Tuesday, December 25, 2012

For today, Brother Blue

 If we are very lucky, we meet a few Teachers in the course of our lives. If we're even luckier we notice when they appear.

Brother Blue was my Teacher, as he was for many others. Today is the celebration of another Teacher and, whether or not you are a Christian or a deist,  it's worth taking a moment and remembering the wisdom we've been lucky enough to receive.

My gift to you today. Some wisdom from my Teacher and friend, Brother Blue. Thanks to Seth Itzkan for this video, taken a few years before Blue died.

 Director George Romero cast Brother Blue as Merlin in his film, Knight Riders. It's not a great movie, but it's one with great intentions. The photos are from the set, thanks to Blue's wife, Ruth Hill.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 21, 2012

The stories we need

Last night I had the honor of being the featured storyteller at Massmouth's Bring Back the Light traditional story slam. A traditional story slam is a storytelling event focused on myths, folk and fairy tales, as opposed to the true, personal stories usually told at slams. Like any slam, traditional story slams have themes and last night's, appropriate for the date, was Bring Back the Light.

It was a lovely evening. The open telling was really good, each teller stretching to give the audience something wonderful. The room was full of good cheer. Each story was more or less on theme. One teller, Bruce Marcus, talked about how there are many ways of bringing back the light; one way is to stand up to bullies. The air in the room shifted when he said that. The theme, Bring Back the Light, suddenly became so much bigger. Sandy Hook was in the room with us.

And then Bruce told his story, about an old woman who, through luck and habit, keeps robbers from her door. We laughed together, creating more light and warmth. The unspeakable had been named and we survived.

My set was after the slam. I told four stories, three short and one long. The first three concerned the sun, moon and stars. Lovely stories and meaningful, I was in the flow and the set was going well. When I started my last story I could feel something shift inside me. I wasn't surprised.

I think many storytellers have a few pieces that are protean, that change shape more than the others. I'm not talking about the usual way that stories change shape, based on the moment and time constraints, but stories that reshape themselves in deep and fundamental ways based on the needs of the teller and listeners. Stories that possess a kind of magic. I have a few of these, mostly ancient tales and mostly stories I tell infrequently.

This is one of them.

I've always loved the Greek myths, in large part because they are so human. The ancient texts tell of heroes weeping, gods raging, moments of passion and doldrum. They are deeply relatable stories. And the perfect Greek myth for this time of year, for the dark and bringing back the light, is Demeter and Persephone.

My telling is from Demeter's point of view. How much she loves her daughter and how her heart breaks when she is stolen away. Her grief and the lengths to which she will go to restore her to the land of the living. All of this is from the text, I have only given it modern form and shape.

But as I was telling it, oh, I realized that right now we are collectively Demeter, collectively grieving lost children, collectively wondering if we would starve the world, go to hell and back to rescue our lost loved ones and knowing the answer is yes. As I told, I realized I was telling an ancient story of this modern moment. The story wrapped itself around me and I honestly can't tell you what I said. I became an oracle and let the words we needed spill out of me. Sure, the story had the structure I've used every time (the Greeks gave that to me) but the story became something more, in this moment, this telling, this world.

Stories can do that sometimes.

Brother Blue talked about how we tell stories to heal this broken world. And Elizabeth Ellis says that storytelling is a way to give someone else a roadmap through hell. Sometimes we tell stories so we can think about the unthinkable, in a collective moment. We realize we are not alone. They become what we need, not just what we want to tell or hear.

It was not my intent to tell this story for those reason last night. I am so glad that the story was wiser than I was.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In gratitude for Tuesday nights

Marty Levin tells
at Tuesday night storytelling 
For most Tuesday nights over the last 20 years, I have listened to and told stories with a group of passionate storytellers. Sometimes it's been in a basement bookstore, other times in a library, most recently it's been in an art gallery. Tuesday nights have been my church; tonight was the last time I was a regular member of this congregation. It's sweet and sad and appropriate and I am so grateful. Let me explain.

Twenty years ago I went to an evening of storytelling hosted by Brother Blue. It was part of a regular storytelling series, one of the first in the country. I was so excited and so scared. I listened to all of the other tellers thinking they each were incredible and, when it was my turn, stood up with knees shaking and told in front of an audience for the first time. I told a story about life and death, wishes and capability. Brother Blue and Ruth listened with utter intensity, the way they always did, and at the end of it I knew my life was on a different course. I knew I would always tell stories, though I didn't necessarily know how.

What I didn't know then was how this community would become a vital part of my life. Over the last 20 years they have seen me through cancer, we have celebrated and cried and grieved together, they have watched me fall in love and, throughout it all, they have supported me. When I told this community that I was going to make storytelling my life's work, that I was answering the call, they responded with, "yes!" And when I told them about my failures and triumphs, sorrows and joys, they listened. They have loved me and held me in their hearts. I am who I am because of them. We have become a family.

Like the best of families, they have given me the space to grow up and change, the opportunity to experiment and a homebase to come back to. They have strengthened and embarrassed me, and straightened me out when I've drifted. Like a family, I have grown up, from novice to leader. And, like family, the time has come to leave the nest.

In a few weeks I'm moving 1500 miles away. I won't be able to come to Tuesday nights again anytime soon. But I bring with me everything they have taught me. What works and what doesn't. How to love and how to listen. And I bring with me the truths I've learned from Brother Blue. This community doesn't need me to preach the gospel of story to them.

But other places do.

And that's what I'm going to do. I'm taking all I have learned, all I have been loved into understanding, and I'm spreading the word. That the stories we tell matter. That listening can save a life. That storytelling can change the world.

Tonight at my last-for-awhile Tuesday night storytelling I told the same story I told that first night. I wasn't afraid this time. Instead I put all of my love and gratitude into the words of life and death, wishes and capability. And I remembered that sometimes, happily ever after really means once upon a time.

As my partner Kevin and I drove away for the last time, drove towards our next adventure, we talked about how grateful we are. What we are taking with us. And how much we are looking forward to sharing what we have learned, from both Brother Blue and from this community.

Thank you for everything. From the middle of the middle of me to the middle of the middle of you, I love you forever and ever and ever, ah.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 14, 2012

Grief in action

I am sitting in a cafe.
I am sitting in a cafe in Kansas City, Missouri.
I am sitting in a cafe in Kansas City, Missouri, watching crows wheel and turn against the grey sky.
I am sitting in a cafe in Kansas City, Missouri, watching crows wheel and turn against the grey sky, crying for the almost 30 people who died in Connecticut today. For the teddy bears that will wait for their child. For the many sleepless nights that will follow.

I will not talk here about gun laws; those of you who know me know my stance, those of you who disagree with me will not be swayed by my arguments.

I will not talk here about the media frenzy; those of you who know me know that I watch in awe and horror as we create modern mythologies in a moment only to tear them down a heartbeat later. By next week the media will be admiring the next new horror.

I will not talk here about my overwhelming ache at what happens now to the family of the young man who did this, my wonder at what led him there or what demons drove him.

What I want to talk about is this. How we treat each other matters. How we treat each other in the wake of something like this especially matters. We can create change and prevent tragedy only by beginning with a willingness to admit that change is necessary, tragedy is preventable and your viewpoint as well as mine may bring something valuable to the table. When we treat each other as if we are all human, as if we all have value, then we can take this collective moment and do something to prevent it from happening again. And again. And again.

If we let events like this harden us, make us more cynical, more convinced of our own rightness and their wrongness, we will never create change. We must be willing to let those we consider the opposition have a voice. What’s more, we must listen and ask the deeper questions. Why do you feel this way? What really matters here? When we ask and answer these questions we may find more common ground than we expected and, from there, we can build consensus to create change. 

We all know kids shouldn’t be shot. Let’s start with that. We all know our mental health care system has significant room for improvement. Let’s go from there. 

I have no illusions that one writer, one storyteller can individually effect the course of the world. But I do know that collectively, we are unstoppable. That if we take our collective grief and horror, if we put aside our smaller rivalries and disagreements, that we can create tremendous change. That we can together craft a new and better story that no one - not the media nor our legislators - can ignore. But we must decide to act, to use the pain we feel as fuel for passion that leads to action.

Let us tell a story of a future where we have learned from the events of today, of last week, of this year and the years prior. Let these deaths be the last time something like this happens and we remain voiceless. Let us ask what we can do that might create a world where we do more than weep, where instead we stand up and say, “No, that is not the story I will tell. That is not the world I will live in.” 

Let us act. And, in the midst of action let us be civil, let us use words as tools not as weapons. We have enough weapons already. 

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Endings and beginnings

My life has been a bit of a wild ride lately. I’m not complaining, merely observing, that having a birthday, attending two intellectual conferences (presenting at one), deciding to move half-way across the country, quitting a job and leaping into self-employment, all within the space of two months, is a lot. I’ve had to reset my thinking about the world and my place in it several times in rapid succession.

While overwhelming, I think this is good. When we become too comfortable, we cease growing; it’s these periods of rapid acceleration that help us see who we really are and uncover new potential, but boy, this has been a roller-coaster. It’s included quite a few goodbyes and hellos with more coming and, I’ve realized, this is something we’re not taught to handle, not in school, not in work, not in most of our lives.

Endings and beginnings happen all the time. From the first time we go to school (both an ending and a beginning) to our deaths (an ending and maybe a beginning) we have repeated opportunities to shed the old and embrace the new. American culture, at least, teaches us that it’s the beginnings that matter, far more than the endings, yet I think there are strong lessons to be learned from each. The last few months have really highlighted that for me.

Last week I left a job I’d held for over 12 years. In that time I’d grown, stagnated, succeeded, failed, helped and hurt the organization I worked for. Over my last few weeks at this company I had many people tell me that they didn’t want me to leave, that the place would never be the same. I didn’t really know how to respond at first but, as I thought about it, I realized this was an opportunity not only for me, but for the organization. Sure, I represented something there. Sure, I hold knowledge that may not be replaced. But my absence allows the company to look for new solutions to the holes I had filled, find new and possibly better ways to solve problems. It allows the organization to grow mindfully, just as I am growing mindfully by leaving. I take with me a wealth of experience and lessons learned - it wasn’t time wasted. It’s at once an ending and a beginning.

It’s the same thing as I leave the New England storytelling community for a cross-country move. 
This is the community that has nurtured me, held me, shaped me and helped me become the teller and person I am now. And I’ve had an impact on this community, organizing events, mentoring new tellers and so on. As I leave, there are voids that will open up, places into which others can grow. As I leave, it’s the end of a period of my life, but a new one begins. It’s a time of rich possibility. 

There is that trite saying, For every door that closes a window opens. I don’t know if this is always true, but I do know that endings create opportunity for reflection and growth that we would not otherwise receive. Endings create space we might not have otherwise noticed. Endings are a kind of beginning, if only because they provide an opportunity for a pause in the midst of an otherwise busy world. I wish we valued endings more, or at least were more willing to talk about them - even the hardest of endings give us opportunities to do what we might not have otherwise done.

The hero needs to ride off into the sunset before she can find her next adventure. The town needs to bid her adieu before they can build the next great thing. We need to cry, grieve, mourn before we can move on. Buried in each ending is possibility and the potential for new worlds. Even in midst of our own deaths, if we are lucky, there is opportunity for new experience and growth. Even as we say goodbye to those we love, we can create new stories, new memories and new relationships.

Treasure your endings and do not consider them failures. They are the universe reminding us that now is the time to grow, to go, to take wing and fly. We never know what might happen next.

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was 
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky 
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy. 
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, 
but just coming to the end of triumph.

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Once a survivor, always a survivor

When I was 26 I had cancer. I'm fine now, so please don't worry; next year I plan to celebrate 20 years cancer-free (don't worry, you'll all be invited to the party).

When I was first diagnosed I went through all the stuff you hear about cancer patients going through - I contemplated my mortality, I cried, I fought and so on. And I was lucky, I survived with remarkably few aftereffects. But I didn't think of myself as a survivor for a long time. I remember, about a year after it was all over, talking about it with a friend and she said, "You will always be someone who had cancer." Almost 20 years later I am still understanding what that means.

So when I saw the xkcd strip below, I surprised myself by bursting into tears.

I am reminded that we are always survivors. I will always be a cancer survivor. You will always be a survivor of whatever it is that has honed and shaped you. And that survival is worth celebrating.

My biopsy-versary is April 19th. I mark it every year, my reminder that I am still here.

Find your survivor-versary and mark it. You are worth celebrating.

courtesy xkcd.com under this creative commons license. Thanks.

(c)2012 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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