Category Archives: Improvising Life

The Friday Loaf

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than five years since Sabbath in the Suburbs was released! I still hear from organizations who want me to come and speak on the topic, but I’m doing way less of that than I used to… (and more on improvisation as a spiritual practice!). As important as a regular time of rest and renewal is, I’m just not invested in the sabbath stuff at the moment. Part of that is to be expected—spiritual themes loom large in our lives for a while, then fade away in favor of other things—but my reluctance to speak about sabbath is about something else.

Sabbath has been really, really hard. For a while now.

Whenever I speak to groups about sabbath, I hope I’m crystal clear that while it’s a simple practice, it’s far from easy. The reason our family devoted ourselves to it for one year is because it took a concerted effort (and bounded time) to make it happen! Now our three kids are much older—one of them in high school, with all the projects and extracurriculars that entails, not to mention the fact that she’s not super into mom and dad these days.  When parents of teens would come up to me and say, “Yeah but…,” I knew they weren’t just rationalizing. It is hard. I knew it must be. But now I know it first hand. Add in a vocation that has me on the road many weekends, and getting into a regular rhythm is tough.

What to do?
The answer, at least for now, has been bread.

Last fall, I spoke at an event for the Women of Reform Judaism—my first interfaith speaking event, but I hope not my last. The event took place prior to a Friday Shabbat service, and was preceded by dinner, a joyful affair with ample loaves of golden braided challah on each table.

Heaven!

Friends know that whereas some of us live gluten-free, I like to joke that I am gluten-full. I run specifically so I can eat carbs, and I’m only half kidding about that. I adore bread, and challah is the crowning achievement of that ancient technology.

That night last November, sitting at table with the Women of Reform Judaism, I loved the sensory experience of breaking that bread together, smelling its yeasty goodness, and pulling apart spongy pillows of the stuff. “Taste and see that God is good,” indeed! (If you don’t love or can’t eat bread, I trust that you have other sensory and gustatory experiences that provide similar satisfaction and well-being. I’d love to know what they are! Coffee? Chocolate? A good nourishing soup?)

I recently found a bakery close to my home that makes fresh challah each Friday, so it’s been a weekly practice to go and grab a loaf. Some weeks it’s a frenetic challenge to get there in the afternoon. (I’ve also been known to buy a second loaf and freeze it if I suspect I won’t make it to the bakery.)

It feels very old fashioned, even extravagant, to run this extra errand to a specialty shop, a place where I can’t cross anything else off my list. Sometimes I chafe against this inefficiency, self-imposed though it may be.

But all of that falls away on Friday evening, which has become our family’s default sabbath time, and the challah is our sabbath marker. It’s the sign that family time, holy time, is beginning. I put out the loaf, on a cutting board with serrated knife, and children and spouse cut themselves generous slices when they come home from school and work. We have a simple meal, usually leftovers—often out of a can or a freezer container, to be honest—but the challah sets it apart.

In fact, maybe this practice of buying and savoring bread is a place where sabbath and improv come together. Our lives are always changing, and our practices must change as well. Improvising life means responding to things as they really are, not the way they used to be… or the way we wish they were. We’re finding our way into a new way of being, one loaf at a time.

Sometimes, Friday night is all we can muster in terms of family sabbath. Sometimes, not even that is possible. When I’m being unkind to myself, I think a loaf of bread seems like a cop-out after how seriously we used to take our sabbath time together. But I have no use for an unkind spirituality. Bread it is. Reheated food, table conversation—it is all enough.


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My Book Is (Almost) Here!

I am so excited to share that God, Improv, and the Art of Living is now available for pre-order. (It will be released in early May, but why wait?)

This one is the result of many years of incubation, mulling, exploratory blog posts, group work, and personal exploration.
…And improv class.
…And play.

Is this book for you? Here’s what my publisher (Eerdmans) has to say about it:

The central principle of “yes, and…” in improvisational theater has produced a lot of great comedy. But it also offers an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people boldly saying “yes, and…” as they receive what life throws their way and build upon it.

Pastor, speaker, and improv aficionada MaryAnn McKibben Dana blends scripture, psychology, theology, and pop culture in a wise, funny, down-to-earth guide to improv as a practice for life. Offering concrete spiritual wisdom in the form of seven improvisational principles, this book will help readers become more awake, creative, resilient, and ready to play—even (and perhaps especially) when life doesn’t go according to plan.

Years ago I had a friend who liked to say, “Life is not a riddle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” We are all improvisers, whether we realize it or not. We improvise in order to get through the day. We improvise when life surprises us. We do it without even thinking about it. This book, I hope, will help us all do it better. (And I’ve included individual and group exercises so you can reflect and play—with others or on your own.)

Writing this book been such an intense and wonderful journey, and a long one, that it almost doesn’t seem real that there’s a physical product at the end. I remember when I was in labor with our firstborn, it was such a complete mind and body immersion in the work—the labor—that when I heard her cry for the first time, there was this instant of surprise: Oh yeah, all this effort had a purpose! 

I’m feeling a little bit like that. Improv is so much about the experience rather than a destination. Life is like that too, no?

That said, I can’t wait for you to read the book. I’m also nervous for people to read it. Sabbath in the Suburbs had such an autobiographical component, and it was daunting to think about people reading it. This one is less personal, but the vulnerability is still there.

The book’s foreword is written by actor, author (Angry Conversations with God), and former Groundlings member Susan E. Isaacs. It was a true delight to see how deeply she got it:

McKibben Dana invites us to approach life as a chance to discover with God, with all the mess and surprise that comes along with it. What if God isn’t an immutable taskmaster but a creative collaborator? What if God’s answer is “Yes And”?  What if God is asking us the question: “What do you want?” It’s a terrifying and freeing invitation. It’s also a step toward maturity.

Thank you all, dear readers, for walking alongside me in this process… which is only just beginning (again!). I hope you’ll read and laugh and learn and think and play.

And buy a copy for a friend too…

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.