Check, Please!

Do you find yourself learning the same spiritual life lessons over and over?

Or is that just me?

I recently took a class in CPR/First Aid from the American Red Cross, and it got me thinking. Check it out:

I'm thinking about CPR and circus clowns. As you do.

What do you think? What do you need to "check" in your own life? I'd love to hear.

Before I go, a few quick notes. I'm traveling throughout the fall to lead retreats and workshops, and am currently scheduling events for 2020--email me at the link below or contact me through my website.

On the coaching side of things, I'm co-leading two cohort groups for Presbyterian church leaders through NEXT Church. These groups start in September, run for six months, and will include a monthly group session as well as individual coaching sessions. It's a great way to learn in community and blast through the stuff that's keeping you stuck as a leader. Read more and sign up here.

What Am I Working on Next? Well...

So what are you writing next?

I get asked this quite a bit. Who knew such a simple question would be so fraught? On the one hand, Yay that people are interested in what I have to say! On the other hand, baked right into the question is the assumption that I should be working on something new. I, too, would like to have a new project brewing. The problem is, I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know so stop asking me! But wait, no, keep asking! Maybe that will move this process along!

Six long years elapsed between the release of Sabbath in the Suburbs and God, Improv, and the Art of Living. I’m greatly enjoying marinating in the practice of improvisation, traveling around to churches and other organizations to share the principles of improv and connect them to life, leadership, and team dynamics. Heck, I’m still getting invites to talk about sabbath, which is very gratifying, even though I currently give myself a solid C+ in that area of my life. Still and all, I sure hope the time between books two and three is much shorter than six years. That means I need to be on the lookout now for the threads that will weave together into that next book.

But I also don’t want to push things. One of the things I appreciate about improv is the emphasis on trusting the process: taking the next faithful step even if you don’t know where you’ll end up. We’ve all probably had those cringe-worthy moments that come from trying too hard, or from rushing the cake out of the oven even though the toothpick doesn’t come out clean. So I’m making it a goal to trust that the right thing will come when it comes.

But how do you know when the right thing is the right thing? I know writers who can crank out a new book every couple of years. I don’t understand how they do that. Good for them, I guess—my stuff seems to need to ripen much longer. Or maybe they’ve learned something I haven’t yet, about risk and setting big audacious goals and trusting yourself to meet them. I tend to wait and amass ideas and snippets until I pretty much know where the project is going to go.

What if I said, “I’m going to build this bridge,” in faith that the plans and materials would come? Or maybe that’s just not my way, and can that be OK too? Gah!!! Mind in knots! (As Robert De Niro said when giving out the screenwriting awards on a recent Oscars broadcast, “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”)

Last week, a colleague posted this quote from author Susan Orlean in a writers’ group on social media: “For me, writing is really just learning about things that interest me, and then trying to convince you to find them as interesting as I do.” My friend adored this quote (as do I) and said, “Not sure what's next [for me], but I wonder if we gave ourselves permission to indulge our weird interests a little more instead of trying to catch the wave of the next big thing or impress other people, we’d have more fun writing and [paradoxically] grab more readers?”

Thank you, Internet, for the right thing at the right time. My friend is absolutely right. And it broke open this whole next-book thing for me. I’m currently workshopping some rough material with a small group, wondering if that can turn into a larger project. Who knows if it will, but I'm sure having fun. I’m also back to regular journaling (Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages), turning over the soil and sowing some seeds.

I recently discovered a new-to-me podcast in which actor Adam Scott and comedian/writer Scott Aukerman geek out about their love for the band U2 (the podcast is called “U Talkin' U2 To Me”?), which later morphed into an REM podcast called “R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: ME?” Their enthusiasm is charming and infectious, and the show seems to have little utility in terms of their careers. They do it because they love it.

The podcast is a little… flabby? (they could use an editor), but they’re so likable I kinda don’t care. They recently had a live show in San Francisco that featured an REM cover band from Buffalo called Dead Letter Office. They managed to keep a secret from the band that REM guitarist Peter Buck would be on the show to play with the band and also do an interview.

Scott Aukerman, Peter Buck, and Adam Scott.

Scott Aukerman, Peter Buck, and Adam Scott.

Here’s the episode in question. The first part is a prelude to the live show, in which they’re in the studio and are (verbosely but earnestly) describing in great detail the many machinations they devised to keep Peter Buck a secret from the band until the moment he walked out on stage. It’s a moment of pure delight in the spirit of Susan Orlean: indulging one’s enthusiasms, and creating an experience in time. Not because you hope for a big impact, but simply because it’s fun for you, and you hope, your audience.

A few of you dear readers are writers yourselves. For those of you who aren’t, and who’ve stuck with this post this far, I wonder about the connections to your own life. I wonder if you, like me, try to divine the next right move, even though your deeper self knows better: that chasing after “right” can feel forced or inauthentic. What would it look like to lean into your own idiosyncratic joys and share those with the heart of an evangelist? To be, like Mary Oliver, a “bride married to amazement”? Maybe we’d all realize that the outcomes are mere by-product, and that process is everything.

I don’t know what I’m writing next, but I know that’s my task for the moment.

~

Thanks to writer/pastor colleague Heidi Haverkamp for the Susan Orlean quote and rumination… to check out the wonderful enthusiasms of her heart and mind, here are her books.

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!