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
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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
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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

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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
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