Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Telling Life: Endings and beginnings

Here we are at the end of another year. This is my last #tellinglife post for 2015. I hope you are enjoying this series and I would welcome any suggestions you may have. I'm always looking for topics that might be of interest.

A year is so little time and yet so long. In Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle King Arthur and his knights have one year to answer a critical question or the king will lose his head. Every time I tell it I am struck by how certain they are that a year is enough time and how it certainly is not. The king keeps his head but only by a hair. A year would not have been enough had the Court and king not had help from Dame Ragnelle.

So it is with our lives. Without the help of our friends, family and community (not to mention the occasional magical intervention) we would be unlikely to accomplish much of anything, let alone weather the great tests we encounter. We always assume there will be enough time and there never is.

When we tell that begin with Once upon a time we remember that long ago is still relevant. We remember that people long before us and long after have faced the same kind of adversity we encounter. We remember that we will likely endure. And we remember that we are not alone. A year is so little time and yet so so long; it is a once upon a time unto itself. 

A year ago I could barely think of anything other than the loss of my husband. My entire story was about grief. Today, just over 21 months since his light went out, I find myself looking back at the past with great love, and looking forward with great hope. The grief is not gone but is has eased enough that there is room for other parts of my life. It has only been a year but now my story is one of love and loss, hope and promise. With a great deal of help I find myself in a much better place.

Here at the end of 2015 we also stand at a beginning. Now is fine time to consider what has been and what you hope will be. What stories shaped the past year? All of the news round-ups will be full of stories of politics and fear with occasional moments of light. What stories are you believing and telling? What stories will you tell in the coming year? And who do you want to be when, next year, we are all amazed that another 12 months has passed and we are all, together, still standing.

With gratitude and love, I am looking forward to seeing what we discover in the coming years.
Laura

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 25, 2015

For Kevin, on Christmas morning

Dear Kevin,

I am writing this letter in the watery light of early morning. I remember when I was a child how Christmas morning held wonder and possibility. The packages were still mysteries and any one was likely to be the best thing ever. Santa was real and had come. I would sit in my room and watch the day gradually emerge into the world; when it was light enough I would burst into my parents' bedroom and demand that we go see what Santa had brought. It was a miracle, every single time.

You were my miracle. More accurately, you are my miracle and one of several I have been blessed with throughout my life and certainly the one with the greatest impact.

The Christmases we had together were just as full of anticipation and wonder. Santa still came, in his own way, through your face as you watched your kids open their gifts, watched me. He came in the light pouring out of you as we hosted our annual Christmas open house, as you glowed in the light of the Hanukah candles. He was in your voice as you laughed with our friends. He was in your touch when we finally found our way to bed, where we would fall asleep, too exhausted to do anything else but full of love.

In some ways this second Christmas without you is more bearable. It's at least a little familiar. In other ways it's worse. This time last year I never would have believed that I would be this okay now. I never would have believed that the love has begun to outweigh the grief. But here I am.

I spent some time yesterday rereading some of my blog posts from the last almost 21 months. It was like diving into very cold, very deep water, that breathless shock and moment of recognition. I am so glad I've been writing my way through it. I'm so glad you kept encouraging me to write for all of these years. I don't know if I would have survived your death without writing. Thank you for believing in me.

I still can't believe that I have written those words, over and over again. Your death. Impossible.

And yet.
Here I am.
It is Christmas morning, the second I've had to navigate without you. Soon enough I will get up. I will have tea and talk with the family you gave me.
Your son. Your daughter. Your distant son. I love them as fiercely as if they were my own. They are my own, in their own way, just as they remind me that I am theirs.
Your daughter-in-law. Your son-out-law, whom you never met. Your daughter-in-law's father, who navigates his own grief along with me. Your ex-wife and her love.
Eventually I will talk to the man I love now, which in no way changes or diminishes the fact that I love you with every fiber of my being. You told me to be happy and I believed you. There is happiness and loss, joy and grief in my heart today, as there is every day.

I love all of these people and each one is a gift you gave me, a miracle in my life. Together we will open gifts and look at each other with wonder. Light will pour out of all of us. I expect most of us will also cry in some way, large or small.

Your name will be on our lips. We will look at your photo and smile. We will tell stories of you. Slowly we are building new traditions that include your absence. You will not be here in body but your light still is. Your energy shimmers about the room and we all still bask in you.

Thank you for the gift of your life.
Thank you for the gift of your love.
Thank you, in some deep and strange way, for the gift of your death which showed us all how it is possible to love so deeply that you will never be gone.
Thank you for being my miracle.

Merry Christmas, Kevin. I miss you. I love you. I always will.

Laura

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Telling Life: Santa Claus and other stories of faith

I love Santa. I am not Christian and I was told the "truth" about Santa many, many years ago, but I still love him. He's my guy. At his most basic (ignoring the obvious consumer-oriented interpretations) Santa reminds us that kindness and generosity matter. He reminds us that we can ask for what we need. Since my first precept is be kind I love this embodiment of listening and kindness.

We are surrounded by culturally embedded stories that we have faith in. We may not be aware that these are stories of faith, but they are. Faith is simply trusting and believing in something for which there is no absolute proof. Looked at this way, almost everything is a matter of faith. Almost everything is the stories we choose to believe in.

These days it seems as though the loudest stories that inspire faith are those of fear. Be afraid of people who look different, be afraid of terrorists, be afraid of the police, be afraid of each other. When we are afraid we are more likely to assume the worst about each other, we are more likely to lash out. We are less likely to be kind. Having faith in these stories is understandable considering our news media and the state of the world, but they aren't the only stories.

There are stories of kindness and generosity. When we hear and tell these stories, when we have faith in our own better natures, we might be less likely to flinch when someone unfamiliar enters our world. We might be more likely to respond as if we were a character in a story of hope. We might be more likely to be generous and therefore the other may rise to those expectation instead of sinking to our fears.

I have met Santas, people who were kind for no reason other than our shared humanity, in every circumstance and every day. I have been sheltered by strangers, shared meals with the homeless, listened to by the frantically busy and loved by the unexpected. Every one of these people has been a Santa, offering me kindness, generosity and what I most needed in that moment.  I have been a Santa and hope I will be again.

My belief in the story of human decency is the deepest faith I hold. The stories we have faith in shape who we are, how we behave and how we are received in the world.

When we are kind we are often met with kindness.
When we are generous we are often met with the same.
Even if we are not given back what we have offered, we don't know what effect our actions may have in the long run. We don't know how we might change someone's story of the world, their lives and themselves.

Regardless of the season or your religion, be a Santa. You don't have to be Christian, white, male, large, bearded or dressed in red. Just be kind. Believe your kindness matters. Tell yourself the story of your best self. At worst you might build your faith in yourself as an embodiment of generosity and kindness. At best you may change the world.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 18, 2015

Remembering Kevin at Christmas time

Kevin loved Christmas. He loved decorating the tree and the house, placing electric candles in every window. He loved putting together Christmas playlists. He loved picking out and cutting down a tree. He loved making challah with his daughter and staying up late with me as we wrapped the gifts. He loved having all of our friends over for dinner on Christmas day. He loved all of it.

Christmas was historically more challenging for me. It was a stressful time and held some difficult associations, until I fell in love with Kevin. His joy was infectious. How could I not enjoy Christmas when it made him glow like a little boy? Together we believed in Santa. We were Santa.

New Year's varied. Some years we performed in Boston's First Night celebration. It was great fun telling stories to hundreds of happy people. We would walk to the subway afterwards, hand-in-hand in the cold, and make our way home to toast in the new year. Other years we stayed home and watching the Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy. We would share memories of each episode and then around midnight make our way to bed for a more private celebration.

All of these memories are sweet and I reach back to them as we move through the holidays. They live side-by-side with the memories from our last Christmas and New Year's. We didn't know it yet, but cancer was eating him alive. He could barely eat any of Christmas dinner and on New Year's Eve we went to bed well before midnight, where he immediately fell asleep only to waken several hours later, pain coursing through him. I held him as he writhed and I remember thinking this wasn't an auspicious start to 2014.

We didn't know how precious that last holiday season was. I know now.

All of these memories and more sweep through me. This will be my second Christmas and New Year's without him. It will be my second Christmas celebrating with his kids, where they will keep an eye on me to make sure I'm okay, or as okay as I can be. It will be my first New Year's with my new love, the first time he and I will make tentative new rituals. I'm sure one of those rituals will be my tears. My new home is undecorated. I haven't the heart to do it this year.

Even with these waves of sorrow, what matters most is the love. The sweet memories are far stronger than the pain, even when I am lost in that endless moment. I think of Kevin with gratitude and joy and love him no less now than I did when he was alive. Hope leaks into my life even if I resist it.

This is the season of light in the darkness. This is the season of the birth of hope and possibility. This is the season of gratitude and love.

I am so lucky to have been loved so well, to love so well, to be loved again.

I look to the night sky, to the stars and the moon and the clarity of the air, and I see Kevin's face. I see my past and I see my future. I see the universe and my tiny place in it. I keep him alive as long as I remember him. I keep hope alive as long as I am open to life, to love, to possibility.

I am so grateful.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer

p.s. The photo above was taken in December 2013. This was our last Christmas. He was the brightest thing in that room. The tree dimmed in comparison. Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Telling Life: Stories in the dark

We are just a few days from the Winter Solstice. If you live in the northern hemisphere, the world is dark. The sun may not rise until you are at work and it sets well before you leave. Even if you're self-employed, like me, what light there is has a peculiar slanting quality that lets you know it isn't quite comfortable visiting you.

I have always found these days difficult. Long before there was a formal definition of Seasonal Affective Disorder, I knew that dark calls to dark. I am more prone to depression, self-doubt and sorrow when there is less light. Part of me relishes these dark days; imagination flourishes in the dark but if I'm not careful, I drift into stasis and depression.

We all have stories about ourselves that help us navigate the world. For some, the story may be about family or achievement, for others it may be about injury or character. We use these stories to understand who we are and they influence the face we show to the world. My preferred story is about creativity, intelligence and kindness. I don't always live up to it, but it gives me something to aspire towards.

In the dark, other stories emerge.

In these short days and long nights I find it harder to hold onto my preferred story and drift towards the darker narratives. I begin to believe the parts of myself that tell me I am not a good storyteller. That no one wants to hear what I have to say anyway. That I may as well just get a desk job and let myself be swept away by the every day. That there is no point in striving for a creative life and that it would make no difference to anyone if I just gave up. That I am invisible and my kindness affects no one. Most of me knows these stories aren't true, but it's much harder to ignore them when the light wanes.

I am not asking for reassurance. Some of you don't struggle with this kind of darkness so it may read like a foreign language but I know some of you do. I am telling you this so you know you're not alone. The dark is powerful. It has things to teach us. But it is easy to forget that it is not everything in the world when we are in the midst of it.

Recent research suggests that human language and community evolved around the campfire as we told each other stories to keep out the dark. We can still do that. Instead of staying in my shrouded corner, if I remember that I am not alone I find the long nights are not as difficult. If I remember that I am one of many, clustered around a fire, listening and being listened to, then perhaps my darker stories are not true.

So, let me tell us both a story. Once upon a time we were born. There was light in the world with our births and we still carry that light with us, even when it feels like there is no light anymore. Our light shines out of our eyes and fingertips and the ends of our hair. We illuminate everyone we meet and when we tell our stories, be they joyful or somber, our light mingles with the light of everyone who hears us. When we listen to others our light sparkles and flies up into the sky to form the stars. This is how the first stars were made, by one person listening to the other and the sparks of their connection illuminate the dark to this day. We are part of the night sky and the bright day.

We are not alone in the dark. Tell. Listen. Shine.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 11, 2015

Just a normal day

So you know how it is. You're driving home when you see a car slammed into the median. Traffic is already starting to slow. As you creep closer you realize this only just happened and there are several other cars stopped, people trying to open the doors or break the window.

And you remember you have a crowbar handy.

So you pull over and run back, crowbar in hand, then hear the glass shattering just as you get to the car. You help open the doors and unbuckle the man in the front seat. He is clearly having a seizure. Vomit is fountaining up from his mouth. You help lean his seat back just a little and roll him into his side. You talk to him, even though you're not sure if he can hear you. You can smell vomit and feces and blood. The man helping on the other side has blood on his hands and you don't know if it's his from breaking the window or if the seizing man is bleeding somewhere.

Someone else has called 911. Someone else has pulled boxes to make a lane for emergency vehicles. Someone else is talking to the man's mother. Someone else hands you his wallet and you see his name, his military ID. You tell the person talking to 911 who the seizing man is and then you notice he isn't seizing anymore. You help put a rolled up t-shirt under his neck and support his head with your other hand. You tell him your name and tell him he's okay. Over and over again. He looks in your eyes and you see his confusion, you see him coming back to himself, you see his fear and shame and frustration. You see him flinch whenever someone moves too quickly. You tell him he's okay, even as it may be a lie.

You don't notice the pain in your back or the fluid on your hands.

You hear the sirens and look up. The lights are coming quickly, still half a mile away.

You stay there until the ambulance and fire truck and police cars come to a stop. Then you step aside and let them do their work.

You walk back to your car, feeling your hands shaking and the cool wetness of tears on your cheeks. Everyone else keeps milling around but they don't need you now.

So you get in your car and drive away. Back home you scrub your hands until they are raw and wipe down the steering wheel with disinfectant. You remind yourself that this man and his seizure, the vomit and feces and blood, are not the same as the vomit and feces and blood you had to clean up when your husband was dying. You remind yourself that you did the best you could in both cases. 

You think, "I should tell the people I love how much I love them." So you do.

And you get on with your day, because what else is there.

We don't know what will happen. We don't know if there will be kind strangers. We don't know if the next time the car might flip. We don't know.

Tell the people who may already know, or those who may not, how much you love them. We just don't know.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Telling Life: Uncomfortable

What follows is a lightly edited repost, originally published in 2013 as part of my storytelling alphabet. I hope you find it useful.

It's easy to do what's comfortable. For instance, I love telling fairy tales. I love telling twisty, difficult, dark fairy tales. Some people find this surprising, they think it must be hard to tell these stories because they go in such odd places. It's not. It's very comfortable. Equally, I love original fiction. I love creating worlds and inviting my listeners in.

What's uncomfortable, for me, is telling personal stories. For years I avoided it, telling any kind of fiction, myth and folktale instead. I told people I didn't have any personal experiences to tell stories about. It was so uncomfortable I turned down gigs instead of revealing things about my life in any kind of factual way. Eventually a kind friend helped me craft some stories from my life. Light ones at first and then increasingly difficult stories. It wasn't easy and it certainly wasn't comfortable, but spending time with that discomfort and working through the problems telling these stories presented made me a much better storyteller. What's more, I've embraced opportunities I might have otherwise found too uncomfortable to grasp. I've made friends and shared art I would never have had access to had I remained comfortable.

When we go to the places where we are uncomfortable, we grow. It's the same thing when we use our bodies; we need to be a little uncomfortable to build new muscle and endurance. Try using storytelling in new ways. Try telling the kinds of stories that are challenging. Try telling to audiences you might have avoided. Tell from an uncomfortable perspective. Find safe ways to do so and you will grow. What was uncomfortable might become your new favorite thing, you may have a new adventure. At a minimum you will stretch in new ways, learn new skills, and know your limitations are further away than you thought.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Telling Life: Gratitude

It's almost Thanksgiving, which means the media is full of three kinds of stories; 1) How to cook the perfect meal; 2) Don't forget, there are hungry people in the world; and 3) We should all practice gratitude all the time.

I've been keeping a gratitude journal on and off for years. I blog about gratitude each year on my birthday. Gratitude is one of the things that has helped me the most as I learn to live again after Kevin's death. It's something we should do every day, not just on Thanksgiving but most of us don't because the world is a distracting place.

Recent studies have demonstrated that a gratitude practice can have a measurably positive effect on our lives. This can be as simple as remembering to say "thank you" more often or as ritualized as a gratitude journal. Whatever works for you.

Sure, but what does this have to with storytelling?

Everything.

When we remember to be grateful for those who want to hear us, for those who help us develop new work, for the vast array of stories available to us and for the community many of us have found through storytelling, we remember that we are so fortunate to practice this art. We have everything to be grateful for.

This article recently published in Psychology Today lists seven scientifically proven ways our lives are better when we practice gratitude. Take a look at and then read some thoughts about how this applies to storytelling.
  1. Gratitude opens the door to more relationships.  Storytelling is all about relationships. When we are grateful for those relationships and express that gratitude we are more likely to be remembered and invited back. When I let my audiences know I am grateful for their time, when I thank those who hire me, I am letting them know that they are just as valued as anyone else. We all need to hear that from time to time. 
  2. Gratitude improves physical health. My body is my instrument. When I am grateful for it I take better care of it. And if gratitude will help my body endure all I put it through (this traveling life takes a toll) then I will be grateful for it every day!
  3. Gratitude improves psychological health.  When we are grateful we are less likely to hold onto toxic emotions. What I am feeling is reflected in my performance, no matter how practiced I am. If I take the stage with gratitude I am less likely to remain annoyed at the promoter who mis-spelling my name or any of the other myriad annoyances. 
  4. Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression.  Storytelling is all about building empathy. Our brains are more likely to respond empathetically when we hear a story. If gratitude will help me feel more empathy then I'm all for it. 
  5. Grateful people sleep better.  Studies suggest writing in a gratitude journal before going to sleep can improve sleep. As storytellers we need to be rejuvenated and sleep helps. 
  6. Gratitude improves self-esteem.  Who doesn't need a little help here now and again? We are more likely to stop comparing ourselves to others when we feel grateful for them.
  7. Gratitude increases mental strength. And we all need strength. Performing can be exhausting. 
With all of that said, please know I am grateful for you. I am grateful for your presence in the world, for reading this blog and for your stories, whatever they may be.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tips for the holidays

I've written before about the struggle of the bereaved during the holidays. I wanted to take a moment and remind everyone that this time of year is tough. There are so many memories and expectations. We remember the things we did with those we loved, the rituals we will never engage in again because the key person is dead. We are surrounded by imagery of and pressure to have the best holiday ever, even when what we really want is to curl up and be left alone.

Here are some quick tips to keep in mind if you are grieving or care for someone who has experienced a loss. These are, of course, from my point of view, but I hope it will be helpful.
  1. Recognize the pain. If I recognize my own pain, instead of trying to bury it, then it becomes easier to bear and something I can share with others who care about me. When my pain is recognized I feel as though my experience is legitimate. 
  2. Recognize the joy. It's okay to celebrate and feel grateful, happy or joyful. Our loved ones would want us to cherish the holidays and our lives just as we cherish their memories.
  3. Don't try to cheer me up. Let me feel sad. It won't last forever and I have good reason to grieve. 
  4. Grief is non-linear. There are no corners to turn, no bill boards that will announce GRIEF AHEAD or NO MORE GRIEF IN SIGHT. I may seem fine one moment and the next tear up. Laughter, tears, chattiness, quiet are all part of grieving because they are all part of life. If I start crying it's not your fault. It likely has nothing to do with you, it's just another wave of grief. 
  5. Don't pretend my loved one didn't exist. Let me talk about him. Bring him up yourself and see how I react. I don't want the world to forget him. 
  6. Let me have time to myself. Or not. Give me options and help me figure out what is best in this given moment.
  7. You don't know how I feel. In any given moment I might be feeling eviscerated AND grateful that I had the time I did with him. It's complicated. Instead of assuming, ask. Each loss is different and we all need be honored in our own grief.
  8. And if I'm seeming okay, let me be okay. If I'm laughing and smiling it doesn't mean I'm all better, it means I feel okay in this moment. Isn't that great? It doesn't mean I grieve him any less, it means I am figuring out how to live in the afterlife.
This is by no means comprehensive. It's what I'm thinking of off the top of my head. What helps you through the holiday season? I'd love to know.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 20, 2015

Letting the light in

I am swamped with memories as we move into the holiday season. This is the time of year when Kevin and I knew he was sick but we didn't yet know how sick. I am hit with waves of grief more frequently these days, which stand in stark contrast to the richness of my life, even without him.

I've been thinking about how I have managed over the last almost 20 months, and I've realized there has been a pattern slowly emerging. I don't know if this will help anyone else. I do know it helps me.

Last week I wrote about inhabiting my grief. Early on I made a conscious decision (one in keeping with how I've lived much of my life) to let myself feel whatever I needed to. If I was feeling sad I let myself feel sad. If I was feeling null, then null it was. My grief counsellor observed several months ago that this was a really wise thing to do. By not denying the depth of my pain I was able to process it. I did whatever I needed to get through and this meant that I wasn't bottling anything up. I knew what I was feeling and why. I was present with it.

This week I want to talk about letting the light in.

About three weeks after Kevin died I was talking with a friend and she said something funny. I laughed. And I immediately threw my hands over my mouth, stopping myself. How could I laugh if he was gone? My friend, very lovingly, put a hand on my shoulder and said, "You're allowed to laugh. He would want you to laugh." I, of course, burst into tears. But it was the first crack of light I had seen in a long time.

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

I began to see more cracks, slim shards of light that illuminated my grief. Smiling at a child. Noticing the quality of the afternoon light in my living room. Remembering Kevin when he was happy, not just sick. With each of these moments I felt such a sense of betrayal. How could I see any light in a world where the sun had gone out? It didn't make any sense that there was any light at all.

It took time, but I began to accept these moments of light. I began to realize that my friend was right, there was no way Kevin would want me to grieve forever. If I was to fully inhabit my grief then I also needed to give myself permission to accept the moments of light.

It was incredibly difficult, but I began to notice mindfully the times when the grief lifted a bit. In time I began to cultivate those moments. Eventually I found there was more light than darkness and that Kevin was as present the light at least as easily as he was present in the dark. Choosing to let the light in didn't mean I loved him any less or would forget him. It still doesn't.

I will never stop grieving Kevin. I am certain that, no matter the joy and love in my life, there will be times when I feel his loss like a knife to the gut, especially this time of year. But Kevin was composed of light. He walked into a room and it lit up. His smile could have powered a small town.

If I deny the light I deny his light, too. I deny the possibility he represented and the possibility that still exists in the world; the possibility of love, hope, continuation. I am not denying the dark, I know it too well to pretend it isn't there and doesn't lurk near me, but I will not deny the light either.

When Kevin was dying, we sang to him. One of his favorites as well as mine, was This Little Light of Mine. He and I sang it together at night when the cancer had all but stolen his voice. It was light in the darkness. We sang it to close his memorial service, voices rising together to celebrate him. I cannot hear it or sing it without crying (I am crying as I write these words) yet I sing it still.

We are all composed of light. It may seem like a betrayal, but if we let the light in when things are at their darkest we might remember to take the next breath, and the next, and the next. We breathe for those who are no longer. We carry their light with us.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Telling Life: Stories of fear

I was all set to write about mentoring or gratitude or stories to fight off the seasonal dark.
I was looking forward to exploring my own process in the hopes that I found something uplifting or useful for you.
I was good to go.

Then Paris happened. And Nigeria. My Facebook feed has been consumed with conflicting posts just as the news is full of headlines in capital letters and politicians tell us what we should do. We are surrounded handwringing and fear and reaction and and and...

We absorb and tell ourselves stories every day. Stories that help us get out of bed and go to work. Stories that remind us of our goals, purpose and relationships. Stories that give us a reason to keep going. The stories we tell are the roadmap for how we live.

Right now I am hearing story after story based in fear. My heart breaks.

I've been thinking about the stories we tell when we are afraid. The stories that we hope will keep us safe by assuring each other that if we only do this, then that will never happen here.

The acts of terrorism we have witnessed in the last few days are just that; acts of terror. People were murdered in an attempt to create division and fear. The people who carried out these attacks believed stories that said the West is evil. Non-Muslims are less than human. Their lives don't matter.

So many of the stories I see in the news and social media make me afraid, not because of the terrorist attacks but because I'm afraid the terrorists are succeeding in their goals.

I am reading horrific statements from people I love, implying the depth of their fear.
Muslims are the problem. They are evil.
Don't admit any refugees because there may be terrorists among them. Why treat them as if they are human and in need if there is any risk?
Send troops and let's kill them all. Their lives don't matter, certainly they matter less if it will keep us safe.

These stories create more division and fear. Fear drives us to tell stories we know are lies, but they offer us comfort. It is easier to blame a faceless mass of people than it is to look for ways to change the narrative entirely. I am not denying the horror. I am not denying the risk and danger. I am suggesting that we have a choice in how we respond and perhaps we should look at the broad nature of the stories we are telling.

Most Muslims are not evil. Most people are not evil. And we all are capable of evil acts.
Most refugees only want safety for themselves and their children. Enough food. A safe place to rest.
Lives matter.

I don't know the answers here. None of us do; if we did these things wouldn't be happening.
I do know it isn't cut and dry, there is complex history here let alone our own animal nature to respond to fear with violence.
I do know some of you will be upset by this blog post and will choose not to read me any more. That's okay.
I do know, and this is the point of this blog post, stories create a deep response in our brains, so the stories we tell influence our actions.

When we tell stories about a generic enemy and the need for retaliation we create one kind of world. If we tell stories that certainly acknowledge the evil that exists but also leave room for compassion and hope, we create another. We don't have to be blind to be compassionate.

Any one of us could be the problem.
Any one of us could be a refugee.
Any one of us could lose our child to war be they a soldier or a victim.

Evil is in the way the story is told.
Humanity is created when we listen to each other's stories.
As Brother Blue said over and over, when we listen to each other, we all become brothers.

What would happen if we told different stories? How would that change our lives?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 13, 2015

Inhabit

I fail at mindfulness every day. This morning I made myself a lovely breakfast then automatically read when I ate, so I can only barely tell you about the crunch of the toast, the unctuousness of the yolk, the bite of pepper and salt. I forgot to be mindful as I ate, so I am left only with a fullness in my stomach and the faint sheen of oil on my lips.

So it is with all the ways I strive to be mindful, including with grief. That being said, a lifetime of mindfulness practice has helped me on this journey since the moment Kevin was diagnosed, and I'm beginning to formulate some ideas about mindful grieving, the steps and observations that have helped me survive.

Shortly after he died someone wisely told me that it was okay to be sad. It was okay for me to wail and moan and not get out of bed. My beloved had died. So it has been since he was diagnosed; I've given myself permission to feel what I feel.

This leads me to the first step that has helped me survive. Be present with what I am feeling, with where I am right now. Inhabit this moment because I have no idea what the next moment will be. I don't even know if there will be another moment.

In the early days after Kevin's death I gave myself permission to grieve as deeply as I needed. I found that suppressing any of it led to much worse feelings later. If I let myself wail after awhile I would find myself in a neutral place and neutrality was in some ways a relief.

This made some people uncomfortable, but frankly I didn't and don't care. No one else gets to tell you how to grieve. Because I inhabited my grief fully, because I was mindful about it, when I finally found points of light again I was able to accept them without much struggle. I knew how sad I was and how much I longed for him. The moments of light were nothing to be ashamed of, no indication that my love was any less.

I live my sadness every day, but I don't resent it. Instead, I inhabit the sorrow as well as the joy so that the wonderful moments are not about the fear of forgetting what has gone before, but about being alive (just as is the sorrow). I inhabit and enjoy them for their own sake. It's not easy. In fact, I'd say it takes much more effort to do consciously than it does to just stay sad, but with all my heart, I cannot tell you how worth it this is.

Inhabit this moment. This feeling. This life.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Telling Life: Yes, I said

A couple of weeks ago I took a look at the value of saying no to a gig. There are lots of very good reasons to do so and I think all tellers need to give themselves permission to turn down work and pass it onto someone better suited for that particular job. None of us are experts at everything.

That being said, I think it's very important to say yes to the world, yes to the things that scare you. When I want to grow and stretch I do something that frightens me. It doesn't have to be a big thing, but something that moves me out of my comfort zone.

My mentor, Brother Blue, was a believer in saying yes. He said yes to all kinds of things and had amazing adventures. He said yes to work, to people, to life in a way that very few others have. I try to emulate him with mixed success.

In my professional life I say yes to things that I suspect I will be good at but might not yet have material for. I say yes to adventures. I say yes to things that I know will make me stretch and learn, so I will then know if that experience is one I want to repeat.

This applies to most aspects of my life, well beyond storytelling. While there are some things I'm pretty sure I will not like (very crowded places, for example) I generally try to be open to possibility.

Storytelling is about opening ourselves, our audience and our world to possibility. It is about saying yes to the possibility that we are creatures of wonder and hope. It is about saying yes to the possibility of connection with strangers, to the gift from the old woman in the road, to the possibility that we may be able to heal.

When we say yes to storytelling we say yes to connection, to the next adventure, to the road that may lead to happily every after whatever that may mean to you.

Yes.

p.s. If you don't recognize it, that's my wrist up there. The butterfly is to honor Brother Blue. The quote is from the end of James Joyce' Ulysses.

Take five minutes and embrace the world. Yes.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Telling Life: The things we carry

I don't know about you, but I have a deluxe engraved luggage set. I received the first piece when I was very small and have been adding to it steadily ever since. While it's not terribly practical - I can't carry anything in it - and it's quite heavy, it is at once one of my most guarded and most hated possessions.

You know what I'm talking about, of course. It's not real luggage but the baggage we all carry, simply from having been born into a world and families populated with other human beings. We acquire wounds, scars, habits and more that can weight us down, hence baggage. All of this has an impact on our whole lives, including our storytelling lives.

I find it worthwhile to remember this. If I'm struggling with a particular story; if I find myself resisting a certain kind of audience; if I get grumpy about a given work task, it's useful if I ask myself why? Sometimes it will be only that I'm tired. Other times it may be that the person who hired me is vaguely similar to that kid who bullied me in grade school, so old patterns and reflexes are at play. Or maybe now is not the time for me to attend a performance based on, for example, the loss of a spouse to cancer, because it is too triggering for me.

Understanding our own baggage gives us a chance to live more fully realized lives. Knowing that I simply dislike certain aspects of my work is useful. Recognizing that I am reminded of something challenging by something innocuous helps me moderate my responses. And knowing that a particular type of experience may have lasting repercussions gives me a chance to choose if I want to engage in it and pay the cost.

If we take the time to ask ourselves why we are drawn to or repelled by a given part of our storytelling lives (or any part of our whole lives, really) we can make better choices. We can choose to undertake a task knowing it will be challenging. We can choose to try to put down some of our baggage. Or we can can choose to let an opportunity go, knowing it will have significant impact on our internal lives. None of these responses are unreasonable if we have a sense of who we are and what we bring with us to the experience.

We all have baggage. We don't have to be controlled by it most of the time though there will always be times when we carry the whole damned set and don't even realize it. A little mindfulness can help though. By living a mindful life and least looking for and understanding potential triggers, we can become artists with greater authenticity, humans who are more honest with ourselves and those around us, and create a a world that is more connected, more interesting and more supportive of who we are and our work.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 30, 2015

Private and public

Grief is a private thing. The deepest, hardest parts are often the most isolating. The nights when I couldn't sleep, when I was incoherent with loss, were the times I shared with no one. I didn't want to. It belonged to me and it belonged to Kevin. It was private.

Grief is also a public thing. In my case I have chosen to make it part of my art. I write about grief, I tell stories about it. Part of my public identity is as someone who has grieved deeply and powerfully, allowing others to witness the process. An emerging part of my public identity is as someone figuring out how to return to life, even as the loss remains a part of who I am.

More than my personal choices around grief, it's public because it has such a significant impact on so many facets of our lives. It's hard to work, hard to interact, even the smallest thing may be a trigger. We all have public components to our grief, even if we may not want to share the experience. We must emerge from our carefully constructed cocoons (where it is safe to feel and express and make ourselves numb, where it is safe to do whatever we need to make it through) int the harsh world that doesn't know the world has ended. Grief can be so consuming that we can forget there are actually people in the world who don't know of our loss.  What's more, people in our communities may know of our loss and might not know how to interact with this new, wounded us. This is all part of being alive and much of this living happens in the public sphere; we must find ways to navigate it.

All of this came to mind because of Joe Biden's announcement that he will not run for the Democratic Presidential nomination, due to the time he needed to grieve the death of his son. Most of his grieving has been private, but this is a very public impact. Regardless of what you may think of Biden's politics, his thoughtfulness and integrity here are undeniable. He knew that a campaign and potential presidency would require his full engagement and when we are grieving deeply it is very difficult to pay attention to anything but the wound.

Those who have experienced a great loss need time and understanding from those around them. We need to know that we can maintain our privacy, share what we choose and that there will be understanding of the blurred boundaries between public and private; you can't always stop yourself from breaking down in a public place, at least I can't. The mourner is still one person, just with changed needs and abilities.

Everyone will grieve at some point in their lives. We all experience loss. And we all get to choose how we express it, what we share, and what we undertake while learning to live in the after.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Telling Life: Knowing when to say "no"


I love performing. I love the connection with the audience, the rush as I see them lean into the story, the chatter afterwards. It's exhilarating and addictive. I need to be careful though, like any addiction my desire for performance can lead to bad choices. I remind myself that there are times when I should say no to a gig.

I've written about this before, in conversations about ethics, but it's on my mind again in the wake of Joe Biden's decision to not pursue the Democratic presidential nomination, in part because he and his family have needs greater than that particular public office would allow. Regardless of what you think of his politics, his decision to forgo something he desperately wants because he cannot fully devote himself to it is to be commended.

I have made the mistake of taking gigs I wasn't the best teller for. I have found myself in front of wiggling 2 year olds and thought I don't know what to do here.  I've taken gigs that I knew would be emotionally difficult. I'd like to think I have learned something from these experiences, because now I am much more willing to say, "No, thank you, I'm not the right teller for you but so-and-so is." It's hard to do. Every single time a part of me cringes and fears I will never get more work, but when I say no to a gig that I am not suited for I am creating space for those that suit me best as well as behaving with an attitude of abundance.

Think of it this way, no one can be everything to everyone. Chefs specialize. Firemen specialize. Dancers and writers specialize. Professors, garbage men, politicians, librarians, construction workers, teacher, painters... I cannot name a field where there is not some specialization. I think it's hard for storytellers to do this because storytelling is such a basic part of what it is to be human: We all tell stories so those of us who do it professionally should be able to do all of it, right? Wrong. None of us are superb at every aspect of this art.

When we take that bold path of recognizing that we are not suited for a particular gig (whether it's personal circumstances as in Biden's case, training, natural inclination or for other reasons) we create several positive effects.

  • We raise the standards of our art by making sure our audiences hear great stories suited for them and those who hire us have a deeper appreciation for the art.
  • We build deeper relationships with our fellow tellers, by being generous and giving them the chance to be generous in the future.
  • We have an opportunity to increase our skill set. If we know we're not ready now we can learn more and be ready in the future. If you're not comfortable telling to preschoolers take a class and volunteer at the local homeless shelter. They need the stories and you need the practice. 
  • And, like Biden, sometimes we just need to admit we aren't prepared to devote ourselves fully to what is a very demanding art form. Would you run a marathon without training?
I know this may be hard to imagine but I have found that by turning down gigs for which I am not suited, I get more of the gigs for which I am the best suited. It sounds a little mystical maybe, but there it is.

This #tellinglife requires us to be mindful and honest with ourselves as well as our audiences. And isn't that a basic part of what storytelling is about anyway, authentic joy in the art and connection with the audience? No one would choose this path if they weren't passionate about it, it's too much work, so do the work you are passionate about and help others do it too by giving them the chances you don't need.

I'd love to know about your experiences saying no or about the times when you didn't and maybe should have. 


(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Birthdays, gratitude and life after death

Today is my 48th birthday. I don't feel anywhere near that old, I scarcely think of myself as a grown-up, yet when I look in the mirror I see a woman (not a girl) with smile lines and lots of grey hair. I have considerably more grey hair now than I did at this time last year and even more than the year before.

As you know, if this blog is not new to you, my life has had some significant ups and downs in the last few years. For most of my life I've written lists on my birthday, things I am grateful for, one for each year of my life. The last two years I didn't write lists. Two years ago I was sick and last year I was grieving too deeply. It's time to revive the tradition. Gratitude is part of learning to live in the after-life and so I will take this chance to remember to be grateful.

On this, the 48th anniversary of my birth, I am grateful for many things. Some I am simultaneously deeply resentful of, but they are all worth mentioning. This list is by no means complete and I'd love to know what you are grateful for!
  1. Life. For the life I am living in spite of the pain and sorrow. It is good to be alive, to feel the breeze, smell the autumn leaves, to treasure each moment.
  2. Kevin's life. And love. And support and faith and so on.
  3. You. Every single reader of this blog has helped me keep going when things were at their darkest.
  4. My parents. We've had a bumpy ride sometimes, but I find myself with staunch allies and loving support.
  5. My step-children and child-in-law, whom I love and am proud of beyond measure. Thank you for keeping me around.
  6. My friends near and far, without whom I would not have survived the last 22 months. 
  7. My new love, who has such a big heart that there is plenty of room for my old love as well, and yet this new relationship is its own beast, for which I am grateful beyond words.
  8. Social media. Facebook means there is always someone to talk with.
  9. Storytelling. The art and craft of it gives me voice.
  10. And likewise, writing.
  11. This blog, which gives me a platform.
  12. Every audience.
  13. Every coaching client.
  14. Everyone who has believed in my ability to create something worthwhile and has held me up when I couldn't do so myself.
  15. Quiet. And music.
  16. Good books. And bad books that give me comfort.
  17. Stories, the way we understand our selves and our lives.
  18. Fairy tales and myths, because they have so much to teach us.
  19. Crazy Jane.
  20. Coyote.
  21. The things I have learned by shutting up and listening. The times I have been listened to.
  22. The strength in my own body.
  23. My senses, even as some begin to waver.
  24. My home. I love my home.
  25. My car.
  26. A fiscal safety net.
  27. The sounds of the world - wind in trees, rain, waves, laughter, kids playing, etc etc.
  28. The porch swing on my front porch.
  29. My neighbors and landlord.
  30. My own resilience. I never knew I could be this strong and flexible.
  31. And so the circumstances that have led to my being this resilient, as crappy as they sometimes have been.
  32. Grief. I have learned so much by embracing grief.
  33. Poetry.
  34. My camera.
  35. Trees and rivers and birds and grasses and flowers and the soil and the whole of the natural world in all its harshness and beauty.
  36. Wonder.
  37. Play.
  38. Every act of kindness I have experienced, even when I didn't recognize it as such in the moment.
  39. Tea.
  40. Dumplings.
  41. Soup.
  42. Chocolate. And other yummy things.
  43. Time.
  44. Touch.
  45. Mindfulness.
  46. Connection.
  47. Love. and love. and love.
  48. Life. Always and forever. I am grateful for every fleeting moment. I would not undo my life.
I could add so many more. Thank you for reading this list and for being in my life in whatever capacity that may be. May we all have years filled with light.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sorrow amidst the joy

One of the things I keep relearning is that sorrow doesn't go away. It integrates into the rest of my being, to one degree or another, but it's still there and is always ready to pop up and say Hey! Did you miss me?

My birthday is next week. I used to love my birthday, allowing myself a primal joy in the fact that I am on this earth and the earth is beautiful. (If you're interested in some observations on birthdays, just look at any post on this blog published on October 27.) I still love birthdays in general, I think it's important that we each have a day when we are celebrated because there are so many times when we feel overlooked or undervalued. Since Kevin's death my relationship with my birthday has changed.

Throughout this month I've been aware of a greater undercurrent of grief than I'd experienced lately. I've been clumsy and tired, more prone to be irritable. I keep asking myself why am I feeling this way? Things are pretty good these days and, while I know there will always be a Kevin-sized hole in my heart and life, I am no longer living in the state of acute distress that so defined the first year after he died. I still have moments of deep sorrow, I miss him every day, but it's no longer common for me to have days when I can barely get out of bed. So why now?

Ah. My birthday. Kevin was always amused by the way my five-year old self would come screeching into the world around my birthday. For all of October he would smile indulgently as I planned a party or insisted on telling wait staff in restaurants it was almost my birthday (I have scored a lot of free birthday cake with this). It was kind of a game we played, my silliness and his amusement.

I miss that. My five-year old self peeks out from time to time and notices he isn't here. She isn't quite sure why. Some days my almost-48-year old self doesn't know why either.

On top of that, each passing birthday moves me further away from the time when he was on this planet. I was 46 when he died. It didn't seem so distant when I was 47, but now? Turning 48? There's a noticeable gap between 46 and 48, at least in my mind. I know this seems arbitrary, but there it is. I imagine turning 56 will be very hard, outliving him, but that's borrowing trouble.

There are so many ways that I celebrate and remember Kevin every day. Most of the time now I think of him with more love than sorrow. Most of the time now I feel deep gratitude and the pain is muted or at least I've grown accustomed to it. And there are so many ways that my life is good. Next week I will spend time with someone I've come to care for deeply. My friends, who love me dearly and have supported me endlessly for the past 19 months, will gather and celebrate that I am on this planet. I have gigs throughout the week. And yet... I haven't told any wait staff my birthday is this month. Yesterday I remembered with a start that it's in just a few days, surprised that it was so soon, that I actually made it through another year.

All of this and a myriad of other small reminders means that I am sad. These good things are also sorrowful. That's okay. This is part of what grief is; it lingers and re-emerges when we don't expect it. It's triggered by the very things that also give us joy. In some ways I am grateful for this too, because it reminds me of the immensity of the love and the loss.

I still believe in birthdays. It's just a different kind of celebration now.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Telling Life: Monsters

Some days are busier than others. I'm on my way to deliver a keynote talk and several workshops at the annual KATE conference, so I decided today to share an older post in today's #tellinglife.

In 2013 I participated in an A-Z blogging challenge, where I posted almost daily for a month. Today's post comes from that series. If you're interested, you can check the whole thing out here.

I selected this post because of the season. In October we consider the dark, the unknown. We allow for the possibility of monsters. I hope you find this useful.

If you have topic suggestions or questions I'd welcome them, as well as guest blogger applications. Please contact me.

Have a wonderful week and don't worry, those noises you hear under your bed are probably nothing to worry about.
     *     *     *

Oh, but there are monsters in the world! As storytellers we talk about monsters, real and imagined, in safer ways, venturing to the edge of the world and back. We can conjure kraken and werewolves and vampires and ghosts, just as easily as we talk about real life monsters.

Whenever I tell a story with a monster in it, I ask myself:
  • Who really is the monster? Imagine how that poor hungry wolf felt, being denied a meal by those greedy pigs. And maybe Goldilocks is really a story about a home invasion. If my monster is the expected villain, I still try to understand them. Are they simply evil? Are they angry? What's going on?
  • What is the monster's point of view? It can be very interesting, exploring the story from the other side. Telling the story from the monster's POV but letting it remain monstrous is an interesting challenge, one worth exploring if you have the time.
  • Where does the monster belong? Maybe my listeners never need to really see the monster, the threat might be enough.
  • When do I want to reveal the monster? And how terrifying is it once revealed? 
  • Does the monster change as the story progresses? Do I want to build sympathy for it or do I want it to remain terrible?
  • And ultimately, why is the monster there? What would happen if I told the story without the monster in it? Would it still get my point across?
When I tell a story with a real-life monster, I may need to do some internal work to make sure I'm ready to tell it. It doesn't help if my fear of my third grade bully is still making me shake. I need to make the bully terrifying, sure, but I also need to make the bully as real for the audience as the fear is. If the monster is a subtle one - say a problem at work or an intractable situation - then I need to make sure I set it carefully in its context.

There are certainly standard monsters - ghosts, goblins, ghoulies, giants, (and other things that don't start with g) etc - but I also sometimes consider if there might be a hidden monster in a story. If I'm telling Demeter's story, is her grief monstrous? Does it drive her to do terrible things? If I think of the grief as its own monstrous character, how does the story change? What if I'm the monster?

We are surrounded by monsters. We often are monsters. As storytellers, we explore the darkness with narrative as our torch. If you know your monsters inside and out your telling will be richer, more believable and your audience will more willingly venture into the unknown, here-there-be-monsters places with you.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The telling life: I don't wanna

When I was a little girl I would occasionally have spectacular tantrums. Lower lip sticking out, arms crossed, feet stomping and shouting, "I DON'T WANNA!!!"

I still feel like that sometimes and I bet you do, too.

We have all hit that place where we don't want to do that gig, deal with that producer or (in my case and right now) write this blog post. I. Don't. Wanna. It's a tough place to be because really, all we want to do is give in, have the tantrum and eat some chocolate. At least that's what I want.

When that happens I find it worthwhile to ask myself why? What is going on that makes me reluctant to get the work done?

  • Is it physical? Am I tired, hungry, thirsty? Am I premenstrual? Am I in pain? Would taking a nap, eating, drinking or ibuprofen help?
  • Am I lonely? Do I need support? How long has it been since I got some appreciation? Do I need to phone a friend and get a pep talk? Do I need a hug? 
  • Is this project triggering feelings related to something else? This has been especially relevant since Kevin died, but looking for connections can sometimes help and if I find them I can look for ways to make it less painful.
  • Is there a problem with the project? Do I think it's somehow unethical, inauthentic, or inappropriate for me? Does it involve someone I find troubling? What can I do about this, or is it just a lesson to be learned?
  • Is it resistance and self-sabotage? Am I fighting my own best interests because some part of me believes I am not worthy? Am I afraid no one will care about the work? If so, how can I remind myself that what I do matters and is meaningful?
  • Lastly, do I just need a break? Would taking a walk or exercising or reading for awhile help?
Depending on the answers I can usually work through the I don't wanna. Sometimes I just let myself have a tantrum, then get to work. That's what I did today before writing this piece. I avoided, procrastinated, did the dishes and finally decided the topic I had been planning to write about wasn't the one I needed to write about. I groused about it, decided no one would care about this, that clearly I don't have anything useful to say and then wrote it anyway.

We all will have times when we don't want to do something. We all have times when we feel ineffective or scared. We all need to remember that we are not alone in this work, we need to remind ourselves of what we love about it and, when we step up and do it, it will mean something to someone. And if not? Then at least we had a chance to practice and learn a little more about ourselves.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 9, 2015

Whose life is this anyway?

For years, one of my favorite songs has been Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads. The sense of confusion expressed by the lyrics has long resonated with me, but never before has it been this appropriate. I find myself in an ongoing state of discomfort and awe that this really is my life.

This is real.
This can't be real.
Maybe I'm living someone else's life.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself in another part of the world

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself

Well...How did I get here?

I am living in another part of the world. I am living in a lovely home, one Kevin has never seen, and loved by someone who is not Kevin.
Who am I?
How did I get here?
How can this be real?

This is not to deny the very real and very good things in my life. I am living in a beautiful home, in a city I love. I am loved and love in return. I am earning my own way, by my own work, doing things I am passionate about and making a difference in the world.

It is a repeated shock when every day I recognize these things and am grateful for them, yet Kevin is not a physical part of my everyday. I can tell him about these amazing things, many of which would never have happened had he not died, but his responses are subtle at best; he's not here cheering me on. I simultaneously feel so lucky that this is my life and so bereft that life with Kevin is no longer my life. It is tremendously conflicting.

And you may ask yourself

What is that beautiful house?

And you may ask yourself

Where does that highway go to?

And you may ask yourself

Am I right?...Am I wrong?

And you may say to yourself

My God!...What have I done?!

What I have done is I have chosen to live. I have chosen to honor what has been and to still embrace what is before me. It's really, really hard. It is the work of life, what we all must do every day; in my case it's maybe a little more obvious but it is no less than what you do every day as well.

It's a constant choice, letting myself be present in this world, in this life, in this moment. It's a constant choice accepting the gifts that are offered to me and the things that are happening because of my own hard work. Part of me wants to remain frozen. The rest of me is usually willing to let the world wrap itself around me but it is an ongoing struggle to balance life and immobility.

I may not recognize this life I'm living all of the time.
I may ask is all of this real and ask how this can be my life.
I may sometimes still wail for the life I had.
Life will happen whether or not we want it to. I can look at it with awe, with wonder, with regret and sorrow, but mostly I am looking at it with gratitude.

Thank you, Kevin, for loving me so well that I am in this moment. I could not be here without you, even though I am without you.
Thank you world, for welcoming me back and letting me occasionally run away.
Thank you.

Letting the days go by

Let the water hold me down

Letting the days go by

Water flowing underground

Into the blue again




Essay (c)2015 Laura S. Packer
Lyrics and video, Once in a lifetime (c) Warner/Chappell Music Inc. Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Telling Life: Dancing on the edge

I was working with a coaching client yesterday and he commented that storytelling is dancing on the edge. This man is inventive and courageous in his life and purpose, so I found it interesting that storytelling in particular puts him on the edge of terror and creation that can drive us to new and interesting work.

As I thought about this further I realized that the edge is part of what I love most about storytelling. From the creative process to the performance to analysis to the kind of stories I tell to the vulnerability I see as essential in my work to the ways I help others develop as storytellers, the edge forces me to dance constantly in the moment.

  1. My storytelling creative process is based largely in imagery and improvisation. I do not write my performance pieces before they are told; they require an audience for the very act of creation. I usually start with an image, play with it on my own, maybe talk it through with a trusted ally (though not always) and then simply tell the damned thing to an audience, unsure if it is yet coherent, precisely how long it will be and sometimes not even knowing the entire plot. This process is risky, there is always a chance of failure, but I think it was my early nurturing by Brother Blue that gave me this tolerance for risk.
    I LOVE this uncertainty. I love how the audience is a necessary part of the creative process for me. Storytelling requires listeners and I need someone to listen the story out of me. Their reaction will not only shape every performance, it gives the story form and structure from the start. 
  2. I do not memorize the stories I perform. I have a general sense of their shape and structure with a few crucial phrases perhaps committed to memory, but I want there to be room to dance with the audience. Well beyond initial creation, storytelling requires being attuned to the listeners and their reactions. It is a constant dance of creation and destruction, choosing in the moment what to expand upon and what to leave out. When I perform I am an avatar of Shiva, dancing out creation and destruction over and over again. 
  3. As part of my artistic practice, I revisit my performances and stories on a regular basis, analyzing and honing the work. This, too, is a dance on the edge because it requires me to question everything I do. It can easily spiral into great self-doubt and paralysis (and often does) but it may also lead to insight and deeper work. If I don't take the risk of analysis I may never improve upon existing work.
  4. When I first began performance storytelling I was in love with telling risky stories, those that pushed me and my audiences to an edge. I reveled in discomfort. I still do, though I am more thoughtful in the choices I make about the stories I develop and tell. My earlier determination to go where others did not was a reflection of who I was then. I am now far more comfortable with myself and my art, so I am willing to tell stories that reflect that comfort, but I still delve into discomfort on a regular basis. It makes me stretch as an artist, as a creator and as a performer who cares about her audience. When I choose to tell those stories to appropriate audiences who expect discomfort, it makes my listeners stretch.
    For example, I am currently working on a fact-based piece about a serial killer. This is deeply uncomfortable work, however it's forcing me to think intensely about story structure, boundaries, appropriateness and more. I need to consider all of this in the creation and then in the performance. This is not a story for children or for adults who do not have the advance option of not hearing it.
    It's a dance with discomfort and I am learning a great deal about myself and my process.
  5. Regardless of the material I am telling, I allow myself to be vulnerable in every performance, consultation and coaching session. While vulnerability is an edge state, it allows a greater connection with my audience and clients. Storytelling is all about that connection, the dance with the listeners because listening is not passive; it's about the moment on the edge when we open up and hold each other in balance. 
  6. Lastly, when I coach I am dancing on the edge with my client. Good coaching requires me to be absolutely present, to be listening with full attention and to be thinking furiously, all at the same time. It is a delicate balance between support and constructive feedback. New storytellers or new stories are like toddlers; you want to encourage them, not push them over in your eagerness to help yet you want to let the client take advantage of your greater experience.

Creative endeavors are always risky. They require vulnerability, honesty and a willingness to take the next step forward into the unknown. If we don't risk, we don't grow. This is the #tellinglife.

Let's dance.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 2, 2015

Detours

Grief isn't a straight line. There is a popular image on fb of the common conception of grief, a smooth arc, contrasted with what it's really like, a dark scribble, crossing over itself over and over again. I am reminded of that today.

My life is rich and I am repeatedly astonished by how okay I am most of the time, 18 months after Kevin's death. But not right now. Right now I am on a plane in the midst of ten days of personal travel. My work life requires a lot of travel so personal travel is always a bit conflicted. This is a long time away from home right after some work time away from home; in the last 17 days I have been home for two.

I am finding myself homesick and in that feeling I am back in harsh grief. I miss Kevin. I miss him with a visceral longing and I am sitting here with tears on my cheeks, for all that part of this trip is to visit my new love, a man who is able to accept all of these contradictory parts of me more easily than I can. It is hard to hold the new love along with the old and in this moment it just hurts.

I know this feeling will ease. That's part of what has gotten me through the worst of the grief, whether it was in the days immediately following his death or in the past few weeks. The body can't hold these feelings for too long and soon enough I will be back to a place where I can function. In this moment? All I know is that I hurt. I miss him. I am grieving. 

By the time you read this I will be okay. I will be back at a point of some kind of equilibrium. I am constantly reminded that grief is not linear and, even in the best of moments, there is still the longing for and memory of the one who has died. 

Our lives are a compendium of everything that has happened to us and grief is no less a part of this than love, hope, failure and success. I remind myself that no part of this journey is simple and, if I find myself back in a place of acute pain it is no less permissible and honorable than any other feeling. I would rather let myself live fully, feel fully, even if right now I am back in the place of raw wounds.

The geography of grief isn't regular. It's neither a flat plain nor uninterrupted jagged peaks. Really, there are no detours, only the ongoing twisty road with switchbacks, overpasses and always, if you look, a noteworthy view.

(c) 2015 Laura Packer
Creative Commons License

Friday, September 25, 2015

Atonement and forgiveness

Yom Kippur was this week. For those who don't know, Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the most holy of the Jewish holidays. It's a chance to recognize and atone for our sins throughout the year. It's a chance to acknowledge communally that we will fail but we can strive to live better lives. It's a chance to reach for forgiveness, to forgive those who have harmed us and to ask for forgiveness from those we have harmed.

I have struggled with guilt related to Kevin's illness and death. While I may know rationally that I did everything possible to help him, some part of me continues to wonder if I could have done just a little bit more. As time has passed and I've begun to heal, I've wrestled with guilt that I am living a good life without him. I am in the beginnings of a new relationship and that brings up more guilt, feelings that I am betraying Kevin.

I know none of this guilt and distress has basis in reality. I did everything possible to help him fight his cancer and then I did everything possible to give him a good death. He would want nothing less for me now than happiness, for me to find joy in my own life and with another. I know these things are all true. And yet I still feel conflicted that my life has gone on, as it should.

Part of what happens when we grieve is we want a reason for the loss, some kind of logical explanation. I found none but I kept looking and ended up trying to own some of it myself. While I suspect this was inevitable, it was and is fruitless. Holding onto guilt for his death will not help him. It will not help his kids nor will it help me. Life continues.

What I have found as an antidote to guilt is forgiveness. It's not a clear path and it's something I have to find my way toward over and over again, but forgiveness helps.

I've never been particularly angry with Kevin for getting cancer and dying. I know people who have been enraged with their dead spouse for leaving them; that's not my way. I have been angry with him for not going to the doctor sooner, when I was already afraid it was pancreatic cancer, four months before he was diagnosed. I have forgiven him that and all those small wounds we inflict on those we love. In forgiving him I can just love him. Relationships require us to for-give those we love, to acknowledge in advance that shit will happen and we still love them.

I've forgiven the doctor who laughed when I told her I was afraid it was pancreatic cancer. She said he was young and strong, that he didn't look like he had cancer, that he was clearly and accurately diagnosed with a different condition, highly treatable. I never want to see her again, but I decided I'd rather live in a world where people make honest mistakes than one in which the world is dictated by lawsuit driven caution and fear. Even had he been diagnosed that day, the outcome would have been no different. I have forgiven her and I hope like hell she learned something from this.

Most importantly, I am working on forgiving myself. Far too easily I find myself focusing on the stupid things I did, the times when I was impatient or inattentive or downright unpleasant. I think about what I could have done to make him more comfortable. I wonder if I should have put him in the car and driven down to Mexico for alternative treatment, even knowing the drive itself would have been too much. I castigate myself for the nights I didn't spend in the hospital when I know I was a comfort, even when I desperately needed the rest. None of this helps.

It is only when I forgive myself that I breath deeply enough to let the light in. Letting go of the guilt means there is more room for everything. If Kevin taught me nothing else he helped me understand that love is a basic part of my nature. It is a basic part of all our natures. When I forgive myself, for-give that I have made mistakes and will make more, I am more able to love the world, which I am coming to believe is one of the very best things I can do.

On Yom Kippur this year I sat by the ocean and watched the waves roll in and out. I thought about love and forgiveness. I tracked pelicans as they soared low over the water and thought of how life and death are everywhere, visible or not.

I have atoned for Kevin's death enough, an atonement he never would have wanted in the first place. While I will never stop missing him (I still talk to him all the time) I would rather find ways to dwell in love and celebrate his life, my life, the world. He would want nothing less, as would I had I been the one who died. I would rather live in the world with possibility, as flawed as it and I may be.

May the new year bring you light and peace and forgiveness and love.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Telling Life: Light and darkness

Today is the autumnal equinox, the shift in the world from from light to dark for the Northern hemisphere. I love equinox and solstice time. I love the way the world hovers for just a moment in balance or at at extreme and then tumbles so rapidly towards a new state. Watch the world over the next few days and you'll see what I mean. Darkness is coming.

I have long seen the autumnal equinox as an invitation to consider balance, to ponder the value of the journey through the dark. As a storyteller, this means I think about the dark stories I tell, considering their meaning and impact.

I've always loved dark tales. I love the old fairy tales that may not end so happily ever after. I've long told stories with broken characters that look at who we are in the dark, when we are in our dark times and when we allow our darkness to be revealed. We are different in the dark. We are at once disguised and exposed. Darkness allows an intimacy and honesty we might not otherwise be able to bear but it also puts us at risk. When we look at ourselves in the dark we may learn things we never knew.

When I started telling stories I was immediately drawn to stories of love and death, dark tales. I told myths and fairy tales and original stories that explored this, over and over again. Mot were something like the story below, stories that explored the darkness but brought the listener back to some place of safety.



At the time very few people were telling dark stories, certainly not in the Boston area. There were generally two different reactions to these stories, which were rarely violent or explicit. One group of people would tell me how much they loved the story, how they needed to hear it, how the stories changed them. The other group, which far outnumbered the first, would tell me I was inappropriate or otherwise wrong for telling this kind of material, regardless of the fact that I was mindful of my audiences.

It was hard, I struggled to retain my belief that these stories mattered. I persevered. Eventually I found myself exploring a broader range of topics but dark stories have remained a vital part of my repertoire. I love what I learn about myself, about the world and about my audience from them.

We need all kinds of stories. Now you can find stories that contain difficult material at every venue, in almost every performance. When we talk about the tough stuff in a place of safety, we share the tools we need to withstand the dark. As importantly, we have a chance to make the darkness our friend, the thing that protects us rather than exposes us.

We will all experience darkness, whether the literal darkness as we slide towards the winter solstice or the figurative darkness of a broken heart, depression, loss or our own secret pains. When we talk about it, when we tell stories, we tell the hidden that they are not alone. We tell the our listeners that there is a path through the darkness - or maybe there isn't, but they are not the only ones who have been there. We tell ourselves that we have survived the dark well enough to talk about it.

As we pass through this tilt in the year and the nights become longer I invite you to consider the wisdom you may find in the dark. What are you more willing to reveal? Who do you want in there with you? How will you remind yourself that the world will tilt again and the light will return?

Share your stories.
Listen well.
Know that you can reach out, find a warm hand and know that there is solace in the dark.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 18, 2015

In disguise

I've been feeling pretty good lately. My life is rich and, while I have ongoing cognitive dissonance that I can be happy without Kevin, I find that I am. I am working. I have a lovely home. I have wonderful friends and family. I am seeing someone who makes me happy. Life is good.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for any time know that recently I decided I was ready to figure out how to live again. Part of this process has involved cooking. I used to love to cook, so when I thought about things that would help me re-engage with the world, cooking was right up there.

For the last few days I've been feeling a little off. Tired, cranky, having a lot of trouble focusing. This made sense, my father has been ill, I've been working a lot, and so on. I decided to combat this feeling by watching a movie and making myself a nice a dinner, a little bit of self-care. Chicken roasted in my good cast iron pan. Cucumber salad. Fresh tomatoes. Yum. Everything was proceeding beautifully; dinner smelled great, I was enjoying the film, I was feeling more present than I had in awhile. The chicken was just about done so I reached in with a pot holder to pull the pan out.

You know what's coming. Those of you who are especially sensitive (Mom and Dad, I'm talking to you) may want to skip the next paragraph.

I didn't notice the hole in the potholder. I noticed only when I had already grasped the handle of the pan and was pulling it out of the oven. When I felt the searing in my finger I dropped the pan and chicken fat flew out, splashing my cheek, nose, neck and shoulder.

I was very lucky. It missed my eye and I was quickly able to treat the wounds before they became serious. I hopped into a cool shower, a friend came over with aloe and ice. I'm okay, though it will take a few days for the burns to fade.

As soon as I knew I was safe and had cleaned up the spilled grease (one kitchen accident a night is enough) I thought about what happened. I realized that over the last few days I've been feeling more acute grief than I had in a long while. I was missing Kevin. I was sad. As soon as I realized that, I remembered how grief has made me clumsy, tired and careless. Of course I've been off for the last few days. Of course I had an accident. Of course the grief is still there, brought back to the surface by events in my life and just because it comes back sometimes. It wears disguises now and it's up to me to recognize it.

I have known for a long time that the love Kevin and I shared will never vanish; it will live in me and can strengthen the love I feel for others. I have also known for a long time that I will never stop missing him, that this is now part of the fabric of my being, no matter how happy I may be. I'm okay with all of that. What I need to remember is that the grief will rise up again and again, maybe triggered by something or maybe not. I need to be able to recognize it, invite it in and listen to it, remember that it is as much a teacher and part of me as the love.

Grief is not the enemy. There is no enemy. There is only recognition of the visitor, the wisdom behind the mask, the invitation to take the time to feel deeply, truly, celebrating the love and honoring the loss.

Next time I just need to remember to check the potholder first.

(c)2015 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.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.laurapacker.com.
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