Wednesday, October 28, 2009

laugh for laugh's sake

I was asked to speak at a couple of chapel services on Monday and naturally, the idea terrified me. After a fair amount of anxious deliberating, I decided to speak about something I knew friends. Thanks to those friends who continually inspire me...and give me something to talk about to secondary students across the state! This is what I came up with:

love and laugh with your neighbour...


The other night I went to see an orchestra playing at Hamer Hall in Melbourne. I had flown in from Sydney that morning and was carrying a lot of bags (one of which was pink and floral), so I decided to go and check in my coat and bags at the cloak room. My friend Phil and I went over to do this, and after I had handed over all of my stuff, I looked over at Phil who was not giving the staff member his jacket or bag, but calmly and seriously handing over a single lemon. I had to turn away to hide my laughter, but I could hear the staff member saying “thank you sir, I will be sure to look after that carefully for you” through what sounded like a large grin.

Now, this type of event is not that unusual when hanging out with Phil. Every year Phil undertakes a new experiment, and this year it is called: “2009: A year with lemons”. Every day he engages in one lemon related activity. It may be leaving a lemon instead of a tip at a restaurant, giving a lemon a tattoo or last week he was in Malaysia and fed a lemon to a monkey....In 2006 Phil gave a flower to a different person each day. He called it “2006: A year of giving flowers to people”. He lived in England, France and Australia during that year with a mission to give a stranger a flower every day. He then blogs about what happens- with reactions ranging from delight, to confusion, to annoyance, to tears of joy.

I once asked him why he does these quirky things with his life. “Because I’m a human and I want to interact with other humans” I was a bit surprised by this answer. Wasn’t he hoping to say something profound by giving a flower to someone every day? Or by leaving a lemon as a tip in a restaurant? Isn’t he trying to be provocative… or… kind? But he is doing these things, not to make a statement or to cause a scene. He is simply creating frameworks in which people can interact with each other in a way they maybe wouldn’t have done otherwise. He puts himself in places where he is asking people to see life in a different way, even for a moment. He doesn’t have an agenda that he is running- he isn’t hoping to get something in particular out of these interactions...he just wants to see what happens when strangers start talking to each other.

presence in public spaces

I find it very easy to slip into a routine and not notice all the people or places around me. Every day I catch the tram to work in the city and sometimes I get to my destination and realise I’ve been sitting with other people for 40 minutes and haven’t even noticed them. I’ve been in my own little “Sarah bubble.” Recently, when there was a big storm, the whole of the Melbourne CBD was advised to leave work at 4pm. I found myself sitting on my tram next to an older man who started talking to me about the storm. Usually no one even makes eye contact on my tram, so this was a big step. We spoke for the entire journey- he worked for the Melbourne City Council and had helped to plan the city’s tram routes. He was so passionate about city planning and his excitement was contagious. He made me look out the window and appreciate my city- not bury my head in a book. This stranger opened up my eyes to the moment I was living in.

“interrupt the ordinary, inspire the extraordinary.” Peggy Holman

I’m sure we all have stories like this- when a conversation makes us see life through a different lense and we realise that we are sharing life with lots of people all around us. My ordinary, everyday tram ride was changed forever. It made me realise that in every moment there is the possibility for the ordinary to become extraordinary- in a moment of connection.


I asked friends recently on my facebook site if they could tell me the favourite thing about their neighbourhood. Over 30 friends replied, and many of them said that the favourite thing in their neighbourhood was a person. Sometimes this was a person they knew, sometimes it was a local celebrity- like the guy in Prahran who rollerblades down chapel St being pulled along by two little dogs, or the old Italian man who gives everyone tomatoes when they walk past.

People are examining their neighbourhoods all over the world and asking what makes them special. Improv Everywhere are a professional group of actors working in New York who create surprise performances in very ordinary locations. Charlie Todd formed the company in 2001 with no fixed agenda other than to make comedy for comedy’s sake. He wants to create opportunities in his neighbourhood to “make someone laugh, smile, or stop to notice the world around them.” One of my favourite examples of their work is their Grand Central Freeze.  The company also completed a mission recently where 2000 new Yorkers took their invisible dog out for a walk. Another favourite activity of this company is to break into musical in ordinary unpredictable places. Recently they staged a musical in the fruit and vegetable section of a supermarket: Grocery Store Musical. Another mission that got a lot of views on youtube was their food court musical, where workers broke out in song much to the surprise of people eating their lunch.

These experiments are unpredictable; anything can happen. The company has made many people laugh and many friendships grow. They recognise that people carry a strong desire for love and hope and they create opportunities for them to share this joy with the world. There is also a recognition that we are all in this world together, and that we need to imagine new ways of interacting with other people.

Improv Everywhere and my friend Phil both recognise it isn’t outcomes or achievements that matter. This is a hard idea for us humans to get our heads around. We live in a competitive world. Movies like Mean Girls show us how easy it is to fall into the trap of becoming competitive and jealous. But rather than competition what we need is space to be creative- time and places to connect with other people in interesting, fun and unique ways. When we give ourselves time to imagine, we are more fully ourselves, and give ourselves the space to love others.

People and relationships matter. Our local community, our school community and our global community matter. As the writer and thinker Margaret Wheatley says, "If we free ourselves (from competing with our friends and colleagues) we discover that it becomes easier to love them...We realize that we truly are in this together, and that’s all that matters."¹

This week I urge you to give yourself some space. Look at the world through a different lense. Love for loves sake, laugh for laughter’s sake, and maybe even give someone a flower.

¹Wheatley, Margaret; The Place Beyond Fear and Hope; Shambhala Sun, March 2009

1 comment:

  1. Sarah - this is a (much) better summary of my projects than I myself could have made! Thanks for sharing this lovely and thoughtful piece, and for describing my own work with such elegance.

    Love Philip