Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

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.


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.

This article was shared with my email newsletter this morning. To receive these messages, sent twice a month, directly in your inbox, subscribe.

On Okayness and Creative Nausea

This week I’ve got two quick snippets I’ve been wanting to share. I hope they delight you and make you go “hmm” as they did for me.


You’ve probably seen the phrase “World’s Best Mom” (or Dad) emblazoned on coffee mugs, greeting cards, and hoodies. A friend of mine has a twist on this idea: “World’s Okayest Mom.” This designation is for the times when we’re doing the best we can but need to give ourselves a little grace—when the kids are out of clean socks and have to go hamper-diving for the least dirty ones; when it’s fast food for dinner because there’s no time or energy for anything better; when you tuck yourself into bed early because you just can’t face the dishes/monthly report/volunteer tasks.

Lately I’ve been embracing the idea of World’s Okayest, even posting some of my own stories of good-enough on social media. I was recently tapping out one of those on my phone when I noticed that “okayest” had autocorrected to “plateau.”

What kismet!

As a recovering perfectionist, and someone who now coaches others, I’m naturally oriented toward striving, improvement, and moving forward. If there’s a mountain, whether figurative or literal, I reckon I’m supposed to climb it. But the heart of World’s Okayest is to be content on the plateau—to look around at one’s life and think, “Maybe things aren’t quite the way I’d like them to be, but it’s all right. It’s very much all right.”


I’m coaching the council of a church that is going through some pretty significant changes and has some decisions to make. I’d been asked to come in and lead the council in some conversation and play together. (Play? Yes, play. It’s one of the biggest things we neglect when life gets challenging and chaotic, and yet it’s one of the best ways to build community, lower anxiety, and encourage creative problem-solving.)

Before we started, I took a quick spiritual temperature reading, asking everyone to describe how they were feeling in a short word or phrase. Responses ranged from excitement to trepidation to hesitancy.

One woman apparently wasn’t feeling well—in between nibbles of baby carrot she said, “Nauseous.” No fun! (To her credit, she was a willing contributor to the day.)

As we closed our meeting, I asked people to check in again. Some felt the same as before; others felt more at peace with the process as a result of our time together; one person felt both excited and daunted by the amount of work ahead. But my favorite was the woman who’d been feeling nauseous. Apparently her stomach wasn’t any better, but with a smile she said she felt “nauseously optimistic.” Wonderful! It reminded me of this graphic:

When we’re in the midst of change, even if we’re hopeful about the ultimate outcome, there’s always a bit of seasickness involved. Life is unsettled, and we’re uncertain what lies ahead. Kudos to my new friend for naming that dynamic in such a playful way.

…Whether you’re looking at your life with nauseous optimism, or surveying the plateau—or anywhere in between, or far beyond—know that I’m grateful we’re all on this journey together.


Note: this was sent earlier this week to my email newsletter… if you’d like to receive similar messages in your inbox, about twice a month, subscribe.

What’s Your Tendency?

Today I bring you this morning’s emailed reflection for the Healthy Holiday Streak, written by Melissa Kennedy, my partner in streaking and owner of Everyday Balance Health Coaching. I thought it was so helpful, I wanted other people to read it.

If you haven’t signed up for the streak, it’s not too late. Sign up today and I will send you all of the posts you’ve missed. We still have several weeks to go–lots of time to set a good intention or two for this hectic season.

Take it away, Melissa:


One challenge with regard to developing and maintaining healthy habits is that we are all different: what seems like best practice to one person can be counterproductive for someone else. So when MaryAnn and I write these messages, we try to keep in mind that not everyone looks at change in the same way that we do.

Gretchen Rubin, a writer who focuses on happiness and habit change, has created a personality framework which she calls the Four Tendencies. While this isn’t a scientifically validated framework, it resonates with me and provides some interesting insights into why certain habit-change strategies do or do not work for me.

The Four Tendencies are based on how we respond to internal obligations, commitments made to oneself, and also to external obligations, like a work deadline.

  • Upholders keep all commitments, whether made to themselves or to others. Habit change may come easily to Upholders, but they have to be cautious not to over-commit themselves.
  • Obligers always meet external expectations, but struggle with commitments made to themselves. They can really struggle with changing health-related behaviors unless they create some sort of external accountability system–like our Streak!
  • Questioners, as you might guess, question everything, especially authority. They push back against external commitments until or unless they become convinced that what they are being asked to do makes sense–then they turn it into an internal commitment and honor it.
  • And Rebels push back against all commitments, even the commitments they make to themselves. They want to do what they want to do in the moment. Needless to say, this can make habit change hard! The motto Rubin gives for Rebels is “You can’t make me, and neither can I.”

None of the Tendencies are better or worse than any of the others–they each have their own advantages and pitfalls. But understanding how you respond to internal vs. external commitments can lead to very useful insights about what habit change strategies will and will not work well for you.

Your Tendency may be obvious to you after reading the descriptions above, but if not, check out the quiz on Rubin’s website.

Me? I’m a Questioner. I’m generally a rule-follower… but I am driven up the wall by rules that don’t make sense. I sometimes frustrate myself by not following through on things that I think I’m committed to… but in hindsight I almost always realize that I had never completely bought in. And I finally understand why my devil’s-advocate questioning of new ideas can be perceived as negativity.

Today’s Question: Which Tendency do you identify with? (Take the quiz if you aren’t sure!) What insights does that lead to?

Stop by the Facebook event if you would like to chat about Tendencies! (Maybe MaryAnn will reveal hers…)



Sign up for the streak and get a copy of all the posts through today.

Welcome to the Streak!

Note: The Healthy Holiday Streak begins today! Here’s the first reflection to get people started. All future posts will be sent to the email list only. Not too late to join! Register for the streak here.

We’re so excited you’re joining us on this adventure! Many of our daily reflections will be short and sweet, but today’s is a little more in-depth to help ensure you get off to a good start.

First thing is for you to define your streak. What makes a good goal, you ask?

  1. It’s small. Remember, this is something you will strive for every day. Don’t set yourself up for failure by picking something unrealistic.
  2. It’s within your control. Focus on things that you have the power to achieve. For example, instead of “get eight hours of sleep each night,” decide you’ll turn off the screens and unwind at a certain time each evening.
  3. It connects with a deeper sense of purpose or well-being. This is not a time for “should” or conforming to others’ expectations. What will help YOU embrace this season with a sense of well-being and joy?
  4. It needs a day off… or it doesn’t. Some of us are abstainers–we need to go all in on a habit, and if we “cheat a little,” we’ll fall off the wagon completely. Others of us are moderators–if we don’t give ourselves a little wiggle room, we’ll start to resent our goal*. Decide if you intend to follow through every day, or if you’ll do better with one streak-free day each week–and which one it will be.

Now, the good stuff!

Suggested Focus Areas for Goals

  • Exercise/Movement Each Day (how about dancing?)
  • Food/Nutrition
  • Saying No and Letting Go
  • Meditation and Gratitude
  • Sleep
  • Play and Recreation
  • Participation in Art and Beauty
  • Healthy Online Habits
  • Connecting with Loved Ones

Last Step: Accountability!

Here’s the bad news. When people set goals for themselves, there’s a pretty small chance they’ll follow through. Like, a 6-8% chance.

But guess what? The chance increases to 30% when you write the goal down. (So go do that!)

AND it increases to 60% when you tell someone about it**. So grab a friend and streak together. And head to our Facebook event and share what your streak will be. We can’t wait to cheer you on.

And we’ll be streaking too: Melissa’s streak will be focused on sleep–she is committing to a specific lights-out time each night, as well as a devices-off time 60 minutes before lights-out. MaryAnn will be choosing a different practice each week–this week, it’s a brief gratitude list at the end of each day. Each Monday we’ll report how our own streaks are going–including our stumbles–so we can all get recommitted for another week of streaking.

The next few days will be preparation for the streak, with the official streak starting on Thanksgiving (or the day after, your choice). But if you’re ready to start today, please do!

Today’s Question: Given today’s guidance, what will your streak be?

Until tomorrow!
MaryAnn McKibben Dana and Melissa Kennedy

Check out author Gretchen Rubin for more on abstainers and moderators.

Statistics on goal-setting are from the book Goal Setting: a Motivational Technique that Works by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham.


Image is from George Deputee on Flickr and used via Creative Commons Modify Non-Endorse License.

To Be Creative

Happy November!
(My favorite month, featuring my favorite holiday.)

Lots of stuff cooking in the Blue Room right now—my next newsletter will include an announcement about a project I’ll be offering free to readers between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Stay tuned.

And my next book, God, Improv, and the Art of Living, will be available for pre-order soon!

In the meantime, I’m catching up on reading, including a delightful book of memoir-ish essays, My Adventures with God by actor Stephen Tobolowsky, about his growing up Jewish in Dallas, Texas. (You may remember him as Ned Ryerson, the insurance agent in Groundhog Day.)

In his essay “The Garden on Orchid Lane,” Tobolowsky remembers receiving a gift of a painting set as a child. The lid of the box featured a picture of a beautiful garden. He took one look at the intricate image and handed it back, shaking his head. “I can’t do this,” he said.

His friend handed it back to him and said, “You can do it, Stevie. It’s easy. It’s Paint-by-Numbers. Open it up.”

Tobolowsky continues:

I took the plastic off the box and looked inside. There was a white canvas board. It was covered with little lines. It was like a map drawn with almost invisible ink. Inside each tiny area was a number. Sarah pulled out a brush and a plastic palette that had twenty small containers. Each container had a color, from the deepest green to the lightest shades of pink. Sarah explained, “Each paint has a number. All you have to do is match the number of the paint to the number on the drawing. Stay within the lines and you’ll have a beautiful picture.” She handed the top of the box to me. “Use the cover of the box as a guide. Follow the numbers. You can do it.”

The world felt generous. Someone else was the artist.
Someone else did all the work, but the picture could still be mine.

I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read about creativity, and almost all of them insist that we are all creative beings. I believe this is true… but I meet so many people who insist that they are not. A lot of what I do, whether through writing, speaking, or coaching, seems to be about helping people get in touch with that thread of creativity that runs through everything.

Reflecting on Tobolowsky’s words, I suspect the key to creative living is not to try to find the inspiration within oneself, but to see the world as a generous place, full of both guidance and color. Then our job gets much easier—to simply follow the generosity of the Artist… wherever it takes us.


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.

Image is Paint by Numbers by Alex Watson and used through a creative commons license.