I read somewhere that improv is the freedom and space to hear things.
That stopped me in my tracks for a little bit. Isn’t that something we all want or at least need? Freedom and space to hear things?
It got me reflecting on how much of my life has been all about controlling, managing, planning; doing my best to erect impenetrable walls of security around me and my family, believing that when I finally got things under control I would feel safe. Happy.
I didn’t know that trying to live safe might rob me of joy.
And of course, this never worked out very well for me.
Oh, I planned alright – months ahead of time as though life didn’t have a willful mind of her own. I vacuumed every day, made sure everything was put back in its place, created rhythms and routines that come hell or high water would not be intruded upon.
And still I did not feel safe. And happiness eluded me.
I controlled my eating – sometimes bingeing and at other times only permitting myself to eat at least one hour past the horrible sick feeling in my stomach that erupted and subsided again. I panicked if I was traveling and there was no swimming pool nearby because if I didn’t keep to my schedule then who knows what kind of mayhem might be unleashed upon the world.
I read all the “how to” books knowing that if I could just hunt down the right 7-step formula then all would be well. I performed and cajoled and stayed up late into the night checking off lists and boxes because sleep was subservient to order.
And still people died and I couldn’t keep up and all I saw was the multitude of messy ways I was failing. The phone still rang, bringing sad tidings.
I yelled at my kids. I sobbed myself to sleep.
Real life is messy.
And here’s the beautiful clincher: some of the most amazing gifts of my life have come thanks to improv. In the small, still moments where I dared to give myself freedom and space to hear things. And then jump.
I jumped on a bus and landed, cross-country, in a basement laundry room; the Greyhound had lost my luggage and I needed to wash my one change of clothing. I met my husband down there and we married a year later. He was ten years older than me, West African, and we didn’t speak the same language. He was precisely what I needed.
Each of our children has brought with them, wrapped up tight in that little bundle of “what the heck am I doing,” new challenges and stretching and grace.
I have jumped on planes and practiced telling the truth and stepped out upon the water when I was terrified of drowning and starving to be set free of the chains that kept me mired in anxiety and obsessive cleaning and never good enough. Never, ever good enough.
I know you hear me.
I am ditching the script and slowly learning to practice improv.
Peace in the midst of the storm, and a life that is far bigger and scarier and more beautiful that my perfectly laid plans and tidy, well-ordered home.
I am choosing space and freedom to listen.
For me, living with purpose no longer means living perfectly. Safely. Thinking that I must have all the answers and that my value lies in my ability to perform.
I think, maybe, that the road to happy begins with improv.
Staring fear in the face. Mingling with people who make me a little uncomfortable. Getting dirty, making mistakes, risking rejection. Feeding my body, nourishing my soul, offering others the same messy grace and space to be imperfect but beautiful that I need myself.
The road to loving myself begins with improv.
Because no matter how hard I try to show up worthy and acceptable I fall short. But when I receive the freedom and space to hear things I hear that I am loved. I am beautiful. I am gifted. I am artwork. I am enough.
I wanted to die, to disappear, to curl up small and go to sleep and never wake again. I have lived much afraid and despondent and that is not really living at all. No amount of decluttering or dusting or dieting could fix me.
Art compels us because it is honest and real. When we get up close we see texture and imperfection and muddy color. But when we step back – with space and freedom to listen and look – we see with new eyes. We see wonder and beauty and story.
The road to truly living begins with improv.
Driving through the mountains we are awed each and every time. The blue-green waters sparkle and dance, majestic peaks are still covered with snow mid-summer, deer and bear graze along the edges of the road that man crafted all smooth and orderly. But when we pull over and step out of the safety of our car we see thistle and dirt mingled in with the wild flowers. That mountain smothered people not long ago in an avalanche of rock and snow. Don’t get too close because mama bear will not be far behind.
It isn’t truly safe or all beautiful after all.
It isn’t perfection that draws us to sit and stare; it isn’t beginning, middle and end that causes us to be changed by the story the artist dripped across his canvas. It is the messy, the heartbreak and hope, the uneven lines, the anger in the rough peaks and valleys, the mysterious smile. He makes us feel. We feel alive.
Maybe there isn’t just one road to happy.
Maybe when we let go of the script and veer off path, challenge status quo and take the road less trodden, we will find what we are looking for. Maybe it isn’t gold at the end of the rainbow but following the rainbow that matters. Joy in the messy journey.
It involves plain old hard work. Murky swamps and scratchy branches and deep, dark valleys that we must find a way to traverse. We grow hungry and cry and encounter challenges that only a year ago we couldn’t have survived. We meet bullies and kindred spirits along the way and as we walk we grow stronger.
Our eyes and heart open, our breathing slows, and we realize that we are only just now starting to live.
And all of a sudden we realize that this is real life. That real life is not tame and caged but wild and fierce and so crazy beautiful that sometimes it takes our breath away.
We begin to pull down the walls we have built, brick my brick. We begin to say no and practice saying yes.
We allow ourselves to be seen.
We might even look in the mirror one day and instead of only seeing scars and bruises we will realize that we are incredibly brave and beautiful. We have been all along.
And we are happy.