Worth the View

ponderosa1Arizona has the most amazing landscape of any place I’ve lived. Most people shrug it off as “just desert,” but it is so much more. This past week, I showed family some of the sites I love in the North of the state. One of the things I learned is that Arizona has more Ponderosa Pine than Maine. Ponderosa Pine is majestically tall  (over 200 feet) with a rough bark. When the tree is mature (more than 30 years) the bark develops reddish plates that smell like butterscotch. Yep, I sniffed. It’s true.

One of the sites that impressed me was Horseshoe Bend–the place where the Colorado River (the one that carved the Grand Canyon) makes a 270-degree turn around a piece of stubborn limestone. The location is unfenced and without a guard rail. It makes for great photos. You stand at the lip of a rock overhang, and look 1,000 feet down at the river.

horseshoebendYou have to hike there–about a mile through scrub brush. And once you have hiked there and fallen in love with the view, you have to hike back. No jeeps or ATV allowed. You just have to hoof it.

After I’d scrambled over layered rock to see this site from all angles, I turned around to face the road back. Daunting.

The path starts at the left, and winds its way up to the tiny gazebo at the top, center. After that, there is one more hill and then a steep drop to the parking lot.

The path starts at the left, and winds its way up to the tiny gazebo at the top, center. After that climb, there is one more short hill and then a steep drop to the parking lot.

There are two thoughts that crossed my mind. First, the view back is often just as amazing at the road ahead. Don’t forget to look back from where you came.

Second, the view was worth the work. Going back was slow, a slog through what felt like beach sand. No sense rushing. Be smart and drink small sips of water along the way. Just like real life–take the tough going slow and rest along the way. Makes it all worth while.

Quinn McDonald is a hiker, writer and certified creativity coach who had a lot of fun in Northern Arizona.

 

Checking on the Word of the Year

This time of year the time seems to pick up speed and race toward the end of the year. The days are noticeably shorter and we begin to become more focused on the end of the year.

A good time, then to check in with your word of the year. Is it still serving you well? Are you satisfied with your choice? How often do you think of it or consider what it means in your life?

Half-way through the year, I changed my word from “scatter” to “distill.” It was

It's not a painting; it's an open space in the wall, overlooking Arizona's desert. Beyond is the Bar-T-Bar ranch, with the San Francisco mountain range in the background.

It’s not a painting; it’s an open space in the wall, overlooking Arizona’s desert. Beyond is the Bar-T-Bar ranch, with the San Francisco mountain range in the background.

worthwhile. “Scatter” was what was happening to my life–too many open doors, too many choices to keep them all balanced. What started out as some far-flung ideas ended up as not getting enough of the right work done.

It was less of a paring down and more of a taking the essence of my work–distilling–that worked well. I’m glad I made the switch.

How do I weigh the choice? I write the word on random calendar days and see what has happened since the last time I considered it. Because I look at my calendar on the weekly view before the daily view, I see the word coming and going through the week.

Tell me how you remember your word and what it has meant to you so far.

-Quinn McDonald loves watching words make meaning, whether or not she changes them.

Life in Small Details

Maira Kalman’s vision of the world is by turns, quirky, wonderful, intriguing and 24671359absurd. Her 2007 book, The Principles of Uncertainty is her diary of one year in her life. It covers the absurdity of life– p. 122 reads, “Which leads me to my candy collection. The JEWEL of the collection is the CRATCH bar, purchased in Cuba. It sounds like a disease more than a candy trat, and I like to imagine the naming session.”

There are several pages of her collections–egg slicers, suitcases, sponges. She draws them all. The book is really an art journal-each page a full color illustration of some aspect of the day. Some of the pages relate to each other, others do not. Kalman is interested in whether or not people know who they are, an always interesting question.

© Maira Kalman

© Maira Kalman

The simplicity of this post and the depth of what it did and didn’t say, is fascinating.

Go to Google Images and type in her name, you will find dozens of Kalman’s illustrations. The book is both an inspiration and a journal prompt all its own. It’s an autobiography and a diary. Kalman may be the best emotional multi-tasker I know. And a mental magpie, collecting ideas and emotions at random.

kalman-coffee1

© Maria Kalman

What I love most about the book is that she was not afraid to write and illustrate an odd, fascinating, philosophical, funny book that doesn’t fit into a common genre, and, I imagine, defended it to an editor or agent. Still, quirky and odd, the book is 63,500 on the amazon.com list. (The hour I checked.) Compared say, to Kitty Kelly’s book on Oprah, which is 96,100 and two years younger. Or Stephen King’s Carrie, which is ranked at 61,380, and a perennial best-seller.

Why, that gives hope to all of us journalers of details.

Quinn McDonald loves to take a peek at other people’s lives.

Light on the Intensity

Life is jammed with detail, color, reactions, music, noise–both visual and felt. I’ve been working on ways to re-write the past in a way that lightens the darks and fades the shadows. Could I do the same thing visually?

Today was a day of too-saturated color, too much high dudgeon, too vivid emotions. Dramatic clients, fierce news, people shrilling for attention, credibility, everyone demanding to be heard and admired.

Poppies. Graphite, watercolor, pen on watercolor paper.

At the end of the day I was exhausted without having done any heavy lifting. So I decided to draw some cheerful flowers. Poppies are always cheerful, breezy. But the colors were too much, too bright, too assertive on my retina’s rods and cones. (Rods distinguish light; cones distinguish color. There are more rods, but they are not as sensitive as cones.)

Looking for another way to tone my day down,  I did the equivalent with drawing. Using my monotone gray Art Graf Stix, I drew the poppies, using shades of gray and black. I added very faint touches of red-orange and blue-red. Just a touch.

The final effect is light and airy without too much burden of color or detail. For right now, that suits me perfectly. Tomorrow may be different.

-–Quinn McDonald is a writer who likes to explore the drawing side of writing from time to time.

10 Commonplace Journal Ideas

For more than a week, I’ve posted about journaling and Writing Yourself Whole. It’s not always easy to keep a journal, so why do it? Who cares? Who will ever look at all that writing? The answer is simple: this is your life. You are keeping track of it. Your journals are not for your children to admire, your friends to share, and strangers to copy.

A personal favorite: create a calendar page with interesting things you did. For blank days, erase the pencil lines (haven't done that yet). For others, ink them in.

A personal favorite: create a calendar page with interesting things you did. For blank days, erase the pencil lines (haven’t done that yet). Ink borders around others for variety. Notice the lack of “art appeal.” This is an idea book, not an art show to be shared.

The journal you keep is to document your life. To prove you were alive. To write history the way you experienced it. Many of us don’t watch news because we are overwhelmed. Our own lives overwhelm us. Journaling puts you in control. Write about what happened at work, how you reacted, what you really thought. Putting it down helps us look at our reactions, our emotions, at arm’s length.

What else can you put in a journal? I’m a big fan of a Commonplace Journal--a journal that connects closely to what happens to you every day. Here are some ideas of what to put in a journal that will make it interesting to you:

1. Weather. Rain, sunshine, wind changes how we see the world and how we feel about it. A bright crisp day brings on different thoughts than low clouds and rain. Write down the temperature, the kind of day it was, and how you felt.

2. Movies. Glue the ticket stub into your journal and write a few sentences about the content and your level of enjoyment. You can do the same for movies you watch at home. Was it a good plot? Were the characters believable? Did you like a character or hate another one?

3. Food. I’m not talking about a food diary. What did you eat that was

Pieces from a business trip to Dallas. The bag has "Inspiration" printed on it, and I've put fortunes from fortune cookies into it.  Also on the desk: a feather and a butterfly that ended his journey in my pool.

Pieces from a business trip to Dallas. The bag has “Inspiration” printed on it, and I’ve put fortunes from fortune cookies into it. Also on the desk: a feather and a butterfly that ended his journey in my pool.

delicious? Do you remember what you had for breakfast? Is food an enjoyable experiences or just something to get over with? What was your favorite snack today? What would you like to remember to cook more often?

4. Music. What did you listen to that made you feel like dancing or singing? Do you have a favorite singer or performer? If you could create a soundtrack to your life, what five songs would you include? Maybe you don’t listen to music or even like it much. What’s the background noise to your life?

5. What’s the cost? How much did you pay for a tank of gas? How much for milk? Eggs? Liptstick? The price of the small chunks of life rises and falls, but it also creates a sort of set point in your life.  Compare the price to a gallon of milk to a gallon of gas and think about what you get from each. As you get older, you will think things are different than they used to be. Now you’ll be able to check.

6. Titles. Create a whole page of titles you like. Book titles, song titles, the names of restaurants, hair salons, or any other name or title that makes you smile or think. You fill it as you go along. Keeping it all on one page gives you a fascinating look at your sense of humor.

7. Maps and diagrams. Where did you go? What route did you take? Do you always take the same road to work? To the store? What other route could you take, even if it is longer or slower? Is speed the most important part of travel? What does that mean about your sense of time or necessity?

8. Quotes. Not just famous quotes you come across, although that’s handy to write down. What people in your life said that made sense, was funny, was ridiculous. What you said in return. Keeping track of dialogue makes you a better listener, a smarter speaker, and a wiser soul.

9. What catches your eye? Ads, headlines, photos, good designs. Cut them out of magazines, or photograph them and print them out.  I photograph the wallpaper in hotels. I’m amazed at how many of them are interesting abstract designs.

10. Spend time in your journal. Look back over old journals. Has your taste changed? Your ideas? The music you like? Your life is a mosaic and you can decide on the shape and color you want it to take. Watching it change over time is part of growth.

Keeping a journal doesn’t require daily deep soul-searching. It’s a way to keep track of the tiny grit that you turn into the pearls of your life.

–Quinn McDonald is a journaler and a creativity coach.

The Slow Work of Change

My thanks to everyone who participated in the last week of Writing Yourself Whole. And thanks also for your generous contributions. I was happy to see that so many people participated. Your generous contributions will help many homeless families in Phoenix have clean and safe drinking water. Thank you so much for that, too.

Now what? Taking a course online doesn’t really lend itself to community. You might have felt that you were falling behind by the second day. Maybe it was hard to concentrate, or when you sat down, your mind went blank. If you thought, “I need more time to write,” but didn’t get started, you have encountered the most common stumbling block to self-care through journaling.

Like anything else, journaling takes practice. Writing down your thoughts and looking at them is hard. You want to avoid some hard thoughts. Pema Chodron, in her book, When Things Fall Apart, tells us to lean into the sharp points, but who wants to do that?

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”

Journaling is hard work. It is not always fun to know our weak spots. It’s certainly not fun to work on the weak spots. But the effort itself can be invigorating, and the effort is always worth it. Stick with deep journaling and you will learn what you need to learn about yourself. You will begin to accept yourself and those around you. Your life will become brighter, and you will begin to enjoy the happiness you build.

Journaling takes practice. You don’t have to delve into yourself every day. There are other ways to journal–and you can mix them up any way you like. Tomorrow’s blog will help you with some ideas about journaling.

Keep building inner heroes. You are filled with sparks of joy and healing. With flashes of understanding and beauty. Gather them to you and build a fire that keeps your heart and soul warm and that lights your path.

—Quinn McDonald has returned to journaling with many emotions. She’s glad she did, though.

9/11, Thirteen Years Later

Like that other 9/11, I’m teaching today.
Like that other 9/11, the sky is perfectly blue.
Like that other 9/11, I was happy to get up and have a class to teach. Life was good, then and now.

But the world is different. Our lives changed, our culture changed. Our hearts changed. There is more fear. And because of that, more anger.

I used to look at the broken window in my house and remember how lucky I was to have survived.

One of many memorials for those who died on 9/11/01. This one is in Springfield, Mass.

One of many memorials for those who died on 9/11/01. This one is in Springfield, Mass.

My whole family survived when so many did not. Not all of my clients or students were as lucky.  It took me a long time to be able to ride the Metro again. Overcoming fear is a small price to pay when you can still walk and see and hug the ones you love. Now we have to overcome a bigger fear. Fear of trusting again. Fear of accepting someone different from us. Fear of a religion we don’t understand. We each have choices to make, today, thirteen years after September 11, 2001. Make them in love. Make them with an open heart. It’s all you can do, but it will change the world.

-Quinn McDonald lived just three miles from the Pentagon in 2001. Now she lives 2,500 miles west of it, but she still sees fear and suspicion and anger.

Sometimes it’s Just Weird

Sometimes creativity is a spark to brilliance; sometimes it’s just weird. This week may be fashion week in New York, but I was looking at furniture online. All of these pieces are actual chairs and for sale. (No links, I just can’t bring myself to include links.)

somethingsafootThe “Something’s afoot” chair from Anthropologie. I want to be in the marketing meeting where this thing was approved.

weird-furniture-2_thumbWhat’s the point? I want comfort. Of course I love pencils, but not poking me in the . . . everywhere.

strange-furniture-odd-couches-weird-beds-unique-tables27Someone put the lampshade on their head at the office party–and then froze that way. And if this lady-lamp is naked, why is she wearing pumps and lights?

weird-furnitureThe woman who got eaten by a plastic hose chair. It just doesn’t look comfortable, sort of like putting your panties on the wrong way.  And, does it come in another color?

Quinn McDonald thinks it’s OK to be weird, as long as you don’t have to pay to be uncomfortable.

 

Too Much Explaining

If you grew up and had a classical education, you didn’t learn how to do a job, you learned how to think. You were introduced to a lot of ideas, people, concepts, books, and philosophies. You weren’t told which were “right” (in some ways, they all were), you learned how to have an opinion and discuss it. There, I’ve said it.

ulyss1_1703249c_2236465cSometimes, when I’m teaching, I realize that classical education is not only old-fashioned, it’s frowned upon. So, a checklist: simplify vocabulary and most of all, simplify references to ideas, people, and philosophies.

Me [to class]: OK, time for a 15-minute break. Be back at 10:15 or we’ll be here till the rosy-fingered dawn appears tomorrow. [Immediately regrets reference to Homer's Odyssey.]

Student: Is that, like, a song lyric?

Me: Sort of. It’s from a Greek epic poem.

Student: Say what?

Me: [Feeling lost about how much to explain.] It’s one of the long poems from ancient Greece. About a man who leaves home to fight in a war and takes a long, interesting road trip back.

Student: Oh. Who wrote it?

Me: Homer.

Student: [Looking puzzled.]  Simpson?HO_Close_display-1

Me: [Tries not to break down crying.]

I just don’t know when to shut up explaining myself and my now, too-long-ago references that make sense to me, but not to anyone who was born in the last 30 years. OK, 40 years, maybe 45.

ENHS2089T-mamie-eisenhower

Mamie Eisenhower, wife of the 34th President of the U.S.

To a beautician: My bangs are waaaay too long. I’d like something more Natalie Wood but not Mamie Eisenhower.

Beautician: I think I heard of Natalie Wood is, but who is Mamie Eisenhower?

Me: The wife of Dwight Eisenhower.

Beautician: [crickets]

Me: The 34th President of the United State.

Beautician: Oh. Was she, like, famous? For her hair?

And once more, I’m stuck. How much do I explain? How do I not feel like I just fell out from the pages of a yellowed history book? It got worse.

936full-natalie-wood

Natalie Wood, movie star. Married to Robert. . . never mind.

Me: Mamie Eisenhower was the First Lady right before Jackie Kennedy.

Beautician: [crickets]

Me: Jackie O?

Beautician: Wasn’t  Jackie O. a famous model–like for sunglasses?

Me: She was beautiful and she wore sunglasses, but she was married to Jack Kennedy. After he was assassinated. . . [slowly starting to cut short the explanation], she married a rich guy in Greece.

Beautician: [Saves the day] So how do you want your bangs?

Next checklist:  Can’t afford a face lift, but can update all references to people, places and things prior to 1990.

—Quinn McDonald is determined not to sound as old as she looks.

 

 

 

 

Beyond Art Journaling

Nothing against art journaling. I still love it. But I need a break from it. So many people have piled on so many products, paints, stamps, stencils, embossers, hole-punchers that I got dizzy and had to sit down.

A page of William Blake's Commonplace Journal

A page of William Blake’s Commonplace Journal

I’m back to using my Commonplace Journal. The one that holds all the facts, ideas, quotes that pile up in my days. It’s so comfortable, like a pair of shoes that are soft and still can be worn to a teaching gig. My Commonplace Journal doesn’t demand painted pages, drying time, or planning. It holds whatever shows up. For me, that includes meaning-making.

Two deep loves for journaling (for me) is watching time pass on a big scale and nature. This time of year (fall for the Northern hemisphere) the days begin to get noticeably shorter. For Arizona, it is a huge relief, as the sun simply doesn’t pack the punch to crisp your skin in five minutes. The pool starts to get cool again. By the end of September, you will need hot water when you shower (in summer, the water comes hot out of the cold water tap.

Because my memory is keyed to weather, its hard for me to remember what happens when. It was easier on the East Coast–my memories were tied to cool weather or a coat I had on. Or mud season and black flies. But here, there is a giant blue bowl of sky above us 322 days a year, so I have to keep track of what happened, and when.

Calendar at the beginning of the month, pencil boxes still in place. Not much filled in.

Calendar at the beginning of the month, pencil boxes still in place. Not much filled in.

In the Commonplace Journal, I draw a rough outline for the month on a page that starts the month. I use a pencil to do this. Then I use a pen and box in days in which something is caught. On the first and last days of the month, I notice the length of the day.  In September, the day of the Harvest (full) Moon, the autumnal equinox, and the progress of my plants. Maybe I add sketches, maybe not. Depends on what happens.

At the end of the month, I add color (if I want) and erase the lines on days that I didn’t fill in.

Feb. 2010, complete with what i noticed around the yard.

Feb. 2010, complete with what i noticed around the yard.

Keeping this calendar doesn’t replace writing, I do that, too. But it shows at a glance what happened outside for that month. It’s great for gardeners, nature lovers, and hikers.

You can, of course, track anything. Birthdays, school milestones, heights of your kids, grandkids or how long you walked the dog.

Calendars keep track of items we want to remember but not use up brain power remembering. A simple, hand-drawn calendar is an excellent journal page.

-Quinn McDonald keeps journaling in ways that make meaning, whatever they are.