Make it Easy for Yourself

Thorns. Lots of 'em.

The desert is a place of sharp points. Ever plant is armored, armed, or defensive. We expect it of the Ocotillo and Cholla, but it’s surprising to find that lemon, orange, tangerine and lime trees have big spiky thorns. So do palo verde, mesquite and huisache.

The first time I rolled a bicycle down a gravel path I had to carry it back out–two flat tires, with huge thorns embedded in the rubber.

The first time I picked an orange from a tree, I pulled out an orange in a bleeding hand. Even standing by a shady palm tree, I noticed the bark was a series of sharp saw blades and the palm fronds were toothed and ready to bite.

When I first came to the desert, I stopped by a nursery, and stepped carefully through the aisles. A weathered arborist who worked at the nursery spotted me for a what I was–a refugee from New England. “So what do you think about the desert?” he asked, grinning. I looked balefully around the narrow aisle, rubbing my knuckle which was red from accidentally brushing something pointy, and said, “if all this were covered in bubble wrap and leather, I could walk through the place really easily,” I half joked, thinking that a lot of bubble wrap wasn’t such a bad idea.

The naturalist considered my answer for a few seconds before he said, “Instead

Ocotillo in bloom, hiding the thorns.

of 50 yards of bubble wrap and half a cow’s worth of leather, make it easy for yourself–wear shoes. Gloves, too, maybe. Costs less.”

I’ve given the piece of advice a lot of thought, and I see how it works on relationships, too. Instead of avoiding all confrontation, or shying away from thorny people, it may be worthwhile to protect yourself in the spots that are likely to be exposed in the encounter.

No doubt there are difficult, hurtful people. But you don’t have to hug them (literally or metaphorically). You can keep your distance emotionally. Be polite, but don’t try to impress or compete. That’s easier said than done, sure, but if you can spot someone with a cholla-character (cholla’s have thorns that attach easily and segments that break off and stick to your clothing or skin), you can learn to protect yourself. No volunteering to work on their committee, no thinking you can make them love you.

I’ll be happy to admit that challenging people attract me. I’ve also learned that the nursery man had a point–you can’t change the world, but you can protect yourself.

Quinn McDonald is a book artist, writer and the author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art.

On Being Different

There is a certain frisson in being different. Most of us really don’t want to be. We want to think we are different, but not actually be different. Different enough to still be interesting, maybe eccentric, but not stand-alone different. There is fear in having to explain ourselves—and failing.

When communication is too different, it requires a lot of translation.

There was a recent uptick in “be different and proud” quotes on Twitter and it set me to thinking. As an artist, there is a certain threat level to being different. There are fads in supplies and techniques.  Several years ago, anyone who could push a thread through a bead became a “jewelry designer;” those with more patience and talent made amulet bags. If you didn’t make them, your talent was suspect—as if you hadn’t reached an expected artistic developmental stage.  In the collage world, there was a huge surge in illustrations of big eyed women with bent necks. Adding a bird somewhere in the collage was close to a requirement. . The bird was first a sign of individuality and moved to cliche, with defenders and detractors.

“Different” varies from “early adopter” to “outsider artist. It’s hard to feel connected to your path when you are alone and a large group of successful others are pouring out the fad of the minute.

Being different in the corporate world doesn’t often win awards, either. I once refused to fire a writer who was labeled as different. He was serious, bright, and had a talent for concise, image-rich, clear prose that drove home a point.  He was also an introvert and overweight. The department head pointed it out as “not fitting in with our image” and urged me to fire the writer. I refused, pointing to the employee’s serious talent. Suddenly I was the one who didn’t fit in, Within six months, I was called in for a review and told, “You are different and seem to enjoy it.” It wasn’t a compliment, and I was pushed out of the company. To my satisfaction, the good writer remained.

It’s hard being different if it affects your livelihood or your ethics. It’s easier to go along to get along. Being different isn’t a label; it’s is a daily decision-making process that balances providing for your family, being accepted by your friends, and standing up for what you believe. Sometimes that can be quite lonely. It can cost you a client or friends. You doubt yourself. You struggle with the possibility that you are simply wrong.

We live in a world of image, driven by consumer values. There is huge pressure to be accepted, to fit in, to have supporters, successful Facebook “Like” pages, Re-tweets. Do you express your opinion if it is different from your client’s and she is expressing hers as the right opinion? Do you stay silent? What about a friend’s veiled slur against a religion?  What if it is your religion? What about a snarky remark about looks? Weight? Who do you defend, except yourself? We make small decisions every day, and they shape our character, our jobs, our lives. Be careful of the little ones. They change the shape of your soul.

–Quinn McDonaldis a writer, artist, and life- and certified creativity coach. She is the happy author of Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art.