies, they move into a different dimension. And then there is Billy Collins’s take on death, one that is kind and funny. And that had to be hard to write:

The Dead

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

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–Quinn McDonald loves reading poetry that makes meaning.

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Nature Shares Her Secrets

“All that nonsense about signs in nature, that’s just old wives’ tales,” the guy at the hardware store said. “You can’t tell nothin’ from looking at the sky and such.”

I grinned to myself. Really, don’t get involved, I thought, as I left.

cloud2Predicting the weather by nature is an old wives’ tale because the old wives’ were right. The mare’s tales scattered across the sky, followed by the clouds that look like farmer’s rows are a sign of a change in the weather. They mean a drop in temperature, maybe wind, and that combination often means rain, too.

Yesterday, with a brisk wind sweeping the desert, I noticed old palm fronds falling off palms. Not fun it if hits your car–they are big and hard, but shedding is necessary for the palm to thrive. And wind generally brings cold this time of year.

icecloud

Today, coming home, I saw an iridescent cloud–ice crystals gathered at higher than 20,000 feet. It will be cold tonight again. The light was red, so I took the photo through my windshield. The color was more intense, but this will be enough to help me remember to put the comforter on the bed.

cloud1We’ve gotten away from paying attention to nature, and it’s a shame. There is a lot to be learned my standing outside and looking up at the sky. At night the stars form stories to remember; during the day, you’ll know what weather is coming your way.

And at this time of year, it is not bad to remember stars that pointed to important events. The guy in the hardware store, disparaging old wives, I’ll bet he believes the Christmas story–that a star indicated Jesus’s birth, and called shepherds to attention, guided kings with gifts. Even then, we knew that signs of importance came from nature.

Sometime today, when you are racing through life, look up at the sky. Maybe it has something to tell you. Maybe you have something to say back.

—Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and creativity coach.

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

 

Your Light, Your Perspective

Sunday mornings at home are a treat for me. Cooking Man cooks breakfast, buys the New York Times and makes us each a double-shot cappuccino. Life is good. I came into the kitchen and smiled at the eggs lined up on the ragged cotton towels to keep them from rolling off the island. After I set the table, I turned around and was surprised to see that the sun was shining through one of the eggs, giving it an inner glow and showing the mottled surface of the eggshell.

eggBoth eggs had looked the same coming out of the carton. Now they looked completely different. I have a large streak of “metaphor for everyday life” appreciation, and looking at the egg brought on an idea:

We see people, ideas, and experiences through our own perspectives. The perspective we use lights up our view in a way that changes our perception. The two eggs had looked alike, but now I saw them differently.

Our experiences, our story, our biases all make us see the people and ideas around us in ways that reflect not them, but us. The Talmud says, “We see things not the way they are, but the way we are.” Good thought for the week.

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who loves Sunday mornings that include reading the Times and drinking cappuccino.

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.

Celebrating Failure

Failure is in. There is even a FailCon in San Francisco, according to an article in the New York Times. Or there was FailCon. It seems that in Silicon Valley, so many people claim failure as a positive sign of success that FailCon is passé.

c71e7f623ac2887e454897292d9cf38fIn a blog called “101 Startup Failure Postmortems” people whose start-ups failed examine what went wrong–everything from not enough money for several iterations to swallowing pride.

The point of the article was that more and more people are admitting failure. This gives me hope for the future. I’ve always said I don’t want to work with anyone who has not failed, because they aren’t trying hard enough.

Failure feels awful, it hurts, it makes you feel miserable. But you learn. As you breeze along on the wave of success, you don’t ask “What is working?” you just enjoy. When you get pushed to the bottom and get sand in your shorts, you take a close look, learn and solve the problem. Problem solving comes from making mistakes.

The Mullah Nasrudden knew this in the 13th century. He said, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”

—Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist.