Friday, December 28, 2007


I recently heard a wonderful piece on Morning Edition . My local station runs a program called Morning Stories featuring personal stories of maybe 3-4 minutes, sometimes wonderful, sometimes maudlin. This story was called Thanksgiving and Getting, told by a woman who is casually informed that she never says "thank you." She grew up privileged and maybe just never had the opportunity to really consider how grateful she was for the things in her life so she never developed the habit of not just taking things for granted. She tries to say thank you regularly and finds it to be strained, so she begins to keep a gratitude journal that changes her life.

I've been thinking a lot about gratitude lately and wanting to write an entry about it. Beyond the fact that it's seasonal, it's something worth taking under consideration and thinking about. This has been a hard entry to write, not because I don't have a lot to be grateful for, but because examining it is surprisingly difficult. I keep drifting into the maudlin or the self-congratulatory and that's really not what I want this to be about.

As I was approaching my 40th birthday this past October I did what most people do. I thought about my life. I figured that since I'm now at about the half way point, it's worth examining. I have done a few of the things I wanted do, done many things I never expected to, and haven't done some things I thought I would have easily accomplished by now. None of this is an earth shattering surprise. But when I thought about the things I have or haven't accomplished, I wasn't filled with a sense of contentment or pride or regret, nor was I moved to suddenly act or apologize or get depressed. Mostly I just felt grateful that I have been given the opportunities I have had, that I have people in my life whom I have loved and that have loved me, that I have managed to do some things that might have made a small difference in the world.

Rereading this, I suspect it's a pretty common set of reactions.

After looking at my life on the brink of 40, I decided to try to make this year about gratitude, to appreciate what I have and see how this changes things moving forward. I am trying, with more or less success, to be aware of the gifts in my life, to note them, to thank the universe for them. I don't think I'm likely to become one of those people who is always praising everything. I'm not that open-hearted. But I do think the world is a big place, that we can see more of it, and be happier in it, if we move through it noticing the details and grateful for the gifts, as often as we are able. The poet Mary Oliver writes beautifully about this.

All of that being said, I know I will not succeed in this goal. It's one that is doomed to failure from the start if I am to remain in this world. Our modern world, with all of its conveniences and noise, isn't accommodating to a life of deep observation and gratitude. Those who move too slowly or express too much gratitude are not looked upon with patience but as bordering on mad. I am a child of my time and find extended deep observance wearing - I need that dose of tv or some other kind of consumer culture to numb me from time to time. But I can still try to slow down, to look, to be grateful and express that gratitude. I will not be the worse for trying. I'm not afraid of bring thought a little mad (that happens often enough anyway) and I think perhaps I might appreciate the chance to be a divine fool, mad with gratitude for the gifts of the world around me.

I'll let you know what happens.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Santa, faith and miracles

If you are under the age of, oh, 20, you may want to stop reading now. I'm going to talk about some things that you might not want to know. If you're over 20 you might want to stop anyway, because I hope to challenge some of your assumptions and shattered beliefs. Though, really, isn't that what blogging is all about?

It's the season where overweight elderly men in decidedly out-of-fashion red and white suits are all the rage. You know who I'm talking about. Mr. Claus. Santa.

I have no interest in Santa-bashing. I'm not going to explore his better-than-the-NSA security (after all, he knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake), nor will I deign to impugn his fondness for bouncing kids on his knee. I trust that he is what he seems to be, a kindly old man, a great listener, a generous soul who manages to accomplish miracles over the course of one night.

That's right, I'm suggesting that maybe, somehow, Santa is real. Sure, at some point in your life someone told you that your parents put those presents under the tree, that it was all a sham. When I found out, I cried. I felt deeply betrayed by my family, by all the people who said they were Santa, by the world. Some of the magic was gone. But the kid who told me that was wrong.

I'm tempted to go into some kind of Yes, Virginia-esque rant about how Santa lives in all of us, but I won't. Instead I'll simply suggest this. Of course Santa is real. He is believed in by hundreds of thousands of kids all around the world, and reality is highly subjective. For them, he is real, flesh and blood, no-sense-questioning-the-miracles kind of real. There are other things thousands, millions of people believe in with less evidence than Santa, that they have absolute faith in. UFOs. God. Miracles. Who am I to disuade them of their belief brings them comfort and joy while harming no one else? Who am I to say that the things they believe in aren't real? Isn't that part of what faith is about - believing in something you can't prove is real? Kind of like string theory?

Sure, Santa needs help with his miracles. We all need help with miracles. I think it's kind of miraculous that my Jewish parents went to the trouble of drinking the milk, eating the cookies and leaving me notes on Christmas (not to mention giving me gifts) so I wouldn't feel left out when the other kids got visits from Santa. Thanks, Mom and Dad. I appreciate that miracle, it was a wonder for me as a kid. And I didn't feel left out.

I think it's kind of miraculous that so many people at work gave to Toys for Tots so kids they didn't know would have something to play with this holiday season.

I think it's kind of miraculous that we're all still here in the first place.

So maybe Santa is that force in the world that reminds us to be kind to each other, that we can extend ourselves a little bit more to help each other out. That listening to one another doesn't cost anything beyond some time and patience. If Santa is kindness and listening and patience - those miraculous forces that can change lives and the world - then I'm a believer, no matter what anyone says. It's worth having faith in something.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 14, 2007

Unexpected angels

This is a true story.

He was one of those people that can be a little scary. He was ragged, smelled bad, and was, worst of all, talking to himself while glaring at the ground and gesturing at things I couldn’t see. In the parlance of my family, he was a crazy. He was following me.

I was 13 or 14, coming into my woman’s body but still with some of the scent of girlhood around me. It was winter and I was in downtown Philadelphia to do a little Christmas shopping. Even though my family was secular Jewish, I had plenty of friends to shop for and loved the hustle and bustle of the city at this time of year. I loved the lights and sounds and the way the old department stores (Wanamaker's in particular) seemed so vast and elegant while the smaller shops were cozy and seemed to have secrets they were just dying to tell. I felt grown up as I wandered from store to store, mulling over my choices.

Then I saw him. I don’t know how long he’d been following me, but I first noticed him huddled by the doorway as I walked out of one store. I’m sure I thought something like I hope he isn’t too cold, as if being a little cold was okay.

Then I noticed him again as I left the next shop. And the next. When I looked around as I walked to the next store he was right there, just a pace behind me, mumbling to himself and glancing up at me every few steps. There was no doubt, he was following me.

I didn’t know what to do. This was the late 1970s in Philadelphia, I didn’t look upon the police as friends. There were hundreds of people streaming by, but I knew none of them and had neither reason to believe they would help nor hope that he wouldn't react badly if I asked for help within his hearing. He wasn’t following me into stores, just waiting for me outside, so I clutched my bags a little tighter and went into the next shop – these buildings were old and all backed into alleys, maybe I could escape that way.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman behind the counter. Remembering her now, I can see she was barely older than I was. “Someone is following me and standing outside of the store. Do you mind if I leave by your back door?”

She glanced out the window quickly, then back at me. “We don’t have a back door. Sorry.” To this day I think she was lying. I think she couldn’t see him and thought I was a crazy, that at best I wanted to steal something, at worst, who knows.

That was the only moment that I remember being afraid. I didn’t know why he was following me or what he wanted. He was a crazy. And he was outside waiting for me.

I stood in the doorway of that shop, feeling her looking at me from behind the counter. I can only imagine her hand was on the phone, poised to dial the police. I took a deep breath and stepped outside, hoping he had gone away.

Of course, he hadn’t. He was still there, still looking at the ground, mumbling and gesturing. His glance flickered to me and I saw his balance shift, ready to move when I moved.

I looked across the street, pretended I was trying to decide what store to go into next, while I wondered if I should run. As I stood there, I heard what he was saying.

“You gotta be careful, you can’t let anyone get too close. You don’t know what will happen, you have to have someone around to keep you safe. You need to look out for yourself, you know. You have to be careful these days, it’s not like the old days. You gotta be careful.”

He might be a crazy, but maybe he wasn't out to get me. I looked at him. He glanced up at me again and kept telling me to be careful.

I took one step closer to him and he glanced at me again, still talking, but a little slower.

“I’ll be okay,” I said. “I promise to be careful.”

This time he didn’t look away. “You gotta be careful. You don’t know who’s out there.”

“I promise. I’ll be careful.”

We looked at each other for what felt like an hour but I’m sure was only a few seconds.

“Okay,” he said.

“Merry Christmas,” I replied, “Thank you for looking out for me.” I walked away. He didn’t follow me, though I could see him watching when I caught his reflection in the store window.

I kept my promise. But I have to wonder, who was I for him? Did I remind him of someone who wasn’t careful enough? Was he protecting me from a threat I couldn’t see?

I don’t know. Nor do I know why, in that moment, I stopped to listen. I can only be grateful that I did. It has made all the difference - not the being careful. The listening and the wonder and the moment of connection.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Lights in the darkness

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. When I was a child, my family didn't really observe any of the Jewish holidays. As an adult I am finding they have growing importance and meaning, but because I am coming to this now, I am creating my own meaning in addition to the traditional ones.

I know, Hanukkah in America has been overblown so Jewish kids have something to feel good about while all the Christian kids have Christmas. But it is more than that. Like so many Jewish holidays, it chronicles a story of survival and the celebration is about making it through adversity with some miracles thrown in for good measure. They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat! We've been telling that story for a long time. All humans can tell that story, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

I also believe it's no mistake that this holiday, the festival of lights, happens now, in the darkest days of the year. We light candles to give thanks for past miracles and for this moment in our lives. It's a reminder of the gifts of our lives, even in the dark, in this moment.

These messages - of survival, of hope, of determination, of memory - are captured in the photograph that heads this entry. It speaks for itself.

For the next eight nights I will light candles and tell stories of surviving adversity, whether it's about having enough oil to re-sanctify the temple, beating illness, saying goodbye, or just making it through another day. I'll make latkes. I'll consider the darkness and power of one small light in the night.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, December 3, 2007

First Snow

We had our first snowfall this morning. It's cold and wet and cloudy and goopy. I love it. This is seasonal weather, the way it should be.

When I woke up this morning, the light filtering through the skylight was muted, as though the day were hiding from me. I knew we were supposed to get snow, it was snowing when I woke up in the middle of the night, but it was this light that told me that the snow had arrived and stuck.

Looking outside, the lines of the world were softened. The trees in the backyard had a new foliage of white and the cars a heavy blanket, as though they were still asleep.

The first snow of the season brings a special, quiet magic with it. Snow seems to soften the harshness of the world at the same time that it brings its own threatening beauty. I am not the first nor will I be the last to comment on this, but I love that quietness. It speaks of hidden things, of the unknown peering out from snow caves, of the ground underneath going to sleep for the long cold months. When I was a little girl my parents would read me stories about the Tomten, who wandered through the winter world at night, making sure everything was safe. For me, the first snowfall invokes the Tomten and his quiet, homely ways. I look for the small footprints of a secret guardian checking on the mild things of the world.

When I left the house this morning the snow was already succumbing to the wetness of the waking day. The thwack of dropping clumps of snow from branches. The scrape of shovels on the sidewalk. Underfoot the two inches of whiteness compressed to a dark track and I forgot to keep looking for the Tomten's footprints as I walked, clumsy for the first time this season in my winter boots, to pull the blanket off my car.

And like everyone, I will complain about the weather, about the wet and cold. But I won't forget. This is how it should be. The snow makes the world glow at night. The snow brings deep quiet. The snow hides the tired remnants of autumn and lets the world sleep before spring. And the snow brings the Tomten.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Mission accomplished!

This morning at about 10:30 I passed 50,000 words with my NaNoWriMo novel. It took another 1,316 before it felt as though I was done telling the story, but at 50 thousand I was essentially done, I just needed to wrap up a few loose ends.

I cried. Not a big howling cry, but some tears and a sniffle or two. Anyone who knows me knows I tend to get teary pretty easily, but this was different from crying at the end of a good book or film. This was a lot like the way I cry at the end of the PMC, when I know I've done something substantial. Something that leaves me a different person than I was before I began.

So what was this whole experience like? I wrote at the beginning that I was passionately enjoying the process and found it was giving me a writing discipline I had longed for but hadn't yet achieved. It has been that and more.

It has been thrilling, frustrating, exciting and inspiring. It's been a bit like falling in love. It's all I really want to talk about, all I can think about and now that it's over I find myself longing for that first rush again. I'm a little at a loss about what to do now that it's over. I know, the obvious answer is to write more and I shall. I am, for instance, writing now. But what I really want and need to do is write more fiction. That will come, I have several projects in mind, but for now I need to process the process.

I've had the pleasure of meeting people who were lurking in my imagination and seem to have wills of their own. That part of the process was hoped for and even expected; I've occasionally had characters go in directions I wasn't expecting in other writing projects, but this time they really took off. I was writing things I didn't plan, meeting people I didn't know were coming into the story and hearing dialogue with an unexpected clarity because the characters were all so distinct.

I've been reminded of how all these characters are parts of me, so I've had to process some of my own feelings and experiences in the course of mining my own life. When I've written an episode out of my life into a character it becomes easier to let it happen to someone else, let them hurt and heal. But since the characters are all part of me who's really healing?

I've discovered I know more about narration and story than I thought. All those years of telling stories have helped me learn how to write stories.

I also learned how to sit down, shut up and write. I think that this has been the most valuable part of the experience for me. Having done this I know I can do more, that written language works as well for me as spoken, improvised language.

How am I different, how has this changed me? I've written a novel. I was always one of those people who was going to write a novel someday and now I've done it. Someday is now. This means I can write another and take more than 25 days to do it. If I've written something decent in 25 days who knows what I could do in more time - say two months? Maybe even three?

It's no wonder NaNoWriMo has been such a powerful experience, as I'm sure it is for many participants. For now, I'm going to let the novel rest, then look at it in a little while and see if, with a rewrite or two and some workshopping, I might begin looking for a publisher.

Oh, and in case you're wondering - no, you can't read it yet. It needs tweaking and lots of it. It's about five generations of Jewish women, storytelling, cooking, and how we define ourselves through the stories we tell.

Kind of like the way writing a novel has helped me redefine the story I tell about myself.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, November 19, 2007

Wish I may, wish I might

My friend Jim swears up and down that if he had a single wish, he'd wish for a soundtrack, one that plays all the time along with his everyday life. That way, he says, he would always know what was about to happen. He'd know if someone was friend or foe, love interest or miscreant, and would just have a leg up on things. Personally, I bet it would get annoying and besides, I think most modern movies are overscored; I certainly wouldn't want an overscored life. I worry I'd end up with a laugh track.

I saw a movie the other night (Flushed Away, silly fun) that had a feature I would consider instead of a soundtrack - a chorus. Admittedly, in this film the chorus was composed of slugs singing relevant pop songs which I'd rather avoid, but the whole idea of a chorus, as in a Greek chorus, has some merit. If only the voices in my head actually told me something useful. (You know the kind of voices I mean, I hope. The running commentary on my actions and those of others, not what I imagine psychotic voices are. Though who knows, maybe those are psychotic voices, just with volume control.) Anyway, if the voices in my head said useful things, uttered reminders and warnings and helpful comments that would be pretty cool. As it is, the voices hum the same refrain from 1970s TV theme songs over and over again. Or ask me if I should buy shoes that look like hers. Things like that. An occasional Greek chorus might be handy.

So what would I wish for if not a Greek chorus? I think about that a lot, probably more than is really healthy. I tell stories about it, write about it, plan for it. I can never make up my mind because wishes seem to be very tricky things. In stories wishes never turn out well. The wish-giver, be it djinni, angel or god always turns the wish somehow. The moral seems to be don't wish, but live. Act. And yes, be careful what you wish for.

This makes me very careful about what I say. I rarely utter things like, "Oh, I wish for an ice cream sundae!" or "I wish I could fly!" Even writing those examples here makes me nervous - who might read that and decide to answer in some tricky way? Please don't. Instead I might think about wishes, but I don't say them. It's too dangerous.

So instead I live. I act. I try to make the world a better place. I hope that if I ever truly do have the opportunity to make a wish I won't need to use it, that I am living big enough that I don't need anything more. Maybe that's my wish.

Because I'm not even really sure what I would wish for if I had the option. Certainly not a soundtrack.

(c) 2007 Laura Packer

Creative Commons License

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The tales we tell

It's funny how things come together sometimes. I'm finding myself in one of those confluences of life and art where I'm forced to notice the world clearing its throat at me, telling me to pay attention.

I'm writing like a wildwoman for NaNoWriMo, almost 24000 words in 12 days. This is more than I've ever written in one burst before. I'm enjoying it and the process is making me acutely aware of how fiction is culled from our own lives. This is no surprise, of course, but the intensity of this writing, thousands of words every day, is stripping any pretense away from the process. Portions of this book, episodes here and there or various character traits, are pulled from my life, from the lives of those around me and integrated into my characters. If I had more time or if I end up rewriting with an eye towards publication I'll file off the serial numbers, but for now, it's pretty transparent. As I'm writing I keep finding myself writing about the time when I... or the story my father told me about... or the way my mother... and so on.

At the same time I've been thinking about the way we tell the stories of our lives and the way those stories are often fictions. We don't mean to lie - we aren't lying - but we are the epicenters of our own lives and the stories are constructed so that particular telling, that truth, is told such that we are the heroes or at least the protagonists. And if the stories get embellished a little, so the stories are more interesting, who else will know? The arguments are a little fiercer, our responses are a little wittier, we are a little kinder or learn a more poignant message. However it works out, we are still at the center of the story that would, were it told by someone else, probably be a very different tale but no less true. We are all telling the true fiction of our lives all the time.

When I perform a piece of fiction it is no less true than an autobiographical piece. In fact, it may be more honest, because it has no pretense of not being filtered through my own lens of bias, hopes and ideals, hence the name of this blog.

All of this thinking was crystallized when I started reading The Thirteenth Tale in which a writer of fantastical fiction decides it's time to finally tell her true story, something she has never done before. I know my personal stories are no more true than my recounting of Eve or the djinni's story. Likewise they are no less true. And this novel I'm writing as a crash course in creative fiction? There is truth there too.

When you tell someone a story about your life don't worry too much about the details. Don't worry if you fudge the dates or enhance your role a little. We all do it. Take it from me, a professional liar, the truth of a story may have very little to do with how factual it is. Go ahead. Be a hero. I'll be listening, but I won't tell.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Man, what a rush.

It's kind of like driving cross country non-stop, but noticing all the little details on the way. No, maybe it's more like eating the best meal you've ever had and savoring every single bite, then doing it again. And again. No, it's not like that either. Maybe it's like talking a deep breath and jumping into that icy lake; no matter how well you prepare you aren't ready for the shock of it and when you climb out you know you are utterly alive and want only to do it again. It's kind of like that. So far.

NaNoWriMo is like nothing else I've set out to do. It's a simple enough premise - write a novel in a month. Fifty thousand words (that's 5-0-0-0-0 words) in thirty days, quantity over quality. No excuses like, "I've been thinking about writing a novel for years," or "I just don't know what I'd write about." You just do it, full-bore writing with no time to agonize about the details.

I'd never heard about this before last month, when I was at the National Storytelling Festival and saw an old friend wearing a NaNoWriMo t-shirt. I asked about it, she explained and I thought, "Wow, that's nuts." A week later I signed up. This seems to be a pattern for me, I signed up for the Pan Mass Challenge the first time thinking it was crazy too.

So far I love it. It's encouraging a writing discipline I've always hoped for but never attained. When I get stuck I just strike out in another direction because this novel is for my own entertainment. I don't have to worry about what anyone else will say. And you know what? It doesn't suck! I think all the years of storytelling are a great help with plot and character and my risk tolerance. Something isn't working? Go in a different direction! Can't think of a word? Say something else! What's the worst that will happen? I write something I wasn't expecting that might be better!

I love the feeling of being in flow when writing and am finding it happening far more easily than I expected. I suspect much of it is that I have a deadline to work against (I'm almost at 12000 words so have quite a few to go) and that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I win by even trying.

While I'm sure at some point I will be annoyed, frustrated, discouraged, embittered and about to give up, for now this is ecstatic writing. I suspect this has the potential to be another life changing event, again like the PMC (funny how those spontaneous decisions to be a little mad are the meaningful ones). I hope it does. At the least I hope I don't forget how good this feels right now.

I urge you to try something this grand and foolish sometime. It's utterly liberating.

(c) 2007 Laura Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All Hallow's Eve

Oh, but I love Halloween. I remember when I was a little girl I loved the costumes and candy, but mostly I loved the forbidden thrill that came with being out at night, the possibility of ghosts and goblins all kept safely away by the warmth of my parent's hand as we wandered through the neighborhood. As I grew older I'd venture out with friends, parents safely at home, and wear obscure costumes. My last Halloween costume was a shadow. I wore black and would stand behind people mimicking their movements. No one got it.

I also love Halloween because it is the ancient turning of the year, Samhain. Now we enter the dark days, the harvest is done and we cherish what light we can find. Now is the time to celebrate our beloved dead through Dia De Los Muertos. Now is the time to hunker down and remember who we are without the distractions of the bright light, we can see who we are in the shadow and coming cold with the guidance of our ancestors; they will help if you ask them. Now is the time to reach into the past and use what we find to reinforce our own selves, our past and our future.

Tonight I will write a letter to the dead, light a candle for them to see me by and set out a saucer of milk and bread for any visitors. I will breath the night air and peer into the mysteries of the dark. And I will welcome any little ghosts, goblins, pirates and politicians with delight and good candy.

Have fun!

(c) 2007 Laura Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, October 29, 2007

Birthday, schmirthday (an exercise in ego)

I love birthdays. I think it's great that there is one day of the year when we get to say, "Hey! Look at me! I'm here!" I know there are people who complain about being another year older but, most of the time, it's better than the alternative! You're alive and healthy enough to complain, so shut up and eat some cake.

My birthday was this past Saturday and it was one of the significant ones, you know, one that ended in a zero. I feel great. We had a big party and invited all the people I could think of who might care. And most of them came, along with others who heard about it and wanted to celebrate too. Talk about a validation of the values I've held for the last umpteen years! Whaddya know, when you care about people, they care about you!

It was a little unworldly, seeing my old friends talking with my work friends talking with my storytelling friends talking with my camping friends talking with my family and so on, but it worked. I recommend doing this, bring everyone into one place and see what it's like. I survived and you probably will too. You may just learn something about yourself.

Remember to celebrate your next birthday. You deserve a day that's all about you. So here is my birthday wish for all of you: May your lives be filled with true friends, with observed and internalized opportunities to grow and celebrate, may you live the duration of your life in comfort and usefulness and joy, and may the world be a better place for your time in it. Thanks for sticking around.

(c) 2007 Laura Packer
Creative Commons License

Monday, October 22, 2007

Breath as vital distraction

I know there are people out there who like pain. I'm not one of them. I'm not talking about a nibble here or a pinch there in the name of good fun, but the kind of pain that makes me whimper. Migraines. Menstrual cramps. Stubbed toes (I bet you winced). Damaged knees. Kidney stones. And my new discovery, scratched corneas. Yuck.

But there is something about that lingering, persistent presence that forces a discipline I don't otherwise often rise to. I hurt. Pills don't help, sleep won't come and I'm having trouble distracting myself. I can't escape it. Crying doesn't work nor does talking about it. So what can I do?

I breath. Slow deep breaths, in and out. I concentrate on what doesn't hurt. I focus on the fine details of cloth against my skin, air rushing through my lungs, the temperature of the room. Anything in this moment except that which is the focal point of my existence. If I do a good enough job of breathing there is a chance I will survive through this moment, through this pain.

I wish I could remember to breath through pain more often, not just in those awful moments of physical distress. I sometimes remember to take deep breaths when I'm upset, when I need to keep my mouth shut. I fill myself with cool air so I don't explode with all the heat inside and the words best left unsaid come out in a searing wash. I sometimes remember to breathe when I'm sad or lonely, but not often enough.

I know taking deep breaths isn't the cure for every kind of pain, but it might help if I did it more often. It might help me survive the remaining year and a half of the current administration. It might help me remember to be kind as a first reaction, not after a pause. It might help me just feel better and avoid future pain.

(c) 2007 Laura Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fiction depiction

Letter Found Caught Under the Rug by the Front Door of a House Recently Put Up For Sale

Dear Mrs. Berg,

My mother told me I had to apologize, even though it’s not really my fault but if I don’t say I’m sorry she’ll never let me go out again and that would really stink, so I’ll say it here, even though I don’t mean it. She won’t read this letter anyway, she’ll just tell me to give it to you when it’s done so it doesn’t matter if you know the truth.

I’m the one that TP’d your tree over Halloween. I guess I shouldn’t do things like that, but it’s a lot of fun and I bet you pulled pranks when you were a kid if you ever were a kid. You know how the toilet paper looks like fireworks or something when it flies over the branch? It’s just so pretty you can’t stop and besides the other kids were daring me to do it and I guess I just got carried away and didn’t notice where your garden gnomes were. My mom always said they were a “scourge on the neighborhood” anyway, so when I stepped on one and broke its head off that seemed pretty funny to me. I wasn’t the one who broke the heads off the other gnomes and made it look like the lady bending over with her underwear showing was doing something to them. My mom says you probably never had a boyfriend and don’t understand what they were supposed to be doing, but that’s beside the point, she says it was rude, so I have to apologize for that too, even though I didn’t do it.

I guess I am sorry that when it rained all the TP came off the tree and got clumped up in your side yard, where you let your dog go. I’m sorry because it looks really ugly now. I know it’s not your fault that you can’t walk very far with your fake leg even though you say you were never a pirate and your dog tries to bite me when I have to get my ball out of your yard, but I think my mom is right that you could hire someone to clean up all the dog poop. On hot days it smells awful and now with all the toilet paper there it looks like someone had a really messy accident.
I bet you would have laughed when your dog got his head stuck in the gnome head. I didn’t even have to push very hard to get it on, and he ran around like crazy trying to get it off. My mom says the neighborhood is much quieter now, but I guess you miss him, so I hope he comes home soon.

Anyway, I’m supposed to tell you I’m sorry I TP’d your tree, which got you so angry you had to go to the hospital. I’ve never seen anyone turn that red before! I hope you like the picture I drew of your tree without toilet paper on it. Those are your garden gnomes underneath, with their heads on. Get well soon.

Your friend,


I wrote this for 10 weeks, 10 stories, a class I took at Grub Street last spring. The assignment was to write a story in which things go from bad to worse. I had a lot of fun writing this, though I bet you guessed that already. And I assure you, this is entirely fictional.

(c) 2007 Laura Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day, when thousands of blogs all over the world post on one topic - the environment. Far be it from me to be left out of this kind of event, even if I'm late getting on board.

So here are some things I love that are happening in the environment right now:

- the scent of the woods in the autumn
- the sound of geese migrating in the evening
- the taste of cold water drunk from cupped hands by the spring
- the feel of green moss on the tree trunk against my fingers
- the sight of wide open spaces, uninhabited and clean.

When we say the word "environment" in this context we generally mean a clean, healthy place, though the word simply means the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded. I am writing this in a bleak environment, florescent lights, no windows and cubicle walls around me. But I know the whole world is out there, that the environment as a living, complex, interactive thing is just waiting for me to step out and be a part of it.

We are all part of the environment and are all responsible for it, so here's what I suggest. Go outside. Take a walk. Breath some of that real air in. If you are someplace where the air is pleasing count your blessings then write a letter to your local legislator to keep it that way and to improve it for someone else. If you live someplace where it is not so pleasant to breath then write a letter, make a call, knock on the door of your representative (even if you didn't vote for them, they are yours) and let them know it needs to change.

And own up to doing what you can, every day. I keep this list pinned to my wall. I don't follow it religiously, but it makes me stop and think.

10 Simple Things to Start with Today

1. Turn off lights and other electrical appliances when not needed.
2. Do things manually instead of electrically, like open cans by hand.
3. Use fans instead of air conditioners.
4. In winter, wear a sweater instead of turning up your thermostat.
5. Use less water.
6. Whenever possible, use public transport, or ride your bike or walk. You'll meet interesting people and feel better too!
7. Use recycled paper products; recycle paper when you're done with it.
8. Support local farmers.
9. Use cloth bags when you shop or bring your own.
10. Think before you use and live joyfully!

Try it, you just might change the world!

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer

Creative Commons License

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Random acts of creativity and kindness

I've mentioned swap-bot here a couple of times and decided it's time I write about it. I feel some reluctance to do so, I think because this means two parts of my life are intersecting - writing and craftiness. Like many people I have tended to keep my life somewhat compartmentalized so when those walls break down it can be uncomfortable. I think it's a good idea to break down those walls, and have been doing so with increasing frequency in the last few years (storytellers meet old friends from the drinking days meet work colleagues meet family) but it's still not comfortable. I'm doing this because I'm working on the theory that it's better to live as close to an integrated life as I can and being active about living is always better.

Enough of that digression. Swap-bot is a website where people all over the world trade things, often but not always stuff they make. My friend Joy turned me onto it. I am finding myself somewhat obsessed and for once I think it's a pretty good obsession. It's making me be creative in new ways, not just with language or cooking, but with color and physical objects. I used to do a lot of origami but got away from it and found myself with still hands, not a good thing. Now I'm making artist trading cards, altered boxes and books, handmade postcards, other mailart and so on. I'm also writing various things for these projects (such as the found letter and werewolf story) and sending all of this stuff out into the world. I've always liked the idea of making things, but then was just stuck with more stuff. This way I make stuff and give it away.

And I'm getting stuff back, some of which is very cool. Every day I come home anxious to see what's in the mail. Some of it is amazing art, some is clearly personalized to me (everyone fills out a profile so swap partners can do this if they choose) and some is just plain nifty. Regardless, it's a blast coming home and finding a package, a postcard, a letter almost every day.

Swap-bot also has a community associated with it, people who craft, people who write, people who care about one another. Recently the daughter of one participant posted on the forums that this particular swapper is dying of cancer. Many people wrote in with expressions of sympathy, offering to send stuff to her in her last days. Many others offered to finish up her swaps for her, so no one would think she didn't send out stuff she had promised to give. None of these people have ever met this woman in person. The internet repeatedly amazes me with its potential as an agent for community and I continue to find examples of this, swap-bot is no exception. I think it is one of the better parts of human nature, that we create community wherever we can.

I know that this odd little obsession is serving a wonderful purpose for me. By making me use other parts of my creative mind I am finding my imagination freed to do more in all areas. I am writing more, telling more and looking at the world with fresh eyes. If I remain limited to one creative outlet it's too easy to become stuck, jaded. With this additional outlet and community I can stretch. It feels good.

Writing this post has led me to other trains of thought I hope to explore later - community, how creativity in one area can be a catalyst in another, cooking, the role of the internet (oh, that little thing) and other, but for now I'm going to go make dinner and enjoy this autumnal evening.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Word drunk and my aching head

This past weekend I attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. I was invited to come down and tell a story on one of their stages, an honor for which I feel deep gratitude. Thanks are especially due to Judith Black, a marvelous storyteller who advocated for me.

I am still processing the whole weekend, my performance, and what I hope may come of this. I heard many wonderful storytellers, strengthened existing relationships, built new ones, and was just utterly immersed in the world of spoken word (of a certain type) for a few days. It was wonderful, exhausting, encouraging, disheartening, overwhelming. A great big bite of living.

What I want to touch upon here is being word drunk and the subsequent hangover.

For four days I was utterly surrounded by words. Stories told and listened to. Conversations about stories. Overheard talk between spectators, and wonderful keeking. A maelstrom of words and wordplay. I was drunk on it. Drunk with listening and dreaming and telling and writing.

The first few days were just like having a drink or two. That glorious intoxication where everything seems just a bit more clever, everyone is just a bit more beautiful and I wanted that feeling to go on forever. I couldn't stop imbibing words, my vocabulary seemed to grow by leaps and bounds, words I had forgotten I knew came tripping off my tongue. Moonglade. Gnathonize. Wanweird. Fun, huh? Just like being drunk.

Then came the few words too many and I began to crave silence. Began to question why I was uttering all these words in the first place (not questioning others' words, just my own. Other people get to make their own choices about word addiction). My throat began to hurt, a real, bodily hint that I could perhaps shut up.

A few words more and I began to forget what I was saying. Nothing untoward came out of my mouth (as far as I recall) but I began to lapse into silence, just as I do when drinking, to make sure I won't say anything I'll regret later. My throat hurt enough that I couldn't really talk anymore, just the way drinking too much makes you lose the coordination you need to pour another drink.

Once we got home I found myself hung over from all the words. All I wanted was quiet, dark, and maybe some ibuprofen. No talk. Maybe some mindless television, Dexter seemed to be part of the cure.

But it's not over. Not by a long shot. My throat is almost better and, oh god, I find myself craving more. More words. I don't want the cheap stuff, no advertising labels or Reader's Digest for me. Big words. Hard words. Eloquent words strung together like pearls.

I need them. I need to hear them speakthemwritethembethem. Be drunk on them again. Even though I know it might not be good for me, even though I know this addiction could lead to a downward spiral where I forget how to speak again. "Hey man, ya got a pen? Could you spare a story?"

I'm willing to risk it. Even if there is no 12 step program for being a word drunk.

(c) 2007 Laura Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Further zombie thoughts

Found letter
If you’re reading this then you must have gotten away, heard the warning sirens or one of the last news reports. Thank goodness. You’re one of the lucky ones.

I’m giving this letter to the underground network. I told them to look for you, to try to get it to you, to tell you I’m thinking of you. I know I’ll never see you again. I have a gun and will use it when they get too close. I won’t become one of them.

Guns don’t work on zombies.

I was at home with Zack when they attacked. You remember how I told you on the weekends we turned off the tv and radio, shut off our computers so we could just relax? That’s what did us in. We didn’t know they were coming. We heard the sirens but figured it was just the police running for donuts again. So we ignored the noise.

I don’t know if it would have made any difference at that point anyway, they were everywhere.

We were upstairs, in bed, when we heard the banging, windows breaking. It’s the usual story, I’m sure you’ve heard it over and over by now. Zack thought it was burglars, so he took his baseball bat – you remember the one we used for softball when you visited last summer – and crept down the stairs. They were already inside. He ran back up, locked the bedroom door and tried to tell me what he saw. I didn’t believe him, went to open the door, and he hit me. He hit me. He’d never done anything like that before, but he hit me to keep me away from that door. I knew it was something serious then. He wrapped his arms around me and cried, telling me how sorry he was, but there was something awful out there.

That’s when we heard the banging on the door and the moaning. I have nightmares about that moaning and wake up screaming. Do you?

He pushed me towards the window, the one that overlooks the garage roof. It was a lovely dawn, bright and clear, and there were zombies in the house. It seemed like something out of a stupid horror movie, the kind he liked to watch so he could laugh at me when I got scared.

The door broke. And zombies came in. I don’t have to tell you how awful they look; I don’t have to tell you about the smell.

We struggled to push the air conditioner out of the way and open the window as they shambled closer. Zack had his baseball bat and swung at them, connecting with one on the head. It made a sound like a rotten melon and it fell, just as I opened the window and climbed out. He was coming out behind me, and they grabbed him. I latched onto his arm and pulled, and it was like some kind of terrible tug-o-war. He kept yelling for me to go, but I just couldn’t let him go. Then I heard a tearing sound, and he started screaming. Not for long. All I had in my hands was part of his shirt.

I jumped off the roof, got on my motorcycle and took off. Some chased me, but I was too fast. I was crying and screaming the whole time.

Some people in the underground found me after I crashed the bike.

We’ve been hunkered down here for awhile now, but we’re running out of food and they’re closing in. When I crashed I hurt my leg, it hasn’t healed right. I can’t go with everyone else. That’s why I’m sending you this letter and all I have left of Zack so I know someone will remember him.

Be careful. Be vigilant.
Stay alive.


This was inspired by a swap-bot swap on surviving the zombie wars. It was accompanied by a torn scrap of bloodstained t-shirt.

It was fun writing in this voice, so different from my own. At least I hope it's different, though who knows how I'd sound under those circumstances.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer

Creative Commons License

Monday, September 24, 2007

Why zombies?

When I was a little girl I had a recurring nightmare in which a slow, shambling creature would chase me with deadly intent. No matter where I hid, no matter what I did, it kept coming. I could not escape, and sooner or later it would get me, though I would usually wake before I could feel its cold, clammy hands rending me limb from limb. The fact that in this dream the creature was a mummy (inspired no doubt by the Universal Mummy films) doesn’t diminish the horror nor does it negate the striking similarity between this nightmare monster and the zombies we’re seeing everywhere. The shamble. The rot. The inexorable nature of the beast.

The cannibalistic dead have been around for a long time, referenced in the epic of Gilgamesh when Ishtar, enraged by Gilgamesh’ refusal of her advances, threatens to “…let the dead go up to eat the living!” They’ve waxed and waned in popularity since. Zombies first appeared in popular film in White Zombie, released in 1932 and starring Bela Lugosi. Zombies as we think of them were defined by George Romero in his Dawn of the Dead and subsequent sequels. And these days they are everywhere.

So what is it about zombies? What are we so obsessed with them?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as have lots of other people. Philosophers love zombies, because it allows for different kinds of speculation about human behavior (a human being without full consciousness allows for thought experiments against the concepts of identity and the mind).

Frankly, I think this philosophical discussion is just what film makers and social activists are engaging in, only with more gore and humor. They are exploring, and we are exploring with them, what happens when masses of people stop thinking and simply react, driven by basic, consuming needs. Zombies consume mindlessly and their need to consume is contagious. They spread fear. They are the ultimate expression of group-think without independent motivation or action beyond consume.

Let’s see, what other entities are consuming mindlessly, promoting mindless consumption, and are using fear as their weapon against those that don’t want to consume? I’ll leave that as a rhetorical question, because several entities fit that bill to one degree or another, and they all are ubiquitous, surrounding us every day and urging us to join them, stand with them, watch them, vote for them, etc.

I suspect our obsession with zombies also rises from a desire to belong. If you’re a zombie, you don’t have to think, you just shamble along with everyone else. It’s not like being a werewolf, where you have that whole lone wolf issue to contend with. If you’re a zombie you can go outside during the day or night, not like those elitist vampires. If you’re a zombie you’re part of the group. And you’re already dead, so it doesn’t matter if someone kills you. Your whole mission is to make more zombies, not hide any annoying secrets (can you imagine how much werewolves spend on clothes?) or deal with politics (the way vampires have to). It’s a simpler, more inclusive way of life. Or death.

And zombies are safe to fantasize about. They capture our fears about group think and brain washing, not to mention cannibalism and contagion, but we’re pretty sure we’d be able to beat them if they really showed up. We’re smarter than zombies right? We can use them for social commentary (nothing like shambling down the street or through a mall with a political sign accompanied by other zombies to make a point) but it’s commentary done with humor and fake blood, so it’s not too threatening to the powers that be. But bystanders see the zombies and read the signs.

Zombies are an excellent nightmare for the early 21st century. Fearful, inexorable, contagious, and visible. They are not terrorists but the fear terrorists seek to create. They are not our government but the control our government is trying to invoke. They are not our media, but the way our media sponsors try to drive us to behave. They are the perfect metaphor for these creeping, inevitable times.

But just in case: To kill a zombie you must destroy its brain. Fire won’t work, a bullet to any other part of the body won’t work. Destroy its brain and if you have the time, burn the body. If all else fails, run and don’t look back.

(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer

Creative Commons License

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Oh yeah, one other thing

So why blog beyond the purely egocentric desire to write and have readers? (Hi readers!) That's a question to be explored in detail another time, but it does lead me to this: Part of why I blog is to have a forum for different kinds of writing - essays, rants, and short pieces of more creative writing, like the piece that follows. I wrote this years ago and still like the images. And in case anyone cares, I hold the copyright to this piece of writing, and all writing on this blog.


She leaned forward, her voice low, conspiring.

“When I was a little girl,
I ate Vaseline.
I loved the smooth oiliness of it,
and the smell of a hundred million years ago.

“Later when I grew up and read
about oil workers coating their lips
with the jelly surrounding the pump piston

“I remembered the taste of it.
Thick and rich and soothing between
tongue and palate. Coating away any leftover bitterness.”

She leaned back, her lips
glistening, and

(c) 2007 Laura Packer Creative Commons License


One of my favorite words is keek. It's a Scots Gaelic word that means a quick look, a peep. I do this all the time, take a quick glance into places that are not part of my world.

I love keeking. I love the stories that are suggested by the places I see, the intimacies I inadvertently glimpse, the mysteries that are conjured up by my imagination with just these little peeks.

I go for walks at night through my neighborhood. You know how your parents always told you to close the binds? That was because of people like me. I don't care if I see you naked. I'm more interested in the glancing vision of your room as I walk by. What do you have on your walls? What music or conversation drifts out of those open windows? What did you cook for dinner dinner tonight? I don't pry, I never stop and stare (that would be a good way to attract notice) I just walk slowly by and savor the moment. And I notice.

It's my job. I'm a writer and storyteller, and these are the details that feed my creative engine.

From these details I can construct a whole world. A picture of a house tacked to a wall becomes a long lost childhood home. A door half open with clothing tumbling out becomes a hiding place for a sprite. The blue flickery light of a television set with the volume turned off becomes a silent lullaby. Who knows what else?

Come on, I know you keek too. You look to see what the person next to you on the subway is reading, you strain to read the diary of the boy in the cafe, you listen to overheard conversations. It's human nature, we want to be connected to world around us, and just assume we're unnoticed while we spy on others.

I see you seeing. Don't worry, I won't tell. Just walk by when you see me, glance over my shoulder at what I'm typing and I'll only slow down a little when I hear you talking. For what it's worth, we're all in this together, and these little bits of connection are usually better than none at all.

(c) 2007 Laura Packer
Creative Commons License

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11th and collective memory

The events of September 11, 2001 are inescapable, even if you want to avoid them. The media won't let us. Coworkers won't let us.

And, most relentlessly, our current politics and the history we are creating (whether or not you consider yourself a collaborator in its creation) won't let us. The events of 9/11 are relentlessly referenced by our politicians in their rhetoric and by the new context we are building for our lives.

So what does this mean to us as we move forward, as these events become our history and mythology? What does this mean as we are creating the story of 9/11 and moving past the immediacy of the event, moving it into memory? How does that traumatic event shape us and our actions, as it fades into something that happened years ago? And what do we owe our sense of history?

I've been thinking about this quite a bit, as we approached and then passed the anniversary. This year, here in Boston, 9/11 was commemorated with speeches from people who benefited from the September 11 funds, monies donated for the families of those who died. I like this, it was a good way of looking forward, of building something on the ruins of the towers, the pentagon walls, and the Pennsylvania field. It was a way of saying we are moving on, we will not be bound by fear.

It was a way of saying the terrorists haven't won.

As I write this, I'm wondering if it could also be a way of suggesting to our government that we are ready to move on, that the rhetoric of revenge and terrorist fear is just getting old. When Bush makes a speech arguing for continued war he invariably invokes September 11th. What if we, as a nation, are ready to move beyond 9/11, ready to let it be part of our story and be something bigger than the 3000 lives lost, be more than a way to invoke boogeymen, does that invalidate his war and continual crisis?

While I know this is a simplistic way of looking at things (the current war has created a far more complicated set of problems than we had before) I wonder if the storying of 9/11, its movement into memory instead of raw, current pain, means maybe it isn't a good excuse anymore.

When I think of September 11, 2001, what I remember is how achingly blue the sky was that morning. I know others on the East coast remember that. I remember standing with all my co-workers wondering what would come next. I remember being afraid, but not just of unknown terrors, but of the war I knew would come. I remember aching for my family and wanting simple comforts. And I remember knowing this, too, would become part of the past and that the decisions we made over the next few months would have long lasting repurcussions.

I wonder if people in Baghdad look at clear skies and flinch sometimes.

I have limited patience with people who blame all of their bad behavior of childhood trauma. Maybe it's time for us to stop whining about what happened and move onto how we can grow past it and build a better future. One where we aren't fighting a war that seems like it will never end. Or at least one where we are more honest about our reasons for being there.

I hate it that the actions of my government have squandered all of that good will and sympathy. I hate it that I am ashamed of actions done in my name. It's time to grow up, grow on. September 11th isn't an excuse anymore.

Maybe what we could do instead is make September 11th a day to build bridges between different cultures, find ways to eradicate hate and build new memories that will lead to peaceful action. Create new stories so children will look at brilliant September skies and think of peace, not wonder what horrors will come from them.

Or am I just too much a dreamer.

And I thought it would be difficult coming up with topics for a blog... I just need to try to confine myself to something I can write in less than a doctoral dissertation.

(c) 2007 Laura Packer
Creative Commons License

Monday, September 10, 2007

hello world

I've been thinking about publishing a blog for some time now. Thinking and not acting.

But then it occurred to me - I write, compulsively sometimes. Why can't I channel some of that energy into writing a blog? The trick will be writing regularly without it feeling like an assigment or self-indulgent. So we'll see.

If there's anything you'd like me to muse on, questions you'd like answered, prognostications you'd like made, drop me a line. I'll see what I can do.

For now, though, I'll leave you with a story, 100 words, written for a swap on swap-bot (more on that another time).

“Do you really think we should ask the Petersons over for dinner again?”
“It seems polite; after all, they sent us such a nice apology.”
“I know, but it was such a horrible mess last time.”
“It’s not entirely their fault. We should’ve checked the calendar.”
“Hey, they should know when the moon is full.”
“I wish they’d told us ahead of time.”
“Who knew we’d have neighbors like that?”
“I guess this time, it’s steak.”
“The cat still hasn’t turned up.”
“Wonder if they ate her.”
“Can you hear them?
"Howling and prowling?”
“Everyone can.”
“Hold me.”

(c) 2007 Laura 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
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Related Posts with Thumbnails