Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Book Two in Process!

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I’ve been working for the past few months on a proposal for my second book. Of all the things I’ve written recently, it’s given me the most energy. I’ve had a blast working on it.

I’m happy to say that the folks at William B. Eerdmans caught the enthusiasm too. Tentatively titled Improvising with God, the book will explore improv as a spiritual practice and a metaphor for our lives. The manuscript is due in September (yikes!), with a release date in 2017.

Here’s a bit of the proposal:

In recent years, actors such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert have written and spoken about improvisation and its impact on their work. The cardinal rule of improv is to say “Yes-and” on stage—to accept what is offered by your co-actors and build on it. As Colbert explains in a 2006 commencement address to Knox College: “They say you’re doctors, you’re doctors. And then you build on it: ‘We’re doctors, and we’re trapped in an ice cave.’” In this way, improv becomes a process of mutual discovery. Neither person is in control, but nor are they passive. Improv is an active, intuitive process.

The principle of “Yes-and” can produce great entertainment, as the success of improv programs such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? can attest. But it’s also an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. Some of the basic questions of faith include “Where is God? How do I understand God’s work in the world? How am I called to participate in that work?” As I study scripture and engage in my work as a pastor and spiritual leader—and as a seeker myself—the answers that make the best sense to me are grounded in improv.

From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people saying “Yes-and,” pivoting in unexpected directions, and making the most of difficult or even devastating circumstances. Even God seems to work improvisationally—experimenting, changing God’s mind, and working in partnership with God’s people to bring about the “Yes-and” that’s at the heart of improv—and also the gospel. This book will explore these ideas in depth and provide concrete spiritual exercises to help people live a more awake, creative, improvisational life.

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This book is not about learning the craft of improv so you can get on stage and make people laugh.

It’s about what you do when your life turns out very differently than the plan.

It’s for the parents whose young son gets hit with a dire medical diagnosis out of nowhere.

It’s for the woman whose husband informs her after 35 years of marriage that it’s over.
Or for the person who marries late in life, having never expected to find a life partner.

It’s for the college student trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life when he doesn’t get into law school—or when he does.

But it’s also for people facing the small decisions we make everyday: What deserves my time and attention today? How can I make the most of limited time, energy and resources? What does a life of “faithful flow” look like?

This is really a book for all of us, especially those of us who like to hold on to every bit of control we can, even when that control is an illusion or gets in our way. (I’ve thought about calling the book Improv for Control Freaks.) While planning certainly has its place, often life calls us to deeper work—to open our eyes to the world as it is, embrace it (which isn’t always the same as liking it), and build on it.

When I submitted the proposal to Eerdmans in January, I wrote, “I’m so excited about this book and can’t wait to continue working on it. I hope it’ll be with you guys, but if not, this book has a life of its own and is demanding that I write it.”

That’s a great feeling, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and for being along this journey with me.

~

Image is a photo of an improv quilt by Eli Leon, photographed by Sherri Lynn Wood and used under a creative commons license. For more about Eli’s work, click here.

The Five-Minute Journal, Tweaked

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A few months ago I wrote about a new practice I’ve been doing–a morning journaling exercise that takes about five minutes. It’s been a great way to center the day.

Among other things, the practice involves listing three things that would make the day fruitful. I wrote: “Most of us have way more than three things on our daily to-do list, so it helps to be clear on the most essential items.”

Then yesterday I read a lovely reflection on the Storyline blog:

At the end of every day, no matter how busy I’d been, there were always projects unfinished, emails unanswered, and household chores left undone. I hadn’t done it all, so I felt like I hadn’t done enough.

And it’s only a short leap in your heart from “I never do enough” to “I’m not enough.”

I tried making really thorough to-do lists, but that just gave me a super detailed record of all the things I wasn’t getting to. I would not call that helpful.

So the author created an Enough List: three things that are enough for the day. “They don’t have to be life-changing things, they just have to be the things that are most important to me today. When I’ve done those three things, I’ve done enough.” She may do more than three things, but those extra things get to be gravy. And if she doesn’t get to the three things, there’s grace.

I like that framing even better! Enough is such a gracious word.

So here’s the improved version of my morning journal:

Three things for which I’m grateful:
1.
2.
3.

My Enough List for the day:
1.
2.
3.

An affirmation: 

I’m curious about:
And the evening practice:

Three things to celebrate about the day:
1.
2.
3.

One thing I could have done better:

Happy journaling!

Image is “Journaling” by Seth Barber, from Flickr via Creative Commons license

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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

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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.

Sigh.

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

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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.