Use Your Talent, Cast Your Patronus

Over the summer my kids hosted a Harry Potter movie marathon. They chose their four favorite films (out of the eight total) and invited friends over for themed food, decorations and fun. 

I happened to catch what is probably my favorite moment from the entire series, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Near the end of the story, at a moment of extreme peril, Harry looks into the distance and sees what he thinks is his deceased father casting a spell that helps save Harry’s life.

Through the quirks of time travel, he and Hermione are later able to go back to that same spot. They find a good vantage point from which to watch, where Harry crouches with anticipation of his father’s arrival. He watches, as if viewing a play, as a group of sinister wraiths called dementors swirls over him and his godfather, Sirius Black. (Yes, there are “two” Harry Potters. It’s time travel; don’t try to figure it out.) 

And he waits for a glimpse of his father. He watches Sirius’s life (and his own) slipping away under the dementors’ attack, and he waits. Any minute now. My father will be here to save the day.
 

Finally Hermione says quietly, “Harry. Nobody’s coming.” And that’s when Harry realizes—there will be no hero galloping to the rescue. HE was the one he saw casting the spell. It’s up to him. So he steps up and conjures the life-saving patronus, a spell he'd been struggling with for a year.

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He explains to Hermione later in the story, he knew he could do it, because... well, he’d already done it. 

But I believe he also knew he could do it, because he had to do it. There was no other option.

Whether it’s news of another mass shooting, or reports that there are still some 700 children who have not been reunited with their parents at the border, or a wistful feeling at the death of John McCain and wondering where the principled leaders in Washington are, things can seem quite grim. Or maybe the wistfulness is more localized—broken relationships, fear and uncertainty, sadness that things aren’t “the way they used to be.” 

The thing is, though... nobody’s coming, folks. It’s up to us, whatever “it” might be. So we curse the darkness and cast our spell, whatever that looks like. But we cannot wait for someone else. We're it. One of my running mantras is, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” (It applies to more than just running.) 

But, like Harry, we know that we have the strength to survive this terrible threat, because people just like us have done it before, and we don’t do it alone.I’ve long loved the old Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” And for those of us who identify as Christian, Teresa of Avila nuances this point even further:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good...

Recently I heard my colleague Jim Atwood offer remarks at the Presbyterian Writers Guild luncheon, where he received this year’s Distinguished Writer Award.

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Jim has spent some 30 years writing and advocating for more sensible gun laws; it has become his life’s work. In his reflection, he talked about the parable of the talents, the story told by Jesus in which a landowner gives three servants varying amounts of money, called talents. 

Jim looked around him and saw people with what he considered to be five talents and two talents, and kept waiting for one of them to lend their gifts to the issue of gun violence. Their writing gifts were so much greater than his, he said. They had a larger audience, more influence. He waited and waited… and finally realized that he needed to stop waiting for someone else to pick up the cause that he felt so convicted about. 

He stepped out in faith and conjured his “patronus.” He used his talent to say what he believed, and to be a voice of conscience in the church, and beyond. 

...Somebody oughta. 
That somebody is probably you.

Onward,
MaryAnn

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The Art of Coaching Improvisationally

“The five minutes before the coaching conversation begins are the most important five minutes of the whole encounter.”

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I remember hearing this in coach training and feeling surprised. Surely the wrap-up is most critical, I thought to myself, in which actions steps are articulated and clarified. Or, the initial check-in, which sets the stage for everything that is to come. As a coach, I now see the wisdom of this instruction. If I come into the appointment distracted and scattered, I cannot be of service. In my pre-conversation time, I try to center myself, prepare to listen deeply without agenda, and most of all, trust the process and my role in it. There’s always a bit of nervous excitement, too, because I have no idea what will happen and where we’ll end up at the conclusion of our conversation.

Interestingly, that anticipatory energy is exactly what I feel when preparing to walk out on a stage to do improv comedy.

READ THE REST at Coaching World, the blog of the International Coach Federation (ICF).

Yes-And: Worth a Thousand Words

I've been working with Lukrative Visual Products on a series of video interviews connecting improv with life. This week I'm combing through these videos for editing, and remembering warmly the great time Luke and I had filming these rich conversations.

Luke--who's also my brother, in addition to being a wonderful videographer and producer--knew very little about improv before reading God, Improv, and the Art of Living and taking on the project, but he's really embraced the ideas wholeheartedly. Part of the fun of our collaboration is getting little notes and tidbits from him about improv. Like this image he sent recently, which perfectly illustrates one of the basic themes of the book:

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Let's all strive to be Yes-AND people today!

Reframing Fear

I’ve always loved this image, which I got from the Improvised Life website, an early “conversation partner” for my book:

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I feel the truth of it, and also the incredible challenge of it. The world we live in seems supersaturated with fear these days. I admire people who can transcend that anxiety. How do they do it? I confess I often carry around my fear and anxiety over the state of the world like a banner: Look how vigilant I am. (Can I get an Amen?) 

What would it mean for us to reframe our fear, from “Oof, that’s scary,” to “Wow, that’s interesting”? And to follow up that curiosity with open-hearted response?

I was reminded of the shift from fear to curiosity recently, when I ran across a story by author Anne Fadiman about her father, essayist Clifton Fadiman. In the latter years of his life, he developed extreme vision loss that was so debilitating, so frightening to contemplate, that he begged his daughter to help him end his life. She urged him to at least try to adapt to what was happening to him. He finally agreed to attend a program, called VIP, that taught independent living skills to adults experiencing full or partial blindness. 

It was tough for him, but he found himself surprised and even captivated by the many tricks he learned for getting along in the world. Anne remembers his phone call after the first lesson. Her father, who had led a stimulating and remarkable life, surrounded by fascinating people and deep ideas, said, “That may have been the most interesting day of my life… Except for the first day of my life, it was the most novel.” He learned to fold paper money in particular ways so he could tell them apart. He learned to open milk cartons, and cook. 

The “final exam” for the VIP program was a trip to a simulated McDonald’s, where the participants would make their way through an entire transaction unassisted. Anne speculates that McDonald’s was chosen because everyone was familiar with the place—everyone except, as it turned out, her father. “My father had spent decades complaining about American pop culture without experiencing any. Finally, his opportunity had arrived! …What man can predict the form in which his enlightenment will present itself?” 

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Clifton Fadiman cultivated what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” in which even a trip to McDonald’s can be a source of wonder—an opening to greater self-awareness and abundance. Anne concludes her reflection, “My father completed the VIP program and never mentioned suicide again.” 

Life offers us countless opportunities to move from fear to curiosity. Many of these opportunities are much less dramatic than the one facing Clifton Fadiman. Yet they hold the potential for transformation nonetheless. 

What might you get curious about today?

Onward,
MaryAnn

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Slightly-Less-Than Ten for Tuesday

Still catching up a bit from being gone last week for the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s General Assembly... but here are a few juicy links from the past few weeks!

SPEAKING OF GENERAL ASSEMBLY

Was super inspired by the group of Presbyterians who walked the 200+ miles from Louisville (our denomination's HQ) to St. Louis (where the Assembly met), in advocacy for Fossil-Free PCUSA and climate sustainability. Read a personal reflection on that journey here. Unfortunately (in my opinion), the assembly opted not to divest from fossil fuel companies, but the work continues, and this group inspired countless people.

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HOW TO GET BETTER AT THINGS YOU CARE ABOUT

Got to talking to a seminary student last week who shared this great TED talk from Eduardo Briceño about how we learn, and how we get stuck:

The learning zone is when our goal is to improve. Then we do activities designed for improvement, concentrating on what we haven't mastered yet, which means we have to expect to make mistakes, knowing that we will learn from them. That is very different from what we do when we're in our performance zone, which is when our goal is to do something as best as we can, to execute. Then we concentrate on what we have already mastered and we try to minimize mistakes.

This made a lot of sense to me, and is part of what makes improv such a powerful tool for transformation--you're in the learning zone a lot. Too many of us get trapped in performance zone all the time.

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IMPROV AND AGILE

Speaking of improv... agile is a pet interest of mine, and here's an interview with agile coach Leila Rao exploring how these two modalities intersect, and how businesses can incorporate improv games to reinforce agile thinking:

The power of using "yes, and" is multi-faceted. At its core, in order to agree and build upon what someone else said, you first have to listen! So it is one thing to say in a sprint planning session, please listen to each other; it is considerably more powerful to say, please apply the principle of "yes, and". The shift from reminding people about childhood basics versus reminding people that they are engaged in complex work that requires active listening and collaboration. When applied regularly, the "yes, and" principle reinforces a sense of "team", i.e. a chorus of creative voices can create more complex music than any of them can do individually.

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WHY READ HANNAH ARENDT NOW

"In the preface to her 1968 collection of essays, “Men in Dark Times,” Hannah Arendt wrote: “Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination.” Today, in our own dark time, Arendt’s work is being read with a new urgency, precisely because it provides such illumination."

"In the preface to her 1968 collection of essays, “Men in Dark Times,” Hannah Arendt wrote: “Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination.” Today, in our own dark time, Arendt’s work is being read with a new urgency, precisely because it provides such illumination."

A piece in the NYT about what she might have to teach us right now:

Many liberals are perplexed that when their fact-checking clearly and definitively shows that a lie is a lie, people seem unconcerned and indifferent. But Arendt understood how propaganda really works. “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part.”

FTR, there are conservatives who care about facts--and liberals can get suckered into tribal thinking too. But there's good stuff here. 

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FEEL GOOD STORIES OF THE WEEK

The first one has made the rounds, but if you missed it, here's a high school baseball player comforting his good friend after striking him out. Parenting goals: to be the mother of a #7 kid.

Second: I just started getting the New York Times's weekly "good news" email, and this story made me smile: They Started School Afraid of the Water. Now They Are Saving Lives

The lifeguard trainees at Grover Cleveland are predominantly students of color, about half of them male and half of them female, and most are immigrants or children of immigrants. Most enter high school as non-swimmers, fearful of the water. But within two years, most are swimming at competitive speeds and can qualify for, and pass, the rigorous training course offered by New York City to become a lifeguard at a city pool or beach.

Jimmy Barrera, 17, from Maspeth, Queens, a junior, said, “When I first came here, I was scared of the water — that’s the truth.”

Now he can swim the 50-yard sprint in under 26 seconds, nearly 10 seconds faster than the 35 seconds the city requires for a certified lifeguard.

The racial politics of swimming are fascinating and tough. Robert recently visited a museum when he was in Florida that addressed the topic. Apparently enslaved people were amazing swimmers at first, but slave owners deliberately prohibited successive generations from learning, since it was a means of escape. That shameful history echoes even to this day, with communities of color having less access to public pools, and thus learning to swim at lower rates.

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THIS MOVIE CHANGED ME

I love this podcast from the On Being folks, in which interesting people talk about life-changing movies. This episode addresses Toy Story, with a Catholic priest talking about his own "dark night of the soul"... and how he was inspired by none other than Buzz Lightyear.

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And that's all for this time!

Surf the Problems

Recently I read an interview with George Miller, co-writer and director of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a phenomenal but brutal-to-watch film. Miller was talking about a pivotal scene in which Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, receives some devastating news: the Green Place of Many Mothers, where Furiosa had lived as a child, and the place to which she and Max (Tom Hardy) have been trying to escape, no longer exists. Furiosa had been clinging to hope that they could find refuge there from the dystopian hellscape that had bound them. The destruction of the Green Place is also the destruction of her hope.

How would Miller capture Furiosa’s reaction to this news? He knew he wanted to film her from a distance, with barren sand dunes all around her. Unfortunately, the wind in the African desert where they were filming that day was blowing, well, furiously.

“Instead of cursing the wind,” Miller says, “I looked behind us and saw that the dunes had this wind blowing sand across them and the sun was getting low in the sky. I thought, ‘She could walk across the bridge of the dune and into the sun and just respond however she would, having completely lost all hope.’” 

With that vague instruction, and not much of a plan, Theron staggered onto the dune like a wounded animal, dropped to her knees, and screamed into the sunset. In an epic film, full of bizarre and arresting images, this one may be the most iconic—and wrenching:

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What struck me is that Miller called this approach “surfing the problems.” The expression resonated with me instantly. I also realized, it’s probably my biggest growing edge as I think about what it means to improvise life.

I know people who surf the problems well—I’m married to one, in fact—who come alive amid a certain amount of chaos, who are at their best when things are at their worst. Sadly, that is not me. In my good moments—in my very good moments—when life is going well, I can approach my life with flexibility, playfulness, and intuition. But what about when everything’s going haywire? That’s when improv is needed the most, and that’s exactly when my resistance takes over, when my need for control and my sense of justice flare up. (Who cares what’s “fair”? What’s happening is what’s happening.)

Today’s reflection doesn’t have a pithy wrap-up, because it really is something I struggle with. Instead I’m wondering, what comes to your mind when you think about “surfing the problems”? When have you done this well? What resources helped you along? Who are the people in your life who show you the way? And what might the world around us look like if we embodied this approach more fully? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Do It For Chicago!

It’s finally here—book launch day. Many of you have already bought God, Improv, and the Art of Living; some of you are reading advanced copies and reviewing it, and some are even blogging about it, or pitching articles to various websites and magazines about its content. I’m thrilled to have my tiger team by my side.

I want you to be a part of the team too--and it's for a great cause. 

Patricia Madson's Improv Wisdom features a great definition of an improviser that guided me throughout the writing of God, Improv, and the Art of Living.

An improviser is
someone who is awake,
is not self-focused,
and is moved by a desire to do something fruitful
and to give back,
and who acts on this impulse.

It’s the last part—wanting to give back, and acting on it—that’s my focus today.

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I spent three weeks in Chicago over the course of writing this book, taking classes and attending shows at Second City. (Thanks to the Louisville Institute for the grant funding that made it possible!) Chicago is the improv capital, as far as I’m concerned, and it also happens to be one of my favorite cities.

And so, just for today, I am donating $4 per book sold to Chicago Lights. Founded in 1964, Chicago Lights seeks to support and meet the needs of children, youth, and adults facing the challenges of poverty in Chicago. I am excited to support the city that has given so much to me personally, and was so foundational in the writing of my book.

Here’s all you have to do:

1. Purchase the book TODAY, May 8, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Eerdmans Publishing Company, or your favorite independent bookseller.

2. Send me a screen shot of your receipt—either email maryannmcdana@gmail.com or send it through social media—Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You have until midnight EDT.(You can obscure or crop out any personal info you don't want to share.)

I’ll do the rest!

You get a great book, and we do a beautiful thing for a beautiful city, together. Happy Launch Day!