Friday, September 25, 2015

Atonement and forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Telling Life: Light and darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 18, 2015

In disguise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Telling Life: Specialize in the impossible

What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible.
- Theodore Roethke

This is what storytellers do every day. We reinforce the idea that the impossible isn't so far fetched after all. Whether we tell fairy tales and myths, redolent with wonder and magic, or personal stories of loss and triumph, we demonstrate over and over again that human experience is universal and that we can connect with one another regardless of whatever boundaries seems to exist.

I specialize in the impossible. So do you.

  • When I create a new story I put together words and ideas in new ways. Sure, every story has already been told, but not the way I tell it. And not the way you would tell it. Storytelling is a continuous act of creation and recreation.
  • When I tell stories you create your own world. What I say is a vessel, a ship taking you into your own imagination, hopes, dreams, fears and adventures. I am not telling one story but a myriad of stories, one for each and every listener, all in one voice.
  • When I listen to your story sound waves travel through the very air and impact my timpanic membrane. I can actually make sense of those vibrations and turn them into meaning. 
  • What's more, listening to a story creates an alignment in neural activity that is the next best thing to telepathy. When we listen to each other our brains look alike. We understand and experience more deeply than with any other form of communication.
  • When I teach and coach I help you find your own voice, your own understanding of your story, you have a chance to listen to yourself. In a world full of noise and distraction, it's nothing short of miraculous when we have a chance to listen to ourselves.
  • On a more personal level, I am still standing after a devastating loss. What's more, I am learning to thrive again, to love again, to live again. When I talk about these experiences I remind people that love and loss are inextricably bound and, if we are lucky, we love deeply enough that we will grieve.
    I'm creating performance pieces about these experiences. I write about them. I am embracing the impossibility of life after death. My years of telling stories of love and death have helped me remember, over and over again, that while I will never be the same, I will be. It is not impossible. Stories save lives. They have certainly saved mine.
Embrace the impossible. Let it transform you. Live the #tellinglife. I'd love to know how it changes you.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The telling life: Intellectual Property

This week's #tellinglife column is an uncomfortable one for me to write. Intellectual property might seem boring, cut and dry; it's anything but. It's something every storyteller needs to think about and be aware of, for both their own protection and to make sure that we are being ethical in our work.

I've been a performing storyteller for over 20 years. I have a very clear memory of the moment when I knew, without any doubt, that this was the work I'd be doing for the rest of my life. It was a cold Tuesday night in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was in a basement bookstore, the Best Cellar, the place that hosted Brother Blue's storytelling series. I'd been attending for less than a year but I knew already this place was going to change who I was.

My story creation method then isn't much different from the way it works now. I have an image I mull over and eventually a story builds around it, kind of the way a pearl begins from an oyster's irritation. I'd been playing with an image, a gathering of street people under a bridge. From there I added in rain, the city and a period of my own occasional despair. A story. When it was my turn I stood up and found myself telling what was to become Coyote Under the Bridge, a piece that has become one of my signature works. It deals with depression, suicidal behavior, the possible intervention by Coyote, the lost people of the city and redemption. By the time I was done I was shaking and I knew this was my path, these kinds of meaningful stories that could change lives. I knew this story of my own dark times could save people. I knew what I had been born to do. Writing all of this down now it seems incredibly arrogant, but truly, it was one of those few moments when we know our entire purpose with utter clarity. You can hear the story on my website, right here.  To this day, every time I tell it someone comes up and says, "I never knew anyone else ever felt that way. Thank you." It was a defining moment.

I went on to capture this story on my first recording (a cassette! If you want a copy, write to me and I'll send you one). I sold it at various events until cassettes were a thing of the past and I was moving on to new work. Of the five stories on the cassette I still tell Coyote, none of the others. It's endured.

About four years ago I received an email from a man I didn't remember. He said we took a storytelling class together and there he bought my cassette. He was so moved by Coyote on the Bridge that he wrote a play based on it and was now in negotiations to see if it could be made into a film. He figured maybe he should get in touch and make sure, I wouldn't mind, would I? He'd credit my story as the inspiration and that should be enough, right? He included a copy of the original play so I could see how important my inspiration was.

No. It wasn't okay. It wasn't enough and I did mind. My work had been stolen from me, certainly without malicious intent, but the play was such a close read of my story I felt violated. I expect I would have felt the same way had any of my stories been stolen, but this one in particular had immense meaning and personal significance. I wrote back and told him I could not give my approval. I explained why, both in personal terms and in legal terms. And I told him that if he continued I would seek legal counsel. I rarely get angry and even less often on my own behalf, but I was furious.

As far as I know, he dropped the matter, but this incident made it abundantly clear to me just how vulnerable storytellers are. There is a perception that because our work is spoken, because it exists in the moment, it is more temporal and took less work to craft. While the performance may be temporal, its effect is not. It took no less craft than a written story. There is no less personal investment in a told story than in any other kind of creative work. Yet, because storytelling is a performance art many storytellers and other artists seem to feel more comfortable using others material without their permission.

It's not okay. Letting someone know after the fact isn't enough.

I've written before about IP issues around telling traditional material. This goes even further if you're interested in telling a story created by someone else. You need to have their permission, preferably in writing, if you're going to tell someone else's story. It isn't honoring them to steal their work, even if you attribute it to them. If someone wants to tell one of your stories you have every right to say no, to say yes but, to say go for it. This article has some basic IP information for writers that you may find useful.

You may be thinking that stories don't belong to anyone and, to a point, I agree with you. Imagine you put yourself into a piece. You crafted it, honed the language and movements. You put your own experience and life into it. And you find out that someone else is telling it as their own. How would you feel? I'd also add that I believe in as much open and accessible knowledge as possible. I just want artists to have some ownership over their life and work.

My bottom line when considering what I want to tell is this: If I am not the creator of the work do I have permission? How would I feel if someone stole my work (and I know, I felt awful)? What do I need to do so I can tell this ethically? And if I don't have permission to tell a piece someone else created, I take a deep breath and let it go. There are so many stories in the world. Why steal someone else's when I can create my own?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The world through my eyes: Early autumn

30th Street Station, Philadelphia



Is there anybody out there?


Small homes

Peppers 1

Even more than tomatoes

Peppers 2


Open and closed


Flight lines

Even here, they watch
(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 4, 2015

This is water

David Foster Wallace wrote many powerful things. The most meaningful for me, and for many others, is the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. He outlines a way to live, a reminder that we are always in our story even when that story is painful or dull or monotonous, a way to remember that every moment of our lives is our lives.

Take a few minutes and watch an excerpt. If you want to hear the whole thing it's here.

I've tried to live this way for most of my adult life, with limited success. Some days are better than others. When Kevin was diagnosed I found myself living more intensely, more in the moment than I ever had before. Each nurse, each doctor, each member of the cleaning staff, was an individual with huge impact on our lives, so I paid closer attention to them than I knew I was capable of. Our continued existence depended on their humanity; I made every effort to connect with them in as human a way as possible.

That time in the hospital and the limited time we had at home was utterly sacred. Holy. Every individual was part of it, as were the hard surfaces of the bedside table, the hiss of the bed inflating and deflating so he wouldn't get sores, the long hours spent waiting for the next test result, the thin light of dawn creeping into the room.

This is water.

After Kevin died, as you well know, my grief was and sometimes still is all-consuming. I made a conscious decision to embrace it the same way I decided to attend to the people helping us. I decided pretty early on that I would rather grieve the same way I have lived most of my life, by feeling it fully, rather than trying to suppress it.

It was a hard choice. Many people who don't know me well were frightened by it and chose to tell me how I should be grieving. There were certainly times when I just wanted to feel normal again, though I had no idea what normal meant. Frankly, I don't think there really is a normal, we are all changing all the time and normal implies a kind of stasis, so it was perhaps an impossible desire. It might be better to say that I wanted to feel the way I felt before he got sick. I wanted to feel whole, even though what I was and am building is a new kind of damaged wholeness. I just didn't know that then.

I learned to swim in grief. I learned to trust that, even when I felt my worst, even when I was drowning, I would eventually return to myself. I learned that my body would only let me cry for so long. I learned that grief is part of life. I would rather feel all of my life, even when it is so painful. That's what differentiates grief from depression, for me at least; depression is a deep absence of self, a sense that I am not worthy of presence. It's about trying (maybe) to live in spite of emptiness, fighting both emptiness and what little sense of myself there is the whole while. Grief is about deep presence with absence, a sense of emptiness in the universe and learning what it means to live with emptiness, accepting it and loving the void because it means there was once presence. I hope this makes sense to some of you. I'm not articulating it well.

This is water.

I will never feel the way I did before he got sick, but I am finding new versions of wholeness, cracked and leaking light. I am finding new gifts from the universe, new waters in which to swim. I am bringing with me some of the attention I learned to give in the hospital, some of the sense that every moment is my life, no matter how hard. I am so grateful for Kevin in my life and even now am finding ways to be grateful for the pain. I am so grateful for everyone walking with me. I am so grateful for water.
My left ankle.
A reminder that in every step, in every breath, this is water and I am alive.
(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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