Friday, October 30, 2015

Private and public

Grief is a private thing. The deepest, hardest parts are often the most isolating. The nights when I couldn't sleep, when I was incoherent with loss, were the times I shared with no one. I didn't want to. It belonged to me and it belonged to Kevin. It was private.

Grief is also a public thing. In my case I have chosen to make it part of my art. I write about grief, I tell stories about it. Part of my public identity is as someone who has grieved deeply and powerfully, allowing others to witness the process. An emerging part of my public identity is as someone figuring out how to return to life, even as the loss remains a part of who I am.

More than my personal choices around grief, it's public because it has such a significant impact on so many facets of our lives. It's hard to work, hard to interact, even the smallest thing may be a trigger. We all have public components to our grief, even if we may not want to share the experience. We must emerge from our carefully constructed cocoons (where it is safe to feel and express and make ourselves numb, where it is safe to do whatever we need to make it through) int the harsh world that doesn't know the world has ended. Grief can be so consuming that we can forget there are actually people in the world who don't know of our loss.  What's more, people in our communities may know of our loss and might not know how to interact with this new, wounded us. This is all part of being alive and much of this living happens in the public sphere; we must find ways to navigate it.

All of this came to mind because of Joe Biden's announcement that he will not run for the Democratic Presidential nomination, due to the time he needed to grieve the death of his son. Most of his grieving has been private, but this is a very public impact. Regardless of what you may think of Biden's politics, his thoughtfulness and integrity here are undeniable. He knew that a campaign and potential presidency would require his full engagement and when we are grieving deeply it is very difficult to pay attention to anything but the wound.

Those who have experienced a great loss need time and understanding from those around them. We need to know that we can maintain our privacy, share what we choose and that there will be understanding of the blurred boundaries between public and private; you can't always stop yourself from breaking down in a public place, at least I can't. The mourner is still one person, just with changed needs and abilities.

Everyone will grieve at some point in their lives. We all experience loss. And we all get to choose how we express it, what we share, and what we undertake while learning to live in the after.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Telling Life: Knowing when to say "no"

I love performing. I love the connection with the audience, the rush as I see them lean into the story, the chatter afterwards. It's exhilarating and addictive. I need to be careful though, like any addiction my desire for performance can lead to bad choices. I remind myself that there are times when I should say no to a gig.

I've written about this before, in conversations about ethics, but it's on my mind again in the wake of Joe Biden's decision to not pursue the Democratic presidential nomination, in part because he and his family have needs greater than that particular public office would allow. Regardless of what you think of his politics, his decision to forgo something he desperately wants because he cannot fully devote himself to it is to be commended.

I have made the mistake of taking gigs I wasn't the best teller for. I have found myself in front of wiggling 2 year olds and thought I don't know what to do here.  I've taken gigs that I knew would be emotionally difficult. I'd like to think I have learned something from these experiences, because now I am much more willing to say, "No, thank you, I'm not the right teller for you but so-and-so is." It's hard to do. Every single time a part of me cringes and fears I will never get more work, but when I say no to a gig that I am not suited for I am creating space for those that suit me best as well as behaving with an attitude of abundance.

Think of it this way, no one can be everything to everyone. Chefs specialize. Firemen specialize. Dancers and writers specialize. Professors, garbage men, politicians, librarians, construction workers, teacher, painters... I cannot name a field where there is not some specialization. I think it's hard for storytellers to do this because storytelling is such a basic part of what it is to be human: We all tell stories so those of us who do it professionally should be able to do all of it, right? Wrong. None of us are superb at every aspect of this art.

When we take that bold path of recognizing that we are not suited for a particular gig (whether it's personal circumstances as in Biden's case, training, natural inclination or for other reasons) we create several positive effects.

  • We raise the standards of our art by making sure our audiences hear great stories suited for them and those who hire us have a deeper appreciation for the art.
  • We build deeper relationships with our fellow tellers, by being generous and giving them the chance to be generous in the future.
  • We have an opportunity to increase our skill set. If we know we're not ready now we can learn more and be ready in the future. If you're not comfortable telling to preschoolers take a class and volunteer at the local homeless shelter. They need the stories and you need the practice. 
  • And, like Biden, sometimes we just need to admit we aren't prepared to devote ourselves fully to what is a very demanding art form. Would you run a marathon without training?
I know this may be hard to imagine but I have found that by turning down gigs for which I am not suited, I get more of the gigs for which I am the best suited. It sounds a little mystical maybe, but there it is.

This #tellinglife requires us to be mindful and honest with ourselves as well as our audiences. And isn't that a basic part of what storytelling is about anyway, authentic joy in the art and connection with the audience? No one would choose this path if they weren't passionate about it, it's too much work, so do the work you are passionate about and help others do it too by giving them the chances you don't need.

I'd love to know about your experiences saying no or about the times when you didn't and maybe should have. 

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Birthdays, gratitude and life after death

Today is my 48th birthday. I don't feel anywhere near that old, I scarcely think of myself as a grown-up, yet when I look in the mirror I see a woman (not a girl) with smile lines and lots of grey hair. I have considerably more grey hair now than I did at this time last year and even more than the year before.

As you know, if this blog is not new to you, my life has had some significant ups and downs in the last few years. For most of my life I've written lists on my birthday, things I am grateful for, one for each year of my life. The last two years I didn't write lists. Two years ago I was sick and last year I was grieving too deeply. It's time to revive the tradition. Gratitude is part of learning to live in the after-life and so I will take this chance to remember to be grateful.

On this, the 48th anniversary of my birth, I am grateful for many things. Some I am simultaneously deeply resentful of, but they are all worth mentioning. This list is by no means complete and I'd love to know what you are grateful for!
  1. Life. For the life I am living in spite of the pain and sorrow. It is good to be alive, to feel the breeze, smell the autumn leaves, to treasure each moment.
  2. Kevin's life. And love. And support and faith and so on.
  3. You. Every single reader of this blog has helped me keep going when things were at their darkest.
  4. My parents. We've had a bumpy ride sometimes, but I find myself with staunch allies and loving support.
  5. My step-children and child-in-law, whom I love and am proud of beyond measure. Thank you for keeping me around.
  6. My friends near and far, without whom I would not have survived the last 22 months. 
  7. My new love, who has such a big heart that there is plenty of room for my old love as well, and yet this new relationship is its own beast, for which I am grateful beyond words.
  8. Social media. Facebook means there is always someone to talk with.
  9. Storytelling. The art and craft of it gives me voice.
  10. And likewise, writing.
  11. This blog, which gives me a platform.
  12. Every audience.
  13. Every coaching client.
  14. Everyone who has believed in my ability to create something worthwhile and has held me up when I couldn't do so myself.
  15. Quiet. And music.
  16. Good books. And bad books that give me comfort.
  17. Stories, the way we understand our selves and our lives.
  18. Fairy tales and myths, because they have so much to teach us.
  19. Crazy Jane.
  20. Coyote.
  21. The things I have learned by shutting up and listening. The times I have been listened to.
  22. The strength in my own body.
  23. My senses, even as some begin to waver.
  24. My home. I love my home.
  25. My car.
  26. A fiscal safety net.
  27. The sounds of the world - wind in trees, rain, waves, laughter, kids playing, etc etc.
  28. The porch swing on my front porch.
  29. My neighbors and landlord.
  30. My own resilience. I never knew I could be this strong and flexible.
  31. And so the circumstances that have led to my being this resilient, as crappy as they sometimes have been.
  32. Grief. I have learned so much by embracing grief.
  33. Poetry.
  34. My camera.
  35. Trees and rivers and birds and grasses and flowers and the soil and the whole of the natural world in all its harshness and beauty.
  36. Wonder.
  37. Play.
  38. Every act of kindness I have experienced, even when I didn't recognize it as such in the moment.
  39. Tea.
  40. Dumplings.
  41. Soup.
  42. Chocolate. And other yummy things.
  43. Time.
  44. Touch.
  45. Mindfulness.
  46. Connection.
  47. Love. and love. and love.
  48. Life. Always and forever. I am grateful for every fleeting moment. I would not undo my life.
I could add so many more. Thank you for reading this list and for being in my life in whatever capacity that may be. May we all have years filled with light.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sorrow amidst the joy

One of the things I keep relearning is that sorrow doesn't go away. It integrates into the rest of my being, to one degree or another, but it's still there and is always ready to pop up and say Hey! Did you miss me?

My birthday is next week. I used to love my birthday, allowing myself a primal joy in the fact that I am on this earth and the earth is beautiful. (If you're interested in some observations on birthdays, just look at any post on this blog published on October 27.) I still love birthdays in general, I think it's important that we each have a day when we are celebrated because there are so many times when we feel overlooked or undervalued. Since Kevin's death my relationship with my birthday has changed.

Throughout this month I've been aware of a greater undercurrent of grief than I'd experienced lately. I've been clumsy and tired, more prone to be irritable. I keep asking myself why am I feeling this way? Things are pretty good these days and, while I know there will always be a Kevin-sized hole in my heart and life, I am no longer living in the state of acute distress that so defined the first year after he died. I still have moments of deep sorrow, I miss him every day, but it's no longer common for me to have days when I can barely get out of bed. So why now?

Ah. My birthday. Kevin was always amused by the way my five-year old self would come screeching into the world around my birthday. For all of October he would smile indulgently as I planned a party or insisted on telling wait staff in restaurants it was almost my birthday (I have scored a lot of free birthday cake with this). It was kind of a game we played, my silliness and his amusement.

I miss that. My five-year old self peeks out from time to time and notices he isn't here. She isn't quite sure why. Some days my almost-48-year old self doesn't know why either.

On top of that, each passing birthday moves me further away from the time when he was on this planet. I was 46 when he died. It didn't seem so distant when I was 47, but now? Turning 48? There's a noticeable gap between 46 and 48, at least in my mind. I know this seems arbitrary, but there it is. I imagine turning 56 will be very hard, outliving him, but that's borrowing trouble.

There are so many ways that I celebrate and remember Kevin every day. Most of the time now I think of him with more love than sorrow. Most of the time now I feel deep gratitude and the pain is muted or at least I've grown accustomed to it. And there are so many ways that my life is good. Next week I will spend time with someone I've come to care for deeply. My friends, who love me dearly and have supported me endlessly for the past 19 months, will gather and celebrate that I am on this planet. I have gigs throughout the week. And yet... I haven't told any wait staff my birthday is this month. Yesterday I remembered with a start that it's in just a few days, surprised that it was so soon, that I actually made it through another year.

All of this and a myriad of other small reminders means that I am sad. These good things are also sorrowful. That's okay. This is part of what grief is; it lingers and re-emerges when we don't expect it. It's triggered by the very things that also give us joy. In some ways I am grateful for this too, because it reminds me of the immensity of the love and the loss.

I still believe in birthdays. It's just a different kind of celebration now.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Telling Life: Monsters

Some days are busier than others. I'm on my way to deliver a keynote talk and several workshops at the annual KATE conference, so I decided today to share an older post in today's #tellinglife.

In 2013 I participated in an A-Z blogging challenge, where I posted almost daily for a month. Today's post comes from that series. If you're interested, you can check the whole thing out here.

I selected this post because of the season. In October we consider the dark, the unknown. We allow for the possibility of monsters. I hope you find this useful.

If you have topic suggestions or questions I'd welcome them, as well as guest blogger applications. Please contact me.

Have a wonderful week and don't worry, those noises you hear under your bed are probably nothing to worry about.
     *     *     *

Oh, but there are monsters in the world! As storytellers we talk about monsters, real and imagined, in safer ways, venturing to the edge of the world and back. We can conjure kraken and werewolves and vampires and ghosts, just as easily as we talk about real life monsters.

Whenever I tell a story with a monster in it, I ask myself:
  • Who really is the monster? Imagine how that poor hungry wolf felt, being denied a meal by those greedy pigs. And maybe Goldilocks is really a story about a home invasion. If my monster is the expected villain, I still try to understand them. Are they simply evil? Are they angry? What's going on?
  • What is the monster's point of view? It can be very interesting, exploring the story from the other side. Telling the story from the monster's POV but letting it remain monstrous is an interesting challenge, one worth exploring if you have the time.
  • Where does the monster belong? Maybe my listeners never need to really see the monster, the threat might be enough.
  • When do I want to reveal the monster? And how terrifying is it once revealed? 
  • Does the monster change as the story progresses? Do I want to build sympathy for it or do I want it to remain terrible?
  • And ultimately, why is the monster there? What would happen if I told the story without the monster in it? Would it still get my point across?
When I tell a story with a real-life monster, I may need to do some internal work to make sure I'm ready to tell it. It doesn't help if my fear of my third grade bully is still making me shake. I need to make the bully terrifying, sure, but I also need to make the bully as real for the audience as the fear is. If the monster is a subtle one - say a problem at work or an intractable situation - then I need to make sure I set it carefully in its context.

There are certainly standard monsters - ghosts, goblins, ghoulies, giants, (and other things that don't start with g) etc - but I also sometimes consider if there might be a hidden monster in a story. If I'm telling Demeter's story, is her grief monstrous? Does it drive her to do terrible things? If I think of the grief as its own monstrous character, how does the story change? What if I'm the monster?

We are surrounded by monsters. We often are monsters. As storytellers, we explore the darkness with narrative as our torch. If you know your monsters inside and out your telling will be richer, more believable and your audience will more willingly venture into the unknown, here-there-be-monsters places with you.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The telling life: I don't wanna

When I was a little girl I would occasionally have spectacular tantrums. Lower lip sticking out, arms crossed, feet stomping and shouting, "I DON'T WANNA!!!"

I still feel like that sometimes and I bet you do, too.

We have all hit that place where we don't want to do that gig, deal with that producer or (in my case and right now) write this blog post. I. Don't. Wanna. It's a tough place to be because really, all we want to do is give in, have the tantrum and eat some chocolate. At least that's what I want.

When that happens I find it worthwhile to ask myself why? What is going on that makes me reluctant to get the work done?

  • Is it physical? Am I tired, hungry, thirsty? Am I premenstrual? Am I in pain? Would taking a nap, eating, drinking or ibuprofen help?
  • Am I lonely? Do I need support? How long has it been since I got some appreciation? Do I need to phone a friend and get a pep talk? Do I need a hug? 
  • Is this project triggering feelings related to something else? This has been especially relevant since Kevin died, but looking for connections can sometimes help and if I find them I can look for ways to make it less painful.
  • Is there a problem with the project? Do I think it's somehow unethical, inauthentic, or inappropriate for me? Does it involve someone I find troubling? What can I do about this, or is it just a lesson to be learned?
  • Is it resistance and self-sabotage? Am I fighting my own best interests because some part of me believes I am not worthy? Am I afraid no one will care about the work? If so, how can I remind myself that what I do matters and is meaningful?
  • Lastly, do I just need a break? Would taking a walk or exercising or reading for awhile help?
Depending on the answers I can usually work through the I don't wanna. Sometimes I just let myself have a tantrum, then get to work. That's what I did today before writing this piece. I avoided, procrastinated, did the dishes and finally decided the topic I had been planning to write about wasn't the one I needed to write about. I groused about it, decided no one would care about this, that clearly I don't have anything useful to say and then wrote it anyway.

We all will have times when we don't want to do something. We all have times when we feel ineffective or scared. We all need to remember that we are not alone in this work, we need to remind ourselves of what we love about it and, when we step up and do it, it will mean something to someone. And if not? Then at least we had a chance to practice and learn a little more about ourselves.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 9, 2015

Whose life is this anyway?

For years, one of my favorite songs has been Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads. The sense of confusion expressed by the lyrics has long resonated with me, but never before has it been this appropriate. I find myself in an ongoing state of discomfort and awe that this really is my life.

This is real.
This can't be real.
Maybe I'm living someone else's life.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself in another part of the world

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself

Well...How did I get here?

I am living in another part of the world. I am living in a lovely home, one Kevin has never seen, and loved by someone who is not Kevin.
Who am I?
How did I get here?
How can this be real?

This is not to deny the very real and very good things in my life. I am living in a beautiful home, in a city I love. I am loved and love in return. I am earning my own way, by my own work, doing things I am passionate about and making a difference in the world.

It is a repeated shock when every day I recognize these things and am grateful for them, yet Kevin is not a physical part of my everyday. I can tell him about these amazing things, many of which would never have happened had he not died, but his responses are subtle at best; he's not here cheering me on. I simultaneously feel so lucky that this is my life and so bereft that life with Kevin is no longer my life. It is tremendously conflicting.

And you may ask yourself

What is that beautiful house?

And you may ask yourself

Where does that highway go to?

And you may ask yourself

Am I right?...Am I wrong?

And you may say to yourself

My God!...What have I done?!

What I have done is I have chosen to live. I have chosen to honor what has been and to still embrace what is before me. It's really, really hard. It is the work of life, what we all must do every day; in my case it's maybe a little more obvious but it is no less than what you do every day as well.

It's a constant choice, letting myself be present in this world, in this life, in this moment. It's a constant choice accepting the gifts that are offered to me and the things that are happening because of my own hard work. Part of me wants to remain frozen. The rest of me is usually willing to let the world wrap itself around me but it is an ongoing struggle to balance life and immobility.

I may not recognize this life I'm living all of the time.
I may ask is all of this real and ask how this can be my life.
I may sometimes still wail for the life I had.
Life will happen whether or not we want it to. I can look at it with awe, with wonder, with regret and sorrow, but mostly I am looking at it with gratitude.

Thank you, Kevin, for loving me so well that I am in this moment. I could not be here without you, even though I am without you.
Thank you world, for welcoming me back and letting me occasionally run away.
Thank you.

Letting the days go by

Let the water hold me down

Letting the days go by

Water flowing underground

Into the blue again

Essay (c)2015 Laura S. Packer
Lyrics and video, Once in a lifetime (c) Warner/Chappell Music Inc. Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Telling Life: Dancing on the edge

I was working with a coaching client yesterday and he commented that storytelling is dancing on the edge. This man is inventive and courageous in his life and purpose, so I found it interesting that storytelling in particular puts him on the edge of terror and creation that can drive us to new and interesting work.

As I thought about this further I realized that the edge is part of what I love most about storytelling. From the creative process to the performance to analysis to the kind of stories I tell to the vulnerability I see as essential in my work to the ways I help others develop as storytellers, the edge forces me to dance constantly in the moment.

  1. My storytelling creative process is based largely in imagery and improvisation. I do not write my performance pieces before they are told; they require an audience for the very act of creation. I usually start with an image, play with it on my own, maybe talk it through with a trusted ally (though not always) and then simply tell the damned thing to an audience, unsure if it is yet coherent, precisely how long it will be and sometimes not even knowing the entire plot. This process is risky, there is always a chance of failure, but I think it was my early nurturing by Brother Blue that gave me this tolerance for risk.
    I LOVE this uncertainty. I love how the audience is a necessary part of the creative process for me. Storytelling requires listeners and I need someone to listen the story out of me. Their reaction will not only shape every performance, it gives the story form and structure from the start. 
  2. I do not memorize the stories I perform. I have a general sense of their shape and structure with a few crucial phrases perhaps committed to memory, but I want there to be room to dance with the audience. Well beyond initial creation, storytelling requires being attuned to the listeners and their reactions. It is a constant dance of creation and destruction, choosing in the moment what to expand upon and what to leave out. When I perform I am an avatar of Shiva, dancing out creation and destruction over and over again. 
  3. As part of my artistic practice, I revisit my performances and stories on a regular basis, analyzing and honing the work. This, too, is a dance on the edge because it requires me to question everything I do. It can easily spiral into great self-doubt and paralysis (and often does) but it may also lead to insight and deeper work. If I don't take the risk of analysis I may never improve upon existing work.
  4. When I first began performance storytelling I was in love with telling risky stories, those that pushed me and my audiences to an edge. I reveled in discomfort. I still do, though I am more thoughtful in the choices I make about the stories I develop and tell. My earlier determination to go where others did not was a reflection of who I was then. I am now far more comfortable with myself and my art, so I am willing to tell stories that reflect that comfort, but I still delve into discomfort on a regular basis. It makes me stretch as an artist, as a creator and as a performer who cares about her audience. When I choose to tell those stories to appropriate audiences who expect discomfort, it makes my listeners stretch.
    For example, I am currently working on a fact-based piece about a serial killer. This is deeply uncomfortable work, however it's forcing me to think intensely about story structure, boundaries, appropriateness and more. I need to consider all of this in the creation and then in the performance. This is not a story for children or for adults who do not have the advance option of not hearing it.
    It's a dance with discomfort and I am learning a great deal about myself and my process.
  5. Regardless of the material I am telling, I allow myself to be vulnerable in every performance, consultation and coaching session. While vulnerability is an edge state, it allows a greater connection with my audience and clients. Storytelling is all about that connection, the dance with the listeners because listening is not passive; it's about the moment on the edge when we open up and hold each other in balance. 
  6. Lastly, when I coach I am dancing on the edge with my client. Good coaching requires me to be absolutely present, to be listening with full attention and to be thinking furiously, all at the same time. It is a delicate balance between support and constructive feedback. New storytellers or new stories are like toddlers; you want to encourage them, not push them over in your eagerness to help yet you want to let the client take advantage of your greater experience.

Creative endeavors are always risky. They require vulnerability, honesty and a willingness to take the next step forward into the unknown. If we don't risk, we don't grow. This is the #tellinglife.

Let's dance.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 2, 2015


Grief isn't a straight line. There is a popular image on fb of the common conception of grief, a smooth arc, contrasted with what it's really like, a dark scribble, crossing over itself over and over again. I am reminded of that today.

My life is rich and I am repeatedly astonished by how okay I am most of the time, 18 months after Kevin's death. But not right now. Right now I am on a plane in the midst of ten days of personal travel. My work life requires a lot of travel so personal travel is always a bit conflicted. This is a long time away from home right after some work time away from home; in the last 17 days I have been home for two.

I am finding myself homesick and in that feeling I am back in harsh grief. I miss Kevin. I miss him with a visceral longing and I am sitting here with tears on my cheeks, for all that part of this trip is to visit my new love, a man who is able to accept all of these contradictory parts of me more easily than I can. It is hard to hold the new love along with the old and in this moment it just hurts.

I know this feeling will ease. That's part of what has gotten me through the worst of the grief, whether it was in the days immediately following his death or in the past few weeks. The body can't hold these feelings for too long and soon enough I will be back to a place where I can function. In this moment? All I know is that I hurt. I miss him. I am grieving. 

By the time you read this I will be okay. I will be back at a point of some kind of equilibrium. I am constantly reminded that grief is not linear and, even in the best of moments, there is still the longing for and memory of the one who has died. 

Our lives are a compendium of everything that has happened to us and grief is no less a part of this than love, hope, failure and success. I remind myself that no part of this journey is simple and, if I find myself back in a place of acute pain it is no less permissible and honorable than any other feeling. I would rather let myself live fully, feel fully, even if right now I am back in the place of raw wounds.

The geography of grief isn't regular. It's neither a flat plain nor uninterrupted jagged peaks. Really, there are no detours, only the ongoing twisty road with switchbacks, overpasses and always, if you look, a noteworthy view.

(c) 2015 Laura Packer
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