Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Why You Shouldn’t Buy My Book

At long, long last, God, Improv, and the Art of Living will drop next week. I hope lots of people read and enjoy it. But it’s not for everyone–no book is, of course. So in that spirit, and to save my book from falling into the wrong hands, here’s how to know whether you should buy and read my book or not. (Smile)

Your life always goes according to plan.
If you’re someone for whom life perpetually just “works out”—you make a plan and live it out, no obstacles, no surprises, until you placidly die in your sleep at age 90—wow. Congratulations. Here’s one less book for your Goodreads list. Isn’t that a relief?

You like books that stay in one lane.
I’ve been calling this book “Brené Brown meets Tina Fey.” In this book you’ll get everything from neuroscience to folklore to a quote from Friends. If such cross-disciplinary eclecticism doesn’t appeal to you, stay away.

You like your God to toe the party line.
I write from my perspective as a pastor, and a free-range pastor besides, who bumps up against all kinds of spiritual but not religious people who see the world in different ways. From that vantage point, I question a lot of the things many of us have been taught about God. I dare to suggest that maybe God doesn’t have a plan. Perhaps God—however we understand that Great Whatever—interacts with human beings and the greater world in ways very different from the usual ideas of a sovereign being. And so, if you’re worried that members of your church will see this book tucked under your arm and turn you in to the Calvinist Heretic Police, please, don’t take the chance.

“The Way We’ve Always Done It” is working great for your congregation/organization.
This book is for individuals, but with an eye toward teams, companies, churches, and other organizations… but only if your organization is finding itself having to navigate a set of challenges and cultural forces with no road map. I mean… that’s most organizations anymore, but perhaps you got lucky. Good! (When’s your book coming out?)

You like reading books that allow you to remain unchanged.
Hey. I’m romantic enough to say that all reading changes us in some way, even books meant solely to entertain. But this book is written with an express purpose: to get you (and me) thinking about life, and how to live it in more vibrant, creative, generous ways. It’s baked right into the book’s structure (seven principles of improv and how to apply them to our lives, with reflection questions and exercises) and content (see point 2 above).

But if that’s not your jam, there are probably books that will help you remain… hermetically sealed, psychologically speaking. My son owns a book of puns that might fit the bill. Ah but see, even that may improve your vocabulary! I don’t know… maybe they still make Archie and Jughead comics? (I kid, I kid.)

Typos send you into an apoplectic rage.
Look, we went over this thing countless times, and my team at Eerdmans is first-rate, with deep experience with this stuff. But let’s face it. There’s gotta be one that snuck in there somewhere. In the immortal words of Bender in The Breakfast Club, “Screws fall out, the world’s an imperfect place.”

Which is kinda what the book’s about, so…

The Cost of Saying “Yes”: A Book Excerpt

Jonathan Daniels was a well-to-do kid from rural New Hampshire who enrolled in Virginia Military Institute in the late 1950s. After his father died abruptly in his sophomore year, Jonathan’s grief led to a reassessment of his priorities, and eventually he ended up in seminary. He was convicted by Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to come to Selma. There he witnessed the horrors his brothers and sisters were experiencing in Alabama. He would go back to Selma again and again—for a semester, for a summer—and in August 1965 he participated in a small protest and was jailed. After six days the group was released. While waiting for a ride home, they went into a grocery store to buy a drink. A deputy was threatening a black family, and Jonathan stepped in between them, pushing a young girl back out of the way. The deputy fired, and Jonathan was killed instantly.

Jonathan Daniels said a Yes that cost him his life. He embodied preacher William Sloane Coffin’s words about the kind of grace that allows us to risk “something big for something good.”

There’s an assumption that improv is a happy-go-lucky, no-holds-barred art form. But that glosses over the reality that Yes is risky. Saying Yes onstage is risky. Saying Yes in the midst of one’s life is even more so. And the risks don’t always work out the way we want. If they did, life would be a series of sure things rather than a string of chancy improvisations.

In a commencement speech for Knox College, Stephen Colbert talks about the risks that come from saying yes:

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. . . . People who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. . . . So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

Yes is a hollow response if it doesn’t come with the possibility of everything going catastrophically wrong. Yes is infused with curiosity, mystery, and a hint of danger. We don’t know how life will turn out. It costs us something to step into that ambiguity.

*        *        *

My friend Sarah says the riskiest Yes she ever said was submitting an application to adopt a child. She had planned for it for years, and had completed all the paperwork. But when it was all done except for pressing the “Send” button, her finger hovered in suspended animation for a long time. Was she really ready for this? The potential heartbreak of getting matched with a child, falling in love from afar, and having the adoption fall through? And on the other side, the messy, heart-expanding, freedom-killing, tear-filled, joy-infused task of loving a child forever?

Click. Yes.

Some of us step into these Yes moments more easily than others. I myself prefer that my backup plans have backup plans. Many of us need to start small, with some risky mini- Yeses to build a habit. Improv has been described as “creative cross-training,” because it gives us tools and habits that translate to the rest of our lives.

Many self-help books talk about creative risk in glowing terms. But sometimes our Yes crashes down, with hurtful impact. The gamble doesn’t pay off, and hearts get broken.
It’s spiritually dishonest to suggest otherwise. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully ‘round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. . . . To love is to be vulnerable.”

 

–An excerpt from God, Improv, and the Art of Living. Pre-order now.

Image: Jonathan Daniels and friends.

Ten for Tuesday

It’s been way too long, readers! But I promise to be around here more, especially as we get ready for the release of God, Improv, and the Art of Living–next week! Pre-order.

Onward:

1. Crayons in the Hydraulic Press

Also non-Newtonian fluids and lots of other stuff. Prepare for the absurdly amazing, narrated with a Finnish accent.

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2. The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right

Carbs, trans fats, paleo and more. Long and sensible.

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3. To Raise Resilient Kids, Be a Resilient Parent

Ms. Lewis said that anger, tears and other outbursts are a natural part of any child’s development — what she calls “the messiness of childhood.

But parents who are unable or unwilling to confront that messiness may view their child’s outbursts as a problem that urgently needs to be solved.

And this is such an easy trap to fall into, despite our best efforts as parents. And when you have more than one, it’s even harder, as one kid’s “sad outburst” is another child’s “late for the lacrosse game.”

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4. How to Say Jackass in Many Languages

I share because I care.

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5. His church had 15 idle pianos. So he started a music school for poor kids.

A friend is pastor of this church and shared this article after the man passed away earlier this spring.

In 1969, the year a federal judge ruled that Charlotte’s schools were illegally segregated, the white organist and choir director of First Presbyterian Church had 15 pianos in the basement that sat unused most of the time.

Henry Bridges also noticed that the poor, mostly African American kids who lived around the uptown church needed something to do. He invited them in and started to teach them piano.

So began the Community School of the Arts. Bridges recruited four of the best piano teachers in Charlotte — one of them, Dzidra Reimanis, 90, still teaches there — and winnowed an initial 20 students from more than 150 applicants. The children were taught five days a week in piano, choir and music theory. All of it was free.

Well done, Henry Percival Bridges, good and faithful servant!

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6. On Becoming an American Writer — Alexander Chee

A luminous yet urgent call to action for everyone who writes.

I began this essay as an email I wrote to my students during that first weekend of the Iraq War. I had felt a sudden, intense protectiveness of them. I didn’t want my students to go into the draft, rumored then to be a possibility. I wrote to them that weekend and told them that art endures past governments, countries, and emperors, and their would-be replacements. That art—​even, or perhaps especially, art that is dedicated somehow to tenderness—is not weak. It is strength. I asked them to disregard the cultural war against the arts that has lasted most of their lives, the movement to discredit the arts and culture in American public life as being decorative interruptions of more serious affairs, unworthy of funding or even of teachers. I told them that I can’t recall the emperors of China as well as I can Mencius, who counseled them, and whose stories of them, shared in his poetry of these rulers and their problems, describe them for me almost entirely. And the paradox of how a novel, should it survive, protects what a missile can’t.

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7. Google finds STEM skills aren’t the most important skills

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

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8. The Acrobatic Entanglements of Everyday Objects by Mauricio Alejo

So fun. Favorite:

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9. Church Is What We Create with Each Other

So lovely.

When you are part of a church you accept people’s offerings, even the ones you don’t necessarily want. One week their announcements will bore you and the next week they will make you weep, and sometimes it will be the same announcements. And sometimes during a hymn they’ll start a harmony and you’ll join, and your voices will become a conversation, an expression of love between people who by many measures barely know each other at all.

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10. Finding Holiness Beyond Houston’s Scores of Sacred Spaces

Holiness and Houston. Two of my favorite topics.

I should probably note that I’m not religious. But I believe in holy spaces. Or at least the notion that holiness can seep into mundanity. One time I was in Saint Catherine for a family reunion, stuffed in this cabin church service along the mountains, and the pastor dwelled over the Word for so long that everyone’s stomachs started rumbling in unison. Our own improvised praise song. Even when we began to audibly grumble, the man just kept doing his thing…

That is, for me, where most of my credence lays: in the blips of illumination through daily life. In spaces that have stood for as long as there have been people. Spaces that will stand well after you and I are gone.

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Useful Fictions

As I get ready for the release of God, Improv, and the Art of Living (have you pre-ordered?) I’ve been asked, in both interviews and regular conversation, “How has improv changed your life?” It’s a big question with a lot of small, everyday answers. Here’s just one:

We all make assumptions about the people and circumstances around us, often without thinking critically about those assumptions. The improv principle of yes-and (to receive what is offered and to build on it) invites me to lean in the direction of compassion for others and myself in the assumptions I make.

For example, on a recent Saturday morning I was in a coffee shop, waiting my turn and growing increasingly late as the person in front of me placed a large and complicated order—about six hot beverages to go, each with some specific, nit-picking substitution or adaptation. Moment by moment, my irritation grew: I have somewhere to be. What is taking so long? Why do we all need these special snowflake drinks anyway? I fumed, preparing to order my decidedly uncomplicated tea.

Then I noticed that the man was wearing a suit. To pass the time, I found myself thinking of reasons why someone would be dressed up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Job interview? Stayed out all night and on his way home? Laundry day and everything else was dirty? I finally decided he was attending a family funeral, and had decided to pick up beverages for his fellow bereaved loved ones. And those picayune order details? Rather than being indulgences of an “I want it MY WAY!” society, they became a means for this gentleman to show care for people who maybe needed a little comfort on a very difficult day.

I obviously have no idea whether he was really going to a funeral. But ultimately, what does it matter? My little moment of improvisational imagination allowed me to breathe deeply, to relax into the waiting, and to beam a little love toward this stranger—and don’t we all need love? Making a decision to move toward charity helps me be the kind of person I would like to be—who I feel called to be. 

To be clear, I have to work constantly at this practice. My mind often wants to go to the least charitable interpretation of events. But improv reminds me that while I can’t always change or control the circumstances of my life, I have full control over my own yes-and.

Last week I was with 16 clergy colleagues for our annual “preacher camp,” called The Well. During our time together we delve deeply into scripture and theology through papers and sermons we share with one another. It’s always one of my favorite weeks of the year.

My friend Andrew Foster-Connors shared some ideas from philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and his book As If: Idealization and Ideas that intersect with this idea of “yes-anding” in a positive direction. Appiah talks about the concept of “useful fictions.” No world of ideas can possibly represent the full truth, because our minds aren’t big enough to encompass it. So “there is a gap between what is true and what is useful to believe,” writes Appiah. This is even true with certain scientific principles, which are helpful in predicting outcomes, but are not always 100% accurate. Such principles aren’t strictly “true,” because they can’t predict outcomes in all times and all circumstances. They are “roughly right,” however, and therefore a useful belief.

I wonder what kind of beliefs you are currently clinging to, and whether they help you live as the person you are created to be. How might you alter those beliefs in the spirit of yes-and? What kinds of “useful fictions” might you play with? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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