Need to Nomad Blog

Undo Your Doodle Lobotomy

Doodle Nomad

When did you have your doodle lobotomy?  Mine occurred in English class during my senior year of high school. 

"Are we boring you, Ms. Kenney?"

Sneaking a quick side glance as I raise my head, I find myself looking into the stern grimace of my English teacher.  A searing embarrassment sets in as I realize my classmates are snickering. I set my pen down in a nonchalant gesture, and with a fluid motion lay my forearm across my doodles. 

"No, ma'am. I'm listening." 

"Then please repeat for the class what we are discussing."

To her shocked amazement, I recount the mind-numbing discussion about the alliterative structure of Beowulf, the epic poem written in Old English sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries.   Haha! I was listening to your boring lecture AND doodling. Yet, for many years after, I resist the temptation to doodle in public, fearing a repeat of the gut wrenching shame of being called out in front of my classmates or colleagues.

Even as a high school student I understood the power of THE DOODLE.  Imagine my recent delight when I ran across an authoritative 2009 academic study on the subject published in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology.  Based on her findings, the researcher Jackie Andrade lends supporting evidence to the hypothesis that doodlers have better recall of boring materials than non-doodlers!  I am vindicated times two, first in 1981 by my Beowulf-recall prowess, and once again in 2012 as I read this gem of a research article!


Why is doodling effective at improving recall? According to the journal article, doodling requires very few executive resources but just enough cognitive effort to keep you from day dreaming. How cool is that? So next time you find yourself in a "blah blah blah" meeting, allow yourself the advantage of doodling, in public, unashamed. Doodle about the meeting topic, doodle a caricature of the presenter, doodle straight exacting lines to see how close you can get without touching two lines together. Just doodle!  And, if you happen to be called on it, you now have the force of academia behind you.  

I started using structured doodles to cultivate my creativity. Mind blocks happen to us all, and I decided to tackle a particularly persistent spell with half inch doodle drawings.  I figured if I could fill in a half inch square, creating something from nothing, I must have a reserve of creativity somewhere inside me just waiting to be tapped. Blank pages are scary, whether you are drawing, painting, or writing.  BLANK PAGES are so BLANK! My first step was to create a 5 inch by 5 inch grid, with dots marking every half inch, thus filling my BLANK page with 100 half inch squares.  Every time I sat down at my desk to write, my first exercise was to see how many doodle squares I could fill in.  Some days my efforts only resulted in one simplistic square, yet others resulted in a thematic free association that hopped from one square to the next to the next.  

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I found myself scanning my desk, book case, lawn, memories, photographs, flowers, searching for an interesting idea to doodle into that tiny little half inch square. No matter how many squares I completed, the result was amazingly the same. My sense of achievement magnified my energy, ideas, and excitement, all of which transferred into whatever I set about doing next.  Creativity is an energy multiplier, and this "thumbnail therapy" helped me tap into my hidden energy source!  

Let your doodler doodle. Use free association as a means of tapping into your own hidden energy reserve.  Exercise your mind to push through whatever your own block may be. Whether you doodle as a memory strategy to get through a tedious blah blah meeting or to tap into your own creativity, find your DOODLE.  Don't let the doodle lobotomist win … get your DOODLE back and have some fun!

Desert Tragedies …


"Burro Bend ... where buggies and bikes do it all night".  Just my luck to be stranded in the "Sand Buggy and Motorcycle Capital of the World".  To my left, a sun bleached cork board exhibits photographs of mostly human charred remains in pathetic desert death poses. A hand-written sign declares the photo montage "Desert Tragedies". Having hitchhiked from our stranded Alfa Romeo in the heat of the Anza-Borrego desert, it is our good fortune to have escaped membership in this exclusive club.

Elephant knees

On the counter is my worn copy of Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, open to the section on Mud Hills Wash. The page describes the "undulating landscape of mud hills, glistening with chips of gypsum" above which rise Elephant Knees butte. We simply must see Elephant Knees. We start out in the early morning, our destination the sandy plains west of the Salton Sea about 200 feet below sea level. A simple day hike, and we are armed with sunscreen, broad billed hats, plenty of water, and this guidebook in hand. As if foretelling our doom the first chapter begins, "This is the desert at its lowest, hottest, and - to the unappreciative eye - most unfriendly". Wish I had seen that before we started.


I should stop here to tell you that an Alfa Romeo is not ideal for off-roading. My gleaming white Alfa awaits rescue, cracked oil pan dripping the remains of her lifeblood onto tar and gravel. Indeed she bleeds for several miles during our desperate road race back to civilization, but the oil pressure bottoms out before we make it back to the two gas pumps, one phone booth, and small cafe at Burro Bend. 


In fact, several miles remain as we trudge along Route 78 searching the horizon ahead and behind us. At this stage any vehicle in either direction beats imminent disaster. The speck of a Jeep Wrangler grows near, our frantic waving arms hard to miss on this desolate stretch of road. I now understand the meaning of sheepish as we explain to the kind elderly couple why we are hitch hiking in the middle of the desert during the hottest part of the day, with a meager water supply and paperback book as our only possessions. The water, which seemed plentiful when we set out on our adventure, is almost gone. And the book, I inexplicably grabbed when we abandoned my beautiful Alfa, a desert tragedy in her own right.

Once safely out of the treacherous heat and sheltered in the dank atmosphere of the Burro Bend Cafe, we do what any thankful wanderer does in such dire circumstances.  Call a tow truck, order a double cheeseburger, and a large satisfying ice cold soda. The waitress shakes her head at our idiocy as we place our order for a thick slice of humble pie. We are not the first, nor will we be the last off-roading idiots to pass through the cafe doors. At least we didn't make it onto the "wall of flame". 

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Fast forward twenty years, and we find ourselves overlooking the Salton Sea from a northern perch atop Keys View, the highest car-accessible peak in Joshua Tree National Park.  After a day of intense hiking, we ascend in our rental car to 5,000 feet above sea level. The wind slices through my cotton blouse and khaki shorts, leaving me chilled, but reminiscing about that very different almost-hike from so long ago. Back in the car, I chuckle as I glance through the park brochure from the Visitor Center, which admonishes visitors to avoid off-roading. I assure you I don't have to be told twice. I know Elephant Knees is below, waiting for us. Someday I will return, and next time I will be ready.

Elephant Knees photo and quotes from Afoot and Afield in San Diego County by Jerry Schad, 1986, Wilderness Press, Berkeley CA


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Genealogy on the surface appears to be an odd juxtaposition to nomadism.  Symbolically, the “family tree” with its broad and ever expanding branches and deep reaching roots evokes a strong sense of “stayputtedness”.  Yet it taps into a profound source of energy, much like the abundant sugar maples being tapped during the winter-to-spring transition.  

My Nana, Helen Doucette Oxton lived to be ninety-nine.  From my perspective, she exuded seasoned wisdom, being the oldest and wittiest person I knew, yet the youngest spirit I ever met.  She passed away in 1995, when I was 32, which means my interactions with her spanned her mid-sixties forward.  Tall, slender, limber, funny, hard of hearing, her radiant personality brightened my days.  She always smelled of rosy talcum powder, with silky smooth papery skin.  

A treasured photograph shows her proud stance atop a striated stony ledge, decked out in practical hiking gear, and she jumps from the page in her exuberant youth.  The cocky tilt of her hat offsets her squared and determined jawline, and speaks to me of the powerful catalyst she continues to be in my mind.  Fast forward seventy-plus years, from that autumnal perch to her final days, and you know there was a lot of living in between.  

Recently, I found myself within 30 miles of the old family homestead near Montville Center, Maine.  Exploring the Camden coastline, I realized that my grandparents’ farmhouse, a place I visited in my youth, must be somewhere around these parts.  Pricking my inner nomad, and knowing Nana was buried in a small cemetery close by, my mission became to find that gravesite!  And so my intellectual nomad kicked in and sprinted off.  

First, the phone calls to my father, Aunt Diane, and Aunt Helene.  Where was Nana’s grave?  Directions such as “it’s just off Route 3, you remember the turn-off?”, and “just beyond the chicken farm” and “a left turn at the gravel drive before the bend in the road” didn’t really help at the time, but I dutifully wrote everything down. I had vague shadowed memories of previous visits, but nothing of substance to hang these suggestions upon.  Where to go from here?  

I recalled that my sister, Kathy, had taken an old genealogy chart I created for a college class assignment, and loaded the details into the website. So I climbed our electronic family tree to shake it down for answers, hoping clues would, like ripened Macintosh apples, be ready for my picking. Remarkably, within an hour, a hint emerged that tied Nana’s second husband to someone elses family tree, clearly a distant relative I knew nothing about. Attached to his name was a photograph of the entry gate to Greenwood Cemetery, an image etched into my memory from Nana's funeral in 1995. 

And so we visited on a beautiful Sunday morning during Memorial Day weekend 2012.  In a remote resting place between Augusta and Belfast “just off Route 3”, northwest on Thompson Ridge Road, “just beyond the chicken farm” at “a left turn at the gravel drive before the bend in the road” I arrived at my nomadic destination.  How could seemingly meaningless hints suddenly make total and complete sense? Everything fit. 

My determination deepened as we searched for the headstone of Helen Oxton.  

“Over here!”, an excited shout came from my daughter, Sarah. “I found her!”.  And so we stood in reverent silence, bestowing our love and gratitude. I sensed that I represented these sentiments for my entire family.  Nana meant a great deal to me, even though our time together wasn’t voluminous.  She welcomed my mother with such grace into the Kenney family back in the 1960’s, responded to my letters when I wrote to her over the years, left me her rather large collection of pencil sketches, and expanded my ideas about staying young even in her 90’s.  What gratitude she evokes in me. My nomadic truimph complete, I relish the sweet realization that I had tapped my family tree and worked the sap into a sweet golden treasure.

You never made one for me …

P2040002After nearly twenty years of learning my beading craft, my husband comments, "You've never made anything like that for me."  Given that I have created hundreds of bead projects for many, many other people I am caught off guard by this unanticipated but accurate statement.  How could that be? I've made him jackets, cross-stitched a pipe-smoking Bowdoin polar bear for his birthday, created numerous photo montages for anniversaries and holidays.  Is it possible I never threaded a single bead for the man that I love?

At the start of my creative "Art Nomad" beading journey, I tended to stick with "simple" projects like a Christmas ornament drape.  While thumbing through a beading magazine in the mid-1990's, I remember seeing a lovely red Christmas ornament with a beaded drape, and I had to make one! The beautiful white beads cascaded down, while crystal dangles captured the sparkle of lights from the Christmas tree.  I set about to create my own, but something went terribly wrong … my drape was so narrow, the only thing I could do was use it as a "candle sock". But the Art Nomad does not give up. She continues forward. 


I moved on to silly little projects, like my "Wonder Woman" figure using large kiddie beads and wire. Not too difficult, and I had a great time being able to complete a project over a weekend.  I also discovered that my best creative hours are between 10 p.m. and midnight, when demands for my time are silenced by others nocturnal desire to sleep. Haha!


Over several years, I moved on to miniature beaded purses, lariats, necklaces, bracelets, bead tapestries, and ultimately working on a bead loom. I never counted my projects, nor did I chronicle them like I probably should have.  Only after several years of beading did I realize I should photograph my efforts. As my skills increased, my need to have a designated workspace grew as well. It is amazing how a little desk with several vials of beads has grown into a workshop with tens-of-thousands of beads awaiting my handiwork. 


I think the final prompt for my husband was my creation of a paisley bracelet for our youngest daughter when she went off to college this August. It is a magnificent creation*, if I do say so myself. The Art Nomad at her finest!  And yet with my husband's comment, I knew I needed to do something magnificent and one-of-a-kind to redress this "wrong".  My bad … 

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With this challenge in mind, I select the Man in the Maze design.  Not only is this one of his favorite designs, I think it captures a wonderful symbol of our own nomadic desire to move to Scottsdale.  The Man in the Maze is an ancient pattern from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community, intended to help children understand the meaning of life.  The maze itself represents our journey through life and the many choices we make in our search for physical, social, mental and spiritual balance.  The middle of the maze is where our dreams and goals are found, and according to legend, when we arrive at the center the sun god greets us, blesses us, and passes us into the next world. 

So here's my lesson learned. When pursuing our nomadic need to explore and create, figure out a way to incorporate the important relationships in our lives. By combining our artistic talent with our passion for a loved one, we have the potential to stretch our artistic expression beyond what we thought possible.  Short cuts I might have taken on a different project are not an option on this piece. I want it to be perfect. More than perfect, I want it to be unique and infused with love. And so it is!


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