Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Overwhelmed? Do It Like the Looney Tunes Do

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I’ve been traveling quite a bit recently, mainly leading retreats on the Sabbath book. Last weekend was the end of a two-week stretch in which either Robert was traveling, or I was, or for a brief 45 minutes when our planes crossed in the air, both of us. It’s ironic that I’m talking to groups about Sabbath, given how hectic my schedule has been! I’m careful to take Sabbath time even when I travel–a quiet afternoon at the hotel between sessions, a trip to the movies on the Monday after my return. What suffers is the home stuff. The entropy is wild around here at Casa Dana, and that impacts my mental health.

I was reminded by someone at this weekend’s retreat of a practice I wrote about in the book but hadn’t thought about in a long time. Time to revisit it again.

Are you, too, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff involved in adulting? Read on for a technique that’s worked for me. This is an excerpt from Sabbath in the Suburbs:

Remember those old Looney Tunes cartoons in which a hungry character looks at its prey and sees a juicy steak where the head is supposed to be? Or when the guy who’s down on his luck finds a singing frog and begins to see dollar signs?

I try to do the same thing with the clutter and piled-up projects in our house. Rather than looking at an unfinished task and seeing what we’ve failed to do, I picture what that unfinished task represents: namely, something important that we have done.

So when I look at our cluttered garage full of broken rakes and household items we’ve discarded but haven’t yet gotten rid of—some of which have been with us for years—I try not to see our failure in getting the garage cleaned out. Instead I see all those times we pedaled bikes up and down our street with our kids, gasping to reach the top of the steep hill, then soaring down to the bottom again.

Every time I open the cabinet under the sink, I see a mess of bottles, desiccated sponges, and aluminum foil. For nine years they have begged for an intervention from the Container Store. I try to see something else instead: I see Caroline hunched over a ball of yarn and a chaos of stitches as I teach her, slowly, to knit. With this new vision, the undone thing isn’t a sign of neglect or failure. It’s a testimony that something else is more important at this moment of our lives.

Even if you don’t observe Sabbath, a shift in perception is helpful. It doesn’t ever all get done. We need to train our vision. We see failure when we should see alternatives. Better to focus on the good and important things we did do instead of berating ourselves for falling short of an ideal.

Robert’s grandmother remembers a time when her children were young and a fussy neighbor wrinkled his nose at the bare patches of grass in her yard. “You really ought to do something about that,” he said with disdain. She responded, “I’ll grow grass when I stop growing children.”


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Image is from Humans of New York on Facebook–a friend sent it to me this week, and it felt very Sabbath-y.

Monday Runday: Ankle Bone Connected to the Shin Bone


If you’re a middle-aged recreational athlete, you may have certain goals for yourself. But if your number one goal isn’t to stay injury-free, it doesn’t matter what goals 2-5 are. Try to get faster; complete a race a month; increase your mileage; figure out the right cross-training regimen… all of it is for naught if you get injured, because injuries take way longer to heal as you age.


Things are going decently well for me post-stress fracture. I’ve been increasing my mileage gradually and safely and am up to about 12-15 miles per week. That’s less than a mile increase each week. I’m running only three days a week and cross-training the rest of the time, so I have at least one full recovery day between runs. I’ve started training with a heart-rate monitor to help me train aerobically and remember to train at an easy pace (I’m a big fan of 80/20 running, which most recreational runners aren’t so great at).

But I did something to my foot a week ago. Sometime between my Saturday long run and my Tuesday brisk walk with a friend, something happened.

It felt like the beginning of plantar fasciitis. So I started doing all the things you do: I got new insoles (shoes are fine), I iced my foot three times a day, and most importantly, I took a break from running.

All those things helped. I’m ready to try an easy run/walk tomorrow, or maybe Thursday, in hopes of running the Fort Hunt 10K on Sunday (though I won’t be racing it).

I also had tons of friends tell me to use the foam roller on my calves, because tight calf muscles can contribute to plantar fasciitis. I kinda rolled my eyes at this, because the problem is in my FOOT, not my LEG. And my calves didn’t feel tight.

But I went ahead and started using the foam roller on my calves, because my friends are not flaky woo-woo people, and danged if they’re not right. My foot feels better in no small part because my calf is better. It didn’t feel tight to me, but the foam roller don’t lie.

Becoming a runner later in life means I’m playing catch-up on a lot of things… not least of which is a basic awareness of how the body works. My body was always the thing that carried my brain around. (I also grew up in a religion that prized the mind, or “spirit,” over the body–especially the female body–but that’s another post.)

Now I know better. Of course the leg and the foot would impact one another. But really, everything’s connected. I just heard a running expert on a podcast talk about how running while holding onto these special grip things helps his hip flexors fire better. Whaaaaaaaa?

I haven’t dug into the research on it. But I shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand either. It’s all connected.

As a child, I loved going through my grandparents’ encyclopedias. A favorite section was on the human body, with intricate, full-color diagrams of the circulatory system, muscles, nerves. Each system was illustrated on its own clear plastic page, so you could view it on its own, or you could lay them on top of each other—organs on top of arteries on top of bones.

One of the gifts running has given me is that I’m starting to see all those disparate systems as part of one whole. As the psalmist writes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Even when our cranky calf is making for an angry foot.


Photo is Believe by Eugene Kim, used under a creative commons license.

A Day After the Love Fest–On Writing


The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.

-Robert DeNiro, at the 2015 Oscars

I posted that quote to Facebook one year ago today. It’s a fitting counterbalance to all of yesterday’s well-wishes from so many of you. I am humbled to have been honored by the Presbyterian Writers Guild this year, and look forward to celebrating at this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Next stop, Portland!

Many years ago when I was just getting started, a fellow writer asked me, “What are your aspirations for your writing?” I said, “To write and be read.” That’s still the sum of it. At that point I had a blog and had written a few poems and articles, but that was it. Even now, I look at the list of past honorees for this award and feel a generous dose of impostor syndrome, thinking about the stacks of books they have put into the world, books I have read over the course of my life and that have made me who I am. When Brené Brown talks about the vulnerability hangover, I get it.

Then again, my tech-support husband recently archived a now-defunct blog of mine and it capped out at 1,400 pages–and that didn’t include the thousands of comments, as readers, fellow bloggers, and random passersby dug into all kinds of topics about the sacred and the secular, the humorous and the heartbreaking, and all of the above at once. To write and be read, indeed.

Maybe I’ll mine that material for future projects. But perhaps not. Some writing is meant to be like a sand painting that disappears when the tide comes in. Most sermons are that way. As Annie Dillard famously said:

Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. …Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.

But you know what’s the most special thing about all of this? It’s not the award itself, grateful though I am. It’s the fact that a person took the time to nominate me. Many preachers talk about writing sermons with particular people in mind. Many writers do the same, even if that person is themselves. It helps to picture someone specific who receives what you have to offer: someone who may need your words, or who simply bears witness when you say it for yourself. Someone who will nod, or challenge, or wince, or say “Thank you, I thought I was the only one.”

So thank you, BPL. The gift of your kindness overwhelms me. And if I may make a modest proposal to the selection committee: contact the other writers who were nominated and tell them a reader took the time to put into words what their writing meant to them. It will make their day, I guarantee it.


Photo: Writer’s Block by Neil Sanche, used under a creative commons license.

The Power to Laugh

Here is today’s entry in Reflections for Lent, a free e-book available to Blue Room newsletter subscribers. It’s not too late to get yours! Subscribe here.

The Power to Laugh

Romans 5:1-5: “Hope does not disappoint us…”

Professor Tom Long tells a story about the civil rights movement, how the Ku Klux Klan would often march down Auburn Avenue, the African-American center of Atlanta. Each time the residents would see the Klan coming, they would draw their shades, lock their doors, and cower in their homes until that parade of evil was over.

But then, in the fullness of time, civil rights started to take hold. Just when the tide was starting to turn, when people could finally see justice on the horizon, the Klan marched once again down Auburn Avenue. But this time the people lifted their window shades, threw open their doors, stood on the sidewalk, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed…

And the Klan never marched down Auburn Avenue again.

Maybe you’ve known people who’ve worked tirelessly for justice and peace, sometimes over a period of decades. The ones who persevere are the ones who bring to their work a sense of lightness and an appreciation for life’s little absurdities. These folks are not beaten down by the discouragement that change comes only in tiny increments, if at all. Instead, they are almost fizzy in their joy. Such is the nature of hope.

Lent has a reputation for being a grim season. Certainly the cross is no laughing matter. But even with its vigorous self-examination in the shadow of the cross, we can’t forget that Lent is moving in the direction of redemption. Let us be detectives for joy in a world that can often be drab and colorless.

Loving Creator, help me take your call to discipleship seriously… which sometimes means taking myself lightly.


Photo credit: “Amazing Laughter” sculpture by Yue Minjun, photo by Matthew Grapengeiser and used via creative commons license.