Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Finishing the Doodle

My latest message, sent to the email list last week. If you’d like to receive these directly in your inbox, click here to subscribe

Our kids still have two weeks of school left, but it seems like summer is already in full swing here. That means book-writing is in full swing too. (The September deadline approaches!) I just finished my last two major speaking events until August–it was great to explore improvisation as a spiritual and life practice with groups in Arkansas and North Carolina.

In my retreats, we often talk about what it looks like to receive what life offers us (even if we wouldn’t have chosen it) and build on it in a way that promotes grace and wholeness. I spoke about my experience dealing with a leg injury that completely derailed my running plans last fall, as one small example. (You can read about that at the end of this blog post.) How do we say “Yes-and” when our hopes, expectations, or plans get derailed? That’s the essence of good life improvisation.

To illustrate this point, I often have groups do an exercise in which each person draws a simple doodle on a piece of paper–a squiggle, a zigzag, whatever strikes their fancy. Then people pass these doodles to the person on their left, so everyone ends up with a different sheet of paper. The task is to create something with it–to build on the gift that’s been given to us and to make it our own–to make it something new.

I was enamored of this drawing, completed by a woman who received her doodle from a ten-year-old girl:

I like that she took the message of Yes-and and put it “in the mouth” of two figures that looked like they were talking to one another. They were separate entities, yet connected.

This woman touched me even further when I asked if I could take the drawing with me: “Well, let me ask my drawing partner.” She then turned to the ten-year-old and asked if she was OK with my having it. That was exactly the right impulse. The drawing didn’t belong just to the woman; it was a collaboration between the two of them.

I’m writing a lot right now about the importance of community in improv. You can’t do improv by yourself; you’ve got to have people in the mix with you. Similarly, we don’t live our lives in isolation. Some people are a part of our lives no matter what; we’re stuck with them, for better or worse. But we can also choose to have people in our lives who will help us create the best Yes possible. And what gets created–whether it’s a doodle on the page, or a scene on stage, or a day in the life–is a partnership between pilgrims on a journey together.

Speaking of partnership, I hope you’ll check out a recent blog post, written after our improv level 2 class’s final performance:

One of the profound moments from Wednesday night’s showcase was an opening exercise before we went on stage. After a few warmup games, our TA asked, “So tell me what you appreciated about your performance in the showcase.” The group paused for a moment… I wondered briefly if we’d heard him wrong. 

But no, he was asking us to talk about the showcase as if it had already happened. So we did.

Read the blog to find out why that was such a profound experience!

Happy summer. I wish you lots of peace, joy and Yes.


Why I Can’t Even with the Word “Dynasty”


What this post is NOT about:

  • the “evils” of Hillary Clinton or her “weaknesses” as a candidate.
  • Bernie Sanders, the Democratic primary, the “scourge” that is superdelegates, or whether the whole thing was “rigged.” (It wasn’t.)
  • Benghazi, emails, or poor Vince Foster, may he rest in peace.

Comments on those topics will be deleted. Write your own blog post.

I’ve heard from various people a lot of discomfort (or disgust) over the Clinton “dynasty.” In a country of 300 million people, they say, must we continue to mine the same family to fulfill the nation’s highest office? It’s unseemly in a country that calls itself a democracy (or democratic republic), and yet another example of how we’ve devolved into oligarchy.

Google tells me the first definition of dynasty is “a line of hereditary rulers of a country.” Which the Clintons are surely not. Get back to me in 10-15 years when Chelsea Clinton runs for office.

The second definition of “dynasty” is “a succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or another field.” This one’s obviously on point. But I’m wanting to focus on dynasty as a disqualifier, or at least a pejorative, when it comes to Hillary Clinton.

I don’t buy it. 

A husband and wife rising to the top levels of their field (or fields) is very different than the younger generation of a family following an older one into leadership or public service.

George and Jeb Bush, for example, grew up with politics and public service as part of the air they breathed. It afforded them advantages, access, and a ready-made network of connections. (Substitute the Kennedy family if you prefer.) Hillary Rodham, by contrast, grew up in a middle class family with a mother whose own parents abandoned her to her grandparents (who weren’t too thrilled about raising her either). Bill had a similarly modest upbringing. Remember “I still believe in a place called Hope”?

Did being the first lady of Arkansas open doors for Hillary Clinton? Undoubtedly. But her ability to leverage those opportunities came despite having had no nepotistic advantages from her youth. She walked through those doors herself (and became the first woman Senator from New York, Secretary of State, and the presumptive Democratic nominee for President in 2016). And although this is tangential to my point, she did so despite a multi-decade, borderline pathological assault on her family, her integrity, and yes, her womanhood. (Did the Clintons make serious mistakes and stumbles? Yes. Again–not about that. Write a blog post.)

I will also say–and this will bring out the pitchforks, I’m sure–that as much as we treasure our can-do, American, bootstraps, anti-elitist spirit, I don’t want just anyone to be President. It’s a position that anyone should aspire to, but hardly anyone has the chops to do well. In a country of 300 million, there are probably 25 people at any given time who have the skills, experience and temperament to do it. The fact that this year, one of those 25 people happens to be married to someone who’s done the job before isn’t some sign of ruin. (Though there are plenty of signs of ruin, this isn’t one of them.) It’s a testament to the fact that being President is freaking hard. Any leg-up that our next President may have, even if it’s having 8 years of pillow talk as the President’s spouse, is to be celebrated, not derided.

But here’s the bigger reason I can’t even with the hand-wringing over “dynasty.” It has to do with the decisions that families everywhere make about careers and children and priorities: Does the family have the bandwidth and desire for both spouses to go full-bore with their careers? If not, which spouse’s “advancement” will take priority? What are their financial resources? Will the couple have children? How many? What kind of childcare is available? How much support do they have from extended family and friends?

These decisions about who does what and when can be complicated and painful. In many families–we can probably still say “most” — the wife/mother slows (or stops) her career for some period of time to provide primary care for the children. This has long-term financial consequences; women who leave the workforce never really catch up in terms of earning potential. But one thing’s for sure: we need to be affirming of women at all levels who make the best decisions they’re able to make–not sneer that their second act is somehow emblematic of a “dynasty.” 

Because here’s the thing about Hillary Rodham. People who knew her as a young woman before, during, and after Wellesley believed she’d be President some day. She had the intelligence, the vision, the leadership skills, and a desire to serve, a product of her Wesleyan religious faith. (That’s not puff piece, that’s fact.) But her journey took her to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she followed Bill as he pursued his political career. Along the way she broke all kinds of barriers, including becoming the first female partner of the Rose Law Firm.

The various calculations and conversations that led the Clintons to focus primarily on his career are known fully only to them. And yes, society at the time didn’t know what to do with a strong, capable woman (and still doesn’t, honestly). In some ways it made sense to wait for the world to catch up. But who knows how far and how fast she could have risen, had Bill been the one to follow her?

It’s not dynasty. I don’t know what to call it, except “the way it still works for women across this country.”

We need better systems of support, so mothers who feel called to devote themselves to work outside the home can do so. We need affordable child care, better pay equity, and maternity policies that aren’t an absolute joke. And we need to erase social stigmas that paint fathers as emasculated oddities if they decided to decelerate their careers and take primary responsibility for child-rearing.

But until we have those things, can we at least cut it out with the dynasty talk?

Speaking the Future into Being

This week was the end of my level 2 improv class. It’s been a bit of a slog for many of us, which I’ve written a little about. Level 1 was a lot of “Whee! Let yourself go! Improv = recess for grownups!” In level 2, we get smacked upside the head with how much we have to learn. It’s stage 2 of the four stages of competence: we know what we don’t know.

We also had our showcase this week, in which the various classes perform in front of a live audience. We had about ten people enrolled in our section, but it turned out only four of us could play that night. And you know what? It was awesome. With ten people on the line, you can hold back because hey, someone else will probably jump into the next scene. You can also pre-plan your initiations a little. With four people, you’re in the mix pretty much constantly and there’s no time to pre-think. I missed my buddies, but I loved it.

I study improv for the larger life lessons way more than the performance-based aspects of it. By that I mean, my ultimate goal isn’t to join a troupe, but to learn how to be more creative and flexible, less wedded to the way I think things should be. (Even though I would be a great queen of the world, you know I would.)

But I also know you can’t just think about improv. You can’t get to the life lessons without getting in there and doing it—and it’s so much better in front of an audience, especially an audience that’s rooting for you to do well. After all:


You don’t observe a dance class… you DANCE a dance class!

One of the profound moments from Wednesday night’s showcase was an opening exercise before we went on stage. After a few warmup games, our TA asked, “So tell me what you appreciated about your performance in the showcase.” The group paused for a moment–our TA’s first language is Spanish and I wondered briefly if we’d heard him wrong. (He was a great TA, by the way–and being able to improvise AND be funny in your non-native language? FIERCE.)

But no, he was asking us to talk about the showcase as if it had already happened. So we did.

I appreciated that we got to the who-what-where of the scene really quickly out there.

I appreciated that there wasn’t any dead space during the show.

I loved the way we all had each other’s backs.

This was a revelation. By making these statements, we set our intentions for the experience that was to come. And we spoke our reality into existence.  

The churchy word for this is eschatology–the branch of theology that thinks about the fulfillment of promises made in scripture. Most Christians I hang out with don’t like to talk about eschatology because it can get into some nuttiness over the end times and the antichrist and other various and sundry. I try to hold the topic lightly by asking questions like, “Where are we headed? If God is love, what are God’s ultimate hopes for this creation? How are those hopes already in evidence? How are they not yet realized?” 

How many of you have been part of an experience or project that kicked off with, “What do we all hope to get out of this? What are our goals?” Those questions are fine, as far as they go. But by asking us to speak about the showcase as if it were completed, our TA asked us to place ourselves in the future already–to sense what that accomplishment would feel like in our bodies, to picture ourselves at our best, and to experience the fulfillment of all our hard work.

Powerful stuff.

And a heads-up to the good people of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Greensboro–this is one of the first questions I’ll be asking when we gather on retreat tomorrow!


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Three Things I Learned from My Readers about Saying Yes

The following was sent to my email newsletter this morning. Click here to join and have twice-monthly dispatches from the Blue Room sent to your inbox!

My readers are awesome.

Two weeks ago I posed this question to you:

Saying Yes is risky. It can take you places you never could have predicted. Got an example from your own life?

I got dozens of responses, and reading them was holy ground for me. Thank you all for sharing your experiences. Your wisdom will make Improvising with God a better book. I’m humbled by your candor and courage!

Three themes emerged from the stories you shared:

1. Every important No comes from a larger Yes. A few of you wrote to tell me about going through divorce, and the pain that comes when a marriage ends–even if it’s ultimately the best decision. In some ways, the end of a relationship may seem like a profound No. I asked folks if it felt that way at the time: did it become a Yes only in retrospect? Yet each of these people shared that actually, at the time, it absolutely felt like a Yes. For some it was a Yes to doing the healthy thing for oneself and one’s children. For others, it was a Yes to exploring one’s own inner life and how they contributed to the difficulties in the relationship.

These comments helped me think about Yes and No in a deeper way. I’ve been reflecting on the civil rights era, for example, and how protest movements have a strong sense of resistance to them: No, we will not go to the back of the bus. No, we will not be second-class citizens anymore. But even that No comes from a much stronger Yes–a thirst for justice and freedom, for example.

2. Yes really does come with a risk. Many of you shared stories of saying Yes and having the gamble pay off. But not all of you. One person in particular wrote poignantly about having his heart broken by putting himself out there and having that vulnerability rejected. It’s hard for him to see anything good that will come out of what happened. I appreciated this perspective so much.

Many self-help books like to talk about creative risk in very glowing terms. But sometimes our Yes crashes down to earth, and that impact hurts. It’s spiritually dishonest to suggest otherwise.

3. This work needs to continue. The volume of responses I received has been great motivation to keep going with the book. What do we do when life doesn’t go according to plan? What does it mean to step out in faith? How can the tools of improv help us navigate this great improvisation called life in brave and creative ways? I can’t wait to dig into these and other questions.

And before I sign off, a bonus link. I love this season of the year because of the commencement speeches that get passed around on the Internet. Sure, many of them are boring and cliched, but hey, you’re not a captive audience on social media–you can skip those! But a few of them are stellar.

This speech by Sheryl Sandberg, an executive at Facebook, is first-rate. You may remember Sandberg lost her beloved husband David about a year ago from sudden cardiac arrest. She speaks from that terrible heartbreak in powerful ways.


Read the whole thing, but especially what she has to say about Plan B. For anyone who still thinks my interest in improv is about performance or on-stage comedy, let Sandberg’s words put that to rest. What she’s describing is the ultimate life improvisation.

Peace, joy and Yes to you.

When Your Woman Card Isn’t Working Right

My computer science husband sent me this link recently: “I had so many advantages, and I barely made it”: Pinterest engineer on Silicon Valley sexism.

How can an article be so unsurprising, yet so wholly dispiriting at the same time?

The author describes her early career in computer science, but the dynamics are common in many male-dominated fields:

At Stanford, I took two introductory computer science classes. I soon became convinced that I was much too behind my male classmates to ever catch up.

…My classmates bragged about finishing assignments in three hours. Listening to them chat, I felt mortified: the same work had taken me 15 hours of anguish at the keyboard to complete. They are quantifiably five times better than I am, I told myself.

So she was shocked when the professor asked her to TA the class. She agreed with great trepidation. But then she started grading the same assignments she’d previously found intimidating–and was shocked: the braggarts were not five times more competent. In fact, their work wasn’t nearly as good. There was a disconnect between the men’s level of confidence and their actual output.

The so-called “confidence gap” between men and women has gotten a lot of airplay lately. This confidence drops off among girls in the middle school years, especially in technical subjects — and we’re seeing a bit of that in our own household.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement grows out of the awareness that women underplay their abilities relative to men, for a variety of reasons. It’s been famously reported that men will apply for a job when the meet only 60% of the criteria, whereas women only tend to apply if they are a 100% fit. Women are also reticent to negotiate higher salaries for themselves.

This disparity has bothered me for a long time, though probably not in the way you think. I agree with the diagnosis, but not the prescription. Too often–that is, almost 100% of the time–the problem is framed as a deficiency for the women, a character flaw that the women must fix somehow. Women need to lean in! Be confident! Fake it ’til you make it!

OK. I can accept that. And what about the men? Where is their need for change?

Take the example of the men who bragged about completing the programming assignment in three hours. At best, their bragging shows a startling lack of self awareness of their own competence. At worst, these men are aware of their limitations and are outright lying to cement their status in the pecking order. How messed up is that?

So sure, maybe women have some work to do to feel empowered to apply for jobs even if they don’t meet every last qualification. But we should also be teaching men to do an honest self-assessment of their gifts and skills. Is applying for a job when you only meet a little more than half the qualifications a good thing? Is that something I’m supposed to aspire to?

Sometimes it works out, I suppose. Other times you end up with a grossly underqualified [man] in the job, whose primary gift is the art of bulls***ting. (Hey, they call it the Peter Principle, not the Patricia Principle!)

And yes, there’s a certain amount of “fake it ’til you make it” required to get along in the world. But shouldn’t we be critiquing a culture in which men are socialized to misrepresent themselves in order to gain status? Why is it the women who must do the changing, adjusting, and conforming?

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 7.19.41 PM“If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, maybe there wouldn’t have been a global financial crisis.” Many have quipped this, and at least one person has asserted it in all seriousness. I believe strongly in increasing women’s presence in historically underrepresented fields. And that representation will bring its own cultural shifts. But I grow weary of the framing that women must contort themselves to the default (male).

Meanwhile we have Donald Trump saying that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get 5% of the vote if she were a man. Yes, many of us are excited at breaking that highest glass ceiling. But it’s cute that the Donald thinks Clinton’s gender is a net positive to the tune of 50 percentage points in the presidential race.

As Sady Doyle argued a few months ago, “America loves women like Hillary Clinton–as long as they’re not asking for a promotion.” Clinton’s approval ratings as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State were quite high. She’s consistently ranked one of the most admired women in the world. But now that she’s asking for our presidential votes, her disapproval ratings have predictably increased.

Setting aside the particularities of Hillary Clinton, the broader point stands: we judge women harshly when they come across as too assertive. What’s going to change that dynamic? Women getting better at the game? Frankly, I doubt it. What’s going to change the dynamic is men learning skills in collaboration, self-awareness, and authenticity. Once the typical corporate alpha male ceases to be the default marker of success, we’ll see real change.