Tag Archives: my book

Have You Had Some Failure Today?

I wrote this on my way home from a lovely week in Michigan, where I offered a series of lectures on Improvising with God at the Bay View Association, a Chautauqua institution with roots in the Methodist Church. I presented each morning, then the kids and I enjoyed afternoons of swimming, canoeing, sightseeing, and lots of ice cream.

And sunsets:

Whenever I speak to groups about approaching life as an improvisation, I try to make one thing clear: this work isn’t easy for me. I am notorious among friends and family for being uber-organized—for putting together a plan and implementing it within an inch of its life. So I’m learning and writing about this topic, not because it’s a natural fit for me, but because it’s not. I’ve joked that the book should probably be called “Improv for Control Freaks.”  I do this work because the universe doesn’t bend to our best-laid plans, and in those situations, improv can be a life-giving alternative to stomping our feet and buckling down harder. I’ve grown to love improv, and it’s helping me release my death-grip on the reins of my life and enjoy the ride. (Slowly. Sloooooowly.)

Case in point: improv helps us get comfortable with failure.  Many of us give lip service to the importance of making mistakes, of striving and falling short and learning from those experiences. For years I had a bookmark that said, “Show me a person who never makes a mistake and I’ll show you a person who never makes anything.” It’s a sentiment I wanted to believe. But I really didn’t. Failure was to be avoided. It was uncomfortable. It was unpleasant.

But failure is also essential in learning to improvise well. Perfectionism kills good improv onstage because it causes us to overthink, self-censor, and judge our efforts. And perfectionism can be a soul-killer in life because we remain captive to fear, convention and safety.

A friend recently sent me this video, an interview with Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, a highly successful women’s lingerie company. In the video the CEO describes a family ritual as a child in which each person would be asked to share a story of failure. At their dinner table, failures were named and celebrated. How amazing! And these lessons helped shape her values as an entrepreneur.

Click here for the video–about 90 seconds long. 

Since seeing this video, we’ve done this ritual a couple of times as a family. It’s been powerful (and strangely fun) to name our failures and acknowledge them as a vital part of a creative, meaningful life. It’s also important for kids to hear that adults stumble too. My kids have even volunteered stories of failure recently.

I hope it doesn’t take them 44 years to realize that making mistakes and “living messy” can be its own reward–and can also open up a new world of growth.

Peace, Joy and Yes,

MaryAnn

P.S. I love little libraries! I ran past this one several times while in Michigan. They bring me joy.

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Three Things I Learned from My Readers about Saying Yes

The following was sent to my email newsletter this morning. Click here to join and have twice-monthly dispatches from the Blue Room sent to your inbox!

My readers are awesome.

Two weeks ago I posed this question to you:

Saying Yes is risky. It can take you places you never could have predicted. Got an example from your own life?

I got dozens of responses, and reading them was holy ground for me. Thank you all for sharing your experiences. Your wisdom will make Improvising with God a better book. I’m humbled by your candor and courage!

Three themes emerged from the stories you shared:

1. Every important No comes from a larger Yes. A few of you wrote to tell me about going through divorce, and the pain that comes when a marriage ends–even if it’s ultimately the best decision. In some ways, the end of a relationship may seem like a profound No. I asked folks if it felt that way at the time: did it become a Yes only in retrospect? Yet each of these people shared that actually, at the time, it absolutely felt like a Yes. For some it was a Yes to doing the healthy thing for oneself and one’s children. For others, it was a Yes to exploring one’s own inner life and how they contributed to the difficulties in the relationship.

These comments helped me think about Yes and No in a deeper way. I’ve been reflecting on the civil rights era, for example, and how protest movements have a strong sense of resistance to them: No, we will not go to the back of the bus. No, we will not be second-class citizens anymore. But even that No comes from a much stronger Yes–a thirst for justice and freedom, for example.

2. Yes really does come with a risk. Many of you shared stories of saying Yes and having the gamble pay off. But not all of you. One person in particular wrote poignantly about having his heart broken by putting himself out there and having that vulnerability rejected. It’s hard for him to see anything good that will come out of what happened. I appreciated this perspective so much.

Many self-help books like to talk about creative risk in very glowing terms. But sometimes our Yes crashes down to earth, and that impact hurts. It’s spiritually dishonest to suggest otherwise.

3. This work needs to continue. The volume of responses I received has been great motivation to keep going with the book. What do we do when life doesn’t go according to plan? What does it mean to step out in faith? How can the tools of improv help us navigate this great improvisation called life in brave and creative ways? I can’t wait to dig into these and other questions.

And before I sign off, a bonus link. I love this season of the year because of the commencement speeches that get passed around on the Internet. Sure, many of them are boring and cliched, but hey, you’re not a captive audience on social media–you can skip those! But a few of them are stellar.

This speech by Sheryl Sandberg, an executive at Facebook, is first-rate. You may remember Sandberg lost her beloved husband David about a year ago from sudden cardiac arrest. She speaks from that terrible heartbreak in powerful ways.

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Read the whole thing, but especially what she has to say about Plan B. For anyone who still thinks my interest in improv is about performance or on-stage comedy, let Sandberg’s words put that to rest. What she’s describing is the ultimate life improvisation.

Peace, joy and Yes to you.
MaryAnn

Spiritual Snow Day

Here in northern Virginia, we’ve had a few weather delays and closings this winter, but they’ve mainly been due to extreme cold or wintry mix. All of the hassle, none of the charm. Finally, though, it looks like snow is coming. Five to nine inches if the reports are right.

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Here’s an excerpt from Sabbath in the Suburbs that’s been on my mind as we prepare.

Every swept floor invites another sweeping, every child bathed invites another bathing. When all life moves in such cycles, what is ever finished? The sun goes ’round, the moon goes ’round, the tides and seasons go ’round, people are born and die, and when are we finished? If we refuse rest until we are finished, we will never rest until we die.

—Wayne Muller

It’s Sunday afternoon, and my children are watching the sky. It’s tantalizingly bleak, heavy with gray clouds, but . . . no snow.

“It’s happening again. I don’t get it,” I say to Robert. “Eastern Pennsylvania is getting socked. Areas all around us are getting inches of the stuff. But here? Nothing.”

“It’s a snow bubble,” he says.

People in our area (and our own household) are a little weirded out by the lack of snow this year. We’ve had a couple of flurries, but nothing substantial. Meanwhile areas all around us have gotten hit by snowstorms.

Not everyone loves snow, and it comes with serious downsides— dangerously cold temperatures and occasional power outages, not to mention the impact on the elderly who live alone or people without homes or adequate heating in those homes. But it also gives our area a pause. The DC region seems to depend on one or two moderate snowstorms to release the pressure valve. Schools and the federal government close, and many businesses follow suit. Snow provides a spiritual reset in this fast-paced culture.

The previous year we had a huge snowstorm, dubbed Snowpocalypse or Snowmaggedon depending on the news network. More than two feet of snow fell and the area shut down for the better part of a week. Snowpocalypse was a lot of work, but it also blanketed the area with peace. As a friend wrote on Facebook, “I wonder if snow days are God’s way of saying, ‘If you won’t take a Sabbath for yourself, I’m going to enforce one with this cold manna-type stuff. Have some cocoa and relax, will ya?’”

I love the story she’s talking about: God provides the starving people of Israel with bread in the wilderness, a “fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground” (Ex. 16:14). I’m struck with how improbable the story is. Manna in Hebrew literally means “what is it?” and I laugh to think about the Israelites looking confused but delighted as the desert sky rains breadcrumbs. (As a child, I always pictured it looking and tasting like yellow cake.) Then I picture them scooping up handfuls of the flaky stuff and throwing it at each other . . . a manna-ball fight. Followed by a manna-man-building contest. Then manna angels.

God provides in such eccentric ways. Bread from heaven that feeds a people. A day of rest, cold and crystalline.

Having grown up in Texas and made exactly one snowman as a child—a Yoda-sized thing studded with bits of grass since the dusting of snow was so slight—I can’t get enough of the stuff. I miss it this year, because who doesn’t love a bonus Sabbath? But I’m also glad that we have set aside Sabbath each week. Our calendar will remind us to pause and rest, even if the sky stays clear. We’re never more than six days away from a spiritual snow day.

A Simple but Heartfelt Thank You

I ran across this exchange on Facebook today, kinda by accident:

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I know Mary from way back, but it still freaks me out when I stumble upon people I don’t know who’ve read my book. There’s a big part of me that still thinks the readership consists of close personal friends and everyone my mother knows.

Sabbath in the Suburbs turned two last week. People are still buying it—not hordes, but a steady stream. And folks are still write the occasional review too, which makes me happy—even when they aren’t great reviews. (The most recent review on Amazon was three stars because it “didn’t live up to the hype.” That tickled me to no end. I have hype?!?)

Even more fun, I get to come and meet so many of you who want to explore this book with your church small groups, young families, women’s groups and the like. Though that travel is slowly morphing into events for my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age, the topic of Sabbath is still quite vital and important for lots of you. And that makes me happy. And grateful.

So thank you for reading. In a world crammed with words, your attention is both an honor and a gift.

Death and Dying on the Internet

I’m back from Collegeville and a fruitful week of writing. I’ve now got a very (very) rough draft for book two, currently titled Spirituality in the Smartphone Age.  It’s a shorter book than Sabbath in the Suburbs, and I’m still planning to publish it via e-book, though a print option will be available. I’ve been in touch with an editor and a friend who does e-book production for a living. This thing will happen.

The final chapter will be about how the Internet has impacted the way we think about death and dying. It’s turning out to be one of my favorite chapters to research and write. Here’s some of the conversation about the topic on Facebook.

One of the cool things about writing a book is that people send you things. Today Dave True, a friend and professor at Wilson College, sent along this post from the Religion and American History blog by Laura Arnold Leibman. Key quote:

In The Hour of Our Death (1987), Philippe Ariès argues that an “invisible death model” has dominated twentieth-century American life.  In this model,

Death’s medicalization distanced the community from the dying and the deceased.  Individualism ruled, nature was conquered, social solidarity waned, and not the afterworld but family ties mattered.  Western society surrounded death with so much shame, discomfort, and revulsion that Gorer (1965) even spoke of a pornography of death.  Death became concealed in hospitals, nursing homes, and trailer parks.  Yet, the death of death remained, a fear corresponding more to people’s social than biological death. 

Accompanying this dispossession of the dying person is a “denial of mourning” and the subsequent invention of new funerary rituals in the United States (Philippe Ariès, “The Reversal of Death,” Death in America, ed. Stannard [1975], 136).  Excessive displays of emotion both by the person dying and those they leave behind are considered taboo and “embarrassments.”  …

What interested my students, however, was the impact of the internet on the “invisible death model.”  Have we entered a new era regarding death and loss?  They noticed in particular three results of the internet.

Check out the post for Leibman’s observations.

And in case you missed it, Katherine Willis Pershey also sent this along–a beautiful expression of solidarity and care for bereaved parents. Their little one spent her entire life in the NICU and they wanted to see her pretty face without the tubes. Members of the Reddit community responded:

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I like the middle one, but they are all haunting. And they are all an offering to total strangers, which makes them beautiful.