Category Archives: Improvising Life

Monday Runday: From PR to DNS?

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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.

Why Improv? Five Questions for a Thursday

I’m speaking and preaching at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE* in a couple of weeks, and one of their pastors, Nate Phillips, (who is also an author!) interviewed me as part of their publicity. I liked their questions and thought I’d share the answers here.

First off, what is “improv” and how did it become an interest of yours?

When we think of improvisation, most of us think of jazz improv, or the comedic performances we see on Whose Line Is It Anyway and similar shows. I’ve been captivated by improv for years, but always as an observer. I love being around people who can create on the fly like that—as if from thin air!—but it never felt like anything I could do.

I did a lot of theater in high school and college, but those experiences centered around scripted shows and musicals. We’d do an occasional improv game or warmup, but I always found them painfully hard. So I come to improv as someone who’s not naturally oriented that way. I often joke that organizing is my true superpower. I like knowing what’s going to happen. I appreciate planning and deliberation. Flying by the seat of my pants feels deeply uncomfortable to me. (I’m a Presbyterian after all.)

702But the older I get, and the longer I serve as a pastor and spiritual leader, the more I realize that life rarely conforms to our carefully laid plans and expectations. When the unexpected happens, we can cling ever harder to illusions of control, or we can learn to be flexible and open to the mystery as it unfolds, trusting that a gracious and creative God is with us. I started to dabble in improv because I suspected that the things we learn in an improv class might serve us well in our everyday lives. And those suspicions have been proved right again and again. Improv requires good listening, collaboration, humility, and risk—which are all things that make for an invigorating, fruitful life. It’s also a whole lot of fun.

When did you begin to see connections between improv and the work of the church?

Several years ago I saw a YouTube video of Stephen Colbert speaking to a group of graduates about the basic rule of improv, which is to say “Yes-And.” When people are on stage together, their job is to accept what their partner offers and to build on it: “To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the ‘-and.’ And then hopefully they ‘yes-and’ you back.”

He concluded, “By following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.”

Stephen is a good Catholic boy at heart, and I realized he was describing faith as well as improv. The deeper I get into studying improv, the more captivated I am at what a profound spiritual practice it is.

The contemporary church finds itself in a time of profound and dizzying change. Neighborhoods are changing right out from under us. Congregations are shrinking. Old notions of “if you build it, they will come” no longer work. The younger generation has less and less connection to and interest in organized religion.

Congregations can respond to this reality in a number of different ways. We can keep doing things the way we always have, hoping for a miracle, or dwindling bit by bit until we die. Or we can improvise. We can look at the world around us—as it really is, not as it used to be or as we wish it would be—and figure out a “Yes-And” that is faithful to who we are and our gifts as a people.

Can you give a couple of examples of how embracing improv might be important for today’s church?

Church of the Pilgrims in Washington DC is a great example of a congregation that’s been implementing improvisational elements into its Sunday worship services. They serve a relatively young, increasingly diverse population in the inner city, including many people that did not grow up Presbyterian. The services typically follow the basic structure of our Service for the Lord’s Day, while allowing for creative expression at various points in the service. Liturgy is defined as “the work of the people,” and that work is sometimes unscripted and messy—but always grace-filled.

That’s a clear example. But any congregation that is embracing something new, with a spirit of risk, as a response to the world as it actually is, is improvising. And it doesn’t happen instantly—the change can come after many years of discernment. I think about Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia, a congregation that recently sold its building and will be renting space in a new multi-purpose space that includes affordable housing. After many years of “business as usual,” with ever-shrinking membership, this congregation decided not to die a slow death. They realized that their neighborhood had changed and had new needs, and that they still had a ministry there—but it would require a new way of being. They found a bold “Yes-And,” and are pursuing it with renewed vision and vigor.

You will offer a class/ workshop at 9:30 on January 22. What can folks expect if they attend?

Folks can expect a combination of presentation and conversation, with some video, art, pop culture, psychology, theology and more. I like to introduce an improv exercise or two, but these are always simple and completely voluntary. I expect us to have a playful spirit even as we learn together.

I know that you have a book on all of this coming out soon – could you tell us a little bit about it?

The book is tentatively titled Improvising with God, and considers improv as a spiritual and life practice. I explore seven basic principles of improv and how they might guide us into more creative and faithful living. And I consider the ways in which God improvises with us. As Presbyterians, we hold up the sovereignty of God as paramount, which I understand as the sense that “God’s got this.” At the same time, scripture is filled with stories of God changing course, experimenting, and collaborating with humanity in surprising ways. That’s a God I want to know better! Improv is both a tool and lens for engaging with that God.

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Are you looking for a preacher or speaker for your event? Check my Events Calendar to see what I have coming up, and contact me. The winter and spring are pretty booked, but I’m scheduling fall 2017 and beyond. I’d love to come meet you!

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*This event in Delaware will be my 26th state for speaking events! Woo-hoo!


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Rogue One’s Jyn Erso: Improviser

This post contains Rogue One spoilers.

star-warsPeople ask me how I got hooked on improv. Sometimes they mistakenly assume that as a pastor, my interest has something to do bringing more creativity to worship, or perhaps wanting to introduce more humor and lightness into a denomination that is often too somber and reserved.

Those things are important–they don’t call Presbyterians the frozen chosen for nothing–but that’s not what drives me. Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact.

My passion for improv actually stems from walking with individuals and families as they endured profound crises and heartbreaks. Navigating tumultuous waters requires us to hold our own plans lightly, to see life realistically as it unfolds, and to bring our best response to each moment, even if we can’t see several steps down the road. In other words, improv.

Health crises in particular are full of improvised moments. As I see it, and saw it, medical personnel are guided by a few simple questions:
What is the present reality we’re dealing with?
How do we respond to what this disease is handing us TODAY?
What is the best YES possible for our patient? 

Even when the prognosis is poor, those questions don’t really change. What would “healing” look like in this situation? Healing doesn’t always mean a successful cure, sadly. Sometimes it means managing someone’s pain, or allowing them to die with dignity at home.

If you’ve seen the movie Rogue One, you’ve seen improv in action. Jyn Erso makes a resounding speech to the rebel council in trying to convince them to go after the plans for the Death Star. She’s ultimately unsuccessful at convincing them to take the risk. But I was more struck by her speech to the ragtag group of rebels who do take on the job. She says:

“We’ll take the next chance, and the next, until we win… or the chances are spent.”

It’s a brilliant summary of an improvised life. If we go into the unknown banking on success, we’ll either get too scared to start, or we’ll be so focused on the future that we’ll lose our eye for the present moment, which is essential to moving us forward. We must keep our vision trained on what’s in front of us–the next chance, the next conversation, the next move. Improvisers talk a lot about Yes-And as the foundation for good improv, but having a sharpened vision for what’s happening around you is at least as important.

And the ending! I asked in my post on Tuesday, how can a movie in which everyone dies be so uplifting? Well, part of that is seeing what they died for: Hope, in Leia’s words. And hope is so much more enduring than a little band of rebels. It’s also inspiring to see everyone do their part in making this stunning data-heist possible.

When we last see Jyn and Cassian, they know they are about to be consumed by the destructive incinerating power of the Death Star. Cassian says to Jyn, “Your father would have been proud of you,” and they embrace.

They know they are doomed. They know there’s no escape. Cassian didn’t need to say that to Jyn. But even in his last moment, there is still an opportunity to find a Yes. It’s a smaller Yes than we might have wanted for these heroic, fascinating characters. But it’s the best Yes possible in that moment.

Have you seen Rogue One? (I hope you have if you’re reading this!) What did you think?

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Reminder: I’m doing another workbook/playbook for 2016/2017Subscribe to my email newsletter to get this year’s copy, which should arrive next week.

“Something That Happened”: A Spiritual Micro-Practice

Watch the video–the story is better coming from his own mouth, and only 90 seconds long. Plus you get some Miles Davis horn in the background. But in case you’re not in a place to play it:

Musician Herbie Hancock remembers a mortifying moment while playing onstage with jazz legend Miles Davis. The band was hot that night, he recalls, and Davis was in the middle of a solo in the song “So What.” Out of nowhere, Hancock played the wrong chord—it wasn’t just slightly off, it was horrifyingly wrong.

But to Hancock’s amazement, “Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as… something that happened. Just an event. …[It] was part of the reality of what was happening at that moment. And he dealt with it.” Davis reproduced Hancock’s chord and somehow incorporated it into the solo itself: “Since he didn’t hear it as a mistake, he felt it was his responsibility to find something that fit,” Hancock says.

“That taught me a very big lesson about not only music but about life.”

I shared this video on Facebook a couple of months ago, but I haven’t blogged about it, because it’s taken me awhile to take this to heart–and I’m still working on it. Robert can attest that I am trying!

Example: I can’t tell you how many times a child will spill something on a tablecloth that I literally put on the table mere hours before. (OK, adults too.) It’s not that we spill a lot. We don’t. It’s just some weird Murphy’s Law thing: fresh tablecloth, OOPS goes the milk.

I have taken to announcing in times like this:

THAT IS A THING THAT HAPPENED!

Or the shorthand:

AN EVENT!

I find the more dramatic the voice, the better.

It’s a nod to Herbie and to Miles, both of whom have much to teach me about improv and about life.

Try it!

When Your Energy is Low

This was sent to my email list this morning. To get these messages in your inbox twice a month, subscribe here

Long time no email. But I’m happy to report that the manuscript for Improvising with God is DONE and turned in, so the editor can do her magic. So grateful to have the book finished. One giant step down, eleventy-seven (admittedly smaller) steps to go before it’s published next summer/fall.

I’ll be getting back to my regular practice of twice-monthly reflections to you all, and I’m kicking things off with something my husband taught me recently about life and improv that has really stuck with me.

Robert is one of those people that picks up new hobbies, pursues them obsessively for a while, and then moves on to new things. I think he feels bad about this, like he should stick with stuff for the long haul, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Life is full of great adventures to pursue; why not try as many as possible?

About three years ago, he decided he might like to get a fish tank. He researched and planned and ended up with some small catfish, rasboras, and the queen of the tank, a pearl guorami we named Frederica:

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And with the exception of the untimely death of one of the rasboras, Joe Pesci, the fish have thrived. When we moved last year, we made a plan for bringing them with us, and the tank is currently in the corner of our dining room, to the entertainment of our kids and especially our cats:

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I even wrote a blog post about the stress-relieving effects of the fish tank.

Well, over time, a few more of the fish died, and the tank started to feel like a burden. Life got complicated as life does, until the fish hobby became nothing but a weekly chore: changing out water, scraping algae off the sides of the tank, etc. Every time Robert looked at the tank, he felt the weight of not taking better care of it, which made him want to devote even less time to it. (Negative feelings aren’t great motivators, are they?)

I expected him to keep the tank minimally functioning, but phase out of this hobby over time as the remaining fish died. That’s probably what I would have done.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, he doubled down on it.

First, he bought more fish for the tank, and we all watched with delight as the rasboras schooled with their new friends almost immediately. They even pinked up in color, which apparently is a sign of contentment in fish:

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Robert also made the move from plastic plants to live ones. And he acquired some snails and small shrimp, which are theoretically supposed to help with algae cleanup.

In the short-term, all of this involves a lot more work—acquiring the new items, introducing them to the tank, and cleaning it even more often, since the live plants required better lighting, which can encourage algae to grow, and the snail population isn’t quite… how should we say… abundant enough to keep up with their cleaning duties.

But over time, the investment seems to be paying off—the tank still needs maintenance and always will, but the fish are happier, and the shrimp and snails are chomping away at the algae.

This strikes me as fundamental to living improvisationally—to saying Yes And to the circumstances of our lives. When we’re feeling bored or disconnected from something, the temptation can be strong to walk away from it. That’s fine sometimes—energies shift, and Robert is under no obligation to be a fish owner for the rest of his life. But maybe that sense of disconnection isn’t a sign to let something go, but to go deeper with it: to invest more time, not less; to find creative new ways to engage the situation; or to change something about it, even if that requires more energy than you think you have.

I’m curious if you’ve ever experienced this in your own life.

Peace, Joy and Yes,
MaryAnn