Monday, November 25, 2019

Gratitude: Observations and readings

We are in the gratitude season. Honestly, I think it's always gratitude season, but right now it's everywhere. The reminders to be grateful are relentless. They are also necessary. In our busy, fretful lives it's easy to forget that most of the time, most of us are very, very lucky.

I have had a gratitude practice for many years. It's part of what kept me going after Kevin died; I would write down three things I was grateful for every day. There were days when that list was simply, "Kevin, Kevin, Kevin," but over time other things began to creep in. It was part of how I knew I would survive, even if sometimes I didn't really want to.

I am so grateful to you, the readers of this blog. Thank you for accompanying me for so long and so well. While much of my storytelling blogging has moved over to Patreon (check it out for posts, signed books, coaching, stories, and more), please know I still appreciate you, see you, and will continue to post here from time to time.

What follows is a gift, the Gratitude entry from From Audience to Zeal: The ABCs of Finding, Crafting, and Telling a Great Story. While this was previously published here, it's been expanded and revised. Over on Patreon I've shared the Sharing the Fire and Self Care entries from the Audience to Zeal Workbook, never before published online. They include readings and exercises to keep you going when your storytelling or personal flames might be low. I hope you enjoy both.

While these writing are specific for storytellers, I think there is utility and maybe even wisdom for everyone here.

excerpted from From Audience to Zeal: The ABCs of Finding, Crafting, and Telling a Great Story
(c) Laura Packer

We are so lucky to do this work. No matter the size of your audience, if we have one person who really wants to hear us, we’re far luckier than many, many people. No matter what critique we receive, if we get up and tell again, we are lucky and strong and can be grateful for the opportunity. No matter if we fail, make a mistake, struggle with jealousy or insecurity or any of the other demons that haunt us, every time we stand on a stage, we are so lucky that we can step beyond our own limitations.

We are so lucky to hear these stories. Every time we listen to a story we are being shown into someone else's world in a deep and intimate way. Every time we listen deeply to a storyteller we are giving them the gift of doing the work they love. Every time we are kind to a beginning storyteller or are moved by an accomplished one, we are opening ourselves up to awe, to connecting with someone else, to stopping the tumult for just a little while.

All of this is no accident. By our own hard work, talent and the whim of the universe, we are able to stand up and tell stories in front of interested audiences, be they kids, festival crowds, business people, or conference attendees. This is something to be grateful for. By cultivating a sense of gratitude for your work, your audiences, your colleagues, and more, you become more resilient when things aren’t just right and more receptive to opportunity. Ongoing research has established that cultivating gratitude makes everything better.

  • Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Storytelling is all about relationships. When we are grateful for those relationships and express that gratitude we are more likely to be remembered and invited back. When I let my audiences know I am grateful for their time, when I thank those who hire me, I am letting them know that they are just as valued as anyone else. We all need to hear that from time to time. 
  • Gratitude improves physical health. My body is my instrument. When I am grateful for it I take better care of it. If gratitude will help my body endure all I put it through (this traveling life takes a toll) then I will be grateful for it every day!
  • Gratitude improves psychological health. When we are grateful we are less likely to hold onto toxic emotions. What I am feeling is reflected in my performance, no matter how practiced I am. If I take the stage with gratitude I am less likely to remain annoyed at the promoter who misspelled my name or any of the other myriad annoyances. 
  • Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Storytelling is all about building empathy. Our brains are more likely to respond empathetically when we hear a story. If gratitude will help me feel more empathy then I'm all for it. 
  • Grateful people sleep better. Studies suggest writing in a gratitude journal before going to sleep can improve sleep. As storytellers we need to be rejuvenated and sleep helps. 
  • Gratitude improves self-esteem. Who doesn't need a little help here now and again? We are more likely to stop comparing ourselves to others when we feel grateful for them.
  • Gratitude increases mental strength. We all need strength. Performing - heck, life - can be exhausting. 

We are so lucky. Remember that and be grateful. Be grateful for every performing opportunity, for every audience member, for every time you hear a story even if you've heard it a million times already. When we are grateful we expand the possibilities for storytelling. Our gratitude will be obvious to the world.

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(c)2019 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, October 21, 2019

If you're read From Audience to Zeal I have a quick question for you

Do you have a favorite entry in From Audience to Zeal? I'm asking because I'm working on an article about it and want to include the topics most people found useful. Thanks!

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Friday, October 11, 2019

For Kevin, on the morning of my remarriage

Dear Kevin,

This is so weird. I'm writing this to you in my office, the one filled with all of the things you know but in Minnesota, a state I don't think you ever visited. I've lived here for over two years now, with a man you never met and one who is, on the surface, unlike you. In fundamentals though you are much alike -- perhaps this speaks to me more than to the both of you, but it is true. Like you, he is smart and funny, kind and passionate. He has three kids though the ratio differs. He loves me with all of his heart, just like you. Today I am marrying him.

It feels so very odd. I was supposed to be married to you for the rest of my life. I was supposed to be your wife only. I was supposed to be so many things and yet. Here I am.

Kevin, I swore to love you as long as we both shall live and that is still true. I will never stop loving you. I have learned that the heart is capable of amazing depths of love. I love Charley wholly and so too, I love you. I am profoundly lucky, some would say blessed, to be loved by two such men.

Marrying Charley in no way diminishes how much I love you and miss you, not does it change the truth of the love you felt/feel for me. Your love nurtured and sustained me for many years. I know it always will. Nor does loving and missing you diminish the love I feel for Charley and what he feels for me.

Thank you Kevin, for loving me so well; for helping me learn to love bigger and truer; and for, in the end, telling me you wanted me to be happy, to learn to love again, that it would be okay. Thank you for knowing love endures.

I know you'll be there with us today. While sometimes my heart gets twisted up in all of this, I know you will be there beaming, knowing I remain yours just as I am Charley's. Thank you for the gift of myself.

I love you.


P.S. After writing this, I ran it by Charley as I always do when I write about him. I couldn't get through it without sobbing. He held me while I cried and assured me that he was okay with all of this. I am so lucky in so many ways. Thank you.

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(c)2019 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Love, grief, and remarriage

By the time I next write to you, I will have remarried. Marriage is complex, the idea that I'm binding my life to another, and I'm finding the closer we get to the date, the more complicated it becomes.

The man I'm marrying is wonderful. He is smart, funny, kind, and has room for me to love Kevin just as much as I love him. He loves me powerfully and wholly as I am, broken and healed and human. I am so lucky to spend my life with him.

And yet.

And yet I flinch when people get too excited for my wedding, even when they have the best of intentions. I flinch more when they say things like I knew you would get over it or worse, I knew you would get over Kevin.

And yet.

And yet I am excited about marrying my new love who deserves to be called more than the new love. I am excited about marrying my love. I've taken to referring to Kevin as my late husband and the man I am about to marry as my living husband. Some people get it. Some don't.

And yet.

And yet, I never expected to be anyone's wife but Kevin's. When he died, I never expected to be in another relationship, never thought I would want to or could find someone who matched me as well. I am having dreams about betrayal, hurt, loss, and other delightful topics. It is hard to hold both the joy and the sorrow.

And yet.

And yet, I know Kevin would want me to be happy. He told me so, quite clearly, in those last tender days. I know he understood that my heart is happiest when it is loving and that to deny my own nature would kill me, as surely as the cancer was killing him.

And yet.

And yet, these dreams are breaking my heart at the time when it is also at its fullest. I finally cried a few days ago and it felt the same as in those early days after his death, bereft and with nothing left but tears that burned my cheeks.

And yet.

And yet here I am. Stepping forward even though it hurts like hell. Acknowledging that pain even as I am happy and stunned that someone is able to love me so well. Risking relationship even though I am afraid of the same tearing loss. Wearing both rings, to hold both loves. Honoring and celebrating all of the love, all of the time. Recognizing that I would not be who I am if I had not broken so completely, over and over again, then been reforged.

I could not be in this place if I had not found myself along the way. Who I am now is so very different from who I was, yet this me is still able to love and be loved. This me is still able to grieve and yearn and recognize that my body and my life are big enough to hold the past, present, and even believe there might be a future.

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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
Autumn is coming
Life and death
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(c)2019 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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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(c)2019 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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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(c)2019 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

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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