Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The world through my eyes: How I spent my summer vacation

First, let me clear up a misconception. I didn't really take a summer vacation. What time off I had was spent without my camera, so my title is misleading, but I couldn't resist the worn back-to-school chestnut.

Here are some of the critters and things I noticed over the last few months. What have you seen?

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Oh! This is my 999th post on this blog! That is a LOT of content developed over the last decade or so. Any suggestions for my 1000th post? Please post below or email me!

The skies above
The ones we depend on 
The hidden world
My neighbor
Mirrors everywhere
Parent and child
"Damned paparazzi!"
New life hidden
Recycling
Adventurers
Autumn is coming
Life and death
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Monday, July 29, 2019

Doing it anyway

"a walk in the rain" by Jeff Mendoza.
See more of his work here.
I spent this past weekend at the National Storytelling Conference (NSC), a wonderful gathering of colleagues and friends. It's packed full of workshops, keynotes, performances, and a whole lot of chatting with people I see only once a year. It's great.

It's also tremendously difficult. I first attended the NSC with Kevin and continued to attend them with him for the rest of his life. There are many memories and associations at the conference, as well as many moments when I desperately want to turn to him and say whaddya think? Going through the conference without that intimate connection, without that person to whom I can say anything, without Kevin, it's hard. Add to that the truth that the many people at the conference knew Kevin and love him still, it becomes something of a minefield.

It's something of a minefield but I go anyway. Why? I hear you ask. I ask myself the same thing, and each time I come back to the same realizations, some of which have to do with him and some do not.

  1. Revisiting relatively safe places that are triggering can help me access good memories I otherwise might not be able to find. I see Kevin everywhere at the NSC. I see him laughing, listening, telling, moving, alive. I remember him more fully. 
  2. I reminds me that I can still share things with him, I just need to listen differently for his response. I talk to him just about every day. At the NSC I talk to him even more. thinking things like Did you see that? or What do you think about that? or Hey, look who's here!
  3. I connect with those who also love him, and remembering him together feels good. It helps me know I'm not alone in missing him.
  4. The event has its own value and Kevin would be really pissed if he knew I avoided it because of him. Spending a weekend with people who love storytelling as much I do replenishes me.
  5. The price of love is grief. Knowing this now, I can prepare. I can plan on enough down time, find people to catch me when I'm falling, avoid the things I know will be really hard (like singing May the Circle Be Unbroken and calling out the names of those who have died). I can make choices.
Five years on, I find grief is like the rain. It is unavoidable, but now I have a little more understanding of how I can cope with it. I can avoid it, but that doesn't mean it's not there. I can let myself be drenched and give myself over to it, knowing now that I will eventually dry off and emerge again. I can bring an umbrella and chose to walk in it anyway, knowing I will get wet but I'll be okay. I am certain that I couldn't process triggering events and places like this when I was only a year or two out. They devastated me. Now, sometimes I choose to walk in the rain.

I don't choose to do it anyway every time, there are some places I may never visit again, but I now know I can choose. Sometimes, anyway. Besides, Kevin would kick my butt if I didn't get into the world, let myself be seen and loved, tell my stories, and live.


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Thursday, July 18, 2019

Throwing starfish and the necessity of barking

If you've been following me for any time, you know that part of my work in the world is reminding everyone to #barkagainstthedark. I've been posting barks on social media regularly since November 2016 and I continue to do so, even when it's really hard.

What is a bark? At its most basic, a #barkagainstthedark is a way to stand up to the grim moments and actions in the world. It's a way to say I am here. It's a way to build resilience and community and hope, even when things feel overwhelming and isolating and bleak. In action, barks can be something to make people laugh, a poem to make them think, a reminder of our better natures and the arc of history. Barks are whatever help us keep going and not give up. They are, I suppose, my own attempt to throw a starfish back into the ocean. It might not make a difference for everyone, but it might make a difference for someone.


We all feel down sometimes, so a bark is a reminder that no one is alone. Whether from mental health or societal forces, everyone has trouble remaining engaged and hopeful (at least I do, and I'm extrapolating from my own experience) so a bark is a voice in the darkness, a small light.

We live in extraordinarily challenging times. The current U.S. administration is racist, sexist, fear-mongering, and greedy. Their volume is overwhelming and their actions are devastating for untold numbers of people. That they are supported by our neighbors is heart-wrenching. Even when I try to remind myself that racist, sexist, fear-mongering, greedy behavior comes from a place of fear, I cannot help but become angry and disheartened. I bark to remind myself that I can do better. We can do better.

We will. It will take time. It may not happen in my lifetime, but we will.

Knowing it's a long game that may outlive me might make you wonder why I keep barking. I bark because if I stop I become complicit. I bark because I need to remind myself that I am not alone. I bark because the starfish story stops too soon. When I tell it, I end it with,

The man watched the boy pick up another starfish and throw it as far as he could into the waters. 
He saw the splash and imagined the creature's relief. 
He bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw.

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Monday, July 15, 2019

Lying fallow

This was originally published on Patreon; it is somewhat expanded here. Most of my blogging is now on a platform that allows people to support the artists they value, so the artist can keep creating without as much financial stress. If you enjoy this blog please consider supporting me over on Patreon. For as little as $3 a month you can get all the great content you're used to, fun rewards, and the satisfaction of knowing you are both helping me create more art and making your appreciation tangible. Thanks.

One of the great gifts of my life is that I love my work. One of the great stressors of my life is that I love my work.

I work hard because I love what I do and I don't get to perform, teach, consult, coach, etc if I do not put in the day-to-day work of marketing and promotion, so I work most of the time even if most of it is unpaid and invisible to those who aren't working artists. Because the day-to-day work of being a professional storyteller happens in my home, it's hard to stop and disconnect, yet I can't afford to go away or go offline for very long or very often.

As much as I love vacation time, that's a kind of stress too, because I worry about what I'm not doing. In the need to find a way to step away from work, I remembered what it is to be fallow.

Fallow is defined as:
/ˈfalō/ adjective: 
(of farmland) plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production.
It is essential for the land and for beings to rest. To gaze out at nothing. To do something other than what is productive. I need to remind myself that fallow time is vital for the creative process, let alone for living a full life. Fallow time is different from vacation time in that it's about deliberately doing nothing knowing it is, in fact, a necessary part of creativity.

I now actually put down time into my schedule and walk away from the screen, the classroom, the stage. I sit on my back deck and watch the trees move in the wind. I read something that has nothing to do with work. I rest.

I forget this sometimes and am soon spinning in place, exhausted and depleted. This article helped me remember and inspired me to remind you that you may need some fallow time too.  Part of my work for this summer is lying fallow. I hope a vacation will be in the future and I hope it will be easier to relax into that time because I've practiced in my fallow time.

What nourishes you? How do you replenish yourself? How are you lying fallow?

P.S. I am co-teaching a class on finding and following the work of your heart, which includes thoughts about lying fallow. If you're interested but have questions please get in touch. I also have a limited number of discount codes. Thanks!

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Monday, July 1, 2019

Where do stories come from?

This was originally posted on my Patreon, back in January 2019. Most of my blogging is now over there; this week I'm musing on what it takes to coach effectively and how this is its own kind of story. For as little as $3 a month you can get all the great content you're used to, fun rewards, and the satisfaction of knowing you are helping me create more art and making your appreciation tangible.

Almost every writer and storyteller I know has heard, "I would love to do what you do, but I don't have any ideas. Where do your stories come from?" Science fiction writer Barry Longyear published the collection It Came From Schenectady as a tongue-in-cheek response, saying that he subscribed to a mail order service based in Schenectady and they sent him ideas monthly. I sometimes long to be as snarky, but the answer is a lot more complicated.

I find inspiration for stories in all kinds of places, from existing works to the overheard, from my life to the odd reaches of my own imagination. Sometimes these ideas bloom into stories with almost no effort. Other times it takes real labor to figure out what it is I really want to say. And every so often there will be an idea that lingers for a long time until it turns into something unexpected. It's this last kind of story I want to think about with you, today.

One of my favorite of my own stories is called Blood Woman. It's a dark, first-person fabulist tale that explores love, domestic violence, and what we might do to protect those we care about. The protagonist is a woman who bleeds rubies and cries diamonds. I don't tell it often because it disturbs audiences, but it has become a part of my Haunted: Stories for the Brave of Heart show. I love this story. I love the character, the images, the places it lets me go. It took years to uncover and I am so glad I gave it time to emerge.

Blood Woman and a few others are what I call "pearl" stories because, like a pearl, they start with a small irritant and take time to form into something meaningful. These are stories that start from a single, powerful image. The image stays with me for a long, long time and, if I'm wise and mull on it, it will emerge into a story in its own time. The narrative needs to slowly accrete around the image. The precipitating image in Blood Woman was a girl's arm with a scratch, nothing serious but the kind of wound she might get while playing, with a few drops of blood. A single drop falls from her arm and lands on the ground, shimmering. The image always included the sound of bells and the taste of salt.

Had I rushed the narrative I probably would have come up with something interesting, maybe a fairy tale about a spunky girl who finds her fortune, but because I waited I found a much more powerful story. It's one that took time to craft and create. Had I rushed, the image would have been a nice one, but not the central theme.

This isn't the only time I've had an image haunt me. I wish I could say I gave each lingering image time to become a pearl story, but I haven't. When I haven't the story is inconsequential and I often end up removing it from my working repertoire. When I do let the image take its time as it grows into a story, it might become something special.

This is, of course, not the only way I develop stories, but it is one of the more interesting and mysterious. The creative process requires us to trust ourselves and our instincts about our work; I can think of no better example of this than pearl stories.

Have you ever had a similar experience? What happened? I'd love to know!
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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Owl by day and by night

There is a family of barred owls that live in the woods behind my house. Contrary to conventional wisdom about owls, I regularly see and hear them during the day. Their whowho-who-whoooo calls are, by now, part of the chatter of the neighborhood. My neighbors are talking I note and I go about my business, smiling when the tone of the calls changes to indicate prey or hunger or territory or sex. I routinely see them during the day, most commonly in the afternoon, sitting on a branch and observing the world or napping. They seem to do a lot of napping. By day they are my chatty, watchful neighbors.

This all changes at night.

Owl by night becomes more than a neighbor, but something of mystery. As dusk deepens, I recognize them more by silence. The soft rustle of a leaf or the sudden stillness of the smaller animals nearby tells me that owl is near. Occasionally something flies right over my head and I only know it's there when I feel the breeze and turn to see the vanishing shape in the darkness. Sometimes I hear their call, which often seems more wistful at night though sometimes it wanders into melodies that make me wonder if owls get tipsy.

Owl by day and by night changes too. So do all of the other creatures around me, including me, you, and everyone else.  Owl by day and owl by night help me remember that none of us have only one nature, one way of being. Our perceptions of each other change based on context. What we reveal changes the same way.
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Monday, June 3, 2019

Powerlessness and action

I've been thinking a lot about powerlessness and action lately, which has led me down some real rabbit holes of research and exploration. For example, when I was looking at images for this post I ran an image search for "powerless." Once I tweaked a few settings to weed out stuff related to tv or religion, I was left with images of people standing with their heads down, looking (at best) really glum. I find this interesting because what I am learning is that, yes, there are many times I am and will be powerless, but how I move through that experience has a great deal to do with my mental health and ability to be resilient, as well as my ability to heal after the fact. Powerlessness sucks, but my response to it makes it more manageable or less.

When Kevin was sick, even though I knew I was ultimately powerless to change the outcome of his cancer, I found ease in doing what I could. I could comfort him, talk with the staff, and share information with everyone who loved him. I'm sure I was overly controlling about many, many things because I felt so powerless, but it was by acting then that I know now, I did the very best I possibly could for his comfort and well-being, even as he was dying. If I didn't have that assurance I doubt if I would be as relatively okay as I am; I have enough to regret, at least I know I did the best I could in the face of powerlessness to change the outcome.

Likewise, when I was in those first, harsh months after his death I gave myself over to grief. I was powerless not to. I couldn't change what had happened but I could make choices about how I responded. I knew the only way out was through, so I let myself mourn fully. I am still mourning him and always will, but I doubt I would have been able to let myself love Charley had I not made the choice to keep loving Kevin, and one way of expressing that was to grieve deeply.

This line of thinking comes out of looking for ways to manage my own frustrations and fears during the Trump administration. I am largely powerlessness to effect what my government is doing, but there are still things I can control and impact through the actions I take. I can decide how I respond. I can give into my fears (which is part of why he was elected, he's very good at feeding fear) and hide (which I sometimes really want to do) or I can take what power I have and use what I've got. I have a voice. I can make donations where I think they might help. I can let myself be seen, even when it's scary or possibly dangerous. I can act in ways that I think are moral, ethical, and right in spite of the many messages that it isn't important.

There will always be things I am powerless over, but I can choose which response I feed and how I act. I could have forced Kevin to try treatments that would have only harmed him in my quest to control his illness. Those wouldn't have saved or prolonged his life. I could have tried to suppress my grief, in which case I'm sure I would still be deep in the heart of it. I could feed fear and not publish this post or give in to those who try to silence me. I could overlook injustices that don't impact me because it's safer, but none of these things are who I want to be. By acting in the face of powerlessness I retain my ability to decide who I am and how I respond.

I might be powerless to create the kind of change I want in a timeline we need, but I can choose to keep trying and to rest while others pick up the ball. Whatever happens, I need to know I tried, I need to know I did what I could, I need to know that I stood in the face of powerlessness and claimed my own soul.

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Observations from the road

Travel is a big part of my work. Storytelling isn't a local experience for me; I teach, speak, tell, coach, and consult all over the nation and sometimes the world. While it's sometimes challenging, I generally really like it, not only because I love my work but because it gives me a chance to see places I might not otherwise visit. Whether flying or driving, there is always something to see, someone to hear, something to ponder.

I've started keeping a journal of some of the things I see and hear; I thought you might be interested in a few of these observations. I've scrubbed specifics, so no particular place or person is easily identifiable.

  1. I am somewhere in middle America. I am hungry and don't have time to go searching for a sit-down dinner. Besides, I love fried chicken even though I feel guilty every time. I walk into a fried chicken joint near by cheap hotel. There are no tables, a few chairs for waiting, and a set of metal shelves to one side with a miscellaneous array of groceries. The only decoration is a poster of the American Olympic team and another of the local baseball franchise. Both have prominent American flags. The restaurant is owned by an Indian man, an immigrant. All patrons but me are African American; the owner welcomes them all by name. As I wait for my order a woman tells me she hates fried chicken except for the wings she can get in this place. "They're delicious here," she says. "I don't know how he does it." A family comes in communicating in sign language. The young man deaf and the man behind counter pulls out an illustrated menu so he can order. When my dinner arrives I take it to my hotel. The woman is right, the wings are delicious.
  2. I am somewhere on the West Coast, taking a walk in a park with a playground. I see an older white woman holding hands with a small African-American girl. They are having an animated conversation and clearly love each other. The woman is wearing a "Make America Great Again" t-shirt. The woman glances at me and I smile, "Is she your grand-daughter? She's lovely!" The woman beams. "Yes, isn't she!" She and I start to chat about kids and I eventually say, "I know we live in divided times, may I ask about your shirt?" She looks at me warily then sighs. "I know. I think Mr. Trump is doing good things for the country. He's a business man and will make us great again. Just because I support him doesn't mean I'm a racist. I love my grandchildren!" I nod and we sit in the sunlight, watching her grandchild play.
  3. I am driving through a Midwestern state. The land around me is broad and gentle. I can see plow marks in the soil and smell the fertilizer. It's a sharp odor and I want to wrinkle my nose, but this powers our agricultural landscapes. I see a plume that at first I think is smoke, but then realize it is dust from a truck barreling along a gravel road paralleling the highway. This is flyover country, but I love the details I can see from down here at ground level. There is an abandoned barn, collapsed more than the last time I drove past it. There is a farmhouse protected from the sweeping gusts by a stand of trees that are bent over from the constant winds. There is the road, ribboning out before me, endless and shimmering in the heat. There is the sky streaked with contrails that dissolve into long sweeping clouds, endless and blue and bright.

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Monday, May 6, 2019

The lucky shot

I have always loved the nature photography in publications like National Geographic. Those stunning images give the sense of being right there with the animals, plants, events, and places with a crisp immediacy and vitality. These amazing images have proliferated and are easy to find with a simple search; it gives the impression that those moments happen all of the time, that the shots aren't hard to get.

Ha.

As you may know, in recent years I've become more and more interested in photography. I have Kevin's good camera and use it often. My most frequent subjects are the birds and animals I see in our backyard and the woods beyond, though I'm also terribly fond of abandoned buildings and close up shots of things. Despite having a good camera, Annie Liebowitz' comment that her favorite camera is the one she has with her at the moment does me good to remember. It's a matter of timing and luck, not just equipment.

A few days ago Charley and I were watching a spectacular sunset from our back porch. I didn't have my good camera with me and was just present in the moment, watching the sky shift and the colors change. I'd been there for at least 30 minutes when our local owl flew by and landed on a nearby branch. I didn't have my camera, I had only my phone, and with it I captured what may be the best photo I have ever taken. Sure, it would have been better had I used my good camera with its wonderful zoom lens, but that wasn't what I had and sometimes you just have to leap for the lucky shot. Here it is, with no filters or post-production magic save trimming and a watermark.


The advent of digital photography means I take literally thousands of photos a month. Of those maybe a hundred are acceptable and a small handful are good. I'm sure those National Geographic photographers would say the same thing. It's a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right mindset.

Is there a metaphor here? Hmm... something about using what you have at hand, being present in the moment, being patient, leaping for the lucky shot, failing again and again and still trying? Maybe. Yes, there is, but for right now? I'll love whatever camera I have at hand, I will watch, I will forgive myself for the poor shots and missed moments, and I will be present in the world. The lucky shot will come again for me, as it has over and over.

It will for you, too.

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Monday, April 29, 2019

Telling a story with #storyseeds

I post a lot here about #storyseeds, but it's a nice chance for me to think them through. As you know, many #storyseeds are single-shot prompts, with no connection to other #storyseeds or larger narrative framework, but I sometimes post sets that are intended to suggest another narrative. Tax day inspired just such a run.

I'm thinking about turning #storyseeds into a card deck, with some rules for play or just as a creative tool. What do you think? Would something like that interest you?






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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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