What was scary and liberating is that improv is an instant art. Handed a situation—you are Republican fund-raisers in an inner-city Laundromat, you are frat boys at a day care center—you make the best of what you've got. You can't control it, you don't know what's coming next.
"Doesn't that sound like life?" said Katie to the workshop group. Yes, said some of us, rolling our eyes. Life is not, after all, a series of five-year plans but of improvisations. Who forgot to tell us that?
When I wasn't onstage. I had a chance to eavesdrop on my daughter at work. And to see the way she was empowering the women—listening and encouraging, pushing and reassuring, empathizing and leading—as little by little we actually did get out of our own skins: "Be present." "Let go of trying to control the scene." "Trust that everything you need is already in your head." "Go with it." "Go for it."
I don't know exactly how it happened, but she created an atmosphere where it was safe to take risks. I was astonished when one restrained young woman found her punch line—to laughter and applause—by whipping off her shirt.
Did I ever drop my Mom hat? Of course not. At one point the subject was relaxed concentration—how to replace anxiety with the calm energy needed to create—and one part of my brain was thinking: Calm? They're taking advice from Katie about calmness? This is the kid who started walking at 8 months and didn't sit still until she was 20.
But for the most part I stayed busy learning. Sometime Saturday afternoon we began to talk about the enemy; there was an inner critic hanging around the workshop, the same self-monitor that gags us at work or in relationships. The unwelcome voice that shuts us up or steps on our best lines.
In one emotional moment, the artist in our workshop, who had hung back, blurted out that her inner critic had the voice of her dad. Every time she tried to jump into the improv game, she heard him spewing a stream of negatives: "You can't." "You're stupid." "Hurry up." Katie stopped and worked with her, urging her to talk back. Finally the artist yelled at that critic father: "How the hell do you know what I can do?"
As a writer, I am on intimate terms with my own inner critic. But watching and listening to the others, I saw how to keep the self-censoring downer at bay. When the voice calls you while you're onstage, you can answer back: Not now. When the inner critic is rude or dismissive, you can tell her politely, Excuse me, could you rephrase that?
Prompted by Katie, we decided to try to transform the critic into a coach, a coach whose inner voice is actually on our side, not promoting our weakness but insisting on our courage.
The exercises weren't just head work or a series of spiritual tips. I had a chance to try out other roles. Who was that woman with the ten-gallon hat on her head and the Texas twang? Who was that woman in the wig with the long yellow braids? Certainly not the woman Bill Safire once described as "the usually sensible Ellen Goodman." I gradually—not always comfortably—got out of my own skin, put aside the "distinguished commentary" of my day job, and went for the gag. Sometimes I flopped and sometimes I actually made fun.
If my daughter could do it, couldn't I? Couldn't I at least try?
By the last morning I was finally, freely, happily making a fool of myself.
I was playing a prude in a sauna, trying desperately to cover too many body parts with too few hands. An hour later I was a cop at a drive-in, creating an operetta with Otile.
As the scene ended, one of the women in the workshop said, "Well, I see where Katie gets it from."
I wanted to stop her and say, "Whoa, no, wait a minute, I got it from Katie."
Our children, especially our grown children, are not just our legacy. They give back. And forth. Kind of like improv.
Carl Jung once said that the second half of life is meant to explore the things you missed in the first half. But my God, it's easy to get stuck. Maybe we've become experts at our work, our relationships, even the way we set the table. Maybe we have titles: syndicated columnist, editor. It's scary to push aside those identities and become beginners again. But there's a lot to be said for jumping into our kids' sandbox. I got another chance to play and find a freer spirit. I got a beginner's lesson.
By Sunday I could see and feel change in the women around me. Maybe it was just two days of laughing out loud, but there was a lot more sparkle and energy in the air.
I started to think about the strains between two generations of women— or between two directions of the women's movement: the political, skeptical, analytical folk trying to change the world "out there" through legislation, organizing—Government 101. And the more spiritual, emotional, intuitive souls doing the interior work—Growth 101.
The younger generation may be better able to see that these are not opposites but connected. In the double helix of change, growth is an inside and outside job. We can learn that. From them.
One day after our weekend, long after Katie had flown back to Montana, my friend Otile and I sat over a harried midday lunch. For a few days, I said to her, a group of women had gotten together and laughed. We came away both lighter and stronger. I got a chance to take myself foolishly. What a gift from my guru.
Faye Wattleton deciphers the world with her daughter's help
We Hear You!