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In improv lingo “going into the cave” means taking a risk or taking on the thing that scares you.

In an scene, if your character comes up to a cave where there’s a lion, you’ve got a choice. You can stay safe outside the cave or go into the cave and find out what happens.  Perhaps you get eaten by the lion. That would be terrible in real life but is wonderful in improvisation because now you have the opportunity to find out “what comes next?” — do you survive in the lion’s stomach like Jonah in the whale?  Or move on to the afterlife and explore Heaven or Hell or some alternative?  Are you absorbed into the lion’s consciousness?  Or reincarnated as a lion?  In the world of imagination, there are limitless possibilities IF we are willing to go into the cave.

I’ve found that the practice of going into the cave through improvisational play has helped me be more brave when I have  a real life cave to enter.  There’s plenty of research as well as anecdotal evidence of how children work things out through play, I believe it holds true for our whole lives if we are willing to continue to play.

LP is circling in on asking about my mom. That’s  a cave for me.

My mom, Joan, died when I was 16.  I’ve had many years now to grieve, mourn, miss her, come to peace with life without her and go through that cycle again when life events stir up my desire to share great happiness or have her love and support in difficult times.  Becoming a mother certainly has stirred that pot many times.  Overall my experience has been that being a mom reconnects me with her spirit and reminds me of her in positive ways. And…I know that at some point, LP will want to know where her other grandmother is (and ImprovDad’s father as well but that is his story to tell).

We have photos of my mom.  LP has a few things that my mom made for me when I was young including  a cat pillow my mom made that we call the “Mama’s Mama Cat.” I’ve told LP stories  (especially during some rough times in the middle of the night) that start “When I was a little girl and having a hard time, my Mama would…” These objects and stories are for me, a sweet spirit connection between my mom and my daughter.

A few weeks ago, when I picked her up at preschool, LP asked “When will Joan pick you up?”

For a moment I couldn’t breathe.  I was surprised at the question and not sure how to answer.  My heart sank and all my fears about not knowing what to say bubbled up inside. Hello cave.  LP has only recently started the questions about death with all the innocence of 4 years old and ImprovDad and I are walking that line of answering her questions openly (hopefully with ease) while not giving her more information than she’s ready for.

In the moment I gave her an honest but somewhat evasive answer along the lines of “I’m a big person and mamas don’t usually pick up big people.” As I took the time to reflect on the interaction and let the sadness be present, I realized the other side of going into this cave.  Although it is sad for me both because I miss my mom and because it leads to LP’s awareness that ImprovDad & I will someday die as will she, I can look forward to sharing more about my mom with LP and there is a lot of joy in that thought.  LP’s awakening to who is missing in her life, is an opportunity.

Yesterday LP asked “Will Joan look more like you?”  (She’s overheard people comment many times at how much I look like my mom.) It is the first time that she has asked about my mom that I greeted her questions with a genuine smile.  And I said something along the lines of “I do look more like my mom as I get older.” It was all she needed in that moment and her attention shifted to the next thing.

I know that over the years we will have many different kinds of interactions both around her growing understanding of death and about my mom in specific.  Allowing my internal state to shift has made that cave not so scary.

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I had ideas for LP’s 4th birthday celebration, oh yes, I had many ideas for a party. I’d been thinking about it for awhile and was much inspired by se7en’s approach to birthdays — especially this one. So we’d pick one of her favorite book, invite some little people-type friends over and so on.

LP wanted to have a party with her dog friends.

I had hesitations.  And even though I realized those hesitations were mostly about me, it was hard to get over them and say “yes.”

LP is only recently becoming interested in socializing with other kids and doesn’t yet have many strong ties to other little people.  We’ve been attentive to giving her growth opportunities and we’re so fortunate that she’s in a preschool setting that lets her go at her own pace in joining group activities and gives her support in interacting with other kids. Even though I’ve seen such growth in her abilities, especially the past two months, all my worries about her social skills bubbled up.   I had to calm them down and just enjoy helping my creative, animal-loving girl have the birthday celebration her heart desired.

So a puppy party it was.

Her guest list was four dogs (three were able to attend). She chose a different dog pictures online for each dog and colored them in while I printed out text to attach for the invitations. We made a trip to the pet store for dog treats and had some of LP’s favorite foods for the dog’s people to enjoy. (ImprovDad and I were lucky too that we’re good friends with all of the dogs’ people.)

I made a playlist of dog songs on the ipod (I’m particularly fond of “Dog Train” by Blues Traveler and LP wants to hear John Lithgow’s “I Got Two Dogs” over and over again).  LP sorted the dog treats and a squeaky ball intoeach party favor bag.  And then, we waited for the dogs.

Parker & Lulu

Sadie

It went better than my wildest hopes.  LP was over-the-moon happy.  As each of her three canine guests arrived she got more and more excited. She perched on the coffee table so she could see the dogs at all times.  (And we were lucky that these were the best behaved dogs in world.)

After cake for the people, we took a walk around the neighborhood and LP delighted in the chance to walk the dogs.

A happy day was had by all.  And I had my wish fulfilled too when we shared a belated birthday playdate with (human) friends yesterday too.

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ImprovDad was out of town for a week and when we finally got the timing right for a family skype call, I appreciated anew the playfulness he brought to the interaction (especially since I was feeling low on my playful energy).

Although I have big appreciation for skype, I feel  self-conscious on video so I am a reluctant participant.  AND even at almost 4,  it is a challenge to keep LP in the video frame (and really, everyone we skype with is family who really wants to see and interact with her).  She gets restless after a minute or two. So that ImprovDad made it fun for all of us and kept the little girl engaged for the whole call…that is an achievement!

What did he do?

First…special effects!  He did extreme closeups (LP thought that was hysterical, especially eyes and open mouth) and long shots. (“Daddy’s so small!” she cried out as he backed against the far wall of his hotel room.)  And then he upped the ante and flipped his laptop over so he was talking to us upside-down!

Second…he initiated a space-object game.  He said something along the lines of “look, here comes a cow” which he then pretended to milk into an imaginary glass.  He took a sip and then “handed” it to us (oh, the magic of the camera).  I “took” the glass and had a sip and then gave it to LP who sipped a bunch and then asked for “more!”  We played that milking the cow game and handing glass back and forth for quite awhile.

It was a great end to our day.

How do you bring play to your interactions when you are at a distance?

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ImprovDad and I were talking last week about how we want to help LP expand and challenge her physical self.  She is often reluctant to use (or experiment using and therefore build) her strength. ImprovDad expressed a longing to be able to toss a ball back and forth with her and we smiled at each other, knowing our girl is much more interested in setting up a ball family than tossing them around.

We started brainstorming how to invite LP to use her body more fully.  The idea that caught our imaginations was for ImprovDad to create and play Horse Ball with her.  We had fun with the different ways that could look and also acknowledged engaging LP in creating it would make something different and fun for her too.  We’re pretty sure the idea of Horse Ball  will engage LP’s vivid imagination and love of horses AND give ImprovDad the enjoyment of something he wants to share with her.

After our brainstorm, I remembered one of my favorite child development books Building Healthy Minds by Stanley Greenspan (also love First Feelings which focuses on babies).  He focuses on social and emotional milestones for babies and young children and provides a framework to think about them.  One thing he advocates is identifying and actively building on your child’s strengths in order to help them take on challenges.  The idea of “woo-ing” LP to try something new or attempt something she felt scared of has been influential in my parenting and I found his insight into possible strengths/comforts useful.  It had been quite awhile since I had thought about this and here it was in action in our parent brainstorm.

I also think this a good practice for us as parents.  If we develop this way of approaching small challenges, we can be more open to each other’s ideas and imagination when we hit larger parenting bumps in the road.

Horse Ball hasn’t been put into action yet…I have hopes that ImprovDad will have a chance tomake LP the offer to play it this weekend.

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I wrote this one back in November and never hit “publish”…so here it is now:

As a new improvisor, I remember being awed by how quickly experienced improvisors created stories and brought them to life. They were just so fast. I certainly could never do that.

As I became more experienced in working with stories and re-engaged with the joy of making things up, I started to learn how quickly my own brain worked to create stories AND how one of the many challenges of co-creation is to simultaneously allow stories to blossom in our imaginations and to discard them in response to what someone else says or does.

I became fascinated with the process, with how we are storied creatures. This is what humans do; we tell stories. We are made for it. Our brains are wired for it. If someone asks you to use the words cow, spoon and river in a sentence, you’ll do it by creating a very brief story. I immediately see a cow floating down a river with a spoon around her neck. That’s what my imagination offers me. I’m  curious about that image…I’ll have to see where that story goes.

As a drama therapist with and interest in narrative therapy, I’ve had many opportunities to explore how stories function — both to hurt and to heal — in people’s lives, including my own. Again and again, I’ve reawakened to that early improv-based discovery — we create stories fast.  Improv has helped me become more aware of the process and also the rate at which we discard our imagination’s offerings because they are not good enough, funny enough or some other reason. (Really? A cow on a raft on a river? That makes no sense, there’s no story there.)

As a parent, sometimes my story-ing is wonderful and helpful at imagining what might be going on in LP’s world.  Other times it gets in the way.  When I don’t realize that I’ve created a story about her experience and am missing her expressing her actual experience, we are often bound for a clash or a visit to tantrumville.  Truly, nothing sets off my girl like the phrase “I know…” even if it is something I do know is true for her.  She is sensitive to that turn of the phrase and I think the meaning underneath it — that I already have a story about her that explains it all.

A recent life example:  LP had her first dentist visit last week.  She was a trooper and for the most part pretty curious and engaged. Until the tooth polishing. She tried to climb out of the chair so fast it was hard to catch her.  After a bit of coaxing (and  a promise of a red balloon), LP was willing to lie on top of me on the chair.  The dental hygienist said (and I echoed) “It’ll go real fast” and LP fought her hands away protesting.  It took some work to help calm her down and then LP said, “NO. Not fast, slow.”

Oh. Yes. That is her telling her story, expressing her needs. I would want it to go fast so of course that was the story I told myself about what LP wanted. However, LP is different she wants it to go slow. And with the dental hygienist going slowly she was able to have every tooth polished and when it was over, she seemed quite proud about that.

Our innate story ability is a beautiful, amazing thing AND as parents who have such influence over our little people’s worlds it is important to take moments to check-in and see if the story we have about them matches their reality.

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Tearing it up!

Sometimes Improvamama gets lucky.

It has been a rough couple of weeks around here as I’ve gone from having one nasty cold to another one to the flu (and LP and I traveled to visit her Grandma in the middle of that time).  I have become the queen of the boring mamas.  All I can think is “what can I get LP involved in so I can lie down?”

And as I learn again and again, what works is following her offers because given the opportunity to explore, she will go for it.

One day last week as I was half-heartedly sorting political flyers into piles for 1) recycle immediately and 2) look at later, LP started taking them and asked me to tear them into strips.  Pretty soon she took over tearing them up (mostly with her teeth) and laying them out in a path across the house.  Actually a pretty good use for them I think.

By the time the Sunday paper arrived the flyers were long gone and she was ready for new material  to tear and rip and shred.  And now (Wednesday), she’s still enjoying the fruits of her labors and working on tearing the larger pieces up even more.

So glad we haven’t given up on the newspaper yet!

This post is part of the FINAL Moms 30-Minute Blog Challenge over at Steady Mom. Such a big THANK YOU to Jamie for hosting the challenge. It has been great for getting me to put my ideas into words at least once a week. AND Jamie is starting a great new blog SteadyHomeDeals which is a wonderful resource for all of us who want to make conscientious choices about how we spend our money.

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“Spontaneity need not be showy or dramatic; it can be subtle, gentle, and unassuming. It can be present in the way one thinks, walks, looks at nature, dances, or hums a tune softly in the shower.”
~Adam Blatner (in Foundations of Psychodrama)

I love the quote above because it embraces the idea that one can be spontaneous is so many different every day ways AND that it isn’t about being big or funny.  The practice of improv provides all kinds of opportunities to cultivate spontaneity. Really it is about the delicious oxymoron of practicing spontaneity.We have a million little opportunities every day to choose to practice spontaneity.  Sometimes that practice can take a lot of effort (sign up for an improv class, get a babysitter, go to class, breath deeply and jump in!) and other times a person’s spontaneity practice might be in holding  a different mindset while taking a walk down the block.

A little more from Adam Blatner:

“…[spontaneity] refers to the readiness to create, the state of mind involved which often involves a more energized bodily state and interpersonal or group involvements.”

I think it is a beautiful idea…to practice readiness to create. Take the pressure off being creative or original or funny or good (whatever that is) and just see what it means for your own self to be ready to create.  I know when I feel the improv flow, I am both alert and relaxed in body and attention.  I  have a mind-body experience that is the state of spontaneity. I am ready to find out what comes next; I am ready to say “yes!”

It can be hard to attain this state while parenting. Add to the mix of other obstacles that get in my way, I also always hold at some level awareness of being responsible for my little person.  Most of the time that responsibility is just assumed; I am not actively thinking about it — it is just a natural part of my role as a parent. Yet holding too much responsibility inhibits my ability to be in the moment.  I am working on taking the time to step back and realize when I am being over-responsible (i.e. focused on things I “need” to do or getting overprotective) and holding myself back from spontaneity practice opportunities. LP is a great role model of spontaneity practice because at 3 and 1/2, she lives in an almost constant state of readiness to say “yes” to her imagination (and “no” to all kinds of other things).

To close, these beautiful thoughts about spontaneity from the great Viola Spolin:

“Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves.  It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people’s findings. Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly.  In this reality the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery , of experiencing, of creative expression.” (from Improvisation for the Theater)

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