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
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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
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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
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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
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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.
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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
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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

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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.
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