Friday, August 26, 2016

Tissues and other reminders

When Kevin died I didn't know what to do with most of his stuff. This is a really common thing when someone you love dies. What do you do with the things they touched, the things they treasured, the things they used? Some I was able to get rid of in relatively short order but others... I would think about tossing or donating them and I would immediately start crying.

I ended up getting a storage unit, deciding I could trade money for time to let the emotions ease some. I've had a storage unit for almost two years now. I know some people consider storage units a waste, but I don't regret putting this stuff away until I could think about it without immediately drowning in grief.

This week I spent some time at my storage unit, sorting through his stuff, our stuff, the artifacts of a shared life. It was hard.

I was surprised at what was triggering and what wasn't. I expected his t-shirts to be the hardest thing I would tackle that day, but they weren't. I was able to sort through them with relative ease, remembering which ones he loved, the stories they told, picking out some to save and others to give away. It was mostly a sense of nostalgia.

Then I went through a bag of bags and it was there that I found the grief.

Kevin was perhaps the country's most dedicated consumer of tissue pockets packs. He tucked them everywhere. In every bag, in every jacket, in every drawer. I found half-empty packets of tissues in his old computer bag and I had to take a deep breath, surprised at the sudden clutch of pain in my throat. Each of the packets was a moment suspended in time, a representation of how he planned ahead, how he had sneezes that sounded like trumpets, how he always had a tissue ready for me when I needed one. The half-used packets displayed such an interruption. He didn't have time to use them.

After awhile I gathered myself together and decided I had enough energy and determination to continue for a bit longer. It didn't take long for me to hit the wall. And the wall was made of shoes.

Kevin was a big man and had appropriately big feet, he wore a size 13. I loved the size of his feet. I loved tucking my shoes in his; every time I would giggle and he would sigh. I loved the way his toes were long and strong and would curl over mine when we lay back-to-back, our feet sole-to-sole. I loved seeing his shoes lined up by the front door. I loved his satisfaction when he found shoes that fit, a good size 13 isn't easy to come by.

After he died it took me close to a year to even move his shoes, though I knew he wouldn't need them again. Joan Didion wrote of a similar experience in The Year of Magical Thinking.

As I was going through stored materials I came across the last pair of shoes he wore, with his dirty socks tucked inside. I held those shoes for a long time. I smelled his socks. I struggled to find some molecule of his scent left somewhere in that fabric, in the nylon and rubber soles. I looked at the remains of sidewalk salt left in the tread, remembering that cold and desperate winter. I remembered how hard it was for him to put shoes on at the end, that they no longer fit and he couldn't bend to lace them. I remembered kneeling before him and sliding socks over his swollen feet so he wouldn't be cold. I remember knowing this wasn't going to last but dreading never doing it again. I would do it again if I could.

I clutched his shoes to me and I cried.

Then I put his socks aside, to add to the box where I keep the most precious things, and I put the shoes in a give-away bag, for a shelter, knowing there was someone else out there, someone who had a hard time finding shoes that fit, someone who maybe couldn't afford more than one pair. Someone who needed them more than I did.

I locked my storage unit and I drove away. I'm glad Kevin had tissues handy when I needed them.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Telling Life: Storytelling as an act of service

It can be hard to define what we do, those of us who make our living as storytellers. It's easy to think of our work as any number of things. It can be an art, a mystical moment, a craft accessible to all, something obtainable only after years of practice, on and on and on. If we're not careful we can push ourselves to rarified and undeserved heights. When I need to burst my own bubble and come back to earth I remind myself that what I do is provide a service.

I make my living as a storyteller. I perform, teach, coach, train and consult, all under the umbrella of the word storytelling. I provide services to my clients and I do my best to make sure those services are nothing less than exemplary.

Let's dig a little into what service is and why it's a handy way to think about this kind of work.

First, it is a service. I offer intangible products to my clients, be they an audience, someone working on their own story, a business or non-profit that wants to use storytelling more effectively or a group of people I am training. While I might want to think of myself only as an artist, what I am paid for are services.

Businessdictionary.com defines services as: Intangible products such as accounting, banking, cleaning, consultancy, education, insurance, expertise, medical treatment, or transportation.
Sometimes services are difficult to identify because they are closely associated with a good; such as the combination of a diagnosis with the administration of a medicine. No transfer of possession or ownership takes place when services are sold, and they (1) cannot be stored or transported, (2) are instantly perishable, and (3) come into existence at the time they are bought and consumed.

That seems like a pretty good description of performance storytelling. My stories do not transfer possession when I tell them. While they can be stored should I record them, the expertise, craft and talent cannot be handed over by some kind of mind-meld. In a performance setting, stories are instantly perishable - they exist in that moment between the teller and a particular audience - and they come into existence as they are purchased and consumed. This definition stretches to cover coaching, consulting and training as well. They are intangible, perishable and momentary. The effects may (and I hope do) linger long after I've gone, but the experience itself is fleeting.

It may be uncomfortable to think of our work this way, as a service. It might feel too business-y, clinical or materialistic, but I find it makes me work harder and serve better if I remember that my clients deserve the best and, because it is a fleeting service, I have an obligation to work as hard as I can for them in my preparation and in the moment so the aftereffects will linger. They are paying for an enduring memory or lesson learned as much as anything.

I also strive to think of my work as this kind of service, as defined by dictionary.com: service (noun) an act of helpful activity; help; aid: to do someone a service. 

Looked at this way I remember that I never know the impact of the work I do. I don't know who I have helped, I know only that I may have been of service. I have been fortunate enough to have people tell me that my work - whether it's a performed story, coaching or consulting - has lingering effects. That I have helped them. Knowing that this can happen helps me work harder and strive to be better in the moment.

Lastly, every once in awhile I have an experience that reminds me that storytelling can be another kind of service: a form followed in worship or in a religious ceremony or a meeting for worship —often used in plural .

At its very best, storytelling can play the role of communal service. A group of people gather together in search of a common feeling and create something momentary and sacred. My best moments as a performer, listener, coach and consultant all have elements of the sacred about them because they connect me to my audience and to something beyond. Collectively we create a moment that will not soon be forgotten.

When I remember that I provide a service it doesn't lessen the power of what I do. I don't minimize my artistic effort, craft and talent. I don't feel as though I commoditize my work. What I do is remind myself that I am on this planet to be of service. I am fortunate that the service I provide is one that serves me, too; knowing that helps me work harder, dig deeper, offer more and serve better. 

It is a privilege to serve the world, my audiences, my readers and you. Thank you.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nuances of grief

I have written time and time again about how no two griefs are the same, that the way one person mourns may be quite different from another and that they are each legitimate. Grief can't be compared; it can be recognized and honored however it manifests. What I am learning now is that, even within one person, no two griefs are the same, there are nuances beyond measure.

My father, Harvey Packer, died Monday after a long battle with congestive heart failure. If you'd like, you can read his obituary here. My mother and I were both with him when he died; my mother was his caregiver for the last several years.

I am not experiencing the same kind of grief I felt when Kevin died, nor the grief I felt when Brother Blue (my storytelling father) died. Right now, when I think about my father no longer being bodily on this planet, I feel relief that he is no longer suffering. I feel some sorrow that I won't have more moments of sweetness with him. I feel some other, more complicated emotions.

When Kevin died I was eviscerated. With my father's death I remain whole and I am surprised by it.

My relationship with my father was complex. I don't want to go into details, but it was sometimes quite rocky and, while I love my father and know he loved me, it was never easy. I know that has an impact on what I am feeling. Additionally, I think the death of a spouse is quite different from the death of a parent. We choose our spouses; if we are lucky they are also our best friends. Because it's a deliberate relationship rather than one of blood, it has (appropriately) different meaning than the relationship with our parents. I'm sure that has an impact, too.

Our parents are supposed to die before us and I was lucky to have him into my late 40s. I always knew my father would die in my lifetime and that knowledge likely makes this easier. What's more, Kevin's illness and death were entirely unexpected and I had little time to get used to the knowledge that he wouldn't be around. My father has been sick for several years and largely housebound for all of this year. I've had time to get used to the idea.

Yet it feels odd. My understanding of how I grieve is mostly based on losing Kevin, and that grief has been ferocious. This is not the same. What I need to remember is to be gentle with myself, just as I was when Kevin died, but part of what I need to be gentle about is that I don't feel the same devastation. Yes, I am sad. But I am okay in a way I was not (and often still am not) after Kevin died. I need to remember that being mostly okay does not mean I am callous.

Every grief is different. I need to remember that now so I can give myself permission to recognize and honor what I am feeling in this moment. I also need to remember that what I'm feeling will probably change. 

My father has died. We made more peace with each other than I ever expected and we loved one another. What more is there?

Thank you Dad. I am glad you're not suffering anymore. I am grateful for the gifts you have given me. I love you.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 12, 2016

Cooking in the after life

This post was originally published in my occasional cooking blog, cook pot stories. It's been modified slightly here. If you want a recipe for stock please go to the original post

I love cooking. More accurately, I used to love cooking and my understanding of myself includes a love of cooking, even if I no longer quite feel it; I'm learning to love it again but in new ways. Cooking has been therapy, meditative, a chance to experiment and a way I communicate my affection and esteem. I'm sure you cook for many of the same reasons.

In the 2+ years since Kevin died, I've not been cooking much and when I do it's often with mixed feelings. I loved cooking for Kevin. Because his cancer attacked his digestive system, food and cooking became a big deal while he was sick and then a big reminder after he died. When I do cook it's usually something simple, not the elaborate meals I made before he got sick. Certainly this is a part of how I'm experiencing grief. Analysis aside, I'm aware that I miss it, but I don't yet know how cooking fits into the after life.

I've come to think of my life since Kevin's death, especially as more time passes, as living in the Twilight Zone, as the after life. That's what it is; my life after him. I have a rich life. I love and am loved. And yet it often feels as though it's not quite my life, as though it's someone else's. I've slipped into a parallel universe where everything looks much the same but is entirely different. I think my relationship with cooking might be a part of this, though I dearly hope I regain my passion for it.

All of this is in the front of my mind this morning. I am in Minnesota, where I am performing in the local fringe festival. I'm enjoying it, making money doing work I love. I'm staying with my sweetheart, a wonderful man in his own right, who accepts me as I am, understanding that Kevin is part of the package. I am looking out of the window at a lovely late summer day, where the air is beginning to feel like autumn is coming, my favorite time of year. And I have a pot of stock simmering on the stove, so the house smells rich and fragrant.

When I was preparing the stock this morning I found myself reaching for the familiar things I might find in my own kitchen but they weren't there. I had to find a stock pot of different dimensions than the one I'm used to. The knife is a fine one, but not worn to my grip. The spice cabinet didn't have everything I would usually use. All of the tools I wanted were there, easily at hand, but they weren't the same. They worked well. I will have a lovely pot of stock in a few hours. We will enjoy it together on some coming cold day.

And yet it's not the same. I don't regret living in the after life, not at all, but sometimes it's a shock noticing how I am in a parallel world. A loving and loved partner. Work I am good at and am earning a living with. Joy in many of the same things, like trees and music and food. A pot of stock, simmering. All of these things existed before Kevin died. They exist after. But they are all different.

I imagine as more time passes I will find my footing more easily; I know I am more grounded now than I could ever have imagined in the months immediately after his death. I expect I will try more complicated dishes again and may eventually even make some of his favorites - braised short ribs with sour cherries, for example - and will enjoy them even as I feel sorrow and longing.

Cooking remains a love letter, a way I communicate my affection and esteem. It's a language I need to relearn, that's all. In the meantime, soon enough I will have stock. I will strain it in a different colander, let it cool and freeze it in a new freezer. But the love and care that went into its making are no different. It will still be delicious, it just might mean a little more now, here in the after life.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Telling Life: Does size matter?

I am in the middle of a run at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. I'm telling The Adventures of Crazy Jane and Red Haired Annie, stories I dearly love, stories I know listeners usually enjoy, but my audiences are small; I'm in a hundred-seat theater and am filling no more than a quarter of the seats.

Fringe festivals are funny things. There are hundreds of performances, often selected by lottery, and the artists must do their own marketing beyond the basic stuff provided by the festival. It's hard work and can be grueling. It helps to have a local following or something that's easily described, and here I have neither. So my audiences have been small.

This has me thinking about quantity vs. quality of audience. It's easy to see value in a large audience, knowing I have drawn a whole bunch of people to my show. It can be harder to see value in smaller but still deeply appreciative audiences, because the immediate visual hit of fewer people in the room is unsettling.

I am reminding myself of what Brother Blue used to say, the room is full of angels. He's right, of course. Regardless of the size of the audience, if they are present, interested and engaged, then they are a good audience. Sure, it helps when there are more people, there is something about a critical mass that helps good storytelling become better, but the key is the connection between teller and listener, be that one child utterly entranced by a story, ten adults having a really good time or a couple hundred each in their own shared moment. It's about remembering that every individual audience member has chosen to be there and I am honoring their presence by doing the best I can.

So yes, I'd be lying if I said size doesn't matter, of course it feels good playing to sold out rooms, but as it is with most things in the world, it's what you do with it that really makes the difference.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 5, 2016

Bittersweet

I am incredibly lucky. I am doing work I love, getting paid for it, and am surrounded by people who love me. The last few weeks have seen me at Fringe festivals, performing stories I love to appreciative audiences. I have a comfortable home that I can afford. I eat well. I have health insurance (thanks Obama!). I am blessed.

You'd think I would be over the moon. I am. I am intensely aware of how fortunate I am. And yet.

Kevin wanted this for me. He was my biggest cheerleader, my thoughtful supporter, my sounding board, the one who believed in me when I didn't. He was the one who encouraged me to leap into self-employment, promising to make sure we would be financially secure while I built my business. He was the one who saw more promise in me than I ever see in myself.

Achieving all of this without him is bittersweet. Yes, I am living the life I have worked for and I am continuing to build. Yes, I am profoundly grateful for both these opportunities and all of the grace I encounter ever single day. And yes, this heightens my sense of his absence.

How can I be doing all of this without him? How can this be happening without his loving, supportive and slightly smug smile as I find my way?

I don't know.

I do know that by doing the work, by continuing to forge my own path, I am remaining true to myself and to the light he saw in me. That helps some of the time. Other times it only increases the loneliness and grief, but what else can I do? It isn't in my nature to give up and, were I to do so, I'm sure Kevin would find some way to slap sense back into me.

It's interesting, I wanted this post to be about how even now, 120 weeks out, my longing for Kevin is sometimes still a searing pain. So it is. But what I find in the writing is that my determination to carry on living, to be the woman he believed I could be and more, is stronger than my need to tell you how much it hurts. It does hurt, more than I can tell you. But the gratitude and love are greater now. I never would have believed that a year, two years ago. Widows who were further along told me this time would come and it seemed impossible, but here I am. Still loving. Still yearning. Still living.

I still miss him, I always will. Each success is bittersweet. His is the face I look for in the listening crowd. I still ask him what he thought of a performance or coaching session. I still hope he will answer me. Maybe, sometimes, he does. I just have to listen harder.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Telling Life: Inadvertent vacation

Oops. Apparently I needed a break. I know, one of the cardinal rules of blogging is don't apologize when you don't blog, so I'm not apologizing, but I am acknowledging. I kind of fell off the map.

This is part of the #tellinglife, and so my topic for my return to these pages. It's important to recognize when you need a break and to take one deliberately, instead of inadvertently, as I just did.

I love being self-employed. It's sometimes nerve-wracking, like when I don't have much work lined up; other times it's exhausting. It is never boring. I am always working, which is a common observation amongst the self-employed. I need to remember to watch for signs of burn-out, so I can plan my vacations and breaks rather than take them unexpectedly, as I just did with this blog.

Some of my signs of impending burnout are:

  1. Dropping balls. More than usual anyway. I stop tracking my tasks with as much diligence and let myself fall behind.
  2. Irritation. Boy, can I get cranky.
  3. Getting sick. I'm recovering now from a pretty powerful summer cold. If I don't take a break when I need it my body will eventually force me to.
What are your signs of needing a break? How do you manage vacation time when it's hard to stop working? What constitutes vacation anyway? I'd love to know your thoughts and, in the meantime, I'm climbing back onto the blogging horse. It's nice to be back in the saddle again.


(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 15, 2016

What helps, two years on

I've written before about how useless it is, comparing one grief to another. I've also written about what helps a grieving person (or at least this grieving person) and what doesn't. Those posts were written in the context of being less than a year out from Kevin's death and encountering people who desperately wanted to find a way to comfort me but didn't know how. Things are different at two years.

At two years I am finding three general kinds of responses to the loss of my husband. I say the loss of my husband because I am talking specifically about how people respond to me, not necessarily how they are responding to Kevin's death. That's a whole other topic.

The first response is the most common. There is an assumption, maybe it's a hope, that since I'm at two years plus a few months, and because I'm in a new relationship, I'm fine. That everything is hunky-dory and I am no longer mourning Kevin. While I know this usually comes from a place of relief (thank goodness, she is okay) and/or hope (if she got better then maybe I would too, if that ever happened to me) it's not true and it doesn't really help. Yes, I am no longer crying every day or even every week and, yes, I am in a new relationship. Assuming I am "over" my grief and "over" him is too simplistic at best. My relative okay-ness doesn't mean that I don't still miss Kevin ferociously and love him even more.

The second response, which is less common but not all that unusual, is someone telling me how much they are still grieving Kevin (or their partner, their friend, their mother, their pet) followed by a little pause and a comment that they are glad I am doing so well. There is an implication that somehow their attachment was deeper or their grief is more meaningful because they are still in such pain. This doesn't help either. For one, comparisons aren't a useful thing in grief and for another, just because I'm no longer incapacitated by grief, you don't know how I feel. This response reminds me of the people who tell me they would die if their spouse died; there is an implication that I don't love as much as you do. The comparison is hurtful and doesn't help. Just because I am doing exactly what he wanted for me - living my life - that doesn't mean that I am not simultaneously still mourning him. My decision to live doesn't mean I don't still miss Kevin ferociously and love him even more.

The third response, and the least common by far, generally comes from people who have had their own great losses. Instead of telling me how I should feel, they ask how I'm doing. Even better, they ask how I'm doing today. They have room for me to forge my own path through life and through the after life. They can accept that yes, most days I am okay, but that doesn't mean I don't still miss Kevin ferociously and love him even more. It means that I can both live a life that is authentic to who I am AND still love, miss and cherish Kevin.

So what helps, two years after the death of my beloved? Don't assume you know how I am, ask me. Don't avoid talking about Kevin, I want to hear his name and know he still lives in your heart as well as mine. Let me talk about him or about my grief, or not. I may not want to discuss it in this moment or at all.

It doesn't help if you try to one-up my grief with your own. Comparing grief is an apples and oranges comparison. Each grief is unique, we each mourn in our own way, there is no right path.

It helps when you accept the complexity that is my life in the after life. Life is hard enough, losing a spouse makes it more so. I am not who I was before he died, please don't expect me to be. Just accept me for who I am in this moment, in this breath.

What helps? The same things that help everyone, no matter their state of grief or life. Be present. Be kind. Accept me for where I am, which may be happy, may be sad, may be wanting to talk about something else altogether. I will do my best to extend the same courtesy to you.

Thanks.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Telling Life: So, what do you think?

I've been writing The Telling Life for over a year now with a few brief breaks. My intent from the start has been to look at the intersection between art and life, thinking about how being a storyteller impacts my daily life and vice versa.

I'd love to know what you think. Are these columns interesting? Useful? Should I keep doing it or go on to something else? Do you have questions or topics you'd like me to address?

I'd love your input. I'm beginning to run dry on topics and would love to know what you would like to read. Thanks!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 8, 2016

Grief as a tool for change

Please note, this post is more a letter to myself than anything else. Like all of us, I am struggling with what to say as our country, our world becomes more and more divided, racist and violent. 

I'm struggling with what to say this morning. On Fridays I usually write about grief and my journey through widowhood, but that seems so trivial in light of the events over the last few days. What do I write about? What can I possibly say? I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths, listening for any kind of answer, and the wise voice in my head said, "Write about grief." Of course. I thought I had said everything I needed to say about guns, violence and loss here, after Newtown. I was wrong.

Right now we are a nation, a world, in a paroxysm of grief, much of it being expressed as rage and as feelings of helplessness. We are collectively grieving not only the deaths of so many but our own pain at a society that seems to have completely failed to protect us, to protect those who are systematically oppressed, to build a just world in which to live and raise our children, to have a functional system of law enforcement where to serve and protect is the first mandate not violent reaction.

I cannot stop thinking about the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I cannot stop thinking about their communities. Likewise, I can't stop thinking about the ruined lives of the police officers who, through some combination of poor training, fear, and likely racism, fired their guns when they should have asked the next question. I can't stop thinking about the families of the five police officers killed in Dallas. I cannot stop wondering who will be next.

While I am lucky and have never had to contend with sudden death, I know the emptiness and pain that will become their constant companions. I can only imagine grieving in the media spotlight will make everything harder.

Grief is a kind of madness. I've written about that before. It can make us do glorious things, like build movements for peaceful change, like campaign and vote for what we believe in, like change the world. It can make us do horrible things, like answer with an eye for an eye, like react out of our fear and pain, like make vast assumptions about others based on no real information at all.

Grief is a transformational process. I hope and pray that we use this horrific moment to move towards better questions and answers. I hope we use this moment to take a hard look at a system that builds so much fear into its training that shooting someone is a first reaction and not a last. I hope we are able to reach out of our own pain, grasp hands that may not look like ours but clutch just as hard, and find a way to peacefully say enough.

I don't believe I have any kind of right to tell people of color what to do, how to channel their grief, in this moment. I can listen. I can be an ally. I can stand with them. I can acknowledge my own privilege and try to use it to create change.

Personally, I have to do something. I will attend rallies. I will reach out to communities of color and ask what can be done. I will reach out to law enforcement in my community and volunteer my time to see how we can change the story. And I will hold space for those whose grief is justifiably much greater than mine. Because I don't know what else to do.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com.
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