Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Truth, honesty, and storytelling

I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of truth. This has been brought on by many things including the news; a panel I'm part of concerning truth and storytelling; and my own tendency towards over analysis. It's a big issue and one I won't solve here, but it's worth exploring.

Several years ago I was in the audience at a story slam. The theme was "Beginnings." For those of you unfamiliar with slams, the rules usually state that the stories told must be original, somehow relate to the theme, short, and true. The events happened. Slams are judged events and the winner can get anything from a moment of glory to cash prizes.

The winning story was a poignant one, about the teller's birth. It was beautifully constructed, well-told and fit with the theme. We were all in tears. He won and rightly so; it was hands-down the best story of the night. A few days later it was revealed he had made the whole thing up. It was fiction. The local storytelling community was in an uproar, feeling betrayed and questioning the artform itself.

One could speculate endlessly on why he did this, he certainly knew the rules, but that isn't the point of this essay. I'm interested in the question of factual truth, emotional truth, and honesty in storytelling. I've written about some of the technical issues of truth and storytelling before, but this time let's think about philosophy. There is no way this essay can dive deeply into these topics (whole lives have been spent on them) but I'd love to start a conversation.

So what is truth? Honestly, that sentence always seems like it should be the punchline of some obscure joke. I don't know if objective truth exists, my personal philosophy tends towards not.

I do know that there are facts. Factual truths, for the purposes of this essay in the context of storytelling, are verifiable. I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. I was premature and underweight. Evidence exists. Emotional truths (again for the purposes of this essay) are those metaphors, similes, fictions and sometimes verifiable events, that hold emotional power and meaning, revealing something about what it is to be human. I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. I was premature and underweight. I was a small, scrawny, homely infant, yet when my father first saw me he cried, "She's beautiful!" To an objective viewer I was anything but beautiful (really, I've seen the pictures) but to my father I was exquisite. Both are true. One view contains emotional truth even if it might not be verifiably factual.

One of the wonderful things about storytelling is that we can express emotional truth through many means. Personal or factual stories, fiction, myths, fairy tales, and more. Because storytelling is neurologically powerful, we need to remember that the emotional truths we share can easily cause powerful reactions. Storytellers, whether intentionally or not, are truth-tellers if for no other reason than that we are wired for story. I would hope that we all use these different kinds of truth ethically, remembering that we are directly messing with our listeners' brains. It doesn't matter if you're telling a funny story, a fairy tale, a tall tale, a personal recollection, or something else, they all contain some form of emotional truth. We laugh at things that are absurd because we KNOW they are saying something about what is real. We need metaphor to help us understand the world and our lives. And those deep, personal stories help us all know we are not alone.

Which leads me to honesty. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling a story that doesn't contain factual truth. The emotional truth makes it worthwhile and worth hearing. What we must do, as artists and craftspeople, is to remain honest with ourselves and with our audiences. Let the story serve the greater purpose of conveying emotional truth, but don't be afraid to own that you may have altered facts to serve truth. They are not "alternative facts." Fiction and metaphor are a vital part of what it is to be human and gives us safe ways to talk about the unspeakable. It may still be true and is no less powerful for not having actually happened. We have always needed fiction and metaphor, and we always will; the morally ambiguous moment is when fiction is presented as fact.

In performance storytelling practice, I'm certain many "true" personal stories have been polished a bit to be better stories, but if they retain most of their factual truth and it enhances their emotional truth, I'm okay with it. We violate trust only when we present something largely fictional as factual.

Storytelling gives us a way to craft the truths we hope are real. It gives us tools to speak of the things that might be too difficult to say otherwise. And we become responsible for the truths we offer, so we must remember our obligation to the audience to not deceive them as they strive towards their own truth.

All of this raises the question of how storytellers can present the story honestly to the audience with neither exposition nor apology, but still owning what kind of truth exists within. You don't want your audience to listen less deeply because they think the story isn't true, but you don't want to lie to them. This essay is long enough without tackling this issue and I don't have a magic solution, though there are several possibilities, three of which I'd like to touch on here, then build upon in another essay.
  • You could, for example, weave in some kind of I wish that that was the way it had happened statement, perhaps at the end of the story. This tells the audience it isn't factual but emotional truth you're striving for, and may add to the poignancy of the whole thing. I do this in several stories, including Retellings and The Longest Day of My Life. In the first I tell the facts of the matter, then retell it the way I wish it had happened; while in the second I tell the facts and admit to the lack of resolution, then give myself the ending I wish had happened. Both are emotionally satisfying and give the audience honesty as well as meaning.
  • You could create a fictional setting in which to set your stories. Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories are full of emotional truth and appear to be factual, yet everyone knows they are fiction. His audience is more than willing to suspend disbelief. I do something similar in my Crazy Jane stories. 
  • You could present yourself as an unreliable narrator, then tell it however you want. Something as simple as, "I think this is how it happened, but it might not all be true" will make your audience laugh and identify with you, since everyone exaggerates from time to time. It also allows your audience to listen on several levels at once, for both emotional truth and with a grain of salt around the facts.
So what do I think happened with the teller in that slam? He told a powerful, emotionally true story. I wish he had told it in a different setting or had given us a hint that it was what he had hoped for, and that he hadn't felt the need to deceive his audience. But I don't really condemn him for all that I think he was dishonest. We all yearn for emotional truth, recognition and that sense that we are not alone. We all yearn for the facts of our lives to be different. Maybe he was telling the truth as he wished it had been. We all do. We just need to remember to be honest in the process as we search for our own truths.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What would you like to read here?

Hello friends,

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted in April. I've been thinking about why I maintain this blog, what purpose does it serve, and how it might be most useful for you, the kind people who read it. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, but it seems as though the best thing I can do is ask you.

What would you like to read here? What do you most enjoy? What do you get the most out of? Is there anything you routinely skip? Do you prefer the more personal posts? The practical ones? What would be most helpful for you?

These days I write mostly about storytelling (thoughts on the art and craft, tips and tricks, stories you can use, and so on) and life after my husband's death (grief, thoughts on life after your love has died, love after loss, etc). In the past I've posted bits of fiction and poetry, oddservations (observed moments), challenges and contests, videos, and so on.

In all honesty, you are a significant part of why I blog. It is rewarding to me to know that others find what I have to say interesting, useful, illuminating, funny, whatever.

Send me an email, leave a comment, let me know. Since you are kind enough to give my writing some attention, I'm interested in making sure it's worth your while. I can't promise I'll make everyone happy all the time, but I do believe my work is one of service. Thanks!

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Grief has always been with us

This post was inspired by a question asked by Kim Go, founder of Alive and Mortal. She is a kind and wise person who helps the grieving.

As of this past Tuesday, it's been three years since Kevin died. I was expecting it to be a difficult day, but I found it wasn't much harder than any other day. There were some rough moments but mostly I engaged the everyday business of living. I grieve some every day, so Tuesday was no different.

Grief is persistent. It colors much of what I do and say, but it's no longer the predominant tone in my palette. Here, three years out, my life is no longer black and white, nor even sepia, but back in full-tones, even if the array of color may be different from what it was before he died.

Over the last few days I've had the privilege of talking with a number of people who have experienced deep grief; what I am struck by is how very universal it is. I've written about this over and over, if you love you will grieve, even if we all grieve in our own ways. This reminder has helped me so much, remembering that the grief is a pallid though powerful reflection of love.

I am in no way the first person to observe this nor the first to grieve deeply. In the months after Kevin's death I turned to mythology and folklore for solace (those of you who know me will not be surprised). Humans have been experiencing grief for a long, long time, nor are we the only animals to do so.

I looked in a lot of places. In the past (when I had cancer in my 20s) the Gilgamesh story helped, with his great love and grief for Enkidu. Later I found solace in Demeter's grief for her lost daughter Persephone. This time I needed a story of a wife grieving her husband. I found it in the story of Isis and Osiris.

In brief, Osiris is killed by his jealous brother Set who then cut the body into pieces and scattered them across Egypt. Osiris' wife Isis scours to earth to find each piece, restores him to wholeness and conceives their child Horus. In spite of his restoration Osiris is no longer part of the living world and becomes the lord of the land of the dead. No matter how great her grief, no matter how profound her effort, Isis can never be fully restored to life with her husband. She is willing to do anything to have him by her side again and it will never be entirely possible. Even gods are foiled by death.

I found such resonance in this story. I would have done anything to heal Kevin or to bring him back from the dead. If I could have removed the cancer from his body and placed it in mine, I would have. If I was told that committing a horrible crime would restore him, I would have done it. Anything.

I found comfort in this story not only because it reflected a depth of grief I was experiencing, it also reminded me that I was neither the first nor the last person who had lost someone they loved beyond measure. I found echoes of my own struggle in the story of Isis, a goddess who held the secrets to the universe, felt such grief and was unable to fully restore her beloved. It helped me feel less alone.

I have yet to perform this story. I've worked on it but even now, three years out, it's still raw. I will tell it eventually but for now it offers me comfort, as it has been comforting people for thousands of years. If we love, we will grieve, whether human or god. It is part of what makes us who we are.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What to do when emotions rise during performance: Three tips

Hilda Dokubo
courtesy wikimedia
A few weeks ago I wrote about storytelling and telling tenderness. A risk of letting tenderness inform our stories and performances is that emotions may rise up unexpectedly when we tell. I’m not talking about when our audiences express emotions when we tell something meaningful, but the times when we are telling and find ourselves experiencing an upwelling of feeling.

For example, when I tell stories about Kevin I sometimes find myself on the brink of tears. How should I manage this? Should I not tell stories about him? Should I only tell these stories once I have thoroughly processed the emotions I feel when I talk about his life and death?

There are some who believe we can only tell stories that we have thoroughly processed. Others believe storytelling is inevitably a kind of therapy so it’s okay to tell truly raw pieces. I think both of these are extremes: If we wait to tell a given story until we have thoroughly processed the emotions attaches we may never tell certain important stories, but if we use storytelling performance as a substitute for therapy we violate the trust of the audience by forcing them to worry about the teller and their own experience of the story is sabotaged.

I know, beyond a doubt, that part of a being professional means I craft narrative that leaves room for the audience to have their own experience of the story; they have my permission to not really think about me if my story sends them into their own narrative. This is part of the story triangle, which I have written about extensively here. I also know, beyond a doubt, that storytelling like any other art has therapeutic applications for the artist and that some experiences will always be raw. If we talk about them there is a risk that our own emotions will well up.

So how do I balance this? How do I tell stories that are emotionally alive for me without violating the audience’s trust? What do I do when I slip and feel more than I intended?
  • I try to head the problem off by practicing. If I know a story is likely to evoke a response I don’t want to reveal in my performance, I can make it predictable and so build a pause into the performance. There is a point in a particular Crazy Jane story where, every single time, my throat gets tight. Since I know it’s coming I now have a natural pause there, so I have a moment to swallow before I continue. Practicing also helps me develop some insulation from the emotion, so I am less likely to have an unexpected response than if I’d not practiced.
  • If I do have a strong, unexpected response, I can often counter it by imagining the next part of the story as a series of PowerPoint slides. Nothing sucks the emotion out of a moment more than PowerPoint. If I can pause for a beat, see the bullet points of the next scene as a slide, I can usually regain control over my wandering emotions pretty quickly and easily. You may need a different metaphor from PowerPoint, this is the one that works for me.
  • Lastly, if I do need a moment, if I get teary or need to take a breath, I remind myself that storytelling audiences are generally very understanding. I may pause, take a breath, smile and thank them, then continue. I find audiences appreciate honesty and vulnerability enough that, as long as I don’t run off the stage sobbing, they understand and will give me a little latitude. 
I should add, I have never needed to stop entirely. I’ve always practiced enough that I was able to continue with a deep breath or two. Professionalism matters.
These tips work for me. You may find other ways to balance the necessary honesty and vulnerability with professionalism. I’d love to know what works for you!

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An open letter to my husband, three years after your death

Dear Kevin,

Here we are, March 28th. It's astonishing to me that it's been three years. It seems impossible that you've been gone so long. My life is at once rich and barren, familiar and unrecognizable.

I'm in the office of my apartment, a place you never saw. While it's only six blocks from our house, I don't know if we ever walked down this street together. My home looks like the homes we shared because it has much of the same stuff, but it's proportioned for me. At 5'1" that is quite different than the choices we made to accommodate your 6'3". This room is full of windows and I look out to see the forsythia and the neighbor's project truck. It is a place of great comfort for me, where I have written and thought well, yet you've never seen it. You've never read the writing that happened here, never heard the stories I mused on while looking out these windows.

This is an impossibility, a flaw in the universe, yet here it is.

Beyond my office is my kitchen, smaller than even our old kitchen, yet proportioned well for me. I don't cook like I did before you got sick. That you had a GI cancer manifested first with stomach and eating issues has changed my relationship with food and cooking. I still cook some and I've made some good meals here, but it's not what it used to be. I miss it and hope I eventually find my way back to it, but I don't know if I will; there is some fear associated with good food equating illness. I've tried new recipes (I need recipes now, I never really did before) that you never tasted. I've shared those meals with people who love me, people you've never met though they have heard about you over and over again. You would have enjoyed those meals and conversations yet you weren't here.

This, too, is an impossibility, a flaw in the universe, yet here it is.

I have a light work week in front of me, but next week I have paid work every day. The next few months are busy. My business, though not making me rich, is supporting me. I work harder now than I ever have and most days I love what I do. You and I talked about what success meant as a self-employed person and I have passed those initial criteria. I pay my own bills with money I have earned through freelance storytelling, consulting, teaching, coaching and writing. I am making it. I celebrate every single check that comes in. You aren't here to celebrate with me.

An impossibility. A flaw. And yet...

This is life three years after your death. I believe you have continued in some way (you've made it abundantly obvious) yet wherever you are now, you are not physically here. I am. And I've done exactly what you asked me to do: I've lived. It's taken me awhile to learn how because in many ways I died with you, but life in the afterlife isn't bad. There are great sweetnesses here. I love and am loved. I work and am recognized. I create. I laugh. I play. I cry sometimes. And I miss you every damned day.

In those desolate months right after you died, a number of widows who had been at this life longer than I told me that sooner or later the love would be bigger than the pain. I believed them while I couldn't imagine it. I knew that the pain was a reflection of the love. Now there are days when the love and the good memories are more present than the absence and the loss. Not every day, but often enough.

It bothers me more than I can say that you are part of the past and not the formative part of my future. I hate the sense that you are now part of my story and not the focal point, as you were for so many years, but I am so grateful that you were that guiding force and still are a part of who I am now.

I am so different. I look much older. My hair is about to shift to more gray than brown. I don't smile as often, my sense of whimsy is less constant and my introverted streak is broader than ever. Many of the changes in who I am are good. I am more independent and confident than I ever was. The worst thing that could happen to me has happened, so very little scares me now. I am more comfortable with who I am, more willing to fail and make mistakes, less worried about what anyone thinks of me.

Everything relates back to you not being here, even as everything is also pulling me forward. All of this is because you were in my life and believed in me. And because you are in my life and believe in me. And it's also because you died and I had to learn how to live without you.

Today I will work. I will go to the gym. I will look at your picture and likely cry. I will remember the warmth of your skin, the light in your eyes, the attention and care you gave to me and to everyone you loved. I will have flashbacks to your last day and I will remind myself that your death does not define your life. I will be okay, for all that it will feel like hell sometimes. (If I've learned nothing else about grief I've learned that I can survive the worst storms even as I think I will not.)

I will celebrate you as I mourn you, just as I do every day. I will live. Because I can think of no better way to honor you than to continue, just as you asked, as you made me promise.

I love you, Kevin. You are in my every cell, every motion forward in my life bears your fingerprints and whispered support. I will watch for you today, as I do every day. I will reach for gratitude and tissues, forward to love and grace, back to connect with you and how you help me live.

Thank you, always and forever.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)

Laura

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Step away from the screen: Breaks matter

I love my work. Just about every day I get up and think I am so lucky. I am making a living doing work I love that helps people. Yes, it's hard work. Yes, I know I am privileged to be doing so. Yes, I am profoundly grateful.

I work harder now than I ever did when I was in the private sector. Sure, I sleep a little later, but I work later, I work on weekends, I work when I wake up in the middle of the night. I may have more flexible work time but I also have more work time; self-employment means I am my own admin, support staff, marketing director, book-keeper and so on, all in addition to being a storyteller, coach, writer and consultant. That's just the way it is with self-employment, or maybe it's that way because I love what I do so much of it doesn't feel like work. I've spoken with other self-employed people and they describe the same thing: They work all the time because most of it doesn't feel like work and the parts that do are supporting the rest of it. That makes sense to me.

When you love what you do it can become easy to focus only on work. Sure, there are days when you'll feel like you would do ANYTHING to avoid work, but you still work more than you don't. It's easy to forget that, even when you love what you do sometimes you need to take a break.

It may seem counterintuitive, why stop what you're doing when you love doing it? Taking a break gives you a chance to reboot and come back to work with a fresh perspective. It gives you a chance to remember that there are other worthwhile things in the world beyond you and your vocation. It's kind of like sleep; we all need restorative time.

Breaks can be big or small. It can be as simple as walking around the block to taking a vacation. Here are some ideas:

I try to take small breaks every day, though to be honest my breaks often look like chores (getting the dishes done) or time that isn't that restorative (Facebook, which frustrates me as much as anything else). I love my work, but I'm feeling a bit worn, so I'm taking an honest-to-goodness vacation this week. As you are reading this I am someplace beautiful, though I'm writing it before I leave (a funny kind of time-travel). I've been thinking about nature and culture and my own life and maybe even not much at all. I have very limited internet access (though I still have some because, you know, work. I need to be able to answer emails at least). In all likelihood, the first few days were difficult. I was probably antsy and uncomfortable because I wasn't working, but I know it's good for me. And after a few days I likely relaxed. That knot in my back, the one from muscles supporting my arms at the keyboard, that knot relaxed, I hope. I'll read something unrelated to fairy tales, consulting, storytelling, coaching or writing. I'll spend some time staring out at the sky.

When I return I will be ready to go. I will have had some time to think about what I do and how I do it, so I'll return with some new ideas and will be excited to implement them. I might not have those ideas if I don't take a break. I might burn out sooner if I don't take a break, and then this thing I love will become a burden and I really don't want that to happen.

Take a break, big or small. Make it a real break, not Facebook or dishes. Give yourself permission to live fully in all parts of your life. It will feed the things you love and you'll feel happier, more productive and more sure of your path.

I'll let you know how my break went in a little bit. In the meantime, I'm taking a nap.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

A very resilient muscle

We are surrounded by wisdom, even if some of it comes from places you might feel a little weird about. Kevin loved Woody Allen. I used to, but grew tired of the neurotic humor and then the whole controversy about his relationships with his children, his wife and his child/wife broke. I gave up on Woody Allen. But he said some things very, very well.

Like this.



I think of this often, that the heart is a very, very resilient little muscle.

When Kevin died I thought I would never be in another relationship. I didn't think I had it in me. Frankly, I couldn't imagine being alive in the world without him, so the thought of ever letting someone else into my heart was beyond comprehension. A bit over a year after he died I moved from our shared home to my own apartment. A lot of things drove the move, including economics, but at the heart of it was the knowledge that I needed to start figuring out what it meant to be alive in the world without him. This seemed, and sometimes still seems, impossible.

The move was a nightmare, though I was very well supported by people who love me. I was lucky.

Once I settled into my new home I wrote up a list of what it meant to be alive in this world. If I was to accept that I am still here, I needed something to do with the years in front of me. The list was pretty wide-ranging, including work, writing, good food, being outside, spending time with people who love me, travel, etc etc. Buried in there was flirting. Not being in a relationship, but flirting, that lovely little back and forth fed by attraction and possibility. It wasn't even really about sex, but about knowing I wasn't invisible in the world.

But where does a middle-aged, overweight widow go to flirt? I've always hated bars. I've never liked crowded places and I don't really have a social group here. I reminded myself that this is the modern world and set up a profile on a dating site, expecting and wanting only online flirtation. That felt safe.

It was safe, so much so that I was bored and frustrated. The number of people in the world who cannot spell or construct a sentence is astonishing and this is apparently my low bar. I was about to call the experiment a failure when an intriguing profile popped up in my feed. Smart, funny, geeky, cute, can write the hell out of a personal ad. I wrote. He wrote back. His sentence structure was complex, layered and grammatical. Beyond grammar, he was interesting. It was quickly apparent there was real chemistry between us. And he was thankfully far away, so I didn't have to deal with a real person.

Except everyone is a real person. It soon became obvious that something could really happen between us and I didn't know if I was capable of it. Remember, when Kevin died, I died too in many ways. And I still love Kevin, is it fair to even consider another relationship? So I wrote to him (for the sake of this essay and his privacy we'll call him C) and revealed that I was a widow. I didn't know if I was able to be in a relationship and I didn't want to hurt him.

C wrote back with the only thing that could have kept me going. I don't remember the phrasing, but he said something to the effect of, "I can't imagine how hard that must be. Of course you don't know if you can do this, your marriage never ended. I believe the heart is capable of a great deal of love. I'd like to see where this can go; at worst we get to be friends. I'm willing to risk it if you are."

So I did. We did. And here we are, about a year and a half later. Friends, lovers, partners. In a relationship.

None of this means I don't still love Kevin. I always will. I also love C. It's a very strange place to find myself. I am passionately in love with two men. Some days I panic and am afraid that loving C means I am somehow dishonoring Kevin, that I am betraying him. I know he would want nothing other than my happiness, but that knowledge doesn't always balance the emotions. Other days I fear that I will drive C away by still loving Kevin, though he understands and accepts me so thoroughly I know that won't happen. So I take some deep breaths. Sometimes I cry. And I continue. I do my best to be resilient. There are days when resilience means crying and taking a nap. That is good enough.

These coming days will be very hard. It is the third time now I have lived through the anniversary of the last of Kevin's life. It will be hard to remember the 15 years of love, companionship, friendship, hard work, and joy; instead I will be thinking about his face when he realized he was at the end. I will be thinking about the faces of his children as they tried to do the terrible work of saying goodbye to their father. I will be thinking about the love that surrounded us. I will be thinking about everything he told me with his gaze when he was too weak to talk. I will cry and write and feel stunned, angry, shocked. Alive. How can that be?

Throughout this tumult I will not be alone. I know Kevin will be with me. I know you will. I know the many people who knew and loved him, as well as those who have come to love him through this blog, will be there. And the amazing man who loves me now will be there, holding me while I cry for another. I will feel such conflict, such gratitude and guilt. I will be reminded again and again of just how lucky I am, in so many ways.

I was listening to an extraordinary podcast recently, Terrible, thanks for asking. This is, perhaps, a more comfortable source of wisdom. The producer, Nora McInery, tells her own story of loss and love in the very first episode. I wept (making the person seated next to me on the airplane rather uncomfortable) because it was so damned familiar. Nora says, "I am in love with two men." She is right. One love does not deny, eliminate, lessen, mitigate, or undermine the other. The heart is a very resilient little muscle. It is capable of marvels. So are we all.

With love and gratitude,
Laura

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Grief and time

I've written many times about how no two griefs are the same. This is true whether it's different people, different losses, or different times. For example, I've met other women around my age who lost their spouse to pancreatic cancer, yet we each experience the grief in our own way.

So it is now that I am experiencing my third anniversary of Kevin's death. This time is different from the second, just as the second was different from the first. This makes sense, I am different now, but I have to admit some of the ways the grief manifests are unexpected.

I'm not crying as much this year.
I am having very vivid and odd dreams in which I cry uncontrollably. I wake up with dry cheeks.

I'm not as abjectly miserable.
I am very tired and really don't want to do much of anything.

I am not as enraged.
I am more stunned that Kevin hasn't been embodied in the world for this long.

Most of what I'm feeling is exhaustion and an odd kind of body-less-ness. I don't feel really connected to myself. This isn't surprising, I'm just noticing it more this year. Last year I wrote in my journal about physical pain and a sense of extra gravity. This year I keep forgetting where my edges are. I bump into things.

None of this is to say I don't miss him, or that I am not sad that he died, or that I am not still grieving, but it is different this year as I expect it will be different again next year. I am sad but I am also full of wonder at my own life, at the riches I have been graced by, at the love that is the overwhelming feeling when I think of him.

I was talking with a friend the other day. She asked me how I am and I told her I'm sad. She wanted to comfort me, to help me be okay, so I told her that I am okay. I am also sad. It is appropriate that I be sad. What I am finally learning is that the sadness is as much a part of me as the joy. Time is helping me learn that.

It's all very odd. They say time heals all wounds. I don't believe that. The wound, the loss, will not vanish. What is happening instead is that I am growing around the loss. I am still growing. I am still in the world, much to my astonishment. And the loss is still there. I do not regret my grief and sorrow, just as I do not regret loving Kevin so much that there will always be a void. Now, three years on, when the grief rises as fatigue or tears or something else, it reminds me of the love.

We are shaped by our losses, by the gifts we are given, by time itself. I am still here. And, in his own way, Kevin is too.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Three ways to bloom into a better storyteller

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Spring is in full force where I live. I look out the window and the forsythia blooms bounce in the breeze like captured sunlight. The magnolia is opening up to the world as if it's sipping the air. The green shoots of crocus, hyacinth, and daffodils are everywhere.

I spent most of my adult life (to date) in New England, where spring was precarious. We never knew when a frost might rush in and doom the new growth, all the while knowing that summer would land on us before we were ready to give up the tender colors of the world reborn. In my current hometown, spring is a long, drawn-out affair, sultry and unmistakable. I love it. For the first time in my life, I really get spring.

In light of all the lovely life surrounding me, I wanted to offer you three ways you can nourish your own, artistic spring, three ways you can grow into a better storyteller.

  1. Regardless of where you are in your artistic journey, remember that growth takes time. You plant a seed and then you have to wait. If you dig it up to check on it, you'll disrupt that vital, dark, embryonic time that all art needs to bloom. 
  2. Once you have a sprout of an idea for a new story, a new way of working, or a new path, you nourish it, give it enough water, protect it from harsh environments and make sure it has adequate sunlight. Pulling on it won't help it grow any faster. Giving it the right kinds of support will
  3. Once that story has bloomed, it may need pruning to make it the best it can be. Don't let your ego or attachment to a given phrase stop you from crafting the best story possible. Keep asking yourself why you love the story, how does it serve the audience, is it crafted to serve both your needs and those of the listener, and so on. 
How do you support your own artistic spring? Don't go it alone. Talk with friends, fellow artists or others in your community. Consider hiring a coach. Tell your story to people you know understand how tender, new art can be easily crushed and ask them for help nourishing it. I wrote recently about the power of appreciation in the workplace; this applies to artists as well. Get appreciated. And remember that being the best storyteller you can requires time, practice, encouragement and the faith that spring will come.

I hope you spring into new art and new life this year. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.

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Friday, March 3, 2017

Breathing in, breathing out

Three years ago, very early in the morning (or maybe it was late the night before) Kevin began to have trouble breathing. We sat together on our bed. I gave him medication and we practiced slow, deep breathing. Breathing in, breathing out. After several hours with a hospice nurse we decided to go to the hospital as a preventative measure. As we slowly walked down the stairs together I remember banishing the thought that this was the last time he would be in our bedroom.

I was right. When we got to the hospital we found he had a blood clot in his left lung. This wasn't really surprising, cancer can make the blood kind of sticky and more prone to clotting, but it was very bad news. We got him installed in an ICU room and he was given a bi-pap mask, a more intense version of the c-pap you might have at home. He soon fell asleep as air was forced in and out of his lungs. Breathing in, breathing out.

Our oncologist asked if she could talk to me and it was there, in that little room next to his ICU room with four chairs in an L-shape, that I heard for the first time that she told me that he didn't have long. She explained that pulmonary embolisms were very serious. It was possible he wouldn't survive the night and I should call his kids if they wanted to come.

I don't remember if I wept. I'm sure I wanted to. I'm equally sure that I took several deep breaths so I could calm myself and think.

I went back into his room and held his hand, listening to the mask that helped him breathe. I don't know if I slept that night. I remember the rhythm of the machine. I remember watching his chest as he slept deeply for perhaps the first time in weeks. I remember matching the pace of my breath with his. Breathing in, breathing out.

Early the next morning I called his kids. We didn't know we had only 25 days left.

These memories are so sharp and fresh, yet they have a patina as well. Time is beginning to leave its mark on my memory. This is both a blessing and a curse. I want to remember him as immediately as if he had only just walked out of the room, but I know the only way I can survive is if I let time soften them. Sometimes it is in remembering the details that I find the connection and the wound again. Other times it is much easier, the memories are the bright, healthy ones, but not today.

March is a hard month. January 18 to March 28 are the brutal season for me, the dates that mark diagnosis to death, and now I'm really in the thick of it. Some people tell me to not focus on it, but honestly I don't know how. This was perhaps the defining time in my life and, while it hurts to remember,  it also helps remind me that Kevin was such a gift, that I am so lucky. I swim through the memories, thinking of his hands, his laugh, his shock that he was so ill, his joy in me and those he loved. I remember the rhythm of his chest, rising and falling, in that hospital room, as we lay side-by-side in our own home, and in the first night we spent together. Breathing in, breathing out.

These memories make my life now, living in the Twilight Zone, that much richer. When the sorry threatens to drown me I come to the surface and I take a deep breath. Sometimes those breaths are ragged with tears, other times the air fills my lungs and I breathe for us both.

Please don't worry. I am okay. It is appropriate and right that I feel sad, that I miss him. Kevin was the love of my life (and yes, my new love is too, but that's another conversation. I am in another life now, I am another me) so I will always miss him. Sometimes, like now, the wound is as fresh as if it were yesterday. This hurts. And I am still grateful for the pain, because it pales beside the love even as it is a reflection of it.

In each moment that we are here and breathing, I hope you are well and loved and doing the best you can. Be kind. May kindness grace you. And may each breath sustain you through stormy seas and smooth.

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(c)2017 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.
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