Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

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

Note: This message was sent to my email newsletter this morning. If you’d like to receive twice-monthly reflections right to your inbox, subscribe.

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

Note: This message was sent to my email newsletter this morning. If you’d like to receive twice-monthly reflections right to your inbox, subscribe.
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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.

Note: This message was sent to my email newsletter this morning. If you’d like to receive twice-monthly reflections right to your inbox, subscribe.

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

Be Someone

For the past two weeks, I’ve been mulling over something I wanted to share with you.

That will have to wait for another time, because the city of my birth is underwater.

Houston is where I was born, where I went to college, where I met Robert, where we were married, where I felt the call to ministry, and where I was ordained as a minister. Those are the big life moments, but as I see pictures of submerged landmarks and read stories of heroism, I think about the countless ordinary memories that made up a pretty great life there: Humid Friday afternoons at picnic tables on the patio of the Gingerman pub, shaded by live oak trees. Heaping bowls of food at Lai Lai’s Dumpling House, with bags of leftovers at the end. The carefree joy of hopping in the car and, 45 minutes later, being on the sandy shores of the Gulf.

I’m heartened, but not surprised, to read stories of Houstonians coming together as a community. As heartbreaking as the devastation is—multiple dear friends of mine had to flee their homes clutching a backpack of possessions—there’s also something comforting in these stories of neighborliness. Our culture seems so rife with rage and rancor these days; I wonder sometimes whether we can ever be whole again. (Were we ever?) Yet as singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer likes to say, “The things that have always saved us are still here to save us.”  

One of the things that saves us, again and again, is ordinary people stepping up and doing hard things. I read a story of a pastor who was stopping at every submerged car he encountered to make sure nobody was trapped inside. Recognizing the parable of the lost sheep when I see it, I shared it with the comment, “Friends, meet Jesus.” 

We crave such stories. But here’s the thing. We’re in the story too. Sometimes we’re the ones needing rescue. Other times we’re the ones offering a hand. One thing we cannot afford to be is on the sidelines. Not now, not really ever.

Many Houston friends have been sharing the photo of the beloved graffiti above I-45:

I don’t know whether the message is visible in the wake of Harvey, or if it is hiding under slowly receding waters. But it’s a good reminder. There will be no superhero rescue. Yes, it’s valid to expect our leaders to be more courageous, to uphold the values we hold dear. At the same time… we’re it. We, the cranky and the capable; the MAGAs and the bleeding heart liberals, the fearful and the hopeful.

How will you be someone today? May I suggest one small action? My dollars are going to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, an organization with good transparency and a record of effectiveness. It offers resources that are practical, non-sectarian, and inclusive to all—and their work persists for years as they help communities recover and rebuild over the long haul. If not PDA, give what you can to the relief organization of your choice.

Houston proud.

MaryAnn

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Note: This message was sent to my email newsletter this morning. If you’d like to receive twice-monthly reflections right to your inbox, subscribe.

What Matters?

Happy August, friends!

Three weeks ago I was in the Collegeville Institute for a week of writing. It was a beautiful and restorative week, and I made some headway on book project #3.

Although the schedule in Collegeville was mostly unstructured, the group did get together in the evenings to talk writing: art, craft and business. One recurring theme was imitation–the tendency (conscious or unconscious) to emulate writers we admire. Consensus seemed to be that imitation was an inevitable part of the process of finding one’s own voice.

One morning I listened to a podcast in which Brian Doyle read from one of his novels. A character, close to death, was asked, “What mattered to you?” He proceeded to offer a litany of ordinary and extraordinary pleasures. I decided to imitate that format as a warmup exercise later that day, and here’s what emerged. I offer it to you unedited.

What Matters?

The crinkles around my husband’s eyes.
The shower as hot as I can stand.
The thin pink insole that slides into every brand-new pair of running shoes.
The dimple on my oldest daughter’s cheek.
The rainbow-colored array of cat ears sported by my middle daughter.
The color blue on the walls in my study.
The coarse earthiness of my son’s tousle of hair.
The hot sun slicing through a cold breeze.
The plop of almond butter into the smoothie.
Real butter melting unapologetically on the muffin or biscuit.
The word “Yes” from my mother’s mouth.
The assurance that we get better.
The bounce of patio chairs.
The words that come, sometimes haltingly, but reliably.
The sacred text that will never stop revealing something new.
The clank of the race medal placed around the neck.
The unrelenting comfort of the training.
The grunt that’s required to get out of a sweaty sports bra.
The grapefruit half, gleaming like a rose window.
The acoustic dampening of a layer of snow.
The comforting heft of a lead apron at the doctor’s office.
A row of canoes and kayaks.
The snap of a swim cap.
The text messages that pick up again no matter how much time has elapsed.
Shade.
Sugar.
Mint.
Surprise.
Any green-blue body of water.
A boarding pass.
Long shadows.
Fireflies.
Maple syrup.
Books, and books, and books.
The new New Yorker.
Sunrise on the Lincoln Memorial.
The good question.
The Perseids.
Rambling stories.
The fragrance emitted when the bread is broken.
Surprised tears.
Views from any high place.
Waterfalls.
Crawfish.
November, which begins with a riot of color and ends with subtle brown beauty.
The weathered Dutch oven that never leaves the stovetop.
Simmering spices.
The crowd in airport baggage claim clothed in hijab, dashiki, sari, turban, flipflops, tattoos.
A dead tree, splayed open in an autopsy of decomposition.

What matters to you?

Peace, Joy and Yes,
MaryAnn

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This reflection was sent to my email newsletter last week. To receive pieces like this straight to your inbox, subscribe.

Photo taken in Collegeville and posted to my Instagram.