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.