Friday, July 31, 2015


Courage is the art of being the only one who knows you're scared to death.
- Earl Wilson

I had a powerful experience recently. For the first time in public I told a story about Kevin's death; it begins with a trip we took many years ago and ends with an understanding of how lucky I am. It was easier to tell than I expected, I suspect in part because the audience was very supportive and included many people who loved him. It was also relatively easy because I had done both the emotional and the artistic work ahead of time. I was ready. I had faced the dragons of grief and vulnerability; they had nothing to scare me with in that moment.

Afterwards, many people said many kind and loving things. I am honored that the story was meaningful to them. A comment I heard more than once was, "You're so brave." I don't know. Telling that story wasn't an act of bravery, I felt like it was time to tell this and so I did. The stage, oddly enough, is a often a safe place for me. There are no dragons there.

When I have I felt the need to be brave?
  • I was brave when I didn't run screaming out of the exam room when we were first told his diagnosis, knowing what it meant and yet having no idea how hard it would be. It took no bravery to love him and take care of him.
  • I was brave when I stood up and walked out of the room he died in, walked away from his body, walked into an uncertain and undesired future.
  • I was brave when I stood for a couple of hours, hugging everyone who came to his memorial service even though I wanted to hide in the dark for a long, long time. I love the people, I hated why we were there and I wanted nothing more than to bury myself. I understood that they needed contact with me and so I stayed until the end.
  • I was brave when I closed the door to our home for the last time, the home we shared. 
  • And more than anything these days, I am brave when I take small steps towards living again. Cooking. Laughing without hesitation. Swallowing down the fear and moving forward.
I have found bravery is necessary in the small moments, the things that seem like that shouldn't be that hard. Staying still. Standing up. Hugging. Closing a door. Opening others. The big things I just do because there isn't really a clear alternative. Standing on stage and talking? That's not brave, it's easy for me (I know not for everyone, but I'm talking about my experience). Not running away right after the performance? That took courage. 

Me, telling how lucky I am
to have loved and grieved.
I like the blurriness,
it captures how I was feeling.

Photo (c) Mark Goldman
Most of the people I know who have lost a spouse agree with me: We have faced our worst fear and we are still here, sometimes unwillingly, but still here. Bravery now isn't a matter of facing down dragons but being willing to remain in a world that feels unfamiliar. To keep breathing and trust that eventually we might actually be glad to be here. 

I am more grateful than I can state to everyone who has been so kind to me. I appreciate their love and their own bravery, reaching out of their fear to make contact. It is a fearful thing, seeing the face of loss that may eventually be their own. 

It may be that making contact is the bravest thing of all. Beyond dragons, beyond the small steps, simply being in the world when it is cold and unfamiliar, trusting that it may eventually again become warm, that, for me, is bravery. Part of me wants to run from hope as fast and as far as I can, yet I stay.
I am still here. 

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Telling Life: Continuing Education

The National Storytelling Conference starts tomorrow, right here in Kansas City. I'm looking forward to it; it's an opportunity to see people I care about, do a little work and learn a few things.

If you are passionate and dedicated to your profession it's worth pursuing some continuing education, no matter how much of a master you already are. Conferences are one way to do so. Over the course of this week I will certainly attend workshops, where I may learn some new things. More than that, I'll spend time talking with my colleagues, so we can bat ideas around and help each other become better at what we do. I'm also going to perform and am running a workshop. I will be busy.

Each facet of the conference has value for me as continuing ed.

When I attend a workshop, even if it's about a topic I know, I am exposed to another way of thinking. By going through the exercises and participating I have a chance to learn from others in the class, be they masters or novices.

Talking with my colleagues means I am exposed to more ideas and approaches than I ever would be were I to isolate myself. It helps me when someone I respect challenges my ideas and makes me work through my reasoning. The conference means I will have several conversations, aided by a martini or two, where I will get fired up and remember that part of what I love about this work is the intellect.

My performances on Wednesday and Friday nights, along with my workshop Sunday morning function as continuing education because I have to not only prepare the material, I will be presenting it to my colleagues, people who have heard a lot of stories and sat through many workshops. The bar is higher, even though they are loving, supportive and excellent audiences.

Continuing education opportunities are everywhere. Reading, talking, going to events, being observant of the world and more. Every time we consider our art and take a risk, we are learning. I'd love to know what some of your favorite continuing education tools are. Do you read? Are you in a book club? Do you have a regular place to try out new material? What else?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 24, 2015

Life after death

Not long before Kevin died we had a conversation about the afterlife. He believed there was someplace beautiful beyond this world, without pain, that he would continue. He promised that he would do his best to send me signs, so I would know he was okay, and it was a great comfort to me when that happened (those are private, I'll not share them here, but I know he still is). What we didn't talk about as much was my afterlife, my life after his death. He wanted to know that I would be okay. I lied and said yes, then told the truth and added, "But it will take time." He told me that he wanted me to live, that he wanted me to be happy, to fall in love again, to be the happiest that I could be. And then it was time for more meds or a nurse came in or he simply fell asleep, I don't remember.

It was a hard conversation though vitally important.

He's been gone almost 16 months now. I still miss him terribly but I am beginning to explore what life after death means. I am beginning to find a new definition of okay. About a month ago I decided that I was ready to start living again. I think moving helped, because it forced me to look at the physical things in my life and make choices. What was helping me? What was holding me back? There were ripples. What patterns of behavior were helping me? What were causing me unnecessary pain? Who do I want to be? I certainly haven't answered any of those questions, I doubt I ever will, but I am beginning to consider them in new ways.

Grief is an incredibly powerful force and it can be all-consuming. I'm sure I'm not done with the howling pain. But grief is an ingredient in something bigger, something that IS all-consuming. Grief is part of life.

If I live I will grieve. So will you. If we are lucky we will grieve deeply and fiercely, because we loved deeply and fiercely. If we are very lucky we will grieve and laugh and love and live after the loss because we were loved so deeply, so fiercely, so well.

Kevin loved me very well. While I find it less than helpful when people tell me he would never want me to suspend my life forever, I know this to be true. More than that, I know it is in my nature to experience life fully.

When I think of that conversation I feel my throat constrict. The loss rushes back to me and my eyes cloud, but I am so grateful for it. I am so grateful we were able to have that talk. I am so grateful he was in my life at all, even with the loss. I am so grateful that he understood what I could not 16 months ago; that I would eventually want to be fully engaged in my life again. Six months ago I never would have believed that I would be writing these words, and it is still a moment-by-moment thing. Some moments are still searing.

But Kevin was right.

While I can't yet see the beauty all of the time, I have glimpses. While it is not the same, while I sometimes have trouble believing it, while I am not the same person with the same life, there is life after death.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Telling Life: On retreat

Part of living a balanced life is understanding when you need renewal. I am on retreat in the Adirondacks, where I am contemplating the water, chatting with loons both human and avian, and considering my place in the way of things.

I will post a #tellinglife essay for next week. For this week I am, instead, simply living life.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 17, 2015

Music and other inoculations

Music has always been a big part of my life. When I was a kid I played the flute and dabbled with cello, penny whistle, bodhran and guitar. I was never very good at any of them, but I loved being able to immerse myself in the melody and was fascinated by the mathematical precisions of reading music. When I was a bit older I took voice lessons and sang with an informal group for awhile. I was never very good, but I loved it. The sensation of my voice being at once individual and utterly lost in the harmony was exquisite.

Likewise, I've loved listening to music. My childhood grounding in classical music and jazz led to my teenaged rebellion of The Beatles, Mission of Burma, David Bowie, The Clash and more. Eventually I fell in love with singer-songwriters and then later world music. My home, and then my home with Kevin, was full of music.

When he got sick, Kevin found solace in his iPod. He would spend hours lying in his hospital bed, an eye-mask blocking out the light, his fingers tapping a rhythm on my shoulder or thigh as I sat beside him. The only way I knew he was awake was the tap-taptap of whatever he was heard. I couldn't listen to music. I desperately needed to stay alert and present for the next doctor or nurse, so I could bring him back from his refuge and he would feel safe when I was the one who touched him, not an impartial hand. I couldn't insulate myself from protecting him.

After he died I couldn't listen to music at all. It became a forbidden country. If NPR played a random song chances were good I would turn it off. I tried over and over to listen to the music that had comforted me but everything was associative. It only made me cry and I was already crying so much. It was so pervasive I eventually found myself turning away whenever music drifted near; in a store, when someone drove by with a song playing, when the soundtrack of a movie swelled.

I don't know if you have ever lost something you loved with every fiber of your being. It turns you inside out and you find yourself becoming someone you never would have imagined. I never imagined I would ever be someone without music, just as I never imagined I would ever be someone without Kevin.

About eight months ago, about eight months after he died, I found I could listen to classical music again. At first it was just Baroque chamber music where I could follow the mathematical patterns, but that spread to early choral music and finally I found myself again listening to the great Requia I love. I sobbed but it was different. I could remember the connection and not just loss. Maybe six months ago jazz returned. I can't yet listen to all the jazz we did, but it's coming back. About four months ago I was able to hear Hey Jude without getting sick and then I could hear some of the 80s alternative I loved in college. Singer songwriters, contemporary music and blues are coming back now though there is still danger. Eventually I may even be able to listen to world music, Motown, maybe even the songs he sang to me. Maybe.

What I am finding is that I am someone different now. I hear music differently, the images that come to mind are both more tender and less immediate. It's as though my gradual return to music has been an inoculation against the intense associations and pain. I have some immunity now. I suppose that's what learning to live with loss and deciding to live instead of merely exist means.

If I think of returning to myself as inoculation it becomes easier to return to some of the things I have loved. I can gradually return to the places we went, to the things we shared, in small motions. I don't have to dive in headfirst, which is perhaps more my nature. Small steps. A prick of the needle, a moment of pain, and I begin to be able to live a little more fully, no longer needing to protect myself from the risk of memory. I've been doing this all along, from the moment I realized I wasn't going to follow him to the grave; now I might have a soundtrack to keep me company.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Telling Life: Vulnerability

Performance storytelling, at its best, is about connection. It's about creating a piece where the teller can say here is something I know to be true and the audience can sigh back in recognition of their own truth. Whether it's a fairy tale, a personal story, a historical yarn, something else entirely, storytellers, when we are at our best, are bearers of truth even if it's through metaphor. When we connect with the audience and share that truth we together become something greater than a narrative, a voice, listeners.

But how does this happen? In my experience it's a combination of skill, practice, passion, talent, authenticity and vulnerability. It's this last that I want to talk about in #tellinglife today.

Brené Brown has an amazing TED talk about the power of vulnerability. If you haven't seen it, go here and take 20 minutes. I'll wait.

Welcome back. One of the things Brown talks about is how connection gives meaning and purpose to our lives. As I said above, it's the storyteller's job to build connection. I've written before about the story triangle; this is really just a way to describe a set of relationships that, at our best, becomes as easy and as necessary as breathing. We are connected. She goes on to say (essentially and among other things) that when we embrace vulnerability, when we allow the imperfect self and yet still are compassionate with ourselves, we become more connected to one another and are more alive.

This is the heart of my art.

When I stand on stage and tell you stories about Eve loving her flawed husband, about Ys drowning in the waves, about Jack loving the Giantess, about Crazy Jane embracing her madness, about love and fear, about my own struggles with depression, about Kevin's death, about the things I did as a little girl, I am vulnerable. The story may be funny or poignant, I am revealing myself to you, my audience. And I embrace that. It is the revelatory moment that allows us to connect.

When I tell, when I'm in the vulnerable state, if there is a particularly visceral image I let it wash over us both. Each and every one of you. I trust you to go there with me, so sometimes I might close my eyes for a moment. I perform barefoot, so I can feel the world beneath me, but this leaves me vulnerable to physical harm. It's worth the risk to open the door for connection.

You, too, become vulnerable when you are in the audience. You are being asked to open up enough to let the story mean something to you, so as you laugh or sigh or gasp, I am breathing in your vulnerability and using it as a tool to be more open in turn.

I think this is part of what made Brother Blue such a transformational storyteller; when he was in the room there was no one wilder, so that meant it was safe for everyone to experience their own wildness. No one would notice when Blue was there. When I tell and reveal myself it becomes safe for your to do so, too.

I'm not suggesting storytellers use the stage as personal therapy. This is the opposite. It's what happens when we know who we are, understand and still love our own flaws, and accept what our story means enough (at a deep level) that we can offer it whole-heartedly. Once I have worked through the parts of a story that scare me the most and I understand its meaning to me, I can be vulnerable and remain safe as I perform. I can give my audience permission to feel whatever they need to, be as vulnerable as they wish as they sit in the dark and listen.

Together we create connection. Together, we can be imperfect and still whole. Together, for the duration of the story, the world holds its breath and sighs with us.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The world through my eyes: Summer 2015

A few images from around Kansas City, Philadelphia and Atlantic City. As always, images are not adjusted. I'm starting to play with Lightroom so that will change. 
All images and text (c) 2015 Laura Packer

I loved the contrasting colors here. 


Fish out of water

Peeping Jesus

This is the angel in 30th St. Station, Philadelphia.

Walking ghost

I am lucky to live in a house where the landlady plants flowers. 

"And the caterpillar looked at that beautiful flying thing and wailed!"

His name is Philip.
He lives in Atlantic City and sits by the war memorial everyday, watching people. His hat is sparkly and silver. I asked him what he did for work and he said it was so long ago he didn't remember. When it was time for me to leave he kissed my hand.

His name is Leslie.
He sells flags and asked people to remember veterans. He wouldn't let me pay for a flag but gave it to me and told me to tell everyone that he's proud that he served.

Nothing sexy here. Move along.

All images and text (c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 10, 2015

Living in the moment

There are so many things I have learned through Kevin's illness, death and mourning him. There have been painful lessons and a few, enormous gifts. One of these is about being in the present moment.

I have always tried to practice a present-moment way of living. On the one hand, it means I am more attentive to what's happening around me, I find it easier to forgive and forget, and I have learned how to ride whatever emotion I'm feeling when I'm feeling it because I know that it will pass. That last point has been hugely helpful when I am prostrate with grief. On the other hand, it means I can be terribly forgetful because I am present in the present. It means I sometimes am afraid I will forget what it meant to be loved like that. It means I am driving without a map. But mostly, it helps. 

Here is how it helps me right now. 

I am in New Jersey visiting my parents. I love the ocean here and have many sweet memories of time spent at the beach with Kevin. This is a blessing and curse because it makes his loss feel so much more acute when I am remembering him like this. I walk on the shore and taste salt, not knowing if comes from the sea spray or from me.

And yet. It also means I walk on the shore and feel the pull of my muscles as my feet stretch on the sand. I feel the cold water wrap around my ankles, pulling me back and forth. I close my eyes and let the wind sway my body. I feel the memory of his hand in mine. The memory is better than never having the knowledge and, because of my present-focus, I have such clear memories of how his hand felt in mind. In those past-present moments his skin was imprinted on mine. That remains. 

It is not an easy life, learning to live post-loss. But it is the life I have and so I am present in it. This moment. These words. The love that is in my sinews and skin. The knowledge that I lave been loved and love fiercely. And hope for what is to come because, if I live in the present, there is always more to come.

(c) 2015 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Telling Life: Matching work to ethics to life

Storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool. We are hardwired to respond to narrative; it's one of the most direct ways to trigger emotion which in turn triggers action.

As a storyteller I have to make ethical choices about my work all the time. These include:

  • What kind of influence do I want to have on my audience?
  • How do I want them to feel?
  • What material do I tell, what boundaries do I enforce?
  • How can I build up my coaching clients without giving them false hope?
  • When I teach, how do I encourage my students to use storytelling to create meaningful change, to be entertaining and empowering?
  • As an organizational storyteller. what organizations do I want to empower to use story more effectively? Do they align with my ethics?

It's that last question that is interesting me the most today, for #tellinglife.

Shortly after the Gulf oil spill I was contacted by an organization involved in the accident. They wanted help telling the story of the spill so they wouldn't appear to be culpable but could be the heroes instead. They knew that for good spin they needed a good story. I was recommended to them by someone at another organization I had worked with.

I was polite and firm. I thanked them for their interest and turned them down. I said no.

This job could have netted me more income than any other job I have ever had (or expect to have). They could afford it. They were desperate. But I couldn't work with one of the organizations I felt was to blame for an environmental disaster.

I still kick myself for it to this day at the same time that I congratulate myself.

On the other hand, I am currently working with Unbound, an organization that helps disadvantaged people around the world. I love the work I'm doing with them and I feel good about it. I mention them with their permission as an organization that nourishes me as I work with them. It's a good match.

Because my work is so integral to who I am, it's important for me to work with people and organizations I personally am not repulsed by. When I'm lucky they are people and causes I can support.

Storytelling is such a powerful tool, I make choices all the time about the ethics of the work. This is just one way and something that I think about.

Have you had to make ethical choices in your work? What was that like? What did you choose? Why?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, July 3, 2015

Dancing with grief

I was talking with a widowed friend recently. I asked her how she was doing and she replied, "I was okay last week and then I felt awful." I know exactly what she means. Anyone who has experienced a big loss knows, I'm sure, while it may seen contradictory to those who have not yet traveled this path.

When Kevin was dying he was really worried about me. He wanted to know that I would be okay. I thought about it and then said the most honest thing I could. I will eventually be okay. I don't know how long it will take. I still believe this to be true but I am beginning to understand how okay works in this 15th month without Kevin.

Grief and okay are dancing inside of me. Sometimes it's a quickstep, with lots of short, fast changes. Other times a tango, slow and seductive and it just won't let go. One doesn't really exist without the other; what matters is who leads.

I've written endlessly about how grief feels, how it's nonlinear. Sometimes it's an aching emptiness, other times it's real, physical pain. It's always there. What I find interesting now is what okay feels like. It feels complex. It feels nothing like it did before he died. When I am okay I am balancing the knowledge that Kevin would want/wants me to live a full life and the reality that I don't know what full life means anymore. I am balancing the truth that part of why I'm as okay as I am is because he loved me so well but how can I be okay without him loving me still? It's full of paradox, which seems to be a big part of grief anyway.

When my friend said I was okay last week and then I felt awful I was so grateful to hear this named. I will feel okay for a time, maybe even pretty good, and then I realize I feel okay and Kevin isn't here. How can okay exist without him? I am propelled back into grief. There is no logic to it, it's just the way it is.

For example, Kevin's birthday was this past Sunday. He would have been 57. His birthday last year was very hard, made manageable only by his kids surrounding me. This year I was in Kansas City and the kids were off in their own lives. I invited some friends over, people who knew and loved him. We ate foods he loved, we told stories, we spent time together. I was okay. In fact, I was surprised at how okay I was.

This okayness continued for a few days and then abruptly I found myself sobbing until my throat was raw. I don't think I had been consciously repressing the sorrow, I think I truly was mostly okay. Until I wasn't. Until his absence became bigger than the comfort I felt from my friends. Until grief was leading the dance again.

This is what okay looks like now.  An unpredictable dance with shifting leads. I am neither partner nor lead but the displaced air, shifting and swirling in response to the motion. And for now, that's okay.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Telling Life: The observed world

I love people watching. I am a habitual eavesdropper. I'm that person in the cafe with a book in front of her staring out the window. One of my first posts in this blog was about just that, the art of keeking and many others have been my observations of the world. Most of my storyteller friends - heck, most of my friends - do this. We'll be out to lunch and one of us will suddenly get a far away look in their eye and inclines their head in a particular direction. We fall quiet and listen.

There are stories everywhere. When you view the world through the storyteller's lens everything changes.

The woman in the grocery store aisle looking intently at the paper towels? Maybe her father looked like the Brawny guy and she's remembering that time when she was a girl and they rode on a roller coaster for the first time.

I can't help but observe the world. I've always been like this. When I was a little girl my family encouraged observation. We would watch the sky for satellites and shooting stars. We went to museums and I was taught how to look at a painting though half the time I was watching the people watching the art.

The man who is tearing through traffic in the Subaru Brat like there's no tomorrow? Maybe for him there is no tomorrow. Maybe he just got bad news. Maybe he's on the run. Or maybe he's just a jerk.

My stories are populated by the things I see, the overheard conversations, the possibilities suggested by the stranger's stance. I can't tell you how many times I have overheard something that became a full-blown tale. The people I tell about are often real, just borrowed and placed in new situations.

The kid singing to himself? Maybe he's singing with a choir I can't hear. Maybe he's going to become the next great lyricist. Maybe he can't sing at home. Maybe he's calling the faeries. Maybe he is a faery. I don't know.

It's sometimes a problem. When I hear a conversation I can't bear to walk away from. When I walk behind someone for the extra block because they intrigue me. When I almost get caught, eavesdropping. I mean no harm. I'm just a storyteller looking for her next fix.

Storytellers of all kinds, be we performers, writers, poets, film makers or some other kind of narrative artist, have a world of possibility presented to us every day. Go out and observe.
Imagine new possibilities.
Observation can be a kind of worship, honoring the way the world opens itself to us and we, by seeing it, make it real. It can be a great mystery, giving us riddles to solve. It can be the source of your next story.
It is our palette and playground.
Go play.
Then tell me, what do you see? And what else? And?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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