Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

For Those Who Run at 5 AM (We Salute You)

This post is dedicated to my local chapter of Moms RUN This Town. 100 days to Marine Corps Marathon!

One of the things that inspires me about my MRTT group is the number of mamas who get up for 5 a.m. runs. A year ago I couldn’t imagine doing that. Now it’s something I do 3-4 times a week. (I take naps in the afternoon–a benefit of working from home.) Some of us meet even earlier, at 4:30 or 4:40 for some extra miles. Yikes!

I used to think people who ran that early were crazy, or way more accomplished runners than I was. Some of them are the latter, to be sure. (And maybe the former!) But now I realize, running early is usually out of simple necessity: the workday doesn’t allow running at other times, or we have little kids we’re taking care of at home, or we’re just trying to beat the heat. There are times when I don’t absolutely need to run that early, but the prospect of meeting a bunch of funny, fierce gals is enough to set my alarm.

Back in June, a friend of mine ran mid-morning, and when she stopped by Starbucks later, she got lots of concern from fellow customers about how hot and flushed she looked. “You need to run earlier!” one man chided. Because my friend is nicer than me, she didn’t say “Are you going to come over and get my kids ready for school for me?” We run when we need to run.

On our group’s Facebook page, we share inspiration and encouragement. This commercial came across the page recently:

 

Whether you’re a runner or not, the message is spot on—it’s the little choices, often when nobody’s looking, that make us who we are.

If I had skills in video editing, I’d put together a spinoff of this commercial, in honor of the MRTT 5 a.m. crews. But I’d want it to show the awkward side of running so early… such as stumbling downstairs and stepping on an Iron Man toy that starts talking to you. Or putting on your running clothes in the dark and later realizing they don’t match. Or stopping by the grocery store after a run and being puzzled that it’s closed, then realizing it’s not even 6 a.m. Or being the first one out on a trail, which means you get a face full of cobwebs.

In that spirit, I posted the following on our MRTT Facebook page a year ago when I first started running at 5 a.m. Thanks, you guys, for inspiring me every day.

Top 10 Reasons Why Running at 5 a.m. is Awesome

10. You’ve officially accomplished something, even if you sit around in your pajamas the rest of the day.
9. If you puke, no one sees it.
8. It’s good for the environment: only one shower per day.
7. If you go with [one of our chapter leaders] you’ll get a muffin.
6. The sense of adventure that comes from wondering whether that hulking object in the shadows is a serial killer… and realizing it’s a trash can.
5. If you use MyFitnessPal, running first thing means you know how many calories you have for the entire day. This is known as The Donut Rule.
4. People’s head lamps and glowing phones look like little fireflies dancing in the night.
3. Sunrise and moonset.
2. Saves you money: no need for silly things like sunscreen, hats, visors, sunglasses.

And the number 1 reason why running at 5 a.m. is awesome:
1. When it’s dark, everyone looks like a badass.

Whether you run early, late, or not at all—go make one good small choice today.

~

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Improv in Action: Guest Post from Marthame Sanders

1-faith-450x300I met Marthame Sanders a couple of years ago at an event at Columbia Seminary. Since then we’ve followed one another on Facebook and shared a mutual interest in improv and the spiritual life. Marthame was lucky enough to receive a sabbatical grant last summer which allowed him to study improv at Second City. Right now I’m working on a grant application for a similar purpose myself, but in the meantime, it’s great fun to see what Marthame and others are doing to encourage an improvisational “posture” in worship and think about how to expand those skills into the larger church. (Church of the Pilgrims in DC is also doing great work in this–see Ashley Goff’s blog for more.)

Marthame wrote recently on his blog about an anthem the congregation composed in the middle of worship. So rad. I especially love the acknowledgement that while there are many more polished, technically “perfect” pieces of worship music out there, there’s something powerful about creating something right in the moment. And it sounds like he provided just enough structure for this creative work to happen.

Thanks for sharing this inspiration, Marthame!!

~

An Improvised Anthem–guest blog by Marthame Sanders

Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

~

Marthame Sanders is pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. His 2014 Sabbatical in Chicago focused on the intersection of Spirit, creativity, and improvisation, including classes at the Second City Training Center. Since returning to Atlanta, he has continued with classes at Dad’s Garage and has incorporated improv exercises into congregational leadership training. His website is www.marthame.com.

A Racist Atticus and a Mess of a Book? Bring It On.

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I was skeptical when news first broke that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-shelved novel, would be published. Lee has famously refused to let her manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, ever see the light of day.

Why did she change her mind? Did she change her mind? Given her advanced age and failing health, people are concerned she’s being taken advantage of. While I know people who can’t get past those concerns, I’m willing to proceed as a reader; an independent investigation involving two Alabama agencies has found her competent to make decisions about her work.

Now as the book is being released and reviews begin to surface, people are nervous for a new reason: apparently this novel does not measure up to the near-perfection of Mockingbird. And perhaps more heartbreakingly, neither does Atticus. It seems unthinkable that a man who would single-handedly take on the Alabama justice system on behalf of an innocent black man would attend a Klan meeting, or denounce the Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.

But I say: bring it on.

Don’t get me wrong. I condemn the sin of racism, collectively, individually and in my own heart. I don’t relish an Atticus Finch who harbored paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans in the South, or fretted that white schools would decline in quality once they were integrated.

I don’t delight in such a portrayal of Atticus, and will likely read the book with a sick feeling. But I suspect 2015 America needs this Atticus. I’ll be reading the book, not as a novel, but as an historical document. Go Set a Watchman gives us a peek into the mind of a young, inexperienced writer who would go on to write the Great American Novel. But more importantly, it will give us a glimpse into our own soul as a nation.

We’re struggling with a legacy of racism in this country. Condoleezza Rice, no bleeding-heart liberal herself, has called racism our country’s “birth defect.” The last several months have revealed to many of us what others have known their whole lives. So now what? We need to be talking to one another about this legacy. It’s painful and important.

But how? We can start by being honest about our history, ourselves, and yes, our heroes. The problem is, we like our heroes untouchable. We want Atticus to have “cute” flaws, like exasperation over Scout’s mischief, or a nervous fumbling with his eyeglasses as he shoots a rabid dog. But Atticus, at least as Harper Lee envisioned him, was a complicated, deeply conflicted man. How do his (considerable) blind spots in Watchman influence how we understand the whole character?

In my tradition, and many other Christian traditions, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe in the communion of saints.” What do we mean by that? Presbyterians don’t have an elaborate process of canonization like the Catholic Church. Rather we believe in a “great cloud of witnesses,” people who’ve gone before us who have shown us what it means to live faithfully and well. We call them saints, even though not a single one was perfect—indeed, many of them were deeply flawed indeed. And yet occasionally, they got it right. Beautifully, shiningly right.

Atticus may still be that kind of saint for us—not because of his racist tendencies in Watchman, but despite them. If it were not so, would there be hope for any of us? Our ability to succeed and thrive as a nation depends on imperfect people coming together around a painful conversation and movement: warts, flaws, biases and all. I have them; apparently Atticus had them too.

As Dorothy Day has said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” An Atticus as preserved in Mockingbird is so perfect as to be unreachable. An Atticus whose story straddles the two novels is like us. And in aspiring to be our best selves, we can be like his best self. When the heavy machinery of upbringing and personal comfort and culture grinds against what’s right, we can stand up. We must.

~

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This Week’s Muffin: Athlete’s Special (Blueberry Banana)

It’s been a sporty summer for the Dana clan. All three kids are on the swim team this year. That sounds hectic, and it is, but I love that our sport is something that they can participate in together. Good family-building, easier on the parents.

Last night was a crazy meet though. It rained off and on, and the area around the pool was mainly grass, which quickly turned to mud. But the kids dropped times, and they all placed in breaststroke, which is apparently the Dana family stroke.

Last night’s forecast. Yeah that’s the stuff:

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As for me, marathon training has begun. I’m running the Marine Corps Marathon in October, and because I’m certifiable, I’m also running the Houston Marathon in January. I would’ve loved to run just the half in Houston, but the full marathon runs by my alma mater, the church where I was married and ordained, and the street where I grew up. How could I resist?

I’m calling these muffins “Athlete’s Special” because they were our recovery breakfast this morning after I gave the kids the day off from practice. I also wolfed mine down because I ran seven hill repeats with some girlfriends this morning. (Hill repeats: Warm up, ending your warm up at the bottom of a hill. Run up the hill, wishing you were dead. Jog down. Repeat.) They do have bananas in them, which have lots of good things, and blueberries are chock full of antioxidants. But whatever your sport, you’ll like them.

Adapted from this Buttermilk Banana Blueberry Bread recipe from Damn Delicious.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar (I subbed in some brown sugar out of necessity–but try it just because!)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 ripe bananas, mashed (I used two–they were large)
  • 1 cup blueberries

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly coat 16 muffin cups with cooking spray or use liners.
  2. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Beat in eggs, buttermilk and vanilla until well combined. Beat in bananas until well combined. Gradually add flour mixture to the sugar mixture at low speed, beating just until incorporated.
  4. Add blueberries and gently toss to combine.
  5. Scoop the batter evenly into the muffin cups. Place into oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
  6. Remove from oven and let cool for 15 minutes before inverting the cake onto a wire rack.

 

What’s Saving My Life as a Writer: Email. Yes, Really.

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A long time ago in an Internet that seems far far away, a bunch of us clergywomen types began blogging and following one another’s blogs. We would leave long comments for one another, then check back and see the conversation continue. We listed one another on our blogrolls. We formed a network. And of course, we connected with non-clergy readers, and non-religious ones for that matter.

Today, blogging is very different. Certainly more people read this blog today than did back then. And my writing shows up in a lot more places. But while my words are finding a larger audience, it’s only a small percentage of people who actually follow the blog week to week. Blog comments are much less frequent than they used to be. And generally, the comments I do get are less personal. (Thank you to all my commenters, regardless of content! Except trolls. Find another bridge please.)

As I continue to transition from pastor/author/speaker to author/speaker/freelance writer, I’ve realized–I need to reacquaint myself with my readers. What do you wonder about and marvel at? What keeps you up at night? Where does your struggle intersect with mine?

I love the work of Dan Blank, whose company WeGrowMedia helps authors bring book projects to fruition and find readers for them. Dan is a big fan of the email list as a tool for authors to communicate. I resisted this for a long time. I already have a blog to feed, and social networks that I enjoy and participate in. Not to mention, you know, books to write.

And we’ve all heard the steady drumbeat against email. We get too much. It’s crushing our souls. I subscribe from email lists regularly and feel nothing but relief. But there are a handful of email newsletters I keep, because I treasure them.

Plus, as Dan points out, an email list is the one way of reaching readers that the author “owns.” Facebook can tweak its algorithms anytime. Twitter can feel like a bunch of noise, and the format is constraining. But an email is a letter from me to a reader who’s specifically asked to hear what I have to say. (Humbling.)

After hearing Dan talk and write about this topic for a long time, I finally realized I’d been thinking about the email all wrong. I was seeing it as a tool for book sales. And when I asked people to join, I was very apologetic about it: I won’t bug you very often, and you can unsubscribe any time. And then I’d send an email every six months and it felt awkward, because nobody likes being marketed AT, and I didn’t like marketing TO!

Instead I want to use it as the beginning of a conversation.

So last month I revived my email list. It’s a letter from me to my readers. In it I share what I’m working on, what’s inspiring me, what’s confounding me, and I ask: what about you?

And people are responding. I can’t quite believe it, but they are.

Last week I wrote an email to the newsletter about some foundation repairs we’re making on our house. It was a vulnerable message because that process is bringing out all kinds of spiritual struggles. After it went out, I got a handful of unsubscribes, as I always do. But I got three times as many personal responses, from people who shared their own places of pain and “shifting foundations.”

It was page after page of holy ground, right there in Gmail.

More and more, I’m hearing from aspiring writers asking me for advice on building a platform. I feel very humbled and vulnerable when they ask because I still consider myself an aspiring writer. I know so little. But I’ve realized that very few of us know anything. What I do know is this: writing—at least the writing I do—is about coming together around shared questions and mysteries. And these interactions with readers are teaching me which questions resonate with people, which ones merit further exploration in blogs and books and emails. Responses from readers are helping me as a writer. But more important—much more important—they help me realize that I’m not alone in my questions.

So to those of you who receive The Blue Room emails, thank you. If you’d like to join them, I unapologetically invite you to click here.

~

photo credit: Connect via photopin (license)