Parades and Memories

November 29, 2013

by Deborah Atherton


Today is Black Friday in America, and as you can see, I am not out shopping. The truth is, I can hardly stand shopping any more, except for a few places where I know it will be quiet—and I am not sure there are any quiet places left to shop on Black Friday, which has become so frenzied in recent years it is on the verge of overtaking Thanksgiving as a national holiday. 

In past years I have posted about not getting too frantic or depressed over the holidays, and not letting the memories of the past—or the ideal American holiday as presented by Hallmark—take over our minds and creative energy too entirely. (And for our readers who live in somewhat less holiday-and-sales-consumed countries, you have probably seen pictures of how crazy and sometimes violent our stores get today—and they aren’t kidding.)  But this year, maybe because the holiday responsibilities were taken over by other, generous relatives, I am in a more relaxed frame of mind. I really enjoyed little jaunt through Manhattan to Thanksgiving dinner, seeing the streets completely abandoned, and thinking about how compelling the holiday is for us—how everyone finds or invents a place to go and be, with family or friends, and how this one day a year extraordinary efforts are made to see that no one is alone and hungry.  The television is filled with images of volunteers at homeless shelters and soup kitchens.  And then today, we jump back into our consumer culture with abandon, except for those of us, of course, who seize it as an actual day off, and if not too exhausted from Thanksgiving festivities, retreat into our attics or basements or studios or closets.

One thing the holidays give us is a unique window to the future and the past—our memories of holidays tend to be sharp, as they are each different, and tend to stick in our minds as markers of a certain time of our lives.  We have our memories as children—many of us have our first memories from holidays—and then from each year of our adolescence and adulthood.  Perhaps we have our own children, and then begin to mark the years through their quick attainment of adulthood. And we might remember what year Macy’s added a new balloon to the Thanksgiving Day Parade, or a movie came out that we enjoyed or hated, or the day we finally made it to Rockefeller Center to see the tree.  These can be gateway memories, that provide us with guides to our own lives and the procession of our creative ideas—our internal time machines, a handy tool for any writer or artist. 

What hit me most strongly yesterday, though, as I was watching the Thanksgiving Parade on TV, was how quaint it was all going to seem in 100 years.  As the announcers were extolling the virtues of the sponsors of each balloon or float, I realized that although some of the characters would survive (I would put money on Mickey Mouse still being a household name in the next century, although I am unlikely to be here to collect) the products would not. In some ways the parade I was watching was very different than the one my father and grandmother saw earlier in the 20th century. And one of my esteemed relatives brought this up during the football game later in the day—“most of these products weren’t around to be advertised fifty years ago.”

 So we are fortunate that our memories give us a time machine to a past that seems immediate and not quaint, that is in color and not in black and white, and that those memories are often sharpened and deepened by the holidays.  If we have a moment to pause and reflect (before or after shopping and eating) they might offer us a little creative energy to fly—or at least float in a dignified manner—all the way into the New Year.   

Photo of the Mickey Mouse Balloon from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1934. Courtesy of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Follow me on Twitter @DatherToo.

Finding Your Inner Voice

November 26, 2012
by Leslie Zeigler
In this fast-track world we all now live in with iPads, Droids, Twitter, Facebook and Linked In,  we all may fear that if we dare to not have our devices within six inches we will be out of the loop.  I know that I have an ambivalent relationship to my own attachment to my now dinosaur Blackberry. Yet this is the new reality we all live in, and in order to survive, succeed and stay in touch, it would be really hard to turn off and tune out for very long. However, I sometimes think that tuning out is just what the metaphorical cultural doctor would prescribe if there were one.   My recommendation would be that during moments of high stress  (or even  medium or low stress) we turn off our devices to allow time to be creative and engage with our imaginations.
Five Minute Break
It could really be as simple as a five-minute break for reflection while walking to your car or subway (or possibly longer if you have the time.) In order to enhance your ability to do this, try to access your inner voice, which requires giving it some space to emerge. I find that those rare, and sometimes not so rare, moments when we can quiet all those various inner messages that try to demand our attention (almost as if our inner life were like a TV with many channels) are truly magic.   We are all familiar with our ever-present inner critic, who will try to tell us we don’t know enough, or that we aren’t really going to create something worthy of sharing. Perhaps we also hear our daily to-do list streaming through our minds, vying for our attention,  or maybe it is a message you keep hearing related to something your mother told you when you were just four years old.
 Finding Inner Calm
It can be a real challenge to find inner calm, to push the mute button on all these messages, and just relax and let go and let your intuition kick in.  You will not know where it is coming from, or how, but creative ideas and thoughts may just start to flow and it will be magic.  And for extra inspiration just remember the words of Steve  Jobs “don’t let  the noise of other’s opinions drown  out your own inner voice.”

After the Storm is Over

November 6, 2012

Thank you to everyone who emailed or called to find out how we did, indeed,  survive the storm. Both Leslie and are were fortunate to live above 39th Street in Manhattan, and so did not experience flooding or power outages (although I did have one strange moment when it looked like the Hudson might come creeping up past 12th Avenue.)  The same cannot be said of many of our friends, who lost power and water, had trees fall on their homes, saw their cars float out to sea, and, in some cases, are still waiting for the lights to come back on.

In the face of this disaster, it feels somewhat selfish to say that I did, indeed, spend a quiet week at home, safe, dry, and in the absence of the usual distractions (like, say, going to Starbucks for a cup of coffee, because the Starbucks in my neighborhood could not open without baristas) and, in fact, wrote a great deal.  More importantly, I had free time to think and live with my characters and stories—when I was not listening to the sad news on the TV and radio—and unscheduled time is almost always a gift.

I’m back to work now, along with much, although not all, of Manhattan.  Nothing looks quite the same—it’s a little scary to realize that a city that’s stood for 400 years is so essentially fragile. Sometimes we forget we live on an island.  We are spending a lot of time sharing our stories, which makes us all feel better.  And we are all making plans with much more seriousness for the next natural disaster – I have realized that one flashlight, even with backup batteries, does not cut it.

Just wanted to let you all know we’re fine, and that we’ll have a new post from Leslie later this week.

An Experiment in Happiness

February 21, 2012

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Does creativity make us happy?

A month ago, renowned positive psychologist Chris Petersen said in an interview with Ben Dean of Mentor Coach that in the early days of his interest in researching happiness, he had kept a daily catalog of his activities on happy and unhappy days, to see what actually contributed to his own happiness.  Since I am always excited about a new list, I decided to keep my own spreadsheet for a month on my happy and less happy days, and what, by the end of a day, in my mind made it a happy one.  Chris Petersen said, to his surprise, that his own happiness depended on the completion of a task—that even finishing a big load of laundry was enough to make him happy.  Ben asked if working on his book didn’t make him happier than doing the laundry. Chris replied, “Not really.  I just like finishing things.”

Well, here I am, thirty days later, and it was certainly an interesting way of looking at your life. Usually, I am focused on my writing, my job, my family and friends, what I’m making for dinner, what’s on TV, what I have to read, etc.  Sitting down at the end of the day, assessing how you feel, and just listing what you’ve done, turns out to be a fascinating personal exercise.   

But just finishing things didn’t do it for me.  I had one highly virtuous day of housekeeping, finishing everything from the laundry to washing the kitchen floor, which left me completely cranky at the end. 

What did do it for me was working on something I consider creative. Which might be this blog, or a short story, or song lyrics, or working on my novel.  Every day I did something creative, I ended the day happy, even if it was a difficult day in other ways, and even if I couldn’t get too far with what I was doing. 

The other thing that worked for me was doing absolutely nothing–throwing the To Do list and all my projects out the window for the day and just ordering Chinese for dinner and reading or watching TV—or playing my favorite new video word game, Word Mole.

Despite my love of solitude, days when I spoke to people I care about tended to be happier, a lesson for the creative introverts and hermits of the world.

Of course, understanding what makes you happy and acting on it are two different things, which is one reason why the field of positive psychology is so popular right now.  But I now know that if I spend even fifteen minutes sitting down and writing a few words, my whole day is happier—it’s like a free painkiller with no bad side effects.  

Whether your key to happiness turns out to be finishing the laundry or polishing your prose, it might be fun to take a few minutes at the end of the day for the next month (or even week) and find out.  I’m guessing that for you, like me, it might be taking a photograph, or painting a landscape, or finding just the right chord to end a song.  Of course, it’s important not to confuse personal happiness with external approval or success—but that is a blog for another day.

Our Haiku Contest Winners!

February 1, 2012

We were so completely delighted with the results of our haiku contest, and the brilliance and creativity of our readers, that we will offering the Intuitive Edge Haiku Awards (and, of course, Starbucks Cards) to all of our amazing participants. 

Please enjoy the haiku below:

Marcus Bales

… sugar in your tea?
what’s all these crazy questions
that they’re asking me?

white, green, and post-fermented,
yellow, oolong, black

Claudia Carlson

First draft steaming hot
dreams fill the cup of the mind
rewrite in the dregs

Warm ink in a cup
steam paints sonnets to the air
send chai to my heart

A measure of sweet
over dry and bitter leaf
serve it to your muse

Eric Ember

cupped in both hands tea.
steam rises, aroma wafts,
ideas percolate

 tea percolating
like ideas from the ether,



If I have more than
a half cup of regular,
the muse freaks; I’m hosed.


teaspoon of honey
dissolving in morning tea
twelve bee’s lifelong work

Kimberley Roots

nothing impels me
to write like the slick hiss
of milk being steamed

L. Sylvester


A sweet aroma,

Driving the pen to paper

Then again a sip.

Our thanks again to all, and we look forward to next year’s contest!

Deborah and Leslie



Our First Haiku Contest: Tea and Creativity!

January 5, 2012

Tea and Creativity

Posted by Deborah Atherton

It often helps us, as we struggle to find time to do our creative projects, to have a little prompt, some gesture that tells us that it is now time to get serious, and sit down with our work.  We tell ourselves, “After I finish reading the paper, or cleaning up after dinner, or eating lunch, I will go ______ (you fill in the blank – paint, or sort out my photographs, or edit some video, or write).

For me, this is most often a cup of coffee or tea (you can see my earlier post on coffee and creativity here ). I wake up with coffee, and then switch to tea later in the day.  Coffee is my first burst of inspiration; tea sustains and comforts and helps me bring ideas to fruition.   

 Tea, like wine, has its devoted connoisseurs, the people who will tell you that if you do not drink the white tea made from buds that bloom only for a week and a half every other year in some obscure province of China, you have not really experienced tea.  Like Captain Jean Luc Picard, I enjoy a nice cup of Earl Grey, hot, when it is available, but honestly will settle for lesser brands, at any temperature, when it is not.  It is the making of the tea, the ritual of heating the water, pouring it over a tea bag (or sachet or leaves, if we are being elegant), that creates the moment of peace, the little separate space, that allows you to launch yourself into the next hour of your day, the hour when you will have a little peace to do your creative work.

As firm believers in the drinking of coffee and tea to support  creative endeavors, and to help inaugurate what we are sure will be a wonderfully creative New Year, The Intuitive Edge invites you to participate in our first annual haiku contest with seventeen syllables on the subject of coffee or tea and creativity.  Use your vivid imaginations – and we know enough of our readers to know that this is not in short supply.  The traditional Haiku form used in English is 17 syllables (5-7-5), but this is the Intuitive Edge: give yourself a little room for creativity.  

We offer this haiku from the great Japanese master Matsuo Bashō, who some say invented haiku, on starting your mornings with tea:

drinking morning tea
the monk is peaceful
the chrysanthemum blooms

The prizes for the winning entries will be, of course, be Starbucks cards (we are here to support your creativity in many ways!) to help you break new creative ground in the New Year.  All entries must be in by midnight, January 22nd, GMT (which seems to be the clock WordPress runs on.)

Please post your entries here in the comments section. You will retain all rights to all seventeen syllables after they have first been posted here.  Good luck, and we look forward to your entries!  

I leave you with these final words from Matsuo Bashō: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.”

The Holiday Addiction

December 14, 2011

Posted by Deborah Atherton

We would probably all be reasonably happy and productive during the holidays (after all, who doesn’t like a nice turkey?) if it weren’t for our memories of the past and the way they create expectations of how things will be—or should be—in the present.   And of course, our memories are selective—we don’t remember the family disagreements, or how our parents couldn’t put our new bicycles together right, or how Uncle Phil always had a little too much too drink—we remember the wonderful presents our grandparents gave us, and decorating our homes, and baking cookies, and the way our mothers always made the stuffing just right. 

Intellectually, we probably understand that the present can’t compete with the Hallmark version of the past our memories present us with, and yet every year we rush into the holiday season full of plans and expectations.   We may accept too many invitations, or not be invited enough; we may find ourselves exhausted in the middle of cooking a big holiday dinner; we may attempt to gather the entire family together and be defeated by distance, expense, and competing schedules. And in the midst of all this—of parties, families, and events—we feel frustrated at our inability to get back to our projects.  Our novels, our paintings, our films, our photograph and videos call to us—but we are too busy trying to squeeze in one more must-do activity to listen. We are almost like addicts, seeking to recreate the holiday high we had as five-year-olds, and, like addicts of all stripes, we are usually doomed to disappointment.

As humans, we are always going to have memories and expectations, and as creative people, we depend on them for our work, but we do have a tool that allows us to not lose ourselves in them to the point of misery. We can practice mindfulness; we can focus on the present moment, and understand that this moment we are experiencing is unique and deserving of our full attention.

In The Mindful Way Through Anxiety, Susan Orsillo PhD, and Lizabeth Roemer, PhD, define mindfulness as: “a specific way of paying attention to things. It involves purposefully expanding your attention to take in both what you are experiencing inside –your thought, feelings, and physical sensations — and what is happening around you. But the kind of attention you bring to noticing is an essential aspect of this practice. Mindfulness involves bringing a gentle and honest curiosity to your experiences. It involves looking at familiar thought, people, and situations with a fresh perspective, as if you had never encountered them before.”

At a time when every bite of food is subject to comparison, we can allow ourselves to simply savor the eggnog we are sipping and not worry about whether it tastes as good as our Aunt Sharon’s or is up to Iron Chef quality. We can understand that as hard as we try to get the whole family together, there is going to be someone who can’t or won’t make it and that although the gathering may not be complete, it can still happen (and hey, they invented Skype for just this reason!) We can occasionally close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and let everything fall away but the chair we are sitting on and the air we are breathing, and let go of all the memories, and all the expectations, and know that life, in this minute, is as important as it gets.
And most of all, we can be a little kind to ourselves.  So many of the people with creative projects I have talked to in the last few weeks have been upset about their inability to get anything done since Thanksgiving, and worried that the rest of the year will slip away with nothing accomplished.  But time only slips away when we aren’t fully experiencing it, if it is filled with anxiety, or frustration, or a nagging dissatisfaction with things as they are. Fifteen minutes of just being in the moment—of just listening to what is going on around you, or really tasting the food in front of you, or taking a short walk and smelling December in the air—will bring you back to the present moment, and may even help you get to your computer or studio or camera to do a little work.

And you know, it’s possible that the work, when we all do get back to it—even if it isn’t until after New Year—will have benefited from the break.  The fog will have cleared, the excitement and disappointment will have lifted, and we will all be ready to work again.

Thanks to Eric Ember, the Intuitive Edge Photographer in Residence,  for the holiday photos!

Go to Sleep!

November 7, 2011

Posted by Deborah Atherton

As we are all constantly searching for more time to do our creative projects, we will all have frequently encountered this advice: wake up an hour earlier and work then, while the world is still quiet.  (This is also a favorite of people who are trying to get you to exercise, or get more work done.) As a survivor of more books and articles on writing, creativity, and productivity than I can count, I am going to give you the opposite advice: Go To Bed, and stay there!

When we are very young, and staying up all night to finish papers for our teachers our professors, this may be less vital. Our bodies and minds will suffer any amount of abuse and survive, and even be relatively perky, the next morning.  But once you hit 25, and definitely once you hit 30, your body really won’t settle for less sleep than your natural internal schedule demands.  If you need 7 hours, and you decide to give your body 6 in order to rise at 5 AM and write five pages, or go out in the world and photograph it before it is awake, or even get in 100 pushups, your mind will eventually take its dream-deprived revenge.

Our creativity depends on whatever it is our brains and unconscious minds do at night, and if we don’t give ourselves enough time to do that, our imagination will either go on strike, refusing to come up with any ideas at all, or start cooking up some very odd scenarios indeed.  Whether you are one of those people who wake up with ideas and want to get to work immediately, or whether you are someone who really doesn’t become alert until midnight, the sleep you acquire at whatever hours you choose to acquire it, is vital for your creativity.

Ben Stein (sometimes a surprising source of wisdom) gave this advice on a recent CBS Sunday Morning, and I thought it was well given (although I paraphrase): Sleep. Sleep extra hours, whenever you get the chance.  Sleep if you are bored. Sleep if you are tired.  Turn off all those tempting electronic devices, and sleep.    

If you give your brain enough time and room to sleep, it will return the favor by offering a lot more creative entertainment and ideas than even your i-Pad can give you. So, unless you are one of those naturally early-to-bed, early-to-rise people—and I know there are still a few out there!—forget getting up at 5 am and depriving yourself of the hour or two or three of sleep that might make the  critical difference. Sleep, and find some other time in which to be creative.  Your dreams are calling you!

How We Survived Our Zombie Apocalypse

October 25, 2011

by Deborah Atherton

Occasionally, Leslie and I go away to shore hotels (off-season) to work on our creativity book. This weekend, we chose Asbury Park, New Jersey, one of our favorites, because of a great hotel rate.  To our shock, when we arrived, we were told that we were still in time to get makeup for the Friday night Zombie Events. Seeking quiet, we had unwittingly landed in the greatest Zombie convocation in the world, the culmination of which was a Zombie parade, set to break the world record for most people gathered for a Zombie walk.

Our first impulse was to flee on the next bus back to Manhattan; but the trouble with those great rates is, you have to pre-pay, and running into Zombies is probably not grounds for getting your money back.  Judge Judy would dismiss us instantly. Instead, in the spirit of the Intuitive Edge, we decided to explore, and ask questions.  We first went to question the guy on the Boardwalk who does the Zombie makeup.

“Why do people dress up as Zombies?” we asked. He shrugged. “It’s the new fashion,”” he said. “For a while people loved vampires—True Blood and all that. And then werewolves.  But now people like Zombies. It’s just fun.”

“Are you a Zombie?” Leslie asked.  “No, not me,” he said, “I just do the makeup.”  “But who does want to be a Zombie?” “There is no demographic,” he said. “Old, young, skinny, fat. It’s just fun.”

We proceeded to the information booth.  “Are there qualifications to be a Zombie?” Leslie asked. “No,” they told us. “All you have to do is pour a little blood over your face and join the crowd. And,” they continued, “Don’t forget, we are going for a world record!”

We remained puzzled, and began to walk back over to our hotel.  We ran into a number of Zombies, all of whom were extremely polite, considering they were undead, and a few square dancers, who had also chosen this weekend to convene en masse this weekend. Apparently the whole world had chosen this week to come to Asbury Park.  But as we walked back, we saw a huge, beautiful, inspiring bonfire on the beach, with sparks flying to the heavens, apparently surrounded by Zombies, square dancers, and their happy children.  We decided to stay.

It ended up being a very productive weekend—we wrote and strategized and tried to practice what we preach, creating a schedule of goals, and times, and accountabilities for the book and blog.   And as time went on, and a parade of Zombie nurses, prisoners, chefs, fairy princesses, and even a mermaid sailed by, we realized that Zombies are all about creativity.  Zombie creators spend time and energy creating costumes, makeup, and back story for their characters, and then join together to share their work—and of course eat brains.

It turned out to be the best place and time in the world to work on our creativity book after all.

The festival reports over 12,500 people attended.  Just a nice quiet October weekend on the Jersey Shore.

Asbury Park, New Jersey

October 22, 2011


On Not Going It Alone

August 7, 2011

Recently I had brunch with a wonderful pianist, Benita Meshulam, and we were discussing the joys of collaborating.  She has recently begun a piano duo with Allison Brewster Franzetti, also an amazing pianist. “After all these years of being lonely on stage, I have a real partner to share the experience with,” she said.  “It’s so much better not to have to always perform alone. The loneliest walk is from my dressing room to the stage, and now I don’t have to do it alone.”

Part of our cultural mythology is this vision of the artist alone, writing or sculpting or drawing  in solitude. The solitude seems to validate the experience , verify the genuineness of the self-communion.   We imagine J.D. Salinger in cranky hermit mode up inNew Hampshire, or Van Gogh in tortured self-mutilating mode in a garret.  Virginia Woolf told us that every writer needs a room of her own, and it seems so obvious that we all immediately nod in agreement.

But although Virginia Woolf had a room of her own, she also lived in a constant social whirl of friends, writers and other artists who argued with her, supported her, designed her books and  furniture, and brought her their work for publication and critique.  As anyone who reads her diaries knows, she was very seldom actually alone.  Many artists do feel the loneliness of creating in solitude, or taking the stage by themselves, and get quite self-reproachful about their dislike of creating by themselves.

But there is actually no rule that you have to lock yourself in an empty room  to create, or even create or perform or present work with others.  Starbucks sometimes seems to exist largely to serve the needs of people who can’t stand to write in a room alone.  Of course, actors and musicians and other performers have always known the joys of performing together—but writers? Photographers?  Composers? Painters?

Well, maybe you can’t write music at Starbucks with all those world instruments jingling in your ears, but you can almost always find a less lonely situation that eases that anxiety about solitude and being in the creative process by yourself.  Whether this means having a trusted other who sits and reads while you are working, or actively collaborating with other artists on a film or musical or book or mural—or duo piano performance—sometimes the presence of another human being (or non-human being—there is a reason some writers are always photographed with their dogs at their sides) is the exact missing ingredient to spur your creative process.

Sometimes all we want is an empty, quiet space to do our work, or to walk out on to a stage and face the crowd or critics by ourselves—but we don’t have to be alone with either our ideas or our audiences if it doesn’t work for us.  Collaboration can be one of the most exciting and fulfilling modes for any artist to work in—although you still might want that room of your own to go home and decompress in at the end of the day!