Thanks to a gift certificate I’ve kept since Christmas, I added to my cookbook library this week. I bought The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider. To call it a cookbook is to sell it short because the author is really asking the reader to think about how he or she cooks as much as giving instruction about particular dishes. Even the recipes she does give are intended as jumping off places – cooking prompts, if you will:
Improvisational cooking demands that you shift your thinking, or at least temporarily put rigid notions and fears aside. This is true learning: gaining information and, more than not, successes from being willing to make mistakes and a mess or two . . . . Asking yourself What would happen if? and the attendant Why not? can challenge the fiercest inhibition: fear of listening to your own senses and of expressing your unique sensibility or “voice.” . . . Creativity involves relinquishing total control and allowing an idea to develop organically. Often this means that you start out with one thing in mind but, as you cook, the idea shifts and evolves until you find yourself on a different path than the one you started on. (9)
Richard Thompson was on stage by himself last night at the Arts Center in Carrboro. The venue was small and intimate; he was conversational and interactive with an audience full of devoted and long-time followers. We were not too many songs into his set when people began to call out the names of songs they wanted to hear. More than once, I could tell he changed his mind about what he was going to sing based on the requests that came his way. His willingness to improvise – starting with one thing and letting the evening shift – made the concert even better. As many concerts as he has done, he was able to look at the unique ingredients offered him by those of us gathered in that particular room on that particular night and make something new out of familiar ingredients.
Schneider talks about inspiration for improvisation from “a mostly uncharitable confluence of associations, hungers, and memories, a mysterious process that is open to us all.” As I read the sentence it struck me that I could say the same of what it means to walk through Lent, a season of preparation handed down across the centuries that pulls from all of those influences. The same could also be said of church beyond just this one season. There’s not just one recipe for what it means to be a community of faith, but we have common ingredients, hungers, memories, and we all are born of the same Mystery.
Improvisation is also central to the world of acting, which is quite akin to cooking, I think. A couple of years ago, I came across the five common principles of improvisational theater, which seem worth repeating tonight:
- yes and
- make everyone else look good
- be changed by what is said and what happens
- shared agenda and shared focus
- serve the good of the whole
We are walking a well worn path through these days and we are walking a new path at the very same time with the very same steps. We share the ingredients of humanity with all those who have come before us and we have to see what we can make of today, which will not be the same as any day that has come before it. How we combine the flavors of our lives will determine what we make of them.