Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Telling Life: The things that scare us

It's that time of year again, when the air grows crisp (at least in the Northern hemisphere) and storytellers everywhere celebrate the arrival of Halloween, when most of us have gigs aplenty. This is the season for scary stories, after all.

I love October and Halloween. When I was a child the double whammy of costumes, candy and my birthday (which falls toward the end of the month) was enough to make me giddy. Now it's the crispness in the air, the long shadows of an autumn evening, the firework leaves. And yes, my birthday still plays a part in how much I love the season.

Halloween, as you well know, is not just a celebration of kids in cute costumes and the candy industry. It's traditionally a time when the boundaries between the worlds are at their thinnest, a time when things from the other side can more easily reach through. Whether these things are to be feared or not depends on your own particular relationship with death, the afterlife and the otherworldly.

Personally, I love the suggestion that those I love who have died might be able to more easily reach out and say hello. I set out gifts and snacks for them on Halloween night (along with the candy I give to the creatures who ring my doorbell). But I can't escape the darker aspects of the season, the sense of the other that might be lurking around the corner. This time of year gives me a chance to look at what frightens me, to ask why and maybe even embrace it. If I'm to tell effective scary stories I need to be willing to look into the dark. This is part of the storyteller's job, after all, to look into the shadows and let the audience glimpse what might lie beyond, but from the safety of their seats. (There is a whole other discussion here about making sure your scary stories are appropriate to the listeners. For this piece, I'm assuming you really do want to give them a chill.)

Part of the storyteller's work is asking not only what will scare the audience, but what might scare us. This is a more focused version of our work across the board - we need to understand why a particular story calls to us as we call to the audience.

So what scares you? What kinds of stories might you tell that you find chilling and why? If you love the stories you tell and understand why you can't help but tell them more effectively. If you get a shiver from a tale you are much more likely to be able to share that with your audience.

Settle in. Dim the lights. Close your eyes and let your hackles rise as something... anything... reaches out from the dark. Reaching for you.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Fiction: The bus

This was originally published on my newsletter. If you'd like to sign up to receive more stories and storytelling tips, please go here.

Fall has arrived, with ghost, goblins and spooky stories. I love this time of year with the crisp air, the crisper apples and the swooshing fireworks of changing leaves. It’s a good time to be a storyteller because, even more than in other seasons, stories seem to find us.

I was walking home the other evening when an older man sitting on a bench called out to me. “Lady,” he said in a voice roughened by age and alcohol, “Lady, I have to tell you something.” I know an invitation to wonder when I see it, so I waited and listened. Sure, it could have been awful. It could have been crude or painful or just a bid for another drink, but I would always rather hope that there is something else possible.

“Lady, I just need to tell someone this. I was right here waiting for the bus, it’s time for me to get home, like I always do. I’d finished my drink,” he waved to a paper bag beside him, “and was hoping it would be here soon cause I had to pee. I looked down the street to see if the bus was coming. I always do that even though I know it won’t come any faster. You know how you do that? You look to see if the bus is there even though you know it's gonna be another five minutes? Anyway, there was nothing.

“I sat back down on the bench when all of a sudden there was this huge gust of wind and a big, black bus stopped in front of me. Like one of those tour buses from the 1970s, you know? I sat there looking at it when the door creaked open and a tall, thin guy in a sharp suit stepped out. I used to wear suits like that, long time ago. I couldn't see much behind him, no driver or anything, it's like there was a curtain or something even though I couldn't see one.

“He looked me up and down and asked if I wanted a ride. Now, I may be a drunk but I’m no fool. I asked him if they would let me off at my stop and he just smiled. His teeth were so white I could barely see. I shook my head no.

“He sighed, told me I didn’t know what I was missing, there were ladies on board and a fresh bottle just for me. But I wouldn’t look at him again. Tell you the truth, I wanted to. But I thought if I could wait just a moment longer I would make it. Kind of like the twelve steps but different.

“I heard the door close and there was a rush of hot air, so dry and nasty it burned my eyes, and when I looked up the bus was gone. Look, you can see the tire marks.”

He was right, I could see a skid on the road, a mark that hadn’t been there the day before.

“First thing I thought was a shoulda got on, but I figure it might stop for me again some time. Whaddya think lady, should I’ve gotten on? Think it might come back?”

I looked at him and was about to say something, no doubt something trite, but he stood up. “My bus is here. See you around.”

The city bus pulled away and I noticed he had left his bottle behind.

I don’t know. What do you think I should have said?

If you are interested in this or other stories please contact me. I’d love to tell stories with you.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 21, 2016

Counting days

In the first months after Kevin's death, I counted days. 7 days. 10. 50. 100. I graduated to counting weeks, then months. And now I am counting years. It's a bit over two-and-a-half years. It's unbelievable and yet it is.

I've read articles about how those who have lost someone they adore shouldn't count days or note anniversaries, that it's just scraping the scab off and not allowing the wound to heal. I have mixed feelings about this.
  1. I don't know that the wound will ever heal. I feel as though I am now someone so radically different, that I've become one of those trees that was struck by lightening but somehow managed to not die. It may have wanted to die. I did. But it eventually sent out another green shoot and now is essentially a different tree than it was before the strike. It had to learn to grow around the wound, cradling the damaged part and incorporating it because to lose it would mean losing the place where the new growth emerged. 
  2. I don't want to deny the important dates. His birthday. Our anniversary. Even the date of his death, which was the hardest and holiest day I have lived through. How would I want to forget any of it? Admittedly, some of those days are hard, but not all of them. On the last anniversary of his death my new love and I went for a walk. We found fossils. We talked about Kevin and remembered him. I cried and was comforted. It was a gift of a day where we celebrated the small things that go into making a life. Remembering is one of those things that we cannot escape, so I would rather embrace and incorporate it.
  3. For some it may be very important to not remember the specifics, but I don't know how not to. Every part of the year is in some way associated with Kevin and also associated with his illness. By October 2013 we knew something was wrong but didn't know what. No one thought cancer. So I remember the good days and the bad. I remember my birthday party and how happy he was to be with me. I remember his smile as I blew out the candles on the cake. And I remember how he barely ate any cake because his stomach hurt. I cannot remember the good without sometimes also remembering the hard. It's just how I am. It may be how most of us are. 
We all mourn in our own way. There is no set of rules. I don't need to count days anymore but I still feel his loss on the 28th of every month. I toast him every Friday. And that's okay. Other widowed people I know, those who lost their partners a long time ago, have told me that you never stop missing them but it becomes easy to remember the good times and not just the hard. I already have noticed this. I think of Kevin and smile far more often than I cry now.

I bear my new growth with astonishment and wonder. I cradle my scarred places tenderly and cherish the love that created the wound. I wouldn't choose differently; I would rather keep him alive in memory and word, even if it sometimes hurts. I am a different person now, forged by love and loss and being too stubborn to stop living.

And in case you were wondering, it's 937 days. 

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Telling life: Sacred breath

In just a moment I'm going to ask you to stop reading this post. I'm going to ask you to sit up a little straighter, to relax your hands in your lap, to close your eyes and to take in a slow deep breath. As you do, feel your lungs expand and contract. Feel the warmth of the air you expel, the rush of it through your nostrils or lips. Let go of the stress and tension you may have been holding. After you've done this two or three times, come back to this post. There's more I'd like to share with you.

Okay. It's time. Stop reading, close your eyes, relax and breathe. I'll wait.

Now do it again.

Welcome back. How do you feel? A little more grounded, I hope?

My mentor and friend, Brother Blue, used to start each of his storytelling sessions with a collective breath. He said it was calling the muse. It was. With that great sigh we, those assembled, became a community and blessed the room with our breath. We took that moment to allow creativity to flow through us. It gave us a sacred pause.

There is a commonly touted belief that, with each breath, we breath air shared by Julius Caesar and maybe even dinosaurs. That isn't precisely true, but the truth is even more amazing. Every breath we take, every time we inhale, we are breathing in atoms that have been here (functionally) forever. Our bodies break apart those air molecules and take what they need, then we exhale the waste. The oxygen we breath is a byproduct of life: When the planet was young there was very little oxygen, it developed thanks to photosynthetic organisms, so the oxygen we breath is life giving to life. The carbon dioxide we exhale may go on to nourish a tree that will emit oxygen and, in time, decompose to carbon that will nourish other organisms, some of which your grandchildren may eat.

Every time we speak our bodies shape our thoughts, into vibrations in our vocal cords. What is quite literally an image of the electrical activity directed in our brains is then pushed by breath and creates sound vibrations that ripple through the air and directly impacts the tympanic membranes of our listeners. The vibration we feel in our own bodies as we tell stories is felt by our listeners.

So what does breath have to do with storytelling? Everything. It helps us connect to our listeners in real, physical ways - the electric spark of thought becoming vibration, powered by breath to become sound. Each breath contains some element of the birth of life.

When Brother Blue would ask us all to sigh together it was more than creating community, more than imploring the Muse for assistance, more even than gathering thoughts to tell stories, it was blessing each other with life. With hope. With story.

Breath is sacred. Breathe deep.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 7, 2016

Reading grief, reading life

Someone asked me recently where I found refuge in the difficult times in my life. My first response was not what he expected, but it was the most honest one I could give. "Books," I said, "I found solace, refuge and safety in books."

It is my hope that I will eventually write a book about Kevin, our love, his loss, my grief and transformation. I'd like to start with the blog posts I've written that you have all so kindly read, then add onto it. I'm not there yet, but I would like to do this. I hope it might help others. I hope it may be a solace, a refuge and a safe place to know they are not alone.

As I'm thinking about this more and more, I've started doing some research into memoirs about love, loss and transformation. I've read quite a few, including:

What I have gathered from all of these (and this is no surprise) is that grief is universal, constant, similar and utterly unique. I have learned that I am not the only who has found solace in writing and shared my beloved and my emptiness with unknown readers. I am responding to a basic human drive and I do not regret it.

I have said hundreds of times that if we are lucky we will love and if we love we will grieve. I would not undo my love for Kevin if it meant that I would be spared the pain.

I'm wondering what you may have read that resonated with you. I'd love to know. And I am so grateful that you are sharing my journey.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Telling Life: Some thoughts on storytelling in a political season

My heart is breaking. Every time I watch the news, read the paper or open Facebook I feel myself flinch. The words spoken, the stories told in this political season are destructive, selected to tear down the other and enclose the tribe in walls of thorns and poison. I shudder and close my eyes, hoping it will all go away.

You probably feel this way, too, regardless of your political persuasion. Whether you support this side or that, our dark selves are being revealed, reviled and reveled in. My heart cracks as I see people I thought "better than that" say things they might never have dared say before. In some ways this may be a good thing since it means we now know just how many of the other there are, but I still want to believe, need to believe that we are more alike than we are different, that we still all care about similar things, that we will be kind when we can.

What's a storyteller to do?

I can think of three responses that don't rise out of fear and instead reflect the things that drive me to tell stories, listen to others and do my best to create a world in which all can be heard.

The first is to remember that these are stories and that storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool. Our brains change when we listen to stories. The politicians have master craftspeople working with them to tell the stories that they think will persuade more people to vote for them. Whether they use fear, empathy, demagoguery or logic, they are using spoken stories to make us care. It is all manipulation, all political storytelling. When I remember that this is the dark side of storytelling it helps me listen with more clarity. It helps me feel less afraid.

While it doesn't necessarily make me feel any better, I think it's worth remembering the basic neurology of storytelling in times like these. It can be used for good or for evil and when we, the audience, remember this we can more easily choose how to respond. We can decide if we want to believe what our brains are telling us and we can remember to look deeper. I'm not suggesting that we need to go into every storytelling experience with this level of skepticism, but I do think we need to remember that the things we do as performers to build empathy and connection with the audience, to entrance them, are no different from the things being done to us as political consumers. This also helps me when I wonder how anyone can support a candidate with whom I disagree. It helps me feel empathy for the audience if not for the story and the teller.

The second is to remember that so much of the response to what is being said arises out of fear. We are all afraid that we are alone, that we are different, that we are not of the tribe or we are fearful of those outside our tribe. If I cut to the chase and listen to those who believe things I may not, I am often surprised by what I hear. They (whoever they may be) likely care about the same things I do. We both want our families to be safe and secure, we both want to know that the world will not harm us, we both want to feel as though things we believe in are being done in our names. The methods may differ as may some of the hoped-for outcomes, but the underlying fears and hopes are largely the same. I can use my story ears to listen to each individual and hope that they will listen to me, I can use my storytelling skills to encourage empathy, I can believe that we can find common ground. It won't always work, but I know I feel better, feel less disempowered, if I at least try.

A third thing I can try, though I have to face down all my fears to do it, is to tell my own story in a clear compelling way. I may not change anyone's mind, but I know I have tried. I can choose what story I tell and how. For instance, this year on election day I will drive people to the polls. I need to know I tried. Sometimes we need to know we have acted so we can tell ourselves the story of self that we most need to hear regardless of the context within which it exists.

None of  this stops my heart from breaking. None of this stops my fears from gripping me in a stranglehold. None of this will stop me from voting for my candidate as you vote for yours. But maybe remembering that these stories are deliberately manipulative and the "other side" is little different from me will help assuage the fear and remind me that there is still room for hope.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Telling Life: Nourishment

I am writing this from the Maine coast. It is a stunning day, crisp and bright, the water smiling the sun back at me. Yesterday I read an entire book in one day (something I used to do regularly but not in years) all while curled up by the fire. I am actually taking a break from my usual work life, which is wonderful but still work.

It's very hard for me, as a self-employed person, to take a break. I know whenever I take a break it means there are opportunities I will miss, even as I believe that more will come. My work is what drives me. I work all the time, even here on vacation. You'll note this is a new blog post, not the old one I was thinking I would repost. Yet breaks are important. We need to nourish ourselves and sometimes that means taking a break. I need to recharge by letting the sound of the wind and waves fill me.

We need to rest. Being here in Maine is nourishing for me. I am recharging my batteries on all levels, physical, emotional, creative and spiritual. By giving myself a break I am likely to be much more creative and energetic when I return home.

How do you nourish yourself? How do you give yourself permission to set down the pen or the phone and just rest?

I'm going back out to the deck now. The trees and water are calling.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 23, 2016


My father's memorial service was last Sunday. It was a lovely event. My mother told the story of his life, weaving in all the people attending. A cousin remembered my father as someone who was able to seriously listen to children, a rare skill. An old friend recounted some of their childhood exploits.

I struggled with what to say. My dad and I had a challenging relationship. We came to peace with one another before he died, something I will be eternally grateful for, but it's still not easy for me to talk about him and how we interacted, who we were with one another. I don't know if it ever will be. Much of it still feels too raw and too private.

A memorial service is not the place to pull out recrimination. We need to remember the dead honestly but gently, especially at memorials. Our survival gives us a chance to remember that no one is perfect and forgiveness makes life easier for the living. I know not all of you will agree with me and that's fine. Perhaps I should say that I need to remember my father honestly and gently, and was not willing to roll anything else out at his memorial.

I wrote earlier about all of this and I did what I planned. I acknowledged the complexity, saying something to the effect of all lives are complicated, all relationships are complicated, but here and now, let me share with you some of the shimmering memories I have of my father.

It was the right call.

I talked about being a child and listening to him tell me the stories he heard as boy on the radio. I may have been the only five year old in 1970s Philadelphia doing imitations of The Shadow. I talked about the stories he made up for me. I talked about watching the night sky with him, with all of the night noises surrounding us, and the constellations watching us back. I talked about how he was able to fix things, solve things, make things better. It was the right call. I felt better by remembering him at his best and I hope it was meaningful to everyone there.

At the end I invited everyone to take a moment and bring their own shimmering memory to mind, whether of my father or of someone else they love who is gone.

In the end, that's what we come down to. We are shimmering memories. We live as long as we are still a glimmer in the ether, a moment that bring a pause in the day. There are plenty of harsh memories but the sweetness is there too. By remembering it all, letting it illuminate us as we will eventually illuminate others, the world continues. The constellations still watch. The stories remain in the air. We still shimmer.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Telling Life: Our own fairy tale

If you've spent more than five minutes with me, you know I love fairy tales. If you've read my writing or been to a performance, it pretty quickly becomes clear that my work is influenced by these magical, whimsical, terrifying stories. Heck, beyond my work, my whole life is influenced by them.

It's easy to think that the appeal lies in the justice for the wicked and the hazy happiness at the end of many fairy tales. The evil are usually punished and the heroic live lives of happiness to the end of their days in some far distant future. When I was little that was certainly part of the appeal, but now I wonder just what happily ever after means.

I thought Kevin and I would live happily ever after, working and loving one another until some time when we might slip away, holding hands, both wrinkled and grey. I was wrong. That wasn't our happily every after. We were living it all along but just didn't know it; ever after was far too soon. There was no just punishment of the wicked; cancer can't be punished. Our story stopped short and I am left with forging ahead, finding a new kind of happiness, a different ever after.

So if it isn't happily ever after that I live in then perhaps it's once upon a time. 

I love the idea of once upon a time, of a time out of time. I like those kinds of liminal spaces, neither here nor there. I sometimes feel as though that's where I live, neither of this world nor removed from it, but somewhere between. Once upon a time captures this rather nicely.

I experience once upon a time when I am in the woods. When I am meditating. When I am particularly engaged and happy with what I'm doing. Maybe for me once upon a time is actually flow state. Maybe it's something else.

Or maybe it's all of it at once. Maybe we are living fairy tale lives even in the midst of traffic lights and collection notices and stomach aches and demanding bosses.

If we remember that we live our lives in a simultaneous state of once upon a time (that place where we are most ourselves, where possibility lingers) and happily ever after (the knowledge that this moment, this life is as glorious and eternal as a breath or as dark and fragmented as a hand gone slack) then maybe we can find that still place where everything is possible. The moment when the hero hasn't yet taken up the quest but knows they will. Where fairies don't need to grant wishes. Where we are the princesses and poor boys, the old women by the side of the road and the magical cat. Where we can lift ourselves up and make our own best story.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 16, 2016

Truth, story and complexity

My father died a month ago. At the end of his life he was peaceful, one sharp breath and then finally letting it all fall away. He was ready. My mother and I were as ready as we could be, though I don't know if one can ever be ready for the death of someone you love.

As I'm writing this I am tossing around what I want to say at his memorial service, a few days after this post publishes. I knew exactly what I wanted to say when Kevin died. That was easy. My love for him was fairly uncluttered; we had 15 really good years, with the usual ups and downs any couple may have, but the love was never in doubt. It was easy to talk about him and remember him publicly. Heck, I've been remembering him publicly in this blog for years now. (Years. That's hard to believe.)

It's harder for me to craft what I want to say at my father's memorial. For one his death is still somewhat abstract for me; I haven't lived near him for many years so his absence is taking longer to sink in. More significantly the relationship wasn't always an easy one. We certainly loved one another, but it was a more complicated relationship than the one I shared with Kevin. I want to honor my father's memory and life, but it's not a tidy set of memories. There are good memories but just as many difficult ones. What I say at his memorial service is part of how I will shape my ongoing memories of him, the lasting thoughts, so I want to be true and honest and kind.

I don't think his memorial service is any place to air the harder memories. I want to give my mother something she will feel good about, I want to know that I am honoring the best of my father, not holding onto that which is gone with him.

Grief is complicated, isn't it. I am grieving the whole relationship, good and bad, but I want to celebrate his being in the world at all. I know I'm not the only person who has had to contend with grieving a complex relationship, but this is a whole different animal than anything I've yet experienced.

So this is what I plan to do. I want to name the complexity but not dwell in it. Everyone there will know that my father was complicated (something he took great pride in) so I don't need that to be the story. Instead I'd rather remember some of the simple, lovely, shining things we shared. Memories of stories and movies and the night sky.

It's taken me some time to come to this, some balancing between what happened, what I remember and what is True.

This is the job of story, isn't it. To sift through what happened and what we remember then arrive at a deeper truth. Even in the midst of complexity and sorrow, relief and grief, I can share gentle truths, let the harsher ones rest, and remember my father as the parent he wanted to be. I can give him that last gift.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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