Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Love stories

Alright, I know I'm late, Valentine's Day was a few days ago, but since love stories are everywhere, regardless of season or date, I thought it might be fun to look at some of the reasons to tell love stories and some things to consider while doing so.

True love, first love, lost love.

Humans are fascinated with romantic love, commitment and procreation (I'm not talking about sex directly here, but about the bonds that lead us to create families). Mythology is full of love stories. Cupid and Psyche. Rachel and Jacob. Krishna and Radha. Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot. Our folktales are consumed with love and marriage. Our films, all musical genres, books and popular media are consumed with it. Who and how we love matters, we love talking about it, dreaming about it, telling stories about it.

Unrequited love, secret love, unwanted love.

When we tell love stories, regardless of the content of the story, we are revealing some of our own longing and dreams. We can't help it. The stories we choose to tell are always revealing, especially so when those stories are about something as meaningful as love. It's worth keeping this in mind when you stand up in front of an audience and tell a love a story; when you finish, they might know a little more about you that they did before.

There are some points to consider when telling love stories.
  • Personal, real-life love stories are very powerful for the audience to hear. They can identify more easily with you, the teller, and the other characters if they believe this is a real-life (or close to real-life) experience.
    • Has enough time passed since the incident that you can tell the story without the audience having to worry about you or you having to worry about the consequences? If you fall apart in the midst of your story then the audience is wrenched out of their own imaginations and into concern about you. Your job as a storyteller is to help them stay in that story-trance. If you can't yet tell the story of your break-up without crying, work on the story more or wait a bit longer. If the story is about your unrequited love in 7th grade that turned into an affair thanks to Facebook when you were 30, you may want to leave the story in the first person and only conceal the identity of the other people in the story as needed. I don't recommend telling your spouse about the affair this way; make sure enough time has passed that all the involved parties can bear hearing the story or at least knowing it exists.
    • If you choose to tell a real-life love story decide how much information you should reveal or conceal. If the story is about real people, would they mind you talking about them? If your parents met in a strip club and this is a closely guarded family secret, you may want to shave off the serial numbers a little.
    • Your passion becomes the audience's passion. There is a great deal of difference between, "We broke up," and "I loved them so much. It was so good for so long. And then something happened." Use your emotions to build the narrative. 
  • If you're telling a myth or folktale, don't strip the passion out of it. Tell it like it's real. These stories have stuck around for a long time because they talk about some of the basic parts of being human.
    Isis' quest to restore the body of her husband Osiris is full of love and sex, jealousy and triumph, pain and loneliness, feelings we may think of as very modern, yet the story is thousands of years old. When you tell these stories, they are your story. They speak of your own experiences in metaphoric language, so you can infuse them with your own love, longing, pain and jealousy.
  • Use sex appropriately. Sex can be a part of love and so it may have a place in our love stories. If your story has sex scenes make sure you've practiced and are comfortable telling them. Do your best to gauge your audience; for many audiences an implied moment is far more meaningful and comfortable than a more thoroughly described one. Generally with love stories, you don't want to knock your listeners out of their story trance by making them embarrassed. 
  • Everyone has similar experiences. The details of your love story will vary and will be utterly unique to you, but we all have loved, longed and lost at some point in our lives. By telling these stories we connect with one another, we comfort each other, we are given permission to feel just a little bit more than we might otherwise allow ourselves.
As storytellers we are the ambassadors of human experience. Regardless of the kinds of stories we tell - but especially stories of basic experiences like love - we offer our listeners a chance to feel less alone, more connected and more alive. We heal ourselves and others by telling love stories and offering the hope that we, too, will be loved.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 4, 2011

Fiction: The True Cause of World War 1. Part 3

Part 3. In which the poets reclaim their words from God.

The story so far... In Part 1 we met a group of poets in the early 20th century. Language is their love, their mistress, their all consuming passion. One day, a new poet named John Davies is introduced to the group. He seems naive and unlikely to be a crafter of words. He reads them a poem and they realize he is  someone extraordinary. In Part 2 John Davies reveals that he received a visitation from a heavenly messenger who told him he is destined to write the greatest poems of his generation, all in praise of God's return. He reads his friends a poem and they are compelled to write...

I wasn’t alone. We were all compelled to write throughout night, right where we were. We didn’t go home, we didn’t stop to wash the ink from our clothing or our hands.

The next day our fists were full of paper, our fingers ink-stained. We hadn't slept but, oh, we all were so alive and we all had the best poems we’d ever written. Sheaves of paper in praise of God, heralding God's arrival. This went on for days. We read each other poems, which compelled us to write more, praising God, praising creation, looking forward to heaven on earth. We didn’t drink or stop to eat beyond the barest sustenance nor barely to sleep. All there was, was poetry, glorious language and the hope of God’s retrun.

Every day John Davies had greater and greater poetry. His words were inspired beyond anything I had ever read, beyond anything that had ever existed. Soon John took to the streets reading his poems aloud on street corners and in parks, in markets and outside churches. Instead of ignoring him or mocking him as though mad, people stood and listened. The rag man, fish monger and the wealthy alike all were entranced. They would walk away telling each other of God's imminent arrival, their faces suffused with joy. The newsboys stopped calling out the latest murders and wars and instead screamed, “God is coming. Prepare yourselves for joy!”

It spread like ripples. Everyhere John went, all anyone could talk about was God. No longer did people discuss their own dreams and woes, cures for colic or recipes for bread. Business ground to  a halt in his wake. Anticipation filled every crack and alley. God was coming. And John was God’s herald.

I don't remember who got angry first - perhaps it was the one of us who tried to write letter to a friend but could only write praise. Or the one who threw down his pen in dismay when he tried to write “I had a good day” and instead wrote “God’s day is glorious. “ Or the one who wanted to write “I have a headache,” and instead penned, “God teaches through suffering.” We could no longer write anything other than God. There were no words in our hearts not full of God.

We began to talk in whispers. One by one we all admitted our rage except for John Davies, who was too full of glory to see what what had been stolen, too full of joy to mourn the loss of the voice of man. If part of what poets do is talk of man’s experiences so God can understand us, how can this god steal our voice? How can God understand anything of us now, when all our words are God’s? If poetry is God seeking to understand man, then how could God take man’s voice out of poetry?

What could we do? The bubble of praise was spreading. John was like a disease, everyone he touched, everyone he spoke to had nothing left, no words or hope or glory of their own. Nothing left but God.

Seigfried asked first. “Take us to your rooms, we want to meet this messenger, feel this heat.” John Davies refused.

Robert implored him. “Come. Let us see the light that creates poetry. Don’t you think we are as hungry to feed at the source as you were?”

John said nothing, only looked away. A few days later he came to us and said that yes, he would bring us to his rooms and show us the messenger.

His rooms were no different than mine. A few rooms, a bed and a desk, a coal stove, books. But in his room was light and warmth and grace such as we had never seen. We looked at it and it  sang celestial music to us.

And then, as if we were of one mind, we moved. It took six to hold it down, three to hold John back and only one to draw the knife across its glowing throat.

Blood poured out, staining its whiteness. Its blood was as red as any I had seen or would ever see again even in what was to come. In a voice unaffected by its wound, it asked us why we had done this. And one of us said that times are different now. Poetry is man talking to man, not just God.

Another said it was because we need our muses. God can’t be our only muse, we want to speak with the voice of man. We want to talk about man’s life, man’s experiences, man’s glory. Not only only about your god but the things that make us what we are. We've been away from the garden for a long time now, let us sing our own songs. God should be able to listen to us and grant us our own muses now.

It smiled a terrible smile and said in a gentle voice, “Very well then, you want a muse, you shall have a great and terrible muse.”

There was a gush of blood and it died. For some reason, I guess from the stain of childhood stories and the remains of a belief in the Bible, I expected the body to vanish, to be taken back to the heavens. Instead it simply lay there, inert and dark. Its light was gone. John Davies sagged to the floor and didn't move.

We cut off its wings and wrapped them up in a sheet. One of us carried that soft bundle, while two others draped its arms around their shoulders, pretending it was a drunken friend. We stumbled out late at night and when we could see no one watching us, we threw it into the Thames along with the bundled wings. Together, the body and wings sank with splash that hurt to hear.

Conclusion in Part 4.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Stuck in the middle with you

Image courtesy of Josh Harper.
Used under a Creative Commons License.
I am one of many, an adult child with adult children (actually step-children, but they still count). I know I am lucky, many people don't have these kinds of connections, but as my parents age the caretaking responsibilities are shifting. It's a complicated thing.

(I need to stop here and address two readers in particular: Mom and Dad, if you're reading this, what I'm writing about doesn't mean you should change anything. It's my honor and duty to care for you and fret about you as needed. It is different and challenging, but I'm your daughter and I love you.)

(There are some realities associated with a blog your parents read.)

Okay, back to the topic at hand. My stepkids are more or less launched. They have their own lives and are finding their way through the world, one lurching step at a time. I think they all know that their parents and I are still here for them, but they are figuring out their lives on their own; they don't need us anywhere near as much. I'm terrifically proud of all of them. This doesn't mean I've stopped worrying about them or caring for them as needed, it just means the intimacy of care has changed.

Just as I exhale, the kids will be okay, the need for care shifts. My parents are aging. They need me more. I am their only child so I feel an appropriate obligation to be available to them, to help as I can. This is complicated by the facts that I live hundreds of miles away and we have all of the usual baggage parents and children can carry.

As my parents need more care I have become intimately familiar with each sign on the Garden State Parkway. I keep my iPod full of interesting things to listen to at any moment. My car is never below half a tank.

It isn't the increased travel I find challenging, but learning this new territory in our relationship. What is the line between care and interfering? When one parent is ill, how do I support the healthy parent without alienating them? How do I ask the difficult questions that might highlight the things they can no longer do so easily? How do I ensure both parents know they are loved, even if I'm hundred of miles away? How do I care for myself in the midst of this? What are the lines between increased care and helping them maintain their independence, between being present when they need me and still continuing my life? What happens next?

I know none of these questions are unique to me, they are merely unique in how they are expressed in my family, as each family has its own language and politics. I know many of you struggle with similar issues.

It also raises the question of who will care for me when I'm old. My step-kids have their own lives, in-laws and parents, I don't think it's reasonable for me to expect them to guide me through my old age. The state system for the aged is unlikely to be much of a safety net by the time I'm in my 70s. Several childless friends and I have sworn to care for each other as we age; honestly, I expect we'll see more intentional communities of elders in the coming years. It gives me comfort to think of a cluster of old ladies and gentlemen, helping each other across the street, but I wonder if that will be enough.

And again, I'm not the only one in this position. Maybe you are one of these middle-people, caring for the both the old and young. I'd love to hear from you, about your struggles and solutions. We're stuck in these middle years together. Maybe if we find a better way to negotiate now, it will be a little clearer when it's time for someone to care for us.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Brigid's Day

courtesy wikimedia commons
Today is Brigid's Day. Also known as Imbolc and Groundhog Day, today celebrates the Celtic goddess Brigid. She is also known as St. Brigit, as the Catholic church quite wisely adopted her.

Brigid oversees creative endeavors, poetry, storytelling, healing and smiths. She is represented by leaping flames and, as a goddess always stretching up, she urges us to lift ourselves higher, whether onto the next hill or to a new, more challenging task. She is the goddess of lofty pursuits.

Many years ago I visited her sacred flame in Kildare, Ireland, kept alight for thousands of years with only brief interruptions. The church built on this ancient, sacred site is strong and imposing, a solid place to consider your place in the universe. Around the flame were offerings - scraps of burned paper with a word or two still visible, beads, goddess figurines, shattered vessels. It was a wondrous place.

I spent part of the morning sitting on the damp grass watching the fire flicker and stretch, then the deacon of the church invited me inside to get warm. As it happens, it was Good Friday. I listened to a sermon outlining Jesus' journey through crucifixion. It was a brutal story. As a Jew I'd never heard it told in such detail. I wept with the old women attending the service. But there in the church built to honor the saint derived from the goddess of creativity and flame, I saw all of these stories as paths to our own creative redemption. Whether through art or story or prayer or community, creative action lifts us up into our better selves, where we can examine our own spirits and our place in the world with fewer distractions.

Brigid has walked with me through some of my life's more challenging moments. I've taken comfort in creative acts of writing and telling, art and poetry. I am grateful for the reminder that, through striving to go higher, I burn brighter.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Telling untold stories

February is Black History Month in the U.S. While I think it's laudable that we have an official reminder to explore the stories of African Americans, it troubles me that we still need a reminder to do so. African American history is a vital part of American history.

What Black History Month really makes me consider is how important it is to tell the untold stories. For so long African American history was relegated to a few minutes in school about slavery and the civil rights movement. By dedicating a month to it we're reminded that we can't so easily disregard the contributions, struggles and lives of millions of people. Each one of those people had a story that was kept from the mainstream for far too long.

When we tell the stories of the unvoiced we change the world. This has to be done carefully and respectfully, of course. It can be a kind of cultural imperialism when someone tells a tale from another culture as if it were their own. But we are all human with similar experiences, so these stories belong to all of us though many come with a context that must be respected. I've written about this here if you're interested in exploring it further. What I'm writing about in this post is how important it is to tell the stories that have been hidden, from the personal to the global.

We each have stories in our lives that we've kept under cover. Stories of love lost, of joy or pain, of unexpected success, of some experience we've thought we should keep secret because it makes us different. When we are brave enough to tell our hidden personal stories we are given the opportunity to realize that we're not so unusual, not so alone and not so disconnected. Others with relatable experiences will respond to that story. They may not say, "That happened to me," but the teller will feel the shift in the air as the audience realizes that this could be their story, too.

Likewise, when we tell previously hidden global stories, we build bridges between cultures and experiences. When we tell the stories of the enslaved and the all-too human slavers, the stories of exodus and homecoming, the stories of genocide and rebuilding, we remind ourselves and our listeners that these experiences are cross-cultural. By shining light on the previously shameful we make those experiences easier to bear, because they become shared experiences.

Don't wait for a sanctioned holiday to explore the hidden tales. Tell one of your hidden stories to a friend. Learn a hidden story from another culture. We build bridges between people and cultures when we share our experiences and listen to each other with open hearts regardless of the time of year.

A story.

When I was in fifth grade the television epic Roots swept the nation. I am Caucasian and attended a largely African American grade school. I watched Roots with great excitement, caught up in the tragedy and triumphs of one family. I wept with shame that slavery played such a prominent role in my country's history, yet as an American Jew, I knew my ancestors hadn't set foot in America when Africans were legally enslaved here. I didn't feel personally responsible for what happened, I knew only that I was responsible for how I treated people now.

One of my classmates confronted me unexpectedly, an African American boy who needed to lash out at a white person for the pain inflicted upon his ancestors. When he told me I was a bad person because white people were slavers, I replied that I was Jew, my grandparents came to this country in the early part of the 20th century so they couldn't have owned slaves here, and besides, Jews know a thing or two about slavery.

He sputtered into quiet, then asked me, "What does being Jewish have to do with slavery?" I told him about Passover. He listened. Then he told me about his great-grandmother who had been a slave. We became friends. I had a tiny glimpse into what it means to be African American in his family, where the memory of slavery is still a stain, a scar, a badge of honor. I had a tiny glimpse into what it means to be black in America. I am still grateful for the lesson and remember it far beyond Black History Month.

I don't know where is now. I don't know if he remembers me and the friendship that grew out of anger and stories. I don't think that matters. What does matter is what he taught me and the friendship that was there when we both needed it. I hope he's happy.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com.
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