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
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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