Improvisation means coming to the situation without rigid expectations or preconceptions. The key to improvisation is motion — you keep going forward, fearful or not, living from moment to moment. That’s how life is.
– Bobby McFerrin

This time last year, on the heels of a severe hiking accident, I lay awake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. It was January 15th, we had just moved to our new property in Tesuque, a gracious yet neglected 11-acre horse farm left uninhabited for eight years.

It was a gamble. There were burst pipes to fix, over 5200 square feet of roof to re-surface, five-and-a-half acres of fence to mend, and 50 dead trees to fell and cart away. And that was just the beginning. Every day revealed another urgent and necessary repair. Our savings were pouring out the accounts as fast as the water was pouring into our house through yet another crack in the wall.

The hiking accident had left me emotionally fragile, unable to drive for a time, and scared. I could no longer rely on my sheer willpower to get things done, nor my ability to multi-task from dawn to midnight to ensure success at anything.

I tossed the blankets off my body, and pressed my hands to my forehead in a state of panic. Tomorrow I had a car payment to make, but there was hay to buy, and only four cans of tuna fish in the pantry, and our funds were not covering the total. I quickly calculated which of the three was a priority — keeping the car, feeding the horses, or feeding us. I chose the horses.

Dear God, I thought. What have we done?

What had we done? We had leapt together, a relatively new couple, into our calling. ‘Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear,’ writes Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak. ‘Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.’ Well, Scott and I were listening, and we were stepping together into a calling not willfully manufactured, but vulnerably received.

The next day I did what any sane person would do, I got up and kept going. The 280 bales of lush green certified-organic hay arrived via a semi-truck-trailer, a veritable vision of abundance contrasted against the brown dusty construction site that was our home. Its arrival mocked my internal state of envisioning Scott and I as bedraggled bag-lady and bag-man, with our starving dog Molly in tow.

I wrote the check, feigning confidence with academy award-winning theatrics. ‘See you in three months,’ I shrilled, just a little too optimistically, as I waved our hay guy down the driveway.

Later that day, while walking through our paddocks, we received a call from a friend. They wanted to express to us how much they believed in EQUUS. They had a horse to give us, a perfect equine facilitator. His bloodlines were impressive. His training, impeccable. He’s all ours without condition. Could we pick him up next week?

Without pausing, we said, ‘Yes.’

We hung up from the call and looked at each other, incredulous. I’ll never forget Scott’s words. ‘Well,’ he said squinting Clint Eastwood-like into the distance, ‘we are either geniuses or we are dumber than a bag of hair.’ I was imagining what we both looked like as two burlap bags of filled with hair, tied off with a string. He smiled. It was his smile that kept me going.

After that day, something extraordinary happened. The phone started ringing. We started getting large bookings, and a lot of them.  Opportunities began opening themselves to us. Miracles were happening. That one yes, spoken squarely into the headwinds of impossibility and terror, opened a powerful door to infinite possibility.

Fast forward to a year later, and EQUUS is a thriving and robust organization. And the life that we feared might shatter us as a couple, has made us stronger. Over those months, there have been many yes’s in the face of fear. And I credit a large portion of our success to those yes’s—those improvised responses to the present moment, sensing into the emergent future, in co-creation with life.

It’s like being on a trapeze, legs hooked over the bar, and sensing the hands of another are out there somewhere in the arc of your swing. So you reach in their direction, and let go into the infinite with total faith those hands will catch you mid-flight. And they do.

‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail!’ my father used to say to me during my middle school years, in that omniscient chest-puffed father-knows-best kind of tone. He prepared for everything. From how many cracker crumbs I was allowed to drop on the car seat, to how loud my brother and I could speak, to the fact that we could not ‘afford’ my $6 piano lessons (but we could afford his Cessna 172).

In some ways he was right. Preparation gave me an edge for final exams. And it’s always wise to know what to pack for an overseas trip, or to prepare for a keynote. The trapeze artist prepares through body building, strength training, and cultivating acrobatic mastery. But nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for the moment you let go of your swing and fly through the air. Nothing prepares you to say yes when all of your conditioning would have you say no.

‘Start with a yes and see where that takes you,’ says Tina Fey in her rules of improv. This is an altogether different approach than the ‘let me make sure I have my ducks in a row, and my retirement in the bank, and my family agrees, before I really live my life’ version of living. The overly planned life throws us in the purgatory of ‘the divided life’ as Parker Palmer describes it. ‘…afraid that our inner darkness will be exposed, we hide our true identities and become separated from our own souls,’ he writes, ‘The divided life comes in many and varied forms. It is the life we lead when [for example] we:

  • make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it;
  • remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirit;
  • conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned or attacked.

Where preparation and planning leave off, improvisation begins. And that is the art of living. And that is what it takes to follow your calling. ‘What improv does for an actor is help him find the life; it’s the life that an actor’s after,’ said actor Giovanni Ribisi of the art form.

When we dance with life, as our partner, we find the realness. We tap into something larger than our idea of things. And we leverage a force vastly greater than our own will. Circumstances that would take years to create with our own hands, happen almost miraculously within days.

Some might say we were reckless. I can tell you the feeling tone was anything but that. At the precise moment of any yes, it felt present, grounded, quiet, curious and, well, mysterious. What felt reckless was ignoring the fact that life was actively engaging with us in the manifestation of our calling.

Sometimes, in fits of doubt, we would contract and pull in. We would tighten the old belt. And what happened in response? Our world got smaller. The phone rang less. Things got harder. After a while of this pattern, it was staying small that felt reckless. It felt like spitting right into the face of Destiny herself and saying, no thanks you stupid jerk, I’d rather have my tiny safe compliant subdued fear-based life.

If I’ve learned anything this year, I’ve learned that unequivocally life co-creates with us. It doesn’t matter to life what we co-create…it can assist us to live small, or live true. When you contract and pull in, life pulls in with you, when you expand and lean out, life expands with you…and when you move forward in the face of utter and complete failure, fueled by your belief and trust, life gives back big time.

Is there failure in saying yes? Of course. But it’s failure forward. And it leads to the next moment, now more informed, now wiser, which leads to the next yes, until at some point there is a sublime conspiring of events. And when you look back you see your entire life has been leading you to this. This calling. This journey. This manifestation of the reason you took birth.

Right now, in the wake of many global challenges, a dramatic change is on the wind. People are waking up. Like Scott and I, people are listening to their life telling them who they truly are, and how they are truly called. We’ve been preparing our whole lives for this. We can trust we are duly prepared. Now it is time to reach towards the infinite, and fly.

 

Along the foothills that surround my home, runs a network of hairline trails that wind through arroyo beds and over piñon-covered ridges, and finally merge into miles of national forest. They call to me each morning, promising a breathtaking view of the Jamez mountains to the west, and to the south, the Sandias. Our dog Molly, a large enthusiastic Catahoula hound we adopted last year from the shelter, looks at me expectantly. ‘Ok!’ I say, ‘Let’s go.’ We charge out the gate and up the escarpment, liberated at last.

Within minutes, Molly is already a quarter of a mile ahead of me. She looks back with that giant joyful dog grin and barks for me to hurry. There is land to love. There are bushes to jump. And so many animals to see. Not to mention those two ravens to race.

I have spent the last year getting to know this particular stretch of land, its trails and inhabitants — bear, bobcat, coyote and mountain lion. Though native to Santa Fe, this little valley just north of Santa Fe, where I now live, is asking me to be a part of it in a deeply intimate way. I am to know it, become a part of it and belong to it.

Partly it’s the lifestyle of running a small ranch with a herd of horses, a donkey, barn cats and dogs. Nature – her creatures, her plants, geology and weather – has her very own timing and rhythm. Working alongside her means dropping out of the mad technology-driven pace, and culturally-created beliefs, and into something more honest, present and simple. If the temperatures drop below freezing, there is ice to break in the water tanks. Period. If the sun goes down by five pm, the horses need feeding by 4:30. It’s the literal manifestation of chopping wood, carrying water.

And partly it’s the calling of these times. Where else to go inside a culture that has surfed to the end of it’s own internet? If we are to restore sanity in our lives, if we are to reclaim some kind of truly civilized way of being in the midst of pointed missiles and blind life-destroying bravado, nature and our connection to her, offers the way.

Jeannette Armstrong is a Canadian author, educator, artist, and activist. She is Syilx Okanagan. Her work Slash is considered the first novel by a First Nations woman in Canada. She describes belonging to place as the knowing that we are everything that surrounds us. ‘We refer to the land and our bodies with the same root syllable. This means that the flesh that is our body is pieces of the land come to us through the things that the land is. The soil, the water, the air and all the other life forms contributed parts to be our flesh. We are our land/place,’ she writes. ‘Not to know and to celebrate this is to be without language and without land. It is to be ‘dis-placed’.’

Modern life has dis-placed us. Not only are we alien to the earth, we are alien to ourselves. We are stranger to the deep sense of rooted quietness as offered by a tree. Our ears are deaf to the ancient stories of our own indigenous heritage as first peoples who tended the soil of our original homelands. And so we borrow the traditions and sacred stories of Native peoples in an attempt to grasp some remnant of memory. But they are not ours to appropriate. We meditate, we manage our stress, we eat vegan, we go to therapy.

Yet as a dis-placed people, we remain powerless, rootless, and vulnerable to the headwinds of 21st century living. We attempt to pull forth from ourselves wisdom, strength and emotional capacity, but without a greater presence to draw upon, our stores are quickly emptied.

Instead we can find another way back in, that will welcome us back to our very own belonging in this present time regardless of circumstances. Wherever we are, in a city, or suburb or cabin, we can engage with the natural world. When we deliberately take time to be attentive to and a part of the natural environment, something special happens. We become indigenous – we ‘occur naturally in a particular place’.

Becoming indigenous – a journey back to our belonging, is not a journey we take in our heads. It’s one we take with our bodies that weaves us back into the web of life, through regrowing our roots that push through earth, deep into bedrock, and drink from wellsprings. Being in nature teaches us to live like that again. She teaches us to go native, to feel the wind on our face, and the dirt on our hands.

‘In these times it’s not enough to awaken ourselves, to find our community: the world is in need of restoration and each one of us is challenged to do the work of collective change,’ writes Sharon Blackie in her astonishing call to arms If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging. ‘The day of the Heroic quest is over, with its all-conquering, dragon-slaying Hero saving the world, one sword-stroke at a time. The Journey we need now is not a journey of active, world-beating individualism, it is a journey of collective re-enchantment — a re-animation of the Earth. It’s time to become native to our places again.’

It’s time to reclaim our own native power, which is the power of the earth itself. Be with her, through all her emissaries – trees, birds, animals, rocks, mountains – and she will bestow within you a quiet depth of presence that is immovable. Take care of her and she will return a thousand fold through her generous outpouring of beauty and abundance. Become a part of her and you will return home.

As prodigal sons and daughters, it is our connection with nature that will not only restore us to sanity, but help us to collectively heal a traumatized society. Rooted in our knowledge of plants and cycles and rhythms, we can be a trusted force for change. We can be mediators of the invisible worlds. We can be Wise Women and Wise Men.

Molly races to the top of my favorite ridge, about a 30-minute run from our house. I follow suit, breathless. At last we reach a small dead tree, whose branches are adorned with bracelets, rosaries, feathers, and other offerings. At the base of its trunk are seashells, two sand-dollars, and a small statue of the fierce goddess Kali. On the ground before it is a large stone mosaic, outlining a sun shape, with large bleached bones and crystals at the center.

I don’t know who made this little mountain shrine. Or who adds to it. Since I first came upon it 12 months ago on horseback, it’s changed and morphed, with more items being added here and there. Today I bring a raven feather and wedge it’s base into the sand, so that it sticks out of the mosaic, pointing north. My contribution to its evolving story is how I participate in this place. I sit quietly for a long time, while Molly follows the zigzagging scent of a nearby rabbit. The sky is large before me. I exhale out the day of emails and expectations.

I have sat here in this place for nearly a year now. I am learning to stay still. I am learning to recognize the patterns of light at different seasons. I am learning how to listen. I am learning to see the invisibles. I am beginning to understand a hidden language told by breezes, hawks and stone. Stay present with a place long enough, and you may begin to hear its voice. And this is what I hear…You belong to me. I belong to you. It is love with responsibility.

My teacher and friend, ‘Uncle’ Bob Randall, listed Custodial Elder of Uluru, and a member of the Yankunytjatjara people in Central Australia, taught me the word kanyini in his language. It means ‘unconditional love with responsibility’. Unconditionally we belong to all things, whether we believe it or not. It is our simple birthright. And with that love and belonging, there is a responsibility to care for all things…ourselves, our families – and this includes our family of all living things.

One day while we were sitting in a rather unlikely scene together – a cafe in downtown Sydney – he said to me, ‘You can live the kanyini way anywhere.’ He looked up at a young tree neatly landscaped into the pavement near our table. ‘See,’ he laughed, ‘even here I can see my sister, and feel her love for me.’

Like this we can begin to easily yet deliberately reweave the natural world back into our lives, and allow her to – just like Uncle Bob’s tree – push through the hard pavement of the haste and worry. Like this we can thrive and flourish.