Bring Back the Light

December 21 is the shortest day of the year, for those of us who live to the North of the equator. The North pole is pointed furthest from the sun, and experiences 24 hours of night. The South pole gets a full blast of sun for 24 hours.

Darkness wasn’t valued until the invention of video games and it wasn’t until I moved to Phoenix that I began to like the shorter days that bring us relief from the griddle of summer.

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 12.33.24 AMOur ancestors so disliked the dark, they brought artificial light into their lives in as many ways as possible. Sometime in the late 1400s, people decorated trees with apples and nuts to keep the birds alive (and worth eating) and then added candles to the trees, to chase the darkness.

The Yule log is a large piece of oak that is lit to scare away the darkness (and accompanying evil spirits) and burns for days. In some traditions, the remnants of last year’s log is used to light this year’s log. Notice all the light being brought out to brighten the gloom of winter.

Hanukkah candles, which represent the miracle of a small amount of oil lasting for eight days starts with one candle and gets brighter until the last night when a total of nine candles light up the room. (The extra candle burns every night and is used to light the others.)

We are a heat-seeking, story-telling, light-loving people. If the sun and earth don’t cooperate, we’ll invent candles and blinking lights and fireplaces to provide heat and light. If I had my way (and aren’t you glad I don’t run the economy), we would celebrate the winter holidays–all of them–with candles and lights and song and food and forget about the crush of buying presents and the day after Christmas sales.

It’s the dark days of winter. Brighten up someone’s life with a smile or a small kindness. It will bring more warmth to your heart than a plaid slanket.

Quinn McDonald wishes you a joyous Solstice.


Creative Stroll: April 26, 2014

Note: Congratulations to Lisa Brown, who is the winner of The Complete Guide to Altered Imagery from my blog post. Send me  (email is on my Work With /Contact Quinn page on this blog) your mailing address and the book will be on its way to you. Enjoy the book!

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Rachel Sussman is a photographer who loves science as it shows up in nature. She photographed the oldest living things on earth (and wrote a book about it), not only so we can see them, but also so we can help keep them alive for a few more years. The book contains 124 photos and 30 essays.

the-oldest-living-things-in-the-world-by-rachel-sussman-5(Above) Llareta, a plant related to parsley. It is made up of thousands of small blossoms packed together.

The ancient organisms she photographs live on all seven continents and range from Greenlandic lichens that grow only one centimeter a century, to desert shrubs in Africa and South America, a predatory fungus in Oregon, Caribbean brain coral, to an 80,000-year-old colony of aspen in Utah.

Kerry-Miller-a-hand-book-to-the-order-lepidoptera-by-w-h-kirby1Kerry Miller is a UK artist who saves discarded books. She carves them and paints them. But these are altered books like you haven’t seen in a long time. In her artist statement, she writes:

I use only old books as they lend themselves to this treatment in a way that modern ones do not and particularly enjoy the fact that I can even make use of books in a condition which most people would dismiss as unusable.

earth-from-space-on-earth-day-2014-nasaAnd finally, a photo of mother earth on Earth Day taken by NASA NOAA’s GOES-East satellite. Take care of your mother, she’s all we have right now.


–Quinn McDonald is finished with the studio upgrade, part 1. Part 2 will start once the futon and paper rack are sold. And she figures out a few things about the third dimension.

Summer Comes to Phoenix

While the rest of the country is busy settling into a much-anticipated summer; Australia (along with parts of Africa, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina) are heading toward winter. Phoenix, however, is set on “broil.” The local joke is that Phoenix is where hell spends the summer.

For the first time in five years, one of the cacti put out a bloom this year.

For the first time in five years, one of the cacti put out a bloom this year.

Snow birds (mostly Midwesterners, Canadians and Germans who bought houses here when the prices were in the dirt) head home. The huge RVs that are parked on residential streets and serve as winter in-law apartments vanish. Suddenly, those of us who stay can get a reservation at any restaurant. Movie lines are short enough so you have a chance at staying alive while you wait to buy a ticket to a cool place. Parking places open up.

The blossom lasts one night. Until it bloomed, I had no idea the cactus is an organ pipe cactus, dangerously far North for winter survival

The blossom lasts one night. Until it bloomed, I had no idea the cactus is an organ pipe cactus, dangerously far North for winter survival

And then, it is summer in Phoenix. So hot you bring a tote bag with you to carry your CDs, GPS units and anything plastic (handcream, phone chargers) into stores with you. They won’t last long if you leave them in the car. Windshields explode out of their frames, shattered by the temperature difference between air conditioning on high and the direct sun. Between the two of us, we’ve gone through five windshields in five years.

agave1My favorite plants to watch are the giant agaves that bloom just once in their lifetime, so they make it worth the effort.

agave2They start by sending up a long stalk, anywhere from 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) tall. The stalk is nubby, and then, almost overnight, it is covered in yellow blossoms.

agave3And I do mean covered. In yellow blossoms.

agave4The stalk and blossoms stay beautifully in bloom for two to three weeks, feeding bees, hummingbirds, and fruit-eating bats at night. And then, before they die, they sprout the next generation up and down the enormous stalk. The tender shoots drop off, complete with the long “hairs” you see. Birds use the hairs as nesting material, and the agave goes with it, slowly growing. Other plantlets hitch a ride on coyotes or bobcats and are scattered into the ground, where they set root. Some just drop and tumble into a new home.

deadagaveThe original plant dies. Even that is an elegant sunburst of neutral colors. Here in the desert, there are few plants that bloom in summer. It’s our gray season, our stormy, humid seasons. We get Monsoon Rain storms that bring us half a year’s worth of rain in eight weeks. We get dust storms. Each summer several tourists die while hiking because they don’t believe the heat or the power of the heat. When it’s 117 degrees F (47 degrees C) you don’t want to be exerting yourself. So we estivate. Estivating is the summer version of hibernating.

We stay inside, we swim in too-hot pools, and we wait for September. At night, when you swim in the pool, your face can feel both the coolness of the night sky and the warmth of the heat radiating from the brick wall. A small gift in the hot season.

A full moon hangs in the palm tree

A full moon hangs in the palm tree

–Quinn McDonald waits for summer with a sadness she discovered only in this climate.

Making Mistakes, Thrasher Style

Red bird of paradise bush

The thrasher outside my office window was fighting a small snake under the red bird of paradise bush. The bird, about the size of a robin, would advance, peck the head of the snake, then grab the neck and jump back, pulling the snake off the ground.

I watched this while I was on the phone. Thrashers are insect eaters, but have a curved, strong bill, so I wasn’t surprised to see him going after the snake. And it was a small snake–about as big around as a pencil. He may have thought it was a caterpillar and discovered it was too big to manage.

After about five minutes, the thrasher gave up and flew into the nearby ocotillo, where it warbled for a while, then flew off. He did not take the snake, so I wondered if he’d killed it.

After I’d completed the phone call, I went outside to take care of the snake. Checking under the bush, I saw what the battle was about. No snake.


The thrasher had attacked my drip irrigation hose, about the size of a pencil in diameter, and made of black rubber. The bird had worried about 18 inches of the hose out of the gravel and sand. The small gold-colored metal head was almost completely pulled off the hose. Dead, for sure.

What made me smile about this was that the bird eventually recognized that the hose was not a snake or a caterpillar.  The metal cap wasn’t a snake head. The bird did not slap himself on the head and berate himself. The bird did not kick the dirt and hang its head, embarrassed. The bird flew into a nearby tree, claimed its territory, and moved on.

Wildlife is smart that way. It doesn’t feel embarrassment, shame, or guilt. A mistake is a mistake. In this case, not deadly, so no harm done. (Well, as far as the bird was concerned. I’m going to need a new drip head to replace the shredded one.)

How smart we’d be if we could be the same way. Recognize the mistake, be OK with it, move on. Not dredge it up for years, worrying it like a sore tooth, making it into statements about our general character, intelligence, or emotional state.

Make a mistake, move on. Good lesson from a basic bird.

—Quinn McDonald learns from nature, which seems to have a lot to teach if we watch.

Normal Reactions

In the years when I lived and worked in a cold climate, there was some sort of

Snow tree from

drive to master the weather. No matter how much snow or ice piled up and coated your windshield, you got to work on time. (I was not a surgeon or a firefighter, I worked in marketing departments.) There were pre-dawns I shoveled snow, panicky that I could not overcome nature. That I might be late for work. It wasn’t that many years ago that I walked to work in three feet of snow, to prove I was not afraid of weather. That I was not a slacker.

When we arrived at work, it was in 3-inch leather heels and stockings, wool-blend suits and other materials that were easily ruined by salt and water.

A certain level of success and wealth was implied by striding into work without an umbrella, without a canvas tote of boots and gloves. There were executives who had heated garages and even heated driveways. Proof that you were above the weather.

Arizona wildfire. Credit: AP Photo/ The Arizona Republic, Carlos Chavez

I think of those days when I hear about the wildfires in Colorado. The fires have no concern for wealth or status. One person’s house stands, another burns. Reconstruction will take years, souls will knit their cracks only with time and love–neither on sale at Walmart.  Or Barneys.

One of the reasons I love my new home state of Arizona is that the citizens (wild, strange, loving, caring and occasionally gun-totin’) pay attention to the weather. I wear sandals to teaching jobs. I wear linen and cotton clothing. Neat, pressed, but lightweight in deference to our 113-degree heat.

Dust storm (haboob) rolling over Phoenix from

In the evening, I’m in the pool. Not swimming laps, not using exercise tools. I’m in the pool because the weather is hot and the water is cooling. It’s sensible and sane.

I like living in step with nature. I like being realistic. It gives me a sensible outlook on life. And in a way, when our wildfires sweep across our Ponderosa pines (as they did just a few weeks ago), I might feel sorrow, or empathy, or even fear, but I don’t feel outrage. I don’t feel entitled to perfect weather. It feels like a real life.

-Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who keeps her house at 83 degrees during the day. Because that’s still 20 degrees cooler than outside.

Nature, Text Messaging

When the phone rang at 6:30 this morning, I already had the headset on. When you are a creativity coach, you leave at least one morning for early calls and one evening for late calls. Not every client wants to call from work, so you plan to do the coaching early or late. After the coaching calls were over, I prepared for a client meeting. It is a lovely May day, and I decided to leave the studio window open.

On my way out of the studio, I heard the text message beep that signaled an incoming message. I smiled. One of my clients loves to text me. I love this client’s ability to summarize problems; he drew me into learning how to spell with my thumbs 9 years ago, and now I love the brief exchanges of ideas.

We’d talked early, and I was surprised to get a text message. I put my purse containing the phone on the kitchen chair when the beep sounded faintly again. “I need breakfast first,” I said to the purse, poured a cup of coffee, and reached for the granola. Another beep. I gave in. This many messages sounded serious. Before I poured milk on the granola, I pulled the phone from the briefcase. No messages. I checked again. Nope, no messages. I shook my head. I could have sworn I heard it. I dropped the phone back into the purse.

I sprinkled blueberries on my granola and poured milk over it. The beep again. But this time, it seemed to be coming from the window in front of me. I pushed open the window and heard another incoming message. But this time I saw the message-sender. The mockingbird sat in the fig tree next to the kitchen window. He’s heard the beep often enough to repeat it. He already mimics my alarm clock and now he’s got the text message notification down perfectly.

When mockingbirds learned to mimic sounds, it must have been for a better reason than echoing technological tools. But I have to admit, he’s useful. I’m a sound sleeper, but what the alarm clock can’t do–the mockingbird can. I can’t turn him off.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach, writer and art journaler.

My Father’s Art Journal

My father's art journal, made before 1937.

My father was an immigrant to America. Shy and studious, married with two sons, he came to America with little except his family, his talent as a research physiologist, an ability to draw, and a few boxes of possessions. He was middle-aged, and starting over. He had been respected as a physician and researcher, an intellectual living in a European capital. When he came to this country, his work was needed in the early American space exploration program. He  was sent to Randolph Air Force base, in rural Texas. San Antonio was 20 miles away in those days, and my father didn’t own a car. The family lived in a farming community close to the base. He commuted by bicycle. He was a stranger in a strange land. Within a year after arriving, he and my mother had their third child and first American family member.

My father was a naturalist—he taught me about constellations and weather, birds and plants. He created a set of nature sketches in a journal. It was an art journal, but completely different from the art journals of today.

Crab, pencil on paper, c. 1950 © Quinn McDonald, 2010

My father’s journal survived the war and was in his box of important possessions. The cover shows signs of being handmade. The paper looks like pastel paper, thick but brittle now–it’s more than 80 years old.

The art he created was spare sketches of the insects, reptiles, plants and wonders of his new world. There are a few images of the past, too–a parakeet that didn’t survive the war, a son who did. The pictures were done in pencil or colored pencil. If there is writing on a page, it is a date or an identifying Latin name. My father was a man of few words, but his journal speaks volumes to me. He’s been dead for almost 30 years, and every time I look at the images he drew, I smile at the love of nature he passed on to me.

Texas horned-toad, pencil on paper, 1948. © Quinn McDonald, 2010

Parakeet, colored pencil on paper, 1937 © Quinn McDonald, 2010

-Quinn McDonald is an artist who is writing a book for people who want to keep an art journal but don’t know how to draw. You don’t have to know, you just have to want to live fully. It will be published by North Light Books in the summer of 2011.