Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Creativity in times of stress: This is how it started video

I wrote last week about the power and frustration of everyday life when something hugely disruptive occurs. I wrote about it in the context of grief as well as in the current U.S. political climate.

As an artist, I have been somewhat stymied in the last few years. I'm working, I'm performing, but Kevin's death has changed the way my creative process functions. It is much harder. I feel as though I'm operating in a vacuum, that my greatest ally, co-creator and most constructive critic is no longer around. It feels this way because it's true. In the last year or so I've been slowly finding new ways to create new work, but it's hard.

The recent U.S. election and inauguration has added to my difficulty creating. I find myself questioning the worth and value of the art I make in this climate that feels so antithetical to what I do best. It feels the way it did in the first few months after his death when I felt alone and adrift, that my art could make no difference in the world. I question the value of the work, the thing that has shaped me and my life for years, and therefore my own value.

The answer, of course, is to keep working. To be silenced is to capitulate, to say that yes, the arts in general (and my art in particular) lacks relevance. I don't believe that, though some days it's hard to remember. I believe that now more than ever we need art; as sustenance, as distraction, as fuel for the hard work of creating change; as that necessary break that helps us remember the best of who we are and the possibilities of who we might become.

Part of my answer to the question of my own relevance is to make art that I find meaningful. Part of my answer is to help others find their own voices, to help create space where we all can be heard, to take that subversive step of believing that what we do and who we are still matters.

It's not easy. I am faltering every step of the way. But it's something. It helps me build connection, nourish others and myself, and find a way through in these challenging times.

What arts are nourishing you? What are you creating? How do you keep going? I'd love to know.

The following video was recorded in January of 2017 at the Atlantic City Story Slam. This story has changed some, but it's a start and sometimes letting the flawed process be visible is as important as anything else.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 17, 2017

Disruption and every day life

I've been thinking a lot lately about how to continue every day living when life seems terribly disrupted. When Kevin was sick, everyday life became something new. It was a routine that involved the hospital, doctors, and taking care of him, but it still had a kind of every-day-ness to it. There was still routine even as it was a new and very difficult pattern.

After he died I found it very difficult to re-establish some sense of every-day-ness. How could I do the dishes? My beloved was dead. What did it matter if I worked? The world was so out of balance, so unrecognizable, what difference could my work make. What point was there in my voice when his voice was gone? I felt as though the world within which I was living was so alien and unwelcoming that there was little point in engaging in the day-to-day acts of everyday life. This feeling persisted for some time and it still rises up occasionally.

I am encountering some of that same sense now, though not to the same degree. It's been triggered by changes in the American political landscape that violate my sense of this country as being one dedicated to helping others. I know, my politics may not agree with yours and you may wildly disagree with the prior comment, but stick with me here for just a few sentences more. I promise, this isn't a political post to any great degree, beyond the fact that the world has again changed dramatically and I feel displaced.

It has sometimes been challenging, finding my rhythm for work and other everyday activities, in this rapidly changing landscape. What is the point of my work, my belief in the importance of listening and the value of sharing stories, when the world is consumed with shouting and disagreement? Some days it's been very hard to work or do other every day things.

What I discovered, both after Kevin's death and am rediscovering now, is that the every-day-ness is part of what kept me alive, even as my beloved had died, even as my values are being challenged. It is my belief in the value of listening and stories that keeps me working. It is the every day tasks, like washing the dishes or making the bed, that help me retain some sense of control over my own life and so makes me more able to act in all kinds of ways, big and small.

I remind myself over and over again that life will be disrupted in ways big and small. I will stub my toe and the flash of pain briefly disrupts my thoughts. My beloved will die and my entire life will change. The world will change in ways I wasn't expecting and I will be forced to find ways to adapt. Disruption is inevitable. The thing I can manage is my own reaction to it. Even when I feel as though all is hopeless, the small acts of compassion or action remind me that I am still here. I am still alive. I still have a voice. And I can choose what to do next.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Story you can use: Sacred Flame

I wrote last week about the importance of ritual in storytelling and more generally in our lives. I said Ritual helps us see ourselves as part of a continuum of work. It helps us state our role in the web of the world. It helps us remember why we do what we do. It helps us set aside the time we need for something we might otherwise consider foolish. I am, by no means, the first person to make such an observation. Ritual also helps us remember that there is meaning in what we do, even if we lose the details over time.

I probably first heard this story from the wise Doug Lipman, but I'm not sure. There are dozens of versions floating around. For those of you who need some context, the Baal Shem Tov was an 18th-century mystic rabbi, generally credited as the founder of the Hasidic movement. While I am not Hasidic, I have great affection and respect for the stories told about the Baal Shem Tov. What follows is my version of this tale.

Whenever the Baal Shem Tov was troubled, he had a habit of walking to a certain spot in the woods. There he would light a fire, say a particular prayer, meditate, ask for help and find comfort or even a solution to his woes.

Time passed and the great teacher died. His student, upon finding himself troubled, went to the woods and found the spot where his teacher gone. He lit the fire, meditated and asked for help, but he didn't know the words to the prayer. In time he was comforted.

Time passed and this student became a teacher himself. He told his students the story of the Baal Shem Tov and showed them the place in the woods. In time he too died. His students when troubled would go to the place in the woods, meditate and ask for help, but they didn't know how to light the fire in the right way. In time, they too were comforted.

And time passed. The next generation knew of the woods, but not the particular place. They knew only to meditate and ask for help. And the generation beyond knew only to ask, yet they too were comforted.

Now, in our own troubled times when we face our own woes, we are left with the plea for help and the story. The story still can offer comfort and guidance, even if we have lost the particulars of the place, the fire, the prayer and the meditation. The story and the memory alone can offer us hope.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 10, 2017

Grieving what we never had

I was talking with a friend the other day. She lost her adult son several months ago and was marveling at the cultural assumption that we grieve for just few weeks and then move on.

"I will never stop grieving him," she said, "I will never stop missing the boy I knew and the man I wish I knew."

This rang true. When my father died this past August I learned all about who he was to other people. I heard stories about him and descriptions of a man I never knew. My relationship with my father was never without tension so hearing about this relaxed, gentle man almost made me wonder if we met the same person. I didn't know him as the man others described. I wish I had.

This longing expands the sorrow I feel over his death, because I will never have a chance to know the man his friends and my cousins described. I knew only one facet of him; that side and all the others are gone now.

That's one of the aspects of grief that lingers. We mourn what we never had and now will never have. I have also realized it's one of the gifts of collective mourning. I might never have heard these stories about my father had my cousins not told them to me at his memorial service. While it adds to my sense of loss, it offers me some comfort that he had more relaxed relationships with others. It adds to my understanding of the whole man and, since we are never truly lost as long as we are remembered, remembering more of who he was, more than I knew and something closer to the whole package, means he isn't yet truly gone.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Storytelling tips and tricks: Ritual

The first storytelling venue I ever attended, and the one that launched me into this work, was run by the amazing Brother Blue and Ruth Hill. A couple dozen storytellers crammed together in the cafe of a small, basement-level bookstore. It was great. This was before storytelling had taken off, before The Moth, before "storytelling" was a buzzword. We gathered because we loved to hear and tell stories, and Brother Blue was a master who fostered that love in others. If you don't know him, take a look at the video below. If you do, take a look anyway. It's worth it. I'll wait.

Brother Blue was very much his own person. He encouraged us to be "fools for story" just as he was. One of the things he did to make this safe was to start each storytelling gathering with a ritual, wherein he would call upon the muse to help us climb the mountain towards great storytelling. He would declare breath sacred and invite the storytelling to begin. It was great. It was also, to the uninitiated, strange. Why ask for help from the muses? Why do this weird ritual?

We asked for help because any creative act cannot be done in a vacuum. We need help, whether it's from friends and colleagues or from some iteration of then divine. We did the ritual because it mattered to Brother Blue and, over time, it mattered to us. It helped us to shift into the mindset of listening, of doing our best. It helped us understand that the time to tell stories was sacred.

I have become a believer in ritual. Maybe nothing as elaborate as what Brother Blue did, but I know there is real power in setting an intention and then leaning into it. I do this through small rituals. For example, each morning when I start my work day I light a candle and take in five deep, slow breaths. This gives me a chance to come fully into the day, consider what needs to be done and how I should prioritize it. I then review my to-do lists, set some goals and get to work. Another example is in performance. When I was a newer storyteller I would sometimes feel very nervous before I went on stage. I developed the habit of taking a few deep breaths before I stepped out, then looking at the audience and greeting them, saying good morning or good evening, whatever was appropriate. By so doing I acknowledged them, I started a relationship with them politely, and I had a ritual to give myself a moment on the stage before I launched into the story. I still take a few deep breaths and greet the audience in some way.

My rituals have changed over time. None of them are as elaborate as Brother Blue calling the muse, but they serve a role in my creative and working life. They give me a chance to ground myself and a way to remember that the work I do is meaningful, bigger than I am.

Ritual helps us see ourselves as part of a continuum of work. It helps us state our role in the web of the world. It helps us remember why we do what we do. It helps us set aside the time we need for something we might otherwise consider foolish. It doesn't matter where you're telling stories - the classroom, stage or boardroom - what matters is that you take a moment to remind yourself that this is real, this is meaningful, this matters. It can be as subtle as a breath or as broad as calling out to the muse.

What rituals might you use or are you using? I'd love to know.

brother blue: Boston's griot from joshua bee alafia on Vimeo.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The fire of inspiration

What inspires you? What inspires you to create, to act, to feel as if you are part of something greater than yourself?

Today is St. Brigid's Day, the Christianization of the day sacred to the Celtic goddess Brigit. Brigit was the goddess of (and later the saint of) early spring, healing, poetry, high places, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, fire and more. She was represented by a sacred flame and by woven reeds. She is the embodiment of practical and inspired wisdom. She is a symbol of inspiration and new life out of winter dark. Her animal, not coincidentally, was the groundhog, which explains why we look for the little fellow to tell us if we can expect an early spring. You can read more with a quick google or wiki search, this is enough for the purposes of this post.

I love Brigit's Day. I use her day as a chance to consider what inspires me, how I can stoke my own creative fires, and to put some energy into nourishing that which makes me more creative. Of course, I try to do this every day, but this annual reminder to my own practical and inspired wisdom helps.

Many years ago I found myself in Kildare, Ireland on St. Brigit's Day. Kildare is the place where her sacred flame has been tended for millennia, first by women priestesses and then by the nuns who served the cathedral build at the site of her sacred well. I went to the site of the flame and found it littered with offerings. Tiny scrolls, shards of pottery, tiny goddess figures and more. I took the poem I had written in her honor and burned it in the flame.

That night I dreamt I was made of clay and a woman's hands were reshaping me. She molded me into a form I could not see then put me in the kiln. It hurt terribly but when I emerged I was stronger, reborn.

In trying times it helps to remember what inspires you and what you are inspired to do. It helps to take the time to nourish what it is that leads you to create. It helps to tell the stories of those who have gone before to inspire those who come.

So again I ask, what inspires you? What inspires you to create, to act, to feel as if you are part of something greater than yourself? How do you feed your flame? I'd love to know.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Link round-up: Opportunities, application, international, related arts

At the end of each month I'm offering a round-up of storytelling related links, a list of things I found interesting. I hope you find these useful. Please send me any that you'd like me to consider for this post next month, though I can't promise to use all that I receive.

Storytelling-in-action, performance and more
International news

Related arts
(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 20, 2017


Wednesday was January 18th. On January 18, 2014, while sitting in a room in the ER, Kevin and I were told there was a mass on his pancreas and it didn't look good.

Two days ago was the anniversary of the start of our last adventure together. It may seem callous to call it an adventure, but Kevin insisted it was just another adventure, just another chance to be in the world together. So we were.

January 18th has become one of the notable dates in my personal calendar. I've been in this Twilight Zone life for almost three years now so I'm noticing patterns and disruptions. There has been enough time that these things are becoming visible. On January 18, 2015, I was consumed by pain. I don't remember much of the day, my journal is full of sorrow and longing. I wrote about it shortly thereafter here. Last year (2016) my personal pain was compounded by the loss of one of my cultural icons, also from cancer. I was full of rage.

And this year?

I don't know what this year was. It was an odd day. The sky was grey and featureless. I felt like the sky. Grief has become a deep part of who I am, the loss of Kevin a scar that runs through my entire being so I spent the day knowing the scar ached but not really acting upon it. I didn't spend Wednesday howling, in some ways I wish that I could have but it wasn't there. I worked. I read. I spent a fair bit of time trying to feel nothing at all and maybe that's the most honest thing I can say about the day. It may be that the convergence of national events and this particular anniversary were more than my emotional immune system could handle, so I just shut down.

There are no good modern cultural models for grief. Sure, we see images of people bereft in the beginning and then either "getting over it" or "never moving on." There aren't many good models or guidelines about what it is to live altered by a loss but to still live. To let life back in while never forgetting the absence. I didn't really know what to do two days ago. So I just lived. Maybe that was the best thing to do, though I feel some discomfort that it could be misinterpreted as no longer caring. Nothing is further from the truth.

Grief is its own beast, sometimes ferocious and roaring, other times docile and familiar. There are no rules for taming it, only the chance to look up and say Ah. Hello. Have a seat and let's see where the adventure leads next. Two days ago it happened to be an unusual calm, who knows what it will be later today?

I miss you, Kevin. You're right, in its own way it was another adventure, another chance to be in the world together. So we were. So we are. So we always will be. And maybe that's why I didn't need to rail, because the adventure hasn't ended yet.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Story you can use: Invisible clothes

It can be hard to speak truth to power. It's been that way for a long time. The most commonly known version of this story comes from Hans Christian Andersen, but there are many other versions told around the world for generations. You can read variants here

Many years ago there lived an emperor who loved beautiful new clothes so much that he spent all his money on being finely dressed. His only interest was in going to the theater or in riding about in his carriage where he could show off his new clothes. He had a different costume for every hour of the day. Indeed, where it was said of other kings that they were at court, it could only be said of him that he was in his dressing room!

One day two swindlers came to the emperor's city. They said that they were weavers, claiming that they knew how to make the finest cloth imaginable. Not only were the colors and the patterns extraordinarily beautiful, but in addition, this material had the amazing property that it was to be invisible to anyone who was incompetent or stupid.

"It would be wonderful to have clothes made from that cloth," thought the emperor. "Then I would know which of my men are unfit for their positions, and I'd also be able to tell clever people from stupid ones." So he immediately gave the two swindlers a great sum of money to weave their cloth for him.

They set up their looms and pretended to go to work, although there was nothing at all on the looms. They asked for the finest silk and the purest gold, all of which they hid away, continuing to work on the empty looms, often late into the night.

"I would really like to know how they are coming with the cloth!" thought the emperor, but he was a bit uneasy when he recalled that anyone who was unfit for his position or stupid would not be able to see the material. Of course, he himself had nothing to fear, but still he decided to send someone else to see how the work was progressing.

"I'll send my honest old minister to the weavers," thought the emperor. He's the best one to see how the material is coming. He is very sensible, and no one is more worthy of his position than he.
So the good old minister went into the hall where the two swindlers sat working at their empty looms. "Goodness!" thought the old minister, opening his eyes wide. "I cannot see a thing!" But he did not say so.

The two swindlers invited him to step closer, asking him if it wasn't a beautiful design and if the colors weren't magnificent. They pointed to the empty loom, and the poor old minister opened his eyes wider and wider. He still could see nothing, for nothing was there. "Gracious" he thought. "Is it possible that I am stupid? I have never thought so. Am I unfit for my position? No one must know this. No, it will never do for me to say that I was unable to see the material."

"You aren't saying anything!" said one of the weavers.

"Oh, it is magnificent! The very best!" said the old minister, peering through his glasses. "This pattern and these colors! Yes, I'll tell the emperor that I am very satisfied with it!"

"That makes us happy!" said the two weavers, and they called the colors and the unusual pattern by name. The old minister listened closely so that he would be able say the same things when he reported back to the emperor, and that is exactly what he did.

The swindlers now asked for more money, more silk, and more gold, all of which they hid away. Then they continued to weave away as before on the empty looms.

The emperor sent other officials as well to observe the weavers' progress. They too were startled when they saw nothing, and they too reported back to him how wonderful the material was, advising him to have it made into clothes that he could wear in a grand procession. The entire city was alive in praise of the cloth. "Magnifique! Nysseligt! Excellent!" they said, in all languages. The emperor awarded the swindlers with medals of honor, bestowing on each of them the title Lord Weaver.

The swindlers stayed up the entire night before the procession was to take place, burning more than sixteen candles. Everyone could see that they were in a great rush to finish the emperor's new clothes. They pretended to take the material from the looms. They cut in the air with large scissors. They sewed with needles but without any thread. Finally they announced, "Behold! The clothes are

The emperor came to them with his most distinguished cavaliers. The two swindlers raised their arms as though they were holding something and said, "Just look at these trousers! Here is the jacket! This is the cloak!" and so forth. "They are as light as spider webs! You might think that you didn't have a thing on, but that is the good thing about them."

"Yes," said the cavaliers, but they couldn't see a thing, for nothing was there.

"Would his imperial majesty, if it please his grace, kindly remove his clothes." said the swindlers. "Then we will fit you with the new ones, here in front of the large mirror."

The emperor took off all his clothes, and the swindlers pretended to dress him, piece by piece, with the new ones that were to be fitted. They took hold of his waist and pretended to tie something about him. It was the train. Then the emperor turned and looked into the mirror.

"Goodness, they suit you well! What a wonderful fit!" they all said. "What a pattern! What colors! Such luxurious clothes!"

"The canopy to be carried above your majesty awaits outside," said the grandmaster of ceremonies.

"Yes, I am ready!" said the emperor. "Don't they fit well?" He turned once again toward the mirror, because it had to appear as though he were admiring himself in all his glory.

The chamberlains who were to carry the train held their hands just above the floor as if they were picking up the train. As they walked they pretended to hold the train high, for they could not let anyone notice that they could see nothing.

The emperor walked beneath the beautiful canopy in the procession, and all the people in the street and in their windows said, "Goodness, the emperor's new clothes are incomparable! What a beautiful train on his jacket. What a perfect fit!" No one wanted it to be noticed that he could see nothing, for then it would be said that he was unfit for his position or that he was stupid. None of the emperor's clothes had ever before received such praise.

"But he doesn't have anything on!" said a small child.

"Good Lord, let us hear the voice of an innocent child!" said the father, and whispered to another what the child had said.

"A small child said that he doesn't have anything on!"

Finally everyone was saying, "He doesn't have anything on!"

The emperor shuddered, for he knew that they were right, but he thought, "The procession must go on!" He carried himself even more proudly, and the chamberlains walked along behind carrying the train that wasn't there.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 13, 2017

Personal calendars

I could blame it on the limited daylight or on the strep I am still recovering from, complete with a blocked ear. Both would be true. I could say that I haven't slept the night through in several years. That, too, would be true. But the more honest truth is that I am tired because I am sad.

I am in the hard season, the time when memories of Kevin being ill are much more vivid and timely than the ones of the 14.5 years we had when he was well. By this time in 2013 we knew something was seriously wrong. He was diagnosed on January 18th and died 69 days later, so right now? Even the date is a reminder of what has been lost and how hard it was.

I think that's part of what happens when we lose someone we love. We develop a new personal calendar that isn't bound by season or arbitrary time delineation, but by memories. Ah yes, this was when we went to the hospital. I remember the sunrise over the icy roofs, it looks the same doesn't it. My body remembers in ways my mind may not so I am tired.

This is my third time hitting these particular calendar pages. Each year it's been different and I expect it will continue to change. I do know that right now I'm tired and much more prone to cry at stupid commercials. Grief is expressing itself as fatigue.

And that's okay. There is nothing wrong with being sad because Kevin died almost three years ago. There is nothing wrong with being pissed off and stunned that the world has continued. There is nothing wrong with simultaneously experiencing laughter and hope and sorrow. There is nothing wrong with noting my own personal calendar and saying Ah yes. Here we are again. So it goes. So it goes.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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