Saturday, December 26, 2009

Friday Fiction on Saturday - Retellings

(sorry for the delay, 'tis the season...")


I was in San Francisco. This is one of my favorite cities; the people, the geography, the climate, the politics, just about everything feels right to me, so I was really happy about the visit. Shortly after I settled into my hotel I decided to take a walk, I was just too excited to stay still and I wanted to see what was in the neighborhood.

Now, every time I visit San Francisco, there is one thing that strikes me beyond all else. While I certainly notice the bridge, the fog, the architecture, it’s the sheer number of homeless people that gets me. Maybe it’s the weather or the legislation, but San Francisco consistently has a greater density of homeless people than anywhere else I’ve visited in the US.

I believe that everyone should be treated with dignity, so I try to make eye contact, talk with people, treat them like human beings, even while I won’t give money, but by the 25th or 50th person who asked me for a dollar I was getting tired. I was getting tired of saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t, not today.” I was tired of seeing the far greater exhaustion in their faces. I was tired of the persistence of poverty and my own feeling of helplessness as I kept saying, “No.”

I began to walk back to my hotel, averting my face, turning into one of those people who just walk by, when I saw her up ahead; she was hard to miss. A big woman, wearing bright pink sweatpants and a red shirt, she saw me coming. When I was half a block away she began calling to me.

“Miss! Miss? Can I ask you a question? Hey miss, can you help me out? Just a little bit would help.”

She kept asking me, pivoting her body as I ducked my head and passed. She didn’t stop calling until I was a block away, her voice trailing behind me. 

“Miss? Hey miss?”

I don’t like this story. I don’t like this story. I do not like this story.

I would prefer to tell you this story:

I was in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite cities, one of those places that feels like home, so I was happy about the visit. Shortly after I settled into my hotel I decided to take a walk; I was too excited to stay still and I wanted to see what was in the neighborhood.

Now, every time I visit San Francisco, one thing strikes me beyond all else. While I certainly notice the diversity, the microclimates, the quirky stores, it’s the sheer number of homeless people that gets me. Maybe it’s the weather or the legislation, but San Francisco consistently has a greater density of homeless people than anywhere else I’ve visited in the US.

I believe that everyone should be treated with dignity, so I try to make eye contact, talk with people, treat them like human beings, even while I won’t give money, but by the 25th or 50th person who asked me for a dollar I was getting tired. I was getting tired of saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t, not today.” I was tired of seeing the far greater exhaustion in their faces. I was tired of the persistence of poverty and my own feeling of helplessness as I kept saying, “No.”

I began to walk back to my hotel, still looking at people, still acknowledging them though with admittedly less enthusiasm, when I saw her up ahead; she was hard to miss. A big woman, wearing bright pink sweatpants and a red shirt, she saw me coming. When I was half a block away she began calling to me.

“Miss! Miss? Can I ask you a question? Hey miss, can you help me out? Just a little bit would help.”

I thought about crossing the street. I thought about just walking by. Then I remembered that I was close to my hotel, that I had a hotel to go back to. I was lucky. When I got to her, I said, as I had to so many people, “I’m sorry, I can’t not today.” She stepped back and turned to ask the next passer by; I was as invisible to her as she was everyone else.

This is a better story. I wish I could tell you this one:

Not too long ago I visited San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite cities, someplace I can slide into as though I never left. Shortly after I settled into my hotel I decided to take a walk; I wanted to stretch and reacquaint myself with the neighborhood.

Now, every time I visit San Francisco, one thing strikes me beyond all else. While I certainly notice the history, the quality of the Pacific light, the interstices of the neighborhoods, it’s the sheer number of homeless people that gets me. Maybe it’s the weather or the legislation, but San Francisco consistently has a greater density of homeless people than anywhere else I’ve visited in the US. 

I believe that everyone should be treated with dignity, so I try to male eye contact, talk with people, treat them like human beings, even if I won’t give them money, but by the 25th or 50th person who asked me for a dollar, I was getting tired. I was getting tired of saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t, not today.” I was tired of seeing the far greater exhaustion in their faces. I was tired of the persistence of poverty and my own feeling of helplessness.

I began to walk back to my hotel, still looking at people, still acknowledging them though with admittedly less enthusiasm, when I saw her up ahead; she was hard to miss. A big woman, wearing bright pink sweatpants, a red shirt and a thrift store jacket from the 1980s, she saw me coming. When I was half a block away she began calling to me. 

“Miss! Miss? Can I ask you a question? Hey miss, can you help me out? Just a little bit would help.”

I thought about crossing the street. I thought about just walking by. Then I remembered that I was close to my hotel, that I had a hotel to go back to. I was lucky. When I got to her I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

She looked at me and said, “Why not?”

I was taken aback, usually people don’t engage with me when I say no.

“Well, I don’t have that much money myself. But moreso because I don’t know if you’ll use that money for food or to hurt yourself.” As I said this I realized just how pompous I sounded. She looked at me for a moment, so I added, “I’d be glad to buy you a sandwich.”


I took her order to the scraggly convenience store across the street, then delivered meal.

“Thanks,” she said, cramming it into one of her bags. “Come on, I’ve got something to show you.” Without waiting she gathered her belongings and began walking.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t hesitate, of course I did, but sometimes you go anyway. Sometimes you just do things like that. She led me up one of those steep San Francisco hills and I have to admit, for all that she outweighed me and was carrying shopping bags full of god-knows-what, I was panting to keep up with her. We turned down a few narrow streets and then found ourselves in Chinatown.

Like every tourist, I love San Francisco Chinatown. I especially love the architecture, with the few pre-1906 earthquake buildings still clinging to their neighbors. I wanted to linger and look, but she kept her pace brisk and led me off the main road to a narrower street, then stopped so abruptly that I almost bumped into her.

“There,” she said, “It’s down there.”

She was pointing down a narrow alley, a crevasse of the city. She looked at me expectantly, as if saying Why wouldn’t you? I looked around. There were few people on this residential street, those that were nearby had no interest in a tourist and a bum. I took a deep breath and stepped into the alley, back in time.

The buildings arched high above me, seeming to lean into one another. Small balconies jutted out at random while enticing, unfamiliar smells drifted everywhere. A woman cutting up chicken with a cleaver sat outside her narrow door. I could feel my guide behind me propelling me forward.

The end of the alley was blocked by a tall, wooden fence painted a brilliant blue. “There,” she said, a voice in my ear, “Look there.” I could see a hole cut in the fence.

Standing on tiptoes I peered through and saw paradise. Trellises of brilliant orange and red and blue flowers snaked across the brickwork. Potted green trees so lovingly cared for that they bore fruit even in this urban eden; mangos on their ropey stems and papaya just waiting to give up their sweetness. Small pots of herbs cut a spicy note through the sweetness and every green leaf glistened with drops of water catching sunlight from far above.

I closed my eyes and breathed in the lush living scent. I heard a rustle of wings that grew to a furor then opened my eyes in time to see a rushing shadow pass over the garden and out to the city beyond. The plants barely bobbed their leaves in response to the breeze from the flight.

When I turned around my guide was gone. I walked back down the alley and somehow found my way back to my hotel, where I dreamt of green growing things and brilliant blue skies full of flight.

(c)2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 18, 2009

A top 9 list

If you've been reading this blog for awhile you know I like lists. Lists help me think in a more organized fashion, something I often need help with. This time of year lists are everywhere. They're inescapable. The artificial close of the year drives the media to produce Top 10 lists on a near-infinite variety of topics.

I wanted to write a top-ten list for 2009, but I kept stumbling. The last couple of months have been hard, so it's challenging to think of the top ten books/moments/films/creative endeavors/etc for the past year. What I keep coming back to are the things that I didn't enjoy about 2009 and would like to do differently next year.

I don't believe in dwelling on past crappy stuff; it gives it too much power and energy in your current life. I certainly don't manage to do this all the time and recognize that sometimes your old stuff just keeps getting in the way, but naming it and then moving on can provide a path forward. In that spirit, I was going to present my top ten list of things I can avoid in 2010.

Writing this list was unexpectedly hard. While 2009 was tough I learned so much that I found it challenging to really come up with stuff I regret about the year. So this led me to the following, which I think is ultimately much more important. Try it yourself, you might be surprised.

Top 9 unexpected gifts of 2009
  1. The written word. I have returned to writing this year with a passion I thought I had lost. In no small part I have this blog to thank for it.
  2. The importance of self-care has been borne home quite dramatically. I really, really get it now. I'm working on it, though the question remains - how do I take better care of myself without stressing over it?
  3. Silence. Sometimes being confronted with myself, with the ticking clock, with the hum of the world is the best possible thing.
  4. The grace of a good death.
  5. The purity of grief. The understanding that love yields grief and is worth it.
  6. The intricacies and meditations of small tasks - chopping, sorting, digging, walking.
  7.  Discovering that I am more capable than I feared. Remembering that fear is feeling like any other.
  8. Remembering that I can make better choices. Making a bad choice and taking note of it so I can do better next time. Beckett had it right, though he may not agree with my context.*
  9. Completion and knowing when to let go, whether a life, an art project, or a list.
I hope your year was full of gifts and that the coming year give you light, creativity and joy. May you notice the gifts when they are offered.
    *Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
    (c)2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    Friday Fiction: How to tell the future

    Part 1
    For eleven year old girls

    What sleepover is complete without a good ghost story? Well ladies, this goes even further, here’s how to summon the ghost of Bloody Mary herself! All you need is a candle, matches (you can get those from Mom’s purse) and a bathroom with a mirror.

    This works best if you do it at midnight, as close to witching hour as possible. Every girl should be in her nightgown, teeth brushed, hair in curlers and ready for a good scare.

    Gather in the bathroom and turn out the lights. Take a moment in the dark. Some of you might giggle, but remember, you are summoning the dead – this is serious business!

    Light the candle. Be careful not to light your hair, Aqua Net is highly flammable. The most timid of you may want to stand watch and give warning if an adult or older brother should pass nearby.

    The bravest girl should hold the candle in her left hand and stand in front of the mirror.

    Together, everyone must chant “Bloody Mary” ten times. Blow out the candle and look into the mirror.

    Some people say Bloody Mary will appear in the mirror, dressed in red and dripping gore, ready to answer your questions about the future. Others say she’ll appear to tear the eyes out of the closest girl, as retribution for disturbing her rest. No one knows for sure. The question is, are you brave enough to find out?

    Part 2
    For women of a certain age

    First, try not to be too surprised when the moment comes, when you want to know with such
    ferocity it consumes you. The question will vary – it might be about children or career or secret longings or something less expected, but it will be there and it will sear you.

    Second, don’t waste much time denying your need for an answer. No matter what the question, the need for the answer may matter more than the answer itself.

    Third, and everyone does this, talk it out with your girlfriends. They will each answer differently and each will be wrong. Don’t be distressed, they're doing the best they can. The wisest one might refuse to answer and instead will direct you to me.

    Because, fourth, you will come eventually to me. I will not give you the answer either, though I’ll shuffle the cards and give veiled hints; it’s never clear. If I like you very much and see the right kind of hope in your eyes, I will suggest the -

    Fifth. Go home. Turn off the lights. Light a candle and gaze at your reflection in the mirror for a long, long time. Remember, mirrors used to be sacred; we dismiss them too easily now. Wait. See what happens. Welcome whoever appears and who you are when the candle burns out.

    (c)2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009

    Finally! I finished it!

    I've written before about the need to break our own boundaries in order to stretch creatively. There are all kinds of ways you can do this so I urge you to do something new - draw with crayons, knit, scribble, doodle, play with clay, something.

    I make collages, usually out of paper and other media.

    I finally finished an ambitious shadowbox project, my own cabinet of curiosities. It's taken me far longer than I expected to complete because I gave myself some fairly rigorous guidelines for completion.

    • the objects in the shadowbox had to be found. I broke that rule only once. Can you guess what the one purchased object is?
    • the arrangement of the objects had to fit within some fluid and arcane rules I made up as I went along
    • and nothing could extend further than the edge of the box, so it could be enclosed by a sheet of plexiglass.
    I'm really pleased with it. If you want to see more detail you can go to the flickr image. I'd love to see some of your creative endeavors, please send or post links in the comments section!

    I'm working on my next cabinet of curiosities, this one with a more concrete theme and limited scope. I'm hoping to have an exhibit of assemblage art sometime in 2010, I'll keep you posted.

    (c)2009 Laura S. Packer
    Creative Commons License

    Sunday, December 6, 2009

    Ten things you can tell a story about

    I regularly get one of two responses when I tell people I'm a storyteller. They either say, "You're a what? So you read to kids?" Or they say, "Cool! I could never do that."

    To the first response I take a deep breath, smile and explain that, while reading to kids is great and important, I tell stories, mostly to grown-ups. The conversation can go in many different directions from there and, if I'm lucky, it leads to a really good discussion. It often does.

    It's the second response that I love, because it gives me a chance to do a magic trick. Everyone is a storyteller; if you've read this blog before you already know that. You may not be a performing artist, you may never stand on a stage nor have any desire to, but we all tell stories. It's a crucial part of how people understand their lives and connect with others. The magic trick is helping someone see that the everyday communication they already engage in is really storytelling and how, if they wanted, they could expand on it and tell a more polished story.

    All I do is this:
    • I talk about storytelling as part of every day life
    • Then I let the conversation move onto something else
    • Within a few minutes I ask them a leading question and I listen to their response. I let them tell me a story. I listen with interest and maybe ask another question or two
    • And then I thank them for telling me their story, mentioning something I enjoyed about the story.
    At which point they realize it's a trick. Some people get embarrassed, but just about everyone is pleased. They did it. They told a story. They didn't die. Maybe next time it will be easier.

    So what can you tell a story about, even if you don't think of yourself as a storyteller? Here are some suggestions for stories; these are all topics that can take a moment or an hour, none are the be-all and end-all of storytelling, nor is this list comprehensive.
    • What was your best birthday ever?
    • What did you want to be when you grew up? Why? If that didn't happen, what would life be like if it had?
    • A time when you misheard something and what happened
    • How was your drive today? How about yesterday? Anything interesting along the way?
    • If you could have a superpower, what would it be? What are the implications of having a superpower?
    • What's the farthest you've been from home?
    • What could you give up? What couldn't you?
    • What was your first car?
    • Who is your hero? If you don't have one, make one up.
    • What makes you happy?
    I'd love to know what other topics you find useful, both as a teller and listener. Remember, the trick is that you are genuinely interested in what you're telling, so it must appeal to a broad audience and you must be interested in it. I don't generally recommend talking about the esoteric details of your job to someone you just met at a cocktail party (Unless they ask, of course). Please bear in mind, you could use these as writing prompts, but I'd urge you to take one of these and tell someone a story about it. See what happens when the words come from your mouth instead of your fingers. Have fun. Let me know how it turns out!

    (c)2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    Friday Fiction: Winter to Summer

    Four men stand outside on a mild winter day. All have big, solid bellies and the broad callused palms of those who have spent their lives working with tools and rope and dirt. Their hard-hats in their hands, they shift back and forth as they feel the strain in their necks, heads bowed toward the ground. No one speaks. A few ice crystals glisten in the mound of newly turned earth.

    “I’ll sure miss her,” says one. The others all nod and grunt their agreement. One sniffs slightly, pretending it’s the wind.

    After awhile they turn and go back to work. The morning light catches on a foil-wrapped soda bottle graveside, sprouting plastic flowers. Later, one man, not the one who spoke nor the one who sniffed, returns and sets a ring of stones around the mound. By the next morning a yellow wooden cross is planted by the grave, inscribed with the words, “Nance. A good cat. 2001-2008.” No one mentions the cross. No one asks.

    Winter flows into spring. The grave settles into the earth. The mice seem to have left out of respect for the dead. Work in the yard continues as it always does and the men make no mention of the cross by the fence. Nor does anyone comment on the occasional new flowers that appear by her resting place, or the saucer of milk placed by the ring of stones once a week, or the reluctance everyone shares in finding a new garage cat. Spring is a busy season, full of muddy axles and tire changes; there is little time to think of such things.

    By summer the grave is almost flat. The stones that mark its border are so dark with mud and time, they could have been there forever. The cross is faded to the color of butter, the black lettering to grey. The plastic flowers still shine red and vibrant, no one looks closely enough to see the spatter of dirt. The milk that appears once a week is sipped away by squirrels and a stray cat that has taken to loitering by the fence.

    By mid-August the stray has enough courage to sit in the sun outside of the garage while the men eat lunch. “Willya lookit that,” says one of them. “Bold as brass that tom is. Whaddya think, should I give him a little of my lunch? It’s been a long time since we had a cat around here.”

    (c)2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009

    World AIDS Day

    Today is World AIDS Day. If you're reading this in the US or another Western country, then it's likely that AIDS and HIV aren't really on your radar anymore. The current medication cocktails have made HIV a condition someone can often live with for years, though their quality of life may be effected. HIV may not seem like the immediate death sentence it once did.

    But if you're in Africa or South America or if you're poor or if you or someone you love has HIV then you know that this disease is still a significant and terrible threat. You don't have to be gay, black, white, promiscuous, a drug user or somehow irresponsible to get HIV. Anyone can contract it. You may already know someone who has HIV. I could have it. You could. You don't know unless you get tested. You won't know unless you ask, unless you hear and tell stories.

    When I first heard about AIDS I thought That's it, we're all dead. A fatal sexually transmitted disease seemed like the end of humanity. Now I recognize it's far more complex. Among other things it's a call to action.

    Act with compassion for all people; this illness inspires prejudice, but it can and does effect anyone. It gives us the opportunity to be our most compassionate selves.

    Act with determination; by educating ourselves and others, by funding and supporting new research we can come closer to beating it. Along the way we learn more about ourselves, our bodies and how to live with each other.

    Act. Don't be a passive, silent witness to your own life. While you are alive, live so you make the world better for all, whether that means wearing a ribbon, so this disease isn't allowed to become something only "they" get or do something else to connect with the world.

    (c)2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Friday, November 27, 2009

    Friday Fiction: How to make a golem

    How to make a golem, God forbid you ever need to

    I tell you this in the hope that you never use this knowledge. I tell you this in the hope that the world has changed enough that you never need to use this knowledge, that there will be no more pogroms or genocides. I tell you this so it will not be lost, because God has given us the gift of knowledge and learning and to let such things die is a sin.

    You start, my child, with intent and need, the way you undertake any great work. And then the way God started, with a lump of clay. You must touch it with your hands, as we did. We were scholars, our hands unused to such rough work, so we could not shape it into anything more than the rough form of a man, but it was enough. Your golem, if you ever have such need, will surely be a thing of great beauty with delicate hands and well-shaped eyes. If you make it in haste when they are close on your heels and it is poorly shaped it will still work. Its form does not require eloquence.

    You must breath life into it, as God did to man, as you might if it were a friend who has lost their breath. And with each breath your associates must utter the true name of God. I tell you that when I heard this as my lips were sealed on its moist, cool mouth, I could feel a trembling begin underneath me, as if it were my lover.

    And then you simply write the Hebrew word for truth on its forehead in the damp clay. This is important, remember, because when you must destroy your golem (and a time will come when you must) you simply erase the first letter and the word for death is all that remains, because is there not some small piece of life and death in every truth?

    Step back quickly, my dear, because the golem will rise to do your bidding. Anything, exactly as you request, so be careful. Do not, for example, ask it to bring someone to you, because it will do so with no care to their condition when they arrive. I know this.

    Do not ask it to speak. If it speaks then it is almost a man and its heart may break with the knowledge that it is yet without a soul. That would be too cruel. I have heard that a golem can sing with such sweetness that angels come to listen, but the ears of men are not made for such song, nor are our eyes now made to witness visitations.

    Remember this, my heart. A time will come when the golem knows what it is and that is when you must erase truth leaving only death. Once a thing shaped by human hands knows it is not divine, its wrath becomes boundless and no kindness will ease its sorrow. I know this, too.

    I tell you this with the hope that you need never use this knowledge.

    I tell you this because I know the world has not yet changed enough.

    (c)2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    Pending fiction

    I was considering writing about gratitude, this being the week for it, but then I realized this is something I write about a lot. I don't need to delve into gratitude especially for Thanksgiving week because it's an ongoing theme in my life. You can read some of my thoughts on gratitude here. Or here. Or here. You get the idea.

    So what to say? What's first and foremost on my mind is the arrival of my family for a Thanksgiving visit. It will be both wonderful and stressful, the way these visits usually are. You know what I mean. Any loving crush of people always has joy and stress associated with it. Right now I'm thinking:

    • Will the bed be comfortable? Will they be able to sleep?
    • Do I have enough food in the house?
    • Are the towels clean?
    • What will we do once dinner's over?
    • What did I forget?
    • Am I a good enough daughter?

    I'm sure some large percentage of you can identify with these questions, but that doesn't mean it would make an interesting or useful blog post.

    What occurs to me, however is that last year Thanksgiving was immensely challenging. My blog post told only a little of the story and I'm not going to expand upon it here. But that story has now fed other stories. While I don't tell the "true" events, the truth of it has become excellent fiction. The sick friend? Oh yeah, there's an echo of her in a story or two. The potential illness? Of course that's influenced my work. It's certainly influenced my levels of sympathy. My own history with my family? Doesn't our history touch all of our creative efforts? All of that stress and joy has fed into my creative engines and is emerging as deeper, richer, truer fiction.

    And that's what I expect to happen over the next few days, though I hope with less drama than last year. I need to remember, when I'm clenching my teeth and thinking I am not carrying on my family traditions or I'm not patient or... my life becomes pending fiction. So does yours. Enjoy.

    (c)2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    The art of letting go

    I don't know about you,  but I have an unfortunate tendency to fill my life up. I fill it up with stuff, with activity, with worry, with nothing. Nothing can be pretty time consuming. What I need is less of all of this. I need more white space. That's where creativity, healing and play happens most easily. I need to remember to schedule in more white space that I don't fill up with doingthedishes, watchingtv, frettingaboutsomething, otherthingsthatoccupybutdon'tnourish.

    What's hard for me about creating white space, and maybe for you too, is that it requires me to do a couple of things.

    1. I need to say "no" to things that might be fun or that I feel some obligation towards.
    2. I need to let go of some projects, social engagement or other creative activities.

    Both of these are a kind of letting go.

    When I give myself more time to think, dream and play I can create more readily, feel and understand my emotions, move through my life with more integrity. These aren't new or original thoughts, but it's topical because I've decided to let NaNoWriMo go.

    I've written about NaNoWriMo before; for those of who don't know, it's a month long writing adventure wherein you, and thousands of other people around the world, commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in one month. It is an excellent exercise in writing discipline and shitty first drafts. I've completed it twice and was really looking forward to this year.

    But this year Brother Blue died when I was three days in, having written just over 5,000 words.

    Some things are more important than others. I needed to take care of my chosen family and myself. I needed to learn how to navigate through all of the emotions I've been feeling. I'm still learning. I needed to take a lot of down time to just breath. I did not need to write an arbitrary 50,000 words.

    It was really hard, realizing and accepting that I wasn't going to complete NaNoWriMo, even knowing that my reasons were excellent and I'm still writing other material. It's been a superb lesson in letting things go and has gotten me thinking about other things I can release.

    Do I really need that stack of magazines I've not gotten to in months? Do I need to hold onto so much stuff?

    Do I really need to worry about the inconsequential details? What happens if I ask for more help or delegate?

    Is it so wrong to lovingly say, "No"?

    What is left when I let go of this? and this? and that?

    It's a good question. The art of letting go is one I find challenging, but I keep practicing. So I ask, what can you let go? What seems precious and essential but is really just standing in your way? How can you create white space in your life?

    (c)2009 Laura S. Packer

    Creative Commons License

    Sunday, November 15, 2009

    Grief and gratitude

    A praise song.

    My mentor of the last 20 years or so died last week. It's taken me to today to be able to write this. It's taken me to today to be able to write much of anything, the words were pretty much knocked out of me. But in the last week I have learned so much about love, grief and gratitude. I am so grateful. I am so grateful.

    I've written about Brother Blue before. He was an extraordinary man. Born in Cleveland in the 1920s, he went on to serve as an officer in WWII (no small feat for a black man in the 1940s), then attended the most elite educational institutions in the US. By the mid-1970s he was telling stories on the streets, in prisons, to the homeless, pretty much everywhere. And he was listening, spreading the gospel that everyone has a story to tell, that listening to one another can change the world.

    He was right. He has changed a multitude of worlds by telling his stories and listening to others' stories in turn. We all contain worlds within us, we each are our own little world, and Brother Blue changed just about everyone he met. He was kind and compassionate like no one else I have ever met. He accepted people. He had an unrivaled depth of curiosity that would lead him to ask questions and listen and listen and praise and listen.

    I am who I am because of Brother Blue.

    While I might have told stories anyway, I became a storyteller because of him; I've tried riskier, scarier stories because I knew Brother Blue would be there, listening, telling me, "That's good, that's good." I try to be kind in part because I saw his kindness over and over again. My belief that listening and compassion are the hallmarks of my path through the world undoubtedly was shaped by him.

    The last time I saw Brother Blue I kissed him on the cheek and told him that I love him. He patted my cheek and said, "Alright, baby. I love you too." And really, in the end, that's the best any of us can hope for, that our loved ones know how we feel and we know they love us. I am lucky.

    I am immensely grateful for Brother Blue's presence in my life, his presence in the world, for all the lives I know he has touched and the thousands more I will never know about. While the world may seem smaller without him, I know my world is infinitely bigger for his presence in it.

    Thank you. I love you forever and ever and ever.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Monday, November 2, 2009

    Wisdom from the mouth of ghouls

    On Friday I went with a friend to Spooky World, a collection of "haunted" houses. It's a blast, kind of an immersive theater experience, though there is a sameness to most of the attractions; some variant of zombies or scary clowns, a section with strobe lights and another with faux bodies hanging from the ceilings. I found myself yelling at the actors before they could yell at me, perhaps some old survival instinct trying to frighten away the spirits before they could get me. It was really a lot of fun.

    One of the attractions stood out from the rest. For one, I went through it alone. My friend had already gone through it. For another, it had a coherent theme throughout - instead of a bunch of disjointed rooms the whole thing was a Victorian dinner party gone very, very wrong. And finally, it was dark. There was no real illumination beyond the glowstick I was given to light my path. I cupped it in my hand held high above my head to shine a weak light in front of me.

    This attraction was genuinely scary. I walked through it alone in relative quiet and had to find my way in the dark. The actors (the ghouls) perhaps because I was alone, didn't jump out at me as much, but talked with me a little more than they did in the other houses. It was fascinating and creepy, more like really talking to the dead than like having people in costume jump out and startle me.

    One ghoulish woman was especially effective. She drifted up to me in the dark and asked, "Are you wandering alone in the dark like a lost little child?" to which I replied, "No, I'm in the dark, a lost adult." As I said it I realized how this was a double edged statement and not entirely inaccurate. A moment later she reappeared, "Remember, not all who wander are lost," and she was gone.

    I wandered into the next room, then the next, talking with various ghouls, jumping at some, laughing with others, but this one woman has stuck with me. She gave me such a gift, inadvertent spiritual wisdom from this side of the grave. I doubt if she remembers doing this or knows that her clever line was meaningful, but for that moment she became the ghost with gifts, a gift I needed. Thank you.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Friday, October 30, 2009

    Flash Friday - Zombies

    Special for Halloween.

    *   *   *

    If you’re reading this then you must have gotten away, heard the warning sirens or one of the last news reports. Thank goodness. You’re one of the lucky ones.

    I’m giving this letter to the underground network. I told them to look for you, to try to get it to you, to tell you I’m thinking of you. I know I’ll never see you again. I have a gun and will use it when they get too close. I won’t become one of them.

    Guns don’t work on zombies.

    I was at home with Zack when they attacked. You remember how I told you on the weekends we turned off the tv and radio, shut off our computers so we could just relax? That’s what did us in. We didn’t know they were coming. We heard the sirens but figured it was just the police running for donuts again. So we ignored the noise.

    I don’t know if it would have made any difference at that point anyway, they were everywhere.

    We were upstairs, in bed, when we heard the banging, windows breaking. It’s the usual story, I’m sure you’ve heard it over and over. Zack thought it was burglars, so he took his baseball bat – you remember the one we used for softball when you visited last summer – and crept down the stairs. They were already inside. He ran back up, locked the bedroom door and tried to tell me what he saw. I didn’t believe him, went to open the door, and he hit me. He hit me. He’d never done anything like that before, but he hit me to keep me away from that door. I knew it was something serious then. He wrapped his arms around me and cried, telling me how sorry he was, but there was something awful out there.

    That’s when we heard the banging on the door and the moaning. I have nightmares about that moaning and wake up screaming. Do you?

    He pushed me towards the window, the one that overlooks the garage roof. It was a lovely dawn, bright and clear, and there were zombies in the house. It seemed like something out of a stupid horror movie, the kind he liked to watch so he could laugh at me when I got scared.

    The door broke. And zombies came in. I don’t have to tell you how awful they look; I don’t have to tell you about the smell.

    We struggled to push the air conditioner out of the way and open the window as they shambled closer. Zack had his baseball bat and swung at them, connecting with one on the head. It made a sound like a rotten melon and it fell, just as I opened the window and climbed out. He was coming out behind me, and they grabbed him. I latched onto his arm and pulled, and it was like some kind of terrible tug-o-war. He kept yelling for me to go, but I just couldn’t let him go. Then I heard a tearing sound, and he started screaming. Not for long. All I had in my hands was part of his shirt.

    I jumped off the roof, got on my motorcycle and took off. Some chased me, but I was too fast. I was crying and screaming the whole time.

    Some people in the underground found me after I crashed the bike.

    We’ve been hunkered down here for awhile now, but we’re running out of food and they’re closing in. When I crashed I hurt my leg, it hasn’t healed right. I can’t go with everyone else. That’s why I’m sending you this letter, so someone will remember. So someone will remember Zack. and all I have left of Zack so I know someone will remember him.

    Be careful. Be vigilant.

    Stay alive. Creative Commons License

    Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Birthday presence

    I love birthdays. It's important to have one day, every year, when you unequivocally say YES! I am HERE!

    Today is my birthday, so here are 42 birthday presents and moments of presence, in no particular order and one for each year of my life. And yes, it's not lost on me that I am now the answer to life, the universe and everything.
    1. The smell of autumn leaves, life out of decay.
    2. My family in all their crazy, persistent, loving, nagging, wonderful selves.
    3. I am surrounded by love
    4. and the realization that love is not roses and puppies, but that love can be hard, smell like piss and is still infinitely valuable.
    5. The rough hand of the bum as he seeks a moment of comfort and safety.
    6. The warm, smooth sweetness of tea in my mouth, the comfort in my soul as I cradle the cup.
    7. The shock as I took my first few breaths underwater, learning SCUBA. The realization that I wouldn't die, that my mermaid-self remembered.
    8. The gift of listening, of letting go of myself and hearing another human being tell their story.
    9. Touch. The feel of skin on skin, from the simplest touch to the most intimate contact.
    10. The sound of wind in trees in all seasons, whether the whisper of new green buds, the gentle clapping of summer leaves or the chitter of bare branches scraping against each other.
    11. The patience to see the world in many ways.
    12. Salty, crunchy, sweet, savory, smooth, bitter, sour, umame. Rich and plain, chewy and subtle. All of the flavors, tastes and scents that inform my fingers, mouth, tongue and tummy.
    13. Taking the time and thought to write this list.
    14. Walking at a comfortable pace, moving through the world under my own power.
    15. Stones large and small. Those worn to hand shape, great cliffs that tower above, gems that glitter and granite that holds its secrets tight.
    16. And fossils that tell stories of life from impossibly long ago.
    17. Living things. Dragonflies and octopi. Wolves and leopards. Goats and snails. Hawks and hummingbirds.
    18. The gifts of the dead, their stories and memories. Ghosts and artifacts.
    19. Playing with little kids who haven't yet learned to be self-conscious.
    20. The calm distance in my body when I am engulfed in a good book.
    21. Stretching, feeling my muscles and sinews move.
    22. The smell of sauteing onions.
    23. Singing out loud, without caring who hears.
    24. The satisfaction of giving something away.
    25. Laughing so hard I can't stand up or wet myself just a little. Knowing this will happen more often as I age.
    26. The thrill of a crack of the thunder and lightening. Even when it's fearful.
    27. Remembering to be compassionate.
    28. Hope and the opportunity to hope again. The rejection letter, the failure, the missed parking space.
    29. The changing weather. Cloudy days and fine. The cut of cold air, the weight of the summer.
    30. Those sterling moments when I remember who I am, when I am at my best and most whole. Those moments are rarely when I expect them, so they keep me guessing and awake.
    31. Surviving and thriving. Scarlet fever, cancer, childhood, adolescence, adolescents, driving, eating, loving, living.
    32. Sleep, the comfort of waking warm and safe. Waking knowing there is more in front of me.
    33. Sex. The delicious thrill of my own body and the bodies of others. Taste and scent and convulsion and more.
    34. Dreaming, sensical and not. I love knowing my mind is creating even when I'm not really there.
    35. Which leads me to that wonderful, deep sense of presence when I'm creating. Writing, art, telling, anything, when I create something I am here.
    36. Regret. I try to live my life without regret, understanding that I make each choice the best I can in the moment, but those things I regret tell me so much about the world and how I want to move through it, that I can view it as nothing less than a gift.
    37. Kites and wind-up toys and sharp kitchen knives and beautiful glass and evocative art and the right poem in the moment. All of these things make me stop and notice.
    38. The perfect tool for the job, the one that fits in my hand and invites me to use it. This leads back to the act of creation and honest, hard work. Presence in the world.
    39. The smell of metal and bread and rain and grass and snow.
    40. My mother's scrambled egg sandwiches. My father's delight in showing me something new to him.
    41. Deep breaths in fresh air.
    42. Walking through this life, knowing that there is more to come. More work and laughter, more time (or not) and more hope. I think humans are creatures of story and of hope.
    Thank you for reading this. I'd love to know if any of these are on your list of presents and presence, I'd love to read your list.

    If you're interested in last year's list of things I'm grateful for, it's here.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
    Creative Commons License

    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Back in the world. Wait, did I leave it?

    As you may know, I spent last week on vacation. I'd thought I could blog while away, but our hotel had a slow and expensive internet connection and, quite honestly, I decided simply to enjoy being on vacation. It was wonderful.

    Re-entering the world, the every-day world, can be a bit challenging. Wait, it's not 85F and sunny? How come I'm not diving today? And why can't I drink a chocolate monkey (don't ask, I don't know, but boy is it good) anytime I want? You know the answer as well as I do, which is that my life keeps moving forward. Now is the time to do other things. Was that the answer you were expecting?

    While I was away I thought a lot about what it means to live the big life. I've written about this before, about how the Big Life is actually the right now life, but there's nothing like a shift in perspective to drive this home.

    Here is some of what I wrote in my journal:

    "I am so glad for the break, looking forward to the time away from the regular routine and my own chaos. But this leads me to ask myself, why is it that we build our lives so vacation is a desperately needed break? We have one walk through this world, it seems such a shame that most of our time is spent doing things we don't want to.

    "Thinking about this further, it could be such a statement of privilege. There are so many things that must get done - dishes must be washed, bills paid, etc. Someone has to do them and in my own life I should attend to my own needs.

    "So that leads to - how do I take more joy in the tasks of the present, so the things I must do don't feel like such a burden? If I must work (as most of us must) and the work is not the work of my soul, then how can I engage in it such that I enjoy it as much as I can? I don't want to live my life yearning for the breaks. I need to live now."

    After a week of what felt like really big living, I am giving myself the following challenge:

    I am in the world, in the big life, every moment, whether or not I remember that I am. I was in the world while on vacation and am still in the world now; I never left. This week I want to remind myself to take joy in some of the small moments that might have otherwise been an irritation. I've headed one page in my journal to list them. So far I've recorded
    • the crackle of bubbles as I washed dishes
    • the satisfaction of throwing away things I should have tossed a long time ago.
    I'm sure work and the coming week will give me more opportunity to add to my list.

    Try it. Who knows what unexpected pleasures you may find. Perhaps taking out the trash will become a small vacation from the ordinary if you pay the right kind of attention.

    p.s. if you want to see vacation photos go here.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    Friday flash fiction: she sat in the airport, nervous that she'd forgotten something, as she ran away from all she was. "this is the start of my new life," she told the woman next to her, knitting booties for her fourth grandchild. "and this is all I ever wanted to be" was the reply. Creative Commons License
    En route to vacation, long travel day. Will post ramble tomorrow, thank you for your patience! Creative Commons License

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Where storytelling really happens

    Every time I tell a story successfully in front of an audience (and this is not every time I tell a story) I am forcefully reminded of one thing.

    Sure, I worked on the story. I learned it, thought about it, honed it. But this is not the only crucial factor for storytelling success. Sometimes an improv where I'm making the whole thing up as I go along can be the most successful piece of the night.

    And of course, the setting may be just right. The lights are good or the campfire crackles. But I've told stories in some pretty harsh environments and had them work, while other times the best locale has seen me crash and burn.

    And I've had experiences where I've selected the right story for the audience, I'm paying attention to them so I can shift my telling along with them and it still doesn't quite gel. Maybe they have other things on their mind (the economy, the overall purpose of the meeting for which I've been hired as entertainment) or maybe a cute baby wanders onto stage. You just can't compete with a baby.

    What time and again matters the most for successful storytelling is allowing the audience time to listen, the opportunity to experience and build the story in their own imaginations. As a storyteller, my job is give the audience a well-crafted narrative, well-presented, and then get out of the way.

    The real work happens between their ears.

    I can tell the most familiar story and every listener will experience it differently. What color is Red Riding Hood's hair? What's in her basket of goodies? While I may never mention those things you know the answers and that deepens your story experience. When I tell an unfamiliar story the listener still fills in the blanks and knows the story with an intimacy that I can never match. If I were to try to fill in all the details (What does Crazy Jane wear? What shape is the Djinni's bottle?) I both take up too much time and steal some of the experience from the listener. I serve my audience and the story better by painting around the white space and letting them fill it in.

    The work of storytelling happens in the white space, which the listeners fill in. My job, as a teller, is to give them enough detail that they know the shape and texture of the space, then they can make it their own.

    Next time you hear a story try noticing all the things that aren't said. Enjoy the richness of your own imagination. Next time you tell one (even if it's to your dog or partner or kids) notice how much you don't have to say. Who cares what tie your boss was wearing: It's enough to know they were formal in their dress. If you have a chance, ask your listener what they saw and enjoy how their world, made from your words, differs and aligns with your own.

    Storytelling lets us build these bridges of words and imagination. It's a marvel to me how many worlds we build together in the simultaneous moment, and how varied and similar these worlds are.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
    Creative Commons License

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    Creative longing

    Often when I tell people, "I write," or, "I tell stories," they reply, "Oh, I wish I could do that." I hear such longing in their voices. I recognize that longing because I've heard it in my own voice, when someone tells me they paint or dance or sing. We all long to be creative in ways we are not or long to be creative at all when we believe we are not.

    That longing is a double edged sword.

    On the one hand it can be disheartening and gives us permission to be lazy. There is a myth of inborn talent - great singers or writers or dancers are born, not made. This ignores all the hard work that went into honing the body or selecting just the right word; it's downright disrespectful of the determination and dedication it takes to be a successful artist. Sure, a measure of talent helps, but most people can learn to carry a tune or follow a sequence of steps or write a decent sentence. They may never be stellar at the art, but they can find joy in it if they so choose. There is joy in creation even if it will never lead to Carnegie Hall or a Pulitzer.

    On the other hand, the longing may lead us to try harder or to try new things. If you long to do something, try it. If it's something you truly cannot achieve then make it possible for someone else. Or try something else. Longing to dance and too shy to try? Maybe yoga or rock climbing will work for you instead. Want to write but afraid you can't? Try it anyway, keep a journal or write someone a letter. The worst that happens is you decide to try something else.

    Longing can lead you to new and wondrous lands or it can trap you. The choice is really yours.
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    Friday, October 9, 2009

    Friday Fiction

    I tell a series of original stories concerning Crazy Jane, a holy fool, and her friend, Red-Haired Annie. They have all kinds of wild adventures in no-where and now-here. The stories range from light-hearted to serious but always have a core of friendship and honest madness.

    In this story Red-Haired Annie tells some of the truth of life with Crazy Jane. While this story comes from the middle of the cycle it's a nice sample of their voices.

    * * *
    Crazy Jane's Dream

    I love our little house by the edge of the wood. It’s warm and comfortable, not the like the stone house I grew up in. Living here with Crazy Jane I feel safe and content.

    Ever day since she rescued me from what would, no doubt, have been a terribly ordinary existence, I wake and am grateful for all the oddities in my life. Although, to be sure, living with Crazy Jane has its challenges.

    She’s a terrible cook but insists on trying anyway. A little while ago she tried to make soup from her oldest, foulest pair of socks, which wasn’t such a bad idea if you think about it. Surely there were plenty of little living things in there, but really they would have made a better accompaniment to cheese than ingredient in broth. It took us days to get the smell out of the curtains. Or the time she decided to make bread with extra yeast. She talked to it while it was rising and the yeast decided it wasn’t interested in being baked, so we had to chase the dough around the kitchen. She insisted we keep it for a pet, though it eventually escaped, went rogue as Crazy Jane likes to say. I don’t know what happened to it, but I imagine it’s out there somewhere in the woods, still rising and avoiding ovens.

    Things like that happen around Crazy Jane.

    You only know her public face and really, that’s enough for most people. Most people are content knowing the fool, enjoying her madness and then walking away. I see the other sides of Crazy Jane and I have to tell you, she is as rich and varied as anyone I have ever met. The things she knows about the workings of the human heart astonish me, I don’t know how she became so wise. Sometimes in her sleep she whispers words that I don’t understand, but I know for someone, somewhere, they would have such meaning.

    Now most nights, Crazy Jane sleeps like the dead. She snores and sometimes talks, but I’m usually the one the night will find awake. Sometimes I even get up and have tea, watching the darkness beyond the window. And that’s fine. I like the peace and quiet of those late night hours. As much as I love living with Crazy Jane it sometimes can be awfully loud, so the quiet is nice.

    One night, not so long ago, I was drifting along, not asleep, not awake, when Crazy Jane sat up suddenly. In the dark I could hear her breathing, rapid and ragged.

    “Red-Haired Annie, are you awake?”

    “Yes,” I said, “what’s wrong?”

    “I had such a dream,” she replied, “A dream that filled me with such sorrow and horror that I had to wake up to escape it, but when I woke up it was as though I woke up into the dream again. Are you sure I’m awake?”

    “I’m sure. Tell me.”

    “I dreamt I was in a hall full of people. You were there, the people from the town, everyone I’ve met. The hall was full of laughter and talk and I turned to say something to you but then you were gone. And it sounded like this.”

    Crazy Jane was quiet.

    After a long silence she took a deep breath and continued, “The silence grew and grew until it filled me up. It filled up every corner, every hidden space inside of me. When I woke up and couldn’t hear anything, not the sound of the trees in the wind, not your breath, not the hiss of the fire, I thought the dream was real and I was made of silence. I thought I had disappeared.”

    “Crazy Jane, it was just a dream. Listen, you can hear the wind outside. You can hear the sound of my voice. You can hear the sound of the stream if you listen very hard. You are not full of silence, but still full of stories and madness and light. I promise. I can hear it in you.”

    She was quiet for a long moment, then said, “Alright Red-Haired Annie, if you say so. I trust you.” She rolled over and soon fell back asleep.

    I lay there for a long time in the dark, listening to the quiet world, to the silence in my head, to the endless night. And I hoped it was only a dream.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
    Creative Commons License

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009

    Kurt Vonnegut on writing

    I love reading writers' thoughts on writing. In his book, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short FictionKurt Vonnegut lists eight rules for a short story. How lovely and wise, especially his later offhand comment that great writers break rules.
    1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
    2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
    3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
    4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
    5. Start as close to the end as possible.
    6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
    7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
    8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
    Creative Commons License

    Stories as connective tissue

    Last weekend was the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. It was a huge amount of fun, thousands of listeners hearing exquisitely told stories by some of the most skilled tellers in the nation.

    Whenever I'm at an event like this, or any storytelling event really, I tend to sit in the back. This isn't from modesty or claustrophobia, but because I love watching the crowd as the teller's words touch each and every listener. They form a net that includes everyone in the room, linking them by common experience and images.

    While each listener imagines different things and ultimately may remember a story differently, the shared experience of listening to a story makes the entire audience into one being. The story is the ligament that binds us. From my seat in the back I can sometimes see everyone move together, leaning forward as the teller pulls them into the tale or jumping at a scary moment. The audience moves like one animal.

    Stories are connective tissue in culture and families as well. They are how we identify ourselves, how we know that I am of this group, so this is my story. If you are Jewish then you likely have some common elements of story around survival and loss and redemption. If you are African-American then you likely have common elements of story around enslavement and freedom. Family stories act as connective tissue through generations (for example, this is how we got here or this is our land) binding young to old and helping youth retain family identity through the trauma of adolescence because they know who they are by the stories they were told and in turn retell.

    When we tell and listen to stories we are reminded of our common bonds, of how we are not so different from one another. We are connected by our very human natures; in narrative we have the opportunity to see the similarities and release the differences.

    Once upon a time there was a family. The parents loved the children and let them go into the world to seek their fortune. Some succeeded, some failed. They told their stories so they would be remembered. And so the stories remained long after the original tellers were gone.

    Stories reach across time, space and distance to give us the same narrative connection. We are human. We tell stories. Listen to me and I will listen to you.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

    Creative Commons License

    Sunday, October 4, 2009

    Living the big life

    I'm just home from the National Storytelling Festival and I'm thinking about the Big Life, since I promised I'd write about it here and because the Festival reminded me of some of my dreams. Whenever I write that phrase Big Life I feel a thrill in my heart and the voices in my head sing, "Someday I'm gonna live the Big Life!"

    But then I have to ask myself two questions:
    1. What does the Big Life mean?
    2. Why not life my Big Life now? It's not like it's tapping its foot waiting for me to show up.

    When I try to define the Big Life I find I get distracted by goals: I seem to think Big Life means achieving certain things. I want to do this, I want to accomplish or experience that. These are all parts of living, but they aren't how I want to live my life. By living my life mindfully (whatever that means for me or for you) I can take better note of opportunities and decide if I want to act on them, I can be kinder, I can be more present in the world.

    I am coming to believe that Big Life simply means living and knowing that I am doing so. It means I am not waiting for the world to come to me, but I am going out to the world. When we live mindfully, when we walk through the world with open hearts and minds, we can't help but live the Big Life because the world is always out there waiting for us to experience it.

    So go on, live big. There's no reason not to. And in the process I guarantee something wonderful will happen.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
    Creative Commons License

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009

    Whew! I made it!

    My goodness, September has been an adventure; I managed to keep my commitment to blog daily throughout this month. It's been a roller coaster; some days I was eager to write, others I thought this was the dumbest idea I've ever had. I managed to do this with only a few temper tantrums and generally without spilling too much paint. Or verbage. I think.

    Things I've enjoyed about blogging daily:
    • The process. Thinking about writing feels great. And moving through world thinking, "I could blog that!" is pretty cool
    • I've gotten to meet people I never would have otherwise
    • My writing habit feels much more ingrained, which was the whole point of this exercise
    • I had to stretch to find something to say some days. This is good, it made me think and explore
    • It's forced me to look at the world with new eyes, finding new things to say, hoping I'm not repeating myself too much
    • It's also helped me think more clearly about different kinds of creativity. I've always written, but I need to remember to feed myself creatively in many ways; writing about it has helped me remember how important it is.
    • It's helped me clarify some of the things I care enough about to want to write about, rather than just rambling for the heck of it.
    Things I've not enjoyed about blogging daily:
    • My god, I am just not that interesting. Since the start of third week I've been struggling to find things to say, I've not wanted to talk about myself or navel gaze anymore.
    I'd be really interested in any thoughts you'd like to share about this past month. Please post them in the comments so I can share them with everyone.

    Blogging is a communal experience. I find this kind of writing compelling because it's as close to storytelling, or audience-based writing, as I have yet come. It helps me write more and write better if I know the audience is more immediate than, say, when I'm working on a piece that may only merit a rejection letter or, worse, writing in my journal.

    I'm no longer going to post daily (as I said, I'm tired of listening to myself) but I am going to try to post at least once a week on cookpot stories and three time a week here. I'm considering this structure, though it's open to debate:
    • Wednesday: Storying the world. Observations on living the life of a storyteller, how stories shape us, meaningful stories, etc.
    • Friday: A ramble, observations, thoughts about something I care about, etc.
    • Monday: Living the big life. Creativity challenges, guerilla kindness, etc.
    What do you think? I'd be really interested in your thoughts.

    I hope you have found something of value in this month of posts. I hope you look at the world a little differently now, take more joy in the overheard, stretch yourselves creatively just a little bit more. Thank you for listening to me and participating in this experiment. I hope you keep creating and living with joy. And yes, the little girl in the picture is me. I never was good at painting within the lines.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

    Creative Commons License

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009

    Repentance and joy

    Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. While I am not a deeply observant Jew, I do pay attention to the big holidays; I'm maybe one step up from a Christmas and Easter Christian, if that makes any sense at all.

    I spent 4 hours in Temple yesterday, praying in community for forgiveness for our sins over the past year. Part of what moves me about this service is that we do it all together; no one person has to claim responsibility for their own sins, we all claim responsibility for everyone's sins. Sure, each individual knows what they did, but since we're all doing it together it becomes much easier to name the unfortunate acts and move on from there. By the end of the day the slate is clean; we have a chance to try again and try better in the coming year.

    We are asked to try to forgive others for those acts they may have committed against us. The things that have hurt us. Coming into Yom Kippur this year I found that I was carrying around a couple of hurts that I really needed to work to let go of. It was hard. Ultimately, I found I needed to forgive myself for clinging onto these wrongs before I could let go of the wrong itself; once that was done it became much easier to move on.

    We all do this, of course. We all hold onto little grudges that become giant boulders on our backs. It's not worth it. I don't need to love the people who have hurt me, I only need to not hold onto the hurt they inflicted and allow them to move through the world as I move through the world, doing the best I can. As I will.

    At the end of Yom Kippur, a fast day, I broke my fast with friends and family. I wrote about it here. I believe everything tasted so much better, the figs were sweeter and the wine richer, not because I was hungry, but because I'd let go of some of my bitterness. It seems a shame that this is something I practice only once a year, maybe this will be the year that I remember to try more often. Because really, life is much richer if I only carry my own baggage around, I don't need anyone else's. I'll send it all off to lost luggage and instead learn how to dance.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
    Creative Commons License

    Monday, September 28, 2009

    Monday beauty

    A few minutes of beauty for Monday. If you enjoy this check out Blu's site.

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    Sunday, September 27, 2009

    Sunday links

    A quick list of yummy links for you:

    Chowhound, people as passionate about food as you are ever likely to meet.
    Amuse Bouche, a delightful cooking blog.
    Practically Edible, a food encyclopedia.
    101 Cookbooks, anther food and life blog, mostly veg.
    Food Porn Daily, exactly what it says.
    Food origami. Play with your food.

    Have fun! Creative Commons License

    Saturday, September 26, 2009

    Saturday bravery

    On Saturdays I'm posting original work. My original work. This is sometimes really hard; I know I can write a decent essay, but some of the other stuff? whew, that's scary. That being said, I believe life is best lived facing the demons, doing the scary things from time to time.

    Leda, grown old, to Helen
    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

    Oh, my daughter

    How could I have known your birth would be our greatest curse?
    As if it were not enough that you were conceived
    in a rush of wings and an unwelcome mating:

    When I found myself imprisoned in feathers I could only think
    "But this is the stuff of story. Why else would this swan betroth itself to me?"
    I should have known your fury while in my womb.

    There was never a more perfect baby
    even covered in blood
    your radiance filled the room

    And as you grew I should have known that my Helen
    conceived out of story
    could be nothing less than story herself.

    Your beauty eclipsed mine from your first touch at my breast.
    I did not begrudge it to you-
    beauty can be such a burden.

    But now I wonder, if I had known of all the blood
    and death
    that would fall from your name,

    If I had known your father's intent in your conception
    (how we mortals make the gods laugh)

    If I had known the cost of your beauty,

    would I have left you on the rocks or
    broken your tender skull
    as soon as you crawled from my body?

    What is the price of beauty?

    Oh, my daughter
    if I could undo what has been done,
    take back the blood of your birth

    I would do so

    and let the poets tell different stories.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Friday, September 25, 2009

    The walls have ears

    A selection of the observed and overheard.
    1. "We're all interchangeable pawns." Overheard in the corridors of a tech company.
    2. Bartender 1: That's white of him.
      Bartender 2: What did you day?
      Bartender 1: I said, that's white of him.
      Bartender 1, laughing: You gotta love the South.
      Over heard in a bar in North Carolina. I was initially stunned then cringed at the stereotype.
    3. Overheard, while walking across street, "No death for us!" My first thought: ever? How boring!
    4. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of spreading a conversational meme. I was talking with an acquaintance about the relative merits of twitter and facebook. Within a few minutes I heard one conversation near me about facebook, then another about twitter. I guess I'm not the only one who eavesdrops...
    Hear anything good this week?

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Thursday, September 24, 2009

    Two last September tips for creative living

    As you know by now, Thursdays I've been exploring creativity. Blogging daily throughout September has been an extended creativity exercise for me and I hope the suggestions I've offered throughout the month have been helpful. Next Thursday is the last day of the month and I'd like to devote that post to thinking about this month-long blogging experiment, so I wanted to offer you two tips today.
    * * *
    Take your time. Don't forget you have senses other than sight. Close your eyes. What does this moment smell like? How does it feel in your hand or belly? What are the sounds around you? And if right now were scent, what would it be?

    When we use the full range of our senses the world becomes that much bigger and we become more connected with the world. In turn, as the world becomes broader and our connections deepen, we can breath in more of it and recreate it in whatever our own medium may be.

    * * *
    And don't go it alone. Find someone who will listen to you without interrupting and tell them your story, tell them why the painting, the dance, the work matters. Tell it to them and let them just drink in your light. All they have to do is give you the chance to listen to yourself; they don't need to criticize or ask questions, their whole job is to give you the chance to see the art inside of yourself. We so rarely have the chance to just hear our own brilliance, give yourself that gift from time to time and you'll be amazed at how your creativity blossoms.

    I'd love to know how your journeys go. I expect I'll continue blogging about creativity and artistic process, it's something I find endlessly fascinating. Send me your tips and thoughts to share. We're all in this together, after all. It is by supporting each other that we become better artists, change agents, dreamers, builders.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
    Creative Commons License

    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    A story

    The Strawberry
    A Zen Tale from Japan

    There was once a man who was being chased by a ferocious tiger across a field. At the edge of the field there was a cliff. In order to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there were more tigers on the ground below him! And, furthermore, two little mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. He knew that at any moment he would fall to certain death. That's when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth.

    He closed his eyes as the sweetness filled his mouth. "Ah, delicious."

    * * *

    I love this story. Take from it what you will.

    What is delicious in your life, in this moment?

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer

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    Tuesday, September 22, 2009

    Hanging between worlds

    Today is the Autumnal Equinox, the moment when time and light stand in balance. Last night was as long as today and, for those of us in the Northern hemisphere, it marks a shift from extended light and the hope of more warmth to creeping dusk, to the time when trees whisper of digging their roots in deep for the winter, to the worried glances of squirrels as they forage for one more acorn.

    I love these shifting kinds of days. They give me pause to consider the passage of time both personal and global, and my own smallness against the monumental cycles of the planet.

    Taken further, in general I love the places and times that are between worlds. Twilight, doorways, the micro-environments that spring up in the cradle of an exit ramp. I love not knowing what's around the corner; in all likelihood it's the familiar, but the possibility of the other is alway there.

    The places and times that are between worlds suggest such possibility. In this moment, on this day, we are reminded that we are part of a cycle so much larger than ourselves. We are reminded that we don't know what happens next, that there is a universe of possibility in front of us, in the next moment. We are reminded that we have such opportunity to decide if the dark is ally or foe, if the doorway is an exit or entrance, if the thicket of trees holds wolves or wise old women. We decide if the stranger offers us gifts or thievery.

    The Equinox gives us the chance to remember that we are here, in this moment, between light and dark, that this life is but one moment in the life of the world, and isn't that glorious? The world has existed forever behind us and will go on long after we do, so we may as well live our brief time as best we can, in the best balance that we can.

    Today, on the Equinox, I will take a moment to think about the balance of my life, the choices I have made that have led me to this moment, and I will imagine my foot on the path forward, walking in balance between light and dark, between this world and the next. I'll see you along the way.

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
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    Monday, September 21, 2009

    Monday delight

    This is wonderful! Made me laugh out loud and spill my water...

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    Four things you could do today

    Alright, so it's another Monday, so that means a few more reasons to go out and fight dragons.

    There's a low-level thread going around twitter right now called boycottmonday. People are coming up with silly reasons to say no to Monday. Instead, why not make Monday the day when you go through the world with an open ear and mind. Try one of these tricks instead.
    1. Tell someone a dumb joke. One of my favorites is:
      What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?
      See? It's so dumb that most people can't help but smile.
    2. Make an origami crane and give it to a stranger. It's a sign of peace.
    3. Take a walk. Make a map of the route you took, labeling the sounds you heard while you walked. Mail the map to yourself and take the same walk next Monday, so you know now you'll have something to look forward to in a week.
    4. Ask someone you meet to tell you a joke. Pass it on.
    Any other ideas? If you try any of these I'd love to hear what happens. And send me your jokes!

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

    Sunday, September 20, 2009

    Sunday sightseeing

    Today's set of links focuses on travel from in front of your screen. I love the way the net lets us dream the world more easily.

    Atlas Obscura explores the stranger corners of the world. Cataloged by both locale and type of curiosity, the Atlas encourages you to plan your next trip not only for pleasant breezes and cultural exchange but also for curiosity and wonder.

    Creepy Russian Playgrounds is exactly what it describes. It makes me grateful for the playground of my youth.

    Scouting New York is a wonderful blog that explores hidden places in New York City. I refer to this blog every time I go to NYC.

    Top 10 abandoned places list ten wonderful places I hope to visit. You may have noticed a theme here; I love abandoned places, the sense of what has been, the hope that lingers in the corners.

    And lastly, the online Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Because it's nice to not be in this world sometimes. Heck, I spend a lot of time out of this world.

    Have a good trip!

    (c) 2009 Laura Packer Creative Commons License

    Saturday, September 19, 2009

    The Psychic Hairdesser Returns, part 2 (fiction)

    And now, more insights and commentary from the seer of shears, the trimmer of truths, the mirror of our lives, the Psychic Hairdresser!

    I hate it that my hair is so straight. I want a perm.
    Sweetheart, perms are merely momentary and the change I see coming into your life is, well… do you have life insurance? Oh, what the hell. Let’s do the perm. Don’t worry about a thing.

    Dye it black. Black like the night. Like death. Like my soul.
    Don’t you know that there are real, bad things out there that you just shouldn’t be calling to yourself? Death comes to all of us sooner or later. Honey, I know it’s fun to think you’re shocking your father with the tattoos and piercings and so on, but this is what you need to know: Go home. Look in the back of his bottom dresser drawer and get over yourself. You’re a pretty girl underneath all that eyeliner. Stop rolling your eyes, someone had to say this to you eventually and it might as well be me. Now, do you still want that dye job?

    My mother said she’ll throw me out if I don’t get a hair cut.
    There is no way I’m cutting this gorgeous hair more than an inch. Are you really that much of a momma’s boy? Oh. I see. One buzz cut coming up.

    I’ve heard you’re psychic! Can you read my palm?!
    But I can tell you if you keep using those home perms you’ll be as bald as a baby in no time. My price list is right here.

    Send your questions to the Psychic Hairdresser by emailing or posting comments below! Free answers with a wash and style! The Psychic Hairdresser knows all!

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
    Creative Commons License

    Friday, September 18, 2009

    Watch what you say!

    This was a good week for keeking.

    - A one way dialogue between two women in a shopping mall lot. One woman said to the other, without pausing for breath, "Do you know what's hard? I'll tell you what's hard. What's hard is..." Sadly, I never got to hear what was hard. I'm hoping she said, "...granite."

    - Out for a walk in a wealthy suburban town, I saw a mom and her children walking a goat and three kids on leashes.

    - In a large, chain hardware store with orange branding. One associate talking with another.
    "Man, working here sucks."
    "It's a job and it's better than sitting at home."
    "Whaddya mean?"
    "You get paid to pretend you can fix shit here. At home I gotta pretend for free."

    - Three little girls running through a park with their arms spread, blowing raspberries. I think they were airplanes. This made me grin for days.

    What have you seen or overheard lately?

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
    Creative Commons License

    Thursday, September 17, 2009

    Missing muses and flying monkeys

    Today is the day to write about creativity and, I have to admit, the muse is missing. I've spent most of the day tracking down some computer issues, making other people look good while remaining invisible and this makes coming up with something creative, let alone possibly inspiring, challenging. Which leads me to today's topic.

    There is a creativity teacher named Jill Badonsky who calls blocks flying monkeys. She includes little devils like procrastination and taking yourself too seriously in the category of flying monkeys.

    Today I have felt like an animated character with a halo of flying monkeys about my head. I find when I'm having a day full of these charming friends that if I name them, notice them and invite them to leave, it helps. By naming the little problems I realize just how small they are.

    This is my list for today:
    • I have a headache. So take some medicine!
    • My computer is being weird. So I got some help, fixed the problem and things seem to be okay. It really wasn't the end of the world, just slowed me down some.
    • I did something for someone and someone else was credited. So what? If I dwell on it that makes it worse. I can choose to speak up or let it go. It's not worth dwelling on.
    • My desk is messy. Oh, come on. There is a lot to be said for good, creative workspace, but it's not an excuse to not work.
    You see what I mean? Each one of these flying monkeys is ultimately a small and insignificant excuse for not sitting down and working.

    Which leads me to the last thing I want to say tonight. Creativity isn't a bolt out of the blue. You can't sit around and wait for it. Creativity comes from practice. Instead of hoping that I'll have a magical moment when I can finally write, if I can get past my flying monkeys, sit down and give myself the opportunity to create on a regular, routine basis, I am much more likely to create. It's like exercise. You get strong by using your muscles even when you don't want to.

    And that's what tonight's post is; it's my exercise. I'm all sweaty with creativity now. Now it's your turn, go out there and work up some creative sweat. Tell me what you come up with.

    (c) 2009 Laura Packer Creative Commons License

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Fine. So they make me hyperventilate. Still.

    On Wednesdays I'm writing about other people's work. So far I've touched on poetry and painting, today it's music. One band in particular.

    I grew up listening to classical, jazz and folk music. When Elvis died I didn't know who he was, but I could tell you if a symphony was by Mahler and which one it was within a few bars. I was a nerd. When I was ten I met Esther, who thought all this classical stuff was great, but couldn't believe I'd never heard of The Beatles. She played some of their records for me, showed me who was who (Paul was the cute one, John was the one with glasses, Ringo was the one with the big nose (sorry Ringo, we were 10) and George was the one with the eyes. I've never gotten over those eyes) and my world has never been the same. Just like it's never been the same for millions of other people.

    Their music got me through every turbulent moment of my adolescence, even though they broke up years before. They sang to me, talked to me, comforted me. I can still quote most of their movies line-for-line. Sure, there were other musicians who helped me along (a CD of my stories to the first person who can name the singer of this line: I'm not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with potential of a superman.) but I always came back to the boys.

    I'm sure most of you know all about this and have your own Beatles love stories, your own little smiles as you think of what they meant to you. Or some other musician who played the same kind of role in your life. I'd love to hear those stories.

    Let me tell you about one recent Beatles moment that still makes me grin.

    I've known that Paul McCartney toured, but never wanted to pay the exorbitant prices he was asking for tickets. This year I finally broke down. Maybe it had something to do with George dying a few years ago, knowing half the Beatles are gone. Maybe it had to do with issues of my own mortality. Maybe it had to do with knowing that Paul and Ringo are much closer to my parents in age than they are to me and thinking will I have another chance to see a Beatle?

    35,000 other people made the same decision. It was the best sign-along I've ever been to and one of the very best concerts. We all knew all the words to every Beatles song (at least 75% was Beatles material), many of us were playing air guitar, everyone - from the five year olds to the 85+ year olds - was dancing. No one cared if they looked foolish, everyone was happy. It was as though we each were having our own, personal relationship with Sir Paul (as we were) at the same time that we were with 34,999 of our best friends.

    And I realized that's what the Beatles did and are still doing, almost 40 years after they broke up. They bring us together. They remind us of the potential of a shared dream and that we all have at least this music in common, even if our personal experiences of the music are different.

    Music is powerful, it shapes us and inspires us. Neuroscience has established the music effects our brains on a grand scale (classical music especially so) and, in this case, the music of the Beatles kept me from going crazy when I was a kid. And now? The Beatles remind me of who I was and that I am the product of all my years. My current favorite Beatles song is In My Life with its love and nostalgia and sense of we have all felt this. We have all been here.

    I'm still a proud nerd; I still love classical, jazz and folk. I also love a wide range of modern music in all different kinds of genres. And I will always turn up the volume on the radio when I hear the Beatles and start singing along. Care to join me?

    (c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
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    True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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