Friday, September 23, 2016

Shimmering

My father's memorial service was last Sunday. It was a lovely event. My mother told the story of his life, weaving in all the people attending. A cousin remembered my father as someone who was able to seriously listen to children, a rare skill. An old friend recounted some of their childhood exploits.

I struggled with what to say. My dad and I had a challenging relationship. We came to peace with one another before he died, something I will be eternally grateful for, but it's still not easy for me to talk about him and how we interacted, who we were with one another. I don't know if it ever will be. Much of it still feels too raw and too private.

A memorial service is not the place to pull out recrimination. We need to remember the dead honestly but gently, especially at memorials. Our survival gives us a chance to remember that no one is perfect and forgiveness makes life easier for the living. I know not all of you will agree with me and that's fine. Perhaps I should say that I need to remember my father honestly and gently, and was not willing to roll anything else out at his memorial.

I wrote earlier about all of this and I did what I planned. I acknowledged the complexity, saying something to the effect of all lives are complicated, all relationships are complicated, but here and now, let me share with you some of the shimmering memories I have of my father.

It was the right call.

I talked about being a child and listening to him tell me the stories he heard as boy on the radio. I may have been the only five year old in 1970s Philadelphia doing imitations of The Shadow. I talked about the stories he made up for me. I talked about watching the night sky with him, with all of the night noises surrounding us, and the constellations watching us back. I talked about how he was able to fix things, solve things, make things better. It was the right call. I felt better by remembering him at his best and I hope it was meaningful to everyone there.

At the end I invited everyone to take a moment and bring their own shimmering memory to mind, whether of my father or of someone else they love who is gone.

In the end, that's what we come down to. We are shimmering memories. We live as long as we are still a glimmer in the ether, a moment that bring a pause in the day. There are plenty of harsh memories but the sweetness is there too. By remembering it all, letting it illuminate us as we will eventually illuminate others, the world continues. The constellations still watch. The stories remain in the air. We still shimmer.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Telling Life: Our own fairy tale

If you've spent more than five minutes with me, you know I love fairy tales. If you've read my writing or been to a performance, it pretty quickly becomes clear that my work is influenced by these magical, whimsical, terrifying stories. Heck, beyond my work, my whole life is influenced by them.

It's easy to think that the appeal lies in the justice for the wicked and the hazy happiness at the end of many fairy tales. The evil are usually punished and the heroic live lives of happiness to the end of their days in some far distant future. When I was little that was certainly part of the appeal, but now I wonder just what happily ever after means.

I thought Kevin and I would live happily ever after, working and loving one another until some time when we might slip away, holding hands, both wrinkled and grey. I was wrong. That wasn't our happily every after. We were living it all along but just didn't know it; ever after was far too soon. There was no just punishment of the wicked; cancer can't be punished. Our story stopped short and I am left with forging ahead, finding a new kind of happiness, a different ever after.

So if it isn't happily ever after that I live in then perhaps it's once upon a time. 

I love the idea of once upon a time, of a time out of time. I like those kinds of liminal spaces, neither here nor there. I sometimes feel as though that's where I live, neither of this world nor removed from it, but somewhere between. Once upon a time captures this rather nicely.

I experience once upon a time when I am in the woods. When I am meditating. When I am particularly engaged and happy with what I'm doing. Maybe for me once upon a time is actually flow state. Maybe it's something else.

Or maybe it's all of it at once. Maybe we are living fairy tale lives even in the midst of traffic lights and collection notices and stomach aches and demanding bosses.

If we remember that we live our lives in a simultaneous state of once upon a time (that place where we are most ourselves, where possibility lingers) and happily ever after (the knowledge that this moment, this life is as glorious and eternal as a breath or as dark and fragmented as a hand gone slack) then maybe we can find that still place where everything is possible. The moment when the hero hasn't yet taken up the quest but knows they will. Where fairies don't need to grant wishes. Where we are the princesses and poor boys, the old women by the side of the road and the magical cat. Where we can lift ourselves up and make our own best story.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 16, 2016

Truth, story and complexity

My father died a month ago. At the end of his life he was peaceful, one sharp breath and then finally letting it all fall away. He was ready. My mother and I were as ready as we could be, though I don't know if one can ever be ready for the death of someone you love.

As I'm writing this I am tossing around what I want to say at his memorial service, a few days after this post publishes. I knew exactly what I wanted to say when Kevin died. That was easy. My love for him was fairly uncluttered; we had 15 really good years, with the usual ups and downs any couple may have, but the love was never in doubt. It was easy to talk about him and remember him publicly. Heck, I've been remembering him publicly in this blog for years now. (Years. That's hard to believe.)

It's harder for me to craft what I want to say at my father's memorial. For one his death is still somewhat abstract for me; I haven't lived near him for many years so his absence is taking longer to sink in. More significantly the relationship wasn't always an easy one. We certainly loved one another, but it was a more complicated relationship than the one I shared with Kevin. I want to honor my father's memory and life, but it's not a tidy set of memories. There are good memories but just as many difficult ones. What I say at his memorial service is part of how I will shape my ongoing memories of him, the lasting thoughts, so I want to be true and honest and kind.

I don't think his memorial service is any place to air the harder memories. I want to give my mother something she will feel good about, I want to know that I am honoring the best of my father, not holding onto that which is gone with him.

Grief is complicated, isn't it. I am grieving the whole relationship, good and bad, but I want to celebrate his being in the world at all. I know I'm not the only person who has had to contend with grieving a complex relationship, but this is a whole different animal than anything I've yet experienced.

So this is what I plan to do. I want to name the complexity but not dwell in it. Everyone there will know that my father was complicated (something he took great pride in) so I don't need that to be the story. Instead I'd rather remember some of the simple, lovely, shining things we shared. Memories of stories and movies and the night sky.

It's taken me some time to come to this, some balancing between what happened, what I remember and what is True.

This is the job of story, isn't it. To sift through what happened and what we remember then arrive at a deeper truth. Even in the midst of complexity and sorrow, relief and grief, I can share gentle truths, let the harsher ones rest, and remember my father as the parent he wanted to be. I can give him that last gift.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 9, 2016

Living the life of a storyteller. Or just living life.

When Kevin and I first got together as a couple the phrase living the life of a storyteller quickly became one of our in-jokes. You know what I mean, one of those things that you and your lover say that means more to you than it would to anyone else. What we meant by this particular phrase was something about accepting that life is a wild ride and everything that happens has potential for both humor and horror. We meant that living like a storyteller meant a kind of deeply engaged but still highly observational life.

We found that this attitude made it easier to bear some of the difficulties we encountered. It meant that we both knew there was someone who would get the absurdity of the everyday. Yes, there were things about it that were specific to us both being storytellers and writers, but mostly it meant we weren't alone.

A big part of what I found so difficult after Kevin died was losing this specific connection. I no longer had the single person in my life with whom I could communicate so much through a glance or a simple phrase. This isn't unique to me, I think it happens to most widowed people. My mother is experiencing it now in the weeks following my father's death. Kevin and I just had a catchphrase.

The last few days have brought that phrase to mind again. In the last 36 hours or so I've had a number of notable experiences that reminded me that being open to the world is part of the storyteller's work. They include:
  • Finding out that a friend had an encysted twin which was causing a variety of health problems. Now that it's gone they are in much better shape.
  • Performing a wedding ceremony in a jail.
  • Listening to stories about Szechuan province, learning about Chinese opera and hearing a traditional Chinese love story, all told to me by the owner of a wonderful Chinese restaurant who was so happy that a non-Chinese person loved his cooking and his brother's recipes.
  • Having a conversation with two Indian Muslin men about the best brand of tea and how their mothers taught them to brew it. They both wanted me to know the best way to make tea and fully expect me to come back and tell them which method I prefer.
  • and more. But I thought these examples were enough.
This is living the life of a storyteller. Or maybe it's just life. I wish I could tell Kevin about these encounters. He would grin, then laugh and tell me that this stuff only happens to me, though we both knew that wasn't true. Things like this make me miss him more acutely, even as I have other people with whom I can share and who I know understand the absurdity of it all.

Maybe some of these events will find their way into a story. Or maybe not. What all of this really tells me is that I am alive. Missing him is part of being alive now. I am still part of the world, even though there were times in the first year of mourning when I thought that would never be and I never wanted it to be.

All of this tells me that, as long as I keep living this life, it will be one of stories told and others hidden away with a small smile. It will be one of remembering Kevin and keeping him in the world by saying his name, by sharing the things I know would delight him, even if no one else will quite get why and how. It will be a life of story and sorrow; humor and horror; wrenching pain, even in moments of joy; laughter, even in grief; life, even after death.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Telling Life: Quiet reconsidered

Today I am recycling a post from 2013, with a few tweaks.

As you know, 2016 has seen me on the road and away from home more than not. Through trial by fire, I'm learning what I need to feed myself creatively when I'm away from my usual resources. One of the most important, and one of the hardest to find, is quiet.

I have a great need for quiet in my life if I am to be creative. I need time and space around me within which I can think or not think. Time when I let my mind wander. It's a funny thing, knowing that day dreaming is part of my job and for that part to be effective I need quiet. I certainly need to be heard, need to talk and think things through with friends, but quiet is where it all starts.

That quiet that works for me can actually be quite noisy. It could be the rumble of a coffee shop, the crash-and-hiss of the ocean, the wind in trees... any kind of white noise works as well as quiet and sometimes even better. I have several apps that create white noise, including the sounds of being in a cafe. Going for a walk is another kind of quiet that supports creativity; I find the physical motion helps loosen up my mind. What doesn't support my creative process is interruption, directed noise or voices I need to attend to.

I don't work well if the music around me is in English, for example. I don't have day dreaming room if I don't have some physical room, crowded environments are hard for me.

It's important that we figure out what kind of environments support our creativity. I know I need quiet, I need blocks of time, I need good light and a comfortable place to curl up. What do you need? What fosters and supports your creativity?

If you are in the position of helping others be creative, what do they need? Do cubicles and florescent lights really support their creativity? What might help? How can you help them alter their environment so they can find their own sparks?

Put some thought into your environment. Find the quiet and space you need to listen to the still, small voice inside. You might be surprised by what it has to say.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 2, 2016

Hello old friend. Thanks for the pie, now go away.

I don't sleep the way I used to. When Kevin was sick I remained alert most of the time so I could help him if he needed it; since his death I've not regained the ability to sleep through the night. It's rarely that bad, so now I just think of it as the way it is, the way I am. Every so often though I find myself unable to sleep and awake at the wee hours. Last night was like that. All night long I lay in the dark, thinking about Kevin and how much I miss him. I had no choice in the matter, the grief was there and nothing I could do would change it.

I'm pretty sure I know why; my father's death has opened up more intense grief for me again. What's more, in this past week two friends have died (both from cancer), the son of another friend died, and yesterday I had a long talk with yet another friend about how we never stop missing those who have passed on.

I lay there in the dark and thought about Kevin. I thought about my father. I thought about my friends. I cried. And I thought about how very familiar this feeling was. Lying there in the dark I realized that, for all that I didn't want to be awake, for all that I was in emotional pain, it was kind of comforting. It reminded me that while people I love have died, the love doesn't die. It reminded me that everything I do from this point out, whether done in joy or in mourning, it is a reflection my past and it's a way to keep them in the world. By remembering them they are not gone. It reminded me that I am still here to feel these things and those who have died would want nothing less.

Shortly after Kevin died a dear friend talked with me about her experience with grief. She said something to the effect of You never know when she's going to visit. She'll kick down the door and won't leave until she's good and ready. You can't do anything about that no matter how hard you try. She's kind of a bitch. But sometimes she brings pie. My friend is right. Grief is its own creature and it arrives when you least expect it. But every once in awhile she brings pie. She did last night, helping me remember that the pain is only a shadow of the love. And although she is not the visitor I would have wanted, I am grateful for the reminders of all the sweetness.

There are still, there will always be, crumbs of grief in my sheets to remind me of the love, the sweetness, and the pain.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Telling Life: Imposter syndrome

This post is an expansion on some of the ideas I first wrote about here. Some content is being repurposed.

Wikipedia describes imposter syndrome as:
Impostor syndrome...refers to high-achieving individuals an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud". Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

Oh, I question myself constantly. I wonder if I have any right to do what I do, let alone try to help people. I routinely feel as though I am not as smart, not as capable and not as talented as other people tell me I am. I ask myself questions like:
  • Why would anyone want to hear my stories?
  • This stuff is easy. And fun. Why would anyone bother to hire me to do it?
  • I don't really have anything worthwhile to offer, what makes me think I have any right to teach this stuff?
  • How dare I send a newsletter to people who signed up for one? Do I really have anything to say?
  • What right do I have to do this work?
When my self-doubt becomes too loud and I struggle to believe I deserve this life and work, if I'm lucky and smart, I do several things. 
  • I get away from the work for a little while, taking a little walk or do something else for a few minutes. 
  • I might ask a friend to tell me something to counteract the fear. That's where this all comes from, for me anyway, a fear that all of the poor messages I've received are right. Or even worse, that I do deserve this but am not living up to the gift.
  • And I ask myself questions, things like:
    • Can you remember one single time your work seemed to make a difference for someone? (yes)
    • It's easy and fun for me. Is it that way for everyone? (Probably not) 
    • Okay, so maybe you're making it up as you go along. Does that make it less useful? (not usually)
    • Why are you running yourself down like this, is it about something else? (often) So what can you do about that other thing?
    • Whose voice is it that's doubting you? Is it my own? Is it someone who should have held me up but didn't? Is it social pressure? Whose voice really matters?
    • Would I think someone else who knows what I know is good at what they do? So why think I not good at it?
You get the idea.

I'm telling you this NOT so you will reassure me, but because I'm betting some of you question your own artistic worth from time to time. I'm sure I'm not the only one. I know I can't stop you, I struggle to stop myself, but I remind you, your voice matters. Your work matters. Please don't quit. Ask yourself the right questions and then? Get back to work. The world needs you.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer

Creative Commons License

Friday, August 26, 2016

Tissues and other reminders

When Kevin died I didn't know what to do with most of his stuff. This is a really common thing when someone you love dies. What do you do with the things they touched, the things they treasured, the things they used? Some I was able to get rid of in relatively short order but others... I would think about tossing or donating them and I would immediately start crying.

I ended up getting a storage unit, deciding I could trade money for time to let the emotions ease some. I've had a storage unit for almost two years now. I know some people consider storage units a waste, but I don't regret putting this stuff away until I could think about it without immediately drowning in grief.

This week I spent some time at my storage unit, sorting through his stuff, our stuff, the artifacts of a shared life. It was hard.

I was surprised at what was triggering and what wasn't. I expected his t-shirts to be the hardest thing I would tackle that day, but they weren't. I was able to sort through them with relative ease, remembering which ones he loved, the stories they told, picking out some to save and others to give away. It was mostly a sense of nostalgia.

Then I went through a bag of bags and it was there that I found the grief.

Kevin was perhaps the country's most dedicated consumer of tissue pockets packs. He tucked them everywhere. In every bag, in every jacket, in every drawer. I found half-empty packets of tissues in his old computer bag and I had to take a deep breath, surprised at the sudden clutch of pain in my throat. Each of the packets was a moment suspended in time, a representation of how he planned ahead, how he had sneezes that sounded like trumpets, how he always had a tissue ready for me when I needed one. The half-used packets displayed such an interruption. He didn't have time to use them.

After awhile I gathered myself together and decided I had enough energy and determination to continue for a bit longer. It didn't take long for me to hit the wall. And the wall was made of shoes.

Kevin was a big man and had appropriately big feet, he wore a size 13. I loved the size of his feet. I loved tucking my shoes in his; every time I would giggle and he would sigh. I loved the way his toes were long and strong and would curl over mine when we lay back-to-back, our feet sole-to-sole. I loved seeing his shoes lined up by the front door. I loved his satisfaction when he found shoes that fit, a good size 13 isn't easy to come by.

After he died it took me close to a year to even move his shoes, though I knew he wouldn't need them again. Joan Didion wrote of a similar experience in The Year of Magical Thinking.

As I was going through stored materials I came across the last pair of shoes he wore, with his dirty socks tucked inside. I held those shoes for a long time. I smelled his socks. I struggled to find some molecule of his scent left somewhere in that fabric, in the nylon and rubber soles. I looked at the remains of sidewalk salt left in the tread, remembering that cold and desperate winter. I remembered how hard it was for him to put shoes on at the end, that they no longer fit and he couldn't bend to lace them. I remembered kneeling before him and sliding socks over his swollen feet so he wouldn't be cold. I remember knowing this wasn't going to last but dreading never doing it again. I would do it again if I could.

I clutched his shoes to me and I cried.

Then I put his socks aside, to add to the box where I keep the most precious things, and I put the shoes in a give-away bag, for a shelter, knowing there was someone else out there, someone who had a hard time finding shoes that fit, someone who maybe couldn't afford more than one pair. Someone who needed them more than I did.

I locked my storage unit and I drove away. I'm glad Kevin had tissues handy when I needed them.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Telling Life: Storytelling as an act of service

It can be hard to define what we do, those of us who make our living as storytellers. It's easy to think of our work as any number of things. It can be an art, a mystical moment, a craft accessible to all, something obtainable only after years of practice, on and on and on. If we're not careful we can push ourselves to rarified and undeserved heights. When I need to burst my own bubble and come back to earth I remind myself that what I do is provide a service.

I make my living as a storyteller. I perform, teach, coach, train and consult, all under the umbrella of the word storytelling. I provide services to my clients and I do my best to make sure those services are nothing less than exemplary.

Let's dig a little into what service is and why it's a handy way to think about this kind of work.

First, it is a service. I offer intangible products to my clients, be they an audience, someone working on their own story, a business or non-profit that wants to use storytelling more effectively or a group of people I am training. While I might want to think of myself only as an artist, what I am paid for are services.

Businessdictionary.com defines services as: Intangible products such as accounting, banking, cleaning, consultancy, education, insurance, expertise, medical treatment, or transportation.
Sometimes services are difficult to identify because they are closely associated with a good; such as the combination of a diagnosis with the administration of a medicine. No transfer of possession or ownership takes place when services are sold, and they (1) cannot be stored or transported, (2) are instantly perishable, and (3) come into existence at the time they are bought and consumed.

That seems like a pretty good description of performance storytelling. My stories do not transfer possession when I tell them. While they can be stored should I record them, the expertise, craft and talent cannot be handed over by some kind of mind-meld. In a performance setting, stories are instantly perishable - they exist in that moment between the teller and a particular audience - and they come into existence as they are purchased and consumed. This definition stretches to cover coaching, consulting and training as well. They are intangible, perishable and momentary. The effects may (and I hope do) linger long after I've gone, but the experience itself is fleeting.

It may be uncomfortable to think of our work this way, as a service. It might feel too business-y, clinical or materialistic, but I find it makes me work harder and serve better if I remember that my clients deserve the best and, because it is a fleeting service, I have an obligation to work as hard as I can for them in my preparation and in the moment so the aftereffects will linger. They are paying for an enduring memory or lesson learned as much as anything.

I also strive to think of my work as this kind of service, as defined by dictionary.com: service (noun) an act of helpful activity; help; aid: to do someone a service. 

Looked at this way I remember that I never know the impact of the work I do. I don't know who I have helped, I know only that I may have been of service. I have been fortunate enough to have people tell me that my work - whether it's a performed story, coaching or consulting - has lingering effects. That I have helped them. Knowing that this can happen helps me work harder and strive to be better in the moment.

Lastly, every once in awhile I have an experience that reminds me that storytelling can be another kind of service: a form followed in worship or in a religious ceremony or a meeting for worship —often used in plural .

At its very best, storytelling can play the role of communal service. A group of people gather together in search of a common feeling and create something momentary and sacred. My best moments as a performer, listener, coach and consultant all have elements of the sacred about them because they connect me to my audience and to something beyond. Collectively we create a moment that will not soon be forgotten.

When I remember that I provide a service it doesn't lessen the power of what I do. I don't minimize my artistic effort, craft and talent. I don't feel as though I commoditize my work. What I do is remind myself that I am on this planet to be of service. I am fortunate that the service I provide is one that serves me, too; knowing that helps me work harder, dig deeper, offer more and serve better. 

It is a privilege to serve the world, my audiences, my readers and you. Thank you.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nuances of grief

I have written time and time again about how no two griefs are the same, that the way one person mourns may be quite different from another and that they are each legitimate. Grief can't be compared; it can be recognized and honored however it manifests. What I am learning now is that, even within one person, no two griefs are the same, there are nuances beyond measure.

My father, Harvey Packer, died Monday after a long battle with congestive heart failure. If you'd like, you can read his obituary here. My mother and I were both with him when he died; my mother was his caregiver for the last several years.

I am not experiencing the same kind of grief I felt when Kevin died, nor the grief I felt when Brother Blue (my storytelling father) died. Right now, when I think about my father no longer being bodily on this planet, I feel relief that he is no longer suffering. I feel some sorrow that I won't have more moments of sweetness with him. I feel some other, more complicated emotions.

When Kevin died I was eviscerated. With my father's death I remain whole and I am surprised by it.

My relationship with my father was complex. I don't want to go into details, but it was sometimes quite rocky and, while I love my father and know he loved me, it was never easy. I know that has an impact on what I am feeling. Additionally, I think the death of a spouse is quite different from the death of a parent. We choose our spouses; if we are lucky they are also our best friends. Because it's a deliberate relationship rather than one of blood, it has (appropriately) different meaning than the relationship with our parents. I'm sure that has an impact, too.

Our parents are supposed to die before us and I was lucky to have him into my late 40s. I always knew my father would die in my lifetime and that knowledge likely makes this easier. What's more, Kevin's illness and death were entirely unexpected and I had little time to get used to the knowledge that he wouldn't be around. My father has been sick for several years and largely housebound for all of this year. I've had time to get used to the idea.

Yet it feels odd. My understanding of how I grieve is mostly based on losing Kevin, and that grief has been ferocious. This is not the same. What I need to remember is to be gentle with myself, just as I was when Kevin died, but part of what I need to be gentle about is that I don't feel the same devastation. Yes, I am sad. But I am okay in a way I was not (and often still am not) after Kevin died. I need to remember that being mostly okay does not mean I am callous.

Every grief is different. I need to remember that now so I can give myself permission to recognize and honor what I am feeling in this moment. I also need to remember that what I'm feeling will probably change. 

My father has died. We made more peace with each other than I ever expected and we loved one another. What more is there?

Thank you Dad. I am glad you're not suffering anymore. I am grateful for the gifts you have given me. I love you.

(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.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.laurapacker.com.
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