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Getting ready for our return to in-person Sunday service this week feels something like being spun around for a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

The whole year has been dizzying, so you’d think we’d be getting more comfortable with it, and maybe we are, a bit.

The way it’s occurring for me is — we’ve already planted that tail again and again, throughout every round after spinning round. We’ve managed to keep the game on, kept creating together. We’ve innovated to stay connected as community even while everything in the world was shifting and changing. So now we just need to step forward and nail it one more time. And finally we’ll be back to doing it in a way that used to be our weekly familiarity, so this should be a snap, right?

But while I’m confident about the tail I’m holding, and pretty sure of the direction I’m facing, I can’t help but wonder if our donkey is still the same donkey. It might not even be a donkey at all, anymore. What if it’s turned into a giraffe or a dolphin or an apricot tree? I suppose we’ll find out… I might pin this donkey’s tail onto a Sasquatch on Sunday, and I don’t know if that will be illuminating and inspiring, or just ridiculous.

I’ve been learning a delightful improvisation technique in a series of workshops over the past few months with instructor Mindy Grossberg. It’s called “Action Theater,” very groovy — all about letting movement and feeling bring forth discovery and freedom as we inhabit our bodies more fully. Not improv comedy (which is what a lot of people think when they hear “improv”) but still super fun and playful. I’ve done a number of classes on Zoom, and last night we had our first meeting together in person in a park, which was even more energized and deeply satisfying. I’ll introduce you to Mindy sometime soon, and we’ll schedule a workshop in which all of you can participate — I think you’ll really dig it.

Anyway, a few weeks ago one of my Action Theater classmates mentioned that he had been typing a text or email involving the word “improv-ing.” While doing so, he noticed that the gerund (-ing) forms of improv and improve are the same. That seemed pretty nifty to me. And I wondered: are we improving as we’re improv-ing?

Being an etymology nerd, of course I had to look it up to see if the words shared a root, if they mean anything like the same thing. They don’t.

IMPROVE is based in the Old French prou, which meant “profit.” Turning something to one’s profitable advantage is to improve it. Home improvements carry this connotation today — not just to make it better, but to make it more valuable.

IMPROV is short for improvisation, which is fairly obvious.  What wasn’t so obvious was that improvisation derives from a place completely different from improvement — the Latin provisus: to make preparations for. It’s related to “provisions.” One improvises when one doesn’t have the necessary provisions. Improvisus meant unforeseen. When we find ourselves without what we thought we’d need, in unpredicted conditions, we have to improvise.

In some ways, the words are almost like opposites. One is directive, the other reactive. One suggests strategic and deliberate enhancement, the other an in-the-moment, off-the-cuff adaptability.

I also found it interesting that neither of them shares any etymology with PROVE, which comes from the Latin probus, which simply meant “good.”

Even though none of these words are really related in the history of the English language, nevertheless now they are entwined in my brain:

  • To innovate and make do with whatever’s at hand in unpredictable circumstances
  • To purposefully add value
  • And general goodness

Regarding our own self-improvement and life-improvisation: maybe it’s where conscientious and intentional betterment meets spontaneous ingenuity and innovation. Maybe it’s what happens when you pin your donkey’s tail on a butternut squash because that’s what’s there. And discover that it’s all good, or at least that there’s something good and interesting and valuable in all of it.

Working honestly with what we’ve got to work with — whether or not it’s what we’d planned for, whether or not we’re sure we’ve got what it takes… If we approach our lives with a willingness to adapt and with a sense of play, we can’t help but make everything a little better, make it all shine a little brighter.

“More of me comes out when I improvise.”

– Edward Hopper, American painter

True dat. I think perhaps that’s what it’s all about — bringing more of ourselves to the table, into the planned and unplanned, the known and unknown. Showing up fully, open-hearted and open-minded, through our own celebration and sorrow, and through each other’s. Through thick and thin.

I can’t wait to be with you again this Sunday, June 13, 10:00 am at Maple Street Dance Space. With music by the incomparable Patty Stephens. I’ll continue sharing a talk online every week, on Sunday evenings at BOSQUECSL.ORG and VIMEO.COM/BOSQUECSL. XOX, Drew

©2021 Drew Groves

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