Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kevin M. Brooks, loved

Kevin was and remains the love of my life. He was a devoted father, completely dedicated to helping his kids make their own way in the world with as much support as he could provide. He was a seeker of wisdom and laughter and life. He was a dedicated friend. He loved playing with ideas, with juggling balls, with anything he could balance on his palm. He adored his mother even as he would conceal at smile at some of her antics. His stories touched everyone, breaking down barriers of color and class. He was a miracle.

Kevin was a gift to the universe. I am so sad he is gone, I doubt this wound will ever heal but that's okay. I am so grateful for him. I am so grateful for his life, for his love, for his being. I remain awed by the mere fact that he loved me.

He died holding my hand. The last words he said were to tell me he loves me. I have never been more connected to another human being. I doubt I ever will be. In his last days Kevin was surrounded by people who love him. Frankly, I can't imagine a more graceful or holy way to go. While I hate that this happened, I am so glad he was able to make his peace, so glad he was able to be present with his kids, so glad he knew how much he is loved.

Now I see Kevin everywhere. His energy remains in some form because energy can be neither created nor destroyed. I see him in the technology I use, in the media I consume, in the stories I tell. From time to time something happens that I can only explain as Kevin saying hello. He is in the air I breathe so I breath deeply so, when I remember, I close my eyes and feel the molecules of air that passed through his lungs enter mine. We are still connected as are all of you who love him so well.

Thank you all for accompanying me through this year. Writing has saved me again and again. More than that, knowing you are reading what I've written means that I feel less alone. I remember that I have a voice and that maybe I have something useful to say. I wouldn't have made it through without you.

Kevin, thank you.
I love you. I always will, as you will always love me.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 27, 2015

Without words

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kevin in his own words

A year ago today we were holding him. He would purse his lips and I would kiss him. We knew what was coming even as we didn't name it.

For today, here is Kevin in his own words, a much better thing to remember. I love you honey. I always will.

Thanks to massmouth for this video.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer and Kevin Brooks Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A year ago today, 2

This time a year ago we were still in the cardiac ICU, holding hands.

A year ago this morning it was clear Kevin was on the road. He had made his peace overnight and was as ready as he could be. He was laughing, smiling, talking with people we couldn't see or hear. From time to time he would come back to us and would look at us with such incredible love. He held hands. He hugged. He would purse his lips for me to kiss him. I kissed him every time.

Around 11am the gentle cardiologist from the night before came to our room. He said, "You wanted to revisit the DNR and comfort care. Have you had a chance to talk about it?" Kevin was far away. I don't think he was sleeping. I know he wasn't. He was scoping out the road ahead, the path beyond. I stroked his forehead until he could focus on me. By now he was barely speaking.

I reminded him that last night we said we would revisit the DNR, we would decide if he wanted to remain in comfort care or if he wanted to fight, even knowing the fight was done. It took a few tries for him to focus enough to hear me. When he was as close to present as he could be I asked, "Kevin, do you want to let go? Or do you want them to do everything they can to revive you?" He looked at me without answering, so I asked again, "Kevin, do you want to call off the DNR?" After a moment he shook his head, no. "Do you want us to let you go?" Another moment, and he nodded.

Writing this, I am struggling not to cry, just as I was then.

I turned to the doctor and said, "We'll stay in comfort care."

He said something, I don't know what, and left the room. I turned back to the man I still love.

A few minutes later the doctor asked if I could come out into the hall. My heart sank. There was something else? What other decisions did we need to make?

In the hall I found the cardiologist, a couple of the ER doctors and a bunch of interns. The cardiologist drew me into the group and said, "I have never seen anything like that. I wish you could teach our doctors and families how to be so patient and help the ones they love." I thought of all the years Kevin and I had listened to one another. All the years that were stolen by cancer. This was a new kind of listening.

"I know I had legal power to make the same decision but I wanted it to be his choice. He needed to be able to do that."

One of the ER doctors and a couple of the interns were crying.

I don't remember what else we said. It doesn't really matter.

I went back into the room.

Later that day we were moved to a comfort care room, a big space where we all could fit. Kevin's beloved children arrived. He continued to weaken at the same time as he talked without speaking to people we couldn't see. He kept pursing his lips for kisses. He hugged his kids and told them, as best he could, he loved them. He kept venturing forth into the other world and coming back. I wish he could have told me what he saw.

A year ago today he still held my hand.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A year ago today

A year ago today we were holding hands.

A year ago today a gentle cardiologist came into our room in the cardiac ICU and told us it was over. He asked Kevin to sign a DNR and agree to go into what they called "comfort care." Kevin's eyes were huge. He was scared and he was angry.

We asked the doctor to leave the room and we talked about it. We talked about why they wanted the DNR. Kevin was so weak, so depleted, the cancer was such a mother-fucker that if his heart or lungs stopped it would be difficult to revive him. And if they did manage to revive him he would be battered by the experience. And if he was able to be revived it was unlikely they could ever remove his breathing tube or even allow him to come to any kind of consciousness. It was over.

He looked at me and asked what I thought he should do.

I remember wanting to lie. I remember wanting to say he should keep fighting, that we could do this. I remember hating the words coming out of my mouth as I told him that we had always known a time would come to lay down arms. We were there. I told him that if he wanted to ask for all measures to be taken to keep him alive I knew I could give the order to remove the breathing tube, that I could give him that gift. But that, if it were me, I would sign the DNR. I told him I hated it. But that I thought he should do it.

He looked at me with such a gentle expression. He probably stroked my cheek. And then he said. "I love you. And I trust you. If you think that's what I should do, that it's time, then that's okay. But I want to revisit it in the morning."

I have never felt less deserving of trust.

We called the doctor in and he signed, repeating that he wanted to revisit it in the morning. I stayed with him through the night, listening to him breathe, holding his hand. From time to time he would wake up and we would talk or touch or look at each other.

I miss him so much I can barely breathe.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 20, 2015

Measuring the days

As we've been creeping closer to the anniversary of Kevin's death I've been rereading the caringbridge posts from last year. I was so exhausted and so focused on him that I wasn't keeping a journal. Caringbridge and this blog are as close to a journal as I have for that time in my life.

A year ago today Kevin was home. We had come home the day before. It was very difficult. He was very weak and couldn't really walk. Our house is old and not designed for a wheelchair. Caring for him at home required multiple people. I was fortunate that so many rallied around us. I'm writing this now from our dining room, the room that became his bedroom. It's so quiet and empty. This time last year we were struggling to care for him and still respect his privacy. It was a tricky dance, but one I wish I could have danced longer.

At the time I knew he was dying though we still thought he could rally enough to fight. I didn't know it would be so soon. I thought we had time. We all did. Kevin held onto the faith that he could beat it until he was told it was over. I thought we could at least buy him some more comfort, a chance to feel like himself for a little while.

I remember last year commenting to him that it was the Spring Equinox, that the days would be getting longer now and maybe things would be a little lighter. We spent part of the day on the back porch, it was warm enough to do so. His nephews and son sat outside with him. I was in and out, trying to get a handle on a house overrun by people and illness. He finally asked me to just sit with him. I can still feel his hand in mine. I can still feel the warm sunlight. I can still hear his breathing and the hum of the hospital bed. I wish I had spent more time out there with him.

I didn't know we were down to single digits, that there were only 7 days left when I could feel his hand and hear his breathing. I didn't know.

I don't know if I would have done anything differently had I known. It's trite and oversaid, but none of us know how much time we have. We must live as if we are about to die, yet we must also live in this world with its needs and demands. It's a hard balance to strike.

There are so many things I want to say here. I want to talk about how my whole life has felt out of balance since Kevin died. I want to observe that, in spite of this pain and grief, I am still here. I want to marvel at the power of love. I want to say so many things.

And I want to say none of them. Nothing feels like it has any power in this moment.

So I will say this. Loving Kevin and being loved by him was the best part of my life. It was an enormous gift from the universe. I was so very lucky. I know that someday I will feel better, I will feel balanced, I will eventually forget to count the weeks.

But not today. Grief has its own rhythms and I am finding these days leading up to the anniversary of his death have their own demands. Today I will remember the love and the sorrow.  I will let myself feel the waves and troughs. I will measure the days we had together and those I have had alone. I will sit in the warm sunlight and imagine his hand in mine. I will remember.

(51 weeks. To write that is too much. I love you.)

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Ten ways to fight creative blocks

I was teaching an introductory storytelling class last week and one of my students asked, "What do you do when it just won't work? When the story won't come together? Is there a storytelling equivalent of writer's block?" What an excellent question!

Yes, I have found there is a storyteller's equivalent of writer's block. Though the image to the left is about writing, those same mysterious forces can conspire to stop the storyteller from pursuing their craft. There are times when I am working on a story and just can't find the right words. Or can't find the right hook to connect with the audience. I've even had my throat close up in the same place in a story each time I tell it, so I can't speak for a second or two. That's scary. And then there are prams, bees, poltergeists and so on.

There are all kinds of ways I've had stories not work, ranging from issues in crafting, practicing and development to problems during performance. Here are some of the things I've done that help me get past troublesome moments in story crafting. I use some of these same techniques when I develop a story.
  1. Ask myself why I'm having the problem. Am I ready to tell this story? Are there big emotions attached to it that I need to sort through before I can tell it? Do I like the story? Is it interesting? 
  2. Kill my darlings. William Faulkner advised, "In writing you must kill your darlings," meaning writers must be wary of the pieces of their own work they most treasure. This applies to storytellers, too. I don't mean we shouldn't love our stories and characters, but we need to be careful that we don't use the same tropes over and over again, without ceasing. We may also become so attached to a character or scene that we refuse to allow the work to change or grow. Darling bits may obscure the actual storyline, may inhibit your ability to connect with the audience and may be redundant. When I'm stuck I will take a hard look at the piece and ask myself if I need to remove the parts I most adore. I'll try it and see what happens next.
  3. Turn it inside out. What would happen if I told the story from a different point of view? Or started at the end and told it backwards? What if I made the hero the villain? This may get me around the trouble spots or, at a minimum, I will learn more about the story and its meaning.
  4. Minimize then regrow. Sometimes I'll try to tell a story in six words. Red cloaks won't stop the wolves. When I do this I'm forced to pick only the most crucial elements. Cursed sleep now, insomnia ever after. Once I've done a few six-word versions I'll then try telling it again and see if I can move beyond the stuck parts. Pigs flunk out of architecture school.
  5. Give it a break. If I'm having a tough time I may go for a walk, read something unrelated, cook, clean, work on a different piece. To make sure this doesn't lapse into procrastination I will set a times or schedule my next work session for the piece. 
  6. Get inspired: Remind myself why I love the craft. This is another kind of break, really. I will sometimes stop what I'm working on and listen to another storyteller, one whom I love. Listening to them might frustrate me or it might inspire me to try again with renewed enthusiasm. Alternatively I'll give myself an artist's date, an exercise pioneered in The Artist's Way . I'll go to a museum and spend 15 minutes looking at one piece of art. I'll listen to music with no other distraction. I'll find some way to remind me of the value of art and storytelling.
  7. Approach it through a different art. I keep a pad of construction paper and a box of crayons handy. At some point when I'm working on a story I will often draw out scenes using stick figures and speech bubbles. This makes me get away from the words and concentrate on the images instead.
  8. Get listened to: Freetell. There is a writing technique called freewriting, where you write without stopping or regard for errors for a set period of time, usually 5-15 minutes. When I freewrite I then circle the one phrase or word that seems most meaningful then freewrite again using the word or phrase as my topic. After a round or two of freewriting I often have something I really want to work on.
    In freetelling I ask someone I trust to listen to me babble about the story for a set period of time, usually three minutes. When the time goes off I state what seemed most meaningful and may ask the listener what struck them. I'll then try to tell the story with that information forefront in my mind.
  9. Get listened to: Interview my characters. Again, with a trusted listener I will assume the role of one of my characters. I will ask my listener to ask me questions and I will answer them as the character. How do I feel about the events in the story? What is my favorite ice cream? Who do I really love? Etc? All of these questions give me new insight into the characters and the story. This is often enough to propel me out of a block.
  10. Get listened to: Get appreciated. Sometimes when I'm stuck all of my demons begin to shout. I'mnotgoodatmyartWhowantstohearmeanywayblahblahblah. When this happens, if I'm smart, I ask someone who knows me and my work well, someone I respect, and ask them to tell me what they like about my work. I let them praise me and I remind myself that they are not lying, they are telling me about my work from the outside without all the destructive mess I carry around. And then I try again.
What works for you when you're stuck? How do you get over those humps in the storytelling road?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, March 16, 2015

The world through my eyes: February 2015

Here are a few pictures I shot in February 2015, random things that caught my eye.

Ride away

Do fish cry tears of light?


Good to the last drop

Ride away 2

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 13, 2015

Arguing with time

I know, people say time heals all wounds. You would not believe how many times I have heard this since Kevin died. I don't know if that's true or not because I am damned close to a year without him and it still hurts like hell. It took me an hour to get out of bed this morning. I didn't want to face another day without him, another day of reminders, another day.

It seems as though a big part of grieving deeply and authentically includes a lot of arguing with time. I have all kinds of meaningful demarcations of time; each and every one is a reminder, many are also a blasphemy.

What do you mean he's been gone almost a year?

Sixty-nine days from diagnosis to death.

His birthday. Our anniversaries (we have at least two). The kids' birthdays. My birthday. 
New Year's
DiagnosisdatefirsttimehesaidhewassicklasttimehesmiledfirsttimeIcollapsedfirsttimehethrewuplasttimehesaid"iloveyou" and on and on and on....

I think about time a lot. I've written about it before both within grief and without. I struggle with it. These days it's a fight.

Every morning I wake up and it is a day further away from the last time I saw him, a day further from the last time we laughed, from the last time I touched his skin. What if I forget?

Each morning I wake up and it is a day further into this new life that I do not want but cannot reject. How can I manage to make today manageable, maybe even with spots of joy?

Each morning I wake up and decide that I will continue to try to move forward. I will continue to build a life where Kevin is my ever present, utterly beloved past. How can that not be a blasphemy?

Every morning I wake up. Every morning I have to remember that he is not here and face it again.

I argue with time a lot these days. I've long thought that many of our demarcations of time are arbitrary - weeks, months, hours, minutes are all constructs to help us measure out our days. But days, those are real. The solstice, the equinox, the turning of the earth around the sun, those are real. And that knowledge has helped me manage my own distress at the growing expanse of time between withKevin and without. Until now. In 15 days the planet will be in the same place relative to the sun that it was when he died. We will pass through related space. I cannot deny this time.

In some ways it is a comfort because this kind of thinking sends me back to the kind of science that helps, the reminders that we are all just energy of one form or another and energy cannot be created or destroyed, so Kevin energy is still around somewhere. Maybe when the earth is in the same place relative to the sun we will pass through that Kevin cloud and for a split second we will be together again.

Or maybe not.

In other ways it is a terrible weight, that knowledge that I will never again have before me any position of the earth around the sun within which he was not dead. Within which I was not without him.

Or maybe not.

I don't know.

All I know is my wounds are deep. My scars are visible in my face, my hair. I would not wish them away because they are born from love and loss; to wish them away is to deny the love as much as the loss. I don't know if these wounds will ever heal fully; truthfully I can't imagine them not continuing to weep from time to time.

(c) 2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 6, 2015

The grief lens

Oh, but I am in a bad mood today! I'm careening up to the year anniversary of Kevin's death and everything is just wrong. In my head I am snapping at everyone, though I think I'm doing a reasonably job of keeping my mouth shut and not biting anyone's head off. Even when I want to.

That's part of what grief is about. Everything is wrong. Grief becomes a lens through which the world is skewed and upside-down. For all that the world is grey without Kevin, it is also remarkably black and white. Everything is either an association with Kevin or something he will never know. It sucks the possibility of joy away. The lens makes everything sharp and painful at the same time that it blurs the world and I know my perceptions are skewed.

For example, I went to the movies recently with a friend. We saw the re-issue of Blade Runner, a movie I saw when it first was released and have always loved. When I was young it was a great piece of science fiction. It inspired me to start studying origami. As I grew I saw it as film noir. And once I was involved with Kevin I saw its technical might and narrative structure.

Now? It's a meditation on mortality. Lines like Time to die and Too bad she won't live. But who does? are entirely too relatable. Yes, it was always a meditation on mortality, but I was able to see that contextually, within the greater narrative arc of the film. Now it's all that matters.

I know, perspective changes with everything we experience. But grief has done so more violently that anything else I've ever encountered. I struggle to not become bitter over friends' success and achievements. The bitterness creeps in because, no matter what I achieve now, it feels flat. I can't share it with Kevin. I'm just biding my time and doing what I have always done because I don't know what else to do.

I hate feeling lost and sour. I'd like to think it is not in my nature but there it is. And without the counterbalance of the joy I felt with him, it lingers. The lens alters my view of myself and those around me.

Please bear in mind, I don't always feel this bad. It's all exacerbated by the coming anniversary. But right now? It just sucks.

The grief lens alters everything. I look different as the world looks different to me. I miss being delighted by the things I see and encounter. I miss feeling happy when people I love are happy; it's not that I wish them unhappiness, but I need to remind myself to celebrate them. It's not longer automatic. It's as though I'm a step behind in the dance as I think about every motion, because the world I see is skewed. I don't know if there will be ground beneath my feet.

Be gentle with those who are grieving. The world we see is not the same one as yours. Believe us when we tell you it is different. That the movie isn't the same. That we are a beat behind because we need to remind ourselves to smile or laugh. That the ground is no longer reliable and our vision is not trustworthy.

(49 weeks.)

(c) 2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Oral storytelling in a technological age

A writer friend and I recently had a conversation about the importance of oral storytelling in the age of technology. It was a lively discussion and one I thought lent itself well to an #askthestoryteller column.

What follows is as much of a rant as an essay, with lots of different threads. I could have written an entire post out of just about any one (and probably will). I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below!

Humans are storytelling creatures. I start just about every class I teach with the comment that storytelling is arguably our oldest art form, that our brains quite literally evolved for storytelling.

We tell stories everyday, even if we also use technology to communicate every day. Whenever we interact face-to-face with another human being we are likely to tell a story. On a routine basis people say to me that storytelling is a dying art. I strenuously disagree; we still tell stories. We still need stories. Even if other media appear dominant, storytelling is as basic a part of being human as upright walking is. We're not going to stop telling stories any time soon.

There are numerous fMRI studies that demonstrate how active the brain is during storytelling as opposed to other methods of conveying information. The gist is that when we tell and listen to stories our brains are deeply engaged. In fact, the brain of the teller and the listener mirror one another; there is even some anticipatory effect in the listener's brain, so they are looking ahead in the story. Oral storytelling is as close to telepathy and precognition as anything we've scientifically observed. Because our brains are innately primed for heard story, storytelling evokes empathy and emotional resonance more immediately than any other way of conveying information. This means that we connect more to stories than to text messages, written language or videos. This alone reassures me that storytelling is going nowhere.

It's very easy to be distracted by technology. I am writing this essay on my computer, connected to the internet. My smart phone, which has more computing power than the Apollo missions to the moon, sits beside me. I want to stop writing to check Facebook or my email. I feel the pull. Yet I know this essay has meaning, so I keep writing.

We as performing artists have a responsibility to our audiences to help them remember their basic storytelling and listening selves, that there is meaning in story. When we ask them to set aside their technology for a few minutes to pay attention to the story, we give them a chance to reconnect to this ancient and powerful part of their brains.

I expect it has been a struggle to communicate across generations for as long as people have been communicating. I'm certain way back in history there were a bunch of people complaining about papyrus, that it would distract young people from learning the old ways. I'm certain the told stories of the ancient Egyptians were different from their written counterparts, just as the written versions of my stories are different from the spoken. But one supports the other. And frankly, one gives my words more reach than I could ever experience if I only told them. We can use these new technologies to gain audience, to share ideas and to deepen our understanding of the art. We as performing artists must adapt and change with our times as we keep this ancient art alive. The two can co-exist if we are willing to do the work.

It is normal and natural for new technologies to seem disruptive. But because storytelling is wired into our brains I don't think it will be replaced by any technology any time soon. It is our responsibility as performers (and therefore as teachers; audiences need to be taught how to listen, remember?) to help our audiences connect to themselves. I'm sure everyone reading this has experienced the storytelling trance, when listeners are enraptured. Give audiences a chance to get there. Invite them to take the time and listen.

With thanks to Doug Lipman for helping me think this through.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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