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
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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
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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
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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.
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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

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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
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