Saturday, 26 April 2014

Making it up as you go along

some of the raw material for the workshop

A few weeks ago, I took a quilting workshop called “The Joys of Improvisation.” This class would not give joy to people who want a precise pattern to follow, because improvisation means that you make it up as you go along. No rights, no wrongs...just try something. If you don’t like it, try again.

As I worked on that project, it occurred to me that improvisation has a lot to do with life. There are no road maps, pattern pieces, or life-instruction manuals that cover every possible option as we travel life’s journey.  We're handed the raw material of life (a very precious gift, indeed) but then, very often, we have to make it up as we go along.

There are various ways we can assemble the raw material.
Case in point: years ago, when our kids were in elementary school, I was on the substitute-teacher list. One morning the phone rang at 7 a.m. – I was needed at my children’s school. Getting four kids up and getting us all out the door within the hour meant I was on a tight schedule.

Then it happened: our tender-hearted #3 son was standing beside me, tears in his eyes. “Mom,” he said, “I think there’s something wrong with Chirp.” Chirp was a guinea pig, so named because of his high-pitched squeals of delight when the kids came home from school. Overnight, without causing a fuss, Chirp had gone gently to GP heaven. Is there a book that tells you what to do when your sensitive child loses a pet on the same day that you are in a hurry to get the show on the road? I don’t think so. You have to make it up and hope it works out okay. So after the tears were shed, Chirp was gently wrapped in a velvet shroud and placed on a soft bed of bubble wrap in a shoe box, to await further mourning at the end of the day. RIP, Chirp. (And we did make it to school in time.)

And is there a book that tells you what to do with a dead pet when the ground is frozen three feet down, and throwing him in the garbage is not an option? Nope. Chirp spent the winter in cold storage in our freezer until spring came, whence he was given suitable honours – a funeral service and a popsicle stick graveside marker, inscribed with the words, “Chirp: a very good pet.” You  make it up as you go along.

Some people think that love makes the world go round. Love is good, but practically, I’m a big believer in improvisation, too. It’s what gets us from A to B when nobody is sure what the answer is. Without improvisation –  making it up as we go along – we would surely be stuck in limbo. If we always needed to know exactly what was the right thing to do, we would be paralyzed, frozen in place (as immovable as Chirp) most of the time. So, we put one foot out into the unknown, and we hope we are on the right path.

Sometimes, we aren’t, of course. This happened often when I was making my quilted table-runner, and I’d have to backtrack and try something else. In life, too, sometimes we do what we think is best, and realize later that we’ve walked down a dead-end road. So we have to swallow our pride, turn around, and try again. Thank God, second chances are allowed in life.
It's finished!

Or the unexpected happens – the car dies, so the money saved for holidays disappears. Dreams don’t turn out the way you thought they would. Instead of the cottage with the white-picket fence that you thought was the blueprint for your life, you end up in a downtown high rise. Instead of a career as a successful best-selling novelist, you write a weekly blog read by 13 people!

And sometimes the curves life throws at us are enormous. Accidents, illness, or death turn your life upside down. Making it up as you go along often involves some very difficult and painful realities and can leave deep scars. Still, I don’t think we have any choice: either we improvise, or we stay immobile.

And either we eventually find the joys in this new journey, or we go kicking and screaming into the future.

Life, I've discovered, is a hands-on workshop in improvisation. May you find joy in your journey.

I also like these quotes, which speak to what I've written above: 

"We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us." -- Joseph Campbell.

"Arrange whatever pieces come your way." -- Virginia Woolf.


  1. Only thirteen? Well, I say that thousands are missing out.

  2. Yup, we keep on trucking. And praying. (I agree, BTW, with "only thirteen?"! Thousands are indeed missing out.)
    I'm currently reading Anne Lamott's "Help Thanks Wow" - great prayers.

  3. Here's a quote that I forgot to put into the blog post: "We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us." -- Joseph Campbell. And another: "Arrange whatever pieces come your way." -- Virginia Woolf. Good stuff, eh?

  4. Thanks for this wonderful meditation, Jessie. Once again, you hit the nail on the head, re: life and living creatively.

  5. Thank you! So true. I just need to convince all of me about the joy worth versus the kicking and screaming reaction.

  6. Wonderful post. You've just got a new reader. Thanks to Lorraine Roy for sharing on Facebook. :)

  7. wow...thanks for all the positive comments. I make it up as I go along, speaking the truth as I see it, and hope and trust it will touch someone...
    sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. But it does bring me great joy.