Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Not dead or dying

Thank you for your patience while I got back in the writing saddle (I know, that's a terrible metaphor). It's been a pretty wild ride recently (note I'm dogged with metaphor once I get started) and I've been given the gift of story fodder aplenty.

Let's start with Thanksgiving week and why I really should be writing a screenplay. For the record, if any of you steal these ideas I will set Cerebus on your butt. Really.

You've seen at least one of those films, you know the ones I'm talking about. The kind of family tragi-comedies where everyone gathers together for some holiday or another and every single family member has their own agenda but there is a loving resolution in spite of bittersweet feelings. That was my Thanksgiving this year. Now, I know many of the people who attended my Thanksgiving read this blog (hi Mom and Dad!) so I won't go into detail to protect everyone's feelings, but suffice it to say that the dinner itself, while wonderful and loving, should have been filmed. It was a cast of characters.

I was certainly one of those characters. For the sake of argument, let's make me the main character, since this is my theoretical movie. The anxious host and daughter, preparing her first Thanksgiving feast for her parents, finding herself in a new role, trying to carry the family tradition and start new ones, while the love of her life and principal support is on the other side of the country finding himself in a new role too. These two are trying to support each other through entirely inadequate phone calls. As if this wasn't stressful enough the main character is struggling with a couple of additional pressures. Coming issues at work that she can't talk about. A sick friend. And she just got the word that she might have a painful, debilitating and quite likely fatal disease. See? It's a screenplay!

I can just see the pitch session. Studio execs in casual clothing that costs more than I make in a month. Me, trying to look cool. Failing.

Okay, here it is. Get this. There's this woman, she's hosting Thanksgiving for the first time, which is nerve-wracking enough, but at the same time her doctor has told her she might have a fatal disease. Oh, and let me tell you aout the dinner guests...

Never mind, no one would believe it once I got rolling.

As mentioned in the title to this blog post, I'm not dying. I'm fine. There was only a slim chance I was, but you know how it is, it's hard not to focus on the scariest outcome. Which leads me to the real point of this post.

The week between my annual physical, when my doctor mentioned the very slim chance that I had a rare disease, and the visit with the specialist who confirmed that I did not have the disease but instead had a less rare utterly harmless and likely to go away disorder, was hard. Really hard and made all the harder by the colliding facts of my partner's distance and Thanksgiving.

In retrospect, now that it's done and I know I'm okay (okay with blotches on my feet) I can now see it as a gift.

I reached out to friends and family I might not have otherwise contacted. I was reminded that I am not alone and am, in fact, surrounded by people who care for me. And in turn by people I care for.

I am reminded quite forcefully that this life is a gift, that this is a one-way journey and it behooves me to make the most of it while I can. I write about this often, if you read this blog with any regularity you know that, but the past week was a punch to the gut reminding me that I could, in fact, die tomorrow. If not from some disease then from an accident or anything else. So I may as well live while I can, dying in the moment or not.

I am reminded of my own strength. While I had some pretty tough moments in there, I kept going. I didn't curl up. I was able to keep moving, believing as I always have that you do the best you can in any given moment.

And I was reminded that this world is so big, so vast, I was reminded to be grateful for my brief existence.

It was truly a week of Thanksgiving. For those I love, who love me; for the support in my life; for the plenty I am fortunate enough to know and share; for the sound of the geese in the night and the strength of trees. I am alive. And so are you. Thanks.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, December 8, 2008

Teaser: Definitions

Okay, NaNoWriMo is over, I finished (52K+ words in 26 days) and I'm ready to start blogging again. I have a couple of posts I'm working on that will go live soon.

In the meantime I wanted to share this with you.

Someone I follow on twitter suggested looking up definitions of the word "free" on google. For those of you who don't know, you can get all kinds of definitions from google by typing define: . It scours the internet and gives you results, some accurate, some quite amusing. I don't recommend this as a replacement for your dictionary.

In any case, I looked up "free" by typing "define: free" and got a slew of responses. This was my favorite, from a marketing website:

A magic word with some strings attached. Conditions on which a free offer is made should be clearly stated.

I love the image of a magic word with strings attached. And anyone who has read the Arabian Nights already knew there was no such thing as a magic word without strings attached.

I promise, a new thoughtful, amusing post is coming soon. Thanks for your patience.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

words, words, words

This is just a quick update to let you know I'm still here, still alive and that I will be back in full force soon.

I'm still pushing my way through NoNoWriMo. In the last 23 days I've written over 43,000 words. That's a lot, at least for me.

For the most part I'm really enjoying it, the story has only fought be at one or two points, the rest of the time it's been a romp through my imagination and vocabulary. Some of the words I've gotten to play with have included:
  • susurrus
  • moonglade
  • filigree
  • bannock
and more. Whew!

Once I finish I'll be back here, rambling and writing as always. I'd welcome any topics suggestions, story requests, etc. In the meantime, take care and have a Happy Thanksgiving (if you celebrate it) and a lovely remainder of November.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The written word

I am participating in NaNoWriMo again this year. For those of you who may not know, NaNoWriMo is a breakneck attempt to write a novel of 50,000 words in one month. The theory is that if you have a deadline you are more likely to strive to meet it, more likely to finish. At the end of the month you end up with a novel, albeit in all likelihood a crappy one.

I participated last year and had a blast, finished a novel of over 50,000 words and developed a better writing discipline than I've ever had in my life. This blog was born out of NaNoWriMo; after I finished the novel I really wanted to keep writing with some real level of intensity but wanted an audience and purpose. While I love writing, doing so without an audience or deadline is challenging, so I began blogging.

I've written before on the differences between writing and telling. It's a tricky thing, writing my told stories seems to suck the life out of them, but I am trying, for this year's NaNoWriMo, to write down some of the stories I tell, the Crazy Jane stories in particular. I decided to risk this for a couple of reasons.
  • I know these stories really well, they're in my bones and blood. I think they will remain alive even if I write them down. The characters are so much a part of me that I have some confidence that becoming written won't hurt them.
  • These are really good stories; frankly, these are really good characters, people I love. If I were to be hit by a bus tomorrow I want to know they won't be lost.
  • And I am enjoying the chance to really craft them. Usually it's the play with the audience I love, but here I have the chance to pick out just the right word, take the time to consider synonyms and the luxury of detail.
So this feels like a risk. But oh, it feels so good to be writing like this again, thousands of words every day, letting my fingers be a direct conduit for my imagination. I'm sure blogging will be affected for the month; I'm equally sure my writing life will change again after doing this a second time. It will be interesting seeing where the journey takes me. thanks for being patient with me.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

We are the change we're looking for

Now the work really begins. Creative Commons License


Like millions of others, I voted this morning. Like millions of others, I stood in line. This was the first time in my voting life that I've ever had to stand in line to vote. We take voting for granted in this country.

I was so very glad to stand in line, so proud of my neighbors for coming out and standing there at 7:00 in the morning, waiting to have their say. I kept getting teary. There were parents with their kids and I remembered my mother bringing me into the voting booth with her, remembered her explaining to me that it's important to vote and this is how you do it.

As I was walking to the polls I passed an older white woman slowly making her way back home after voting. She had an "I voted" sticker on and a big Obama button. I stopped to tell her I liked her button; she lifted up her fist and said, "He's my man." That made my morning, gave me hope and energy to smile my way through the line, through the ballot and onto the day.

Good luck to you today. May your lines be joyful and the weather fine.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Monday, November 3, 2008

And words to carry us into tomorrow

For everyone who has argued, fought, called, voted, rallied.

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

-- William Shakespeare, Henry the IV

And for tomorrow, a site to watch: Creative Commons License

Hope in action

I have been afraid to hope for the last two years. Afraid to hope that maybe, just maybe the American people might vote for real, substantive change. After the presidential elections in 2004 I felt so deeply disillusioned by the voting and non-voting populace that I lost hope.

But now... I am finally feeling hope leak out through my pores. I am finally thinking that there might be a reason to believe in the better angels of our nature.

I don't know what will happen tomorrow. I do know that each and every one of us has the chance to have our say.

Get out and hope. Vote.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Stepping out of context

I love traveling though I don't do so all that often. I'm not talking about work trips, where you go someplace and only see the inside of a conference facility or an office building. I'm talking about the kind of trip where you go somewhere and are reminded that the world is so big, that you are so small and that there is very little difference between you and the next person.

None of these observations are original, of course, but I am reminded of this quite forcefully after the last few days. I've been traveling a lot lately, all for work. I've seen more hotels and conference centers and tourist meccas in the last eight weeks than I would have expected. These were by-and-large good trips, fruitful and interesting. I met a lot of good people and was reminded that there is at least a variety of geography on this planet, but none of these trips gave me the opportunity to explore, to step out of my rushed working self. None of these trips were anything other than my usual self in a slightly different physical context.

Last week I actually took a vacation, a trip to Vancouver, BC. It was a really good visit, lots of mini-adventures, but the best part was this: It did what a vacation was supposed to do. By stepping out of the context of my own life (the everyday stresses, the regular routines, etc etc) I was able to get some distance and clarity on where and who I am right now. I felt as though I was coming home to myself for all that I was thousands of miles from my physical home.

It's hard to do that in my everyday context; it's too easy to be distracted by the mundane concerns. I needed to be far away, where I had to figure out new buses and money and slang, to remember who I am, to remember that the baggage I carry isn't necessarily all that weighty, to remember that I am not merely my everyday routine. I would like to think I could do this at home, but I'm not sure, I think I needed to go away to remember.

It was a good trip. And I'm glad to be home, having left some of my baggage far away.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Monday, October 27, 2008

On birthdays and gratitude

Today is my birthday. I love birthdays, I think it's a fine and important thing to have one day in the year when you unabashedly crow out your joy at being alive.

I am glad to be alive. I am grateful for my presence here on this Earth.

To mark my birthday I offer this up to the universe, a list of things I am grateful for, one for each year I have been on the planet. This is a bit of navel gazing, I know, but I think it is important to sometimes sing a praise song. Or, in this case, write a praise list..
  1. I am grateful for my family, who, in spite of all the difficulties we have put each other through, love me and support me as best they can, and accept me in spite of knowing my flaws since birth. That's all anyone can ask for.
  2. I am equally grateful for my chosen family, those friends who have stuck with me through thick and thin, whom I know will both be honest with me and will protect me. I would not make it through the tough times (let alone the good times) without them.
  3. I am grateful for those who have loved me, regardless of the outcome of those relationships. Thank you for teaching me so much about love and redemption.
  4. I am grateful for the love in my life today. My heart swells with emotion.
  5. I am grateful for strength of my body, for my growing understanding of my own abilities and possibilities.
  6. I am grateful for the sensual pleasures of living in my skin.
  7. I am grateful for the way autumn air smells, crisp and bright with the knowledge of winter and hope of spring.
  8. I am grateful for the gift of language, for writing, for the words that dance in my mind and on the page.
  9. I am grateful for the stories I tell, how they fill my throat and sometimes I am surprised by what I hear myself saying.
  10. I am grateful for every single listener.
  11. I am grateful for books.
  12. I am grateful for bicycles.
  13. I am grateful for good food, for dumplings and crisp apples and nectarines and roasted chickens.
  14. I am grateful for the smell of baking bread,
  15. I am grateful for music, for the way it evokes so many different feelings.
  16. I am grateful for sleep and the comfort of my bed.
  17. I am grateful for dreams, even nightmares.
  18. I am grateful for trees. I love trees.
  19. I am grateful for the swell and crash of the ocean.
  20. I am grateful for sunset and the knowledge that the sun will rise again.
  21. I am grateful for the passage of time, for the hope that implies even if it means I may not be here to see the world continue.
  22. I am grateful for my physical comforts. Let's not kid ourselves, if you are reading this, then you probably have the same comforts. We are lucky.
  23. I am grateful for my ability to effect change in the world.
  24. I am grateful for all the people who tell me their stories, whether in performance or in passing.
  25. I am grateful for those moments that help me remember who I am.
  26. I am grateful for medical care and insurance. Again, I am lucky.
  27. I am grateful for baths.
  28. I am grateful for black tea with milk and sugar.
  29. I am grateful for bees.
  30. I am grateful for the living things of this earth, even the ones that bite snd itch. Usually. And especially for dogs, dragonflies, otters and the like.
  31. I am grateful for a sense of humor.
  32. I am grateful for the good teachers I've been blessed with. Thank you.
  33. I am grateful for you, for reading this whole list, for reading my blog, for being a silent presence I can write to.
  34. I am grateful for the night sky, for thunderstorms, for breezes for patches of sunlight to doze in.
  35. I am grateful for my ongoing curiosity about the world.
  36. I am grateful for compassion, both shown to me and that which I exhibit. And especially those acts of compassion that taught me to be a compassionate person.
  37. I am grateful for rocks.
  38. I am grateful for the potential of this world, of this species.
  39. I am grateful for the double edged sword of hope.
  40. I am grateful for the freedom to chose my own path.
  41. I am grateful for the world.
Thanks for reading; this was quick to write and I could have kept going, but this was enough. Happy birthday, whenever that may be. May the world smile upon you.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Telling and retelling

A few nights ago I retold The Giant With No Heart In His Body, a Norwegian folktale I've long been haunted by. I wrote about this in the previous post. The telling went well though I suspect this will grow into a longer, more complex piece.

The story itself is comparatively simple, one you will find familiar. A king has seven sons, six of whom leave to seek their wives and fortune. They find both and on their journey home trespass on the lands of a giant, who turns them all to stone. The youngest son sets out to rescue them, along the way encountering and helping a raven, salmon and wolf, all of whom promise to help him in turn.

The wolf becomes his traveling companion and brings him to the home of the giant, where the youngest son is then helped by the princess who lives with the giant. Through various acts of guile they find out where the giant hides his heart, destroy the heart thus killing the giant. The spell is broken and everyone lives happily ever after.

I was always troubled by this story. Why was the princess with the giant in the first place? And it just didn't seen fair that the giant should die for telling his secret. So where to go in the telling...

I love exploring the interstices of stories, the motivations of the smaller characters, the hidden hearts of heroes. There is a lot to work with in this story. While there were many places and characters I could have explored, for this telling I chose only a few; in the future I may explore more.

For this past telling I spent some time with the princess, why she chose to live with the giant, what his hugeness felt like beside her humanness. Yes, I went into the bedroom some with that, though no more than seemed to be enough. I spent some time with the silence she lived with, the quiet when she put her head on his chest at night.

I also spent some time with giant, the way his heart, hidden in an egg in a duck in a well in a church on an island in a lake so far away, pounded with joy when he saw the garlands of flowers around the places he told the princess he had hidden his heart. How he was filled with the hope of love, how this hope led him to reveal the secret of his heart. And how his heart was broken by her betrayal before the youngest prince crushed the egg that held that fragile, beating organ.

And I spent some time exploring what happily ever after might mean in this story. How the youngest prince was wise or incurious enough to never ask if the princess ever missed the silence of the giant's chest. How she never asked him to reveal his secrets. How this might constitute a kind of happiness.

All of this is why I love these stories. They make us question our own secrets, our own hopes and acts of betrayal, our own definitions of happily ever after. They help us remember that we are the tellers of our own stories.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The old tales

This is about those stories I just can't get out of my head. The old stories, the ones I read as a kid that just linger. Most of these are fairy tales, the old, old stories that contain those basic truth cloaked in not-so-subtle metaphors.

One of those stories was The Enchanted Pig, found in the the Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. The image of the painful, worn-out iron shoes stayed with me for years and it took me an age to track it down as an adult. The heroine's determination and resiliency were a shining light for me. They still are. And she aged - how often do fairy tale princesses age?

Lately the story haunting me is The Giant With No Heart In His Body, a Norwegian tale collected in the works of Abjornsen and Moe. While you can read the story by clicking on the link, let me tell you, the part that haunts me is the betrayal of the giant. He loves her, he tells her his secret, and he is betrayed. I remember as a child, crying for the poor giant who dared to trust and then, quite literally, had his heart broken.

These old stories have stuck around for a reason. We need them, they tell us who we are, offer us guidance in how to live. Sometimes they do this by direct example, as with the Princess in The Enchanted Pig who learns to love what she thought was unlovable, then walks to hell and back to find him again, and other times by helping us see into our own hearts, as I do every time I read The Giant With No Heart In His Body.

Tonight I'm telling the latter story, three different versions interwoven (the old tale, the giant's and the princesses) because I think they all need to be voiced. I need - we all need - to remember the path to the different parts of my complex heart (no more complex than yours) and the old stories show me the way home.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, October 20, 2008

List: Nine things I know about flying

  1. Every time I fly I bring stuff to read that I end up ignoring. Instead I build castles in the air, marvel at the endless sky, trace the land and ocean below. The world is so very big and I am so very small.

  2. I love the way the world seen from above looks so tiny; the buildings, mountains and landscape shrink. It's only when you finally touch down that proper scale is again achieved. When we're flying it's hard to remember that we are the tiny specks when seen from below. Up in the sky we could be as big as clouds.

  3. All I remember about the first time I ever flew was how utterly exquisite the clouds were. I was going to visit family in Michigan and was glued to the window, staring outside the whole time. My mother had prepped me, talked to me, told me not to be scared. How silly! I never thought to be frightened, only enchanted by the world outside.

  4. I was on a flight recently seated next to a woman who was so scared. She had taken some kind of anti-anxiety medicine before boarding the plane and was still terrified. We chatted for the whole flight; when it was bumpy I held her hand. She asked me if I found flying scary and I told her that no, I didn't particularly, that I couldn't control it so it was a good exercise in letting go. She looked wistful and said she has control issues.

  5. The old joke that ends with and boy are my arms tired always makes me wistful. If only I could fly as I do in my dreams. Airplanes are useful contraptions but make me feel like a virus inside a cell, just waiting to burst forth.
  6. In my dreams I leap endlessly from rooftop to treetop to hill, as though I have seven league boots from a fairy tale. In my dreams I feel the wind on my face, my hair whips behind me, I am limitless. In my dreams I am free.
  7. I listen to aquaintances wax rhapsodic about free fall, leaping from airplanes and the joy of just plummeting to earth, pulling the ripcord for the parachute only at the last minute. I listen to these stories and think that this isn't flight, it's falling.
  8. I've heard flight described as controlled falling. Daedalus knew this, I think. Icarus certainly did. I imagine him, soaring up as high as he could to feel the sun on his face, then down low to smell the sweet, salty air. Of course he heard his father, urging him to be cautious, that too much glory was deadly. But he wanted to fly not merely for escape but for the utter joy and freedom, for the wind in his face, for the living moment. We all die, he thought. In this moment, let me live, with or without wings.

  9. Icarus was right.
(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Six things I can do to fight poverty

Another post for Blog Action Day. Please feel free to post your own list in comments!

  1. Donate to a reputable charity. You can find a list here.
  2. Use fewer resources so there is more for other people.
  3. Make informed choices about the companies I purchase from.
  4. Make a microloan.
  5. Be less greedy, be grateful for what I have, make do with less.
  6. Talk about it, remind others that poverty exists. Be a voice for the voiceless.
Your turn...

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

And the poor boy set out on his adventure...

Today is Blog Action Day, when bloggers around the world post on one topic to raise awareness and build momentum for change. This year's topic is poverty.

Once upon a time there was a poor boy...

When I was a kid we didn't have stuff like you do today...

How many stories start out with the memory of poverty and arc through to riches and comfort? Over and over again, we tell the story of wealth obtained through luck or hard work or guile. The collective memory of want is deeply ingrained in human experience.

No matter where we are on the scale of wealth - living in a refugee camp eating gruel or one of the super rich - there is always something we hunger for, some kind of poverty that seems to haunt us. Here in America, where I am writing, many of us are lucky. We have the wealth to feed ourselves, afford clothing and shelter. Even if it isn't what we might think we want, we have enough. We have enough that obesity is an epidemic and we throw away more than many nations consume.

But poverty is still everywhere. Walk through the inner city and see the buildings falling down. Travel through the country landscape and search out the more insidious forms of rural poverty, where washing machines on porches distract us from roofs that let in the rain. Yet even this poverty is mild compared to that in other countries. Children with swollen bellies. The favelas of Rio, the slums of India, on and on and on.

Our capacity to allow our fellows to suffer is deeper than we care to admit - it's easy to change the channel, it's easy to say, "I don't have spare change this month." It's this poverty of the spirit that lets us ignore the change we can create.

When the story begins with Once Upon a Time, the poor boy always meets helpers. We are those helpers. Those of us with the resources to write and read blogs. You and me. Be the old woman on the road who offers the magic spell, the hand up. Be the companion who finds the resource the hero needs.

So imagine this:
You're hungry. You haven't had a good meal in who knows how long. You're cold and tired and just worn out. You don't have access to a computer to read this blog - or to look for a job, or for a recipe if you had enough money for food anyway. Someday you'll tell your children about how you were really poor, to comfort them when you can't feed them. It's a rotten story.

Now imagine this:
A world where no one is so poor they can't afford to feed themselves and their children. A world where stories about poor heroes are just stores. A world where richness of the spirit has created ample opportunity for all.

We can be the change the world needs. All you need to do is open your eyes, look, and be a hero for someone else's story.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Friday, October 10, 2008

Repentance and redemption

Yesterday was Yom Kippur. This is the day when Jews around the world atone for our sins and make our peace with God. It is the day when we, as a community, ask forgiveness for all of the ill deeds that we may have done. No one needs to repent alone, by repenting in community we all share each others burdens. At the end of the day the Book of Life is closed - God decides who will live and die in the coming year, and we all move on, knowing we have done our best to start with a clean slate.

I am not a particularly observant Jew. I wasn't raised with much of a sense of what it means to be Jewish beyond the recent history of the 20th century. My parents are the children of immigrants, this is a common pattern - the children of immigrants often shed their past while the grandchildren of immigrants long for it. Somewhere in my late twenties I began to wonder who I was in the context of my history, this included what it meant to be a Jew. It's been a circuitous journey with many (I don't want to call them diversions) branches and adventures. It's not over yet. Like most real adventures, there is no real end point.

The journey brings me here, to this day. I went to a temple I'd never visited before, said prayers in a language I don't know, held the hand of stranger as she was moved to tears.

At the end of the day I was reminded that I am part of a larger community, even if it's one I don't always agree with - this community in particular fosters thought and disagreement (two Jews, three arguments). I am ready to face a new year with hope and optimism, a sense that my slate is clean and with the knowledge that I have helped shoulder some of the world's burdens.

May the new year bring you blessings and hope. May it do the same for us all.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, September 29, 2008

The surprising hope of urban decay

This past weekend I was back in Philadelphia, helping my friend with his mom's house. I took the train down from Boston and, as usual, packed more than enough stuff to occupy me for the six hour ride. And, as usual, I spent most of the ride staring out the window watching the world pass by.

I've been taking this particular train route, the Amtrak Northeastern Corridor, for 25 years now. The landmarks have slowly changed, become more or less occupied, more developed with a greater density of graffiti. I am always mesmerized as I watch this panorama pass in front of me. That's how it feels - as though the world is moving and jostling me, not as though I'm moving through it.

As soon as we leave the Boston area, the ride becomes a coastal wonderland. Ocean, dunes, beach houses. It then moves into manufacturing cities, dense housing, old warehouses, urban landscapes and finally urban decay. As much as I love the long light of the ocean, the waves and rolling grasslands, I anticipate the collapsing warehouses. The splashes of graffiti. The tall canyons of the cities. The shoulder-to-shoulder streets and signage in languages I barely recognize.

And most of all I love the persistence of life in these places. For all that, on the surface, these landscapes may be dismal places (I know that living there can be a heart-crushing experience. I know the human cost there may be dear) the natural world is so determined to assert itself I can't help but feel cheered. This is in part, no doubt, because I am reading The World Without Us, a thought experiment about how the world would continue if humans simply vanished, but I have always loved the trees that grow up through the roofs of abandoned places. The flowers in the cracks of the sidewalk. The urban coyotes.

When I am on the train or walking through the city I see abundant evidence of life. It makes me smile, thinking of the silence and wind and bird calls. And of the stories that might arise for whatever follows us when they find the odd, rare artifact.

It gives me tremendous hope, remembering that the planet will survive us. It may take a long time to recover from us, but ultimately, no matter what we do, life will probably continue. The planet and life have survived tremendous calamities already; we are only one more. I know this may sound morbid, but we are all born with an expiration date, so I find it of great comfort to know that the planet, the world goes on without me. And without us, life goes on.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, September 22, 2008

Spontaneous celebration

Before I go any further in this post, I need to tell you that the name is borrowed from a wonderful creative space in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Spontaneous Celebrations is a multicultural home for art and creativity. Check it out.

My own spontaneous celebration happened this weekend. I believe it's important to live big, but know it's hard to do so; this weekend was a good example of the weekend conspiring to help me. I've blogged about the food part in cook pot stories.

While many wonderful things happened this weekend (time with many friends, the zoo with a 19 month old, cooking great food) what I really want to tell you about is the ocean. You know, those vast bodies of water that border our east, south and west here in the United States.

On Sunday I woke up with an itch, a drive, an ache to go to the ocean. I wasn't sure why, but it felt primal in its intensity. I needed to hear the waves, see the broad light and horizon, feel the cold water pull and tug at my legs, taste the salt. By mid-afternoon I was driving around the northern coast of Massachusetts trying to find the sea. An easy task, you'd think, but without a map at hand and clear signs saying, "Ocean, this way," it took me awhile.

I followed the light.

I knew Ipswich was on the ocean, so once I was there I looked for the lightening of the sky, the sign that told me, far more clearly than any writing, that I was heading east.

I found my way to Crane Beach. Oh, how lovely. I'm sorry I didn't have my camera so I could share it with you visually, you'll have to make do with words. I won't bother telling you about the long stretches of sand and dune, you've seen those or can imagine them.

Here is what you need to know:
  • Clusters of clamshells, moonwhite and glowing.
  • The sound of the waves echoing the sound of my heart, over and over and over. And the comfort that this sound will continue long after I am gone.
  • A long dead Christmas tree, propped up in the sand, adorned with seaweed garland and shell baubles.
  • Wary gulls watching all the people, fluffed up and smug in the breeze.
  • The ocean, rushing up to soak my rolled-up jeans. Laughing at me, trying to stay dry.
  • The taste of salt on my lips, splashed there by waves and my hands alike. The salt in my blood remembers where I come from.
As I was walking I found myself smiling then wondering why I was compelled to come to the sea on this day.

Then I remembered - September 21. The equinox. Of course I needed to be in this liminal place, the meeting of land and sea, two worlds, as the world was shifting from light into darkness. My body and heart remembered what my head had forgotten. As soon as I remembered the date, the place of the earth in the cosmos and the shift of the seasons, I began to laugh, I spun around splashing and flung my arms up to welcome the world in. It felt like a kind of homecoming.

The smell of the sea is still in my head, the play of the light on water lingers in my eyes.

Happy Equinox. May your celebrations be lasting and fulfilling.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Friday, September 19, 2008


for NaNoWriMo...

Last year I participated in NaNoWriMo and managed to write a novel of over 50,000 words in one month. It's happening again this year, starting November 1. I can't wait.

I know, you're wondering why am I waiting, why not just write now, right now?

I think it has to do with being part of that virtual community, something to do with cramming it all into one month, something to do with the incredible rush and discipline that I can't quite manage in the other 11 months of the year.

Whatever the reason, I know I'm hungry for it now. Tick, tick, tick... soon I'll have that rush of words.

Man, what a hit.

(c) 2008 Laura Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The high wire act of personal storytelling

I don't think of myself as a personal storyteller. That is, I don't think of myself as a person who tells many stories directly out of my own life. It's quite fashionable in the storytelling world (especially amongst storytellers who tell for grown-ups) to tell personal stories - think of The Moth and This American Life for two prominent examples.

In part because I don't think of myself as a personal storyteller I find I am somewhat hard to market, I don't quite have a niche. Sure, I tell a few personal stories (like when I was a little girl and made myself a penis, or the time I farted in an elevator, or the more serious stories about longing and hope), I tell some myths and folktales, but mostly I tell original fiction which isn't fashionable or easily quantifiable. My elevator speech is sometimes a little complicated. It would be easier in so many ways (easier to market, promote, explain) if I just succumbed and told mostly stories mined from my own life. But I don't.

So why don't I tell more personal material? It's not like my life is boring or devoid of stories. No one's life is.

I'm not sure of all the reasons, but I know this reason: the risk.

1. When you tell a personal story you are potentially revealing a great deal about yourself in a very short span of time. I'd rather reveal myself through metaphor and suggestion as I can through fiction. I can talk about truly intimate things in the third person or in a fictional voice and everyone suspects I'm talking about myself, but they're not quite sure. That's okay with me.

2. By telling fictional stories I don't require my audiences to wonder about me; all they have to do is insert themselves into the narrative and they're ready to go. That difficult thing didn't happen to the person in front of them, so I don't have to be brave/damaged/etc, I can be a blank slate. I can just be the storyteller. Yes, audiences very easily identify with personal stories too, but then sometimes they wonder about the teller as well.

3. I don't have to risk lying about my own life, I can lie about other things instead.

4. I don't have to risk revealing something about someone else that they'd really prefer I didn't. Many personal storytellers talk about their families, for instance.

5. I'm less likely to stray into therapy storytelling, where I tell a story because I need to, not because it's a good story.

All of that being said, personal stories can be remarkably powerful and I do sometimes tell personal stories. That's when it becomes a high wire act. Balancing the truth (more or less) with the need to not make the audience worry about me with the need to not dishonor those whom I may reference in my story with my need to tell a good story can be tricky. It's a lot to manage.

When it works it's exquisite. I admire those who can live in that territory all the time. I don't. It's both the risk and that I like having all of these options.

I like my storytelling world to be wide, even if that means I can't always sum it up inside an elevator ride, even if that means I'm not quite so fashionable.

(c) Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Monday, September 15, 2008

Blue words

I'm over my writer's blech, at least for the moment, but for now I want to share someone else's words with you.

Last week I went to storytelling with Brother Blue and Ruth Hill. I've written about them before; they are Bodhisattvas of compassion, listening and storytelling. Sometimes when I'm at their storytelling venue I write down some of what Blue has to say. I'm lucky, I get to hear it every week, but this means I get used to it. By writing it down it becomes special again, I can hear him again.

Here is what he some of what he said, almost verbatim, as much as I could capture longhand while he spoke.

Every time I tell a story I try to do something of such a nature that those who hear it will be changed forever.

If you really mean business, you will tell stories in the dark as if all humanity is listening.

Do it into what you think is the dark - the angels are there.

In case I die tonight, what did I leave with you? What did I try to do? I tried to give you the essence of storytelling.

Give it all as if you're about to fall.
It's a noble way to get your last shout out.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Patriot, n
Middle French patriote compatriot, from Late Latin patriota, from Greek patriōtēs, from patria lineage, from patr-, patēr father
Date: 1605
: one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests
From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary
I had never really thought of myself as a patriot. I wasn't raised to have great love of country, the flag nor the national anthem never filled me with awe. The history I learned in school seemed dry and dusty; what I read on my own, while interesting, was interesting because they were stories of individuals working for causes not directly related to country but to people. Save the Jews. Civil Rights. Things like that. I certainly appreciated the rights granted to me by the Constitution but it seemed as though those rights were being assailed by people who called themselves patriots; those people seemed to think that people like me didn't belong in the US at all.

Patriotism always seemed alien, the purview of flag-waving, gun-toting, blindly-following stereotypes. People who drank too much beer then dropped the cans for someone else to clean up. People who called themselves patriots seemed to be those who relied too heavily on the latter part of the definition above - one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests. There was too much about this country that seemed wrong for me to call myself a patriot. Charles Bronson and John Wayne movies seemed to define patriotism. It wasn't something I could apply to myself - it was, I see now, a prejudice view, but one supported by film and television. It was also a view supported by a government that seemed to be consistently undermining the things I thought made this country good - civil rights, cooperation, democratic process.

On September 11, 2001, I found myself thinking, for perhaps the first time in my life, about what it means to be to be an American. About the rights and privileges my citizenship has given me, about why my grandparents struggled to come here. I watched the smoke tumble across that clear blue sky and cried, just like you did.

For the first time in my life, the flag had meaning for me. I felt like an American, like we all were Americans, unified in that moment.

In the following years, my definition of patriotism has changed. I read the definition above - one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests - and realize that I can love my country even if I don't agree with all the actions that are taken in my name, even if I don't always support our authority not agree with the stated interest. It can be an act of patriotism to state my opposition to the acts of the government.

I have traveled enough now to see the diversity of our population (even as I recognize our great rifts of prejudice and inequality). I have worked enough now to recognize the economic opportunity that can be possible here (even if our economic system is far from perfect and is not the best in the world). I have read enough now to see the advantages of our justice system (flawed though it may be, at least people are rarely just "disappeared"). I have lived long enough to appreciate that, while it isn't perfect, it could be worse. While I may feel powerless sometimes (and the squandered hope after September 11, 2001 fills me with hopelessness sometimes) I at least have a voice. And words. And stories.

You do too.

On this day, of all days, speak out. Tell the story as it is and as it should be. Stand up for the good things about this country and for what this country can be. Do so in honor of those who died and helped wake us up to the fact that our collective actions - the actions done in our name as America - have an impact. If there is something you cannot bear about our current course, write a letter, call your congressman, vote. We the people have that right, here in America, and it is only if we do not exercise it that we lose the power to others. Remember that it is an act of patriotism to claim this country as your own. It is an act of patriotism to stand up and speak out.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Creative Commons License

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Writer's blech and sparks

Oh, I hate this feeling. I've been wanting to write, longing for something to say, but my brain has been spinning in place and only shooting sparks. I wouldn't call it writer's block - some of the sparks have been interesting- but maybe a writer's blech. I've not stumbled upon anything to blog about. So I feel a bit bereft.

I know there are plenty of writing prompts I could use, but for the purposes of this blog, that somehow doesn't fit.

I'll tell you about a spark, how I had to capture it in a bottle and what happened instead.

Last night I attended an open mic hosted by MassMouth, a new storytelling group dedicated to bringing storytelling to those who may not have heard of it before. It was a lot of fun and located in one of the best ice cream joints around, Toscanini's. Mmmm.

There was a theme for this open mic - we each were asked to tell a five minute story about school. The spark that had been in my head all day had nothing to do with school, but as I listened to the other tellers tell I saw how this spark could be shaped into a fairly dark, short story about school violence. Okay then, I was ready to go.

When my name was picked I looked out at the audience. What had been a room full of adults before was now 40% kids. Not a group I wanted to tell this particular story to, although I believe kids need to hear stories about difficult topics. Not this story, not the way it was living in my head.

Instead I talked about the fun and fumbles of telling stories to a cafeteria full of 500 middle school students. It was a nice little piece of improvisation, a fun throw-away that made everyone laugh and was likely a better marketing vehicle than anything else. It didn't suck. It honored the stories I tell with kids, the audience I was telling to and the one I was talking about. It was entertaining. And I'm left with the spark to play with later (since playing with fire can be fun sometimes).

Was this an honest piece of storytelling? Did I honor my art, heart and craft? I'm not sure. If I were a purist I would say no, since I didn't tell the piece I was burning for. I altered my course because of my audience. But as a storyteller I have an obligation to my audience and, in this case, my story might very well have been harmful to some of them. It certainly would have violated the mission of MassMouth, of increasing audiences. It would have likely alienated some of those parental listeners. With that in mind I have to say say that yes, I did honor the art of storytelling, in it's broader application as a performing art form for a wide range of audiences. I honored my own improvisatory heart and just played a little; I honored my craftsmanship by telling something off the cuff that mostly worked. While I didn't entirely follow the muse as she was calling in that moment, I know she'll call again, that spark isn't gone. Just as I know I'll be burning with things to blog about again. Just as I found something to write about here and now after all.

(c) Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 5, 2008

Political stories

It's that time again. You know what I mean. Our media is saturated with ads telling us why we should vote one way or another, why we should believe this candidate or the other and in general full of short, powerful stories. All these stories are masterfully crafted to persuade and manipulate. They tell us what we want to believe.

Advertising in general is full of short, powerful stories (this product saved my marriage, that service made my kid happy and therefore they aren't on drugs) but during a political season the ads are particularly intense. They are full of recrimination and promise all at once. They are honest lies; none are completely true but they are presented as truth.

I certainly have my own, strong opinions, but right now I'm interested in the ways the various storytellers are crafting their tales. What the stories they tell assume about their audience, we the American people. It will be interesting seeing whose story grabs a larger audience, persuades more people and thus wins the election. That will be highly informative about what kind of story this audience wants to tell about itself.

I fear that none of these stories lead to happily ever after, even if the ads would have you believe it to be so (vote for me, I'll fix everything!). Like all complicated stories, like life, happiness isn't really in the moral of the story but in how you tell it, in the journey, in the language you choose to wrap around yourself and ingest.

I'm purposely not analyzing the different stories being told right now, because I couldn't avoid doing so with bias. I'll leave that to you to do for yourself. But just remember as you hear the speeches, watch the ads, listen to analysis; these are stories. They are constructed to persuade you. They are designed by master manipulators and persuaders. They are all telling one version of the truth that may not be what you would consider True. Our media will tell you the stories as many times as you want to hear them, will take otherwise inconsequential pieces of the story and blow it out of proportion, and will do whatever it takes to make you consume more media. The media, as well as the storytellers, have their own interests at heart.

I certainly prefer one story over the other. I know which storyteller I'd rather listen to, which one is telling a version of the truth I prefer. But I also know it is a carefully crafted truth. I recognize the tricks, the pauses in delivery and the micro-stories that I use when I perform. That doesn't mean I don't choose to believe anyway; I'm doing so out of hope, not necessarily out of real faith. I know the parts of his story that touch me, move me, make me believe more than the other guy's.

All that being said, enjoy the storytelling, even as you listen with careful ears. It's grand theater. And I hope the good guy wins.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Another list

I kept looking at the title of the previous post and thinking But where's the B-list? So here's a list about why I like lists. A meta-list, as it were. (Maybe I can write about mentalists another time.)

1. They help me clarify my thinking. When I write a list I stop rushing and become a little more orderly, I can see the holes in my plans and logic and the places where my emotional responses are silly or overblown.

2. They give me a concrete plan of action. So I can't procrastinate as easily. I can't pretend I don't have anything better to do that watch another episode of.... And I'm less likely to forget a step or an important observation. They help me figure out what to do next and I can prioritize more easily. I know how much I've accomplished with a list.

3. I learn new things about myself. When I write a long enough list, such as those inspired by the lists of 100, I have to dig deep to come up with a complete set. Sometimes I surprise myself with my answers.

4. They help me remember to play.
Because I can set limits on how much I need to do (cross x many things off the list) or I can write a list of playful things to try.

5. They help me move through the world.
Because really, I tend to be fairly scattered in my thinking.

I'm not the only one who writes lists. Listography is a community devoted to list writers; there are many other list obsessed people out there. I'm not as dedicated as many of these folks are, but truly, it is a useful tool.

So, I dare you. Write some lists on wild topics, such as:
- 100 ways you can be kind to yourself
- the ten things you would really like to do next week that aren't work
- your 14 favorite colors and why
- the top three fictional villains and how you would dress if you were them
- seven topics you'd like to write a list about (I'd love to see this one).

You get the idea. Play. I'm list-ening.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Monday, August 25, 2008

A list

I was away for the last several days, camping again, far from internet and cell phone access. That's part of what I love about camping - the loudest sounds I hear are those I make or the birds. Admittedly, this camp is a pretty social place, with lots of chatter, but still, it's peaceful.

When I'm there I tend to dream big and remember my dreams; one in particular has stuck with me. I dreamt I was reading a guide to becoming more creative. This is something I long for and struggle with, it's part of why I write this blog. In my dream there was a list of ten things to do, designed to stretch boundaries and force creativity. I remember that I kept laughing (apparently I was laughing out loud as I slept) and thinking that radical change requires radical behavior. I only remembered a few of them, but I loved what I did remember and set about creating a really good list (good for me anyway). Here it is. You can try to guess which were in the dream and which I've come up with since. Or not.

1. Burn something inconsequential.
2. Ask someone if you can look in their wallet to see who they are. Ask them about pictures, receipts, notes, etc.
3. Throw away something you've kept for a long time.
4. Write down everything you wished you could be. Eat the list. Digest the dreams. Then let them go.
5. Steal something. Remember, theft doesn't have to be just about breaking the law.
6. Remember who you are. Throw your self a tiny party for one with a cake, flowers and love letter.
7. Give a gift to someone you don't like or to a stranger you see regularly (in your commute, at the grocery store, etc). Really try give them something they will love.
8. Go back to a place you've abandoned. Walk around, remember it. Take a piece of it back with you and then give it away to someone without explaining why.
9. Write a love letter or an apology that you've always wanted to say but never could. Leave it in a public place. Walk away.
10. Burn something you thought you could never give up. Watch the flames, then the embers. Enjoy their beauty.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mourning the friends we never meet

A good friend of mine died yesterday. Although I never met him, Leroy Sievers became a part of my life the way any friend does. I care about him. I check in to see how he's doing. And when I read this morning that he had died, I cried. 

Leroy Sievers was a journalist. He'd worked all over the world, covering some truly horrific events including the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide. In 2006 he started blogging about his experiences as a cancer patient and had a weekly commentary on NPR, all under the title of My Cancer. His blog grew into a lively and intimate community. His writing was honest, his voice was clear, and he talked about things we rarely discuss in the public sphere. How uncomfortable it is to be ill. Death. How to live while dying. And the impact this has on our loved ones. He did all of this without drama, without sentiment. 

Leroy helped me learn how to have these honest conversations. He helped me remember to shut up and listen. He helped me remember to be grateful for my health and for my loved ones. The sorrow I feel this morning is legitimate, my affection genuine, though we never met. I know I'm not alone in feeling this way, the community built around his blog is a wonder. Humans are graced with an astonishing capacity to build connection where we need it, even if that connection is over something as fleeting as a computer screen.

I never met him, but I will miss him. Thank you, Leroy, for your honesty, for your willingness to be so open with us, for your life.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Friday, August 15, 2008

Further thought about Gatlinburg

A quick addendum to the Heaven and Hell post. 

I used Gatlinburg as a jumping off point to put forth a theory about gateways to other realms. I was perhaps unclear on one thing - I love these kinds of liminal places, I'm fascinated by them and am as susceptible to them as anyone. 

One reader commented that I have a hatred of Ripley's; I'm sorry if it came across that way. As I said, I love tourist traps and have been to quite a few odd museums including many Ripley's. In this case I found it illustrative that this town had so many museums owned by one corporation.

My apologies if I was unclear. You're certainly welcome to disagree with me opinions.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Caught between Heaven and Hell

I've just come back from the National Storytelling Conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The conference was a blast, I'd urge you all to go to conferences related to what you love, but that's not what I'm interested in writing about today.

Gatlinburg is nestled in the midst of the Smoky Mountains. It's surrounded by absolutely gorgeous landscape. Deep woods. Rolling farmland. Some rustic (and likely poverty-stricken) communities. Gatlinburg itself, while it once may have been a charming town and likely does still have some nice sections, has all the glitz and smarm of the Las Vegas strip, with none of the sin, all condensed into a mile-and-a-half main street.

I expected this, something kind of touristy but pretty:

I got this:

There are no fewer than five museums run by the Ripley's corporation. Bear in mind, I have a love of tourist traps. Feejee mermaids, the largest ball of twine, haunted houses, death cars, I'm there. But this was relentless. Faux town square next to faux museum next to chain restaurant next to another strip mall. The whole place smelled like fudge, as there were candy shops every 50 yards. It was all designed to separate you from your money in the most expeditous way possible. Which leads me to heaven and hell.

I have a theory about places like this, those locales designed to separate you from your money as quickly as possible while you think you're having fun. This theory was spawned by time spent in Las Vegas and Atlantic City as well as the surrounding landscape.

Think about it. Places like that (Vegas, AC, and yes, Gatlinburg) want to take something from you. They want your money. They want your attention and energy. They distract you with neon, sex, flash, unattainable dreams. They make you long to be someone else, someone richer, prettier, different. I have come to believe these places are gates to Hell, because the most effective way to get your money, attention and energy is to distract you, to make you forget who you are while you're longing to be someone else. Would you really buy that tourist nick-nack if you stopped to think about it? Would you really gamble away your rent? Would you prefer the attention of a paid companion to those who love you? While you're longing for all of these temporary dreams, while you're forgetting who you really are, Hell can sneak in and steal a little bit of your soul. You don't have to watch, because you're distracted by the next tourist attraction, glamorous show and slot machine. I know. I've been there.

But. These places, these gates to Hell are all balanced by nearby gates to Heaven. Think about it. Las Vegas is in the desert. Atlantic City is next to the ocean. And Gatlinburg is tucked in a valley amidst the Smoky Mountains. When you are in these places of such astonishing natural beauty, when you're face to face with the vastness of the desert, the enormity of the ocean, the timelessness of the forest, you have no choice but to be face to face with yourself. You have no choice (if you're honest and don't distract yourself) but to look at your own, small self in the face of all the universe and say I am here. You have no choice but to look into your own soul and see that it is enough. You don't need the glitz and glam and false promises. You are all you need.

For all that they are repellent, these liminal places fascinate me. I've told stories about this balance between Heaven and Hell, posited that the suburbs are the real battleground, but ultimately, it's the battle for my own soul and identity I am most interested in. To retain my integrity in the face of hell is almost impossible, but I am soothed by the hope of heaven, just next door, by the comfort of trees and water and sand and sky, all telling me that yes, I am still here. 

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Found gifts

I was walking to storytelling the other day when I found a piece of paper folded up on the ground. I am a curious person (both meanings apply, but in this case I mean I am infused with curiosity). I picked it up and found a poem by a poet I had never read before. Oh, what a gift!

The Man Who Swallowed a Bird

Happened when he was yawning.
A black or scarlet bird went down his throat
And disappeared, and at the time
He only looked foolish, belched a feather;
The change took time.

But when we saw him again in the
Half-dusk of a summer evening
He was a different man. His eyes
Glittered and his brown hands
Lived in the air like swallows;
Knowledge of season lit his face
But he seemed restless. What he said
Almost made sense, but from a distance:

          Once I swallowed a bird.
          Felt like a cage at first, but now
           Sometimes my flesh flutters and I think
          I could go mad for joy.

In the fall he vanished. South
Some said, others said dead. Jokes
About metamorphosis were made. Nonetheless
Some of us hear odd songs.
You press your ear against the morning air,
Above and on your left you might
Hear music that implies without a word
A world where a man can absorb a bird.
Creative Commons License

Monday, August 4, 2008

PMC addendum. Because we still need to ride.

One of the names on my legs this past weekend was Grace Marie. This was for Grace Marie Talbert, who has fought two hard battles with breast cancer. When we wrote her name on my leg Saturday morning she was in hospice care.

She died this morning, surrounded by her family.

She was a complex, strong, loving, stubborn woman, mother to my friend Joey Talbert, wife to my friend Dewey Talbert.

As she died she was surrounded by her family, singing Amazing Grace. She left this life on the voices of those who loved her best.

I am so sorry I had to ride for her. I am so glad I could.

Her birthday is tomorrow, August 6. I'll sing Happy Birthday to her, looking up to the sky. You may want to take a moment and wish those you love who are no longer here a happy birthday too. As long as we remember them, they are still alive.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Pan Mass Challenge, part 2

Whew! I'm done. And it was, as always, quite a ride.

I didn't sleep at all well the night before; this is unusual for me, usually before the PMC I'm happy and excited and can rest. But Friday night was dreadful, I tossed and turned for all hours. When I finally fell asleep I had two dreams. In them both it was after the ride and I was incredibly happy. When I woke up to the blaring alarm I decided to take this as a good omen.

I rode for a lot of people this year, six of whom are in the midst of their battle with cancer. We wrote their names on my legs, as you can
see here. Two of them are people I rode for last year. I write their names on my legs so they can peddle with me. By the time I finished the ride they had all worked so hard they were mostly sweated off. (Yes, the tattoo is real. And the weird little spots are supposed to help with pain. I'm not sure if they did or not.)

We drove through heavy fog to the starting site in Wellesley, milled around, chatted, and then at 7:00 am the ride started.

You don't need a blow-by-blow. I don't need to write one. If you're interested in some details you can find them on my twitter feed. Go to twitter and search for storylaura.

But it was:
- inspiring. So many people coming together to form a community to do one, important thing. I feel so proud to be part of this.
- hard. I was in more pain this year than previously; I didn't train as well as I would have liked due to knee and back issues and I paid for it. At each rest stop I would think, That's it, I'm going to stop now. And each time I would decide to wait a little longer, rest a bit, then see how I felt. I kept going. I finished, I am so glad I did.
- heartbreaking, as always. Seeing all of the names and faces that people carry. Hearing all of the stories. Everyone cries on this ride.
- exhilarating. I rode really well. Sure, I dragged on the hills, but for the rest of it I was (by my standards) no slouch. Considering how hampered I was in training, I'm pleased.
- empowering. I am alive. I can make a difference in the world. This event reminds me of that in no uncertain terms. On the bus ride back I was talking with Ben, who just completed his first PMC. He talked about how yes, he gives money to other causes, but with this he knows he has done something that makes an immediate, real difference. It's that kind of thing. I know too.
(And you can still make a real difference too - donations are accepted until October 1, I'm still well below my required donation level.)

So that's the nickel summary. I am here. I am alive. I have the honor of having ridden yet again in the Pan Mass Challenge, of pedaling my feet off to save the world a little bit. And today I get to venture out and save the world in some other way. I'll see you on the road.

(c)2008 Laura S. Packer

Creative Commons License

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Pan Mass Challenge, part 1

Tomorrow is the Pan Mass Challenge. For those of you who may not know, it's a fund-raising bike ride to save the world by ending cancer. We raise money for the Dana Farber Cancer Center. If you haven't yet sponsored me and would like to, you can do so here. If you sponsor me, let me know who I'm riding for, they can come along for the ride too.

I am feeling lots of different things right now.

I'm really nervous. I'm not in good riding shape. Two different injuries, knees and back, have had me out of commission on and off all summer. The ride will be harder than usual.

I'm sad that I'm not in good riding shape. This has, in the past, been a pretty joyful experience. I fear that this year I'll be in enough pain that I won't be able to immerse myself in the powerful moments.

I'm sad that this is still necessary, and I'm thinking about who won't be here this year to cheer for me. Last year my friend Joan showed up to meet me at the end, pulled herself up out of her wheelchair to hug me and tell me she loved me. She won't be there this year. I miss her. Others are gone too. Scott's dad Michael. My cousin Jerry. Others.

I'm looking forward to the thrilling moments, the signs (You are every day heroes and the one that always makes me cry, I am alive because of you), the knowledge that yes, I am still here. the reminder that I am a survivor too.

I'm looking forward to feeling as though my bike is a part of my body.

I'm proud to be part of this. It's changed who I know myself to be, made me into someone stronger and better.

And I'm looking forward to finishing. To crying when I'm done. And to the good sleep afterwards.

I'll see you on the other side.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer. Saving the world and alive.
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Another good quote

Speaking of fools...

I must learn to love the fool in me -- the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of human aliveness, humility, and dignity but for my fool.

Theodore I. Rubin
American psychoanalyst, whom I would probably find frustrating. Creative Commons License

Right here, right now

I am blessed by many things in my life. I am loved. I have friends, family, community. I am healthy. I have comparative wealth. There are many blessings in my life.

One of the greatest blessings is my friendship with Brother Blue and Ruth Edmonds Hill.

Brother Blue is a storyteller. In many ways he is the storyteller, the one who got so many of us started. He is fearless, passionately committed to his art and to the singular idea that we are all storytellers, that if we all listen to each others' stories, there will be no more wars because we will all understand each other. Storytelling to change the world. Ruth is his wife. She is a scholar in her own right, brilliant, kind and thoughtful. She is the counterbalancing force that makes Blue possible. She is equally committed to deep listening and to loving the world.

Together they have shaped my life and the lives of so many. They are a blessing on this earth.

They have hosted a Tuesday night storytelling group for over 15 years, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was there that I stood up and told my first, real story. I was never the same. It was their faith in me, their loving listening, that convinced me that I could do this, that I am a storyteller.

Last night many of us chose to tell our stories to honor Brother Blue and Ruth. We told them, in no uncertain terms, how much we love them. How they have helped us, changed us, inspired us. We all were in tears at some point or another. I told a story about Crazy Jane, before she was crazy, meeting a man in blue and woman with a smile that could coax flower from the ground. Brother Blue and Ruth knew what I was talking about.

We did this because, so often, at memorial services, you hear stories about how wonderful someone was, how important. Why wait? Tell the stories here and now, when the people they are about can hear them. Let them know how much they mean to you. I am so glad we took this time to tell Ruth and Blue we love them. We know they know. And really, that is one of the best, most human stories of all.

I think that may be the closest we get to happily, ever after.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Magic in the streets

There are dragons in Lowell, Massachusetts.

I spent today at the Lowell Folk Festival with a friend. It had much of the usual folk festival stuff - music from all corners of the world, food from local community associations including Laotian, Cambodian, Polish, etc, and lots of people who looked as though I knew them even though I didn't. 

And there were dragons. Gund Kwok performed, the only all women dragon and lion dance troupe in the US. They were stunning. It wasn't four women inside two costumes, it was a lion and a dragon, dancing, leaping, flirting and playing. I was completely captivated as were the hundreds of people standing around me. 

It was a wonderful thing being part of this ancient magical moment. It could as easily have been a mountaintop in ancient China as a street in Lowell. Time no longer mattered. All that existed was the dance. In that moment, it was everything.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer 

Creative Commons License

Friday, July 25, 2008

Traffic. A micro-rant.

I really try not to let traffic upset me. When I'm sitting in my car, creeping along, I use the time for reflection, to listen to music or NPR, I tell myself stories. Sometimes I watch the patterns and try to figure out where the swirls and eddies are that cause the congestion. I think about chaos theory. Usually this works well enough.

Not so this week.

I have been the avatar of Kali behind the wheel (alright, maybe not Kali, but perhaps her irritated younger cousin) ranting and raving at every jerk who cuts me off or drives too slowly. I've had no patience, trying to find alternate routes at the drop of a hat. I'm reaching for my map book (remember those? Before mapquest and googlemaps and gps made us all forget how to navigate the world?), watching my gas gauge creep down (I drive a Toyota Corolla and get reasonably good mileage, so this adds to my ire) while my blood pressure creeps up. I'm out there with all of the other driving zombies, trying not to become another statistic, and lately I've had no patience with it at all.

All of this seems to have happened because I'm leaving work just a little bit later. A mere 30 minutes has added hours of angst into my life. Bah. I guess this is a product of our modern, convenient life, but I don't like it.

More than the traffic, what I don't like is how I feel myself changing into someone else when I get behind the wheel. I used to like driving and now I feel like I'm girding for battle. I don't want to become one of those drivers, you know the kind, but I have to say, this week, I've had more sympathy.

I'd like to write something interesting here about how this could be part of my daily hero's j0urney, through the test of traffic, but honestly, it just seems trite. I'd be trying way too hard. Traffic just sucks and right now is especially trying.

Thanks for listening.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Telling tales

Last night I had a gig at Club Passim, telling the Adventures of Crazy Jane and Red-haired Annie. These two characters are my own creation, inspired by various people I know, Yeats and the odd myth-fed depths of my own imagination. They have various adventures in no-where, no-when.

I love these stories. The characters are robust and individual, the plots are intricate and multi-layered without excessive complexity and they are simply a lot of fun to tell. I wish more people had been present to hear the stories, though it was my own fault for falling down on pre-event marketing.

It felt so good venturing into those odd places for an hour-and-a-half. Besting the King of Mirrors, walking from pond to lake to sea, and getting to share these stories with good listeners.

What strikes me about telling these stories in particular is how the veil between character and creator becomes so thin. I know that each story I create is mine, that the characters are products of mining my own joy, sorrow, darkness, hope, etc. But with these characters I see it so clearly.

Crazy Jane's madness, wildness and occasional accidental wisdom tastes right in my mouth. Red-haired Annie's loyalty, hope and quiet courage are echoes of what I imagine I could be on a very good day. Whenever I tell these stories I have to breath deeply so I won't cry at the end, not because the ending is so sad, but because it feels so right, so true, so incredibly personal and real. When I tell them I am telling my own story more than when I tell a personal story. So what if I've never met the Queen of Faeries face-to-face? I've met what she represents. I know that cool gaze. And when I tell about her capturing what Crazy Jane loves best the fear that shakes my character's voice is my own.

How could I not love these characters when they let me give voice to what I cannot easily say in the here and now.

No-where and no-when is a far safer and more honest place.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

p.s. I recorded the set in the hopes that it might become my next CD. We'll see. I'll keep you posted.
Creative Commons License

Good quote

I hate this quote. I love this quote. It makes me uncomfortable. And that's good.

Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond all measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

Marianne Williamson

Creative Commons License

Monday, July 21, 2008

Fiction depiction 2

This won't surprise you, but I have pretty turbulent relationship with writing. When I'm in a dry spell I feel like a spurned lover (even though it's my own fault for not sitting down and just writing) and when I'm in a time of abundance it's as though I can't stop. I'm forever seeking that happy medium, the place where I write some every day but don't always end up drunk or destitute. 

I wrote this a long time ago, trying to understand my own relationship with writing. She isn't me, but she could be. This is somewhat unfinished, perhaps, but I still like it.


Tsunami Words

The words, when they came were like a tsunami. They swept her away and she had no choice but to be drowned. It was as though language became a force of nature and she wrote with a ferocity that could be measured in storm force. Everything else was inconsequential in front of their power. Answering the phone, the needs of loved ones were nothing to be noted. The demands of the body – eating, excreting, sleeping – were deep inconveniences, the pitiful cries of those who couldn’t swim in the waves. And she wrote in torrents, loving each word as it poured out of her.

As she wrote she muttered, paced, laughed, as though her body itself became the storm, wrenched back and forth, a lifeboat in the storm and she was eager to be drowned. As each wave rose and relented she found herself surrounded with more wreckage – unwashed dishes, ignored children, frustrated friends, but none of that mattered, because the words were there and she felt free. It was as though she was the white cap atop each great wave and she could see forever.

But when it stopped suddenly she was left adrift on the desert ocean, surrounded by salt water she could not drink, fish she could not eat. When the words would not come she starved amidst riches. She longed for the tsunami to come again, even though she knew it brought devastation.

She tried to trick the words into coming, tried to lure them closer. She would read good writing, as though trying to convince her own words to come back. “See? You would have friends, just come back.” When that didn’t work she’d put out lures, scraps of unfinished writing, as though language might become frustrated with the possibilities and sneak in, finishing the unwritten poems by itself. And as a last resort, when all else failed, she would pretend she didn’t care, would watch television and ignore the voices inside that told her she could do better.

She would wash the dishes, pick up the wreckage left by the waves, and all the while plan for their return.

Books were her altars, the more there were the greater the likelihood the words would return. She knew there was a chance she’d become a madwoman, the kind who’s home was full of items with ritualistic meaning lost when she died, but this was a risk she could take on the chance the words would come back.

Each word had it’s own particular nature, and in combination they had their own power, personality and needs. They needed to be wooed carefully. Some were brash and relentless, would haunt her dreams like old boyfriends who still showed up unwanted, while others were elusive and shy, wild things that ran at the slightest crack of a branch. She longed for them all when the storms were gone and wished they would at least send a postcard.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Writing vs telling

Maybe the title of this post shouldn't be so belligerent, but it does sometimes feel like a battle.

This post was sparked by a post in my friend Elsa's blog. She wrote about writing a story down then trying to tell it, after a conversation with a friend about the tension between writing and telling (I may have been the friend she cites, I'm not sure). I struggle with this and I'm not sure why it's such a dilemma

I am a writer. I am also a storyteller. And it seems as though those two parts of my creative self can't quite co-exist.

When I tell a story it is a protean thing. It changes every single time it's told, twisting, turning, morphing into what it needs to be in the moment. The plot remains the same (usually) but the words change, the colors shift, the emphasis varies depending on how the audience responds, what they seem to need. It's a dance between the three of us, the audience, the story and me. And every dance is different.

When I write it's about crafting the language. Choosing the right word. (Hmm... do I use protean or variable. Oh, fine, I'll show off a little. Jeez I'm pretentious.) Finding the right reading rhythm. Or tonalities that will leap off the screen or page. It's far more about linguistic niceties, because I don't have the advantage of my body and physical voice to help me out, nor do I have your direct feedback. It's a much more internal process.

Now comes the interesting part. I don't write down the stories I tell. None of them, not one of the 75 or so stories in my active repertoire exists as more than a slim list of notes, the bones.

I have tried. And I have managed to write some of them successfully, turn them into good written pieces, but when I do they pretty much universally stop being telling stories and become written works, alive on the page, but not the stage. Since much of my creative process is tied into performance I have become quite reluctant to write these stories down, to tie them to written language.

I'm not quite sure why this happens though I find it incredibly frustrating. I think it may have to do with somehow thinking the language becomes fixed once I write it. If I try to perform the story again I become more concerned with the exact phrasing and exact language, so I can't pay as much attention to the needs of the audience. I get tangled up in words. Just as in dance, if you are always worried about where to step instead of paying attention to your partner and the music, you start to stumble and fall.

It's a problem. I have a pretty substantial body of work, but it's ethereal. If anyone has any brilliant ideas about how to loosen these ties I'd love to hear them. I don't want my stories to become ghosts and memories when I do.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Physical frailty

It could be worse. But jeez does it sound dumb.

To avoid straining my knee more (which ached some after yesterday's ride) I decided I'd instead go swimming and lifting today. Before we went to the gym Kevin and I decided to enjoy this lovely day and fly a kite. 

I'm new to kite flying, so I'm still learning all the ins and outs. One of the things I'm still learning is to how to keep the string from burning my fingers when the wind grabs the kite. It's a windy day.

The kite was really going and my finger got caught, singed. I let go of the strings and started chasing the kite so it wouldn't fly away. After maybe five steps something happened inside my right knee and I fell down, in a fair bit of pain. Ouch.

I can just see the medical report. "Patient injured knee kite flying." I feel like a dope. With a limp.

If it still hurts this much tomorrow I'm going to the doctor. For now it's rest, ice, compression and elevation.

But boy, before that happened the kite and I were soaring.

(c) 2008 Laura S Packer
Creative Commons License

Saturday, July 12, 2008

oh, by the way

I've given in and started a food blog. I wanted to keep this blog more about writing, storytelling, observational essays, life, and I know once I get started talking about food I can just go on and on and on and on and on, so...

If you're interested it's here: cook pot stories.

It's nascent. 

What I find more interesting is that this suggests that I am getting hooked on blogging. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or merely naval gazing, since I'm not sure if anyone is reading any of this (hi Mom!) but there it is. We'll see how long it lasts. 

Actually, I know someone other than Mom is reading this, since I recently broke 1000 on my visitor count. Woo-hoo! Thanks for reading everyone.
Creative Commons License

White tail grace

I was out for a ride this morning and, boy, the voices were loud. You know the ones I mean, those voices that tell you (me) that you're (I'm) a failure at whatever you are (I am)trying to do at the time.

At that particular moment, the voices were saying, "I pretty much suck. Why am I even doing this? I'm in terrible shape. My knee hurts. Why bother? You won't make a difference anyway." That last was in reference to the fundraising I'm trying to do for the Dana Farber Cancer Center via the PMC. It's going slowly, no one has much money this year.

The voices were pretty loud and I was struggling to ride through them, those monsters in the road. I saw a guy stopped by the side of the bike path a bit in front of me and slowed down to make sure he was okay. He said to me, sotto voce, "There's a deer right here."

I got off my bike and we stood together, looking at a young deer, looking at us. It wasn't 15 feet away. After a little while the guy rode off while I stayed and watched.

It was beautiful. And it clearly didn't find me threatening. We looked at each other. I could see its nostrils flare as it smelled me (I did smell, I'd been riding), then it stopped watching me and calmly began eating berries off of a nearby tree. In a little while it wandered away into the underbrush. When I could no longer see it I got back on my bike and rode away.

The monsters were gone.

I am grateful that man needed to share his moment of beauty. I am grateful the deer simply is.

Sometimes the universe offers moments of grace and for once I was able to stop and notice.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Related Posts with Thumbnails