Friday, June 27, 2008

Because this is worth rereading

I imagine Mary Oliver is sick of this poem. But, god, it has changed so many lives, including mine.

Sometime ago I was driving home, a six or seven hour drive. The visit had been hard, harsh, full of my pain suppressed so others could be absorbed, full of recriminations and accusations of being unkind. I was in a numb place and desperately needed to remember who I was, but I was long gone. As I drove through the night, the long ribbon of the road in front of me, I needed some kind of fuel to help me. I heard the words wild geese in my head. And I was smart enough to listen.

I called my friend Robert and asked him to read me this poem. Without asking why, he did. I cried. He read it again. I thanked him. I got home.

Thank you Robert.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Myth? Oh myth, where are you?

Sometimes it feels as though I'm missing something, as though a vital part of my life has slipped away and is taking a vacation without me. This tends to happen when I'm overstressed, overtired, too busy and fretful to pay attention to what's happening inside of me because I'm distracted by what's happening outside of me. When I'm in this state I tend to read lots of light stuff, fun fluff. I putter a lot. I don't keek as much as my nature would incline me to. It's easy to coast along like this, feeling as though I'm half here because it's too hard to go looking for the rest of myself.

When I finally notice I'm not present I can do a couple of things. I might shrug and pick up another fun, inconsequential book. Likely something I've already read. Something I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit I've read, let alone read more than once. But it's distracting. 

Or I might sink even further, decide all is lost and watch tv instead.

But. If I'm lucky, if I notice when the moon is in the right phase, when the stars are aligned, when the gods are smiling just enough, I might try to do something about it. There are a few cures that work, but the one I want to talk about here has to do with story.

The really old stories, the ones that begin with Once upon a time and A long time ago have stuck around for a lot of good reasons. To begin with, many of them are just really good stories. You knew that already, I know. But just think about it - all of those human elements are there, and those old stories map out for us how to live, or not live, our lives.

Death (and who knows what comes after).
Even boredom and the routine of daily life.

Everything about what it is to be human is recorded in those old, old tales. 

We really haven't changed all that much. We may engage in all of those activities at a faster pace thanks to the technology around us, but we are still essentially the same animals we were thousands of years ago.  

What does this have to do with my missing self? When I am clever, after noticing I'm not all here, I go to the old stories. I go to In the beginning and immerse myself in that sense of deep time. I fill up with all of those symbols that help provide meaning to what it is to be human, I remind myself that I am merely one small instant in this long, long story. And slowly I am filled up again, slowly I become a hospitable environment for myself. I remember to look and see the world. Notice the leaves. Hear the stories around me. Smell the summer. Just as humans have been doing forever.

It's not an instantaneous process, it's not foolproof, but it's something. I have to keep redirecting myself, but god! the whole world is there for me in those stories. It's there for you too. Take them in, then let them go, recreate them in your own image and rediscover who you are now. You may be surprised.

Stories feed us and sustain us if we let them. 

(c) 2008 Laura S Packer
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Friday, June 20, 2008

Night listening

I had mild insomnia last night. Sometimes I get really agitated when I can't sleep, but there are other times when I don't really mind. When I relax into the dark and quiet, when I can just be part of the world.

I woke up around two and was awake for at least an hour, listening to the world around me. I could hear the wind in the trees. I wondered what they were whispering about.

I could hear a car door slam, the car start and drive away. Was it the end of a party? The start of a work shift? The aftermath of an argument? Or someone else not sleeping who wasn't content to lie in bed and drift? I do love that drifty feeling, I used to imagine I was in a boat on a safe, dark sea and the waves would lull me to sleep.

I could hear my breath and heartbeat. Once, when I couldn't sleep, I rested on my side and listened to my heart in my ear. I told myself a story about when the world was young, when the heartbeat of everything could still be heard. When the heartbeat of the rocks and pebbles was in syncopation to that of the ocean, which was a counterpoint to that of the birds and lizards and worms. And so on. It was a good story, one I even remembered when I woke up.

I woke up last night from some kind of frightening dream, I was so sure I'd remember it I didn't bother writing it down. As I lay there in the dark I reminded myself over and over, it's just a dream. I still thought it was interesting, but I soothed myself so well that now all I remember is the start of waking, the sharp edge of fear and knowing there was something that woke me.

And I remember the quiet summer dark. The rustle of leaves and answering rustle of sheets as I turned. And my breath gradually slowing as finally, I fell back to sleep.

Sometimes, listening to quiet is what we most need.

(c) 2008 Laura S Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I keep trying to write a post about hope (I know, I repeat myself sometimes) but keep coming back to the blues. Not the music, I love the music, but the mood.

I have the blues. I'm whiney, mopey, dopey and just a pill to spend time with. I'm tired of listening to myself complain. Crying is boring (though cathartic and sometimes revelatory) but sometimes it's just all I can do. I've not been able to write about hope because right now? It's not a big part of my emotional vocabulary.

I know it will pass. The blues have visited before and likely will again, an unwelcome house guest who eventually leaves me with a mess to clean up, but does leave. For now though, it just sucks. I feel like an unwelcome stranger in my own life.

I keep trying to think of it metaphorically - Yes, this is an important part of the hero's journey - and then decide that's just so much bull. I feel crummy.

I keep trying to remind myself that, realistically speaking, I have very little to complain about. I'm fairly healthy, I'm loved, I love. When you get down to it, those basics make me lucky. That doesn't really help when I'm in one of the potholes I've been encountering. Potholes aren't rational places.

I keep trying to think my way through and we all know that doesn't work, but feeling these feelings just makes it worse. There doesn't seem to be much room between thinking and feeling right now.

Phooey. I know, it will pass. I'm not the scum of the earth even if I'm feeling that way on occasion these days. And this isn't the whiniest, most self-indulgent blog post on the planet, though I think it's in the running.

Thanks for indulging me in this post, it's useful writing it out. And thanks for your patience, your regularly scheduled blog will return soon.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The music of what happens

It seems to me that since I am a storyteller I should occasionally relate stories here.

I am not the first to ruminate on listening, nor will I be the last. The ancient Irish understood that the incidental sounds in our lives were as precious to hear as anything we could deliberately create. Listen. What do you hear?

From the life of Fionn, the greatest of Irish chieftains, borrowed from the Sacred Texts website.

Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.

"Tell us that," said Fionn turning to Oisi'n.

"The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge," cried his merry son.

"A good sound," said Fionn. "And you, Oscar," he asked, "what is to your mind the finest of music?"

"The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield," cried the stout lad.

"It is a good sound," said Fionn. And the other champions told their delight; the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laugh of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a one moved in passion.

"They are good sounds all," said Fionn.

"Tell us, chief," one ventured, "what you think?"

"The music of what happens," said great Fionn, "that is the finest music in the world."

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer (such as it is, the story isn't mine)
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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Riding past fear

It is the things we fear and face that shape us. I know, other things shape us too, but those monsters in our path that we manage to get by, shaking, maybe bleeding, leave scars that we can wear proudly, scars we can decorate with tattoos of pride.

I am once again riding in the Pan Mass Challenge this year. And for some reason, this year I am fighting it tooth and nail. 

For those of you who don't know, the PMC is a two-day 160 mile fund-raising ride that supports the Dana Farber Cancer Center, a world-class treatment and research center here in Boston. And for those of you who don't know, I had cancer when I was in my 20s. I'm fine now, but it is one of those things - one of those monsters - that leaves scars.

This ride. The first time I did this ride it changed who I see myself to be in some fundamental ways. I became a cancer fighter, not just someone who had a tumor, an illness. I became someone who could change the world by riding a bike. I became someone who could ride a bike for a long time, in spite of being a short round woman. 

Each time I've ridden it's been different. Last year, for example, I had back pain so had to cut the ride short, but it was still just as powerful. I still cried and laughed and rode and rode and rode. I still triumphed. I'm sure I'll write at some point about the ride itself, but for now, I need to write about this.

And now this year. The ride is in two months and I am no where near ready; the preparation is a monster in my path, whispering that I can't do it, can't ride that far or raise that much money. I only just started fund raising and I am not riding enough to be sure that the long August miles will be fun. I need to get past the monster of my own fear.

So the only thing to do is to ride. To wave to the monster in the road as I pedal by and to trust that my legs are strong enough, my heart is brave enough to carry me past whatever pain and worry is haunting me. To remember that this time, right now, is just as much a part calling myself a cancer fighter as the two days of the ride, as knowing I've raised the money that helps others.

I'm sure you have your monsters in the road too. If I can ride past mine I'm betting you can dance past yours.

(c) Laura S. Packer

p.s. If you want to sponsor me click here

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

At sea

I’ve spent the last week on a cruise. This is not a vacation choice I would have made for myself, but was a wonderful, generous gift from a friend, and it has been revealing. I’ve learned a number of things while I’ve been out here. This isn’t the most inspired of posts, but I still wanted to touch base here, now, while these thoughts are fresh.

First, the ocean is big. Really big. Big in a way defies description and fills me with admiration for those early sailors who took off across the waves in boats much smaller than this one. The ship I’m on is large, I can’t capture it in a single photograph, the publicity shots are all from a helicopter or across a harbor, but in the middle of the ocean, we are no more than a grain of rice in this vast bowl of blue. The horizon that surrounds us is so broad and flat that I imagine bumps and texture that, intellectually, I know are not there, but my imagination places them there because I can’t really comprehend of that much space around me. No wonder early maps had mythical lands on them, no wonder the oceans on most maps, even now, are much smaller than they really are! We can’t believe that we are as finite as the ocean forces us to accept.

Truthfully, I’ve always kind of liked these experiences that force me to come face to face with my finite nature, with my smallness in the enormity of the world. I think I like them because it’s comforting to think that, no matter what I do, it is only the actions of one tiny person in the world and too, it’s a nice way to say, “But I am still here! Even in the face of all that!” This has certainly been the most extended version of that experience I’ve ever had. And this entire ship is designed to minimize that experience. It’s big, it’s confining, and it’s overwrought in its design, a constant statement of “Look at ME!” When I get home I want to spend some time looking at something comparatively simple and small – my garden, a leaf, a wall. Something without neon.

And another thing I’ve learned – while the ocean has reminded me of how small I am, the service here is supposed to make me feel special, but it only serves to make me feel anonymous. The staff are all very pleasant, but they have to be. They aren’t nice because they like me, it’s because they are paid to be. I don’t like this level of servitude, I’d rather get my own cup of tea sometimes, rather know that the person smiling at me actually sees me, not just another customer. I don’t think I really would want to live in the lap of luxury for too long. I’ve discovered I like taking care of myself. Admittedly, someone to do a little more around the house would be nice, but not like this, not for this long.

And a final thing I’ve learned, though not the last, is how very deep pattern recognition runs in people. We see shapes in the water and the horizon and know they are something real, even if they aren’t. After a week on a ship with 3000 people I recognize so many faces. I have the same conversation with most of the people I’ve interacted with (where are you from, what do you do, gosh there’s a lot of food here). We are creatures that recognize patterns because it’s what kept us alive way back when and now it keeps us in routine, safe, familiar. It’s not an adventure, but it does offer comfort. No wonder we keep telling the same stories over and over again. We recognize these patterns, tell these stories, so we know who and where we are, so we’re not lost at sea. We need them, we need to recognize them, just as I recognize the face of the woman I’ve never spoken with but saw in the corridor a few days ago.

Who knows if I might, someday, need her?

(C) 2008 Laura S Packer
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