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
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