Category Archives: Improvising Life

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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Wednesday Words: How to Be an Activist, DeRay McKesson

People ask me all the time, “What should I do?” What can they do? And there’s no simple answer to that. But one answer that’s true for everybody is to start where you are. Harriet Tubman didn’t call me and tell me what to do to make me an organizer! I had to start where I was, and that’s the story of any organizer. You probably have an idea. You probably are thinking about an issue, but you’re waiting for somebody to give you permission, you’re waiting for somebody to tell you that that’s the one issue at matters the most, and the reality is that there’s so much to deal with. So you should do the thing right now that you think is the most important, that you actually already have some of the core skills [to address].

Organizing is about mobilizing your formal or informal networks for change. Or for an action. So when you know that family member who calls all the aunts and uncles, or maybe that family member is you, to get everybody to go and do one thing, that is mobilizing an informal network for an action. And then organizing is just taking that and scaling it up for good. So, start where you are.

-DeRay McKesson, Pod Save the People, June 6, 2017

That’s the heart of improvisation, by the way. We think that improv is about the wacky unexpected action from out of left field. And sometimes it is. But more often, it’s a series of small moves that build collaboratively and organically over time.

What do YOU think is most important? And what do YOU have some of the skills to address?

Start where you are, to make the world more equitable, just, and kind.
Make an offer.
Do what’s obvious.
Do what’s interesting.
Do what’s next.

Learning to Love the Ice Maker

I’m a sucker for the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. So many iconic scenes, but probably my favorite is one that goes by in an instant. I love it because I can relate to it so strongly.

George Bailey lives with his family in a big drafty house that’s got its share of quirks. And because George is an Order Muppet (as opposed to a Chaos Muppet), these quirks cause him no end of frustration and angst. The scene I love is when he goes to walk upstairs but the bannister knob comes off in his hand:

The picture doesn’t do it justice, but George looks at that knob, and you can see on his face that the knob isn’t just a knob. It represents everything that is messy and slapdash about his life. It is a symbol of the utter pandemonium he lives with, as a father of four who doesn’t make quite enough money to feel secure, and who feels the weight of the family business and indeed the whole community on his shoulders. How can I save the Building & Loan when I can’t even get this stupid home repair done??

A bannister knob represents all that? Yes, because Jimmy Stewart is a great actor and he makes that three-second scene work.

And because I’m an Order Muppet too and I have worn that look.

The house we inhabit is in pretty good shape–lots of pending and possible projects, as always, but basically fine. Still, the disorder takes over sometimes, usually when I’m feeling tired and overwhelmed. That’s when the pile of unfolded clothes becomes The Pile of Unfolded Clothes: a visual reminder of life’s tendency toward a chaos that will never be tamed.

My most acute source of angst has been the water/ice dispenser on our fridge. It’s one of those single-spout things in which you must press the button indicating what you want, water or ice. 90% of the time, one wants water from the dispenser, which in my mind means you should flip it back to water after you’ve dispensed ice. To me it’s the equivalent of putting the seat down on the toilet. Restore it to its default position.

The people in my house are either agnostic on this point, or they agree with me. But they do not do it, or perhaps not consistently. So I’ve been battling my family over this irritation since we moved into this house. Just switch it back to water! I say, ice all over the floor because the cubes don’t fit in the narrow top of the water bottle I’m trying to fill. With water.

I tell you this, not because I’m right and the family is wrong and I want to enlist you on my side. But to confess to you that I have carried around frustration over this issue since August of 2015.

Think about that. This has been a source of annoyance and griping for almost two years. And at some point it ceases to be my family’s problem. It’s my problem.

Or it was, until I remembered a section of the improv book I wrote (yes, I am audience member #1 for my books). It’s about the serenity prayer:

In addition to being a vital mantra in twelve-step programs, I’ve decided that the serenity prayer is also the prayer of the improviser. To me it’s the essence of yes-and: What can we change? What can we not change? OK, now what?

 

For some bizarre reason, my constant nagging has failed to alter behavior. (What?!? But it seemed so foolproof!) So now I’m working on reframing, like George Bailey does at the end of the movie, when he’s had his epiphany and he goes bounding up the stairs, but pauses to kiss that damn bannister knob. Because now it represents home and family and messy reality that he wouldn’t trade for the world.

Now when I go to get some water and I hear that familiar grinding of the ice machine, I think about the smoothies Robert makes in the morning, full of protein powder and fruit and kale (KALE?!?), and how they give him energy to work out and thrive at work and be present for our family. And I think about my kids, and how they drink ice water without complaint, despite probably preferring us to stock a bunch of soft drinks. I think particularly about my nine-year-old son, who comes home from school, gets himself some graham crackers and a string cheese, fills a big glass with cubes of ice, and proceeds to suck on them while he reads, his legs tucked underneath him on the couch.

I would say this reframing is successful 42.7% of the time. But it’s a start. And major progress for this recovering Order Muppet.

Monday Runday: From PR to DNS?

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 9.38.54 AM

Been wearing my running shoes around the house as I rest and recover.

This Saturday I’m signed up to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon here in DC. It will be my third time running it.

Or… it could be my third time.

It might be?

I’m having trouble with the verbs here, because I’m not sure whether I’ll be at the start line. And if I get to the start line, will I get to the finish line?

Last Tuesday I went out for a six-mile run. Half a mile in, I started to feel a dull ache in my shin, disturbingly similar to the sensation I got eighteen months ago.

Back then, I didn’t know what it was, but little aches and pains happen all the time in running, so I kept going. I logged at least another 25 miles before I ultimately got diagnosed with my tibial stress fracture.

But when you know better, you do better. Last Tuesday I stopped immediately, walked slowly home, and haven’t hit the pavement since. I’ve been icing and rolling, and I’ve done two pool runs (a great non-weight-bearing activity) and a little strength training, but that’s it. I need to rest it if I have any hope of running RnR on Saturday.

It’s an example of the hard thing being the easy thing. It’s really hard for me to put my training on hold and rest, when I really want to run, try it out, or do the hop test to see how things are healing. But the harder thing in the short term is much easier than taking 6-8 weeks off because I couldn’t leave well enough alone.

So I’m doing all the good things I know to do.

But it may still not be enough. I will find out tomorrow, when I go for a test run. And even if tomorrow goes well, 13.1 on Saturday might still be too much.

I was training for a personal record, a PR. Now I’m hoping I don’t get a DNS or DNF–did not start/finish. I’ve had a few DNS’s, most of them when I was injured. I’ve never had a DNF.

Experiences like this can bring to light deep spiritual clutter we didn’t know we had. As a pastor and spiritual companion for all kinds of people, I’ve spent a lot of time with the question, “What did I do to deserve this?” Most of the time, there’s nothing the person did. I don’t believe that if we behave well we’ll get rewarded with a cancer-free life. Kindness to animals or paying our taxes on time doesn’t inoculate us from a job loss or a divorce.

Yet I think deep down, many of us do believe we are rewarded or punished based on our actions. We just don’t realize we believe it until something happens to us and we start casting about for explanations, or maintaining our innocence.

Eighteen months ago, I did a lot of things wrong. It was a perfect storm of ignorance, slightly worn out shoes, too many miles, and cambered streets. So yes–sometimes we suffer as a result of our actions. No denying that.

This time, I didn’t do anything “wrong” in my training. I’ve gone over it all in my mind and am fairly confident I didn’t make any egregious errors. Besides, I came back from an injury, stayed injury free, and ran two half marathons, a marathon (which I PRed) and a Ragnar relay. That’s a success!

Rather than be comforted by the fact that I did everything right, it annoys me that I may be injured anyway. (My annoyance is compounded by mildly injured runners all over the Internet who do stupid things, and yet somehow their bodies let them get away with it more than mine seems to.)

But ultimately, what does any of that matter? Would the fact that I did everything right change anything? Tomorrow’s outcome is gonna be what it is. Sometimes stuff just happens. Things go down that are out of our control.

I hate this, by the way. But it’s reality. I study and write about improv, not because it comes naturally to me, but because it doesn’t–I fight the unforeseen every step of the way, and denial + bargaining is a favorite tool. I did everything right, universe! Shouldn’t that count for something?

No, it doesn’t count for anything.

The only thing that matters in the end is what we do with the stuff life hands us. Where is the Yes-And? That is my question, or will be, if tomorrow doesn’t go well.

If RnR is off, I get to attend a workshop on Civic Engagement with some friends.

Instead of the sprint triathlon in May, I’ll sign up for the aquabike (which sounds like a fun contraption but is just a swim + bike event).

And I’ll take several weeks off, and I’ll start over. Again.

I’m not thrilled about it, but it’s all there is.