How you ever watched Whose Line Is It Anyway? (the comedy TV series that features live unscripted improvisations)?
Or tried improv exercises yourself (maybe in a drama class or a creative brainstorm at work). If so, then you may be familiar with an improv exercise “Yes, and....”
“Yes, and...” means that when your improv partner starts a riff and then tosses it to you, you’re not allowed to reject it, no matter how outlandish. You must always respond, “Yes, and...” building on the original idea. For example, here’s a “Yes and...” dialogue between two people:
Your coat is so lovely.
Yes and I made it for you.
Yes and I have a thousand dollars for it.
Yes and I am going to use that money to make 100 coats for you.
Yes and I will clone myself 100 times to wear each one at the same time.
Yes and I will recruit you and your clones to march in a parade for me.
Yes and when we are finished marching all of the me’s will build a human pyramid.
If everyone plays by this rule, then a story unfolds bit by bit, and typically goes into the stratosphere. And while you might imagine that improv is chaotic, in fact, it’s usually not. It unfolds with beauty and logic, though maybe not realistic logic.
It keeps you on your toes because you don’t know what’s coming, yet you have the nervous energy of knowing you’ll need to respond. So playing well means being expectant and staying in the moment.
Yes and...the reason improv came to my mind is that this morning I locked myself out of the house.
This was not a planned improv.
Out in the Cold (Literally)
The cat was no help. I talked to her through the backdoor window (having walked around the house gamely trying the other doors even though I knew they were locked). Curled up on a sofa and staring at me, she looked faintly alarmed.
I spent about two minutes being mad at my husband who in the past had rejected all of my awesomely creative ideas for where to hide a house key outside. I visualized the profanity-laced text messages to send him (he was in balmy San Juan on “golf business” while I clutched my light jacket around me, hunched forward from the cold).
But my cell phone was in the house.
My anger ebbed. It was about 5:00 a.m. (I am an early riser) and I’d gone out to wheel the garbage can to the curb, pulling closed the house door from inside the garage without realizing its key tumbler was half-way locked. My tug on the door had slid the lock snugly in place. Glancing around I mentally noted my assets: 1) I was dressed, 2) I had on a jacket, 3) I had on my Hoka sneakers, 4) the wind was really whipping but it was only in the 40s, and 5) I lived in a metro area so people were around (though my neighborhood looked totally dark).
I paced back and forth. No cellphone, no car keys, no money.
This was not an actual emergency, I reasoned. It was an inconvenience. Even though I didn’t know how this would work out, I felt it would. Shoving away needling thoughts (like the useless outraged texts to my husband), I knew clearing my head was the first step towards actual constructive ideas. I started to jog to stay warm. At the moment I couldn’t even think of family phone numbers since I was so used to calling them by hitting a contact button on my cell.
There was a light up ahead and I settled into a steady pace.
Funny, the things you think of, jogging in the dark.
I am standing on a subway platform in Manhattan and suddenly feel overcome with nausea. There is no time; I stumble forward and throw up on the train tracks. Pregnant with my first baby, gasping for a moment, I teeter on the edge. From nowhere a hand reaches out and grasps my elbow, steadying me. “Here you go,” a man’s voice says quietly, handing me his scarf. I glance up, seeing only his eyes. Embarrassed and wiping my mouth, I try to nod gratefully, and then hurry back up the stairs retreating home.
The memory fades. Why did I think of it? I have jogged to a nearby grocery store and pull a few times on the heavy glass doors but they’re locked. Inside the ceiling fluorescents are dim with no one in sight. I bang on the door a few times but nothing stirs. Further down another few blocks I think I see shadows of people moving. I turn toward them and start my jog again; my thoughts shifting inward.
Grey-haired, stern Mlle. Fevre is unsmiling, relentless, unforgiving. Though 15-years-old I’m inserted into a class of college-bound international students taking an intense French language course at Ecole Shultz in Geneva, Switzerland. My college professor dad and mom are faculty hosts of an abroad program, and we kids have tagged along. As the only American I sense disdain from the older group, especially from the aloof girl sitting next to me, Vashti from Iran. This morning’s class is a nightmare; Mlle. Fevre has made me a target. Returning again and again to bark questions at me in such fast-paced French I cannot understand her. I am miserable and now so frightened that my mind seizes into a blank whenever she approaches. Mlle. Fevre turns to me; I brace. She stares and snaps out gibberish. Then quietly, softly from behind a book, Vashti breathes out a phrase. Uncomprehendingly, I repeat the words. A pause, Mlle. Fevre glares at me, and then miraculously moves on. I glance at Vashti. She winks.
This is not the first time I’ve recalled these two acts of kindness. Like pulling heirlooms out of a jewelry box to admire, over the years I’ve returned to the memories a few times as small gemstone reminders. For even though I hadn’t asked for the kindnesses, or even been looking for them, there they’d been, gifts from strangers. No strings attached.
I round a corner and see that the source of the shadows is a parking lot for a 24-hour fitness center. It’s a final brief jog to get to it. This time the door swings open freely. The front-desk worker willingly agrees to help and searches the internet for locksmiths, pointing me to a phone. After a few try’s a service person is on his way.
Getting locked out of the house was not an emergency; I waited 45 minutes or so in the warmth of a lobby, watching sweaty people walk by until the locksmith came. But it had been reassuring to think of those random acts of kindness again, though -- now that I think of it -- I’m not sure the phrase fits for they hardly seem random.
City Bus Encounter
Here’s why: A number of years ago I did some thinking on whether acts of kindness are truly random or not. I had been reasoning that if I believed the universe is governed by intelligence, then there could be no accidental encounters. Each interaction has purpose. But to see the purpose I needed to be alert, actively watchful.
For example my mom’s a schoolteacher and I remember she said once that it was important to pay attention to the people around you. That your single “good morning” to one child in a big, busy school could be the one thing a troubled student holds onto as a lifeline for that day.
So one evening I was waiting for a city bus on my way to a night class. I’d been thinking about there being no accidental encounters, and so as I got on the bus, I made a point of looking the bus driver in the eye and greeting him. A few stops later I noticed a boy get on the bus alone – maybe 9-years-old – and when he passed me I smiled at him making eye contact. I remembered he scowled, and independently pushed by.
Maybe 10 minutes later I feel a hand suddenly grip my arm. It’s the boy, his face streaked with tears. “I missed my stop!” he blurted out. Together, we hurried up to the bus driver, and explained the mistake. The driver agreeably altered his route slightly and dropped the boy close to his destination.
Was this a random act of kindness from me? From the bus driver? They were small acts to be sure. But because I’d been thinking so intentionally about paying attention to each interaction coming my way, my connections with both the boy and the bus driver felt purposeful.
Like a successful improv when each player builds on the idea of another, collaborating and committing to a joint creation, we have the opportunity to say “Yes and…” to events that present themselves to be the connection of kindness another person needs.
Incidentally, the way to lose at the “Yes and...” improv game is to mess up with “Yes and but...” -- Oops. In this case “but” is an attempt to control the outcome and bypass the opportunity to connect. This is an analogy, too, for it’s said that what we’ll remember most sharply are the times we have neglected to be kind, then our acts of charity.
Do you recall a random act of kindness that came your way? Please feel free to send me a note via Comments or an email if you’d like to share it.
It’s so much fun to write to you.