Thoughts For the End of the Year

This was a year of big leaps and painful stumbles, of problem solving and getting it wrong. Then righting myself and finding balance. For a bit. For me, that’s the point of living a creative life. Not bliss, not smooth sailing, but a mix of everything.


Do not become complacent with victory; do not become frustrated with defeat.

It gives real perspective on both the high and low points—deep enjoyment of the highs allows me to tolerate the lows. And for me, that’s the point. The lows aren’t defeats if I can keep the highs in mind. It’s the distance traveled between them that make the highs and lows work, and they work together. Not one at a time. And it’s the effort for both that needs to be honored. No one deliberately screws up. We were on the way to something else when we realize we were heading in the wrong direction. Often at full tilt.

Because I find hope a false emotion (often a great mask for the inner critic), knowing that success and failure come in waves makes both of them bearable.

Hope allows me to think that mistakes are accidents and success is “who I really am.” Hope pushes me to think that all things will end well. But they don’t. Some things end badly. I am neither my great success nor am I my embarrassing failure. The red-ink ancient Chinese chop up there says, “Do not become complacent with victory; do not become frustrated with defeat.” Good point. I am a spirit in motion, traveling toward and away from something at the same time.

This year brought me the gift of saying goodbye well, when my father-in-law died. And the gift of great, unbridled pride and unconditional love, given me by my son. And an acceptance of letting go of the long struggle over a quilt my mother never finished.

My biggest disappointment (in myself) came when a treasured client quit in anger, and stalked away.  Much of coaching success depends on self-management, the realization that I am a space of energy only. I do not “make” clients succeed. I do not “cause” their failure. But when a client is careening toward a decision fueled by anger, it is hard not to try to wrest the wheel of decision-making out of those clenched hands, and try to fix, correct the path. It’s overpowering to want to avert disaster.

But I took a vow in coaching class, a vow not to fix, not to give advice. Because fixing and giving advice doesn’t allow for the client to see that learning-important mistake and live it. Instead, giving advice allows for blame and anger toward the coach instead of measured consideration of personal decisions.  The best coaches I know are masters of “no advice”.

In the following weeks, I knew I could give the client an easy out. Go back and pretend the careening skid hadn’t happened. Fix my image of myself at the same time. Make myself kinder, at least in the rear-view mirror. But life doesn’t work that way. This was a client decision. My work was to accept that decision.

Some things can’t be mended, fixed, healed or backed up. Consequences are what we choose when we choose an action and make the decision.  I had to accept that every illusion I had of wanting to change the outcome was not my work to do. The client was behaving true to personal human nature, turning away from the change that was suddenly no longer worth fighting for. Painful as it was, I had to step aside and let the future happen, whatever it will be.

And that’s a good lesson to pick out of the smouldering disappointment. You can explain, but you cannot understand for others. You can learn to accept what is. You can give up hope that somehow, magically, history will forget and back up and we can live a day over again, wiser now. Every parent in Newtown, Connecticut would pay dearly for that. But it cannot be. I cannot decide not how to change the world, but only how to change myself.  We talk about forgiveness a lot, insist on its power, until, of course, it is up to us to forgive. Then it seems impossible.

This has been a year rich in lessons–on change, accepting, forgiveness, intention, focus, letting go, growth. All of those are words that you, my blog readers, have taken as your words for 2013. All are good. You are the brightest, funniest, wisest people I have never met, and I hope to get to know you all much better in 2013.

Words are powerful. Choose the ones you want to live by well.

-Quinn McDonald wishes a few deep hours of reflection for everyone this year, and the deep joy of acceptance.

Lazy Sunday Links

It’s the week when work is slow, and there seems to be time to spare. At the moment, I have a time shortage, and all my plans to organize papers for taxes have fallen behind the book and some commitments. It’s been a long time since I got up at 5:30 on a Saturday morning to move furniture while a humming rug steamer is standing next to me.

But there is always time to find odd things on the web. Did you know there is an association of people who hand-draw maps? Yep, and some of the maps are pretty interesting, too. This map has one dot for every person in the U.S, in the location where they are living (including Central Park.) And here’s a wind map–it shows the direction and speed of the wind across the U.S.

See the world one sketch at a time at UrbanSketchers, a site that has gotten bigger and better since I last visited. Great sketches of cities, towns and streets by artists and sketchers.

Sam3 is an urban artist who paints with water, including the action of letting it dry. He videos the whole thing to create amazing animations on water.

And Crooked Brains shows you some amazing uses for clothespins that have nothing to do with drying clothes.

And then, two random questions:

—Why is it that people with 47 pairs of shoes don’t understand my shelves of books? and

—Why do people spend the entire time riding the escalator texting, then step off the elevator, freeze and begin to stare around as if they just landed on earth and are searching for the welcome committee? Meanwhile people are falling over themselves trying to step around the frozen-in–wonderment people.

Have a wonderful Sunday!

Quinn McDonald is a writer who is, well, writing.



More on Choosing a Word of the Year

You are having so many good ideas for choosing the word of the year, I don’t really want to move on. So today’s blog post encourages you to add why this word you are choosing is important to you.


Tree heart. Take heart. Heart of the matter. Words count and matter.

If you’d like, you can explain how you will keep the word close during the year. Here’s what I’ve done in the past:

1. I put it on the computer calendar on a random day each month and attached a “notice” to it, so it comes up the first time I start the computer on that day.

2. I write it on a piece of paper and stick it into random places in my journal. When i come across it, I think about what it means.

3. I tuck it into my sock drawer so that it turns up at random intervals, surprising me and giving me a different perspective.

Here’s a quote to think about while choosing that word:

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”   ~  Joseph Campbell

It’s Time for Your Word of the Year

Never a friend of New Year’s resolutions, I discovered another ritual that’s more powerful and has more potential than New Year’s resolutions: A word of the year. You choose a word that will symbolize the year for you–set the intention or create a verbal amulet.

Image from

Image from

The word should be limber and supple, without any stiffness of punishment, or hashmarks to measure yourself with and find yourself coming up short.

Verbs are good, because they are action words. And taking action is a favorite step of mine to get unstuck or move ahead.  Of course, there are also the state of being verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Small verbs, but powerful.

Other people prefer nouns–things or ideas: creativity, intuition, freedom. Nouns can be things you hold in your hands–paper, pen, seeds, feathers. Or they can be things you hold in your heart: wishes, wisdom, peace.

DreamsinlightsNow is a good time, at the end of the year, to think of a word you can hold and use for all of 2013. Choose a word that will last, that will build you up and support you. You can choose a word that is both a verb and a noun. The one I chose for 2010 was light. I could light a candle or a fire. I could help them discover the light hidden within them. I could make someone else’s load light. It was a good word for the year.

Your word can be any part of speech, and you can use it in as many ways as you want–present tense, active voice, transitive with an object or not. Use it as many ways as you can and see how you change it and how it changes you.

If you keep a journal, you can write it down and visit it every week or month and see how that word has shown up in your life at the end of every week and how you would like it to show up the next week. You can write it on a piece of paper and put it in your pocket and rediscover it every day. Write it on a key you use every day and remember it when you unlock the door.

140_word-of-the-year-unfriend_flashBegin now to choose a word. It should be a good, chewy word that will last a whole year. Last year I drew a word at a letting go of the year ritual and drew “suffering.” At first I was disappointed, but the definition of suffering is wanting and expecting too much and I learned a lot by avoiding suffering or grasping. Not every lesson was fun, but it was a good word for the year.

What are the words you want to invite into your life for the year? Leave them in the comments, and tell us why.

Quinn McDonald is a writer who loves the “word of the year” idea.

Poem: Starfish

This is a wonderful prose poem about life. It’s a good day to run it.

The birds are a series I did that I like. There is no link between the poem and the illustration. Just two innocent pieces for a day where innocence counts.

Poem: “Starfish”
Eleanor Lerman, from Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds.

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.


Image: Paper mosaic. “Unrelated birds, talking”. Pitt Pen, Inktense watercolor pencils on Arches Text Wove. Quinn McDonald, © 2012. All rights reserved.

Peace on Earth, Unless. . .

Christmas sends conflicting messages–peace v. purchases, light of wonder v. competitive house lighting. I write a lot about fear, and much of what I see about Christmas is fear based–will I give the right gift? Will I get what I want? Will my family show their love and appreciation or will there be another fight?

On my walk this morning, I saw houses decked out in full lights. I like the lights, but you can tell when someone is an overachiever. I walked in a different direction today, and then I saw this, not a Christmas decoration, just a warning that this family has had up for years:


In case you can’t see it, the stuffed man is hanging from a gallows (notice the “steps” and crossbeam). Wrapped in merry twinkling Christmas lights. Don’t strain to read the sign, I took a better photo of it. Here it is:


This is how these homeowners want to be known. The fading of the sign and the clothing on the dummy shows sun damage, so it’ s been up for awhile. For years I worked on a newspaper as a journalist. I believe in the First Amendment. And I still believe this qualifies as hate speech.

I was horrified, then sad. I haven’t moved from sad much since. I might add that they also had Christmas decorations up. Unless Baby Jesus was weeping in his manger, I just don’t understand how you can welcome Christmas and have this on your lawn, too.

There is much I don’t understand. This is one of those things.

–Quinn McDonald knows the season can be hard on people. She doesn’t think anger or fear do much to help.

Sink Your Teeth into that Art Journal Page

One page was drying, another three were still not ready. So I went to the bathroom to free a piece of almond wedged between my teeth. Not a friend of floss, I use pieces of pointed wood to chase plaque.

Lines1These piece of wood come in groups that are stuck together. They are called Stimudent, and they have been around for many, many years.

The almond piece was successfully freed, and I looked at the row of wood sticks, pointed like. . .pen nibs. I had to find out if it would work.

Breaking off five of the ‘dents, I noticed they were a little shaky on their own. They needed to be stabilized on something a littler firmer. That would help me write with them, too.

Using masking tape, I taped them to a clothespin. A tongue depressor would have been a better idea, but I was out of them and Popsicles.


You can see the Stimudents on the left, upper side of the clothespin. Supporting most of the ‘dents helps them work more evenly.

Lines2This is what the pens looked like in working position. Because they are wood, the ink soaks into them quickly. You might want to spray them with a little water first. I used Dr. P.h. Martin’s Diamond Black ink, and soaked some ink up.

This will take some practice to get right, and I’m sharing the first pieces I made because I had to get back to the book. But since I can’t show you the book, I can at least share this fun with you.

Here’s the word “joy”

A. Joy

Yes, it’s a little shaky, but there is plenty of time to practice. It lacked color, so I tried the next one, “light” and colored in between the lines:

AlightThe color was done with Pitt pen brushes and works really well. The lines have to be drawn with a steady hand, but you get the idea. The idea works pretty well for making corner and edge designs, too.

Art supplies don’t have to be expensive, and you don’t need much more than curiosity and paper to try out new ideas.

Now I have to get back to the book.

-Quinn McDonald has to find time to wrap presents sometime in the next 24 hours, but she’s writing a book.

The Elusive Muse

The studio is breezy, crisp as December sings
Papers drift, temptation blank, to see what muse might bring.
Clients’ work delivered, banking, billing done
So I can have the afternoon to let the muses run.
The evening is promised to the husband who complains
that we don’t see each other often when others pick my brains
or soul or heart or fingers worn down to the bone.
He needs some real attention, he’s been too long alone.

I have all day! The studio calls, but then the cats begin

The memory of fireflies, Ink on paper. © Quinn McDonald

The memory of fireflies, Ink on paper. © Quinn McDonald

they want their food, the litter scooped, and then the doorbell rings.
The postman wants a signature, and when I turn to go
into the hall, I sneeze, and the top button blows.
I sew it up, and while I have the needle and the thread,
I might as well sew up the cuffs on the pants left on the bed.
The postman left a package, Lizzy sent the jacket
to try and get some feedback, so I unwrap the packet.
And type up notes to send her, she works hard at her art
I can’t just leave her hanging, so I finish what I start.

Now, back to work, chasing the muse, she waits, whistling, for me.
On my way there, I take the wash, my arms just can’t stay free.
I sort the clothes, the machine churns, the suds are getting clean
the clothing, but the towels, too, take turns in the machine.
Bathrooms beckon, I fetch the towels and throw rugs while I’m there,
Bring them down and pile them up, and now, it’s my time’s share.

I pull the stool, and flare the sheet of handmade paper crisp
I sigh with pleasure at the feel, but sniff a smoky wisp.
The brownies I’ve been timing for my spouse while he’s out shopping
are burning in the oven, timer’s ring too soft to get me hopping.
Quick, before he comes back home, whip up another batch,
The ones I burned were walnut, these are plain, but will he catch
this slip? Maybe not, but I want time, the clock says almost four
I slip into the studio and ignore the crumbs left on the floor.

You know the rest, you’ve been there too, I never find the muse
The truth: those distractions are those that I, distracted, choose.
Because my art is silent, its voice echoes from mine
And it won’t speak until I stand, and declare “This is my own time.”

—Quinn McDonald is chasing her muse. Again.

Art Journal Quotes

Yikes, I skipped a chapter in the book, and have to go back and write it. That kind of topples the delicate time chart. And of course, the inner critic shows up. And he doesn’t show up alone, no, he shows up in a clown car and 20 relatives will jump out to make sure I feel like I’m losing my mind.

So it’s time for art journaling quotes:

Time on your hands. Image from

Time on your hands.
Image from

The most essential factor is persistence – the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come.  –– James Whitcomb Riley

If you’re interested, you do whatever is convenient.  When you’re committed, you do whatever it takes.   —John Assaraf

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
–Thomas Merton

The artist soul thrives on adventure…and many adventures require that we muster up the courage to be a beginner. —Julia Cameron

—Quinn McDonald is feeling just a trifle uneasy about the deadline she faces. But she’s still going to walk and go to lunch with someone who is supportive and smart.


The Art of Note-Taking

From the time I learned to write, I took notes. In grade school, in high school, in college (because there were no laptops then). I filled notebooks with, well, notes. I reviewed them before a test. People borrowed my notes because I drew arrows and connected related ideas, and OK, I got good grades.

Old-fashioned, write it all down notes.

Old-fashioned, write it all down notes.

Suddenly, note-taking is declassé. In my communication classes, people sit and stare. When I ask if they will take notes they ask, “Where’s the Powerpoint deck?” Tactfully, I explain that Powerpoint was developed to have marketing departments talk to engineers. Powerpoint was never meant to be a handout or to substitute for notes. They shrug and look at me.

No one takes notes anymore. Not only that, when I do, I’m asked, “Are you getting old or do you have a memory problem.” Well, we are all getting old (some of us are ahead of the race) and I don’t have a memory problem. Because I take notes.

Notes are useful. They help you remember what you heard, who said it, when, and what the circumstances were. They help you remember who said what in meetings where a lot of people speak. They help you remember specific numbers–even a lot of them, and names (plus how to pronounce them).

shortcut to note-taking. A simple mind map using space and bullets

shortcut to note-taking. A simple mind map using space and bullets

Slowly, I realized, “well of course I take notes, I’m a journaler.” And it’s true. You get used to writing down ideas, thoughts, quotes, flashes of inuition, dreams and the details of what they mean.

Writing notes helps me remember the important parts by allowing me to concentrate on both the content and how I write it down. I’ll remember it for much longer.

If you are taking notes in a meeting or a class, here are a few tips:

  • Start the page with the date, the place, the class name or meeting purpose and the instructor’s name or person running the meeting.
  • Write down main points only. You can’t write down everything, so stick to the important material. The instructor’s voice is the key to what’s being emphasized.
  • Don’t write a narrative, try to take notes in bullet form. Learn some shortcuts like dividing the page into segments of information. (see above, left)
  • Pay attention to lists, examples, and additional references. They can help you understand more later.
  • Leave room. White space helps your eyes move around the page.
  • Leave more room if you have a question. Then when you (or someone else gets an answer, you can fill it in.

Take visual notes. See example, above, and learn more at

Visual journaling example from

Visual journaling example from

CalPoly also has some interesting note-taking systems.

And speaking of notes, there is still time (till 6 p.m. Phoenix time) to sign up for the drawing to win the Strathmore journal. You can take notes in it.

—Quinn McDonald takes notes in journals for ideas, including her new book on inner heroes and inner critics.