Friday, January 30, 2015

Football widow

The Superbowl is this Sunday. I never cared for football until I got involved with Kevin. All I could see was a bunch of guys running around and knocking each other over. It didn't make sense and was too.... sweaty. Kevin, however, saw the strategy. He saw the athleticism, the teamwork. He saw the power. When the New England Patriots first made it to the Superbowl after a long dry spell, he wanted to watch. I reluctantly agreed, thinking at least I could watch the ads. Instead he explained the game to me throughout. He helped me see the strategy. At the end of the match, when the Patriots were behind and the quarterback methodically moved the ball down the field until they could score their winning touchdown, I was riveted. I got the strategy, the athleticism and teamwork, the power.

We watched football together and, I have to admit, I occasionally would watch on my own. The ethics of watching football aside, it became another thing we could do together and enjoy. He loved teasing me about being a sports fan whenever I would yell at the television. If we watched no other games in a season, we would watch the Superbowl. I would make football foods and friends would come over. It was fun.

Last year Kevin was in the hospital during the Superbowl. We brought in football food and watched a game he could barely stay awake for. But we watched it together. We held hands. He laughed at my involvement in the game. Hospital staff wandered in to watch with us and nibble the things he could not eat; his digestive system had already shut down. There was so much sweetness and sorrow in that room. I remember telling myself that there was still a chance we could watch again next year, even as I knew it was a lie. He was so tired by the end but didn't complain. Kevin loved having us around him. We loved being there, even in that room. Even in the hospital. Even at what we didn't dare name as the end.

I haven't watched a single game this football season. I turned one on back in the autumn and watched barely a quarter. It wasn't fun without him here to tease me. When I was in restaurants with games playing I would keep half an eye on the score, but it was so much more interesting when he was here to explain the rules, to review strategy with me.

I recently overheard a conversation between two women. They were discussing how glad they were that the football season was coming to an end, they were tired of being football widows. I didn't say anything, but I thought I am a football widow now  and it had an entirely different meaning. I would do anything to have him here, ignoring me for a game. I can do nothing.

On Sunday I will watch the Superbowl. I will make myself some kind of game day food. I will yell at the tv in the unresponsive room and turn away from the ads designed to make me cry because I am already so close to tears. I will admire the strategy, athleticism and power. And I will remember what it is to be part of a team of two.

(44 weeks. Bull.)

(c) 2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Stage fright!

So often when I tell people I'm a performing storyteller they respond with, "I could never do that! I'm terrified of talking in front of people!" How do you deal with stage fright is one of the more common #askthestoryteller questions so here are some of my thoughts. As always, your mileage may vary and I'd love to know what you think.

Here are the questions I have been asked about stage fright.

  1. Do you have stage fright? Of course. It doesn't happen with the same ferocity that it did when I first began performing, but it still happens. Fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias, so it's easy to be overwhelmed by it.
    By this point in my career I rarely have significant stage fright but I remember what it was like and I feel great sympathy for anyone who suffers from it.
  2. How do you deal with it?
    The first thing I do is remind myself that no one out there wants to hurt me. They are on my side. Storytelling is a forgiving art.
    I try not to focus on the fear but on the relationship with the audience. I remember to love them.
    I remind myself that if I make a mistake I know how to deal with it.
    I remind myself that this is my passion, my life's work and that it is a gift only I can give to this audience in this moment.
    I remind myself that I have done this before.
    I remind myself that the things I am feeling that I associate with fear (rapid heartbeat, tight breaths, tight stomach, sweating, etc) are all also associated with excitement. Maybe I'm just excited about the story I'm going to tell.
    Once I've reminded myself of these things I close my eyes and take some slow, deep breaths. As the oxygen floods my body my heart rate begins to slow. The sweat cools. My throat and stomach loosen. The oxygen suffusing my cells tells every part of me that there is no reason for fear. I am safe. 
  3. What if that doesn't work? What if you make a mistake?
    Then I make a mistake. It's unlikely the audience will storm the stage and tear me limb-from-limb. In fact, it's likely they didn't notice. If I can and if it's necessary I just weave the mistake back into the story. I say something like, "Now what you didn't know, what I didn't know and what the hero certainly didn't know is...." It sounds like elegant craftsmanship. If the audience noticed the mistake or if it's a mistake I need to own up to like forgetting a big part of the story and it's something I can't just weave in, then I smile and say something like, "The funny thing about storytelling is that sometimes storytellers make mistakes. I forgot to tell you that..."
    Then I take another deep breath and keep going.
  4. How can I get over stage fright?
    Practice your material in front of a loving audience.
    Remember to breath. Ask yourself regularly if you're breathing. All that oxygen helps immensely.
    Remember your audience is on your side.
    Afterwards ask someone you trust to tell you what went well. Don't ask for criticism, just praise. As you gain more confidence feelings of stage fright become less important.

I'd love to know about your experiences with stage fright. How do you cope with it? What helps?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, January 26, 2015

The world through my eyes: Flyover country

Moving to the Midwest has resulted in some culture shock. To my delight, I've found I really like it here. I like the sense of space. I like the people. My coastal friends tease me about living in flyover country so I thought I'd share a little bit of what what I see when I look over the plains at the sky here.

The road goes ever on and on

and on and on.

Power and light

Flyover 1

In flight

Tattered clouds

Flyover 2

Guardian of the city

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Great Inland Sea

When I was a little girl I wanted more than anything to be a paleontologist. Some of you have heard me tell a story about it but the desire was more intense than I generally describe. I consumed books on dinosaurs and fossil hunting. I could rattle off Latin names with an ease that might have been a bit uncanny in a six year old. I wanted to be a paleontologist long before most adults knew the word.

When I was a little girl my family would take extended camping trips across the country. While my parents set up camp I would explore. This was in the days when most parents were happy to let their kids roam out of view. I would find remnants of other times and come back shouting, "I found a fossil! I found a fossil!" It was so commonplace that my family stopped finding it extraordinary.

I grew up. I fell in love with other careers, namely writing and storytelling, but I never lost my love of fossils, so when we moved to Kansas City in January of 2013, I was fascinated by the highway cuts that showed me the evidence of times long past, evidence of the waters that once covered this land. As Kevin and I would drive through Missouri and Kansas I would point, saying, "Look! Look at all that sedimentary rock! I know there are fossils there!"

We planned to go fossil hunting. We loved having adventures and I thought scrambling around on rock faces looking for evidence of life millions of years ago would have been a grand one.

We didn't have that chance. We only had one summer together here and planned to go exploring later. By the autumn Kevin was becoming ill and, as you know, he died in March of 2014.

A few weeks after he died, I went fossil hunting. I took a rock hammer and gloves to a nearby roadside cut. I stood in front of that rock face for a long time and imagined.

Once upon a time this land was covered with salt water. Creatures large and small lived and died here. Some settled to the bottom where they were covered by debris and slowly, slowly their bones turned to stone. 

Once upon a time the water receded and grasses grew. The land was fertile and supported megafauna, then buffalo, then humans. From time to time someone would find a shell made of stone or a bone harder than bone and they would wonder. They would make up stories about the things they found. They would dream, imagine, learn.

Once upon a time a boy was born. He was bright and curious and loved. He loved the ocean and crunching shells underfoot. Once upon a time a girl was born. She too was bright and curious and loved. She loved the hills and collected the stones she found everywhere. They grew.

Once upon a time this boy, now a man, and this girl, now a woman, met. They became friends. They fell in love. They dreamed, imagined, learned. They lived. They loved.

Once upon a time the man grew ill and died. 

Once upon a time a woman stands in front of a wall of stone, millennia layered in front of her. She taps her hammer into the rock and a shell falls into her hand. Tears fall upon it, the shell wet with salt for the first time in time beyond imagining.

My great inland sea pulls me in tides of longing and grief, ease and sorrow. The salt in my blood calls to the salt in the ocean. The rock in my hand is the shell underfoot. Time stretches and shrinks, rolls and vanishes like a wave. You are here with me yet not here at all.

Someday the sea will recede and fertile land will arise. But not yet. Kevin taught me to swim in so many ways. He is still teaching me.

I float and drown, kick and paddle. The salt is sharp on my lips and I close my eyes at the taste.

(43 weeks.)

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Your turn!

This week on #askthestoryteller I'm taking a little break and asking you some questions. I'm enjoying this series and I hope you are too.

  1. What do you love most about being a storyteller? About being a listener?
  2. Do you consider yourself a storyteller? A performing artist? A writer? A passionate fan?
  3. What are your biggest storytelling challenges?
  4. What kinds of stories are you telling these days to what audiences?
  5. What would you like to be telling and to whom?
Let's get a conversation going about the current state of performance storytelling. I'd love to know what the storytelling world is for you.

As always, I welcome your questions and look forward to delving more into the art and craft of storytelling.


(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, January 19, 2015

The world through my eyes: Two self portraits and an observation

All taken between January 16-18, 2015. All images copyright Laura Packer






(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 16, 2015

Crucible

I am in the last days of not-knowing. On January 18th, 2014, Kevin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I'm sure I'll write more about this on the 18th. Right now I am in the narrowing window of daily memories of the before. Before we knew. When he was still at home, still in tremendous pain, still believing he had a treatable stomach ailment. I am in the before when I still thought Happily Ever After meant years and not days.

The calendar has become my dearest friend and greatest enemy. Every day brings a different set of memories, a different set of what-ifs. What if he'd gotten a CT scan earlier? What if we'd become vegetarian years ago? What if? What if?

In two days time I will no longer haunt myself (as much) with questions of saving his life. By the time Kevin was diagnosed the outcome was unavoidable with our current understanding of pancreatic cancer. I will instead contend with questions of treatment and action, nights spent at home, things unsaid. Did I tell him I love him enough? Did I fight hard enough? Did I wrest too much control away from him? Did I make the right decisions? Is there anything else I could have done? All of these questions haunt me. They are fuel in the fire of grief.

These questions, this life bound by the calendar and memories, are all part of grief. I am constantly transforming into someone I don't recognize. We all are transforming all the time, of course, but grief accelerates the process and makes it far more obvious. Grief is a crucible.

Kevin's diagnosis and illness were a crucible for us both. We were transformed. In grief I am transformed. I am becoming someone both more and less than who I was. This is as it should be; I wouldn't want to be the same person I was before. I would hope that I am learning something from this particular hell.

I find myself clinging to different metaphors throughout grief. They are helping me put words to what is all but indescribable so I can understand it, let alone write about it. Crucible works well.

Crucible (noun)
  • a pot in which metals or other substances are heated to a very high temperature or melted
  • a severe, searching test or trial
  • a place or situation that forces people to change or make difficult decisions
It was only in reading its etymology that I really understood how apt this word is. Yes, I am enduring a test. Yes, I have made and will continue to make difficult decisions. But its etymology reminds me of something else about transformation.

Crucible: Late Middle English: from medieval Latin crucibulum ‘night lamp, crucible’ (perhaps originally a lamp hanging in front of a crucifix), from Latin crux, cruc- ‘cross.’

I am in the crucible. I am transforming under enormous heat and stress.
I am the crucible. I am the light in the night.

None of this lessens the pain. It just helps me remember that there is light in the midst of it.

(42 weeks. There are no answers in this 42. I miss you.)

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Getting gigs and the assumption of abundance

This week on #askthestoryteller I'm tackling the hardest question I've received. Really, I'm going to ask us all to tackle it together.

Many of you wrote in to ask how I find paid gigs. There were many variants of this question but it all boils down to how I find work. This is a really hard one and, frankly, not one I think I have a good answer for. So I thought I would tell you the things I do regularly with some success and then leave it open to you. How do you find storytelling work? Perhaps if we pool ideas we can come up with some new things we can try.

I'd like to note that it's pretty easy to find unpaid work, volunteer gigs, and there are good reasons to do this from time to time. You may have a new piece you're working on, you may not yet be established, you may just want to do something nice. I approve. This post, however, is about trying to find work that helps us make a living. If you're interested I'll wrote about the uses of volunteer performance in another post. Let me know.

Most working artists spend at least as much time looking for work as we do creating. It's hard, it can be frustrating and disheartening, but we need to do it. We can't assume our mere luminosity will draw the big bucks; we need to make sure the world knows about us.

Here are the top six most successful tactics I have tried. Your mileage may vary and I have to tell you that this is not my area of expertise.

  1. Word of mouth. I strive to do my best at every gig, so someone will see me, recommend me and I'll get another job. I strive to be exemplary.
  2. Postcards/mailing lists. I develop lists of people and organizations who may want to hire me. A few times a year I send out postcards to school, universities, etc. They can't hire me if they don't know I exist. Don't expect everyone who receives a card to hire you. Don't expect many of them to even look at your site. But keep trying, because once they have heard your name enough times you become that storyteller whom they may eventually hire. You will need to do follow up with this one, contacting them to ask if they have any questions.
  3. Newsletters. I am not consistent with this one and I should be; I'm working on it. When I send out regular newsletters to a mailing list of people who want to hear from I get work. I do not add people to my list without their permission. Who likes junk mail?
  4. Networking events. I go to a lot of networking events so people know there is a storyteller and organizational storyteller in town. This can lead to nice word of mouth, too. I do my best to be personable and always send thank you email.
  5. Social media. I tweet. I have presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+. I keep these feeds active without overwhelming people. They can't hire me if they don't know me.
  6. Great customer service. When I do a gig I strive to not only give a great performance but be easy to work with (this has been harder since Kevin died, I'm more forgetful). I provide information well in advance, I smile, I say thank you and I send a thank you note. No one will hire be back if I'm a pain.
Now I'd love to hear about what works for you. What do you think of the methods I described? What has been your experience? What else works and what doesn't? Please send me an email or leave a comment so we all can benefit from our collective wisdom. If there are enough responses I will gather and publish them in a new post.

The most important thing, the thing that underlies all of my looking-for-work, is gratitude and an assumption of abundance. I know many of us are afraid that if we help others get work we lose work. I have not found that to be the case. I'd rather refer one of you for a gig that is outside my area of expertise than accept it and do it badly. By referring you I not only help non-storytellers have a positive view of the art, you may very well refer me sometime too. I have found when I work on the assumption that there is, of course, work enough for all, I am more likely to find work and be hired. If I am anxious and greedy I have found the work dries up.

Be generous. Be grateful. Give credit where it's due. There is enough for all of us if we help one another.


(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, January 12, 2015

Some thoughts on The Babadook

Last night a friend and I saw the new Australian film The Babadook. For those of you who haven't heard about it, it's about a woman and her son confronting a terrifying monster that appears in the initial guise of a book. It's really about more and is more meaningful than the usual trope of mother-protecting-child-from-monster. Much more. Perhaps an expanded blurb might give you a hint (don't worry, this contains nothing more than the IMDB blurb): A woman who has lost her husband struggles to protect her son from a monster in their house.

I was nervous about seeing it. I get scared by scary movies, so the thought of seeing what was being touted as the most terrifying movie since (insert your scariest movie here) and then going home to an empty house had me edgy. This was compounded by the fact that the lead character's husband died. I didn't know how I would react but I knew I wanted to see it  (I like both the lead actress and the director, plus it's written and directed by a woman!). I saw it with a friend, in her home, with plenty of breaks and chat times. All of that was set up to dilute the fear factor. Thank goodness for Amazon streaming movies.

As it turns out, it had elements of transcendence in it. This horror film spoke to my current state more clearly than any other film I've seen since Kevin died. That's my favorite thing about genre work - when it's well done it acts as a metaphor for the human condition and allows us to examine things that might be too painful, raw or distressing to look at directly. That's exactly what this film did for me and, I suspect, others in similar positions.

And.... here there be spoilers. If you haven't seen it, want to and care about spoilers don't go any further. Here is the trailer to offer you some buffer space.


The Babadook uses conventional horror tropes (threatened child, widowed mother, magical book, madness or monsters, dark creepy house, etc) to tell a story of grief, madness and the possibility of redemption. The main character lost her husband in a car accident as they were on the way to the hospital for the birth of her son, now almost 7 years old. She has never gotten over this loss and is unable to care for herself, let alone her son. The movie depicts the real horror of loss and grief with stunning clarity.

I felt known as I watched this film. I felt as though the horror of my loss was understood. I felt as though my own babadook was being named.

It's a well-crafted film, too. The shots, lighting, composition, writing, directing and special effects all work. They all work in the service of describing what deep grief feels like, what it is to be haunted and driven.

I don't want to reveal the ending (that's too spoilery for even me) but the ending says more about how to live with grief than any other film I have seen. We must learn to love and accept it (because is it not a reflection of the love for the lost one?) as we must learn to love and accept our own dark sides. We must learn that we cannot make it go away, we can only make peace with it. We must learn that the monsters are real, but they may not be what we thought.

We must learn to live with the dark, in spite of it and alongside it. When it comes knocking we have no choice but to let it in. But we can choose what to do next and who we become.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 9, 2015

Internal landscapes

Everyone has internal visions of themselves. Some of us have an internal vision of our own physical form which may or may not have much to do with how we actually look, others see themselves as a non-human animal. You get it. I'm sure you've played the game If you were a what would you be? This is informative because someone who sees themselves as a lion may have different traits than someone who sees themselves as a dolphin.

I like these kinds of games because they help me understand my internal state and may help me access information that I didn't consciously know. Most recently it's been landscapes.

Let's try something. In a moment I want you to close your eyes and imagine a landscape. It can be any kind of landscape, but what I want is for you to see the first place that comes to mind, allowing for the possibility that this is an image of your internal world. Is it urban? Rural? Wild? Manmade? What lives or grows there? What are the sounds? What aromas can you imagine? Is it bright or dark? Day or night? You get the idea.

Go ahead. I'll wait.
.
.
.
What did you see? Was it familiar? Someplace you'd like to explore? A place you'd rather escape? What does the place and your reaction tell you about your current state of being? Using landscape as metaphor lets us examine our internal state as a visitor, so we have permission to see what we might want to avoid, permission to simply feel safe, permission to explore our own lives without any interference or judgement.

I love the idea of internal landscapes. I always have. While these landscapes may not be places I go to regularly - it's more of a check in - I've always loved exploring them while in meditation or dreams. For much of my life when I conjured a place I would see a forest with a clearing, a big rock in the middle and paths through the trees. I would hear bird song and maybe a creek. The air was clean. Sometimes there was evidence of people, other times not. It changed from visit to visit but was a sanctuary. It was beautiful. Peaceful. The place I would go to rest, think, solve problems, be. I didn't go there often but I knew it was always available.

When Kevin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer almost a year ago my internal landscape changed. I found myself in a devastated city. The building were in ruins, there were no clear paths, there was little that could grow there. The sounds were wails of sorrow, the distant rumble of heavy equipment or maybe bombers. It smelled like a house fire and dust. I at least wasn't alone there, I could hear and sometimes see others. There were places where I could rest though never be at ease. It wasn't a pleasant place to visit but, as I said, I use these landscapes as a way to check my internal state. It seemed appropriate.

This landscape persisted for some months after his death. I had dreams of wandering through Dresden after the firebombing, through Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fallujah. Others without name. I could hear sirens and then silence. Nothing else. In my waking life I would close my eyes and immediately smell blood and dust, kerosene and rot, the hospital disinfectant an undertone. I did my best not to go there though I understood it was an accurate depiction of how I felt. How I still sometimes feel.

This destruction was an apt metaphor those first few months of grief. My entire context for the world had been undone. I know some of you are thinking that I'm surely being dramatic, that I still have friends and family and other comforts. You're right, of course, but you're also wrong. Kevin gave me a way to understand the world. He provided a stable place that I could branch out from. Without him there was no stability, no rock, no lens that helped me see myself as more than what I fear I am.

My inner landscape has changed again. Now I find myself in a flat, featureless plain that extends endlessly in every direction. There are no sounds other than the crunch beneath my feet. There might be a track in the dirt but it's unclear. The sky is the flat white of a searing summer day but there is no particular temperature. I smell dust and salt.

This landscape, the emptiness and inescapable flatness, is again an apt metaphor for what this part of grief feels like. I get out of bed every day. I work every day. I smile, I may laugh, I have moments when I am at ease. But it is all flat. My world is colorless. There is no clear way through other than simply enduring.

I know this will likely change as more time passes. Eventually I may find a shoot growing or realize the track has become a path. I may find myself someplace altogether different. Maybe someday I'll be back in the woods, in the clearing, resting on the sun-warmed stone. But not yet. Forcing it is useless because the shoot only dies; it will happen in its own time.

Grief has transformed my internal landscape just as love did. And just as it is with real landscapes, it will take time and the gentle pressure of wind and rain, breathing and crying, to transform it further. I live in geological time now.

So it goes.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer

(41 weeks. 41?! This time a year ago I was driving you to work because you were so sick but we still didn't know, we thought it was a stomach condition. There was still hope. I miss you. I love you. I always will. I can still feel your hand in mine, resting on your thigh as I drive. I always will.) 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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