“Yes, and . . . ”: The Creative Art of Living | Lisa Valentine Clark | 2021 – powered by Happy Scribe
And improvization, you make up everything as you go in the moment and by listening to others on the stage, you make up character traits and movement and dialog to create art. It might be a simple scene or an entire play or a musical. You might be thinking, oh, that sounds horrible. But to some extent it’s something that all of us do every day. I mean, after all, we don’t plan out every detail of our days. And then it goes according to that script, we wake up, move forward, maybe make plans, but pivot, adapt, react, eat something, pivot some more and some variation every day.
After decades of performing improv with different groups like the Gerrans, the Thrilling and Eyre’s The ShowOffs and the Lisa Show on BYU radio, and certainly after many years of motherhood, I have come to see that the principles that allow for good improv have application for their creative art of living and becoming the guiding principle of improv is. Yes, and it means that you accept whatever is offered to you on stage and then you add something to it. That’s it.
You don’t deny it, you don’t question it. You just take it and move forward. And there are a million ways to do this. For example, you might walk on stage and with nothing but a suggestion like a non geographic location or a relationship between two people, you would start the scene with an action you might be miming like a sweeping action, but the other actor might interpret it as curling. You know, that sport in the Olympics.
But both are right. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the other says, you accept it and add to it. So if someone comes on stage and says another step sweeping and come get in the car, you might say, I just need to finish up this corner. It will calm my nerves before the surgery. Now, you’ve accepted the offering. You’re sleeping, you have a mother and child relationship and you added something to it. There’s a surgery and you’re nervous.
It moves this thing forward. Something is happening and you’re discovering the characters and the story together. Now, example of not doing this or denying the offering is saying something like, mother, stop sweeping and come get into the car and you could stop the scene or make things really uncomfortable by saying, I’m not your mother. What are you doing? You’ve negated the offer. I’m not your mother. And you ask the question, what are you doing putting the other actor on the spot to come up with another offering?
Because I have to immediately respond. You’ve added nothing. You’re just confused the actor in the audience and immediately stop the action. Yes. And requires that you are in the moment. It requires you to listen and observe everything that’s happening around you, and it requires focus and attention to detail. But at the same time, it’s a call to action because you have to be ready for anything. Understandably, there will be some times when you get a bad offering, when you like.
The audience has a particular expectation or anticipation for a suggestion that just doesn’t come or seems dumb. There are a lot of reasons for that because you’re just responding and acting to a lot of things that are happening around you and you might have a blurred brain moment yourself and give a less than perfect offering. This is to be expected. The real test in improv, the ones that separate the easily forgotten scenes from the memorable magical moments lies not in the offering, but in the yes and moment that comes next.
When the less than stellar offering is picked up, polished and held up as a treasure. In situations like this, it is that the troupe, the community of actors that you’re performing with that makes all the difference. The trust and relationship that you have with each other is priceless to not only listen, accept and add, but to jump in and save or better yet set you up to succeed in an effortless way that the audience might not notice, all in service of the story being told in that moment.
That’s the goal. That’s where magic happens in the unexpected. But it surprises. It entertains. It creates something you could have never done on your own. When I was a younger, plucky, extroverted girl from Lincoln, Nebraska, with a bag full of lipstick and dreams, I used to think and optimistic rose colored glasses like my life was a musical and anything could happen. And now I see life more like a middle aged, dark, kind of scratched and smudged glasses that honestly anything could happen.
It’s all the same. In the late summer of twenty fifteen, my husband Christopher noticed a slight dragging his leg. It seemed to move a little slower, which was odd. I told him to shake it off like any loving wife and overworked mother of five grown children. When it became worse and it affected the way we walked, we went in for tests and thinking it was an old back, you come back. We assumed a cortisone shot or back surgery at worse was in our future when that MRI.
I came back absolutely clean. We were surprised, but not alarmed. So we had another MRI higher in the neck when that was clean. We did a full CAT scan and that showed nothing. And he developed muscle for circulation’s many tests were ordered after bloodwork three times. Scans test and time. The worst case scenario, the disease. No doctor says out loud, even as a theory was scribbled on a doctor’s note and he was sent to a specialist who confirmed he had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
It not only has no known cause, but it has no treatment, no predictable progression. Fast, slow starts in the leg or in voice and no cure. The average life expectancy is two to five years for two weeks. And I lived with the reality of that diagnosis. We didn’t talk about it. The shock was so great. But as he started walking with a cane and more and more people tried to help. We knew we couldn’t keep it any in any longer.
And we told our kids who were at the time, ages eight, 11, 13, 16 and 18, our families and close friends and life has never been the same. The first year was the hardest. As we try to wrap our mind around all the changes in our home that suddenly needed to be equipped with handicapped features, we live in a nineteen seventy two split level, which was the absolute worst situation for a wheelchair. But that was just the beginning.
We had to think of employment, savings, family issues. Every aspect of our life felt like a panic. Christopher had a really great therapist right off the bat and he learned an important principle that I also adopted the 10 minute rule. Give yourself 10 to 15 minutes every day to feel sorry for yourself, your terminal situation, and then get on with the day, live your life. Christopher needed 15 minutes every once in a while, especially in the beginning, but not after a while.
Christopher decided early on in his diagnosis how he would respond. Most importantly, he gave everyone around him permission to laugh at ALS and himself. He made jokes about his deteriorating health as a signal for others to do the same when he started losing his voice that had this Frankenstein quality to it. And he hasn’t made a video in which Christ dressed up like Frankenstein style of Young Frankenstein, you know, the black and white movie. And they sang and laughed throughout.
He did Lip-Sync videos with his kids. He wrote joke reviews online and posted them to social media when he could no longer speak and communicated with a Stephen Hawking computer by laboriously typing out each letter with a sensor on his glasses and a slight movement of his neck and pushing his one working finger on the mouse he would type out. Jokes were always worth the wait. The adaptive computer system had predictive texts, things he said a lot that would pop up after a few letters if he was standing with one of his kids in the story, pushed the button and the computer voice would say, help.
I don’t know this person. And he would laugh and our kids would say, please stop doing that. Or if a friend visited and it got really quiet, he would type. No one understands how this feels. I think we would just laugh and laugh. And Christopher just kept working and creating. He kept teaching. He earned full professor status at Utah Valley University. They honored him, gave him a lifetime achievement awards and secured the rights for the new beautiful arts building in the green room to be named the Christopher Clark Green Room.
There’s a huge bust of his head created by the talented Jacob Richardson there. Now, Christopher wanted the actors to rub the top of his head for good luck before they went out on stage. He wanted a lasting legacy of actors, writers, directors who go out into the world and create their own art, expanding goodness and beauty to the world in meaningful ways. He directed some of his best plays with friends, volunteering to assistant director him to save his energy and bring his creations to life.
Alas, he would constantly remind us, was one of the least interesting things about him. He wrote his life story. He told everyone that he talked to that he loved him. He didn’t know when he would die, so he never knew if this would be the last time that he’d see them. And he never wanted them to question how he felt. So he would say, I love you all the time and mean it when he could no longer walk.
He focused on teaching and directing, when he could no longer use his arms. He didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about not playing the piano or typing, but he found ways to use technology to speak. He stopped teaching. He directed, he stopped directing. He wrote plays. He kept focusing on what he could do, often expressing gratitude to God for his life and blessings. He used to tell me that he felt like George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, that he was the luckiest man in the whole world with the best friends and family.
After living with ALS for four and a half years, Christopher died on June 5th of twenty twenty. When he died, he was writing to place. He was in preproduction for a musical acting as our children’s self-appointed seminarian theater teacher. And planned and executed an elaborate surprise for our 25th wedding anniversary just two days prior. He was the greatest example of taking the offering and working with it to make something many things beautiful. Christopher lives with this yes and attitude, focusing on what he could do, which was a lot.
The specifics of Yasin have become so much clearer to me in the past five years of intense change. One of the worst days of my life was a seemingly ordinary Tuesday that no one else would have recognized. When he wheeled up early on in his diagnosis to the piano, played a little bit and then close the piano and said, My piano playing days are over. It was a good run. I was shocked. I mean, he could still play.
Why not? It was such a huge part of his life. He’d studied to be a concert pianist and I loved hearing him play Rachmaninoff and Chopin. I mean, it was a big part of our home life, but he was resolved. I’ll just get frustrated because I just can’t play like I used to and it’s going to get worse every day. And so instead of being frustrated, I just like to have go out having played well and focus on other things I can still do, like directing and teaching.
It’s OK. I’m at peace with it. And he was in the fall of twenty nineteen. Christopher, with extremely limited movement and absolutely no ability to speak, spent the entire day and into the early evening praying and typing out, using that expensive adaptive technology to land on each individual letter of each carefully chosen word with a subtle movement of his neck and the assistance of that data from his glasses, and that click from one last remaining moving finger, he was able to type out an entire priesthood blessing for each one of our five children.
And maybe it was because it took him all day and a little bit into the night to do this one thing which had previously taken him so little time that made it unique. But I don’t really think so. It was a blessing that transcended the simple good thoughts and hopes of a father with a body that was not whole. He was able to give a complete blessing. There were so many things that Christopher could do a few years earlier that were a blessing in our lives.
Before he had ALS, he could direct a beautifully moving theater pieces act and perform like when he portrayed Paul in the Bible. Again, videos play the piano by ear and compose beautiful arrangements. Hug us, talk to us, tell us vivid, funny stories. But the fact that he could still call upon the powers of heaven to bless us when he couldn’t even speak or move is something that I have thought a lot about. And it accesses power in the same way as before, the same comfort and faith to move forward with confidence in a time where we didn’t feel very comfortable or confident.
Now, while most of us will find ourselves facing a terminal disease, we all have moments when we need to find a way to live with a bad offering. And while we are most notably aware of the nose in our lives, focusing on the Yes Andsnes can be used as a tool to move forward and focus our grieving hearts on the reality of our situations. And what we have to work with are. Yes, and we can act in faith, in the face of fear, whether it’s the trauma of death maybe, or the unknown and certainly the future.
President Nelson addressed this in his general conference address, hear him during a frightening global pandemic and outlined how our fear is an indication that we’re ready to hear the words of Christ. He taught us repeatedly that before the father introduces his son that witnesses are in a state of fear and to some degree, desperation. The apostles were afraid when they saw Jesus Christ encircled by a cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration. The Nephites were afraid because they’d been through darkness and destruction for several days.
Joseph Smith was in the grips of a force of darkness just before the heavens opened. Our father knows that when we are surrounded by uncertainty and fear, that what will help us the very most is to hear his son. Because when we seek to hear, truly hear his son, we will be guided to know what to do in any circumstance. We are promised as we make the next Gassan decision or action to move forward in unexpected times. It’s an especially meaningful promise to me because I’ve learned that a lot of humor and joy is found in the unexpected or seeing the unexpected happen.
But to see it or experience in it, we have to accept the offering. We have to be honest about it and make a choice to act. President Nelson taught that our circumstances don’t have to dictate our happiness when he said, and I promise you that your capacity to feel joy will increase even if turbulence increases in your life are very capacity for joy. In a time when we’re the most afraid can be expanded, President Nelson gives us a lot of specific ideas about how to increase our ability to receive personal revelation, which is a very individual pursuit.
But he repeats himself for emphasis. When he says, I renew my plea for you to do whatever it takes to increase your spiritual capacity to receive personal revelation, doing so will help you know how to move ahead with your life, what to do during times of crisis, and how to discern and avoid the temptations and the deceptions of the adversary. When we seek Christ, we’re learning to listen and develop the ability to receive personal revelation, which is the ultimate way to practice.
Yes, and I don’t want to underestimate how hard this is. I’ve never had a more difficult time practicing what I preach than this past year. It’s not like I’ve been laughing my way through caregiving, mothering, grief, isolation or exhausting work. I mean, not at all. But it’s the practice of all of this that changes me in my capacity, not a singular event. I think of life less as performance and more as a working rehearsal.
But I also don’t have complicated feelings about laughing and crying, just like Christ didn’t want to be defined by ALS. I don’t want to be defined by what I’ve lost. And I don’t want to miss out on any of the offering of joy around me because I’m too in love or loyalty, grief, pain or suffering. Each next step or choice living in the moment, it’s all we have, what we’ll think about, what we focus on, who we invite in, how we deal in each moment is all we have control over.
Personal revelation becomes so vital then because it accounts for the elements. We cannot see which when the needs are immediate, it’s individual, vulnerable and guiding. And most importantly, it’s all motivated by love. Sister Julie beBack emphasized this idea when she said the ability to qualify for, receive and act on personal revelation is the single most important skill that can be acquired in this life. It requires a conscious effort when working in a scene, whether it’s on a stage or in a conversation.
Specific matter. Individual choices do make a difference. Every character adds something you can’t have everybody be or look or act the same. Not only would it be really boring, but beyond that nothing would happen. There’s no theater conflict resolution change specifics are individual and they make up everything. Personally, I was able to physically lift my husband when there was the need and no one else to help. Have impossible conversations with great focus and mental clarity, have connections with people at just the right moment for a very specific need.
That answered an unspoken but desperate plea just given. In my mind, there are many experiences, some too sacred to talk about here today that I will hold in my heart forever as evidence that sometimes we are asked to do impossible things with great love and we are not left alone to do them. The Shakespearean quote, serve God loved me and meant for much ado about nothing rattles around in my brain as a way to remember the guiding principles of improv in living life.
Serve God is the driving force, the super objective of our lives, reminding me that God has a plan for me. My faith is in him and my relationship. And communication is a creative offering that needs to be expressed in the details of how I live. Love Me reminds me to choose love, to love everyone, to be the one who loves more the most and to show it. He reminds me that it’s a human need to be loved.
And when all is said and done at the end of our lives, that’s what we remember. And then for the acknowledgment that we’re human or practicing, we’re going to make mistakes. Our hearts are going to be broken, but they don’t have to stay broken. As Elena’s beautifully said, do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break and all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention.
So go love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. And of course, when we feel weak and uninspired, we have the right to ask for personal help. We cannot underestimate the evidence of God’s love and our reliance on it. Instead, we can look with new eyes and expand our understanding of God’s love. Gene, our cooked beautifully said this. It is a part of the gift of charity to be able to recognize the Lord’s hand and feel his love in all that surrounds us.
At times it will not be easy for us to discover the Lord’s love for us and all we experience because he’s a perfect, anonymous giver. You will search all your life to uncover his hand and the gifts he has bestowed upon you because of his intimate, modest, humble way of granting such wonderful gifts. When I feel weak, I remind myself that none of us perform in a vacuum and to look to family, friends, my right or die connections and my peripheral connections and neighbors, word members, colleagues.
Christopher’s career was all about people, about the students and the co creators in the creative arts. His legacy is the legacy of all these actors and producers and directors and creatives going out into the world and creating art with the tools and education and passion that they learned from Chris. On the wall opposite his desk, in his office, where the words all is love, he put it there to remind himself that whether as a department chair, a director, teacher, colleague, friend or student, that no problem knows frustration was more important than the person in front of him who was a child of God, a friend.
You can’t have personal revelation without honesty and vulnerability, one offering at a time, one choice with actors who you trust. This quote from C.S. Lewis illustrates how I feel about this. He said, In friendship, we think we’ve chosen our peers in reality a few years difference from the dates of our birth, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another. Any of these chances might have kept us apart. But for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances.
A secret master of ceremonies has been at work Christ who said to the disciples, You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. You have not chosen one another. But I have chosen you for one another. Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and the taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of the beauties of the others. My guess and way of seeing life as one long improvizational story has helped me become a little more comfortable with the idea that the future is never what you think it will look like, and that we’re all just making it up as we go.
And when we do it with great love and intention, when we ask ourselves the big questions in life, we get to choose what we offer moving forward. But we need to know who we are and what we want. We can change what we want, but we need to be honest about how we feel, which requires us to be vulnerable and brave when we approach God in prayer. Asking for individualized personal revelation, elder Michael John Dye said. Oftentimes it’s easier for us to think and speak of Christ’s atonement in general terms than to recognize its personal significance in our lives.
The atonement of Jesus Christ is infinite and internal and all encompassing in its breadth and depth, but wholly personal and individual in its effects. Because of his atoning sacrifice, the savior has power to cleanse, heal and strengthen us one by one. Our personal development and answers are so individual, but sometimes in our anxiety to get life right, we look around at others to see how they’re doing and that can create expectations for ourselves. And this is common but dangerous, because expectations can kill creativity and certainly create suffering in life.
We all have ideas about how we want to live and what we hope for. And I don’t think it’s possible to get rid of all expectations because they’re tied so closely to our dreams and hopes and goals. But when modern prophets encourage us, like Elder Bednar said, to have faith not to be healed or like Joseph, be worthless and come what may and love it, I interpret it as direction to accept the offering we have and focus on where we want this personal revelation to take us to Christ.
Of course, it’s one thing to walk on stage and have an expectation of what you might do and say it’s an entirely different thing to live your life having expectations for yourself, your friends, your family, your children. Our hopes and dreams are so closely tied with happy expectations, but ultimately our faith is in Christ not in a specific outcome. This excerpt from Bruce Amerie Hafitz book Faith is Not Blind, in which they shared a letter they received from Nathan Lenhart, is particularly meaningful to me for every Shadrach Meshach out of Bendigo who are saved from the flames and have Jenny Dye is allowed to burn for every wayward almar the younger that’s brought to the light from a pleading faithful parent.
It and let me will continue to strive for every two thousand stripling warriors who leave the battle with nothing more than wounds. A thousand and five are left to be slain by the sword for every Almar who Ammann, who brings thousands of souls to repentance, a Mormon and Moroni labor all their days their life, and never see the fruits of their labor for every blind to see, death to hear and lahm to walk. The experience of unfathomable suffering awaits and Gethsemani.
However, for every Jenny Dye who was burned sometimes and Alma takes the doctrine to heart and begins a lifetime in service to God for every one thousand five who are left to be slain. Sometimes we see the Lord work at the man ways to salvation of his people as more souls are brought to repentance than the number who perished for every thy will be done in submission to the Haganah and Gas Salmoni, there is a prayer too beautiful to be recorded. The blessing of children one by one, angels descending from the open heavens and tears streaming down the face from one who can finally declare full joy.
I didn’t want the outcome that I’m living with caring for a terminally ill husband. While navigating a new career and raising five children, mostly teenagers, while navigating death, a funeral and mourning during an isolated global pandemic, it’s not as glamorous as we might think. But I do know that God is good. The Lord hears my prayers. He weeps with me and he prepares the path and he’s preparing me for the path. He prepared Christopher in a very beautiful way, and he’s doing the same for each of our unique five kids.
And in the middle of extreme fatigue and frustration and grief and difficult work, we were blessed with joy and happiness. I will never think of Christopher’s life or our family’s life together as a tragedy. It is an ever changing creative triumph. We have grand ideas and dreams and plans for how we want our lives to go. And we should. But we shouldn’t let our plan for the way we want our lives to go stop us from living the meaning of the lives we have.
Just like there are infinite choices that you can make in a scene, there are infinite ways to find goodness, happiness and love. Chris, put it this way in a talk he gave shortly before his death that talks about happiness and gives you a perspective of his state of mind nearing the end of his life, he said, I’m reminded of the story of two young fish swimming along when they happened to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, Morning boys, how’s the water?
And the young two fish swim on for a bit. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and says, What the heck is water? I submit to you that happiness and divine providence, like a fish in water are all around us. Like the air we breathe, we are enveloped in God’s love, Christ continues with his testimony. I testify that our savior is the lamb of God that he lives and that he fulfilled the divine mission to redeem us from the darkness of the world.
There is an eternal plan for all of us, even though it may be difficult to see or understand at times. As the apostle Paul says, although it feels like we see our life through a glass darkly, the day will come where we will see the Lord face to face with perfect clarity, what love we will feel until then, how blessed we are to have the teachings and example of the savior to help us learn the Gospel, love our fellow man, mend our ways and live fulfilling lives.
The keys to happiness exist. Right now. We only have to turn the luck. The gift of living in the moment and being in the details of life is something Christopher did to yes and his way through a happy life. The inside joke with friends, the conversations with his kids on her drive, the way he cut his lawn, the details in a play specific lighting, a song choice or costume piece that typed out words of a blessing on a computer screen.
These details are buried in our memories. And stay with us. Forever changing us. These bits of life of art, beauty are what changed us. And it wouldn’t have any meaning or joy without the people who make up our community of trusted actors, no matter what our offering comes our way. Accepting that offering and adding to it is how we serve. God, love me and mend the way we live our lives is the most creative art form.
Guided by personal revelation, the creative art of living and becoming requires our full attention and intention to. Yes, and because that’s magic, where the unexpected not only happens, but creates something we could have never done on our own. In the name of Jesus Christ, Damian.