The Art of Gift-Making: a Process Rife with Abundance

Gifting can be hard… really hard!

In 5 Ways to Reclaim the Holidays, I explore ideas for using holiday gift-giving to build community while also producing kick-ass, original presents that will bring joy to your friends & family.

Here, I’d like to expand a bit on some of those ideas, namely those regarding making, or getting things made, for your loved ones.

From the time I could pick up a crayon, drawing has come naturally. And ever since I discovered that I can draw (or paint, or photograph) things that people like, it’s always been natural for me to choose making holiday things for people about 60% of the time over buying.

So for me since time immemorial, holidays are not so much a time for frantic gift-buying as gift-making, as I strive to create a work of art that my friends or family will find meaningful, beautiful and will communicate to them how much they mean to me.

And that is fun, and it works. I get to enjoy making something, and folks like what I give. But I’ve discovered something else as well. Each act of gift-making has not only been a production process, but also a kind of ritual for entering more deeply into my relationship with the recipients. In turn, this deepening has enriched my life in myriad ways. I’ve found this to be one of my best sources of immunity to holiday fatigue as well as a secret sauce for breathing love, life and health into my relationships.

Therefore, I HIGHLY recommend either taking on the adventure of making gifts as well, or considering hiring (or bartering with) a talented friend or local “maker” to create something for those special people on your list this year.

The process, which I’ve developed sort of intuitively over the years, goes as follows–and can be done alone or in partnership with a hired/enlisted “maker” of your preferred talent (visual artist, musical artist, woodworker, crafter, etc.):

*  *  *

First, there’s what I’ll call the “Conception” stage, where the plan for the design comes into shape. To accomplish this, I think/feel into something I know will touch their life. I go through a wheel of questions:

  • “What have they been through this year?”
  • “What phrase or teaching have I heard them share recently, or do I remember from way back is one of their favorites?”
  • “What golden memory did we share, or did they tell me about from this year (or back father)?”  

And, my favorite:

  • “What is their essence–who they are, uniquely–that makes me love them? What symbol, animal, scene, or set of words express that essence?”

This little ritual (which I often do in my head/heart over about two weeks, but sometimes in the short space of a day if time has grown tight) gives me a rare opportunity to make satiated-king-ratspace in my life to deeply, gently, sincerely think about this person in my life and our relationship. One year, I made my father a watercolor and pen portrait of a very satiated rat, flanked on top and bottom with my Dad’s absolute favorite (original) line, “Within this mouth live the tastebuds of a king.”  Another year, I celebrated my Mom’s newfound passion (obsession?) with gardening with a portrait of her (from my head) digging into the dirt with her fingers, with the gentle expression of a cultivator of Life.

On a subterranean level, I have found that this little process tends to heal whatever gunk has built up–small resentments, unspoken protests, or just plain old distance–in between my life and theirs over the last year, and replaces it with a warm flow of affection and knowing.

The “Making” stage deepens this process still, as each stroke of pen or brush, each squinting step-back from the piece to check its progress and quality, each adjustment or experiment becomes a highly physical expression of my bond to them. It’s almost like I’m weaving our lives together with each little action. I can only describe this process as magical.

Finally, after the final artwork has reached its finished stage and I can feel and see that “essence” I dug to find now perfect expression, there’s the wrapping and then the most glorious stage of all: actually “Giving” the gift. Hooray!

I always experience an unparalleled excitement knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their hearts are about to explode as they pick up the brightly wrapped package and seek out the seams of the paper with their fingers. And inevitably, this is the case. It is a timeless moment, in which all of those moments of thinking, planning and doing come to full fruition, expanding from my inner world into their lives as well, and fully inhabiting the space between us.

The, for time unlimited, there’s the “Enjoyment” stage, in which my loved one mounts the creation somewhere to be seen and enjoyed, and this becomes a regular, probably daily reminder to them of the deep care, thought and time that you put into this gift (and by extension, your relationship). In my home, it’s become a kind of gallery my Mom has erected in the hallway, where my years of Christmas gifts hang as a kind of compendium narrative of her and our intertwined lives.

This yearly magic is one reason why I think I’ve remained fairly immune to the rampant disillusionment with the holidays that many of my friends and family report…   too much buying, too much pressure to give — or the sentiment, “Why can’t we be generous to each other year round?”

Well, yes. Good points. But we don’t have to let the pressure of finding gifts become something that drains us. It can be, like it has been for me, something that re-energizes our love for one another and helps grow the roots of our relationships deeper. For me, the rituals of taking the time to deeply reflect on each recipient, what makes them special, and what they would truly love, accomplishes that. Rather than the “only” time of year we do this, this time of year can be a moment like some of us use meditation, prayer or any other kind of ritual — to refresh, re-orient, re-root ourselves in this value of treasuring others.

And, of course I am available to make something custom (email me ASAP so we have time!), or you can pick from any one of my designs or art-printed “swag” online (one friend bought this for his Mom one year).


BUT, I’m honestly just as happy if you seek out any other local visual, musical, or crafty-type artist and let them partner with you to make something original for your loved one. You can start by doing a quick mental inventory – “Who do I know that can… (draw / paint / craft / etc.)



And, for added inspiration, here are a few pictures other I’ve made over the years:


made for my father – a portrait of the two of us. (watercolor + pencil)


a portrait of a friend’s mother, based on a photo of her when she was young. (oil on canvas)


Drawing from a photo I took in Indianapolis. I made this for my Mom, as this young woman’s obvious love for her daughter and her daughter’s curiosity remind me of our relationship. (pen + ink)


A gift for my friend Catherine, after thinking on her “essence” and knowing that her favorite animal is a unicorn. This kind of evolved as I drew it. She absolutely loved it! (pen + ink)


My family tree – made for my grand-mother, with copies for each of my family — our family tree. I cherished this chance to celebrate my abundant family. (pen + ink)


I was commissioned to make this piece as a present for the client's fiance. We worked together to create a composite of four seasons' worth of photos of their "special spot" in the woods up in Illinois. (acrylic on canvas)

My brother-in-law commissioned me to make this as a present for my sister when they were still engaged. He and I worked together to create a composite of four seasons’ worth of photos of their “special spot” in the woods up in Illinois. (acrylic on canvas)


Relationships are woven with the time, care and thought we put into them–and the world is made of relationships. Creating custom gifts, either ourselves or in partnership with a gifted “maker” who can help us bring our ideas to life, is a great way to infuse new vital energy into your relationships. In so doing, we are also building a great wealth of originality, authenticity and the spirit of creating on a micro-local level that can not only transform our immediate personal bonds but also help shift our common culture from dependency to self-reliance and interdependence, from a consumer culture to a producer culture, and from separation to connection.

What greater gift is there to give?



Some Ideas for Original Visual Gifts:

  • A portrait of a special person or animal your loved one cares about (child, family photo, pet)
  • A painting of a special moment/memory, place, or thing they love (landscapes, trains, horses, etc. etc.)
  • Their favorite quote – original or borrowed – decorated with related illustration
  • A figurative portrait of them (like the unicorn above)
  • A family or “friend” tree  (Yes, I just made that up. Why not?)

If you have an image in mind and would like something of mine, hit me up — I might have something not pictured in my website that would fit perfectly.

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5 Ways to Reclaim the Holidays ~ from Consumers to Producers


source: April Doner

“Angels we have heard on high,
tell us to go out and buy”

So goes Tom Lehrer’s “A Christmas Carol,” which rings strangely relevant today despite the fact that it was written over 50 years ago.

As Lehrer says, “Christmas time is here, by golly.”

And, if you’re anything like me, your life is pre-tty full. And as the holidays descend, announced  by the presence in all stores of X-mas decorations, deals, and constant piped-in carols since before Thanksgiving is even here (really!?!), there are so many things that make even the idea of rustling up gifts for all the people in your life just make you want to groan.


  • How suuuper commercialized Christmas has become. It can be hard to get excited about giving when it just seems to be about filling company coffers.
  • Time.  Keeping up with everything life throws at us is never easy. Add the obligatory Christmas parties AND  the time to pick out knick knacks and think hard enough to make them thoughtful knick knacks, and you just want to throw your hands up and disappear until January 15 of next year.
  • Money.  Stuff costs money, am-i-right?Buying lots of new stuff can seriously strain the budget. As relatives and friends have babies, there seem to be MORE gifts than ever to buy.
  • Knowing what to get.  Face it — you can’t give them that fancy candle or socks AGAIN this year. They’ll know you’re on auto-pilot! How to nail that authentic, truly thoughtful gift that won’t leave you feeling kind of ashamed when you give it?

I try not to let the environment dictate what I do or how I feel about something. So, if–like me–you’re feeling stressed, reluctant, or overwhelmed at the mere thought of that gift list, try this with me:

Let’s reclaim the holidays. Let’s make them something we want them to be. Let’s tap into our ingenuity and that of the people around us to make this a season we can look back and say, like ol’ Blue Eyes, “I did it my waaaaay.”

By doing this, we can rewrite the narrative that the work of community-building thought leaders John McKnight and Peter Block recently pointed out in their book An Other Kingdom is slowly robbing our lives, neighborhoods and cities of joy, power and well-being: the illusion that what we have, make, and are is and will never be enough, and that only that which we can buy or pay others to do for us holds true value. That it’s what outside rather than inside us or our communities that counts, and we are most powerful as consumers, clients and customers rather than as citizens (ie. individuals with the power to create our future together with others), neighbors, and producers.

How? Mother Theresa is credited with saying:

“It’s not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.”
― Mother Teresa

Perhaps we can reclaim Christmas by coming up with practical, fun ways to re-inject this obligatory buy-fest with that magic ingredient we all truly crave, and which I believe is the original spirit of the holiday: Love.

Here are 5 ideas I’ve learned through my own experimentation and through the modeling of my awesome community-building mother (the queen of making parties & re-gifting!) and many friends, neighbors and colleagues in the world of asset-based community development.


What are people making in your neighborhood, town or city? Your locally bought gift will automatically gain love/value points because seeking out something locally that relates to a person on your list takes time and effort–and, you can probably accompany the giving with a great story about finding item and meeting its maker. Not only that, you gain value by getting out into your community and learning what’s out there, building relationships with all the productive, creative folks out beyond your doorstep. (Read: increased love all around!)

[A breakdown of how focusing your gift-hunt locally can enrich your gifts and life: First, you’ll add to your inventory of resources by discovering some really cool things and makers in your area you didn’t know about before. Second, you’ll generate good-will with someone in your community, which not only makes you feel good but also tends to show up again down the road as a kindness, savings, or benefit of some kind coming back to you. Local makers value their customers way more than any large chain ever truly can, because you make up such a larger proportion of their revenue–aka survival–and because they get to meet you face to face. Third, getting out for a local gift hunt gives you a chance to bump into people you know in town, or meet new people during the process. And, last but not least, you’ll feel the satisfaction that you are doing something tangible with one of the most powerful tools we have (our money!) to strengthen the health of your community’s economy. New research has demonstrated that money spent at locally-owned businesses is “twice as efficient as keeping the local economy alive.”]

>> Action tips:
Find a Neighborhood Maker. Ask the busy-body on your block or in your neighborhood, “Do we have anyone who makes stuff in our neighborhood?” Or, if you already know some neighbors, think about whether you know something already they can make, or just ask them if they know anyone. As Jamie Arwin Ricci says, “When we discover the true richness of our neighborhoods- the vast and amazing potential- it becomes clear that we could fill many lifetimes within the boundaries of a few blocks. And that is more than enough.”

Hit up your local Farmer’s Market.  You can generally find all kinds of packaged fancy foods, home-made niceties like candles, toys, body products, etc. there. Some cities even have multiple markets, so you might even be able to find one super close to home. (We now have three in Sarasota:  Downtown Farmer’s Market, Newtown Nation Farmer’s Market, Central Sarasota Farmer’s Market)



Find an Indie-Market near you.  A quick google search of “indie craft show (insert your town/city here)” should turn you up something, or ask any well-connected friend-about-town and they can probably steer you toward a great spot teeming with locally crafted, highly creative goodies of all kinds made with love by creative, often young entrepreneurs who you’ll enjoy meeting and be doing a great service to by patronizing.  Here’s my favorite local one:  Atomic Holiday Bazaar (they even have Derby Girls!).

Bring a friend. Everything’s better together, right? Discover your town together and make some new memories.


(2.)  MAKE IT!

I don’t know about you, but most hand-made things are SO much more meaningful to me as gifts than those that are store-bought. Granted, your nephew might throw a fit if he doesn’t get that particular video game or new device on his list… but, apart from those exceptions, many more people than we might assume will appreciate a gift made by your very own loving hands.

Often, time can be a barrier to making gifts. But consider this: when I think about something I’m good at and genuinely enjoy doing (for me: art, photography, and cooking), spending time using those talents to make gifts becomes something that has other added benefits to my life and something I’m happy to make time for.

A lot of us either already have some time set aside in our lives for doing what we love, or we wish we did. Making gifts gives you an excuse to take that time that you want to take anyway, and develop a talent of yours by using it. And, in my experience, there’s very little more satisfying than putting my talents to use for the sake of making someone I love know how much I love them.


source: April Doner

>> Action tips:
Don’t think of yourself as talented? Phooey! Everyone has a gift. Even if it’s just something you personally love — like, if you love music, make everyone a Mix CD of your favorite songs. A friend of mine did that one year, and even this seemingly small and easy thing to make came across as such a unique, genuine gift that just re-enriched the friendship every time we listened to it.

Try this question on:  “What do you love doing so much that you lose track of time doing it?” How could you turn that into a gift to someone else? And if time is an issue, “How could you make a BUNCH of gifts at once in, say, an afternoon, using that gift?”  For example:  “I love to cook” –> Make everyone your favorite easy cookies or salad dressing.

If you’re still grasping for ideas, check out this great compilation of 100 Mind-Blowing DIY Christmas Gifts People Actually Want.


Say you have have loads of creativity, but very little cash on hand. Or you may have a great idea for some art, a song or a poem that would make Mom/Dad/Bro/Bestie’s day, but no art skills whatsoever. Take 10 minutes and think of the people in your circle who you can combine skills or resources with to make some completely unique, inherently thoughtful (because you put thought into making them) gifts.


>> Action tips:

Make a trade.  Collaborating opens the door to a beautiful old tradition that both saves money and enriches relationships: bartering! What could you trade with a maker you know for their creation(s)? Example: If you can write, ask your visually gifted friend to make you a border for your writing. If you’re good at making things pretty, maybe your friend who cooks will make you some goodies if you decorate your own bags, and some for the folks on their list too? Or, you could just offer to “pay” in the form of something you have or can do that they value–dog-walking, copy-editing, giving advice, etc. etc. Start the conversation, and see what synergy you find. You then walk away with an added value of an relationship of exchange and mutual delight that “keeps giving” after the holidays have passed. Not exactly the kind of thing that happens from your purchases at Target, right?

Throw a “Making Party.” Know someone who’s great at crafting? I do — her name’s Kari Bunker and she’s not only a genius artistic crafter *but* she loves breaking the process down for all us fumbly lay-people out there in a group setting. Call that person up and say, “Hey, let’s make stuff together for our Christmas list!” Invite some friends over, pump up your favorite Christmas (or anti-Christmas?) jams and have at it. You’ll not only get your list covered, but enjoy de-stressing with people you probably struggle to spend time with anyway. Or, if you have kids, or if your friends have kids, make it a multi-generational shindig that ends up bringing everyone closer together.


(4.)  RE-GIFT

I know, I know…  Re-gifting is supposed to be tacky. But hear me out. Have you ever really thought about this? What if we considered the impact that constantly producing more and more stuff as a society–a trend we support when we buy things new–is having on our planet, even on our psyche? And just think about all of the stuff sitting, perfectly useable, gathering dust on thrift stores or peoples’ closets because of this obsession of ours with “new.”

Maybe it’s because I’m the granddaughter of a dedicated scavenger (my paternal grandfather’s favorite spot was the dump), but I reject the idea that the very same object loses all value as gift the moment it’s unwrapped and becomes “used.” (I mean, unless we’re talking underwear.)

Pretty much all of us have some stuff laying around ready for the thrift store. A lot of that stuff is practically new, right? So maybe, just maybe, we could entertain Mother Theresa’s wise words that it’s the love that counts, the thought in choosing it and the intention behind it–not the newness.

It’s up to you to divulge your gifts’ new/used status upon their giving, but whatever you choose, you’ll know when you’re wrapping and handing over that re-purposed book, scarf, notebook, earrings that something connected to someone you love is going into the life of someone else you love. And, you’ll have saved that thing from going to a thrift store where it’ll have no sentimental value for anyone.

>> Action tips:

Gather all that stuff that’s lost its usefulness (for you) and look at it. Let yourself imagine who in your life would just love it? If it doesn’t come to right away, give it a few days. Ask a family member or friend for help brainstorming.

Hold a “Swap Party” with your neighbors, friends, or both to swap treasures where you can discover “another man’s (or woman’s) treasure” from each other’s stuff over snacks and refreshments?  (For help: “How to Host a Swap Party”)




For Christmas this year, I’m giving my Mom an hour of labor in her yard. Yes, really. Over Thanksgiving, we were talking about how tired we are of traditional gift-shopping and came up with this solution. These days, time is truly precious–so what could be more meaningful than giving it as a gift? It will help you make your relationships a priority and re-ground them in that beautiful, irreplaceable realm of physical, face-to-face nearness that seems in such short supply in our social-media-ed times.

How about giving a Walk on the Beach, a Night at the Movies, or Help Doing A, B, or C that your loved one needs? You can even offer an open ticket for one or two hours of time doing anything at all they would like to do with you.

>> Action tips:
Sit down, look at your X-mas shopping list and think of things you could give each person in the form of time… What do you both love doing? What do  they need help with? What have always said you want to do together one day?

Put it in Writing and wrap it up!  You could use this handy Certificate Maker to give your gift form, buy an inexpensive but nice-looking envelope or folder at your local office supply store, and wrap it up!  (It took me literally two minutes to make this one):



These are just some ideas…  the possibilities for using the holidays as an excuse for generating the more profound, expansive wealth of relationship and community are pretty much endless. And in our trying, we can contribute not only to a greater sense of connectedness, but to the spread of a culture of hospitality, one of the greatest treasures of all.

In the words of my friend Howard Lawrence, founder of the Abundant Community Initiative,

“The practice of local hospitality in our society will tend to be rejected as of little consequence. We look for value or fulfillment through participation in earthshaking events or significant cultural moments. This can cripple us. It is possible that this small thing ironically will bring the greatest impact. Hospitality is a practice and discipline that asks us to do what in the system’s eyes might seem inconsequential but from the perspective of well-being, is monumental. This breaking bread among neighbors may well be the essence of what it means to be human.”


source: April Doner

What ways have you found to reclaim the holidays for you, your family or neighborhood? Please share!


Related Blogs:

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Shock and Resilience, in Squirrel Form



Feeling grateful to have met this little creature today and had the unique opportunity to spend time with a “wild” being. Like many of us of late, he/she was in shock – in its case, my slinky black cat had somehow caught him by the neck and brought it into the house (quite proud and excited).

With a torn heart (i do respect a hunter’s right to its prey… but I can’t just let a creature die a few feet away from me) I extricated it from Solomon’s jaws, and little thing just wouldn’t move, tho I know its neck wasn’t broken. So I put it gently into a Tupperware with a soft dishrag just beside my work station in the study, periodically petted it and just stayed with it.

Then Trae walked in and went to pet it and WHOA! Little thing shot up and began fireballing around the room, from chair rim to daybed to desk edge to right behind the printer… Where it stopped and just kinda hunkered down. One minute ago running away, now it let me put my hands around it and pick it up. I carried the sweet creature thru the wooden gate, to the yard and out to the big tree where I heard (maybe?) its little cousins or sisters cawing up above in their scratchy squirrel way, perhaps lamenting the assumed death of their kin, snatched by a black cat. It laid inert in my grasp until its toes touched tree trunk, then SHOOP, up it went!

Free and hopefully happy, and hopefully not too traumatized.

This revival is what I’m 100% committed to hastened for my country, which I love, and which is suffering.

Thanks little buddy for gracing my day.


More election reflections coming soon…

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A Bloggy Conundrum

OK y’all, this is an audience participation blog.  Get ready to share!

I’ve been grappling with a conundrum of late, and am at that point of inner stalemate that begs for outside feedback.


As my husband and I have gotten settled here in Florida, I’ve been getting greater clarity on my own aspirations and directions.  As that happens and as I dive newly headlong into my two passions of Community-Building / Neighborhood Organizing and Art, I’d like to share the journey as well as the resources, victories, insights and neat things I find along the way by “re-upping” my blogging to a consistent, rich flow of content.

BUT — I keep getting caught up in this big thorny question:

Up until now, my blog ( has embraced multiple topics, generally being around “Community Building/ Social Change / Asset-Based Neighborhood Organizing / Citizenship” OR around “Art / Being an Artist / Storytelling.”

Should split these into two separate blogs? Or can they coexist organically under one bloggy umbrella home, and still make sense?

I’ve done a bunch of research and have found arguments and also examples which would support both answers…   

Blog Conundrum_LR

Here’s why I haven’t thus far:

  1. Most of my readers come via knowing me, and as such seem to enjoy seeing stuff that reflects both sides of who I am.
  2. I think these topics can often overlap–ie. these two practices, like others, when done well, reveal similar patterns and lessons and sometimes pose similar struggles.  Plus art is very important to community-building/social change, and I see my life as a big petri dish for learning how.
  3. Some reason that’s hard to articulate…  perhaps that I like synthesis over separation?  I like all these things to have one “home” together.

As I move forward, I’d like to start producing with consistency this particular kind of content:

  • Interviews with amazing people doing amazing things in the above fields mentioned.
  • Going deeper into the intersection between neighborhood connectivity / organizing and systemic economic change.
  • My own stories of experimentation in seeking, revealing and connecting abundance in my own community.
  • The art I’m producing, with requests for feedback from other artists, or anyone really.
  • Research and experiments in the space between artistic storytelling and creative social change.


Do you see these things working under one cyber-roof?  Or should one of these areas perform its own (non-catastrophic) “Blexit”?

AND, of course, please share any ideas on other kinds of posts you’d like to see, or suggestions for making my blog great.


Ideas – Suggestions – GO!!!!!

Posted in Being an Artist, Building Community, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Sketch: Fandango Jazz

Two months ago, I bought a cute red sketchbook… it’s taken me that long to crack it open.  I’ve been knowing I need, “one day,” to get back to one of the things that I never needed to be taught…  art — and that to be serious about art, I need to be drawing and learning from life all the time.


I’ve come to realize that yes, I can be a good photographer, I could learn video and do that well, and I can do graphic recording well, and get even better…  but I never feel as alive, powerful, contributive and authentically me as when I’m doing straight-up art (or building community!).

So steps must be taken!  And I’m now committing myself to sketching regularly.  I love this little book which is not only my favorite color, but fits so easily into my purse.


Here’s one of my first sketches since this re-start: from a delightful evening watching my friend Thomas Carabasi perform in the ‪#‎FandangoJazzTrio‬ together with Mike Ross & LaRue Nickelson at Fandango Cafe in Sarasota (It’s just a block away from a house I once lived in, years ago. They have a killer Mediterranean menu, by the way, and I highly recommend it!)


I love pen and find it especially fun to draw musicians — their creativity embodied energizes me, and I feel like I’m drawing something divine…  Plus, instruments always look cool. (Tom is not pictured… ran out of time to capture him :p)

You can see a recording of the performance on the Fandango Facbook page for July 3, and catch this great trio every Saturday night at 7:30. Good music is alive in Sarasota!


I like the sketch, but do feel I could have capture more of the gestures of the guys, and taken the shading to a more impactful level.  Feedback welcomed!

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First i-Pad Sketch!

Yesterday, we invested in an i-Pad.  I’m NOT a fan of touch-screen, mainly because I’m a major creature of habit, but I could see some potential for using this technology for live graphic recording that can be quickly projected in a group gathering and perhaps adding some magic (and perhaps doing graphic recording for webinars…?)

Today I tried my hand at sketching, as kitty Solomon slept cozily on the daybed.  Here’s what came out:





  • I still think there’s something powerful about touching actual pen to actual paper…  the scratching of material on material, the need to watch not getting ink on your hands, the attunement of self to the physical world we inhabit. If an art teacher I admire’s belief that art is “learning from Life,” it still feels true to me that staying in touch with life’s physicality in the way we draw is somehow important. This is a gut kind of feeling and I’m not quite sure how to articulate it.
  • That said, it also is never a bad thing to have more skills. And I certainly won’t knock any artist who chooses this form over good old pen/brush on paper/wood/whatever.
  • The technology IS quite impressive!  Especially the water-color feature.
  • A very random, lovely thing happened when I shared this on Facebook:

Solomon Sleeps _Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 4.37.00 PM



Have you played with i-Pad / tablet sketching and found anything out?

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Graphic Notes: “Make Every Connection Count”

I got some very encouraging ideas and examples from some dynamic, heart-centered and successful business-ladies today!


Here are my notes fromWomen With Moxie International Network‘s webinar, “Making Every Connection Count.”




My favorite things:

  • COMBINE ACTIVITIES ~ find something you enjoy doing and invite someone along. Like, if you walk every day, invite a different person each day. Nurturing our relationships naturally leads to opportunities, and we can do it while authentically valuing the people in our network.
  • There was a great back-and-forth around “removing negativity,” and being willing to cease our relating with people we don’t feel are engaging with US authentically…  I appreciated one speaker’s point that too often, we as women don’t communicate with each other when something rubs us the wrong way, and in doing this we end up sacrificing relationships to pent up frustrations/judgments and also missing an opportunity to give really helpful feedback. In the business world, she stressed, you say what needs to be said for the sake of the working relationship.  Too often, women talk about someone or silently judge, but don’t just have a straightforward conversation–one which could greatly help the other woman see herself and how she’s coming across. (For instance, those colleagues who only seem to reach out to you when they want to market their business). This made me really reflect on my own habits and recognize quite a bit of truth in this!


Thank you Dill Ward for your great work!!! I hope these notes can be helpful to the other participants and to your network 🙂


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The Keepers & the Makers

The tradition with me and my folks is that, come Mother’s / Father’s Day, Xmas, and sometimes birthdays, I draw them something.

The themes vary…  sometimes, it’s a drawing based on a meaningful photo.  More often, it’s my own drawn response to something in our relationship, or something that’s been going on in their lives recently.

My Mom and I have many more “deep personal” conversations than my Dad and I, so when it comes time to make art for Dad, it sometimes takes a bit more feeling / teasing out, or just letting go and making something even I don’t have a good interpretation for.

For this Father’s Day, however, Dad unknowingly gave me some great, rich material to work from.  It happened during a phone call about a week before, while I was driving home from Anderson, IN.  My favorite talks with him are his stories, and this time what he ended up sharing was an especially rare kind of story involving his father.

My Dad  (photo pictured by Luca Guarneri)

My Dad (photo pictured by Luca Guarneri)

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I never met my grandfather, Don Doner, but have heard many stories.  (Neat fact: the men on my Dad’s side go “John, Don, John, Don, John” generationally.)   He grew up humbly in Toledo, OH. All suggest that he was a man of high intellectual caliber, rogue independent spirit, great inventiveness and musical ability (he played 8 instruments).  He gardened, knew electrical work, carpentry and general fix-it-try.  People-wise, Don related better to his rooster, Blackie, than most human beings, and was a “doer” with a great many pursuits and projects going on at any one time.

Anyway, that day while we talked, Dad began telling me about the time in college that he got a super well-paying summer job that enabled him to get enough money (and courage) together to propose to my Mother.  He was hired by his father’s friend who owned a roofing company to help with overflow repairs from a recent tornado’s wake.  (“If it wasn’t for that tornado, you might not be alive!” he joked.)

Thanks to his father, my Dad was already handy enough to be open to learn roofing on-the-fly.  Also thanks to his father, he had his own abundant supply of shingles in all shapes and sizes at his disposal, thanks to his dad’s habit of collecting any and all things that might one day be useful to someone.  Today, I think we call these people “hoarders.”

We also talked about his Dad’s habit of collecting things — building stuff, electronics stuff,  random stuff.  I’ve always loved (in a jealous kind of way) Dad’s stories of accompanying his father on trips to the City dump, which in that day was open to anyone who wanted to come pick through what people threw away.  Together they discovered treasures galore — the most darnedest things! — and took them home to give them new life (or to sit in waiting for the day they could be useful).

This tendency came in handy all the time, when you could just go down to the basement or out to the shed because Don had put that exact size screw or wire or piece of wood aside several months ago, “in case.”  And of course, it came in especially handy for my Dad’s summer roofing job.

Dad also told me — and I think he got that little emotional frog in his throat at this point — about how his father, busy as he was, would never fail to drop whatever he was doing at the time if he saw my young Dad stuck in one of his own tinkerings.  (My Dad, when little, loved to take things apart and reassemble them, play with chemicals, etc. etc.)  He shared how much that means to him, thinking back now.




My Dad (lower) and his Dad, tempting fate on a mad mission to fix their antenna.


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My father’s father, of course, was of the generation that had lived through a war (or two?), and had come to appreciate the value of things through experiencing a scarcity of them.  As an outgrowth of that, he held fast to that spirit I find so beautiful of hearty do-it-yourself-ism — of making and doing, (and always being ready to build the skills to do so) and of keeping.

Dad has carried on many of his father’s gifts (but, I am told, is much better at talking to humans than his Dad was) and absorbed his spirit.  I grew up knowing the smell of sawdust from my Dad’s shed as he built things we needed around the house, and there was always some kind of invention (or four) in the works on one corner of his (hand-built) big workbench in the garage.  And, Dad always invited me, if I showed interest, in the process of his creations and experiments.

These stories move me because I feel this spirit in my veins.  Even as a kid, I found myself scavenging, like Dad and Granddad, though my source was the dumpster at my school and I had to be more covert in my lust for reclaiming rejected things than my predecessors.  I now struggle to fit that kind of lifestyle into this day and age, pushed as we are to see buying something new as better than renewing something old, or making something yourself…  or, if you’re making it yourself, gargantuan companies like Home Depot have created the perfect way to get you spending, rather than saving, lots of money consuming their version of DIY.

Knowing my father’s stories and spirit, and having climbed down into my father’s father’s basement — packed with needful things in ordered stacks, shelves, drawers of all sizes — I long to revive a culture of keeping, building, sharing, making as a way of life, not just a trend or fad.

Mixing this in with the also much-forgotten (but re-birthing) art of neighboring, what are the possibilities if we switched our lens on those people we now label “hoarders” and make sad TV Shows about…    what if the neighborhood hoarder were our neighborhood collector, and we new and valued them enough to know we could stop by if we’re in need of that random thing they very well may have, like my father’s father, stowed away for that “what if” day?

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So, for Dad and his Dad, I made this drawing.  And following is the interpretation I shared with him about the stories contained within…



I’m not sure if you can tell what’s going on in there, so here’s a summary:


I loved the story you told me about how your father would always drop what he was doing to help you with something you were trying to learn. So on the left of the picture, there’s you and your Dad (I don’t really know what he looked like) in the basement and he’s helping you with something you’ve been taking apart and trying to understand and put back together again.


The second scene is you and him at the dump. I always loved your stories about going there with him, partly because it made me realize how similar we are as “dumpster diving”- and the spirit of valuing things that others have ceased to see the value in–has always been one of my unshakeable habits. 


Bottom right there’s me, and those habits/values- of keeping things for when they’re need, of doing things yourself- that I’m grateful to have inherited from you and your father… There’s also the life I’m imagining and wanting to build-up where kids can run free together in their own neighborhoods. 


The rope looking thing, the hand (top right), the plant (more top right) are all kinda symbols of those things… And the rope thing also symbolizes lives, heritage, our shared story, and maybe DNA (now that I think about it).
Thank you for all you’ve passed down to me.  Hopefully someday soon you can be sharing your knowledge on how things work with a new little Doner 🙂


One of my favorite pieces of writing is this speech, entitled “Community Capacities and Community Necessities,” from one of my first community-building mentors, John McKnight — who helped found a movement to revitalize our forgotten ways of neighboring, DIY’ing and creating now known as Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD).


An excerpt:

“Ours is the movement of abundance. There is no limit to our gifts, our associations, and our hospitality.

We have a calling. We are the people who know what we need. What we need surrounds us. What we need is each other. And when, we act together, we will find Our Way. The citizen’s way. The community way. The democratic way. We are called to nothing less. And it is not so wild a dream.”

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“Close enough”

Today as I was running errands, I caught some of Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” on the radio. In today’s installment, Gross interviewed Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist who has been shooting in war zones for over 10 years and, after surviving two kidnappings, just came out with a new memoir.

Lynsey Addario, İstanbul Turkey, 17.10.2009

What struck me from the interview, besides how rich and strangely engaging someone’s voice can be after so many harrowing periods of immersion into mankind’s most brutal places, spaces and  moments, was a quote she shared from famous Magnum photographer Robert Capa:

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Addario added that there are two ways you can read into this quote. “I always read into it more as not only physically close but emotionally close. And I think, as a photographer it’s very important to get emotionally close to your subjects and to really just break down those walls that exist between a photographer and anyone–because the minute you introduce a camera into any scene, people become aware of that and they become uncomfortable and a bit rigid. So it’s only with time and with feeling comfortable with someone that that goes away.”

She shared a story of spending two months with the 173rd Airborne troop, at the end of which they experienced an ambush from three sides in which three soldiers and the Sergeant were killed–an extremely sensitive moment to have photographers around.  In shock and mourning, these soldiers granted her permission when she asked if she could photograph them and their wounded or fallen comrades.

“Everyone was crying I was crying, and they said ‘Yes’ — and I think that was one of those moments that I was close enough, because I had put the time in and I cared and they were comfortable with me being there, and I’m not sure if that would have happened if I had just shown up the day before.”

"Veiled Rebellion" by Lynsey Addario. source:

“Veiled Rebellion” by Lynsey Addario. source:


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For quite awhile now, I’ve been trying for awhile to figure out what kind of photographer I am, and this quote and story helped reaffirm my desire to make my photography always complementary to and, in a way, secondary to my work in/focus on building community, relationships and connection.

One of my greatest fears as a storyteller is to create harm or distance with my desire to document… especially in situations in which people who look like me have come before me and taken advantage of or otherwise harmed people who have been somehow marginalized.

And I’m not sure there is a way around that without taking Capa’s quote in the way Addario does — to mean genuine emotional closeness to the point that your intentions and your caring for you subject is understood.

My mother’s dear friend Mike died two nights ago. She had been the best of friends to him as he faced cancer and all that comes with it.  She shared his death with me over the phone and was at peace with it, since he had fortunately gone gradually with plenty of time for him and those around him to come to terms with the reality of it all.

Mom relayed Mike’s words during their very last talk:

“None of it matters, Kathy–the stuff, the things, the money, even the travel.  None of that matters.  The only things that really matter are friends and family.”

It’s so easy to fall in love with ideas and with the roles we have picked out for ourselves. But even those will fade, and what will be left is how we connected–or didn’t connect–with the humans we encountered while playing, constructing and reconstructing those roles through our lifetime.  And, ironically, the degree to which we do connect often decides how good our work is (Addario and Capa’s point).

I’m grateful today to the courageous Ms. Addario, who puts herself in harm’s way repeatedly to bear witness to the costs and baffling realities of war and war zones, for sharing this simple truth with me.  What matters is the friendship behind the work, behind the picture.  It reminds me not to spend my energy worrying about doing harm and instead to point it toward connecting, for real–putting in the time, knowing and being known.

my friends Nashae and her mom, Latoya, at Broadway Church (2013)

my friends Nashae and her mom, Latoya, at Broadway Church (2013)

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Polka Rising / Our Leadership Lens

I love when a new generation grabs onto old traditions and swings them back into life.  I love even more when they don’t grab it so hard that the older generations get left by the wayside.

I was stoked, therefore, to learn last year during a visit to Cleveland that the age-old practice of Polka is being dance merrily by young and old alike — in the same places, on the same nights — all across the city.  It happened over just a few years and, if you ask a lot of the people in the know, they’ll point to one guy:  DJ Kishka.

Here is an interview with some such folks, including Mr. Kishka himself, gathered at Grassroots Grantmakers’ “On the Ground” anti-conference in Cleveland last September.

It came about when, on the first night of the conference, a few attendees were dancing Polka with some fully-regaled locals in the meeting hall after dinner as Polka music bounced through the air.  I knew no Polka, but love to dance, and a young woman seemed to notice.  She had a cute white dress on, short blond hair, a friendly face, and a sash that said “Miss Dingus 2014.”  I gladly accepted her offer to teach me.  I learned pretty quickly and, surprised to see such a young person dancing such an old dance, asked how this was possible.  She shared about the amazing revival of this tradition in latter years there in Cleveland.

“How did this happen?” I asked.

“That guy,” Miss Dingus answered, pointing to the long-legged fellow perched happily in the corner of the room behind a card-table, donning a giant curly grey beard, old German-syle hat with his hands on the music machine.  This, apparently, was DJ Kishka and he had started it all.

I wandered some more and later saw the fully-Polka-costumed other young person from earlier, a young man with a (real) beard and dancing, smart eyes.  He runs a radio show that plays Polka.  I asked him if it was true that this DJ Kishka fellow has been so instrumental in unleashing a whole new Polka culture across Cleveland.  He not only affirmed the charges, but went on to rave about what a humble, dedicated and all-around great guy DJ Kishka is.

Wow!  I was blown away.  So I grabbed a quick interview with Miss Dingus and, despite the late hour, the super friendly DJ Kishka and his greatest fan, Andrew the Mailman.

I love this story for its timeless message of how much one person’s passion and perseverance, by unleashing the same in others, can ripple out and change things not just for them but for a community, city, and maybe even the world.

I love that DJ Kishka, an unassuming vegan catering owner, created this wave of polka love without really meaning to.  It speaks so much to how change can happen from the bottom up — through that spark of enthusiasm any person might carry and their decision to turn that enthusiasm into action.  It’s a great illustration of stuff discussed in one of my favorite books, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed.

I must also add that I think change happens just as much because of those who respond to the actions of the person who often gets given all the credit – those who this brilliant video about leadership calls “the First Followers.”  Folks experimenting and pioneering in generative journalism have told me how much they’re looking to tell a narrative that’s different than the same old “Single Leader” story in their journalism.

If we look at this story of what seems like “Single Hero” change with a slightly different lens, we can see that the loving memory of Polka-dancing has revived thanks just as much to the actions of the many people who added to the momentum in their own unique ways — “First (or Second, or 30th) Followers” like this video’s other characters Miss Dingus Day and Andrew the Mailman.

Technical Note:  Please excuse the camera shakes. These are the fruit of my first forays into shooting and editing video.  Feedback is WELCOMED!!!

Tell me…

What would you love to unleash in your city?  Or how are you supporting something you care about in a way that, like Polka in Cleveland, could become a cool new viral thing that makes life better for your city?

What do you think the story and the Dancing Guy video say about leadership?  How do they compare to your own experiences?

What kinda hoaky, yet adorable, traditions did you enjoy from your family?  (mine:  Prarie Home Companion)


Posted in Building Community, Local Events, Music, People Who Inspire Me, Public Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment