Category Archives: Improvising Life

Everyday Bravery

Greetings from the fullness of fall! Late September through early November is one of the most lively times on my calendar, with events in Texas, Michigan, Georgia, and here in Virginia, working with groups to explore improvisation as a spiritual practice.

It’s been deeply satisfying work, with lots of belly laughs, aha moments, and even some goosebumps and tears, as people not only think about the world and their spiritual lives in a new way, but actually embody that new way through storytelling and play. (When’s the last time a theologian in residence program or continuing education event inspired deep, sustained, healing belly laughs, I ask you?)

Even deeper, though, is how humbling it is to hear people say, “Where have these ideas been all my life?” and “I have to have more of this.” It makes me all the more excited for the day when my book will finally be loose in the world. (Pre-order information coming soon!)

In the meantime, I am reading Brené Brown’s (pictured left) latest book, Braving the Wilderness, which I highly recommend as a powerful companion for improvisational living. Lots of quotable quotes, but this bit from Viola Davis (below) is infused with bravery, and well worth passing on.

Davis is an award-winning actress, and one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people, but she grew up in a household filled with trauma, dysfunction, and even violence. It’s been a lifelong process to heal from the wounds of her childhood. Brown asked her whether she had a practice for her own living these days, and here is what Davis offered:

1. I’m doing the best I can.
2. I will allow myself to be seen.
3. I apply the advice an acting coach gave me to all aspects of my life: Go further. Don’t be afraid. Put it all out there. Don’t leave anything on the floor.
4. I will not be a mystery to my daughter. She will know me and I will share my stories with her—the stories of failure, shame, and accomplishment. She will know she’s not alone in the wilderness.

This is who I am.
This is where I am from.
This is my mess.
This is what it means to belong to myself.

Amen, and may it be so for us all.

Peace, Joy, and Yes.
MaryAnn

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Want to work on your own inner bravery? I do personal/professional coaching. Learn more here.

Focus on Form

A reflection about running, and also more than running.

This past weekend I was in Comfort, Texas, celebrating my brother’s recent marriage. As part of my training for an upcoming half marathon, and the Houston Marathon in January, I had a track workout scheduled for Saturday. I drove to Comfort High School a little before dawn to run some fast-for-me miles around the track (pictured above).

Speed workouts, like long runs, are a test of psychological strength as much as physical endurance. Around the 3/4 mark is when my energy and motivation always start to flag. I’ve learned a variety of mental tricks to keep going, and I needed them Saturday too. I was mentally thumbing through my list of favorite mantras and slogans when I remembered something I’d heard on a running podcast:

Beginning runners focus on the pain.
Intermediate runners focus on the mileage.
Advanced runners focus on form.

It’s definitely true for me. When I first started running several years ago and the going got tough, all I could think about was my burning lungs or stinging quads. (Pro-tip: focusing on the pain is not a good recipe for endurance.)

As I gained more experience on my feet—as an intermediate runner—I would focus on the miles: how far I’d come, how far I still had to go. If I was feeling good, that could be motivating: More than halfway through… Two-thirds done… Just a mile to go! If things were going poorly, however, it was a motivation-killer: You still have seven miles. You’ll never make it. Loser. Focusing on the mileage can be brutal in a race, especially if you’re a middle-of-the-pack runner like me: Lots of people have already finished, and you still have miles to go. And look at all these people passing you.

As for being an advanced runner, I don’t know whether I’ve achieved that milestone yet, but on Saturday morning I decided not to think about the pain, or where I was in my workout, but to focus on form.
Shoulders back and down.
Torso tall.
Quick feet.
Easy breath.
Arms bent at 90 degrees. 

It helped! The miles were still a tough effort, but I focused on myself—on what I could control, and the countless small adjustments that would make the remaining laps more bearable.

Later I pondered how this concept applies to life in general. When we’re in the midst of deep adversity, or even just an unexpected detour, what do we do? 
Do we fixate on the pain and negativity, until that’s all we can see?
Do we obsess over external factors beyond our control?
Or do we turn inward, breathe deeply, and focus on what we can change… namely, our own response?

This week’s shooting in Las Vegas—the most deadly in modern history—has offered an enormous, heartbreaking opportunity to practice this approach.

It’s natural and understandable to feel the full impact of that pain—to empathize with the 59 lost and 527 injured (so far), and their families and loved ones. I myself find it hard to turn away from the stories. But I also know that to focus on the pain to the exclusion of all else will consume me.

It’s also understandable, like the intermediate runner, to focus on the miles… to look around at our culture of violence, the sorry state of gun safety legislation, the dearth of mental health resources for people in need, or all of the above. Many of us wonder why the United States has such a shameful track record compared to other developed nations, and whether our political leaders will display any political wisdom or courage to make a change. I’ll be honest; I don’t see much reason to hope for progress right now.

What, then, is left? To focus on form. To care for myself and the people around me. To look inward, and make sure I am acting with the most integrity, wisdom, and compassion. To tend to my breathing. To do what’s mine to do. In my case, that means giving money and writing letters and making phone calls to Congress… and also showing up to work each day, and reading nourishing books, and eating food that’s good for me and for the earth.

To focus on form means to “run the race that is set before us,” as the author of the book of Hebrews wrote to the early church so long ago. I wish the terrain were different—less treacherous, less painful for body and soul. But the race is ours to run nonetheless.

I’m glad we’re running it together.

Fight back with beauty,
MaryAnn

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Want to “work on your form,” as a runner or as a human being? I do running coaching and personal/professional coaching as well. Learn more here.

Go Until No

The Steeple Chasers, 2015

It’s September, which means it’s Ragnar Relay time for me. Ragnar is an event in which teams of twelve people take turns running for some two days straight, through day and night, rain and shine, cold and heat. As I write this, our team is preparing to run next weekend from Cumberland, MD to Washington DC, a distance of 200 miles. Each of us will run three legs for a total of thirteen to twenty-plus miles. (I’m somewhere in the middle at eighteen.) As each runner completes their leg, vans carry the other runners to the next checkpoint, along with a considerable amount of gear. When the previous runner reaches the checkpoint, that person passes along the metal bracelet to the next runner, and off they go.

This is my fourth year to captain a Ragnar Relay team, and as I prepare this year, I can’t help but remember two years ago, when we made our race preparations with one eye on the Weather Channel. Hurricane Joaquin was wreaking havoc on the Bahamas and threatening the mid-Atlantic—exactly where we’d be running in a few days’ time. Forecasters were having a hard time predicting exactly where Joaquin would go, but it was looking more and more like we were in for a soggy race.

Rain we could handle, but what about winds? Flying debris? Flash floods? One member of our team was blunt: “I have serious concerns about doing this race.” Another quickly jumped in to agree. Others weren’t sure. They were willing to try it, but this is a team event, and they didn’t want to appear to be strong-arming the reluctant folks. Besides, wouldn’t Ragnar personnel cancel such a large endeavor if it were unsafe? They were certainly watching the weather at least as closely as we were!

Finally, as captain I felt I needed to make a call. “Anyone who feels uncomfortable with moving forward is welcome to back out with no hard feelings,” I said. “We’ll miss you, but we’ll muddle through. But as a team, we are going to proceed until it becomes clear we shouldn’t. We don’t have enough information to make the call to cancel. Things could work out fine. Or we may reach a decisive point at which it’s unsafe (or no longer fun), at which time we will stop. I trust that we’ll recognize that point when we get there. Until that time, we are moving forward.”

So we packed our vans, just like we’d planned, and we headed to Maryland. Only one of the 36 legs ended up being canceled due to water. The rest were soggy, and some were cold. But we completed the relay. One foot in front of the other, one runner at a time, with a van leapfrogging our path, we did it.

I have since come to call this approach “Go until No.” It happens often in life, that we have to make a decision without having the whole picture. My natural inclination is to stay put until I work out all the details so I can make a risk-free decision. Or I pre-emptively say no to an exciting possibility if there’s a chance it won’t work out. But sometimes we don’t get the full picture until we commit ourselves and take a step forward. As has been attributed to St. Augustine, “solvitur ambulando”: it is solved by walking.

Go until No requires you to trust that your intuition will tell you what you need to know even if it hasn’t yet. It requires you to have faith in the future—not that the future will work out the way you hope, but that it will provide the clarity you need to either keep going, change direction, or turn back.

We’ve had plenty of people come and go on our Ragnar team over our four years together. But I think it’s significant that of those twelve runners in 2015, fully seven of them have been back every year since, and an eighth one is only missing this year’s race due to a family conflict. Certainly, doing something crazy under adverse conditions—and living to tell the tale—bonds a group like few other things do. But I also like to think we grew closer because of our commitment to “Go until No.” What we did was take a leap into the unknown together—and we not only survived, but we thrived. For 200 miles.

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Here are my recaps about the 2014 and 2015 Ragnar experience.

Courage to Change

I’ve just finished up a week of improv classes in Chicago. I attended one of Second City’s immersions, then tacked on a two-day workshop called The Art of Slow Comedy. I learned a lot in both venues, which I’m eager to share with my readers and the groups I speak to. (By the way, have you registered for my fall workshop yet? Yes, And: Improvisational Leadership in Times of Dizzying Change is in October at Columbia Seminary, co-led with Marthame Sanders, whose aijcast podcast is well worth a listen.)

Last week at Second City we did an exercise called improvising within a premise. I was in a group of three—two men and me. We had two minutes to come up with the basics of a scene: who, what, and where. Then we would get on stage and bring that scene to life. We were told not to pre-plan dialogue or other details of the scene.

Our group kept our premise fairly simple: a mother was taking her child to the doctor, but the doctor ignored the kid and persisted in hitting on the mother.

One of the underlying rules of improv is to “follow the fun,” and as we waited for our turn, I realized two things simultaneously:
a) Because I was the only woman in the group, it was clear they assumed I would be the mother.
b) I did NOT want to be the mother.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played this kind of scene, and it can be fun. That day, though, I was not feeling it. And I was pretty glum about the scene as a result.

Until I remembered the beauty of improv:
There’s nothing that says I have to be the mother. 

Improv is powered by imagination! And people play a different gender all the time. All I had to do was go out there and make it clear that I was someone else. So I did. When it was our turn, I plopped down on a chair and said, “Mommy, I can’t bend my knees and I really hope the doctor can fix it.” And BOOM, just like that I was the child.

Honestly, I remember very little about the scene (and besides, explaining an improv scene is never as funny as seeing it live). But it really doesn’t matter. For me, the victory was tuning in to myself enough to know that I needed to change something, and taking steps to change it. And sure enough, my scene partners said, “Yeah, we thought you were going to be the mother.” And I got to look at them, smile cryptically, and say, “Why would you assume that?” Powered by imagination. 

I’ve always loved the so-called serenity prayer:

Our group had agreed on the premise; that’s not something I could change. But the assumption that I would play a particular part, that I would conform to expectations, was something I could change. I love improv because it helps me practice courage to change what I can, when the stakes are low, so that maybe I can do it more easily when the stakes are higher.

The world is way more complicated than an improv class. And we can’t always follow the fun—sometimes life is simply a slog. But how often do I accept a premise that is foisted upon me, rather than pushing back? How often do I assume a role I really don’t have to play?

I don’t want to do that anymore.

Peace, Joy, and Yes,
MaryAnn

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To Survive and To Thrive

I was talking with a friend recently about a setback in her running. By the time it’s all said and done, she will be sidelined for half a year, unable to run at all, and the thought of having to start over is really bumming her out.

I could relate, having been through my own time of injury and rebuilding from scratch. And maybe we can all relate, whether we run or not. Pretty much everyone knows what it’s like to have plans derailed, to have to start over, or to find ourselves on a completely different path than the one we’d hoped to travel. I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B, about coming to terms with the unexpected death of her husband. The book is full of wisdom for life’s adversities, however large or small. It also covers similar ground to my book on improv as a life practice, so it’s a good one to tide you over until mine comes out next year! (And if anyone knows Sandberg and could put me in touch with her, I’d love to give her an advance copy.)

I read recently about Willie Stewart, a young, talented rugby player until a horrific construction accident caused him to lose his left arm. For some two years, he laid about, devastated at the loss of the life he’d known, the life that would never be his. (Who could blame him?)

Eventually he found his way back into sports, this time setting his sights on triathlon. He learned to swim and bike with just one arm. This was in the 1980s, when there wasn’t as much support and encouragement for athletes with disabilities. He was determined to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.

Finally in 2002, Stewart found himself in the front row of swimmers, determined to match his strength, endurance and focus against the most able-bodied athletes. He finished in the top third of competitors, and went on to have a fruitful career with many other honors and accolades, inspiring others.

Occasionally, a fan or friend will say to Stewart, “Imagine what you could have done if you hadn’t lost your arm!” Imagine, indeed.

And his answer is always the same:
“I wouldn’t have done any of it.”

To come to terms with life as it is, rather than life as we thought it might be, is a holy struggle and a lifelong pursuit. May we find the courage not only to survive, but to thrive.

Peace, Joy, and Yes.
MaryAnn

Note: Willie Stewart’s story comes from the book How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald.

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