Friday, January 20, 2017

Adventure

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
finished!"

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Storytelling tips and tricks: Interviews

I love backstory. This is the stuff that the audience may never know but can significantly deepen your understanding of your story and characters, so your telling will become richer. For example, if you tell the Three Little Pigs it might be interesting to know if the wolf is truly hungry, if he was bullied by pigs when he was a pup, or if he just wants some shelter and kind conversation but has poor social skills. Your telling might change based on your answers, even if you never share that information with the audience.

I would love to say I always take the time to develop backstory but that would be untrue. What I can tell you is that when I do take the time, I always learn something that makes the story more meaningful to me and pushes me to be a better storyteller.

One of my very favorite ways to develop backstory and therefore deepen my understanding of the story is interviewing. I get together with a trusted friend, one whom I know is interested in helping me be a better artist, and I tell them just a little bit about the story I'm working on. I give them a general outline of events and characters. Then I select one of the characters and invite them to ask me questions as if they were interviewing the character.

I do this only with trusted allies because I need to know I won't be interrupted while I answer and that they will let me think my answers through. The interviewer needs to let the subject remain in charge of the interview.

Once the ground rules are set, we begin. Typical questions might include:

  • What is your name? Why were you named that?
  • Do you have any siblings?
  • Who was your best friend when you were young?
  • What do you think of so-and-so (another character from the story)?
  • What makes you happy?
  • Do you have any career goals?
  • etc
Sometimes you'll uncover something that might be a real story-changer or may lead you to a new story entirely, a piece of backstory you didn't expect. My first-person telling of Hansel and Gretel from the witch's perspective came out of one of these exercises. This technique extends far beyond traditional material. Try it with a personal story or something out of the public domain. It can get pretty silly but it just about always yields some kind of new information about the character or story. You may not need to share this information with your audience but it might change how you present a character or a situation. For instance, did you know the Big Bad Wolf used to keep kosher? 

I'd love to know how this works for you. 


(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 6, 2017

Vows

Yesterday was my wedding anniversary. On January 5, 2013, after 14 years of loving one another, Kevin and I spoke vows in front of our community, promising to love for as long as we both shall live, until death do us part.

We had no way of knowing death would part us so soon.

I have been a widow for far longer than I was a wife, but I have kept my promise. I still love him. I always will.

The one wedding anniversary we had together before Kevin died is a very tender memory. He was already very sick though not yet diagnosed. I made his favorite dish for dinner; he could barely eat. I'd been cooking the best things I could, both flavorful and nutritious, to try to lure his taste buds into action. I watched him swallow a few bites, look at me, then try a few more. It was, in many ways, his anniversary gift to me. He tried so hard. We sat snuggled together in our living room and re-read our wedding vows to one another. I was so happy. I was so grateful. I was so scared.

He was diagnosed 13 days later.

I would not change any of it. Had I known then what was lurking so near I would have made the same choices. Had I been told 14 years earlier that this would lead to the most painful thing I could experience, I would still have said yes, I will. I am so grateful I was Kevin's lover, his friend, his wife. I am so grateful that we eventually married; it was something I had wanted for a long time and once he was diagnosed it made everything bureaucratic so much easier. It means I am his widow legally as well as emotionally. I think this all would have been even harder if we didn't have the legal bond. This is no way is intended to suggest that those who are unmarried and lose a partner suffer any less, I just know that being his wife and legal widow gave me comfort.

I will always be Kevin's wife and his widow. Should I marry again I will speak my vows with no less sincerity and intent than I did the first time, then I will enter into a state of emotional bigamy and I'm okay with this. The human heart is a very complex and resilient bit of muscle.

Love doesn't die. As long as I am alive, as long as Kevin's kids and others who love him are in this world, he will be remembered and be loved. I am so glad I had a chance to be his lover, his friend, and his wife. I am so glad I was able to be his protector and advocate in those last desperate days. In some strange and complex ways, I am now - not glad. Never glad. But something akin to grateful beyond the loss and pain - that I get to be his widow.

I spent part of yesterday snuggled up on my living room couch. I re-read our vows to one another. I remembered. I let myself be comforted by the memories of what we were. And I will continue to be comforted, happy, and grateful that he and I were greater than the sum of our parts and always will be.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Video: Storytelling and empathy

One of my favorite things about storytelling is the way it functions as a magic trick. A well-told and well-crafted story evokes a very specific kind of neurological response which makes us more predisposed to building relationships or acting in the way the narrator hopes to move you. This makes storytelling an incredibly powerful tool, moving the audience to action. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill, but you will use it more effectively when you understand how it works.

The following video is by Paul Zak, the leading researcher on brain chemistry and narrative; I refer to his work extensively in my own consulting, coaching and teaching work, using science to support better storytelling. This video clearly and simply explains some of what happens when you hear an emotionally evocative story with a clear narrative arc. This may be useful for you in your own work as you think about how to craft meaningful stories.

I will come back to applied neurology and storytelling in the coming months.



(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 30, 2016

The observer effect

I’ve been thinking about the observer effect lately, about how the act of observation changes things. I wrote earlier this week about how storytellers and other artists are also observers and recorders, which can make a difference in a dangerous world, but now I'm thinking about it on a more personal level. The observer effect has certainly been powerful for me; I am an observer, a keek, and I’m aware that being observed changes what I do, how I behave and how I respond. I think this is true for most of us, but it feels especially active in my life, as a performer and writer. My own observation of the world and of myself have changed who I am, how I understand the world and my place in it.

I started this blog in 2007 in conjunction with my first NaNoWriMo. I loved that experience of daily writing and wanted to continue developing better writing habits, but knew I wasn’t likely to do so without some kind of audience, some kind of observer effect. So I began to blog. I wrote in a blog hoping others might read what I was writing, so I would write more. I had no idea how important that decision would be. I thought I was just writing.

At first, this blog was an ongoing series of ruminations about the world, but I quickly began to write more specifically about storytelling. By having an assumed audience of readers I had someone I could muse to about storytelling and so began to develop more complex and evolved ideas about the role of storytelling in the world. I wouldn’t have done that without you, the readers, without the observer effect. It has been very important to me to find a way to delve into the deeper meaning of the art that defines my life. Being observed meant that I had to express my thoughts more clearly than I might have otherwise. Thank you.

As you know, in January of 2014 this blog became a companion piece to Kevin’s caringbridge site, a place where I could express some of my own feelings in the midst of his treatment for pancreatic cancer. Once he died this blog became a place where I could think aloud about my grief, where I knew I was not alone.

There are many things that can be said about public grieving. There are many things I could say about my public grieving. I’ve had people tell me I overshare, that I shouldn’t say such things, that I am making a spectacle of myself, that I will chase away my new love by writing about the old. My response is that it’s my choice, that we each have different needs when we grieve, no one is forced to read this blog anyway and he repeatedly assures me that this is not the case. I’ve also been told that the things I write express what the reader thought was inexpressible, that I have given voice to those who have lost their most precious person in the world. As I’ve begun to rebuild (I don’t think of it as healing or moving on, I am someone so different now) I’ve thought aloud about that process, too. Again, I’ve been told it’s too much and I’ve been told that I’ve given hope in the midst of despair. And none of it would have happened without the observer effect because I wouldn't have written in the first place.

All of this has occurred without any specific intention. Much of my grief has been deeply private, moments you will never see and experiences I don’t want to share. The public part of my grief started as a way to give voice to the unbearable and has continued as a way to understand the world I now live in. Every time someone responded to one of my grief posts I knew I was less alone. That helped immeasurably.

More times that I can count this blog and you, the readers, have saved my life. Thank you. I never expected that when I began it way back when. In the midst of the most difficult thing I have ever experienced, being observed meant I chose to continue.

Now, 9 years and some 796 entries later (which means very roughly 70,000 words) I find myself here. I am maintaining two blogs (this one and my organizational storytelling blog) which means three entries a week, and occasional posts in my food blog. I am forced to have good writing habits to maintain this level of content. I rarely have more than 150 readers for a given post, which is very few in the blogosphere, but I continue.

I continue because the observer effect has made me a better writer. Knowing someone will read what I write makes me take more time, put more thought into it and craft it more than I might otherwise. The observer effect means I know I’m not alone. At least a few people read each post, even if it may not be as many as I might like. Knowing that I have shared my thoughts with someone has kept me going through some very dark nights. The observer effect has made me a better person. It means that just maybe something I’ve said has helped someone. And that’s the best part of all.

This is the last 2016 post in True Stories, Honest Lies; I’m considering what I want to do with this blog in the coming years. I hope to have more readers. More than that, I hope to continue this experiment with the power of an observed life, written.

I’d love to know about the observer effect in your own life and, more than that, I need to thank you. Your presence on this journey, even if you just stopped by once, has changed me. You’ve made me a better writer, a clearer thinker, and you’ve kept me going through tough times.

You never know what kind of impact you’ll have on someone. I hope some of what I’ve written has helped you. Thank you for keeping an eye on me, and I look forward to continuing to observe the world with you in the coming year.

Love,
Laura

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Telling Life: Witness

This is the last storytelling post in this blog for 2016. As I was thinking about what I wanted to say here I kept coming back to the deep cultural role of storytellers, poets, musicians, writers and artists of all stripes. It's easy to think we can dismiss the arts in this era of easy entertainment and reality tv, but we still matter, maybe more than ever. When an authoritarian regime seizes power anywhere in the world, we are among those silenced first, and who can blame them? We are the ones who mobilize others. A well-told story will more effectively move people to action than will an order. We are catalysts.

Artists in general (and storytellers in particular) help societies remember where they came from and where they want to go. Our stories remind individuals of the ways we are connected, of how we prevailed in other trying times and that dragons can be defeated.

Just as importantly, we are witnesses. When the storytellers, poets, musicians, writers and artists of all stripes are blinded or turn away, history in the making can be more easily rewritten into dubious facts. Do not be blinded. Keep watching, recording and telling the stories of what you see, be it a small act of kindness or a moment of deceit.

Listening and observing are the building blocks of any effective art - we must understand the world within which we create and we must tell the stories we see - so many artists notice more than others might. We keep our eyes open. What we observe, we record. When we record we are inspired to create and in sharing those creations we keep hope alive. We are not powerless and we are not alone.

The world needs you. It needs your art, your observations, your voice. Be a witness. Tell your stories, whether broad and global or intimate and personal. Your stories help us remember that all of our voices matter.

I will be a witness and a voice moving forward. Join me.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
- G.K. Chesterton by way of Neil Gaiman

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 23, 2016

Charting territory

Whee! Splat. That's how I'm feeling these days. Elated then flattened. This isn't surprising, Kevin loved Christmas, so this time of year holds many wonderful memories. He was quite sick by Christmas and was diagnosed shortly into the new year, so this time of year holds many painful memories as well. I never know what to expect. I am driving without a map or GPS.

This is my third Christmas without Kevin. Even now, almost three years on, I can't really predict how I'll feel at any given time. Certainly there are times when it's pretty likely I'll feel okay or feel cruddy, but even then I surprise myself.

That's part of what grief is, what it becomes as you walk further out from the loss and further into the strange new land of life-after-death. Even as you begin to map it, to recognize the familiar landmarks, you will be surprised. I don't know if it ever becomes truly familiar territory. Maybe that's what life is all along, the unknown map, loss or not, but I am more aware of it now.

Here there be monsters, the unexpected hydra of grief rises up at the sight of a loved, familiar face or an overheard song. I cut off its head only to have more grow.

X marks the spot, the unexpected treasures that are revealed by a shared story, a shimmering memory I thought I'd forgotten.

I've written before about life as cartography. The older I grow and the more I consider the New World, this post-loss life, the more I realize there is no one map, there are many and they change all the time. All we really have is each other, reaching out from our isolation and guiding one another along the routes we know, holding up a light so that we all may see. We reach out to help each other across the unfathomable crevasses and hold on tight, hand-to-hard.

I miss you, Kevin. Thank you for being my guide for all of these years. And thanks to all of you who are walking the wilds with me.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Telling Life: Solstice stories and the long dark

Today is the winter solstice, that time when the Northern hemisphere experiences the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Our shadows stretch out before us like spider-limbed adventurers and we shiver during the brief light and long night as we wait for the dawn. In the darkness we can gaze up at the night sky and search for our own shimmer in the sea of stars; we require the dark to see the vastness and the beauty that surrounds us.

I love this time of year. I struggle with it as well, because the external dark leads me into my own darkness, but the deep quiet and long-lasting starry skies give me a chance to think, to dream, to ask myself honest questions and to find new stories that the light might have chased away. This time of year draws me closer to the ones I love as we huddle around whatever may pass for a fire and keep each other company so we don't feel alone in the dark. Recent studies suggest that language and human culture likely evolved in large part around the communal fire, that we went from communicating the technical details of how to stay alive to the deeper and more connecting material of stories and shared thought, the building blocks of culture and community, around that fire as we waited for a meal to cook and for the night to pass. As I look more deeply within myself, the dark and the fire remind me that I am not alone.

For as long as I've been living independently, I rise at dawn on the winter solstice (no hardship, dawn is late) and light a 24-hour candle to burn through the brief day and lengthy night, so the sun will find her way back in the morning. I write, often telling myself stories of my own darkness and survival. I tell others stories of light in the darkness so we may be reminded that we need both, and that even in the dark all is not lost. I consider how we must know our shadow to know ourselves. I watch the sunset and eventually find my way to sleep, where I try to take note of my dreams. Rhiannon is said to visit us on winter solstice night and gift those who can remember with prophetic dreams. I don't always remember nor do they always make sense, but I try.

Tomorrow I will wake up and thank the sun for returning. I will thank my little candle for her hard work of keeping light in the world. And I will return to my normal life, perhaps a little richer for the time spent considering the dark.

One last thing, a story of light in the darkness so you will remember you aren't alone, a story I can share with you so we are reminded of dark and light. May your solstice bring you stories, the treasures of the dark and the light, and may your own self be more deeply known.



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