Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When social media becomes real

I don't know about you, but I'm connected to thousands of people via social media. Between Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr and other social networks, I have the opportunity to interact with countless people every day. I will never meet the vast majority, but I enjoy the glimpses they give me into their lives and equally enjoy opening up selected pieces of my own life for viewing. I relish the mediated experience and interaction. It's just enough for a Meyers-Briggs introvert like me.

This is all well and good most of the time. Sometimes it loses the comfortable gloss of the virtual and becomes starkly real. Sometimes I am forced to remember that behind each tweet, each status update, each pin, there is a real person with a real life and real feelings. Like now.

I have a Facebook friend, one among many, whom I have never met. This is common for me, I use Facebook as a way to connect with other storytellers and writers. This Facebook friend posts a lot and often content I don't want to read - really personal stuff, rather than the story and performance related content I look forward to from him. For that reason, I didn't connect with him on Twitter. So it was through a common Facebook friend that I found out he'd gone missing.

Two days ago he posted the following string of tweets:
  • Thanks for the memories, folks; it's been real ... something. G'night ... goodbye.
  • There ... now we wait ...
  • I do wish I could've seen the ocean #1lasttime.
He's posted nothing since. His friends have started Facebook and Twitter campaigns, urging him to check in, urging anyone who may have seen him to contact the police. They are worried. We all are.

And yet... and yet. I have never touched or seen him, but my heart twists with concern. Here I am, worried about someone I have never met. Checking for status updates or tweets, hoping he will let us know he is alive. I do not know this man personally. I have never met him or heard his voice. And yet. Because we are connected through this tenuous medium, through the aether of the internet, he is real to me. I hope he is well. I hope he has found help. I hope he has found hope.

And this is the case for so many of us. Those of you who read this blog and have never met me care enough to read what I write. Those of you who have contacted me are real people, though we may never embrace, may see each other smile.

For all that pundits bemoan the disconnection created by our love affair with the screen (for all that I have wondered who we will be in a generation, if more and more of our communication is mediated) the connections we create are real. And that is a testament to the enduring power of the human heart, our yearning to know we are not alone in the darkness, our need to hear another voice - even if we hear it in pixels - that says, "I feel this way, too. I love these things, too. In the midst of the aether, through millions of electrons racing through cable and across oceans, we are connected."

Jay, if you're out there, we are here. You are not alone. You are loved. Come home.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, February 27, 2012

Quote of the week

I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.
― Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 24, 2012

How to take a deep breath

I don't know about you, but I find February to be hard. Even during mild winters, like the one we're having in New England, February is that pause between the long haul of short days/long nights and the first real brushes of spring on your cheek. For all that it's a short month, it's a long one.

By right around now I'm giving myself pep talks to get through the rest of the month, even though we're most of the way to spring. The finish line is in sight and that's when I am most likely to stumble.

To get through these last dim days of winter, I remind myself to breath. Of course, I remind myself to breath throughout the year, throughout my life whenever I'm faced with any kind of adversity. In the midst of a difficult conversation or a challenging performance? Take a breath. Stuck in traffic? Take a breath. Migraine? Breath. You get it. A deep breath floods our cells with oxygen which reminds our most ancient selves that there is nothing to panic about, we can breath, we aren't drowning or dying, we are only afraid.

There are many ways to take that deep breath, many things we can do to remind ourselves that now, right now, is an excellent time to pause for a moment and breath.

Try it right now. Read this through then:

  • Close your eyes
  • Take a long slow breath in through your nose
  • Feel your lungs expand
  • Be grateful for them
  • Exhale slowly and steadily through your mouth
  • Pause
  • Repeat.

I hope you feel a little more relaxed.

Here are a few of my favorite breathing tips; some may sound silly but they really can help. I'd love to know how you remind yourself to breath.

  1. Set a timer. No, really. If you know you're going to be chained to one spot by your computer or some other responsibility, set a timer so every 30 minutes you stop, look away and take a deep breath. Close your eyes. relax your hands from the typing claw. Breath.
  2. Stretch. In my storytelling classes I remind my students that stories live in our bodies. Our bodies contain knowledge about what we're feeling, what we're hiding from our conscious minds. Does your stomach alway hurt after you talk to your grandmother on the phone? Hmm. If we're working on something challenging or even if we're just thinking hard, we tend to ignore our bodies even though they are rife with information. So stop for a moment. Stretch out those cramped muscles. Pay attention to what hurts, is cramped or tired. What might that mean? Breath.
  3. Build a deep-breathing routine. Do you know you're going to have a long commute home? Tell yourself to take a deep breath whenever you pass a certain exit on the highway. Do you know you get tense when you talk to certain people? Teach yourself to close your eyes and take a deep breath every time you hang up the phone.
  4. Inhale joy, exhale gratitude. Look at the world around you, even when difficult and bleak, caught between winter and spring. Find something that brings you joy (family, friends, a spring of green) and imagine it as you inhale. As you exhale feel gratitude for its presence in your life. I do this for the swelling buds this time of year.
  5. Remember that with each breath, you are alive. Whether the slow rhythm of sleep or the urgent breath of exercise, with every breath you are here. You are living. You are a gift to the world. 

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Longing for winter

I live in New England where this time of year typically is grey and slushy, the streets full of piles of snow. In an typical year my feet would be complaining about winter boots, I would have shoveled my own weight in snow and I would have slipped on the ice at least once. In a typical year I would be silently congratulating myself on getting through another winter.

This isn't a typical year. It's been an unusually mild winter. We've certainly had a few Very Cold Days, we've had some snow, but it's been nothing like years past. Whether it's global climate change or simply an anomalous year, I don't know. I do know that, for all that it's been easier, I find myself longing for winter.

Winter gives me something to push against. The short days and long nights can trigger depression, so the cold and snow give me an external force to fight with. They offer me badly needed resistance. Much the way a weight lifter needs to lift heavy things to be strong, I need to push against winter to not be consumed by my own darkness on the long dark nights.

Winter is beautiful. The starkness of snow and barren trees, the sparkling ice, the plumes of exhalation that turn me into a dragon, the clarity of the stars are a kind of beauty you can only find in the cold, in the snow, when the world crunches beneath your boots.

Winter allows for comfort. When I've been outside shoveling or driving home in the dark, winter encourages a kind of self-comfort that seems silly when it's 45 degrees outside. I don't really need hot cocoa if I can walk around with an open coat. I don't really need the crackling fire if my hands aren't frozen and my toes lost to feeling. I can still enjoy them, but the need makes the cocoa sweeter, the fire warmer.

Winter allows for rest. We all need fallow time, a chance to be quiet and look within, when we are not called upon to produce and create, but can rest in the dark, replenish ourselves with long nights spent reading or talking. Winter gives us a badly needed reason to stay home, to not rush out, to do only what is essential and in so doing, allow our reservoirs to refill.

Winter is a time of possibility, where magic lurks. C.S. Lewis knew this, introducing us to Narnia in the winter, when the White Witch beguiles Edmund. Maybe he learned this from the many fairy tales that call upon winter to hide mystery. We need to see the tracks in the snow so we can wonder if they were from a squirrel or a clawed man. We need to leave out sweet cakes and milk for the fairies and to marvel when they are gone. We need the wonder of the frozen lake, the threat of the crack and the safe scurry to the side. We need the mystery of the cold and dark and the persistent hope of warmth and light.

Because Winter reminds us to hope. When winter is at its most fierce, when the storm rage and snow piles high, we know it will not last. Winter reminds us that even the most trying times are fleeting, that we can endure even this with only a bare memory and faint promise of spring.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This is water. In honor of David Foster Wallace's 50th birthday

In honor of what would have been David Foster Wallace's 50th birthday, an edited version of his 2005 speech given at Kenyon College commencement. You can read the full piece here.

*   *   *

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

If you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude - but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let's get concrete ...

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real - you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues". This is not a matter of virtue - it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home - you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job - and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

Or if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks ...

If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do - except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am - it is actually I who am in his way.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible - it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Quote of the week

My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.
― Diane Setterfield

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How to tell a love story

This was originally published last year, just after Valentine's Day, but I think it still stands and is still relevant; I've tweaked it a little. I hope you enjoy it.

Alright, I know I'm hopping on the Valentine's Day bandwagon, 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. It might surprise you how much they know, how much they can guess and sometimes how wrong they are because they're putting themselves into the story. That's okay, that's the point of storytelling, to build connection between people.

Platonic love, imagined love, symbolic love.

Here 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. Alternatively, it might be wiser to disguise it with fiction. 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 bear 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)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, February 13, 2012

Quote of the week

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
― Joan Didion, The White Album

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, February 6, 2012

Poem: What things want, by Robert Bly

You have to let things
Occupy their own space.
This room is small,
But the green settee

Likes to be here.
The big marsh reeds,
Crowding out the slough,
Find the world good.

You have to let things
Be as they are.
Who knows which of us
Deserves the world more?

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Great video - the 5.75 questions you've been avoiding

Thanks to Box of Crayons for this gem.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Henry Miller's writing commandments

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

With thanks to Lists of Note.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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