Writing Sympathy Notes

Sooner than we want, we need to write sympathy cards. Not all cards available at the drug store work well. It’s far kinder to write your own note. Nothing is more comforting than a hand-written note to a friend in mourning.

Knee-jerk reaction reaches for “I am sorry for your loss,” and while there is nothing wrong with the thought, it’s been overused so much that it’s a threadbare hand-me-down from your heart.

Other things not to put in a sympathy card:

Not a good sympathy card to comfort a mourner.

Not a good sympathy card to comfort a mourner.

“I know exactly how you feel, my _______ died last year.” Even worse is when you are comforting someone who is mourning the death of  a human and your pet died.

“Your loved one is with God now.” You don’t know what happens after death, and if you don’t know what the other person’s religious beliefs are (or aren’t), leave predictions out of it.

“You can be happy their suffering is over now.” The word “happy” or “glad” or “relieved” should not appear in a condolence card. Ever.

No. Just no.

No. Just no.

“Everything happens for a reason.” Maybe that’s what you believe, but it cheats the other person out of mourning and demands that they cheer up.

“It could be worse. This friend of mine. . .” This is not the time to share drama in your life. It will not make your friend feel better about their loss.

“God never gives you more than you can handle.” Again, this makes a person in mourning feel that they should handle their grief better. Everyone mourns in their own way.

Things you can say:

“May your memories comfort you.”

“Our thoughts [or prayers] are with you and your family.”

sympathy-card-sage“With thoughts of comfort and peace for you.”

“Our hearts go out to you in this sad time.”

“We remember [the person who died] with loving memories.”

“May you be surrounded by the love and comfort of friends and family.”

Use a soft-color stationery–cream, gray, blue. No pink or  yellow, and nothing with a bright floral theme. No typing and printing it in a handwriting font. Use a pen and hand write the words as if you were speaking to your friend. It’s more comforting.

And your friend will stay your friends and be there to comfort you when you need it.

-Quinn McDonald is comforting a friend at the sudden death of her husband. Some of what she hears said is odd, bordering on strange.



The Aha! Moment

After two articles on bullying, I spent some more time processing my emotions around the incident. I’ve done stand-up comedy, and knowing what is funny to an audience and the timing of delivery is key to humor.

Pushable button image from http://meridianvitality.com

Pushable button image from http://meridianvitality.com

And then I had an Aha! Moment. In all the years I was super fat (I had a mirror, so I know), and people said hateful things to me (when I was in the middle seat of an airplane, for example) I actually felt sorry for them. I did not feel shame or diminished. I loved to eat (still do), and knew that fat people are one of the few groups we feel free to openly bash. I was capable of compassion.

Because I was not a fat child, I had no buttons to push.

But the incident at Trader Joe’s  pushed all those buttons I had embedded a long time ago.

So the work I have to do is around healing those pushable buttons is about feeling fine about being different. Taking pride in being an outsider. Because when you are outside, you have a bigger view. You aren’t hemmed in. And while everyone inside is bathed in light, it doesn’t guarantee acceptance or happiness.

A good thought for Friday the 13th.

-Quinn McDonald is moving on with a lighter step. (Carefully checking for a banana peel.)


Rushing to Judgment With the Crowd

In 2009, Bowe Begdahl walked away from his camp in Afghanistan. In June, 2014, after being held by the Taliban-friendly Haqqani network, he was released.

I am not discussing the trade for Bergdahl, I am discussing what happened next. “News” outlets began to give their opinions as fact. He deserted, said one outlet. He was a loner, said another news outlet, quoting a platoon member who said that Bergdahl did not drink beer or eat barbeque at parties, and then drew the conclusion that he may well be a traitor

Image from prnewswire.com

Image from prnewswire.com

The first time I heard this, I laughed. In three leaps from non-beer-drinking to loner to traitor? But the more I listened the less likely any of this seemed.

On Yahoo, in the newspaper, on TV–everyone was spouting their opinion as fact. “He’s a traitor.”

“He’s one of those loners who deserts his brothers and sisters in arms.”

Not one of those news sources had spoken to Bergdahl. A few had spoken to members of his platoon–but none of them were in captivity with Bergdahl

Word of Mouth from themontebulldog.org

Word of Mouth from themontebulldog.org

and none of them knew why he left. Almost everyone had an opinion. I tracked down the source of one and it was the PR department of a political party poll.  Under no circumstance that I can think of does a PR department qualify as a news source. None of us knows what was in Bergdahl’s mind. None of us knows why he left his base, or what happened to him in captivity. Bowe Berdahl knows, and maybe the people who are treating him for physical and psychological wounds. He was a prisoner of war, that’s all we know.

I am confounded how anyone can draw any more  of a conclusions than that. As a parent myself, I ache for his parents. The support vanished, not because of facts, but through opinions, many unfounded and the lightning fast communication of juicy gossip through social media.  Many more rumors started not because of facts, but because the rumor mongers don’t like the President or his actions. Which Bergdahl was not in control over.

And many more people used code words like “loner,” “different,” and “not a team player” to vilify him. Other loners? Syd Barret, founder of Pink Floyd. Barry Bonds, who hit 762 home runs, more than anyone else ever, was a loner. Piet Mondrian, Rachel Carson, Isaac Newton, Beatrix Potter. All loners. All brilliant at their creative path. None dangerous.

Bowe Bergdahl’s story will come out. Until then, let’s remember he is innocent.

—Quinn McDonald wonders what people have against loners. She is one herself.



Your Creative Work and Your Story

You are a story-teller. Even if you are not a writer, your life tells a story. It is your story. You get to tell it. If you start adding pieces of other people’s story, your plot line will suffer. If you start telling it to please others, and change your story for their approval, your story drifts and disconnects from you.

Poem1Today, while doing a demo of Monsoon Papers, someone asked me if the pieces of paper could be framed as is.

“Sure,” I said, “if that’s what you want. I see the pieces as colors and textures to use in collage or art journals.” The woman asked if I had any pieces of my artwork made with Monsoon Papers with me. I did. I showed her a piece (not the one shown here). She looked and asked what it meant. I invited her to explore what the image meant to her. She frowned slightly and said, “A good piece of art speaks for itself. And this one needs you to tell me what it means. So there is something incomplete about it.”

What a surprising statement. How can art speak for itself? A realistic drawing might be of something recognizable, but even that leaves a lot open for interpretation.

Good art and good stories do not always speak for themselves. They leave the door open for content (which the artist supplies) and context (which the viewer supplies). Together, the same image can mean something entirely different to several viewers.

I found a great poem by Billy Collins that explains this perfectly:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all thy want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room

–Quinn McDonald realizes how much she has to learn every time she asks someone else to speak and she listens to them.

The (Almost) Lost Art of Polite

Leaving the bank, I sensed someone behind me. I walked through the heavy door, then held it open for an elderly man who was slowly making his way toward the door. “I’m not helpless,” he groused. “Of course not,” I replied, “I’m just being polite.”

rude_polite_rankingPolite isn’t popular anymore. A friend who observed by husband opening the car door for me, as he has for decades, sniffed, “Are you so weak you can’t open that door yourself?” If my husband didn’t have the keylock, I would have reached across and unlocked his door for him, too.

It’s kind to help people who have mobility issues, but the small acts that make up being polite are truly an art that makes the world a bit shinier and easier to manage.

Polite is hard to explain to small children. They stare at the handicapped, ask intrusive questions, and are sticklers for the “truth” as they see it. If we are lucky, they get socialized and develop the habit of being polite. But it’s slipping away, faster and faster.

When I bump into anything–even inanimate objects, I say, “Excuse me,” or “I’m sorry,” as a force of habit. A teen looked at me in the grocery store when I apologized to a grocery cart and muttered, “Dude, it’s like a thing! It can’t hear you.” True. But it might have been a person.

I let pregnant women ahead of me in line because I remember what it felt like to stand on swollen feet. When I was in D.C. two weeks ago, no one looked up from the seats clearly marked “for Senior Citizens and the handicapped,” and I did not have the nerve to pull out their headphones so I could ask for the seat. Why not? Because I didn’t think they would move.

Being polite means saying that an ugly baby is adorable, sending thank-you cards, and attending funerals of people you don’t know well. It’s saying “thank you” to a cashier who isn’t polite.  Not walking three abreast down a sidewalk and forcing other people to step into the street. If you are a bicyclist, it’s stopping at signs and lights instead of blowing through them or yelling “on your left” when someone is using the sidewalk for walking, then passing them at top speed, just nipping their elbow.

Polite is not throwing your co-working under the bus just because you can and no one will stand up to you. Bring back polite, and the whole concept of bullying shrinks and vanishes. Best of all, it doesn’t cost a thing and takes little effort.

–Quinn McDonald still says “you’re welcome” when someone says, “thank you.” She doesn’t want them to think for a minute that they might have been a problem.

Image: LAmag.com

Easy, Cheap, No Work

” I want the eight hour class, but I want you to spend no more than half a day. And I don’t want you to lose anything. Can you do that?”

Postcards“The two day class seems like a lot of work. Can you cut out some of the exercises without losing any of the learning?”

“My group really is scared of complicated classes. What can you do to make the topic simple so no one has to ask any questions or see a demo?”

I hear these questions at least twice a month, both about my art classes and my business writing classes. Fun, easy, simple classes are wonderful. Many things that are easy and simple are valuable and worth learning.

From Lisa Loves Learning

From Lisa Loves Learning

But there is value in complicated. Struggle with something and conquer it and you have two valuable outcomes–you’ve learned something new and you have learned that you are strong enough to stick with something worthwhile.

Sadly, challenges are getting a bad name. If something is hard, it is the teacher’s perceived job is to make it easy. I’ve seen the title workshop become “playshop” because, you know, work is hard.

Teachers are not meant to hand people pre-digested solutions to solve problems or to complete a project. Part of  personal growth is in the struggle, is in finding solutions, is in completing the work. No one loves failure, but it can be part of a larger success. A life that has no challenges, whose answers come supplied by others does not add any significant learning or meaning.

Struggle for the sake of struggle is not useful. But working hard for what you want brings rewards independent of winning. And rewards are worth working for.

Quinn McDonald draws out the brave in people. She admires the brave meaning-makers far more than winners.


Facing Change

Hear the word “change” and you are likely to break out in a sweat. We like things the way they are. Even if we don’t like the way things are, it’s better than what we don’t know.

change-4-1imepycWhat makes change so awful?  One answer is that we are not up to the task of facing change. Feeling not ready is the inevitable companion to change. So is feeling awkward, ungainly, not suited for the task. What makes change so awful is the lack of adjustment time. . No chance to look chic and unsurprised. Change catches you by surprise, with your shoes untied.

Change throws us into a formal party while we are still wearing our emotional play clothes. Suddenly, what seemed appropriate for the emotional playground doesn’t fit into the serious polished-shoe environment we wake up in. We are caught off-guard. And off-guard,  without time to plan, we go back to old emotions, old ways of behavior.

My coaching practice is rooted in helping people survive change. Then thrive with it. But it’s not easy, and there can be a lot of tears first. Change is not always a friend.

When change whips around us, it’s a windstorm of confusion, decisions, and often paperwork—all within a tight deadline. You get laid off, and must choose a generous package with a non-disclosure signature or no package and a sense of righteousness. A loved one is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, the kind that destroys plans, futures, whole families. What decisions are right? What decisions are right now?

The second part of change we hate is the strong belief that everyone’s life should be easy and steady. A change that isn’t pleasant is a threat to security. We are rooted in the belief that life needs to be the same every day. And by “same” I mean sunny, emotionally fun, and upbeat. That’s an unrealistic expectation of any life. A big part of life is making it through rough spots and building up experiences.

Change doesn’t always mean bad news, but even good change can look like bad news. Teaching clients to deal with change often starts with learning how to stay calm. Harder than it sounds. But once you’ve learned that, you can see change as a tool, not as a result. And that gives you the power to build.

–Quinn McDonald likes change. And that explains a lot.

It’s Not Over, It’s Just One Down

Senate Bill 1062 got vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief and. . . not so fast.

Arizona is not out of the woods. And while I rarely write about politics, it’s time I did. One of the reasons I moved here is to work on social justice issues, of which there are many.

One of the scary facts in the story of SB1062 is that the three original proponents suddenly were against it when the “media made a fuss.” Which, in my humble opinion, is what the media is supposed to do.

All of us are complicit. As artists, we have an obligation to be involved in politics. Too many artists I know don’t watch any national news. I mean real news. Instead, we share bumper-sticker slogans on Facebook and think we’ve done something.

The excuse for not knowing what your own legislature is doing is “so much violence,” or “it’s all the same.”  The result of ignorance is far worse. It’s a lack of ability to see consequences and prevent them. If you are not informed,  you get a legislative clown car that is about to drive the future of your state off a cliff because they didn’t have a clue to what their action was making possible. And no one stopped them.

Think I’m on a senseless rant? Here’s what Maya Angelou says on art and politics:

“All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” she declares. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something.” Morrison laughs derisively. “That all started in the period of state art, when you had the communists and fascists running around doing this poster stuff, and the reaction was ‘No, no, no; there’s only aesthetics.’ My point is that is has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time. I’m not interested in art that is not in the world. And it’s not just the narrative, it’s not just the story; it’s the language and the structure and what’s going on behind it. Anybody can make up a story.”

“All politics are local.” –Tip O’Neill

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and social justice advocate.

Saying “No” With Grace

Wish you could say “No” more effectively? Without hurting the other person’s feelings? You can. It takes a bit of practice, but practice is worth the freedom you gain–from doing things you don’t have the time or energy for.

When+you+say+yes+to+others+make+sure+you+are+not+saying+no+to+yourselfWhat to do? When you say “No” you will be met with cajoling, from ones that generate a big load of guilt to ones that tell you how long the favor will take–and it’s always “Five minutes, max.” Of course, the only worthwhile thing that can be accomplished in five minutes is brushing your teeth.

So here are several technique that work. It’s not easy, but it’s easier than saying “yes” and exhausting yourself or heaping stress on yourself. Because that’s what we are doing–when we say “yes” when we should say “no” we are the generator of our own stress.

1. Listen to the entire request. Cutting the speaker off before they are done only makes them more demanding and insistent.

2. Re-phrase what they want you to do. This is important so you can understand what is being asked of you. Frequently, people asking favors use diminishing language (words like only, just, little, quick, easy) and you hear that instead of the task.

3. Agree, but set a time that works for you. If you WANT do what is asked of you, and you CAN do it, agree but give yourself plenty of time. This includes setting a time you will spend on the task. For example: “So you want me to take you shopping for a used car? I can come with you from 2 to 4 on Saturday. How does that sound?” or “You want me to proofread your marketing letter? Sure, I’ll be able to get to it on Monday, the 18th, and complete it on the 21st. Does that sound OK?”

imagesNotice that in each case you are asking if the time is agreeable. If not, you have a great excuse to turn it down. If the person wants more of your time or a faster deadline, you can decline, having offered what is possible.

4. Do the favor, but for a limited time, set the time at the outset. “Sure, I’ll go with you, but I have to be back at my house at noon.” Or , “I’d love to help, and I can go from noon to 2 p.m.–will that work?”

Like the first Polite No, it offers your help, within your limits. If the person doesn’t like your limits, you can gracefully back out.

5. If you don’t want to or can’t, suggest someone else. “I can’t go on Saturday, but you might want to ask Joe, he knows a lot about cars.” Suggesting some other solution helps the other person walk away and makes you helpful.

There are times when you will have to choose between two “No’s” or say “No” more often than your guilt-meter wants you to, but remember that even in an airline emergency, when the yellow oxygen masks drop in front of you, you are supposed to help yourself first, then those around you. That’s a good image to keep in mind–saying No let’s you take care of yourself so you can survive to help others.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps others help themselves. Occasionally she is better at that than doing it herself. But she keeps practicing.


Traveling as an Artist

Notice the fewer posts this week? Yep, I was on the road, and too hectic to post. Travel is not fun anymore. Although I’m grateful I’ve shaved off 60 pounds every time I have to drop into the center seat, travel is still exhausting and stress-producing. But there are ways you can make the trip just a bit easier:

Check your bag. Yes, my bag does fit overhead, but by the time I get on, there is no more space. I can gate check it, which is free, and I can ask for help loading it overhead, but once I have committed to a bag, it has to come into restrooms and food locations. So I check it, knowing that I can put in all my cosmetics, and not just the one-quart bag full. I also don’t have to hoist it onto the X-ray machine, pull it off and run with it.

4134b-7LYjLCarry a backpack and a smaller purse. The purse fits into the backpack and holds essentials–credit cards, cash, pen, phone, earphones, gum, keys. It’s worn cross-body while I’m in line, making the license and phone (with the e-boarding pass) easily accessible. Once through the final checkpoint, the purse goes into the backpack, and the only gray tub you need is for shoes and jacket.

The backpack itself has the items I must have when I arrive–iPad, hotel and shuttle information, a spare jump drive with the class material, and a change of underwear. There’s also a journal to work on while there is an electronic blackout.  A backpack is remarkably comfortable to carry–much better than a one-shoulder bag.

Carry food. It’s possible that I’ll miss a meal while on the flight, and missing a meal is bad for blood sugar. So I carry mixed nuts, nut-and-seed bars (homemade), a dark chocolate bar, and an apple. In a pinch, I’ve got a low-carb meal.

Pack an excellent quality hand cream. I love Diptyque Hand Balm. It’s abc_baume_genereuxnon-greasy, mildly fragranced, and can be used on your face and neck. Airlines and hotel rooms are horribly dry. I also carry lip gloss and a small tube of OK hand cream. That way I can use it often enough to keep my cuticles in one piece.

Bring something comforting. A candle, a favorite sweater, a favorite fragrance. Hotels can be impersonal and lonely. A candle that fills the room with fragrance, a spritz of your favorite fragrance on your pillow, something that eases stress is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.

Plan when to work and when to relax. Working all the time wrecks your efficiency. Allow yourself to relax on flights.

-Quinn McDonald teaches business communications. She does art in hotel rooms.