Tuesday, December 31, 2013


for you.
for me.
for time and space.
for opportunity and failure and rising again.
for laughter.
for love (always for love).
for the riotous joy of the senses.
for those who have gone before.
for those who are to come.
for surprises and the lessons of the rut.

for the dark of night and glow of noon.

for every breath.

for the rut and surprises.
for those not yet dreamed into being.
for those who walked first.
for the mouth-watering smell of sycamore leaves.
for love (bidden and lost)
for sea-salt tears.
for every teacher.
for this moment and place.
for me.
for you.

See you on the path.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, December 23, 2013

Here in the dark

The day after solstice and the world is still shrouded. I love this time of year. I find myself at my most creative, my most volatile, my most self when I have no choice but to be present in the dark.

I have struggled with episodes of depression for most of my life; late autumn and early winter are prime times to plummet into the dark, and no surprise. The world is dark. For all that I dread these episodes, I learn so much each and every time it happens, just as I learn so much each winter solstice when the world is turned over to the things that live in the dark. Even those years when I retain my equilibrium, the dark lets me see the world and its inhabitants in shadow-light. Here the tree and its branches against the barely-brighter sky. There the moon-glow from the snow.

This year I find myself sitting in my dark living room, watching the candles flicker and considering the nature of the dark. Without the dark we would not relish the return of the light. We would have no time when we can't call on the excuse of the glare to avoid that which we most need to cherish and consider. Without the dark we would yearn for the solace and stillness it provides. We try to deny it, but it is as much a part of us as the sunlight. We need the balance. We are creatures of night as well as day.

We find ourselves in the dark. We rely less on sight and more on our other senses. I can smell the burning wax, hear the click and hum of the furnace and notice the presence of those long gone. Whether they live only in my imagination or as external phenomena I don't know, and I don't really care. I welcome them into the warmth and faint glow. I can share myself with them here in the night.

In the dark I turn to my own heart for guidance. Without clearly marked paths to travel and instructions from the world, I know only my own rhythm, my own breath, my own life in this very moment.

We are the things that live in the dark, our shadowy selves less defined but welcome. Here. Sit down. Have a cup of tea. I am listening. I am here, with you, in the dark.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 20, 2013

Interview: Laura on Legacy Alive Testify Radio with Brother John and Lady Knene

I recently had the honor and pleasure of being interviewed by Brother John and Lady Knene for Legacy Alive Testify. This internet radio show is dedicated to the power of story in our lives. I met Brother John shortly after I arrived in Kansas City. He has been wonderfully supportive of my work and was particularly interested in my Kansas City Fringe Performance.

The interview was conducted in the home of Brother John's great aunt, an amazing woman who told us stories of life before the Civil Rights Movement. It was amazing listening to her, a singular honor that she shared her stories with me. As she told her stories we shared a Thanksgiving dinner. I am truly grateful for the chance to talk with my new friends, share my story and break bread together.

This interview is pretty wide-ranging, covering storytelling, cancer, cycling, Brother Blue and more. I hope you like it. To hear it, click here. It looks like a video but it isn't. Enjoy!

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Storyquote: Cyclops

“We villains are a very select group indeed. In the very desperation of our hate rests our strength.”
― Cyclops

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Views from Kansas City

From time to time I'm posting pictures of my new hometown. We have spectacular skies here. While I'm not a great photographer (the framing on some of these is terrible) I thought they were pretty. Enjoy.

Icy sunrise, seen through my third floor window.

Winter sunsets

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, December 16, 2013

Repost: The stories we need

This was originally posted on December 12, 2012.

I am in the midst of a season of one-year anniversaries, mostly related to moving and other personal adventures, some related to world events. In the spirit of reflection, I'm reposting this essay from just over a year ago, with a few small edits, including three video links and one embedded story. Thanks to Bob Tryanski for reminding me that reposting isn't evil.

This post still holds true. We tell the stories we need.

Just over a year ago 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 this one, 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, prefaced his story by reminding us that 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 (you can see videos of these tellings by clicking on the links). 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 (the video is embedded below).

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

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Story Sunday: Graciosa and Percinet

My entry into the world of fairy tales was two-fold. First, my mother told me stories at bedtime. I loved listening to her tell me of Anansi and the Three Billy Goats Gruff and so on. Once I could read I found the second entry - the colored Fairy Tale books by Andrew Lang. I consumed them.

As a child, one of my favorite tales was Graciosa and Percinet in the Red Fairy Tale Book. It's a literary retelling of Cinderella by the Countess d'Aulnoy, the originator of the term fairy tale and the author of quite a few stories.

Looking back on the story now, Graciosa seems to be a fairly spoiled girl, dependent on her beauty and little else. The wicked Duchess is certainly horrible. Percinet is kind of a sap. And honestly, I think the real villain of the piece is the weak and greedy king, but as is so often the case, the hapless are ignored. It's a fairly terrible story of coercion on pretty much everyone's part.

I think what I loved the most about this story when I was little, was the language (it is a literary tale, after all) and the creativity of the impossible tasks (I remember yearning for a box of little people). I hope Countess d'Auloy was as wise as she was creative. I remember thinking Percinet would be better off with a different princess (say, me) but that didn't really matter. Mostly I loved the images contained herein. This story had muscles - bruises hurt and hearts cold feel more than one thing. I have trouble believing this is a happily-ever-after story; any relationship that starts with such inequality is doomed.

I've told this story several times, each time really enjoying the detail and humanity of it. The wicked aren't punished, the people are complex. It's a juicy story, for all that I don't care for any of the characters. I'm glad I came back to it as an adult, it helps me remember the richness of my childhood.

This is a long tale with lots of stuff in it (really, my analysis could have gone on for pages) so take your time. I hope you enjoy it. I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Graciosa and Percinet
from the Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang

ONCE upon a time there lived a King and Queen who had one charming daughter. She was so graceful and pretty and clever that she was called Graciosa, and the Queen was so fond of her that she could think of nothing else.

Everyday she gave the Princess a lovely new frock of gold brocade, or satin, or velvet, and when she was hungry she had bowls full of sugar-plums, and at least twenty pots of jam. Everybody said she was the happiest Princess in the world. Now there lived at this same court a very rich old duchess whose name was Grumbly. She was more frightful than tongue can tell; her hair was red as fire, and she had but one eye, and that not a pretty one! Her face was as broad as a full moon, and her mouth was so large that everybody who met her would have been afraid they were going to be eaten up, only she had no teeth. As she was as cross as she was ugly, she could not bear to hear everyone saying how pretty and how charming Graciosa was; so she presently went away from the court to her own castle, which was not far off. But if anybody who went to see her happened to mention the charming Princess, she would cry angrily:

`It's not true that she is lovely. I have more beauty in my little finger than she has in her whole body.'

Soon after this, to the great grief of the Princess, the Queen was taken ill and died, and the King became so melancholy that for a whole year he shut himself up in his palace. At last his physicians, fearing that he would fall ill, ordered that he should go out and amuse himself; so a hunting party was arranged, but as it was very hot weather the King soon got tired, and said he would dismount and rest at a castle which they were passing.

This happened to be the Duchess Grumbly's castle, and when she heard that the King was coming she went out to meet him, and said that the cellar was the coolest place in the whole castle if he would condescend to come down into it. So down they went together, and the King seeing about two hundred great casks ranged side by side, asked if it was only for herself that she had this immense store of wine.

`Yes, sire,' answered she, `it is for myself alone, but I shall be most happy to let you taste some of it. Which do you like, canary, St. Julien, champagne, hermitage sack, raisin, or cider?'

`Well,' said the King, `since you are so kind as to ask me, I prefer champagne to anything else.'

Then Duchess Grumbly took up a little hammer and tapped upon the cask twice, and out came at least a thousand crowns.

`What's the meaning of this?' said she smiling.

Then she tapped the next cask, and out came a bushel of gold pieces.

`I don't understand this at all,' said the Duchess, smiling more than before.

Then she went on to the third cask, tap, tap, and out came such a stream of diamonds and pearls that the ground was covered with them.

`Ah!' she cried, `this is altogether beyond my comprehension, sire. Someone must have stolen my good wine and put all this rubbish in its place.'

`Rubbish, do you call it, Madam Grumbly?' cried the King. `Rubbish! why there is enough there to buy ten kingdoms.'

`Well,' said she, `you must know that all those casks are full of gold and jewels, and if you like to marry me it shall all be yours.'

Now the King loved money more than anything else in the world, so he cried joyfully:

`Marry you? why with all my heart! to-morrow if you like.'

`But I make one condition,' said the Duchess; `I must have entire control of your daughter to do as I please with her.'

`Oh certainly, you shall have your own way; let us shake hands upon the bargain,' said the King.

So they shook hands and went up out of the cellar of treasure together, and the Duchess locked the door and gave the key to the King.

When he got back to his own palace Graciosa ran out to meet him, and asked if he had had good sport.

`I have caught a dove,' answered he.

`Oh! do give it to me,' said the Princess, `and I will keep it and take care of it.'

`I can hardly do that,' said he, `for, to speak more plainly, I mean that I met the Duchess Grumbly, and have promised to marry her.'

`And you call her a dove?' cried the Princess. `_I_ should have called her a screech owl.'

`Hold your tongue,' said the King, very crossly. `I intend you to behave prettily to her. So now go and make yourself fit to be seen, as I am going to take you to visit her.'

So the Princess went very sorrowfully to her own room, and her nurse, seeing her tears, asked what was vexing her.

`Alas! who would not be vexed?' answered she, `for the King intends to marry again, and has chosen for his new bride my enemy, the hideous Duchess Grumbly.'

`Oh, well!' answered the nurse, `you must remember that you are a Princess, and are expected to set a good example in making the best of whatever happens. You must promise me not to let the Duchess see how much you dislike her.'

At first the Princess would not promise, but the nurse showed her so many good reasons for it that in the end she agreed to be amiable to her step-mother.

Then the nurse dressed her in a robe of pale green and gold brocade, and combed out her long fair hair till it floated round her like a golden mantle, and put on her head a crown of roses and jasmine with emerald leaves.

When she was ready nobody could have been prettier, but she still could not help looking sad.

Meanwhile the Duchess Grumbly was also occupied in attiring herself. She had one of her shoe heels made an inch or so higher than the other, that she might not limp so much, and put in a cunningly made glass eye in the place of the one she had lost. She dyed her red hair black, and painted her face. Then she put on a gorgeous robe of lilac satin lined with blue, and a yellow petticoat trimmed with violet ribbons, and because she had heard that queens always rode into their new dominions, she ordered a horse to be made ready for her to ride.

While Graciosa was waiting until the King should be ready to set out, she went down all alone through the garden into a little wood, where she sat down upon a mossy bank and began to think. And her thoughts were so doleful that very soon she began to cry, and she cried, and cried, and forgot all about going back to the palace, until she suddenly saw a handsome page standing before her. He was dressed in green, and the cap which he held in his hand was adorned with white plumes. When Graciosa looked at him he went down on one knee, and said to her:

`Princess, the King awaits you.'

The Princess was surprised, and, if the truth must be told, very much delighted at the appearance of this charming page, whom she could not remember to have seen before. Thinking he might belong to the household of the Duchess, she said:

`How long have you been one of the King's pages?'

`I am not in the service of the King, madam,' answered he, `but in yours.'

`In mine?' said the Princess with great surprise. `Then how is it that I have never seen you before?'

`Ah, Princess!' said he, `I have never before dared to present myself to you, but now the King's marriage threatens you with so many dangers that I have resolved to tell you at once how much I love you already, and I trust that in time I may win your regard. I am Prince Percinet, of whose riches you may have heard, and whose fairy gift will, I hope, be of use to you in all your difficulties, if you will permit me to accompany you under this disguise.'

`Ah, Percinet!' cried the Princess, `is it really you? I have so often heard of you and wished to see you. If you will indeed be my friend, I shall not be afraid of that wicked old Duchess any more.'

So they went back to the palace together, and there Graciosa found a beautiful horse which Percinet had brought for her to ride. As it was very spirited he led it by the bridle, and this arrangement enabled him to turn and look at the Princess often, which he did not fail to do. Indeed, she was so pretty that it was a real pleasure to look at her. When the horse which the Duchess was to ride appeared beside Graciosa's, it looked no better than an old cart horse, and as to their trappings, there was simply no comparison between them, as the Princess's saddle and bridle were one glittering mass of diamonds. The King had so many other things to think of that he did not notice this, but all his courtiers were entirely taken up with admiring the Princess and her charming Page in green, who was more handsome and distinguished-looking than all the rest of the court put together.

When they met the Duchess Grumbly she was seated in an open carriage trying in vain to look dignified. The King and the Princess saluted her, and her horse was brought forward for her to mount. But when she saw Graciosa's she cried angrily:

`If that child is to have a better horse than mine, I will go back to my own castle this very minute. What is the good of being a Queen if one is to be slighted like this?'

Upon this the King commanded Graciosa to dismount and to beg the Duchess to honour her by mounting her horse. The Princess obeyed in silence, and the Duchess, without looking at her or thanking her, scrambled up upon the beautiful horse, where she sat looking like a bundle of clothes, and eight officers had to hold her up for fear she should fall off.

Even then she was not satisfied, and was still grumbling and muttering, so they asked her what was the matter.

`I wish that Page in green to come and lead the horse, as he did when Graciosa rode it,' said she very sharply.

And the King ordered the Page to come and lead the Queen's horse. Percinet and the Princess looked at one another, but said never a word, and then he did as the King commanded, and the procession started in great pomp. The Duchess was greatly elated, and as she sat there in state would not have wished to change places even with Graciosa. But at the moment when it was least expected the beautiful horse began to plunge and rear and kick, and finally to run away at such a pace that it was impossible to stop him.

At first the Duchess clung to the saddle, but she was very soon thrown off and fell in a heap among the stones and thorns, and there they found her, shaken to a jelly, and collected what was left of her as if she had been a broken glass. Her bonnet was here and her shoes there, her face was scratched, and her fine clothes were covered with mud. Never was a bride seen in such a dismal plight. They carried her back to the palace and put her to bed, but as soon as she recovered enough to be able to speak, she began to scold and rage, and declared that the whole affair was Graciosa's fault, that she had contrived it on purpose to try and get rid of her, and that if the King would not have her punished, she would go back to her castle and enjoy her riches by herself.

At this the King was terribly frightened, for he did not at all want to lose all those barrels of gold and jewels. So he hastened to appease the Duchess, and told her she might punish Graciosa in any way she pleased.

Thereupon she sent for Graciosa, who turned pale and trembled at the summons, for she guessed that it promised nothing agreeable for her. She looked all about for Percinet, but he was nowhere to be seen; so she had no choice but to go to the Duchess Grumbly's room. She had hardly got inside the door when she was seized by four waiting women, who looked so tall and strong and cruel that the Princess shuddered at the sight of them, and still more when she saw them arming themselves with great bundles of rods, and heard the Duchess call out to them from her bed to beat the Princess without mercy. Poor Graciosa wished miserably that Percinet could only know what was happening and come to rescue her. But no sooner did they begin to beat her than she found, to her great relief, that the rods had changed to bundles of peacock's feathers, and though the Duchess's women went on till they were so tired that they could no longer raise their arms from their sides, yet she was not hurt in the least. However, the Duchess thought she must be black and blue after such a beating; so Graciosa, when she was released, pretended to feel very bad, and went away into her own room, where she told her nurse all that had happened, and then the nurse left her, and when the Princess turned round there stood Percinet beside her. She thanked him gratefully for helping her so cleverly, and they laughed and were very merry over the way they had taken in the Duchess and her waiting-maids; but Percinet advised her still to pretend to be ill for a few days, and after promising to come to her aid whenever she needed him, he disappeared as suddenly as he had come.

The Duchess was so delighted at the idea that Graciosa was really ill, that she herself recovered twice as fast as she would have done otherwise, and the wedding was held with great magnificence. Now as the King knew that, above all other things, the Queen loved to be told that she was beautiful, he ordered that her portrait should be painted, and that a tournament should be held, at which all the bravest knights of his court should maintain against all comers that Grumbly was the most beautiful princess in the world.

Numbers of knights came from far and wide to accept the challenge, and the hideous Queen sat in great state in a balcony hung with cloth of gold to watch the contests, and Graciosa had to stand up behind her, where her loveliness was so conspicuous that the combatants could not keep their eyes off her. But the Queen was so vain that she thought all their admiring glances were for herself, especially as, in spite of the badness of their cause, the King's knights were so brave that they were the victors in every combat.

However, when nearly all the strangers had been defeated, a young unknown knight presented himself. He carried a portrait, enclosed in a bow encrusted with diamonds, and he declared himself willing to maintain against them all that the Queen was the ugliest creature in the world, and that the Princess whose portrait he carried was the most beautiful.

So one by one the knights came out against him, and one by one he vanquished them all, and then he opened the box, and said that, to console them, he would show them the portrait of his Queen of Beauty, and when he did so everyone recognised the Princess Graciosa. The unknown knight then saluted her gracefully and retired, without telling his name to anybody. But Graciosa had no difficulty in guessing that it was Percinet.

As to the Queen, she was so furiously angry that she could hardly speak; but she soon recovered her voice, and overwhelmed Graciosa with a torrent of reproaches.

`What!' she said, `do you dare to dispute with me for the prize of beauty, and expect me to endure this insult to my knights? But I will not bear it, proud Princess. I will have my revenge.'

`I assure you, Madam,' said the Princess, `that I had nothing to do with it and am quite willing that you shall be declared Queen of Beauty

`Ah! you are pleased to jest, popinjay!' said the Queen, `but it will be my turn soon!'

The King was speedily told what had happened, and how the Princess was in terror of the angry Queen, but he only said: `The Queen must do as she pleases. Graciosa belongs to her!'

The wicked Queen waited impatiently until night fell, and then she ordered her carriage to be brought. Graciosa, much against her will, was forced into it, and away they drove, and never stopped until they reached a great forest, a hundred leagues from the palace. This forest was so gloomy, and so full of lions, tigers, bears and wolves, that nobody dared pass through it even by daylight, and here they set down the unhappy Princess in the middle of the black night, and left her in spite of all her tears and entreaties. The Princess stood quite still at first from sheer bewilderment, but when the last sound of the retreating carriages died away in the distance she began to run aimlessly hither and thither, sometimes knocking herself against a tree, sometimes tripping over a stone, fearing every minute that she would be eaten up by the lions. Presently she was too tired to advance another step, so she threw herself down upon the ground and cried miserably:

`Oh, Percinet! where are you? Have you forgotten me altogether?'

She had hardly spoken when all the forest was lighted up with a sudden glow. Every tree seemed to be sending out a soft radiance, which was clearer than moonlight and softer than daylight, and at the end of a long avenue of trees opposite to her the Princess saw a palace of clear crystal which blazed like the sun. At that moment a slight sound behind her made her start round, and there stood Percinet himself.

`Did I frighten you, my Princess?' said he. `I come to bid you welcome to our fairy palace, in the name of the Queen, my mother, who is prepared to love you as much as I do.' The Princess joyfully mounted with him into a little sledge, drawn by two stags, which bounded off and drew them swiftly to the wonderful palace, where the Queen received her with the greatest kindness, and a splendid banquet was served at once. Graciosa was so happy to have found Percinet, and to have escaped from the gloomy forest and all its terrors, that she was very hungry and very merry, and they were a gay party. After supper they went into another lovely room, where the crystal walls were covered with pictures, and the Princess saw with great surprise that her own history was repre-sented, even down to the moment when Percinet found her in the forest.

`Your painters must indeed be diligent,' she said, pointing out the last picture to the Prince.

`They are obliged to be, for I will not have anything forgotten that happens to you,' he answered.

When the Princess grew sleepy, twenty-four charming maidens put her to bed in the prettiest room she had ever seen, and then sang to her so sweetly that Graciosa's dreams were all of mermaids, and cool sea waves, and caverns, in which she wandered with Percinet; but when she woke up again her first thought was that, delightful as this fairy palace seemed to her, yet she could not stay in it, but must go back to her father. When she had been dressed by the four-and-twenty maidens in a charming robe which the Queen had sent for her, and in which she looked prettier than ever, Prince Percinet came to see her, and was bitterly disappointed when she told him what she had been thinking. He begged her to consider again how unhappy the wicked Queen would make her, and how, if she would but marry him, all the fairy palace would be hers, and his one thought would be to please her. But, in spite of everything he could say, the Princess was quite determined to go back, though he at last persuaded her to stay eight days, which were so full of pleasure and amusement that they passed like a few hours. On the last day, Graciosa, who had often felt anxious to know what was going on in her father's palace, said to Percinet that she was sure that he could find out for her, if he would, what reason the Queen had given her father for her sudden disappearance. Percinet at first offered to send his courier to find out, but the Princess said:

`Oh! isn't there a quicker way of knowing than that?'

`Very well,' said Percinet, `you shall see for yourself.'

So up they went together to the top of a very high tower, which, like the rest of the castle, was built entirely of rock-crystal.

There the Prince held Graciosa's hand in his, and made her put the tip of her little finger into her mouth, and look towards the town, and immediately she saw the wicked Queen go to the King, and heard her say to him, `That miserable Princess is dead, and no great loss either. I have ordered that she shall be buried at once.'

And then the Princess saw how she dressed up a log of wood and had it buried, and how the old King cried, and all the people murmured that the Queen had killed Graciosa with her cruelties, and that she ought to have her head cut off. When the Princess saw that the King was so sorry for her pretended death that he could neither eat nor drink, she cried:

`Ah, Percinet! take me back quickly if you love me.'

And so, though he did not want to at all, he was obliged to promise that he would let her go.

`You may not regret me, Princess,' he said sadly, `for I fear that you do not love me well enough; but I foresee that you will more than once regret that you left this fairy palace where we have been so happy.'

But, in spite of all he could say, she bade farewell to the Queen, his mother, and prepared to set out; so Percinet, very unwillingly, brought the little sledge with the stags and she mounted beside him. But they had hardly gone twenty yards when a tremendous noise behind her made Graciosa look back, and she saw the palace of crystal fly into a million splinters, like the spray of a fountain, and vanish.

`Oh, Percinet!' she cried, `what has happened? The palace is gone.'

`Yes,' he answered, `my palace is a thing of the past; you will see it again, but not until after you have been buried.'

`Now you are angry with me,' said Graciosa in her most coaxing voice, `though after all I am more to be pitied than you are.'

When they got near the palace the Prince made the sledge and themselves invisible, so the Princess got in unobserved, and ran up to the great hall where the King was sitting all by himself. At first he was very much startled by Graciosa's sudden appearance, but she told him how the Queen had left her out in the forest, and how she had caused a log of wood to be buried. The King, who did not know what to think, sent quickly and had it dug up, and sure enough it was as the Princess had said. Then he caressed Graciosa, and made her sit down to supper with him, and they were as happy as possible. But someone had by this time told the wicked Queen that Graciosa had come back, and was at supper with the King, and in she flew in a terrible fury. The poor old King quite trembled before her, and when she declared that Graciosa was not the Princess at all, but a wicked impostor, and that if the King did not give her up at once she would go back to her own castle and never see him again, he had not a word to say, and really seemed to believe that it was not Graciosa after all. So the Queen in great triumph sent for her waiting women, who dragged the unhappy Princess away and shut her up in a garret; they took away all her jewels and her pretty dress, and gave her a rough cotton frock, wooden shoes, and a little cloth cap. There was some straw in a corner, which was all she had for a bed, and they gave her a very little bit of black bread to eat. In this miserable plight Graciosa did indeed regret the fairy palace, and she would have called Percinet to her aid, only she felt sure he was still vexed with her for leaving him, and thought that she could not expect him to come.

Meanwhile the Queen had sent for an old Fairy, as malicious as herself, and said to her:

`You must find me some task for this fine Princess which she cannot possibly do, for I mean to punish her, and if she does not do what I order, she will not be able to say that I am unjust.' So the old Fairy said she would think it over, and come again the next day. When she returned she brought with her a skein of thread, three times as big as herself; it was so fine that a breath of air would break it, and so tangled that it was impossible to see the beginning or the end of it.

The Queen sent for Graciosa, and said to her:

`Do you see this skein? Set your clumsy fingers to work upon it, for I must have it disentangled by sunset, and if you break a single thread it will be the worse for you.' So saying she left her, locking the door behind her with three keys.

The Princess stood dismayed at the sight of the terrible skein. If she did but turn it over to see where to begin, she broke a thousand threads, and not one could she disentangle. At last she threw it into the middle of the floor, crying:

`Oh, Percinet! this fatal skein will be the death of me if you will not forgive me and help me once more.'

And immediately in came Percinet as easily as if he had all the keys in his own possession.

`Here I am, Princess, as much as ever at your service,' said he, `though really you are not very kind to me.'

Then he just stroked the skein with his wand, and all the broken threads joined themselves together, and the whole skein wound itself smoothly off in the most surprising manner, and the Prince, turning to Graciosa, asked if there was nothing else that she wished him to do for her, and if the time would never come when she would wish for him for his own sake.

`Don't be vexed with me, Percinet,' she said. `I am unhappy enough without that.'

`But why should you be unhappy, my Princess?' cried he. `Only come with me and we shall be as happy as the day is long together.'

`But suppose you get tired of me?' said Graciosa.

The Prince was so grieved at this want of confidence that he left her without another word.

The wicked Queen was in such a hurry to punish Graciosa that she thought the sun would never set; and indeed it was before the appointed time that she came with her four Fairies, and as she fitted the three keys into the locks she said:

`I'll venture to say that the idle minx has not done anything at all—she prefers to sit with her hands before her to keep them white.'

But, as soon as she entered, Graciosa presented her with the ball of thread in perfect order, so that she had no fault to find, and could only pretend to discover that it was soiled, for which imaginary fault she gave Graciosa a blow on each cheek, that made her white and pink skin turn green and yellow. And then she sent her back to be locked into the garret once more.

Then the Queen sent for the Fairy again and scolded her furiously. `Don't make such a mistake again; find me something that it will be quite impossible for her to do,' she said.

So the next day the Fairy appeared with a huge barrel full of the feathers of all sorts of birds. There were nightingales, canaries, goldfinches, linnets, tomtits, parrots, owls, sparrows, doves, ostriches, bustards, peacocks, larks, partridges, and everything else that you can think of. These feathers were all mixed up in such confusion that the birds themselves could not have chosen out their own. `Here,' said the Fairy, `is a little task which it will take all your prisoner's skill and patience to accomplish. Tell her to pick out and lay in a separate heap the feathers of each bird. She would need to be a fairy to do it.'

The Queen was more than delighted at the thought of the despair this task would cause the Princess. She sent for her, and with the same threats as before locked her up with the three keys, ordering that all the feathers should be sorted by sunset. Graciosa set to work at once, but before she had taken out a dozen feathers she found that it was perfectly impossible to know one from another.

`Ah! well,' she sighed, `the Queen wishes to kill me, and if I must die I must. I cannot ask Percinet to help me again, for if he really loved me he would not wait till I called him, he would come without that.'

`I am here, my Graciosa,' cried Percinet, springing out of the barrel where he had been hiding. `How can you still doubt that I love you with all my heart?'

Then he gave three strokes of his wand upon the barrel, and all the feathers flew out in a cloud and settled down in neat little separate heaps all round the room.

`What should I do without you, Percinet?' said Graciosa gratefully. But still she could not quite make up her mind to go with him and leave her father's kingdom for ever; so she begged him to give her more time to think of it, and he had to go away disappointed once more.

When the wicked Queen came at sunset she was amazed and infuriated to find the task done. However, she complained that the heaps of feathers were badly arranged, and for that the Princess was beaten and sent back to her garret. Then the Queen sent for the Fairy once more, and scolded her until she was fairly terrified, and promised to go home and think of another task for Graciosa, worse than either of the others.

At the end of three days she came again, bringing with her a box.

`Tell your slave,' said he, `to carry this wherever you please, but on no account to open it. She will not be able to help doing so, and then you will be quite satisfied with the result.' So the Queen came to Graciosa, and said:

`Carry this box to my castle, and place it upon the table in my own room. But I forbid you on pain of death to look at what it contains.'

Graciosa set out, wearing her little cap and wooden shoes and the old cotton frock, but even in this disguise she was so beautiful that all the passers-by wondered who she could be. She had not gone far before the heat of the sun and the weight of the box tired her so much that she sat down to rest in the shade of a little wood which lay on one side of a green meadow. She was carefully holding the box upon her lap when she suddenly felt the greatest desire to open it,

`What could possibly happen if I did?' she said to herself. `I should not take anything out. I should only just see what was there.'

And without farther hesitation she lifted the cover.

Instantly out came swarms of little men and women, no taller than her finger, and scattered themselves all over the meadow, singing and dancing, and playing the merriest games, so that at first Graciosa was delighted and watched them with much amusement. But presently, when she was rested and wished to go on her way, she found that, do what she would, she could not get them back into their box. If she chased them in the meadow they fled into the wood, and if she pursued them into the wood they dodged round trees and behind sprigs of moss, and with peals of elfin laughter scampered back again into the meadow.

At last, weary and terrified, she sat down and cried.

`It is my own fault,' she said sadly. `Percinet, if you can still care for such an imprudent Princess, do come and help me once more.'

Immediately Percinet stood before her.

`Ah, Princess!' he said, `but for the wicked Queen I fear you would never think of me at all.'

`Indeed I should,' said Graciosa; `I am not so ungrateful as you think. Only wait a little and I believe I shall love you quite dearly.'

Percinet was pleased at this, and with one stroke of his wand compelled all the wilful little people to come back to their places in the box, and then rendering the Princess invisible he took her with him in his chariot to the castle.

When the Princess presented herself at the door, and said that the Queen had ordered her to place the box in her own room, the governor laughed heartily at the idea.

`No, no, my little shepherdess,' said he, `that is not the place for you. No wooden shoes have ever been over that floor yet.'

Then Graciosa begged him to give her a written message telling the Queen that he had refused to admit her. This he did, and she went back to Percinet, who was waiting for her, and they set out together for the palace. You may imagine that they did not go the shortest way, but the Princess did not find it too long, and before they parted she had promised that if the Queen was still cruel to her, and tried again to play her any spiteful trick, she would leave her and come to Percinet for ever.

When the Queen saw her returning she fell upon the Fairy, whom she had kept with her, and pulled her hair, and scratched her face, and would really have killed her if a Fairy could be killed. And when the Princess presented the letter and the box she threw them both upon the fire without opening them, and looked very much as if she would like to throw the Princess after them. However, what she really did do was to have a great hole as deep as a well dug in her garden, and the top of it covered with a flat stone. Then she went and walked near it, and said to Graciosa and all her ladies who were with her:

`I am told that a great treasure lies under that stone; let us see if we can lift it.'

So they all began to push and pull at it, and Graciosa among the others, which was just what the Queen wanted; for as soon as the stone was lifted high enough, she gave the Princess a push which sent her down to the bottom of the well, and then the stone was let fall again, and there she was a prisoner. Graciosa felt that now indeed she was hopelessly lost, surely not even Percinet could find her in the heart of the earth.

`This is like being buried alive,' she said with a shudder. `Oh, Percinet! if you only knew how I am suffering for my want of trust in you! But how could I be sure that you would not be like other men and tire of me from the moment you were sure I loved you?'

As she spoke she suddenly saw a little door open, and the sunshine blazed into the dismal well. Graciosa did not hesitate an instant, but passed through into a charming garden. Flowers and fruit grew on every side, fountains plashed, and birds sang in the branches overhead, and when she reached a great avenue of trees and looked up to see where it would lead her, she found herself close to the palace of crystal. Yes! there was no mistaking it, and the Queen and Percinet were coming to meet her. `Ah, Princess!' said the Queen, `don't keep this poor Percinet in suspense any longer. You little guess the anxiety he has suffered while you were in the power of that miserable Queen.'

The Princess kissed her gratefully, and promised to do as she wished in everything, and holding out her hand to Percinet, with a smile, she said:

`Do you remember telling me that I should not see your palace again until I had been buried? I wonder if you guessed then that, when that happened, I should tell you that I love you with all my heart, and will marry you whenever you like?'

Prince Percinet joyfully took the hand that was given him, and, for fear the Princess should change her mind, the wedding was held at once with the greatest splendour, and Graciosa and Percinet lived happily ever after.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 13, 2013

Asking for what you want

I just saw the best customer service prank ever. You can complain about the expense, what the money should have been used for instead and all kinds of things, but really, this just made a whole bunch of people happy. Take a look.

What it drove home to me was this: Ask for what you really want. You never know who might be listening. There is rarely any harm in asking and I think the world could use a little more honesty, including honesty about our own hopes and dreams. If we don't dream big, ask big, hope big, what can we expect to find, have, accomplish? If we're too afraid to tell anyone what we want, will we even tell ourselves?

All that being said, what do you really want for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza/Solstice/etc? I'd love to know.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Storyquote: Before it is lovable

“There is the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast,' that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”
― G.K. Chesterton

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, December 9, 2013

The essential ingredient of nostalgia

I used to think I had a strange childhood, but now I know everyone did. My parents may have been somewhat unconventional, but they were no more unconventional than most. What happens in any family can feel weird when compared to the rest of the world.

This holds true for me in most ways, except for movies. For most of my life I have been the only person I know, my age or younger, who didn't see The Sound of Music as a child. I have been the only one who didn't have misty memories and would break into song as soon as someone began to hum My Favorite Things. This hasn't been a burden or concern, but it has been a small differentiator. I did see lots of Bergman and other foreign films before I was ten. Like I said, it shows up in movies.

My beloved has, for the duration of our relationship, been dedicated to giving me experiences I didn't have as a child. I rode a roller coaster for the first time with him (loved it). We went skiing (meh). And this past week we watched The Sound of Music.

Far be it for me to criticize or praise the film. I don't have the haze of nostalgia everyone else seems to, glazing over whenever they see it, usually around Christmas. I do have that nostalgia for Fantasia and will go to the mats with anyone who criticizes it, so I understand the feeling.

I watched the movie with my sweetheart and adult step-kids. They all seemed enchanted. I enjoyed the experience but have no need to see it again.

I think there are things that we need to experience as children to have that hazy love as adults. If we don't have the lens of memory through which to re-experience them, we don't get hooked. It might be movies or games or particular traditions, but we need that childhood association for nostalgia to work. If we don't have that childhood memory it may be hard to connect with it. We need the memory of watching the movie with our parents or being read to or whatever it is for the present to glow in that vaseline-on-the-lens kind of way. The present has its own kind of glow, but it isn't nostalgia.

I certainly have nostalgia for some things that others don't feel nostalgic about. And I am learning to be patient with nostalgia I don't share. It is enough that those I love want to share these things with me.

What is nostalgic for you? What nostalgic moments do you just not get? I'd love to know. And, for the record, I am nostalgic about Fantasia, Narnia, being read to pretty much regardless of the topic, Casablanca, b-movies and more.

(As an end note, these nostalgic moments or lack thereof are great seeds for stories. Have fun!)

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Yes is the answer. Thank you, John.

I was 13.

I was eating breakfast and, as I was midway lifting cornflakes to my mouth, my mother said, "Laura, the news is saying a man shot and killed John Lennon last night." I remember being frozen, the milk dripping back into the bowl. I lowered the spoon and smiled. "You're kidding, right?" She shook her head and I could tell by her expression she was worried about me.

I didn't know what to feel. I was an infant when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed. I adored The Beatles with unbridled passion, but it was the Lennon of The Beatles I loved. The Lennon who had just died was someone distant. Someone old - 40, can you imagine? I loved his new album, the vinyl had been played so often it already had scratches. I didn't know how to react.

I remember riding the trolley to school and telling one of my school mates. There was an awful thrill, being the bearer of this news, but as soon as I said it I felt my throat begin to constrict. I felt something wretched begin to well up inside of me.

In class one of my teachers was terribly sad. She looked at us and said, "I heard last night. I felt pretty much the way I imagine Laura feels right now." Everyone knew I loved The Beatles. And everyone turned to look at me. I ran to the bathroom and sobbed, great dry heaves until finally the tears began to come.

I didn't know it then, but I was crying for a closed door, for the hope and possibility Lennon talked about in Double Fantasy that had been destroyed. I didn't know it then, but I was crying for the end of something I had been too young to experience. I didn't know it then but I was crying because of a new kind of knowledge I never wanted to have.

With Lennon's death I joined that terrible club of mourners, grieving for our heroes, the people we have never met but shape us.

I went home and listened to Imagine and War is Over and Mother and and Watching the Wheels and Mind Games over and over again, the volume huge against the walls and windows. I could hear my mother telling my father to leave me alone.

When I was done crying I did the only thing I could. I picked up a pen and started to write. I haven't stopped.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Storyquote: Anti-Fairy Tale

Anti-Fairy Tale
By Aryelle

You can keep your Prince Charming
And your Love At First Sight.
A Land Far, Far Away was never my home.
I'll be no Damsel in Distress
Waiting for a White Knight to charge up
And rescue me from the Dragon;
Forget riding off into the Sunset.
I don't want a Fairy Tale.
Being a Princess is boring,
And being Queen is no better.
I was born without a matronly Fairy Godmother,
Ditto a tragic Curse or Prophecy.
There's no Evil Stepmother waiting for me at home.
I'm happy not being the Fairest In The Land.
True Love's Kiss isn't what I'm looking for;
Mine isn't a Forbidden Love.
I'll skip the Royal Ball,
Glass Slippers are uncomfortable
And Pumpkin Carriages are slow.
My hair is not spun Sunlight,
Nor is my skin like Snow;
I can't sing the Birds from the Trees.
Once Upon A Time isn't my beginning,
And I won't live Happily Ever After;
But I promise you, I will live.

Creative Commons License

Monday, December 2, 2013

Free hugs: Some thoughts and observations

I'm sure by now many of you have heard about "Free Hugs." A guy and a sign in a public place started a trend of strangers offering hugs to strangers. The video makes me cry every time I see it and it's something I've wanted to do since I first heard about it. If you've not yet seen the video go ahead and watch it. I'll wait.

See? It's really something special.

This past Friday I decided it was time to try out Free Hugs myself. I had originally planned on going to an upscale shopping plaze, thinking that a mall on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving that has become a retail frenzy) would be the perfect place to try this out. As I thought about it further, I came up with another locale. I went to Walmart, the home of low prices and lower corporate ethics. My local Walmart (which I must tell you, I have patronized with a sick taste in my mouth, when I just can't afford to shop anywhere else) is in a neighborhood populated by people who don't have very much money. This particular neighborhood has a large Hispanic and African-American population.

I wanted to give out Free Hugs at Walmart because (for me) this store symbolizes some of what's most troubling about American retail. We could argue this ad nauseum, but let's not. It's enough to know that I wanted to give something away in a place that's all about profit and consumption.

I stood outside of Walmart in the cool afternoon, watching people stream in and out of the store. I got a lot of funny looks, mistrusting my motives. I can't blame them - who wants to hug a stranger? I was surprised to realize that I had expected people to know about Free Hugs. What a ridiculous assumption! Why should they?

After about five minutes a woman came up to me with a big smile and her arms extended. We hugged. We thanked each other. She moved on. From there I was hugging people in waves. Four, five, six hugs then nothing for a few minutes. Sometimes people would smile but didn't want hugs, others looked at me sideways, as if I were nuts.

Almost everyone who hugged me asked why I was doing this. I told them all that I thought the world could use a little more kindness, a few more hugs. They all agreed. Black people, white people, Hispanic people, young and old all came up to me for hugs.

There was a man who could have been a hard living 50, long scraggly hair and missing teeth, who came up to me for a hug. Afterwards he asked why I was doing this then said, "Nobody's hugged me in a long time. Thank you."

After I'd been there for about 20 minutes a Walmart employee told me it was time to move on, that I couldn't do this there, that it was probably illegal. I didn't argue, though I honestly wonder if the store had a problem with it or if she did. Security had driven by me several times and didn't stop. I asked if she wanted a hug and she looked at me as if I offered something perverted. How sad.

I couldn't stop grinning afterwards. It felt great hugging those strangers. I plan to do it again. And I'd invite you to hug more. We all need a friendly touch sometimes. Next time you see me, come over with your arms open. I can't wait to hug you, too.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Story Sunday: The Voice of Death

I love fairy tales. I'd like to share my love of these stories with you by posting an obscure fairy tale and some accompanying thoughts, each Sunday for the next while. Let me know what you think.

Let's kick off with The Voice of Death, a Romanian story collected by Mite Kremnitz, adapted and arranged by J. M. Percival (New York, 1885). I first came across this story in The Red Fairy Book, by Andrew Lang.

I've told this story several times, with only minimal modification. Based on the date of collection and the general tone of this tale, I do wonder if it's actually a literary tale, an allegory of immigration perhaps. I'm particularly interested in the way relationships are portrayed in this story.

Regardless, it is an interesting story. I'd love to know what you think of it, how you might use it and what questions it raises for you.

The Voice of Death

Once upon a time something happened. If it had not happened, it would not be told.

There was once a man who prayed daily to God to grant him riches. One day his numerous and frequent prayers found our Lord in the mood to listen to them. When the man had grown rich he did not want to die, so he resolved to go from country to country and settle wherever he heard that the people lived forever. He prepared for his journey, told his wife his plan, and set off.

In every country he reached he asked whether people ever died there, and went on at once if he was told that they did. At last he arrived in a land where the inhabitants said they did not know what dying meant. The traveler, full of joy, asked:

"But are there not immense crowds of people here, if none of you die?"

"No, there are no immense crowds," was the reply, "for you see, every now and then somebody comes and calls one after another, and whoever follows him, never returns."

"And do people see the person who calls them?" asked the traveler.

"Why shouldn't they see him?" he was answered.

The man could not wonder enough at the stupidity of those who followed the person that called them, though they knew that they would be obliged to stay where he took them. Returning home, he collected all his property, and with his wife and children, went to settle in the country where people did not die but were called by a certain person and never came back. He had therefore firmly resolved that neither he nor his family would ever follow any body who called them, no matter who it might be.

So, after he had established himself and arranged all his business affairs, he advised his wife and all his family on no account to follow any one who might call them, if, as he said, they did not want to die.

So they gave themselves up to pleasure, and in this way spent several years. One day, when they were all sitting comfortably in their house, his wife suddenly began to call:

"I'm coming, I'm coming!"

And she looked around the room for her fur jacket. Her husband instantly started up, seized her by the hand, and began to reproach her.

"So you don't heed my advice? Stay here, if you don't want to die."

"Don't you hear how he is calling me? I'll only see what he wants and come back at once."

And she struggled to escape from her husband's grasp and go.

He held her fast and managed to bolt all the doors in the room. When she saw that, she said:

"Let me alone, husband, I don't care about going now."

The man thought she had come to her senses and given up her crazy idea, but before long the wife rushed to the nearest door, hurriedly opened it, and ran out. Her husband followed, holding her by her fur sack and entreating her not to go, for she would never return. She let her hands fall, bent backward, then leaned a little forward and suddenly threw herself back, slipping off her sack and leaving it in her husband's grasp, who stood stock still staring after her as she rushed on, screaming with all her might:

"I'm coming, I'm coming."

When he could see her no longer, the husband collected his senses, went back to the house, and said:

"If you are mad and want to die, go in God's name, I can't help you; I've told you often enough that you must follow no one, no matter who called you."

Days passed, many days; weeks, months, years followed, and the peace of the man's household was not disturbed again.

But at last one morning, when he went to his barber's as usual to be shaved, just as he had the soap on his chin, and the shop was full of people, he began to shout:

"I won't come, do you hear, I won't come!"

The barber and his customers all stared in amazement. The man, looking toward the door, said again: "Take notice, once for all, that I won't come, and go away from there."

Afterward he cried:

"Go away, do you hear, if you want to get off with a whole skin, for I tell you a thousand times I won't come."

Then, as if some one was standing at the door constantly calling him, he grew angry and raved at the person for not leaving him in peace. At last he sprang up and snatched the razor from the barber's hand, crying:

"Give it to me, that I may show him what it is to continually annoy people."

And he ran at full speed after the person who, he said, was calling him, but whom nobody else could see. The poor barber, who did not want to lose his razor, followed. The man ran, the barber pursued, till they passed beyond the city limits, and, just outside of the town, the man fell into a chasm from which he did not come out again, so he also, like all the rest, followed the voice that called him.

The barber, who returned home panting for breath, told everybody he met what had happened and so the belief spread through the country that the people, who had gone away and not returned, had fallen into that gulf, for until then no one had known what became of those who followed the person that summoned them.

When a throng set out to visit the scene of misfortune, to see the insatiable gulf which swallowed up all the people and yet never had enough, nothing was found; it looked as if, since the beginning of the world, nothing had been there except a broad plain, and from that time the population of the neighborhood began to die like the human beings in the rest of the earth.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, November 28, 2013

You never know... some thoughts on gratitude

So here I am, on American Thanksgiving Day. There is a lot that can (and should) be said about the politics of this holiday, but for now I'd like to share some thoughts with you about influence and gratitude. This is a long post, so thank you for your patience.

I've had many teachers in my life. You already know about Brother Blue, but today I'd like to tell you about three others.

I attended public school. I had some mediocre teachers and a few amazing ones. Among the best were Mrs. Gilmore and Mr. Mealey.

Mrs. Gilmore was my fourth grade teacher at C.W. Henry Elementary School in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, PA. She was a tiny woman, barely taller than I was, with greying hair she wore in a bun. She was African-American and, looking back on it, I imagine her determination to get to where she was. She was fiercely fair; if you worked, you were rewarded. If you didn't, you failed. Most of the kids were scared of her. I don't think I was. I remember watching her work with one of the struggling students and seeing how gently she placed her hand on their back. I remember her terrifying a bully into behaving. And I remember a gift she gave me that has stuck with me to this day.

I was one of the brighter students in the class, reading well above my grade level. I was always in the most advanced reading group. Then, one day, half of my group was given a new reading book. I was in the half that wasn't. I was offended and asked her why I didn't get the new book. She looked at me quite calmly and told me that if I wanted to be the best I had to work at it, not just rely on my gifts. I was stunned. No one had ever told me that my inherent intelligence wasn't enough. I went back to my desk and read the rest of the assigned book within a day or two on my own and was duly promoted to the advanced group. I remember her smile as she handed me the book; clearly this was a victory for us both.

I haven't forgotten that lesson.

Mr. Mealey was my tenth grade biology teacher at the Philadelphia High School for Girls'. Over the course of the school year we became friends; he listened to my bemoan my problems and occasionally he would ask for advice about his own sons, not so far in age from me. He was a good teacher, passionate about his subject and he really wanted us all to see how cool it was.

I was a decent biology student. I could have been better if I applied myself, but Mrs. Gilmore's lesson was one I needed to learn over and over. In the middle of the school year I was having a particularly difficult time. I came into class and was completely unprepared for the test we were having that day. I turned in a blank paper. I remember looking at the questions and knowing none of the answers. I knew if it were a better day I would pass, but this day I had nothing. Biology was the least of my concerns.

Mr. Mealey never counted that paper against me. Without telling me, he didn't include it in my averages. I didn't know this until I received my term grade. It was the same as the term before and statistically it should not have been. When I realized what he had done, I wept. This simple act of kindness was an immeasurable gift. I am still grateful for it, grateful that he was willing to give me a chance to prove myself on the next test. I did. Sometimes an unexpected, unearned kindness makes all the difference.

I haven't forgotten that lesson, either.

Many years later, after college, I was working for a university as a research assistant. I interviewed people who had mental health challenges in the 1960s. One of my subjects was a man who was still quite ill. His home, where he lived alone, was littered with old broken toys and trash and take-out food boxes. Much of the interview was filled with his anger at his ex-wife and his kids. I was becoming nervous and considered ending the interview early.

He paused in the midst of a tirade, then his shoulders slumped. He looked me in the eye for the first time since I'd arrived. "I haven't seen my kids in at least a decade. These toys, I keep 'em in case they come back. I haven't called or asked them. I'm afraid they'll hang up on me." He paused, looking around his home. "You don't regret the things you do, you regret the things you don't do."

The interview concluded soon thereafter, but I haven't forgotten his lesson either. Neither lesson, really - the one about regret or the one about fear and sympathy.

We never know who our teachers will be. Nor do we know whom we will influence. All we can do is move through the world open to the possibility. Open to the chance that we will learn something unexpected or that our actions will help someone else learn what they most need to know. Open to gratitude, for the gifts received and given.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, November 4, 2013

Five things I think about through the long night

I’ve had an insidious cold for the last week, full of the usual sneezing and sniffling, but with an additional determined cough. I’ve been coughing enough that my ribs and abdominal muscles are sore. Yuck. What’s more, the cough gets worse at night, therefore falling asleep is a careful dance between becoming comfortable and remaining still, so I don’t trigger another coughing fit. You know all about this kind of thing, having suffered colds yourself.

What’s been interesting in this sleeplessness is that I’m not experiencing my usual frustration with insomnia; reading about second sleep has helped tremendously. I know I’ll fall asleep soon enough. Instead I’m taking this as an opportunity to let my mind wander and it’s going to some interesting places. Here are some of the things I’ve been considering in the middle of the might while I wait for sleep to conquer the cough.

5. The next thing I will write in NaNoWriMoIn the past I’ve had insomnia worrying about this month long writing event, but lately I’ve just been imagining my characters in new ways. I never knew fire sprites looked so fetching in Hawaiian shirts.  
4. What animal does my beloved sound like tonight? You might say he snores. I’d say he does a stunning sleep rendition of a purring tiger. Or a content capybara. Or maybe a distant revving motorcycle, preparing to propel its rider over the Grand Canyon or a Martian canal. 
3. Imagining places I’d like to go but am unlikely to get to. I shift through time and space, exploring the library of Alexandria. I dance in a ball at Pemberly. I walk through the bazaars on the Silk Road. 
2. I listen to my heartbeat and imagine music surrounding it. 
1. Lastly, and mot importantly, zombie fortification. How could I make my home safe from a zombie attack? I considered this quite seriously for a long time last night. My conclusion was that I was probably doomed.
And then I finally fell asleep, dreaming of the undead fiddling with lock picks and dropping their fingers. Ah, insomnia, bringer of strange dreams and stranger reveries. 

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Another orbit round the sun

Today is my birthday. In past years on my birthday I've written a list of things I am grateful for, one for each year of my life. I am disinclined to do that this year, not because I am not grateful, but because my mind is less on my birthday than on the death of Lou Reed. If you don't know who Lou Reed was, look him up. He was a musician who helped me and untold others. He is one of the people I am grateful for.

I am also getting sick and can feel my synapses being occluded by a cold, so I don't want to be that thoughtful right now.

I don't want to abandon this birthday tradition entirely, so let me instead think a little bit about what it means to be a grown-up.

I marvel that I have lived this number of years. My image of grown-up is very much informed by the tv I saw as a child and by the things I observed in the adults around me. Grown-ups are self-assured. They always know what to do. They have the answers. Right?

I keep thinking I will be grown-up when I hit a given milestone and then I will know the answers, too. When I own the right things or have the right degree. If I had children. If I drink martinis or scotch. If I learn to wear makeup. I will find the right button to push, suddenly becoming a grown-up. I will know the answers. Because tv says that grown-ups know what to do.

I think we need a new model of what it is to be a grown-up, one with more flexibility. One where a grown-up can still splash in puddles. Where you can be a beginner at any age without it being something worth commenting on. A version of grown-up that allows for wonder and whimsy as well as responsibility and wisdom. A kind of grown-up who doesn't have the answers, but is willing to find out. Maybe the problem is with the phrase - grown-up implies that you stop growing. I never want to stop growing, exploring, learning.

Maybe being a grown-up, at it's most minimal, is being aware that you don't know everything and you are willing to move forward anyway. Maybe a grown-up is someone who takes responsibility for their actions, and the other milestones (owning stuff, degrees, etc) are all window dressing.

What do you think? At what point did you feel like a grown-up? What are your standards for being grown-up?

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


As you know, last January I moved from Boston to Kansas City. It has generally been a positive change, though parts of it continue to be challenging. This makes sense, any kind of big life change requires patience; I’m thinking of it as evolution, it takes time to adapt.

Over the last six weeks I have had a number of work engagements in Boston, leaving my new home and going back to the old. This gives me an enormous feeling of displacement. While it’s wonderful seeing people I’ve missed and visiting some of my old favorites, I have a great sense of not-belonging.

Let me explain. 

Kansas City is starting to feel like home. I have a few favorite haunts, I am making friends, I am well settled into our home. My life has some routine and regularity now. I have a favorite grocery store and movie theater. I am beginning to relax though I don’t yet feel rooted. 

All that being said, I still get lost. I don’t know how to get places. The traffic patterns are occasionally surprising. I’m still looking for suitable equivalents for various things I love. The weather is still new to me. I am still learning the social mores.  I am sometimes lonely. Every day I am reminded of my newness in this place. And every day I remind myself that this is now home. I know where my bed is. My beloved is here. I am learning.

Back in Boston, I know the roadways. I know the shortcuts. I have my old favorites, the things that most comfort me. I have a community. But I don’t have a home base here. My friends are very welcoming, making places for me in their homes as warm as the place I already hold in their hearts. 

And here is where the cognitive dissonance lies. I keep thinking I should either feel at home in Boston or feel homesick when I’m in Kansas City, but neither have happened. I don’t feel at home in Boston anymore, though I feel comfortable. And I don’t feel homesick for Boston when I’m in KC, because that is becoming home. But neither are home the way I have living for the last 20+ years. So I end up feeling displaced.

What I’m telling myself when I feel adrift, is that this is in fact an incredibly valuable time. By not being rooted I can see what remains of me when I don’t have a geographical center. And I find that mostly I am the same, but not entirely. 

I move a bit differently. My skin is my home now. My observations of the world, my home. The moment is my home in ways it never was. To a large degree, this displacement has given me a greater appreciation and awareness of presence than I’ve experienced as an adult. I have become my own center. And for that, I am grateful.

The task at hand becomes retaining that sense of presence wherever I am, regardless of whether I am rooted or adrift. 

This moment. 
This city.
This breath.

I find myself home.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Storyquote: Antidote against boredom

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
― Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Storyquote: I told you so

“Nobody who says, ‘I told you so’ has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Storyquote: Words

“Words are like nets - we hope they'll cover what we mean, but we know they can't possibly hold that much joy, or grief, or wonder.”
― Jodi Picoult, Change of Heart

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Storyquote: The beginning of wisdom

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
― Socrates

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Quick note from the road

I've been on tour all month, it's exciting and exhausting. This week I've been in Coffeyville, KS, telling stories to elders and students. There is a lot to think about here, but I wanted to share one moment with you, something that validated the fatigue and road food.

I was telling stories to high school students today. One asked if this was my real job, how I do it. I told him that I worked in a day job for many years and told stories at the same time, then I decided it was time to quit and see if I could pursue my dream full time.

He replied, "Wait, this is it? You don't have another job? And  you're making it work?"
"Yup. It's hard and scary and one of the best decisions I've made."
"Man. That's the bravest thing I've heard all day. Someday I'm gonna do something like that."

Yes! One down, about 5 billion to go.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Things I have seen in Coffeyville

I'm in Coffeyville, KS for a week, telling stories to elders and high school students. There is a lot to say about it, but for now let me share some images. 

- the empty downtown, bronze in the evening light, with empty store fronts that clearly thrived in the 1940s. Now the pool hall and video game store are lively, and even this is a slow-motion kind of life. 
- the very long beard on the man three tables away in the cafe. No hipster irony, it's been like this (I'm sure) for decades. 
- the friendly waves. 
- the sky, bright and grey. This land remembers flood and drought, locusts and plenty. It is as though the dust decades ago scoured time away. 

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Storyquote: How complicated it is

"Of course that is not the whole story, but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time. Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently. Some people say there are true things to be found, some people say all kinds of things can be proved. I don’t believe them. The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots."
— Jeanette Winterson (Oranges are Not the Only Fruit)

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Storyquote: Magic things

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
― W.B. Yeats

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Storyquote: Don't stop questioning

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
― Albert Einstein

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, September 2, 2013

Some thoughts on free speech, bigotry and living in a new place

By and large, I am delighted with our move to Kansas City, Missouri. My beloved is much happier in his job, where he is creative, valued and challenged every day. I have leapt into building my own business as a storyteller, writer and consultant. We have met many wonderful people, we are making friends, we are happy. The Midwest seems to be treating us well.

But there is history that can't be escaped. In the urban Northeast, it's possible, though not easy, if you are white to pretend the U.S. is close to post-racial. What's easier is to be outraged at the things that are happening elsewhere, rant and rave but do nothing. The compromise many of us make (those of us who pay attention to these things) is to try to effect change, but do so from a place of little risk. It's easy to rant and rave, protest and march when the worst you are likely risking is a few days in jail.

Here in the Midwest (and likely all over the country outside of big, integrated urban areas) bigotry is often more visible. When we moved here, a friend told us to avoid a certain part of Missouri because it proudly bears the nickname "Little Dixie." Okay. Little Dixie sounds pretty scary to a mixed race couple, one African American, one Jewish. We would avoid Little Dixie. We would avoid the rural South. We would be smart and be safe and could still be outraged, rant and rave and try to effect change from a place of safety.

This was challenged when a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair put on a Obama mask, placed a broom so it appeared to be sticking out of his rear, and taunted a bull while the announcer asked if anyone wanted to see Obama get it. The crowd roared.

We heard about it. And we decided to go to the fair anyway, be visible as a mixed race couple, and try to effect change simply by not being afraid. We weren't the only mixed race or non-white couple there and we weren't the only ones holding hands.

Not too hard, not too scary, not too unsafe. But certainly more out front that we'd had to be in Boston.

I need to digress for a moment. I believe in the First Amendment, that freedom of speech is vital to a functional democracy. And so, when I heard about the rodeo clown, I was disgusted but didn't object to the parody. This is protected speech. Even if I don't like it, it wasn't illegal.

So, when we drove by some people having a picnic, we knew that they had a right to be there. And we had a right to drive away as fast as we dared when we saw the two large Confederate flags, the shorn hair, the black leather vests. We saw symbols in a language we don't want to know but have to recognize. As we drove away we passed a Methodist church, an Assembly of God church and a Baptist church and we both wondered how many of those people attended these churches.

Once we were far enough away, my sweetheart said, "This is what the Freedom Riders saw. They saw evil and it pursued them past the house of God. And even in those houses of God they wouldn't be safe."

We kept driving through the evening light and I know we both were watching for headlights behind us, even though we really had nothing to fear. The people at the picnic hadn't noticed us among the many cars passing them.

I am not trying to compare what we experienced to what the Freedom Riders did. We remained safe. We remained quiet. We came back to our urban home where we can rant and rave, protest and march, safely.

But it's different here. History is much more present, in the air we breath, in the stickers we see on the backs of cars, in the churches we pass where we might not have found sanctuary. I find myself thinking more and more about the past, as I move into this new part of my life. And I am so grateful for those who have gone before.

I am so grateful and, in seeing things like those flags, the picnic, the kids playing under the watchful eye of parents in black leather, I stand up a little more. I don't need to be as brave as the Freedom Riders, but I, too, have First Amendment protection that I can and will exercise. I'm doing so right now. I just need to learn the language of living in a new place.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 30, 2013

RIP Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb  
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound  
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:  
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds  
Bends low, comes up twenty years away  
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills  
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft  
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.  
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

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