Kick With Your Left Foot

I recently caught an episode of the Slate podcast, Upon Further Review, while out on a run. The program, and book by the same name, look at pivotal moments in sports history and ask, What if it didn’t happen that way? (Example: What if Richard Nixon had been good at football?)

The episode I heard considered the 1999 World Cup, in which the U.S. Women’s team beat China in a penalty shootout. The program used the “what if” format to highlight the fact that, despite the World Cup victory, women’s sports still struggle to achieve the same prestige, audience, and financial support as men’s sports. 

A particular detail in the story stood out to me. Brandi Chastain was the last of the US players to attempt a penalty kick, and when she prepared to walk onto the field, coach Tony DiCicco gave her a last-minute instruction: Take the kick with your left foot, not your right.

She did, and the U.S. won the game. You probably remember Chastain’s iconic celebration photo! (I covet those arms and abs... but I digress)

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Imagine if it had gone the other way. There was a lot riding on that kick, regardless of which foot she used, but think about what it must have been like for Chastain and her coach: she had never taken a penalty kick with her left foot in a professional game. Ever.

Chastain explained the rationale for switching feet: the Chinese team was surely well-schooled in Chastain’s moves, and would have be able to anticipate where the ball might go. Changing feet made that kick less predictable. But with my improv lenses on, I also wonder whether switching things up was a way of getting Chastain out of her head, allowing her to be a little looser, less mechanical, more grounded, as she executed that historic kick. 

As I am often fond of saying, I practice and write about improv because it doesn’t come naturally to me—I like my backup plans to have backup plans. And I’m a good planner. I could probably live the rest of my life making good solid plans and carrying them out. It would probably be a fruitful life. But… it also sounds a little boring, even to me. 

I’ve been wondering what it would mean for me to “kick with my left foot”—to intentionally introduce some unpredictability into my life. To do the opposite of what I’m conditioned for and comfortable with, just to see what happens. To surprise myself. What would it mean for you or your organization to do the same? What would we learn? What do we have to lose? And best of all, what do we stand to gain?

I went looking for more information about this World Cup story, and unsurprisingly, Chastain had practiced kicking with her left foot a lot. A lot. Yes, she’d never deployed that move in a game, but she’d practiced and prepared and conditioned. And when the moment came—the decisive moment—she was ready. 

And that’s how life works, isn’t it? We do what's ours to do, day by day. We pursue our “craft,” whatever that might be; we explore what it means to be our authentic selves; we learn, we engage in rituals and traditions, we practice—so that at moments when we are most needed in our communities and families, we are ready to give our best effort for the sake of tikkun olam, the healing of the world. As Danusha Veronica Goska writes, “When we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years in preparation doing tiny, decent things before one historical moment propelled them to center stage.”

Tiny, decent things. 
Tiny, decent, surprising things. 
Tiny, decent, surprising things… so we’re ready to jump in, with either foot forward.

Onward,
MaryAnn

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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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World's Okayest, Japanese-Style

Happy June! Summer is here… almost. My kids still have two weeks of school left. As I watch Facebook friends post about vacations and lazy afternoons, we’re still in the thick of exams and projects. We’re so ready to be done. It feels like we limp across the finish line every year. Meanwhile swim season has begun, so the house is cluttered with backpacks and math packets AND goggles and wet swim suits. It’s chaotic and cluttered—not my favorite mode of being.

I wrote to you a couple months ago about #WorldsOkayest, which is my latest spiritual challenge. As a recovering perfectionist, it’s a constant struggle to remind myself to accept, and even love, the ragged edges of my life. Hence my interest in improv, as a way to confront that tendency in myself and transform it in a playful way. The fact is, perfectionism can keep us rigid and stuck. As I write in God, Improv, and the Art of Living: “Given the choice between the perfect action that remains in my head and the imperfect action that’s actually lived out, my natural inclination is to choose the former almost every time. But improv doesn’t allow for such theoretical perfection—messy reality is always the better course.” 

Turns out there’s an ancient Japanese philosophy at work here, known as wabi-sabi. It’s more of a sensibility than a doctrine, but as I understand, it’s about seeing beauty in simplicity, the ordinary, and the imperfect. 

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A friend recommended the book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, and I’ve been reading and re-reading the slim volume as I consider the wabi-sabiness of my own life. Here are a few nuggets that resonate with me right now: 

“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.

A wabi-sabi state of mind involves acceptance of the inevitable and appreciation of the cosmic order. 

Wabi-sabi is exemplified in that which is irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy, and murky. (Oh how I love the sound of the word “murky”!)

Where do you see wabi-sabi in your life? Here are a few of mine:

  • The raggedness of my son’s hair. He refuses to get it cut and it’s driving me crazy… except it’s lovely and thick and perfect for ruffling, which he still lets me do at 10 years old.
  • The remnants of a pedicure I should really get redone, but I got it the week I was with my beloved clergy group, and it’s a sweet, imperfect reminder of that time.
  • This post. I feel like I should write more, write better, write meticulously. But it’s bedtime for the kids, and a glass of wine with my husband is waiting, so for this moment I will trust the spirit to speak through quick words.

Onward,
MaryAnn

Image is from the charming children's book Wabi-Sabi by Mark Reibstein. Wabi-Sabi is the name of the cat.

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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!

Useful Fictions

As I get ready for the release of God, Improv, and the Art of Living (have you pre-ordered?) I've been asked, in both interviews and regular conversation, “How has improv changed your life?” It’s a big question with a lot of small, everyday answers. Here’s just one: We all make assumptions about the people and circumstances around us, often without thinking critically about those assumptions. The improv principle of yes-and (to receive what is offered and to build on it) invites me to lean in the direction of compassion for others and myself in the assumptions I make.

For example, on a recent Saturday morning I was in a coffee shop, waiting my turn and growing increasingly late as the person in front of me placed a large and complicated order—about six hot beverages to go, each with some specific, nit-picking substitution or adaptation. Moment by moment, my irritation grew: I have somewhere to be. What is taking so long? Why do we all need these special snowflake drinks anyway? I fumed, preparing to order my decidedly uncomplicated tea.

Then I noticed that the man was wearing a suit. To pass the time, I found myself thinking of reasons why someone would be dressed up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Job interview? Stayed out all night and on his way home? Laundry day and everything else was dirty? I finally decided he was attending a family funeral, and had decided to pick up beverages for his fellow bereaved loved ones. And those picayune order details? Rather than being indulgences of an “I want it MY WAY!” society, they became a means for this gentleman to show care for people who maybe needed a little comfort on a very difficult day.

I obviously have no idea whether he was really going to a funeral. But ultimately, what does it matter? My little moment of improvisational imagination allowed me to breathe deeply, to relax into the waiting, and to beam a little love toward this stranger—and don’t we all need love? Making a decision to move toward charity helps me be the kind of person I would like to be—who I feel called to be. 

To be clear, I have to work constantly at this practice. My mind often wants to go to the least charitable interpretation of events. But improv reminds me that while I can’t always change or control the circumstances of my life, I have full control over my own yes-and.

Last week I was with 16 clergy colleagues for our annual “preacher camp,” called The Well. During our time together we delve deeply into scripture and theology through papers and sermons we share with one another. It’s always one of my favorite weeks of the year.

My friend Andrew Foster-Connors shared some ideas from philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and his book As If: Idealization and Ideas that intersect with this idea of “yes-anding” in a positive direction. Appiah talks about the concept of “useful fictions.” No world of ideas can possibly represent the full truth, because our minds aren’t big enough to encompass it. So “there is a gap between what is true and what is useful to believe,” writes Appiah. This is even true with certain scientific principles, which are helpful in predicting outcomes, but are not always 100% accurate. Such principles aren’t strictly “true,” because they can’t predict outcomes in all times and all circumstances. They are “roughly right,” however, and therefore a useful belief.

I wonder what kind of beliefs you are currently clinging to, and whether they help you live as the person you are created to be. How might you alter those beliefs in the spirit of yes-and? What kinds of “useful fictions” might you play with? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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