Friday, August 28, 2015

And in the end...

I have always paid attention to the songs that get stuck in my head. When Kevin was dying I found this song playing over and over and over again. No wonder. Give it a listen.

From the refrain of "love you" to those final lyrics, everything about this made sense in those final days. When Kevin was dying all I could think was I love you. His last words were to tell me that he loved me. He died with his hand in mine, looking into my eyes until his last breaths. The love in that room was palpable, I'm sure if someone had come in with the right equipment it would have been beyond measure.

It still is.

Today at 6:35 p.m. I will mark 17 months since Kevin died. I love and miss him still. This is no surprise, I was very lucky to have him in my life in the way that I did for as long as we had. I am still very lucky. I have been so well loved by Kevin and many others, so supported since his diagnosis and death, the idea of not returning to life eventually became impossible. I am choosing to be engaged in the world and carry on living. I wrote about this here, and it's a decision I continue to make every day without regret, though certainly with struggle and dissonance.

Kevin was so good at love. He loved so well and was loved so deeply in return. I know how many of you miss him, how many of you have come to love him since you met me and know him only through these writings. He wasn't the only one. I am surrounded by people who excel at love. I am so lucky.

As soon as I started writing about grief I knew I would eventually write this blog post, I just didn't know when. I didn't know when I would be back in myself enough that the love would be a larger part of me than the pain. I know the pain will continue to come, there will be waves of grief (and today is difficult, Fridays are hard, the 28th of the month moreso) but now I know the love is more enduring.

This is not only because of Kevin, not only because of the ways he loved me and taught me to love, but it's also because of you. The community of people who have witnessed my grief is extraordinary. Each of you, whether I know you personally or not. I couldn't be where I am without you.

I've been told that I am brave for sharing all of this. I don't feel brave. I feel as though it was the only way I knew to survive and, on some level, even at the darkest moments I knew I would eventually return to life. I knew there would be a time when I could feel the light and warmth of the world, though it might feel like its own kind of loss. I won't say I've come out on the other side because there is no other side to grief, I am irrevocably changed as is everyone who has experienced a loss, but I am again letting myself be present with the world, I am again allowing for the possibility of hope, of love, of joy, of life. It's really hard. Part of me feels like I am betraying Kevin but I know with absolute certainty he would never want me to be suspended indefinitely.

Which brings me back to the song. I am so grateful for all of the love I have received. Part of me feels so much less than worthy of this, so aware that I can never repay you all for your kindness and compassion. For your love. But the rest of me, the part that feels the breeze, the sunlight, the possibility, knows that my work in the world is to remember that grief is part of life, a flip side of love, and to embrace all of it with as much fervor as I can. My work is to help others do the same, be it with love or grief or creativity. My work is to be grateful for the gifts I have been given and to pass them on, that is how I can make as much love as I have taken. My work is to love and be loved.

My work in the world is to live. As is yours. We live to the best of our ability in any given moment. Sometimes those moments are sobbing on the floor. Sometimes they are doing chores or laughing until we can't breath or listening to a friend, a stranger, a song. We get to live. All of us. We are all so lucky.

Thank you for reading and for walking on this path with me.
Thank you for witnessing, for holding the space, for reaching back to me so patiently, over and over again.
Thank you Kevin for everything.
Thank you world for being here when I was ready to come back, for giving me what I most need and least expect.
I am so grateful.

I don't know if this is what I really wanted to say in this post. But it is what I needed to say.

And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The telling life: Why do I do it?

Today's post is a reprint of an earlier #askthestoryteller column. I think it's worth rereading and repurposing here in the #tellinglife. I hope you enjoy it.

*     *     *

Oh, I love this question! Why do I tell stories? Why do I get up on stage in front of people and start talking? What is it that I love about storytelling? Thank you #askthestoryteller for asking.

I do it because I can't not do it. I can't not do it because it is a basic part of being human - we are the storytelling animal - and because it is a basic part of my truth in the world. Story matters. My voice matters as does yours. This is not a manifesto but maybe it's the beginning of one. Certainly it is incomplete, but what I know in this moment, which is all we ever have anyway. I'd love to know why you tell stories. Please tell me.

I love the connection. The visceral rush, the near-telepathy that comes with connecting to an audience. I love our combined breath, the gasps and sighs that come as I move through the narrative. It is as though we become one animal, constructed of story solely for the purpose of turning words into a living moment.

I love the mystery. There are times when I tell stories that it feels as though the universe is speaking through me. I listen to the story coming out of me as much as I construct it. I love the sense that I am part of something so much bigger. It's similar to the feeling I get when I look at enormous natural beauty, that awe for the world and my minute but integral place in it.

I love the variability. Every time I tell a story it's different. It may be something I've told a thousand times, but because the audience is different, because we are at different places in our lives, the story is different. It is new every time and yet ancient, in my bones.

I love the dance between teller, tale and listener. The story triangle is a description of relationships, but it also describes motion. We are all dancing together.

I love the listening required to tell a good story. I need to listen to my audience, to myself, to the world to be a better storyteller and teacher.

I love the solitary work that goes into the performance. Spending time with books, words and my own thoughts gives me a chance to consider what's important to me. What I want to share. What matters enough in this world that I will make myself so vulnerable as to step on stage and say, "Here I am."

I love the timelessness of it. Stories endure. I can tell a tale that is 3000 years old and it is still relevant. I can tell another I made up yesterday and it connects. What's more, storytelling removes me from the present moment, I go into a kind of trance when I perform or listen deeply that frees me from my cares and worries. I am transcended.

I love the connection with the past. The old tales link me to generations of dreamers, of tellers, of listeners. Through them I can see into my own past, the past of my ancestors, the dreams of those who have gone before.

I love the connection with the future. Every time I tell stories the audience might choose to go away changed. They may decide to tell stories themselves. Words loved and shared have power.

I love the accessibility of storytelling. Everyone has stories to tell and everyone should be heard. I love helping people find their voice, bloom as they realize that their story matters.

I love telling stories because of the places it takes me, the people I meet, the thrill of standing on stage, the one-on-one connection, the risk and success and failure, because of the change it creates, the ways it makes the world, bigger, the notes I receive saying "now I know I am not alone." I love telling stories because of how it challenges me, because I am transformed, because it sometimes an ecstatic thing, because of the glow I see on your faces. I tell stories because it is a way of earning my living that brings value to the world. And there is occasionally beer.

I love telling stories because it helps me craft the world with you.

Story matters. My voice matters as does yours.

This is already too long. I want to hear you. What else is there? What have I forgotten? What do you love? Why do you do it?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer

Creative Commons License

Friday, August 21, 2015

This one life

It's been almost 17 months since Kevin died. In that time I have been immobilized by grief; I have had the startling experiences of feeling sparks of life again; I have laughed and cried, raged and begun to understand who I am in in this world without him. I have decided that, as much as I may miss him, Kevin was the one who died and I am finally willing to be alive again.

Part of how I've survived these 17 months is by being fairly public about my grieving process. If you're reading this, you know that already. I made this choice because I have lived for years with clear lines between the public and private; as a performing artist who bases some of her work on her own life I knew I would have to find ways to bring death and loss into my public voice. This was more for my benefit that anything else. I needed to hear myself think aloud. It seems as though that thinking aloud has been useful for others, for which I am deeply grateful. 

I am not done grieving Kevin, I doubt if I ever will be. But I find myself in a much better place than I was and, I have to admit, I am shocked by it. For the first year and a bit I wanted nothing more than to stop. Nothing more than to disappear from the planet. While I wasn't actively self-injurious I doubt I would have done much to stop my own death. This created some enormous cognitive dissonance. While I've had some pretty hefty struggles with depression my default, my set point is more about being present in the world than running from it. I think that's part of what makes me an effective storyteller; I am present in the performing moment with my audience, whoever they may be. So finding myself not wanting to be in the world, ignoring the small details, was another cause for grief. I had lost myself. Depression and deep grief are very different beasts; one I understood as part of my nature, the other was consuming me.

When I moved from the house Kevin and I shared I realized I had an opportunity to re-engage with the world. Moving sucked. It was traumatic, expensive and I am still not unpacked entirely. At the same time, moving gave me a chance to claim a small corner of the world for me alone and see what that felt like. As I began to relax into my new space, which is full of reminders of our life together but is wholly mine (for example, things are organized so a short person can reach them) I began to wonder how else I might relax back into the world. I wrote lists. I began exploring. I decided I was more interested in being part of the world than not for the first time in a long while.

This, too, created enormous cognitive dissonance. How can I find joy in the world when Kevin isn't of the world? Is this betrayal? How dare I live again?

I live again because it is in my nature to do so, it is in my nature to want to connect. It is part of what Kevin loved about me - and what so many of you who have supported me through all of this also love about me. I live again because after awhile being disengaged from the world has terrible monotony; I just don't find myself and my own pain that interesting. 

I live again because loss is part of life. Throughout mourning Kevin I have tried to embrace each moment fully. I have let myself be cripplingly sad because I knew, even in the early days, that feeling it deeply and allowing myself to express it were the only ways I could survive and that the sorrow would not last. No matter how sad I am in a given moment my body won't allow it to last indefinitely. I can't cry forever. It is far, far better to have loved him, love him still and mourn him than to not have had the love. To live is to grieve.

I am still struggling with cognitive dissonance. I am still struggling with understanding who I am now and who I might become. I am still struggling with grief. Not a day goes by that I don't find myself wondering how any of this - his death and my return to life - could have happened. I am learning to live in this state of uncertainty because there is no certainty. All we have is this one moment. This instance of connection. This one life.

(c) 2015 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The telling life: authenticity

There is a lot of blather about authenticity out there. Gurus tell us we will be happier if we live an authentic life but what does that mean?

I view an authentic life, and an authentic artistic life, as one where I strive for awareness of self, awareness of how my behavior impacts the world and awareness of others. I strive to at a minimum be honest about these things and make choices that align with my values, with my vision of who I want to be (though I'm not likely to ever get there).

For me, as both a storyteller and a human being, authenticity comes down to a few basic precepts.

  1. Understand my own values and understand that they will change. 
  2. Be honest with myself. This means examining my motives; noticing when I'm being inauthentic and asking why; examine why I react as I do to different stimuli. As a storyteller radical self-honesty helps me understand why a given story matters to me, what it says about me and my world, and understanding the inner forces that drive me tell it in a given way.
  3. Strive for honesty with others. Everyone lies. Avoid it when you can. Lying creates cognitive dissonance as we try to reconcile the falsehood with the truth. We all are boring, small-minded and greedy. While I don't like admitting this about myself, it helps me avoid situations where I might want to lie. As a storyteller this means that, whether I'm telling a fictional story or (especially when) I'm telling a true one, I aim for emotional honesty. The story needs to be authentic with my experience in the world. 
  4. Fail again. Fail better. I fail all the time. Maybe every day. If I'm failing I'm risking and sometimes those risks lead to amazing things. I try to redefine failure though, so instead of berating myself for failure I instead ask what I  can learn from the experience. What parts worked? As a storyteller I don't want to rely on the tried and true. I want to learn new things and share them with my audience, so it's inevitable that not everything will be as well executed as I'd like. If I allow for failure and plan for it, it's easier to try again. This helps me be more authentic because I'm more willing to risk something new and grow.
  5. Trust myself. If I understand my motives, values and an honest with myself then I can trust myself to make decisions that support motives and values. As a storyteller that means I will make better choices about the gigs I accept and the work I do. 
  6. Trust my audience. When I trust my audience I can more readily build a relationship with them. This leads to a more authentic experience.
  7. Be open. Risk openness. This leads to more authentic experience because I engage with the world with less pretense. The same thing applies in storytelling. When I am open to the story, to my audience, to the process I experience it more fully and can reflect it back with more authenticity.
  8. Ask the next question. What happens after happily ever after? Who will I be if I risk telling that story? By continuing to ask I remain engaged and keep reminding myself to be honest, therefore authentic.
  9. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind to myself. Be kind to others. Be kind to the world. This is probably my core value. Be kind. When I operate from a base of kindness I become more forgiving, more loving, more able to see the world as one of possibility and hope. It is then more possible to be vulnerable in all I do, story related or not.
    To be more authentic.
    To be. And being is the core of authenticity.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The world through my eyes: July into August

A few images from my late July and into August.



untitled (and unadjusted)

Hello up there


But what happens when it wakes up?
(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Telling Life: Abundance

Living the freelance life can be hard. It's a constant hustle, always looking for work and always wondering where the next paycheck will come from. For the most part I manage this fairly well, but there are certainly times when I think I'm nuts. I am always working. It's very hard to stop, because there isn't as much certainty as there may appear to be in a regular salaried position. I get scared that there won't be enough. Enough work, enough money, enough time, enough opportunity. When this happens I clench up. I fear scarcity.

The solution, for me at least, lies in trying to cultivate an attitude of abundance. I'm talking about the belief that there is enough for all of us. That by behaving as if the next job will come, the next check won't bounce, the next work will be fulfilling, I am more likely to have that experience. This applies to life in general as well as the #tellinglife.

So many working artists assume scarcity. They assume that work is hard to find and so limit the places they are willing to look for it. They assume they won't be paid enough and so won't ask for an appropriate fee. This all comes out of fear. Yes, the world is a scary place and yes, living the #tellinglife is sometimes walking a knife-edge of terror. I fall into this all time, I'm not trying to suggest I don't. But when I'm lucky and smart, I notice. I take a deep breath. I remind myself that there is enough, I just may need to be a little more creative or even redefine what enough means, but there is enough for us all. It's up to me to do the work to find it, since it's unlikely that success will land on my doorstep if I don't do something to encourage it.

I do a number of things to try to create abundance rather than scarcity in my life.
  • I keep my eyes open. I am always looking for new opportunities. I don't leave home without at least business cards. I've gotten gigs from conversations I've had in laundromats, on the bus and in ladies' rooms at the airport. By being open to opportunity I am assuming the opportunity exists and I will be that much more receptive to it.
  • I accept work that is appropriate for me and pass on the work that isn't. I am an excellent storyteller for many audiences and the right organizational storyteller with many for- and non-profits. But I am not right for every opportunity. If I'm asked to tell stories with really little kids, pre-schoolers, I'd much rather refer a teller I know loves telling with small children and has honed the craft for that audience. Likewise if someone wants a historical re-enactor. Storytelling requires a great deal of craft and work; none of us are experts at everything. By passing on work for which I am not suited I build a stronger internal community and increase our external value, thus building a larger potential audience, since they know they will get the best when they hire a storyteller. 
  • I ask for what I'm worth. I spend time learning what other performing artists charge and base my rates appropriately. I can always negotiate down; I can't negotiate up. If I were to charge $50 or $100 for an hour gig that's an hour from home I'm establishing a low-bar at a non-living wage for not only myself but the next storyteller that client wants to hire. By asking for what I'm worth I am assuming financial abundance is possible rather than assuming I cannot realistically support myself as an artist. 
  • I keep learning. I keep trying new things, working on new material, engaging in continuing education and more. By learning more about my craft I am assuming I will have opportunity to practice it. 
  • I remind myself to be grateful for every opportunity, including failure. When I am grateful for the work, even when it's hard, I remind myself of just how fortunate I am that I get to live this Telling Life. By experiencing and expressing gratitude, it is harder to slip into bitterness when things are tough so I remain more open to possibility.
  • I remain passionate about my work. If I love my work, if I am passionately engaged in my life, I cannot help but experience abundance because each instance of experiencing passion reminds me that more can come. When I talk about my work that passion is clear, so potential clients know I care about what I do and will give them better work. I continue to do the work I love. Each time I work I allow myself to love it a little more. By remaining passionate and loving what I do I cannot help but become better at it and so increase my likelihood of being rehired or recommended. 
There are other things I do, but these are the big ones. I'd love to know what you do to create the possibility of abundance in your #tellinglife. Please comment below.

We create so many self-fulfilling prophesies in our lives and so often they are negative. Why not try to create some that are positive? If we put as much energy and work into the possibility of hope as we do into the certainty of loss, maybe our lives will veer just a bit more in the direction we want. Assume abundance while continuing to do the work and see what happens. It's not likely to make things any worse and might just help you live a more joyful and prosperous life.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, August 7, 2015

Still breathing

Writing about grief has helped me understand my own mourning process. Each time I sit down and come up with something to write I have to examine my own feelings and reactions with greater clarity than I might otherwise. Thank you for continuing to indulge me.

Some days I just don't have anything new to say about it. Today is one of those days but there are still fragments floating about in my mind. Here are a few of them; I may end up expanding some into full blog posts but today none are demanding more attention than any others. I hope some resonate with you, please let me know.

  • I am breathing. I am here. I am still missing Kevin, I always will, but I want to find a way to relish the rest of my life; he would want nothing less. He told me as much, not long before he died. To do otherwise would be to dishonor what we built together, who he saw when he looked at me.
  • There are whole weeks now that will pass without tears. When I notice I feel at once relieved and guilty.
  • I live in a constant state of dissonance. I am still alive. I am still here. I am, fairly frequently, glad of that fact. In the beginning I wanted nothing more than to have the earth swallow me whole. It feels odd, not yearning for nothingness anymore. It is hard to admit that it feels good. Yet there is still the yearning, still the heartbreak. I am more than I was and yet less.
  • I keep wanting to tell him about all of the good things in my life now. I do tell him but his responses are much subtler. 
  • I still will not be told how to grieve. Several people have tried. Some have told me it's "about time" I feel better. No. I will still grieve in my own season as should anyone who has suffered a substantial loss. Anyone who is uncomfortable with my grief doesn't need to be in my life.
  • The love will never end. It doesn't have to. 
  • I will continue to change. Which sometimes makes me so sad. I know Kevin would be really proud of what I am doing now. That I have moved, am working, am building new things... I like to think he is beaming at me, proud of how I've been so much more than I thought I could be without him.
  • I've likened grief to a roller coaster before. Now it's beginning to feel more like a river. It has currents and eddies, rapids and slow spots, there are places where it turns back on itself and places where it rushes forward. It is an ongoing journey. Thinking of it this way helps; I have always loved rivers. 
I will never stop mourning Kevin. But I will, and I am, learn how to live without him in my every day life. I am certain I will still have times when I would rather not be. I am certain I will still have times when I howl from the pain. But I am equally certain I will continue to breath, continue to learn, continue to love, continue to live. I am still breathing.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Telling Life: Community and isolation

I spent this past weekend at the National Storytelling Conference. It was wonderful. It was exhausting. I spoke with, hugged and listened to more people in one weekend than I may typically do in a month. It was also vital, as it always is, full of stories, workshops and performances, but the most important part was the gathering of the tribe.

There are storytellers lucky enough to live in a community of like-minded people. I lived that way when I was in Boston; there were many storytelling venues and I could always find a colleague. When I moved to Kansas City I found myself comparatively alone and isolated; Kevin was my listening board and now that he's gone I struggle to find anyone with whom I can develop new work. I've had to learn how to continue in something of a vacuum.

It's hard. It's also powerful. I have found that all of this alone time is very important, but I need to be mindful that I still require contact.

Creativity does not easily flourish in a vacuum. I need substantial amounts of uninterrupted quiet, but I also need to be able to bounce ideas and get support when working on something new or difficult. What's more, time spent with supportive colleagues reminds me that I am not alone in this particular madness we call storytelling. Thoreau, for example, took to the woods but regularly went into town and had lively correspondences; he had isolation and contact. A need to be alone co-exists with a need for connection.

The national conference gave me a chance to connect deeply with several of my colleagues and mentors. I had meaningful conversations about art and life and the currents that run between them. It was great. I drank it all in, imagining myself a camel, storing as much as I could for the dry times. Those meaningful conversations were worth the price of admission, worth the fatigue of recovery, worth it all. I was with my tribe and we spoke the same language.

It's an interesting dichotomy: I need the alone time to process, to think, to write, to consider, to procrastinate. I also need the community for the reminder that I am not a sole lunatic, something I struggle with. I need the time with like-minded people who are passionate about similar things. I need the influence of other artists, or else my art may become stale. I need praise and intelligent critique from people I respect.

The conference gave me community at the same time that it reminded me how valuable alone time is.

We all need these things, we all have opposing needs. Art and life cannot be teased apart and human beings need contact, in varying degrees to be sure, but solitary confinement is a sure path to madness. So is too much time with others. We all need to be alone and in community. We grow more when we are supported and that support takes many different forms.

What is most vital for me in this moment as a result of the conference is the reminder that I am not alone in this journey. We all need the reminder that, even when we are isolated, we need not be alone.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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