Friday, June 26, 2015

Love wins. Thinking of Jim Obergefell, grief and marriage

I try not to bring politics into this blog, believing that storytelling and grief are universal. This morning I need to touch on politics because this morning the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled for love in Obergefell v. Hodges.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

Love wins.

Kevin and I love/d each other very much. And if you've never seen a picture of us, our skins were different colors. Forty years ago our marriage would have been illegal had it not been for the Loving vs. Virginia decision by SCOTUS, which read in part:

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

Love wins.

More than anything I wish I could celebrate today's decision with my beloved, the way people all over this country are going to be celebrating with their beloveds, regardless of sex. And my thoughts keep going to Jim Obergefell who wanted the right to be recognized as husband on his beloved's death certificate. Jim Obergefell and John Arthur loved each other beyond measure, just like me and Kevin. Take a look at that picture; I have pictures that mirror it, of me smiling with desperate hope while Kevin smiles beside me. And like me, Mr. Obergefell is mourning the loss of his love. Forty years ago I might not have been recognized as Kevin's wife. And from today forward, no one can deny that Jim is John's husband.

I hope that offers him some comfort. Even in grief, love endures. For love is stronger than death.

Love wins.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Telling Life: Bridge over troubled waters

Welcome to the first substantive installment of The Telling Life, a weekly column where I or another storyteller shares observations about what it means to live the artist's life. If you're curious about the thinking behind this, you can find more here.

There are times when social media becomes irrelevant. When whatever the next planned tweet or post or image would be is, at best, out of sync in the light of a more pressing national or global concern. At worst it becomes tone deaf, evidence that the writer is ignoring issues far more important and urgent than her own concerns. This past week has been one of those times when it seemed to me that my plans needed to be set aside and instead I've been looking at the national mood. The recent shootings in Charleston, SC, have brought issues of race and racism in America to the forefront. Addressing anything else in this post would be tone deaf.

That being said, there is a place for a conversation about storytelling in the context of these murders. The Telling Life is devoted to personal reflections by storytellers about the impact and use of the art, so here are some personal thoughts about the role of storytelling, tellers and my own response in the face of such clear evidence that the U.S. is still a deeply divided country. This is not an easy column to write, it feels like I'm jumping into the deep end, but we need to talk about these things. Remaining silent gives hatred a safe place to incubate. This is a long post and a bit unfocused because I'm struggling to make sense of it myself. Thank you for your patience.

Brother Blue used to say that he told stories to save the world because, "How can people kill each other when they've heard each other's stories?" I know, the specifics of this can be argued, but I think he's right. When we know each other, when we listen to each other's hopes and fears, loves and concerns, we realize that we are all more alike than we are different. We all fret about our families, want the people we love to be safe and happy. When we break it down, we all struggle with the same things, maybe on a different scale or with a different emphasis, but we all yearn for safety and happiness. We all yearn to live in peace. We all yearn to be loved and fulfilled. The stories we tell reflect this; every culture has its own version of happily ever after.

I've never had an easy understanding of racism. I was a white kid in a well-integrated neighborhood with parents who believed in civil rights. When I was in grammar school my best friend was black. In third grade some white kids, including the boy I had a crush on, started teasing me about being a "n- lover." You know the word I am not writing. I got really angry and ended up in a fight with them. You remember that kid in grade school who no one picked on because if they got into a fight they went crazy and didn't hold anything back? Yeah. That was me in this fight. No one said anything like that to me again nor did they pick on my friend when I was around which, at the time, I thought was a pretty good outcome. Looking back I doubt if those kids learned anything other than to leave me alone.

Many years later I found myself deeply in love with and married to a black man. The color of his skin had very little to do with why I love him - he was a marvelous person inside and out. In the early days of our relationship many of my white friends asked me terribly inappropriate questions. You can certainly guess some; others were even worse than what you're thinking. Does the color wash off his skin? Aren't you just a little scared, I mean everyone knows black men are dangerous. Do you eat more chicken and watermelon now? I kid you not, people who I've known and loved for years asked these questions. At first I was furious. The first few times I was not gentle in my response. "What gives you the right to ask that? Do you really think black people are any different from any other kind of people?" which shut down the conversation and the questioner. It was the same as getting into a fistfight.

After a while I realized that the people asking these questions were doing so because they felt safe with me. I was a place where they could expose their assumptions and ask. Yes, these questions came out of ignorance seasoned with prejudice, but if I didn't answer them then I was only burning a bridge. I didn't often directly answer the question. Instead I would ask them, as gently as I could, why they were asking. This led to conversations about racial assumptions and I had the opportunity to talk about how people are people regardless of the color of their skin. That our biology, our cares and concerns, our preferences for a given food are the product of our culture and upbringing. If color doesn't wash off of white skin it's not likely to wash off of black. That danger is more a product of economics and opportunity than anything else and the color of someone's skin does nor predispose them from birth towards violence. That chicken and watermelon are delicious; so are salad and scallops and a nice glass of wine.

The questions gave us a chance to build bridges. The stories we told each other helped us reach out and connect. My husband had these experiences every day and was more generous in his response than I typically was. Many of his stories were about his experiences as a black man, told to largely white audiences.

So how does all of this relate to #tellinglife? How does this relate to the murders of nine black people by a self-avowed white racist? We change the world with the stories we tell. When we reach across racial, social, religious or other divides and share our experiences we are reminded that we are so similar under the skin. It is my duty as a storyteller to tell the stories of ignorance and knowledge. Maybe if the shooter had heard some of these stories, had taken an opportunity to listen to black people, he would have realized that his prejudices weren't a reflection of the world as it is. And then maybe he wouldn't have been so scared as to pick up a gun.

I am fortunate. I was raised by parents who believe that everyone has potential to be a miracle or monster. Now, as a storyteller, I have the opportunity to build bridges with words and by listening. So do you. Being silent won't change the world.

My name is Laura Packer. I am a middle-aged white woman living in the middle of the United States. I have experienced white privilege and sexism. I have made stupid assumptions based on race or religion or other factors. I am trying to not do that again and to help build a better world. By naming these things I hope to remove some of the stigma. By telling these stories I hope to create more open dialogue so we can build bridges. You can too.

Join me.

(With thanks to Janice Del Negro for helping me think this through.)

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, June 19, 2015

Triggers, triggers everywhere

Sometime in the middle of 2014, when it had been maybe six months since Kevin died, a widowed friend commented to me that she found the second year of grief to be harder than the first. I listened but couldn't imagine anything worse. Well, here I am, almost 3 months into the second year after Kevin's death and, yup, I get it now.

The first year is almost unbearably painful. Every new thing, every first anniversary of every life event, every reminder is a traumatic insult to the system. It is a physical thing, physically painful and immensely, indescribably hard. The second year, at least the bit I've experienced so far, is less physically painful, less a state of constant shock, but there is a monotony to it that is profoundly wearing. He is still gone and nothing I do can change that. I understand that on a deeper level than I did this time last year. The first year had all of the resistance and numbing shock you feel after a massive trauma. The second year, it seems is when you begin to adapt to the constant pain, the constant sense of there being something wrong with the world and there is not a damned thing you can do about it. What's more, I am beginning to breath again, so when I am slammed by grief, when something drives home that the love of my life is dead, it is literally breathtaking.

I will write more about this, I'm sure, but for today I wanted to talk about triggers, in the context of this second year when, even though I am still deeply damaged, I am learning to breath again.

Those triggers are everywhere. Some of them I can predict and I am grateful for that knowledge. I know to not drive certain routes because they remind of something too sweet and lost to bear. I know that I won't go back to what was my favorite supermarket any time soon because I sob in the parking lot every time. I know that when I see a tall, broad, goateed black man of a certain age with a certain kind of walk or riding a bike, my breath will catch in my throat. I know better than to watch certain movies or television shows, know better than to listen to certain music, unless I want to cry. And sometimes I do.

I know all of that.

It's the unexpected triggers that are, well, unexpected. The things I think will be comforting but somehow BAM! slam me back into that place of intense longing and pain. They. Are. Everywhere. Some of them are petty, some immense. And some of them, quite honestly, are kind of ridiculous.

Two things in particular have been triggering in the last few days. One is the horror of the shootings in Charleston SC just a few days. The victims were members of an AME church. Kevin attended an AME church and I often went with him. I'm not Christian but I enjoyed the community and welcome I found there. I enjoyed worshipping with Kevin. And I want nothing more now than to talk with him about what has happened, to cry with him for the lost and the fear and the hatred that brought this about. I want us to hold each other talk about the barriers between black and white and feel connected. I can't. This is one of those immense triggers.

The other that springs to mind is ridiculous. Last night, in an attempt to shut down my racing mind and to think about something other than those murders, I turned on a junky horror movie from the 1950s. I love those kinds of movies, my mother taught me to, though Kevin didn't particularly like them. He would watch it with me and roll his eyes. What harm, I thought, could come from watching The Fly? Fifteen minutes in I was crying, not over the pathos of a man turned into a fly and his own lost humanity, but because of a woman who lost her husband, as I did. Who helped him die, as I did (not in a literal way but I was with him every moment of the way). And the scene where Andre writes for the last time that he loves his wife, before his death, crushed me. Grief came pouring out of me, yet I was at the same time aware of how ridiculous it was that this movie triggered it.

So it goes. Triggers are everywhere. I'm learning to deal with them; many now are just a flinch. Some are far more. There are a few I can even roll my eyes at while holding back tears, come one, The Fly? As more time passes I expect I will smile more often when I encounter one of these memories made real, and eventually I may even be able to go back to my favorite supermarket. But not today.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Introducing The Telling Life

As any regular follower of this blog knows, I like to try different things here. For awhile I had a regular photography offering that returns from time to time and I recently wrapped up the Ask the Storyteller column (largely because interest seemed to have dried up, I wasn't getting questions). I like having regular features, in particular about storytelling, so today I am launching The Telling Life.

This weekly column will take a look at what it means to be a working storyteller, full-time or not, and how the art impacts life and vice versa. I've lined up some stellar guest bloggers and hope this column will be of interest to everyone, teller or not, because it's looking at the intersections of art and life, something everyone experiences. Storytelling is particularly ripe for this kind of exploration because it is such an intimate art form. With a minimal fourth wall, the necessity for the teller to consider what a given story means to them so they can perform it well and the current drive towards personal narrative, good storytellers connect with the audience in a personal way.

My mentor, Brother Blue, was the pinnacle of the telling life. He ate, slept, dreamt, lived storytelling relentlessly. When Kevin and I first became romantically involved we started teasing each other about living the life of a storyteller, whenever things became particularly absurd or intense. How could we not live that life? We are storytellers and everything we experience directly impacts our art.

Equally, our art impacts our lives. When I work on a story I am changed by it. When I stand in front of an audience I see their reaction in real time and dance with them. When I coach someone I learn something new, every single time.

I'm looking forward to seeing what this column reveals. There is a lot to this #tellinglife. I'd love to hear your thoughts about how storytelling has affected your life. Let's play, let's listen to one another. Together we can change the world.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, June 12, 2015

Two truths

Dear Kevin,

Oh, there are so many things to say about love and loss, life and paradox. Some days I feel as though I have said everything I can about grieving you. Some days I feel as though no one wants to read any more of this crap. And some days I simply don't know what to say. That's why today's post is so late. If you were here we would think it through together and come up with something. You'd help me think through the old things in new ways so I will write to you and see what we have to say to one another across the veil.

Today was a good day. Last night I had a gig that was well attended, everyone liked the stories and I raised about $275 for pancreatic cancer research. I hate that pancreatic cancer is such a central part of my vocabulary now. Today I delivered a keynote and workshop that were well received. I had a meeting with some people from city government and was useful to them. I earned enough money that this month I am paying my rent out of earnings, instead of savings, a milestone for any small business and one you know I was eager to achieve.

I was thinking about all of this and, more than anything, I wanted to call you. I wanted to sit on the porch with you and toast the fact that I am actually getting gigs, helping people, learning to live without you. And as soon as I thought that I started sobbing, the big, wrenching kind of cry I don't do so often anymore.

That's what this life is now. A paradox where I am doing the things I never thought I could without you and you are the only one I want to tell, the one who would truly understand what this means. I could not do this without you but I am doing it without you. I am living in a kind of tension between two truths.

I've written about all of this before, here in this blog and in my journals, full of love and longing for you. So I don't really know what else to say. Equally, I know I must keep saying something, must keep reaching forward and back at the same time, I must become my own tenuous thread between the life I am building alone and the life we built together. I hate it that the life we built together is now the foundation of this one alone, but here I am. Building because I don't know what else to do and because doing anything else would dishonor who you helped me to be.

I hope you know all of this somehow. I believe you still exist in some way beyond my easy understanding and know that you know how much I love you, how grateful I am. I just wish I could tell you this and see your answering smile.

I miss you.
I love you. And that truth supersedes the others.
The love remains.


(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, June 5, 2015

The club no one wants to belong to

I believe it was Groucho Marx who said, "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member." That's how I often feel about widowhood. I think all of us who find ourselves grieving deeply feel this way. No one wants to be in this club, but here we are. I expect this is true for any kind of grief; you don't want to be part of the club but are so grateful for others who share your experience.

I have met wonderful people since losing Kevin, other people who have lost their beloved and are stumbling forward in spite of it all. If I were given the option I would have Kevin back and not have these friends, but that's not a likely scenario, so here I am. In the club.

We are everywhere. Now that I am a member I keep meeting more members. It's kind of like being a friend of Bill, once you know the codes you find allies in the unlikeliest of places. I have found support from other widowed people online, in line, in public restrooms and on airplanes. A few days ago I was in the grocery store at the fish counter. I started chatting with the fishmonger. swapping recipes then talking about what we cook for our families. He started telling me about his sons and then he said, "My younger boy is having a tough time since his mother died. He just can't find his way, you know? I try to be mother and father but she was just so good. I'm not that good. And I miss her so much."

I caught my breath and asked when his wife passed then told him my husband died 14 months ago. He looked at me with such sympathy and before I knew it we were hugging, tight together, in front of the fish case in the middle of the supermarket. There was nothing uncomfortable about this. There was everything about knowing each others' stories without needing to say a word. We're both in the club.

It's a club no one wants to belong to but, once we join, we don't have to be alone. We can find others who understand our pain and in that moment of connection it doesn't hurt any less but it is a fraction less lonely.

I am widowed. Kevin isn't on the other end of the phone line, the first person I want to tell about these people I meet. I would love to tell him about this, to tell him about the meaningful conversations - there's no need to be subtle or engage in the social dance around grief - but I can't. So I cry in a stranger's arms, hold others while they cry. And that's okay. What a relief to know I am not alone. What a relief to know other people understand what I am feeling and, while we may have nothing else in common, in this one enormous way we can comfort each other. Beyond politics and religion and beliefs, we are in the club and in the moment that's all that matters.

I've always had mixed feelings about the various communities to which I have belonged. My need for camaraderie conflicts with my need for alone time. And yet... we all need community. We all need a place where we are understood without any explanation because everyone else has a common experience. No matter what happened before our loves died, we know what it is to keep breathing when they have stopped. We all know what it is to wake up sobbing. We all would much rather not be a member of this club and yet we are, so we may as well try to help each other.

If we are lucky we grieve. If we are lucky we love enough that when that love is lost we are destroyed and get to rebuild ourselves. If we are lucky we find ourselves members of a club to which we never wanted to belong. If we are lucky we find the right community at the right time and are understood without explanation. If we are lucky. How odd it is that it took this much pain and loss for me to truly understand luck.

If you are reading this, are widowed (your beloved has died) and want community, check out the following:

  • search Facebook for widowed people's groups
  • go to Soaring Spirits, the sponsors of Camp Widow and many other resources for widowed people
  • write to me. I'll listen. 

You don't have to be alone.

(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.
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