Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

The Friday Loaf

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than five years since Sabbath in the Suburbs was released! I still hear from organizations who want me to come and speak on the topic, but I’m doing way less of that than I used to… (and more on improvisation as a spiritual practice!). As important as a regular time of rest and renewal is, I’m just not invested in the sabbath stuff at the moment. Part of that is to be expected—spiritual themes loom large in our lives for a while, then fade away in favor of other things—but my reluctance to speak about sabbath is about something else.

Sabbath has been really, really hard. For a while now.

Whenever I speak to groups about sabbath, I hope I’m crystal clear that while it’s a simple practice, it’s far from easy. The reason our family devoted ourselves to it for one year is because it took a concerted effort (and bounded time) to make it happen! Now our three kids are much older—one of them in high school, with all the projects and extracurriculars that entails, not to mention the fact that she’s not super into mom and dad these days.  When parents of teens would come up to me and say, “Yeah but…,” I knew they weren’t just rationalizing. It is hard. I knew it must be. But now I know it first hand. Add in a vocation that has me on the road many weekends, and getting into a regular rhythm is tough.

What to do?
The answer, at least for now, has been bread.

Last fall, I spoke at an event for the Women of Reform Judaism—my first interfaith speaking event, but I hope not my last. The event took place prior to a Friday Shabbat service, and was preceded by dinner, a joyful affair with ample loaves of golden braided challah on each table.


Friends know that whereas some of us live gluten-free, I like to joke that I am gluten-full. I run specifically so I can eat carbs, and I’m only half kidding about that. I adore bread, and challah is the crowning achievement of that ancient technology.

That night last November, sitting at table with the Women of Reform Judaism, I loved the sensory experience of breaking that bread together, smelling its yeasty goodness, and pulling apart spongy pillows of the stuff. “Taste and see that God is good,” indeed! (If you don’t love or can’t eat bread, I trust that you have other sensory and gustatory experiences that provide similar satisfaction and well-being. I’d love to know what they are! Coffee? Chocolate? A good nourishing soup?)

I recently found a bakery close to my home that makes fresh challah each Friday, so it’s been a weekly practice to go and grab a loaf. Some weeks it’s a frenetic challenge to get there in the afternoon. (I’ve also been known to buy a second loaf and freeze it if I suspect I won’t make it to the bakery.)

It feels very old fashioned, even extravagant, to run this extra errand to a specialty shop, a place where I can’t cross anything else off my list. Sometimes I chafe against this inefficiency, self-imposed though it may be.

But all of that falls away on Friday evening, which has become our family’s default sabbath time, and the challah is our sabbath marker. It’s the sign that family time, holy time, is beginning. I put out the loaf, on a cutting board with serrated knife, and children and spouse cut themselves generous slices when they come home from school and work. We have a simple meal, usually leftovers—often out of a can or a freezer container, to be honest—but the challah sets it apart.

In fact, maybe this practice of buying and savoring bread is a place where sabbath and improv come together. Our lives are always changing, and our practices must change as well. Improvising life means responding to things as they really are, not the way they used to be… or the way we wish they were. We’re finding our way into a new way of being, one loaf at a time.

Sometimes, Friday night is all we can muster in terms of family sabbath. Sometimes, not even that is possible. When I’m being unkind to myself, I think a loaf of bread seems like a cop-out after how seriously we used to take our sabbath time together. But I have no use for an unkind spirituality. Bread it is. Reheated food, table conversation—it is all enough.

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On Okayness and Creative Nausea

This week I’ve got two quick snippets I’ve been wanting to share. I hope they delight you and make you go “hmm” as they did for me.


You’ve probably seen the phrase “World’s Best Mom” (or Dad) emblazoned on coffee mugs, greeting cards, and hoodies. A friend of mine has a twist on this idea: “World’s Okayest Mom.” This designation is for the times when we’re doing the best we can but need to give ourselves a little grace—when the kids are out of clean socks and have to go hamper-diving for the least dirty ones; when it’s fast food for dinner because there’s no time or energy for anything better; when you tuck yourself into bed early because you just can’t face the dishes/monthly report/volunteer tasks.

Lately I’ve been embracing the idea of World’s Okayest, even posting some of my own stories of good-enough on social media. I was recently tapping out one of those on my phone when I noticed that “okayest” had autocorrected to “plateau.”

What kismet!

As a recovering perfectionist, and someone who now coaches others, I’m naturally oriented toward striving, improvement, and moving forward. If there’s a mountain, whether figurative or literal, I reckon I’m supposed to climb it. But the heart of World’s Okayest is to be content on the plateau—to look around at one’s life and think, “Maybe things aren’t quite the way I’d like them to be, but it’s all right. It’s very much all right.”


I’m coaching the council of a church that is going through some pretty significant changes and has some decisions to make. I’d been asked to come in and lead the council in some conversation and play together. (Play? Yes, play. It’s one of the biggest things we neglect when life gets challenging and chaotic, and yet it’s one of the best ways to build community, lower anxiety, and encourage creative problem-solving.)

Before we started, I took a quick spiritual temperature reading, asking everyone to describe how they were feeling in a short word or phrase. Responses ranged from excitement to trepidation to hesitancy.

One woman apparently wasn’t feeling well—in between nibbles of baby carrot she said, “Nauseous.” No fun! (To her credit, she was a willing contributor to the day.)

As we closed our meeting, I asked people to check in again. Some felt the same as before; others felt more at peace with the process as a result of our time together; one person felt both excited and daunted by the amount of work ahead. But my favorite was the woman who’d been feeling nauseous. Apparently her stomach wasn’t any better, but with a smile she said she felt “nauseously optimistic.” Wonderful! It reminded me of this graphic:

When we’re in the midst of change, even if we’re hopeful about the ultimate outcome, there’s always a bit of seasickness involved. Life is unsettled, and we’re uncertain what lies ahead. Kudos to my new friend for naming that dynamic in such a playful way.

…Whether you’re looking at your life with nauseous optimism, or surveying the plateau—or anywhere in between, or far beyond—know that I’m grateful we’re all on this journey together.


Note: this was sent earlier this week to my email newsletter… if you’d like to receive similar messages in your inbox, about twice a month, subscribe.

Ten for Tuesday… Including a Special Offer!

Remember when I used to blog regularly?

Yeah. That was fun.

Things are changing in the social media intertubes, and my online writing habits are also shifting… plus I’m noodling about a new website and how to merge what happens here with my coaching website. In the meantime, I still love bringing links to you. So… onward. And make sure to catch the special invitation at the end!

1. Young Children Accompanied by Wildlife Take a Stance Among Urban Decay in Paintings by Kevin Peterson

Captivating contrasts.


2. Email Charter

A colleague recently linked to this list of guidelines for email, to make messages leaner and more helpful. I found them intriguing. What do you think? There are 10 in all; here are the first three:


3. Letter of Recommendation: Spoilers–NYT

An excellent philosophical defense of spoilers. As someone whose enjoyment of a movie isn’t ruined (and may even be enhanced) by knowing what happens, I appreciate this greatly. Jenna Wortham, by the way, is half of the podcast Still Processing, which is my new favorite. So flipping smart.


4. The Problem with Seeking the Best for Your Kids–On Being

Every person has to come to terms with — even if just to themselves — the gap between what they believe and how they live their lives. If you happen to be a parent, though, the gap can feel particularly wide and meaningful, the explanation even more garbled and urgent. Ultimately, you’re not just answering to your own conscience, but to your children. They will want to know, they might already want to know, why you did what you did. Why send them to this school? Why make the sometimes Herculean effort to get them into clean clothes and in these particular pews on a Sunday morning? Why live in this neighborhood? Why befriend these people and not those? Why care so deeply about certain rules and let other things go? Kids ultimately care, not just about how you shape them, but how your shaping of them shapes the world.

Thank you to my friend Alex Hendrickson for posting this article recently. Some good reflection and conversation followed.


5. The Key to Raising a Happy Child–NPR

Speaking of children…

Instead of trusting kids with choices — small at first, but bigger as adolescence progresses — many parents insist on micromanaging everything from homework to friendships. For these parents, Stixrud and Johnson have a simple message:

Stop. Instead of thinking of yourself as your child’s boss or manager, try consultant.

On a personal note, I have found that getting trained as a coach has changed how I parent. The premise of coaching is that clients are “creative, resourceful and whole.” Aren’t our children as well? Yes, there is knowledge we have that they don’t, and it would be cruel not to share that. But “listening them into a path forward,” which is my friend LeAnn’s definition of coaching, seems like a good goal for parenting as well.


6. One Teacher’s Brilliant Strategy to Stop Future School Shootings–Glennon Doyle Melton

I love this approach to figuring out which children are being excluded and may need extra TLC.


7. We Got Rid of Some Bad Men. Now Let’s Get Rid of Bad Movies–Lindy West, NYT

When I was growing up, I didn’t chafe at the shallow, exploitative representations of my gender that I saw on screen; I took notes. I added item after item to my mental lists of how to be a woman and the things I should yearn for and tolerate from men.

From makeover shows, I learned that I was ugly. From romantic comedies, I learned that stalking means he loves you and persistence means he earned you — and also that I was ugly. From Disney movies, I learned that if I made my waist small enough (maybe with the help of a witch), a man or large hog-bear might marry me, and that’s where my story would end. “The Smurfs” taught me that boys can have distinct personalities, like being smart or grumpy, and girls can have only one (that personality is “high heels”). From “The Breakfast Club,” I learned that rage and degradation are the selling points of an alluring bad boy, not the red flags of an abuser. From pretty much all media, I learned that complicated women are “crazy” and complicated men are geniuses.

…We need new work that actively challenges and counterbalances old assumptions, that offers radical models for how to conceive of ourselves and how to treat each other. We need artists and studios fighting for diverse work made by diverse creators for diverse audiences because it’s the right thing to do, not just because “Black Panther” is hurtling toward a possible billion-dollar worldwide box-office take.


8. Women Surround Crying Mom Whose Toddler Was Having A Meltdown At The Airport

A simple act of kindness from strangers. Fight back with beauty!


9. Looking for a New Read?

Michael McGregor, professor of creative writing and frequent writing coach at the Collegeville Institute, recently compiled a list of upcoming books by students and coachees. I’m touched that he included God, Improv, and the Art of Living, which is available for pre-order. Some cool-looking books here!


10. And on that note…

I am putting together my street team for the launch of the book, and am looking for people who are willing to:

  • receive an advance copy
  • write an honest review of the book on Amazon as close to the May 8 drop date as possible
  • talk it up on social media
  • and generally share enthusiasm about the book.

Is that you? If so, contact me at the contact link here at my website, and I’ll get you set up. Thank you!

Ten for Tuesday

Away we go…


1. Food Trends–Mari Andrew

From her wonderful Instagram feed. Robert and I chuckled in recognition, reflecting on many many meals, and many meal trends we’ve shared together:


2. Our One Fight

Interesting series from Slate, in which couples write thoughtfully about the fights they have and how they are mostly variations of one specific fight.


3. After Surgery in Germany, I Wanted Vicodin, Not Herbal Tea

I’m not sure where I land with this article, in which the author receives a hysterectomy and her German medical team prescribes nothing but Ibuprofen afterwards. I don’t want people to suffer needlessly. But runners will tell you that there’s a difference (or can be) between pain and suffering. And it doesn’t surprise me that the United States prescribes painkillers at a higher rate than other countries. As we come to terms of an opioid crisis, we need to think more about that. And as the author’s surgeon points out, pain conveys important information:

“Pain is a part of life. We cannot eliminate it nor do we want to. The pain will guide you. You will know when to rest more; you will know when you are healing. If I give you Vicodin, you will no longer feel the pain, yes, but you will no longer know what your body is telling you. You might overexert yourself because you are no longer feeling the pain signals. All you need is rest. And please be careful with ibuprofen. It’s not good for your kidneys. Only take it if you must. Your body will heal itself with rest.”


4. Photographer Jonathan Higbee Discovers a World of Coincidence on the Streets of New York

More at the link, but here is a favorite:


5. Combatting Homelessness with the Power of Running–and Encouragement

A story about Back on My Feet, a wonderful organization. Via the Baltimore Sun:

Owens, a graduate of a local addiction recovery program, is a volunteer team leader for Back on My Feet, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that, in the words of its mission statement, “combats homelessness through the power of running, community support and essential employment and housing resources.”

The national organization encourages men and women who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless to take part in regular early-morning group runs as a point of entry to a longer-term program of personal empowerment.

Makes my heart happy!


6. Free Downloadable Coloring Books from the World’s Great Collections

Get out those colored pencils and enjoy!


7. Liturgy  in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Here my friend, pastor Ashley Goff describes the worship practices and liturgical moves that helped the congregation she serves process the death of a longtime pastor, my friend Jeff Krehbiel. Beautiful.


8. Women Are Afraid Men Will Murder Them: A timely lesson on why sexual coercion isn’t consent.

The Asiz Ansari story seems like ancient history in Internet years, but this article is one that has endured for me:

Ask a man to tell you about his worst date and he’ll tell you a funny story about a lady who showed up dressed as a cat. Ask a woman to tell you about her worst date and she’ll tell you about a man who followed her home shouting that she was a whore.

The threat of violence is something that women consider when we walk home alone at night. It’s also something we consider when we walk home with a man on a first date.


9. Yes, You Are Probably Desended from Royalty. So Is Everyone Else.

Makes my head spin!

One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today. Their lines of descent petered out at some point, when they or one of their progeny did not leave any of their own. Conversely, the remaining 80 percent are the ancestor of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century…

If you’re a human being on Earth, you almost certainly have Nefertiti, Confucius, or anyone we can actually name from ancient history in your tree, if they left children. The further back we go, the more the certainty of ancestry increases, though the knowledge of our ancestors decreases. It is simultaneously wonderful, trivial, meaningless, and fun.

I think it’ll preach.


10. With a Little Help from Their Friends–A Spotify Playlist

I shared this on Facebook, but in case you missed it–my brother created a playlist of the Beatles’s entire discography, performed by other artists. What a labor of love! Very fun listen.




My Book Is (Almost) Here!

I am so excited to share that God, Improv, and the Art of Living is now available for pre-order. (It will be released in early May, but why wait?)

This one is the result of many years of incubation, mulling, exploratory blog posts, group work, and personal exploration.
…And improv class.
…And play.

Is this book for you? Here’s what my publisher (Eerdmans) has to say about it:

The central principle of “yes, and…” in improvisational theater has produced a lot of great comedy. But it also offers an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people boldly saying “yes, and…” as they receive what life throws their way and build upon it.

Pastor, speaker, and improv aficionada MaryAnn McKibben Dana blends scripture, psychology, theology, and pop culture in a wise, funny, down-to-earth guide to improv as a practice for life. Offering concrete spiritual wisdom in the form of seven improvisational principles, this book will help readers become more awake, creative, resilient, and ready to play—even (and perhaps especially) when life doesn’t go according to plan.

Years ago I had a friend who liked to say, “Life is not a riddle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” We are all improvisers, whether we realize it or not. We improvise in order to get through the day. We improvise when life surprises us. We do it without even thinking about it. This book, I hope, will help us all do it better. (And I’ve included individual and group exercises so you can reflect and play—with others or on your own.)

Writing this book been such an intense and wonderful journey, and a long one, that it almost doesn’t seem real that there’s a physical product at the end. I remember when I was in labor with our firstborn, it was such a complete mind and body immersion in the work—the labor—that when I heard her cry for the first time, there was this instant of surprise: Oh yeah, all this effort had a purpose! 

I’m feeling a little bit like that. Improv is so much about the experience rather than a destination. Life is like that too, no?

That said, I can’t wait for you to read the book. I’m also nervous for people to read it. Sabbath in the Suburbs had such an autobiographical component, and it was daunting to think about people reading it. This one is less personal, but the vulnerability is still there.

The book’s foreword is written by actor, author (Angry Conversations with God), and former Groundlings member Susan E. Isaacs. It was a true delight to see how deeply she got it:

McKibben Dana invites us to approach life as a chance to discover with God, with all the mess and surprise that comes along with it. What if God isn’t an immutable taskmaster but a creative collaborator? What if God’s answer is “Yes And”?  What if God is asking us the question: “What do you want?” It’s a terrifying and freeing invitation. It’s also a step toward maturity.

Thank you all, dear readers, for walking alongside me in this process… which is only just beginning (again!). I hope you’ll read and laugh and learn and think and play.

And buy a copy for a friend too…