The Myth of Myths

In English, “myth” has two meanings. The first one is the story that tells a tale

Pandora, allowing the evils of the world to escape from the box.

Pandora, allowing the evils of the world to escape from the box.

with a moral at the end. The myth of Icarus, with the moral of “don’t fly too close to the sun, or as we used to say, “don’t get too big for your britches.”  The myth of Achilles, he of the undipped and unprotected heel.  Of Pandora., who received a beautiful box she was not allowed to open. But curiosity got the better of her and she opened the box, which was filled with all the dreads of the world–war, sickness, anger.

We forget some of the best details of myths. Icarus was warned by Daedalus not to fly too close to the sea as well as not too close to the sun. Aiming too low

icarus and Daedalus

icarus and Daedalus

would soak his wings with sea-spray and kill him as surely as soaring too close to the sun. Pandora’s box had one last thing stuck at the bottom of all those evils. The last thing that fell out of the box was hope. The important thing about myths is the point of the story, and often that point gets a bit muddled in the retelling.

I digress. The other meaning of myth is a commonly-believed falsehood that a writer corrects. You’ve seen the articles, “Five myths men believe about women,” “Eight myths to avoid on the road to success.” In that case, a myth is a legend (urban or not) that need de-bunking.

What’s interesting is that in both cases the word myth means a story. In one case, it’s used as a model for a universal truth; in another case, it’s a falsehood foisted on us. In either case, it’s a story that is open to interpretation. Myth also is an archetypal story–as in the myth of the divine feminine. Whether it’s Eve or Lilith (Adam’s first wife, who was strong-willed and thus considered dangerous), myth gives context to our stories and archetypes.

Myths are stories with a point. We can believe them or not. Or we can explore them and find the interesting sub-text that colors our life with shadow and light.

–Quinn McDonald is a believer in archetypes and myths. And in writing endings of the myths we live.

Ask for What You Need

I find it almost impossible to ask for special treatment at a restaurant. I know many people ask for special diets because they need them and have real allergies. I also know that many people want attention, control or simply want to be on a popular bandwagon and demand gluten-free, dairy-free, or meat-free dishes in public, while scarfing down bread, milkshakes and wings at home.

The Local is at 3rd St. and Roosevelt in Phoenix.

The Local is at 3rd St. and Roosevelt in Phoenix.

No one pretends to be diabetic. Diabetes, popular culture informs us, is a disease of weak, fat people. It is our fault we are diabetic, never mind genetics or that every food company within reach adds sugar, artificial sugar or “natural” sugars to keep consumers addicted to the sweet taste of. . . mustard, pickles, and bacon. All of which have added sugars.

I cringe at asking serving staff if there is honey in salad dressing, red wine or sugar in the sauce, or what is used to thicken the sauce. Often the server doesn’t know, and assures me that the dish is glueten-free. Great, but I don’t have a problem with gluten. When I tell the server I’m diabetic, I get shrugs or, “Can’t you just take something for that?” In short, no. And I no longer explain why.

Last night, I decided that unless wait staff and servers are mind-readers, I have

Adam Hargett (left), manager at The Local and Chef McKinley (right).

Adam Hargett (left), manager at The Local and Chef McKinley (right).

to ask for what I need. Because it’s my health and my body.

We (two couples) were eating at The Local in Phoenix. The staff knew it was my birthday, and brought me a glass of champagne, which I accepted and passed to my right, to someone who would enjoy it.

When the menus were passed and the server asked if we had questions, I asked if I could have my dish served without potatoes. I took a deep breath and said I was diabetic and could not eat potatoes. The waiter summoned the chef out of the kitchen. I’m married to a chef, and asking for the chef’s presence at a table is a serious occasion. Still, Chef Chris McKinley appeared, smiling. I wanted to know if I could substitute something for the potatoes. After all, striking an item from the dish unbalances the flavors of the entire course.

The chef said he could substitute farro, a low-glycemic-index wheat, for the potatoes. And he could make a vinaigrette without honey for the salad. I was amazed at how generously he made the substitutions. The server placed the meal in front of me, assuring me of the substitutions, as there was another order for the original dish. Both the salad and the main course were delicious.

In fact, the entire meal was delicious. I did not feel deprived, I felt heard and valued. It may not sound like much, but I had asked for what I needed and someone listened.

Keeping quiet out of fear makes no more sense than speaking up out of privilege. Health issues are not easy to discuss, but taking a calm stand makes it possible for others to know what you want and to help if they can. Asking for what you need is a step in the direction of self-care. And not expecting others to care for you more than you do for yourself.

Quinn McDonald will be back at The Local, because the food is excellent and the service attentive. The sticky toffee pudding, shared by the others at the table, comes highly recommended. The Local was named the best new restaurant in Phoenix by New Times magazine.



Splatter as Art

Ever dropped paint on the floor and gasped at the mess? Hua Tunan splatters deliberately and does a great job of it. As an artist, he combines traditional Chinese art with graffiti.

splatter-ink-animal-portraits-by-hua-tunan-3The combination are magical. The splatters combine to form realistic art that has depth and power.

splatter-ink-animal-portraits-by-hua-tunan-10He calls his street art “noncommissioned art,” a way of keeping his own artistic integrity and still making his art public.

I have (still) a deep appreciation of artists who are true to their own vision.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach.

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.


© 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 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

Journaling is something that heals. Writing lets you remember and lets you forget. Remember fading memories and forget old hurts by writing them down and letting them go. 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.

Here’s an article on the difference between a visual journal and a commonplace journal.

–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.