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. Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 7.09.30 PM

 

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: Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 8.19.57 PM

 

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.

In Praise of Clippings in a Digital World

I'm working slowly and steadily on a new book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. The scope of the book is still taking shape, but I'm currently ruminating on everything from selfie culture (it's not as terrible as you think) to cultivating a sense of mystery at a time when everything can be Googled. One of the joys of working on a new project is having people send pertinent articles and books my way. My friend Barbara has been one of the most faithful sharers of information with me. I can't count the number of tidbits she's sent my way over the past year or so. But she's been sharing them not through emailed links, or texts, or even phone calls saying, "Be sure to catch the article in the Wall Street Journal about how historians are having a hard time doing their work in the age of email."

photoShe's been sending me clippings. Actual, cut-from-the newspaper clippings.

Every week or two I'll get a letter in the mail with Barbara's efficient script on the envelope, and a folded-up geometric wonder of newsprint or glossy magazine paper inside, often paper-clipped to a short note containing a personal update.

Clipping, note, envelope, stamp, address.

I love it.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a power user of Evernote. I scan much of the kids' artwork to cut down on clutter. My iPhone is my personal assistant and more. But there's something so fantastic about holding these physical pieces of paper in my hands. I feel cared for. Barbara's clippings, now a good-sized pile, are a tangible reminder that this project matters to someone. An emailed link, while greatly appreciated, doesn't convey that nearly as much.

Let me spoil the ending of my book for you. I will likely land somewhere in the vicinity of "Our digital/technological culture is neither good nor bad in itself. What we need is thoughtfulness about when, where, and how much," and hopefully offer some wisdom and tips in that discernment.

But somewhere in there, I'll be singing the praises of clippings.

~

Image is from one of Barbara's clippings, referencing Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: "people are more likely to be moved by information that challenges their prejudices if they're prevented from responding to it straightaway and it has time to sink in, to steep. Is there enough such time these days?"

Resting in the Words of Others

medium_763255266 Lent begins tomorrow, and among other things, I'm experiencing the season by taking a break from blogging. But only sort of. These next several weeks I'll be highlighting posts from the archives, sharing quotes and links that mean something to me, and maybe even posting a photo or two.

There are a number of reasons for this, one being that I'm trying to make headway on my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. I need to create some space and time for those words to come. So I'll be resting in the words of others...

In this space, anyway. I'll be writing short weekly reflections on my email list, which you can sign up for here.

I've written before about how judgy people can get about Lent practices that strike them as too much about self-improvement and not enough about devotion to God. I'm not interested in diagnosing whether giving up blog writing is a "good enough" discipline. It's what I'm doing, that's all. I feel called to it.

How about you? Will you be taking on a practice this Lent?

~

photo credit: Darwin Bell via photopin cc

"But Can I Watch Football on the Sabbath?" With a Nod to Brene Brown's Daring Greatly

medium_3009900665 When I speak to groups about Sabbath, I almost always start at the same place:

Turn to the person next to you and tell them one thing that brings you delight. It can't be work-related (though I hope you are delighted by your work!), and ideally, it isn't something that requires costly equipment or an exotic locale. This is something you can potentially do without much effort or expense.

After folks have shared with their neighbors, I suggest that their delightful activity might be a place where they're already practicing Sabbath without calling it that.. and/or it's an entry point to think about incorporating Sabbath into their lives. Sabbath, as Isaiah reminds us in the Old Testament, is to be kept as a delight, not a chore. The creation story in Genesis has this relentless refrain: it's good, it's good, it's good. This world is good. Our bodies are good, and made for pleasure. In my own tradition, the Westminster Statement of Faith says our primary purpose is to glorify and enjoy God.

That doesn't mean that every enjoyable activity brings us closer to the Holy, I suppose. And sometimes in my retreats and discussions, people look at me skeptically when I talk about the delight stuff. Shouldn't we be doing "holy" things on that day? Isn't Sabbath about prayer and Bible reading and all those religious practices? Can we really do whatever we want?

What about watching football on TV?

I'm never quite sure how to answer. For one thing, I'm not the Sabbath police.

For another thing, while I do find prayer and Bible study to be meaningful and important activities for Christians, and lovely things to do on Sabbath, I'm more of a Barbara Brown Taylor Christian, which means I do not see a big division between sacred and secular activities.

But does that mean anything can be a Sabbath activity?

I'm reading Brené Brown's latest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, and she's helped me finally get more concrete with my answer to the football question.

[If you're not familiar with her work, the best introduction is her crazy-viral TED talk. By the way, she wants to be my big sister, doesn't she? Of course she does. She can do this, because there aren't thousands of other recovering perfectionists AND aspiring writers also clamoring to be her kid sister. No siree. Cough.]

Anyway, Brené Brown helps me answer the "football on Sabbath" question when she talks about numbing. She writes:

I believe we all numb our feelings. We may not do it compulsively or chronically, which is addiction, but that doesn't mean that we don't numb our sense of vulnerability. And numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn't just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can't selectively numb emotion.

There aren't any checklists or norms to help you identify shadow comforts or other destructive numbing behavior. This requires self-examination and reflection... Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions that ultimately diminish my spirit?

For me, sitting down to a wonderful meal is nourishment and pleasure. Eating while I'm standing, be it in front of the refrigerator or inside the pantry, is always a red flag.Sitting down to watch one of my favorite shows on television is pleasure. Flipping through channels for an hour is numbing.

This is the key to Sabbath as well. Really, it comes down to intention. I can imagine times when watching football feels immersive and enlivening. Can such an activity also feed us spiritually? Don't know; I don't have the spectator sports gene myself. But I can see how getting caught up in a thrilling contest, in which athletes are performing to the best of their abilities and using their "fearfully and wonderfully made" bodies to their utmost, would be grounding and inspiring... and maybe even bring us closer to God. But I can imagine other times in which watching sports on TV feels mindless, when we watch out of habit or boredom, when we're not really there.

I think that's why some people see Facebook as such a source of unhappiness. In my opinion, there's nothing inherently numbing about social media. Used in an intentional and mindful way, it's a great source of fun and connection.

What makes Facebook a challenge is that, unlike a football game, there's no end to it. We can start out enjoying the relationships we cultivate there, but when we spend too much time scrolling through people, we start to numb out. I'm a big fan of technology, and as FB friends know, I'm a chatty FBer. I've also thought a lot about how to use it in a way that's good for me. So I've put all kinds of boundaries around it, whether it's using lists or only signing on a couple of times a day (and not at all on most weekends).

What do you think about this numbing stuff? Have you read Daring Greatly?

~

I haven't said this recently: thank you to everyone who has read Sabbath in the Suburbs and recommended it to friends. If you haven't already, I'd be most thankful for an Amazon review.

photo credit: laverrue via photopin cc

It's a Birthday... and That Means Gifts!

medium_6704174201 Sabbath in the Suburbs was released exactly one year ago!

Tooooooooooot!

Yeah... that was a party horn.

What a fun, harrowing, joyful, tense, and fascinating experience it is to write and publish a book. I'm so thankful for the folks at Chalice Press and The Young Clergy Women Project for believing in the book and supporting it.

I'm especially grateful for the cast of thousands---that's you guys---who have supported me by reading the book... and for those who have reviewed it on Amazon (one of you as recently as this weekend), told friends about it, and shared it with book groups and Sunday School classes.

Speaking of groups...

In honor of this milestone, I'm giving away a Sabbath Book Group Study Pack to two lucky winners. This includes five signed copies of the book, a printed copy of the Sabbath Supplementals discussion materials, and hi-def versions of the five Sabbath videos on flash drive. I'll also throw in a couple of fun extras to help your group have a great time together.

(But wait, some of you may say. I'm not connected to a church or group! That's cool. In fact, many of the book's fans are non-religious or otherwise unaffiliated. If you win, I'll send you the five books for you to give to friends or distribute as you wish. And you'll still get the fun mystery extras.)

To enter the drawing, you can either:

1. Tweet about Sabbath in the Suburbs and/or the Sabbath Supplementals; please include my Twitter handle (@revmamd) so I can keep track of your entry.

2. Share about the book and/or the Supplementals on Facebook. Again, be sure to tag me so I know you've done this and your entry will count.

3. Email or otherwise contact a friend whom you think would be interested in the book. Comment here to let me know you've done that (yes, you're on the honor system for this one).

Each time you do one of the following, you will be entered, so feel free to mix it up. But don't go overboard. People don't like that.

Contest closes on Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern. (I'm sorry that I can only ship to the United States and Canada.)

And now... who's up for some virtual cake?

~

photo credit: rottnapples via photopin cc