Friday, December 30, 2016

The observer effect

I’ve been thinking about the observer effect lately, about how the act of observation changes things. I wrote earlier this week about how storytellers and other artists are also observers and recorders, which can make a difference in a dangerous world, but now I'm thinking about it on a more personal level. The observer effect has certainly been powerful for me; I am an observer, a keek, and I’m aware that being observed changes what I do, how I behave and how I respond. I think this is true for most of us, but it feels especially active in my life, as a performer and writer. My own observation of the world and of myself have changed who I am, how I understand the world and my place in it.

I started this blog in 2007 in conjunction with my first NaNoWriMo. I loved that experience of daily writing and wanted to continue developing better writing habits, but knew I wasn’t likely to do so without some kind of audience, some kind of observer effect. So I began to blog. I wrote in a blog hoping others might read what I was writing, so I would write more. I had no idea how important that decision would be. I thought I was just writing.

At first, this blog was an ongoing series of ruminations about the world, but I quickly began to write more specifically about storytelling. By having an assumed audience of readers I had someone I could muse to about storytelling and so began to develop more complex and evolved ideas about the role of storytelling in the world. I wouldn’t have done that without you, the readers, without the observer effect. It has been very important to me to find a way to delve into the deeper meaning of the art that defines my life. Being observed meant that I had to express my thoughts more clearly than I might have otherwise. Thank you.

As you know, in January of 2014 this blog became a companion piece to Kevin’s caringbridge site, a place where I could express some of my own feelings in the midst of his treatment for pancreatic cancer. Once he died this blog became a place where I could think aloud about my grief, where I knew I was not alone.

There are many things that can be said about public grieving. There are many things I could say about my public grieving. I’ve had people tell me I overshare, that I shouldn’t say such things, that I am making a spectacle of myself, that I will chase away my new love by writing about the old. My response is that it’s my choice, that we each have different needs when we grieve, no one is forced to read this blog anyway and he repeatedly assures me that this is not the case. I’ve also been told that the things I write express what the reader thought was inexpressible, that I have given voice to those who have lost their most precious person in the world. As I’ve begun to rebuild (I don’t think of it as healing or moving on, I am someone so different now) I’ve thought aloud about that process, too. Again, I’ve been told it’s too much and I’ve been told that I’ve given hope in the midst of despair. And none of it would have happened without the observer effect because I wouldn't have written in the first place.

All of this has occurred without any specific intention. Much of my grief has been deeply private, moments you will never see and experiences I don’t want to share. The public part of my grief started as a way to give voice to the unbearable and has continued as a way to understand the world I now live in. Every time someone responded to one of my grief posts I knew I was less alone. That helped immeasurably.

More times that I can count this blog and you, the readers, have saved my life. Thank you. I never expected that when I began it way back when. In the midst of the most difficult thing I have ever experienced, being observed meant I chose to continue.

Now, 9 years and some 796 entries later (which means very roughly 70,000 words) I find myself here. I am maintaining two blogs (this one and my organizational storytelling blog) which means three entries a week, and occasional posts in my food blog. I am forced to have good writing habits to maintain this level of content. I rarely have more than 150 readers for a given post, which is very few in the blogosphere, but I continue.

I continue because the observer effect has made me a better writer. Knowing someone will read what I write makes me take more time, put more thought into it and craft it more than I might otherwise. The observer effect means I know I’m not alone. At least a few people read each post, even if it may not be as many as I might like. Knowing that I have shared my thoughts with someone has kept me going through some very dark nights. The observer effect has made me a better person. It means that just maybe something I’ve said has helped someone. And that’s the best part of all.

This is the last 2016 post in True Stories, Honest Lies; I’m considering what I want to do with this blog in the coming years. I hope to have more readers. More than that, I hope to continue this experiment with the power of an observed life, written.

I’d love to know about the observer effect in your own life and, more than that, I need to thank you. Your presence on this journey, even if you just stopped by once, has changed me. You’ve made me a better writer, a clearer thinker, and you’ve kept me going through tough times.

You never know what kind of impact you’ll have on someone. I hope some of what I’ve written has helped you. Thank you for keeping an eye on me, and I look forward to continuing to observe the world with you in the coming year.


(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Telling Life: Witness

This is the last storytelling post in this blog for 2016. As I was thinking about what I wanted to say here I kept coming back to the deep cultural role of storytellers, poets, musicians, writers and artists of all stripes. It's easy to think we can dismiss the arts in this era of easy entertainment and reality tv, but we still matter, maybe more than ever. When an authoritarian regime seizes power anywhere in the world, we are among those silenced first, and who can blame them? We are the ones who mobilize others. A well-told story will more effectively move people to action than will an order. We are catalysts.

Artists in general (and storytellers in particular) help societies remember where they came from and where they want to go. Our stories remind individuals of the ways we are connected, of how we prevailed in other trying times and that dragons can be defeated.

Just as importantly, we are witnesses. When the storytellers, poets, musicians, writers and artists of all stripes are blinded or turn away, history in the making can be more easily rewritten into dubious facts. Do not be blinded. Keep watching, recording and telling the stories of what you see, be it a small act of kindness or a moment of deceit.

Listening and observing are the building blocks of any effective art - we must understand the world within which we create and we must tell the stories we see - so many artists notice more than others might. We keep our eyes open. What we observe, we record. When we record we are inspired to create and in sharing those creations we keep hope alive. We are not powerless and we are not alone.

The world needs you. It needs your art, your observations, your voice. Be a witness. Tell your stories, whether broad and global or intimate and personal. Your stories help us remember that all of our voices matter.

I will be a witness and a voice moving forward. Join me.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
- G.K. Chesterton by way of Neil Gaiman

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 23, 2016

Charting territory

Whee! Splat. That's how I'm feeling these days. Elated then flattened. This isn't surprising, Kevin loved Christmas, so this time of year holds many wonderful memories. He was quite sick by Christmas and was diagnosed shortly into the new year, so this time of year holds many painful memories as well. I never know what to expect. I am driving without a map or GPS.

This is my third Christmas without Kevin. Even now, almost three years on, I can't really predict how I'll feel at any given time. Certainly there are times when it's pretty likely I'll feel okay or feel cruddy, but even then I surprise myself.

That's part of what grief is, what it becomes as you walk further out from the loss and further into the strange new land of life-after-death. Even as you begin to map it, to recognize the familiar landmarks, you will be surprised. I don't know if it ever becomes truly familiar territory. Maybe that's what life is all along, the unknown map, loss or not, but I am more aware of it now.

Here there be monsters, the unexpected hydra of grief rises up at the sight of a loved, familiar face or an overheard song. I cut off its head only to have more grow.

X marks the spot, the unexpected treasures that are revealed by a shared story, a shimmering memory I thought I'd forgotten.

I've written before about life as cartography. The older I grow and the more I consider the New World, this post-loss life, the more I realize there is no one map, there are many and they change all the time. All we really have is each other, reaching out from our isolation and guiding one another along the routes we know, holding up a light so that we all may see. We reach out to help each other across the unfathomable crevasses and hold on tight, hand-to-hard.

I miss you, Kevin. Thank you for being my guide for all of these years. And thanks to all of you who are walking the wilds with me.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Telling Life: Solstice stories and the long dark

Today is the winter solstice, that time when the Northern hemisphere experiences the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Our shadows stretch out before us like spider-limbed adventurers and we shiver during the brief light and long night as we wait for the dawn. In the darkness we can gaze up at the night sky and search for our own shimmer in the sea of stars; we require the dark to see the vastness and the beauty that surrounds us.

I love this time of year. I struggle with it as well, because the external dark leads me into my own darkness, but the deep quiet and long-lasting starry skies give me a chance to think, to dream, to ask myself honest questions and to find new stories that the light might have chased away. This time of year draws me closer to the ones I love as we huddle around whatever may pass for a fire and keep each other company so we don't feel alone in the dark. Recent studies suggest that language and human culture likely evolved in large part around the communal fire, that we went from communicating the technical details of how to stay alive to the deeper and more connecting material of stories and shared thought, the building blocks of culture and community, around that fire as we waited for a meal to cook and for the night to pass. As I look more deeply within myself, the dark and the fire remind me that I am not alone.

For as long as I've been living independently, I rise at dawn on the winter solstice (no hardship, dawn is late) and light a 24-hour candle to burn through the brief day and lengthy night, so the sun will find her way back in the morning. I write, often telling myself stories of my own darkness and survival. I tell others stories of light in the darkness so we may be reminded that we need both, and that even in the dark all is not lost. I consider how we must know our shadow to know ourselves. I watch the sunset and eventually find my way to sleep, where I try to take note of my dreams. Rhiannon is said to visit us on winter solstice night and gift those who can remember with prophetic dreams. I don't always remember nor do they always make sense, but I try.

Tomorrow I will wake up and thank the sun for returning. I will thank my little candle for her hard work of keeping light in the world. And I will return to my normal life, perhaps a little richer for the time spent considering the dark.

One last thing, a story of light in the darkness so you will remember you aren't alone, a story I can share with you so we are reminded of dark and light. May your solstice bring you stories, the treasures of the dark and the light, and may your own self be more deeply known.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 16, 2016

The best we can

I was visiting with a friend recently. Her husband died not too long ago and she was planning his memorial. She asked me to help, knowing I had to do the same for Kevin. She wanted to keep it small so we were talking about whom she might invite.

"What about so-and-so?" I asked.
"No, I don't want her there," she replied with real vitriol. I was surprised, last I knew they had been close.
"Why not? What happened?"
"When my husband was sick she never called to see how he was doing. Alright, she called a few times but not very often. And then when I posted on Facebook that he had died she liked the post. She didn't tell me she was sorry."

I didn't know what to say. I know the friend to be a considerate person so I was sure she had done the best she could, that she probably was at a loss for what to say or do. This seemed like a small thing to provoke such anger. Then I remembered how crazy I was when Kevin was sick and shortly after his death. The small things that cut me, things that now I wouldn't even notice or could at least laugh off.

I kept my mouth shut and we continued planning.

As I've thought about it since I am reminded of one of my life's truths, one that is easy to forget.
We all are doing the best we can, most of the time anyway.

My friend was so raw, in so much pain, that everything was magnified. I remember feeling that way. I remember being racked with guilt because I chose to spend a night at home instead of in the hospital with him, even though I desperately needed the rest. I remember seeing snuggly couples and being enraged that they held hands in my sight, because I was never going to be able to hold Kevin's hand again. I remember trying desperately to control everything I could because the thing I most cared about in the world was entirely out of my control. I remember being that raw and in that much pain. Everything hurt and I was hungry for some way to direct it. I did the best I could to be sane but I know I wasn't, just as my friend has been doing.

And I remember being that person (though not as much in recent years) who didn't know what to do, so did nothing by default. It wasn't that I didn't care, I wasn't concerned and wishing I could help, but that I felt unable to do anything constructive, so I figured they would ask if they needed anything, and I was silent. Now I know, of course, that reaching out and admiting my concern and inability would have been far better, but at the time, withdrawing seemed like the best thing to do. I did the best I could, just as my friend's friend did.

When Kevin was diagosed and later died I was acutely aware of people struggling with how to help. Some people disappeared, reappearing later when it seemed as though I was through the worst. I assume they were frightened and didn't know what to do. It helped me to remember that I have been frightened and unsure, too. Others were present and giving. Sometimes this was enough. Other times I just wanted to scream at them. They did the best they could and were loving enough to forgive me when I snapped. They were doing the best they could. I did the best I could, too.

It's certainly not always enough, not always the right thing, but I think most of the time most of us do the best we can. We often just don't know what to do and we are afraid. If someone you care about is having a rough time, letting them know you are there even if you don't know what to do might mean the world to them. And if you are the one in pain, when you come back to yourself try to remember that those around you did the best they could, even if it wasn't enough.

As we move through the end of this year and into the next, I hope we can remember that we are each trying as hard as we can. We are trying to be kind, compassionate, present, aware; we will succeed and fail every day. All we can do is try again and recognize the effort when we see it.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Telling Life: Creating set lists

December is an interesting month in this storyteller's life. Each year I am fortunate enough to be hired to tell "Christmas stories" and each year I have a moment or two of panic, thinking I don't know any Christmas stories! I do, of course, but I need to review and consider which stories I love, which I find trite, and which will work for a given audience. It is an ongoing exercise in creating an appropriate set list.

A few days ago I had a lovely gig telling Christmas stories for older adults. As I considered what to tell them I had to make my way along a fairly narrow path.

  • Stories appropriate for adults. 
  • Stories that honor the spirit of Christmas, even though I'm not Christian. 
  • Stories that won't make them uncomfortable and I knew this was a relatively conservative audience. 
  • Stories that will evoke their past and honor their present.
  • Stories they might not know. 
  • Stories I enjoy telling.

I pulled stories out of my repertoire and realized there were some holes. Because I was doing this work far enough in advance (thank goodness!) I had time to learn a few new short stories and add them into the set. At least one of those stories will likely become a permanent part of my repertoire (a story rarely becomes part of my permanent repertoire until I've told it several times).

I go through a similar process for most gigs. I realize this may seem time consuming, but it feels important to me. I do have set lists that generally don't change from performance to performance (Christmas story gigs, for example, are generally pulled from a set list that varies only slightly) but I want to make sure I am honoring this particular audience and doing my best to give them what they need based on who I understand them to be, every single time. Reviewing set lists also gives me a chance to find holes in my repertoire and add to it, as I did with this recent gig. From time to time I will wait until I'm in front of the audience before deciding what to tell, but that has become less frequent as I've become more confident in my abilities to tell the right stories most of the time.

I keep track of my set lists in the same program I use to track gigs, so I know I won't duplicate a set if I'm invited back by the same group. This is part of why I consider what stories to tell before every gig, I want to make sure I give them something new.

How do you select stories for a given gig? Do you have consistent set lists that don't really change or do you create new ones each time? Do you know what you're doing to tell before you get up on the stage or do you let the wind blow you where it will? I'd love to know!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 9, 2016

Sometimes things just suck

Oh, I am in a mood.

Looked at objectively, things aren't bad. I have work I love that pays my bills, most of the time anyway. I am in a relationship with a sweet, smart man who loves me more than I often think I deserve. I have family and friends who care about me. I am generally healthy, my needs are met and I really don't have anything to complain about.

Not that this will stop me. Does it every really stop anyone?

I miss Kevin ferociously. The loss is tearing at me. All I want to do is curl up, watch tv, eat. I am numbing myself in any way I reasonably can. Part of this is the uncertain future, some because we are in the dark time of the year and I've always had a touch of seasonal affective stuff, but more of it is that it is the holiday season and Kevin is gone.

This mood is manifesting in some interesting ways. I have a stronger flinch response than usual. I feel terribly needy, craving assurance at every turn. I'm incredibly tired despite sleeping more than enough. I'm clumsy and find I need to be much more mindful of where I am physically. I'm having some truly epic nightmares. Each of these symptoms tells me that I'm grieving more actively than usual, even though they are different from symptoms I've experienced before. I know it comes in waves and I know this will pass. Right now it just feels crummy.

I've been hesitant to give voice to this because I'm tired of listening to myself whine. Part of me has bought the idea that I should be okay, that I should be able to handle this myself. None of that is true. At the best of times we need support and help, humans don't thrive in vacuums. During harder times we need the support even more, but that can be when it's hardest to ask.

I think I've also been hesitant to name these feelings because that makes it more real. It also means that I will have to contend with some well-meaning but poorly executed support. Someone told me yesterday to cheer up because it was Christmas and no one should be sad at Christmas time, it's Christ's birthday! I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. I thought a lot of things; you don't know me or what's going on, I'm Jewish, politics... I said nothing. I kept my mouth shut and reminded myself that she was well-intended.

So what helps when I feel this way? Naming it. Owning it. Saying to myself and the world that yes, my life is rich and yes, right now things suck, that helps. Asking for a bit of latitude helps. Reminding myself that I am not alone helps.

I have been rereading some of my writing over the last almost three years (that alone is a spear in my side) and that helps too. Reminding myself that I have survived this far. Reminding myself that these feelings come in wave and the only way out is through. Reminding myself that Kevin was and is in my heart. Reminding myself that, above all, I am so lucky to have loved and been loved so well.

With this in mind, I can truly remember that things aren't that bad even if they feel awful in this moment. I have work and love and family and health. This sorrow is the price I willingly pay for the radiant love I have experienced and am experiencing.

May all of our holidays show us the light in the darkness, even when the dark threatens to overwhelm us.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Telling Life: Finding the holiday spirit

I know people who love this time of year. The day after Thanksgiving, or maybe even before, they are decorating, planning, wearing brightly colored sweaters and more. Whether Christmas is a religious or secular event, they are thrilled that it's the holiday season.

I am not one of these people. Please don't think I'm a Scrooge, bah-humbugging everyone's fun, but Christmas isn't that big a deal to me. When I was a child I loved Santa, the tree, and the gifts. As I grew older I loved (and still love) finding gifts for those I cherish, but I became more aware of the complexities of Christmas. For one I'm not Christian, so the season sometimes feels a bit oppressive. For another it was often a time of family stress. Christmas began to be associated with careful navigation through hazardous waters and an increasing frustration with commercialism.

As an adult I finally found some Christmas spirit through rituals Kevin and I developed. We hosted a big open house every year. I loved and still love filling the kids' (now adults) stockings. I enjoyed the ritual of finding and cutting down a tree. None of it really felt like mine, but it was a fun thing to be a part of and a great opportunity to show people that I love them.

Then Kevin got sick. By this time in 2013 we knew something was seriously wrong but we didn't know how bad it was. Christmas now hold memories of the last weeks we had together before his diagnosis. Since his death, my stepkids and I have developed some wonderful new rituals, but it still feels a little strange for all that it is also loving and warm.

I know just how lucky I am because I know what I have lost. Christmas is now a mixture of love and sorrow.

So how do I navigate this time of year? How do I find holiday spirit so I at least won't be a drag for those who love Christmas beyond all else? This year I'm looking for the stories. I'm reminding myself of all the good times, all of the love and light and laughter. This is, of course, what we do at the holidays. We tell each other stories, the same ones we've been telling for years. They are part of the holiday ritual now.

My holiday stories are about spilled wine, unsteady menorahs, finding the right tree, baking bread, playlists, welcomed strangers, losing electricity, merged traditions, teaching the kids to gamble by playing dreidl, sledding miracles and more. For you the stories may be about a child being born, shelter from the cold, family and friends and sweaters that just didn't fit. I don't know yours and you don't know mine, but I do know these stories are lights in the darkness. They are stories of hope and love and faith in something when the world is cold and unwelcoming.

Keep telling your stories. Keep listening. They are our guideposts to find a deeper kind of holiday spirit than anything you can buy in a store.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 2, 2016


Image courtesy of wikimedia
I sometimes think about the events in my life as a series of lenses. First I had the lens of childhood, when I was protected and relatively innocent. I saw the world as my playground, a safe place. Then I added on the lenses of school and my growing understanding that others had lenses too, and that theirs were as valid as mine (hard as that is to believe sometimes). From there came lenses that included my political beliefs, ways of interacting with people based on my experience and so on. Some lenses stuck, others were dropped or altered. They accumulated, each one altering how I could see, making things bigger or smaller, sharper or blurred.

I found that those lenses altered how I see the world. You know how it is, you wear glasses for long enough and your eyes change to adapt to them. When you take the glasses off the world seems more unclear than ever.

I never expected the tinted lens of loss, the dimming lens of acute grief and the permanent alteration those lenses have caused in my sight. Once those were installed I never expected the lens of hope or love to return to clear my view. But they have.

If you've never worn these particular lenses, don't worry, you will. And you can choose now and again to try them on. It's important to see the world through others' eyes. I'll loan you mine if you let me look through yours.

We are all products of our experience. Those of us who have experienced significant loss and grief will never see the world without that tinge, but we learn to adapt. We learn to see the beauty of the world through these lenses because we see with more clarity. The sparkle of light on the water is more precious than ever, because we know our lost ones saw it too. It is more joyful than before because it contains all the love we felt for them and the joy we feel when we share it with someone new. It may be blurred now, tears creating their own lens across our eyes, but the aggregate view, lens upon lens upon lens, is one that allows us to see the world with more compassion, more gentleness, more ability to see the preciousness in each moment. All of this depends on our willingness to look through these lenses and not deny them, but oh, the world is still there. Beautiful and painful and sparkling.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Stories for changing times

I originally posted the following story in my other blog, thinkstory. This is a modified post but the same story.

As I was pondering what to write today it occured to me that we need stories now more than ever, we need to look back to the old wisdom to remind ourselves that our problems now are not that much different than what they have been. Sure, I know modern media and technology has a huge impact, but humans are still driven by basically the same things.

What follows is a story we could consider now, when we are living in highly divided times. It serves as a reminder that perspective is everything. I hope you find it useful.

A few weeks ago I posted the story of the Two Wolves. Many of you liked it, so I'm going to start posting traditional stories that have modern applications at the end of each month. If nothing else, these stories remind us that the issues we face now are basic human issues, and things we have been struggling with for a long time.

The blind men and the elephant originated in India. Many different versions exist, which seems somehow fitting. I have found this story useful when dealing with multiple points of view, people who are convinced they are more right than anyone else in the room.

Once upon a time there were six blind men who lived in the same village. They worked together and helped each other as best as they could. 

On the day that this story takes place they were told an elephant was in the village center. They had no idea what an elephant was, so they decided to go meet it. They each could touch it and learn something about it.

They gathered around the animal and gently reached out their hands. 

The first touched the elephant’s leg. “An elephant is like a pillar,” he declared. 

"Oh, no! It is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.

“Fool! It is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk.

“Idiot! It is like a banana leaf,” said the fourth man who touched the ear.

“Are you mad? It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the flank.

“You are all wrong. It is like a solid pipe," said the sixth man who touched the tusk.

They began to argue and then fight about the nature of the elephant and each one insisted that he was right. 

A wise man nearby saw what was happening. He asked, "What is the matter?" They replied, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them shared their definition of the elephant. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one touched a different part of the elephant. The elephant has all those features. It is strong like a pillar, thin like a rope, thick like a branch, flat like a leaf, huge like a wall and solid like a pipe.”

The blind men each reached out and felt the elephant again (it was a very patient elephant) and understood that they all were right. An elephant, like so many things, can appear to be different depending on how you approach it. 

I'm sure you can find applications for this story in both your work and home lives. I'd love to hear how you might use it!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 25, 2016

Repost: Tips for the holidays

This post was originally published just about a year ago, but it still holds true. The holidays can be difficult for everyone and especially so for those who are mourning a loss. Whether you are just months out, years or decades, the holidays trigger memories of our loved ones who are no longer here and make the absence feel more acute. What follows are some thoughts about how to help ourselves and others who may be grieving as we move through the holiday season. Or really at any time.

Be kind to yourselves. We are all doing the best we can.

Laura, November 2016

What follows was originally published in November of 2015. It has been slightly modified. Copyright Laura S. Packer

I've written before about the struggle of the bereaved during the holidays. I wanted to take a moment and remind everyone that this time of year is tough. There are so many memories and expectations. We remember the things we did with those we loved, the rituals we will never engage in again because the key person is dead. We are surrounded by imagery of and pressure to have the best holiday ever, even when what we really want is to curl up and be left alone.

Here are some quick tips to keep in mind if you are grieving or care for someone who has experienced a loss. These are, of course, from my point of view, but I hope it will be helpful.
  1. Recognize the pain. If I recognize my own pain, instead of trying to bury it, then it becomes easier to bear and something I can share with others who care about me. When my pain is recognized I feel as though my experience is legitimate. 
  2. Recognize the joy. It's okay to celebrate and feel grateful, happy or joyful. Our loved ones would want us to cherish the holidays and our lives just as we cherish their memories.
  3. Don't try to cheer me up. Let me feel sad. It won't last forever and I have good reason to grieve. If my sorrow makes you feel uncomfortable that's not my problem. If you can sit with me and listen while I'm sad that may help more than anything else. 
  4. Grief is non-linear. There are no corners to turn, no bill boards that will announce GRIEF AHEAD or NO MORE GRIEF IN SIGHT. I may seem fine one moment and the next tear up. Laughter, tears, chattiness, quiet are all part of grieving because they are all part of life. If I start crying it's not your fault. It likely has nothing to do with you, it's just another wave of grief. 
  5. Don't pretend my loved one didn't exist. Let me talk about him. Bring him up yourself and see how I react. I don't want the world to forget him. 
  6. Let me have time to myself. Or not. Give me options and help me figure out what is best in this given moment.
  7. You don't know how I feel. In any given moment I might be feeling eviscerated AND grateful that I had the time I did with him AND happy to be with you. It's complicated. Instead of assuming, ask. Each loss is different and we all need be honored in our own grief.
  8. Help me take care of myself. Please don't nag because I'm eating another piece of pie. Instead offer to go for a walk with me. Let me take care of myself as best as I can.
  9. And if I'm seeming okay, let me be okay. If I'm laughing and smiling it doesn't mean I'm all better, it means I feel okay in this moment. Isn't that great? It doesn't mean I grieve him any less, it means I am figuring out how to live in the afterlife.
This is by no means comprehensive. It's what I'm thinking of off the top of my head. What helps you through the holiday season? I'd love to know.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Telling Life: The storyteller gives thanks

I try to practice gratitude every day. I've written about it here before but, even with it being part of my daily life, it isn't always easy. I get distracted by the same things we all get distracted by - money and politics and petty jealousies and so on. I'm sure you experience many of the same distractions I do. Yet when I remember to be mindful about gratitude, whether it's writing lists or making sure that I thank people  or something else - it changes my outlook.

This has actually been studied and we know that being consciously grateful can change our brains for the better. When we practice gratitude regularly it can decrease depression and anxiety, increase our levels of dopamine (this hormone rewards the brain and helps us move towards rewards) and the effects appear to be lasting. If this sounds surprisingly like the neurological effects of storytelling you wouldn't be wrong. Maybe when we practice gratitude regularly we are telling ourselves stories about the possibility of a better world which helps us move to make that world a reality. I don't know, but it seems like a nice idea.

In the spirit of the season and because I believe it's important every day, here are eleven things this storyteller is grateful for, specifically related to storytelling and its impact on my life.

  1. I am grateful for the sense of connection I feel when I tell or listen to stories. 
  2. I am grateful for the opportunity to tell at all. I would do so even were I not paid for it, but how fortunate I am that I can make my living this way. 
  3. I am grateful for every single person who has taken the time to listen to me.
  4. I am grateful for every single person who has hired me.
  5. I am grateful for artists of every stripe who have shared their work, so I may be inspired, intrigued, frustrated and moved. 
  6. I am grateful for those who have taken my workshops and believed I had something useful to say.
  7. I am grateful for those who trust me to coach them, what an honor!
  8. I am grateful for the stories themselves, that help me understand myself and the world more deeply.
  9. I am grateful to my teachers, those who have inspired me and believed in me, including my parents, my step-kids, Brother Blue, Ruth, Kevin, Charley and many, many more. If your name is not here please don't be hurt. I am grateful to you.
  10. I am grateful for the overheard moments, the books, the poems, the movement of the trees, the tastes, the everything that has inspired me to create.
  11. I am grateful for you, the listeners and readers, the people whose interest in what I have to say gives me the belief that maybe I have something worthwhile to say after all. Thank you. I could not do this without you. You have, quite literally, saved my life at times.
I fear this list may seem trite, or that I've overlooked something or someone terribly important, but it's a start. It's interesting to me, limiting this list to the impact of storytelling; there are many more things I am grateful for in general, but it was fun thinking storytelling specifically. What are you grateful for? What or who would you like to thank? I'd love to know. Let us give thanks, together. 

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 18, 2016

Repost: Letting the light in

I posted this just about a year ago. It still stands. In some ways it is even more relevant. I'm reposting it unedited, because it represents a certain moment in time as well as this moment in time. It's kind of a wormhole for me, helping me remember who I was, who I am, and suggesting who I may become. It also seems fitting since it references the late, great Leonard Cohen, who knew a thing or two about grief and light.

I hope your Thanksgiving is full of gratitude, kindness and sweet memories.

I am swamped with memories as we move into the holiday season. This is the time of year in 2013 when Kevin and I knew he was sick but we didn't yet know how sick. I am hit with waves of grief more frequently these days, which stand in stark contrast to the richness of my life, even without him.

I've been thinking about how I have managed over the last almost 20 months, and I've realized there has been a pattern slowly emerging. I don't know if this will help anyone else. I do know it helps me.

Last week I wrote about inhabiting my grief. Early on I made a conscious decision (one in keeping with how I've lived much of my life) to let myself feel whatever I needed to. If I was feeling sad I let myself feel sad. If I was feeling null, then null it was. My grief counsellor observed several months ago that this was a really wise thing to do. By not denying the depth of my pain I was able to process it. I did whatever I needed to get through and this meant that I wasn't bottling anything up. I knew what I was feeling and why. I was present with it.

This week I want to talk about letting the light in.

About three weeks after Kevin died I was talking with a friend and she said something funny. I laughed. And I immediately threw my hands over my mouth, stopping myself. How could I laugh if he was gone? My friend, very lovingly, put a hand on my shoulder and said, "You're allowed to laugh. He would want you to laugh." I, of course, burst into tears. But it was the first crack of light I had seen in a long time.

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

I began to see more cracks, slim shards of light that illuminated my grief. Smiling at a child. Noticing the quality of the afternoon light in my living room. Remembering Kevin when he was happy, not just sick. With each of these moments I felt such a sense of betrayal. How could I see any light in a world where the sun had gone out? It didn't make any sense that there was any light at all.

It took time, but I began to accept these moments of light. I began to realize that my friend was right, there was no way Kevin would want me to grieve forever. If I was to fully inhabit my grief then I also needed to give myself permission to accept the moments of light.

It was incredibly difficult, but I began to notice mindfully the times when the grief lifted a bit. In time I began to cultivate those moments. Eventually I found there was more light than darkness and that Kevin was as present the light at least as easily as he was present in the dark. Choosing to let the light in didn't mean I loved him any less or would forget him. It still doesn't.

I will never stop grieving Kevin. I am certain that, no matter the joy and love in my life, there will be times when I feel his loss like a knife to the gut, especially this time of year. But Kevin was composed of light. He walked into a room and it lit up. His smile could have powered a small town.

If I deny the light I deny his light, too. I deny the possibility he represented and the possibility that still exists in the world; the possibility of love, hope, continuation. I am not denying the dark, I know it too well to pretend it isn't there and doesn't lurk near me, but I will not deny the light either.

When Kevin was dying, we sang to him. One of his favorites as well as mine, was This Little Light of Mine. He and I sang it together at night when the cancer had all but stolen his voice. It was light in the darkness. We sang it to close his memorial service, voices rising together to celebrate him. I cannot hear it or sing it without crying (I am crying as I write these words) yet I sing it still.

We are all composed of light. It may seem like a betrayal, but if we let the light in when things are at their darkest we might remember to take the next breath, and the next, and the next. We breathe for those who are no longer able. We carry their light with us.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer (c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Two wolves: What do you feed?

Revised version of a post from earlier this week on

I posted last week, prior to the election, about listening in a political season. Essentially I was reminding you that we all need to be better listeners and this deeply divisive election perhaps reflected the deep listening deficit in our culture.

Now that the election has passed I am certain of it. Our culture is fractured and this will be reflected in every relationship and organization in the country. Even if everyone you know, everyone in your communities and work voted the same way and has the same feelings about the election, the national divides will have an impact (that may be the understatement of the year). There is a great deal I could say here about politics and fear and empathy or the lack thereof - I have said some of it elsewhere in this blog - but here I'd like to take a moment to tell you a story.

This story is attributed to the Cherokee people, though no one is sure of its origin.

One evening an old man looked at his grandson. He could see the boy was growing up, was beginning to compare himself to others and hunger for things that he has never wanted before. 

He told his grandson this story.

He said, “My son, there are two wolves that live inside of me. They live inside of you, too. One is evil. It is full of anger and jealousy, sorrow and regret, greed and arrogance. It is every darkness and unkindness. The other is good. It is compassion and joy, love and hope, kindness and empathy. It is every light and moment of connection. They are both fierce and powerful, and they are fighting.”

The old man was silent and watched his grandson consider the wolves. The boy thought, then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old man replied, “The one you feed.”

I tell you this story now, when we will experience stress and division made visible post election, because we need to remember that what we feed, thrives. How can you help your community feel listened to, especially those who fear they may be about to lose their voice? What kind of listening do you need? What about those who just voted very loudly? How do we create safety for all of our friends, our families, our communities and ourselves? What stories do we need now, in a rapidly changing world?

Please let me know if I can help.

(c) 2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 11, 2016

Grief and action

Preface: This post comes from a particular political point of view. If you don't share it then I invite you to remember a time when you felt lost and disenfranchised. A time when you grieved and then acted.


Well, that was some election, wasn't it.

We all live in bubbles. You would think with the increasing role of technology and social media in our lives, we would have broader perspectives, but many of us don't. I certainly fall into this category though I'd rather believe not.

Right now, many of us are in a state of shock over the election. I've heard over and over in the last 48 hours, how could that happen? We didn't expect it because we live in bubbles. And now many of us are in a state of deep grief.

We are grieving. That feeling in the pit of your stomach, that hole that feels like it will never be filled? Yeah, that's grief. I'm aware that my posture is the same as it was in the weeks following Kevin's death. This grief is legitimate, it's a shock to the system, it's a realization that the world is not what we thought it was because we live in bubbles. All of this is normal and human.

I'm not interested in the political conversation here, I'm doing that elsewhere and loudly. I am organizing and building and working and will continue to do so. What interests me in this post, is how we can work through this grief towards action. For some of us, this will be a very difficult four years. I will lose my health insurance and I'm one of the lucky ones. People I care about will have their marriages challenged. Other people will likely be killed in hate crimes. The environment will be devastated (I will miss polar bears). I could list more but it's stuff we all know.

We need to find our way out of the bubble so maybe we hear some of those who screamed so loudly we got Trump, hear them enough tha tthey no longer feel isolated and can realize he is a danger not a savior, so the other becomes us.

We need some time to grieve. Grief can consume you. We can choose to wear black and cry for the rest of our lives, we can allow our rights to be stripped away, we can be propeled into climate disaster and war, or we can be like the people who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving and use our grief to fuel action.

Be sad. Fight like hell. Listen to others and find a way through. Grief can fuel powerful things.

p.s. If you're interested I've written about grief and the election elsewhere, here and here.  

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Breathing when there is no air

It is the morning after the 2016 presidential election.

I'm not sure what to say. One story won. Another one lost. There are so many things I could say, about the power of story, about using story as a tool for building bridges and understanding, about listening, on and on and on. You know I can go on and on and on but this morning it feels too trivial. Too many people I love are going to be damaged by what is coming.

I initially titled this post When the story isn't yours. That's how I feel this morning, but I also realize that millions of people have felt that way for the last eight years (or longer). There are so many things I could say about that. About bridges and understanding and listening. But I won't. It feels ineffective, for all that I know in my heart of hearts that it is the right path. Too many people I love are going to be damaged by what is coming.

For today, for right now, I will breathe as best as I can. What else can I do? I invite you to do the same. Breath is the storyteller's instrument, it is what powers us and is sacred. It is life. So breathe. If your story won last night then I'd ask you to take a breath before telling those whose story didn't win that they are losers, then work like hell to make the world a better place. You have the power. If your story lost then take a breath before coloring all the winners hateful and the same, then work like hell to make the world a better place. You have the power.

I am not saying we can stay still. I am saying we can work and fight for what we believe in, breathing deeply the whole time. Too many people I love are going to be damaged by what is coming for me to stay still.

The amazing thing about stories is that we each get to tell our own. The amazing thing about stories is that when we listen to others we sometimes discover new worlds and new common ground. I can't believe that this is the end of our story. I won't.

Have your coffee. Take a breath then another. Grieve or celebrate. Be kind where you can be kind. Speak out when you can. And let's get to work.

p.s. I know some of you are, quite rightfully, looking at this as a load of bull. Bad things can, do and will happen. Listening doesn't stop someone from beating you because of what you look like or who you love. But I have to start somewhere. We all do. This is what I know how to do. That and work like hell for what I believe in.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 4, 2016

Fear, grief and elections

I want to write about something else. I want to write about anything else, but I can't. The presidential election is next week and I am having trouble thinking about unrelated things.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time then you likely have a good sense of my political leanings. I expect you and I have some similar feelings regardless of who we each are voting for. We're hopeful. We are afraid of the consequences if our opponent wins. If you lost someone you love you likely have thought something like Well, at least they don't have to see this, then gulping back tears and horror that you thought such a thing.

I never thought I would find a political season so triggering, but I am. I am actively afraid of what happens if my candidate loses and the fear makes me yearn for the safety of living with my partner. I find myself, for the first time, feeling unsafe because I live alone.

I think about the conversations Kevin and I would be having, the fears we each would name and those we would conceal to protect the other. I think about how he and I had our particular lenses through which we view politics - he was a black man and a Christian, I am a white woman and Jewish with some other leanings. We each focused on different issues but we generally selected the same candidates. I'm sure we would have this year.

I think about how he and I would comfort each other when we became afraid, saying No matter what happens we will make it through together. I suppose we did make it through together, though with very different destinations.

I think about my father and the loathing he expressed for one of the candidates, long before they ever sought political office. Frankly, when I think I'm so glad he doesn't have to see this I'm thinking mostly of my father. This election alone would have been enough to break his heart.

Political grief hides itself in legislation and decisions made for the wrong reasons, as punishment or payback. I pray our elected officials remember that they are representing all of us, that they remember loss and grief need not lead to retribution. I am experiencing political grief because I am stunned that so many Americans are supporting something I know in my bones is not kind, is not honest, is not what is best about America. I am grieving my belief that we were better than this.

There are so many things I want to write here, about fear and grief and hope. Instead I will say this.

I will try to remember that everyone is voting for their own reasons, driven by hope or fear or frustration. While I may not agree, those reasons are as valid (or invalid) as mine.
I will try to remember that feeling a grain of relief that Kevin and my father aren’t here to see this madness isn’t the same as being glad they are dead.
I will pray we all remember to be kind to each other after the election as some of us will mourn a different kind of loss, that of possibility. 

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Telling Life: Remembering the dead

My #tellinglife has had some strange moments in it. There was the time I told There's Always Room for One More to the passengers in a crowded airplane. And there was the time I told for a cannibis festival. Then there was the time at the nudist camp or the jailhouse wedding or... All of these were unusual gigs, but no less wonderful for their oddity. None of them, however, eclipse the times I've told stories at memorial services.

You already know that part of why I maintain this blog is to write about the death of my husband Kevin, grief, and life after death. That's not what I'm talking about in this post. Here I am talking about the role of the storyteller in remembering those who have died. It is part of our sacred work.

It has been my privilege to be invited to several funerals, where I told stories that the decedent loved or told stories about them. Each time it has been stirring and I was deeply honored that those who remained trusted me in that careful, painful moment.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. We remember those we love by telling their stories. It makes sense to have storytellers do this, so the mourning may grieve and remember without struggling for words. Some people call it speaking for the dead (derived from a book by Orson Scott Card, but not of the book). We sometimes need to hear these stories, these truths from someone else to make them more bearable.

Many Jews believe that no one has really died as long as they are remembered; living memory means the intangibles aren't yet lost. Their laugh. Their scent. The annoying little habits. We often come to understand those we have lost and our relationships with them more through those stories than we ever could while they were still alive. Hearing those stories in another's voice might help.

None of this is to say we shouldn't tell our own stories of those who have died. What I want to stress is that it's important to tell these stories. This is how we keep the dead alive in our hearts.

We are in the dark time of year now and Halloween has just passed. Now is when we explore the hidden stories, now is the time when we remember the dead. Don't be afraid to say their names. Don't be afraid to tell their stories.

I don't know if I will be asked to speak at another memorial service. In all honesty, I hope I am. I hope I can keep the memories of the dead alive through my voice, my memory and my stories. It is sacred work and work we all must do, so it will be done for us in turn.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 28, 2016

Birthdays, love and gratitude

Yesterday was my birthday. For most of my life I have delighted in birthdays with the same gusto I had as a six year old, full of delight and eagerness to see what the year will bring and yes, a bit of ego and greed for my own day in the world. As an adult I have used my birthday as a way to reflect on the many lights in my life. I've been giddy with gratitude and perhaps the sugar in my cake.

When Kevin died all of that changed. The first birthday after his death I did my best to find gratitude but it was hard. Last year I resumed writing gratitude lists. And this year, the third after his death, I found I just didn't have it in me. I told myself it was because of work (three gigs and short deadline for another project) but really it was because it feels trite, writing a list of mostly the same things I say every year and really, who wants to read a list of 49 items anyway? Really, it's because I am having some trouble grappling with the fact that it's been this long since he took his last breath. Really, I am no longer the person who wrote lists like that. Maybe I will be again, but not this year.

None of this is to say I don't feel tremendous gratitude. I am grateful for Kevin, for his life, for the joy and struggle and sorrow, for his kids and family, for his light in the world, for his ongoing occasional presence in mine. I am grateful for so many people whom I love and love me. Cara and Stephen and Kristoff and Vered and Stan and Charley and Amy and Mary and Trish and Ruth and and and and. If I didn't name you it's only because there are too many to name individually. I am grateful for the peace my father and I found before his death. In a terrible way, I am grateful for my own widowhood because it drives me to write and allows me to be more present with my mother as she navigates her new, scarred world. I am grateful for work I love. I am grateful for the air and autumn and for you reading this far and.... I could list things forever, but I don't want to. You don't want me to, I'm sure.

Instead, let me ask you this: What are you grateful for? What limping gifts have brought you more love or peace than you ever expected them to? What scars do you cherish? What brings light into your world? I would love to know.

I'm asking because, writing this morning in the watery dawn, I need help. I am not in a painful place, but I feel adrift, so I need the reminder that I am not alone in trying to find light in the darkness. And because I am so deeply grateful for all of you accompanying me on this journey, today I find you more interesting that anything else. I'd love to know, what makes you breathless with gratitude?

With much love,

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Telling Life: The things that scare us

It's that time of year again, when the air grows crisp (at least in the Northern hemisphere) and storytellers everywhere celebrate the arrival of Halloween, when most of us have gigs aplenty. This is the season for scary stories, after all.

I love October and Halloween. When I was a child the double whammy of costumes, candy and my birthday (which falls toward the end of the month) was enough to make me giddy. Now it's the crispness in the air, the long shadows of an autumn evening, the firework leaves. And yes, my birthday still plays a part in how much I love the season.

Halloween, as you well know, is not just a celebration of kids in cute costumes and the candy industry. It's traditionally a time when the boundaries between the worlds are at their thinnest, a time when things from the other side can more easily reach through. Whether these things are to be feared or not depends on your own particular relationship with death, the afterlife and the otherworldly.

Personally, I love the suggestion that those I love who have died might be able to more easily reach out and say hello. I set out gifts and snacks for them on Halloween night (along with the candy I give to the creatures who ring my doorbell). But I can't escape the darker aspects of the season, the sense of the other that might be lurking around the corner. This time of year gives me a chance to look at what frightens me, to ask why and maybe even embrace it. If I'm to tell effective scary stories I need to be willing to look into the dark. This is part of the storyteller's job, after all, to look into the shadows and let the audience glimpse what might lie beyond, but from the safety of their seats. (There is a whole other discussion here about making sure your scary stories are appropriate to the listeners. For this piece, I'm assuming you really do want to give them a chill.)

Part of the storyteller's work is asking not only what will scare the audience, but what might scare us. This is a more focused version of our work across the board - we need to understand why a particular story calls to us as we call to the audience.

So what scares you? What kinds of stories might you tell that you find chilling and why? If you love the stories you tell and understand why you can't help but tell them more effectively. If you get a shiver from a tale you are much more likely to be able to share that with your audience.

Settle in. Dim the lights. Close your eyes and let your hackles rise as something... anything... reaches out from the dark. Reaching for you.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Fiction: The bus

This was originally published on my newsletter. If you'd like to sign up to receive more stories and storytelling tips, please go here.

Fall has arrived, with ghost, goblins and spooky stories. I love this time of year with the crisp air, the crisper apples and the swooshing fireworks of changing leaves. It’s a good time to be a storyteller because, even more than in other seasons, stories seem to find us.

I was walking home the other evening when an older man sitting on a bench called out to me. “Lady,” he said in a voice roughened by age and alcohol, “Lady, I have to tell you something.” I know an invitation to wonder when I see it, so I waited and listened. Sure, it could have been awful. It could have been crude or painful or just a bid for another drink, but I would always rather hope that there is something else possible.

“Lady, I just need to tell someone this. I was right here waiting for the bus, it’s time for me to get home, like I always do. I’d finished my drink,” he waved to a paper bag beside him, “and was hoping it would be here soon cause I had to pee. I looked down the street to see if the bus was coming. I always do that even though I know it won’t come any faster. You know how you do that? You look to see if the bus is there even though you know it's gonna be another five minutes? Anyway, there was nothing.

“I sat back down on the bench when all of a sudden there was this huge gust of wind and a big, black bus stopped in front of me. Like one of those tour buses from the 1970s, you know? I sat there looking at it when the door creaked open and a tall, thin guy in a sharp suit stepped out. I used to wear suits like that, long time ago. I couldn't see much behind him, no driver or anything, it's like there was a curtain or something even though I couldn't see one.

“He looked me up and down and asked if I wanted a ride. Now, I may be a drunk but I’m no fool. I asked him if they would let me off at my stop and he just smiled. His teeth were so white I could barely see. I shook my head no.

“He sighed, told me I didn’t know what I was missing, there were ladies on board and a fresh bottle just for me. But I wouldn’t look at him again. Tell you the truth, I wanted to. But I thought if I could wait just a moment longer I would make it. Kind of like the twelve steps but different.

“I heard the door close and there was a rush of hot air, so dry and nasty it burned my eyes, and when I looked up the bus was gone. Look, you can see the tire marks.”

He was right, I could see a skid on the road, a mark that hadn’t been there the day before.

“First thing I thought was a shoulda got on, but I figure it might stop for me again some time. Whaddya think lady, should I’ve gotten on? Think it might come back?”

I looked at him and was about to say something, no doubt something trite, but he stood up. “My bus is here. See you around.”

The city bus pulled away and I noticed he had left his bottle behind.

I don’t know. What do you think I should have said?

If you are interested in this or other stories please contact me. I’d love to tell stories with you.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 21, 2016

Counting days

In the first months after Kevin's death, I counted days. 7 days. 10. 50. 100. I graduated to counting weeks, then months. And now I am counting years. It's a bit over two-and-a-half years. It's unbelievable and yet it is.

I've read articles about how those who have lost someone they adore shouldn't count days or note anniversaries, that it's just scraping the scab off and not allowing the wound to heal. I have mixed feelings about this.
  1. I don't know that the wound will ever heal. I feel as though I am now someone so radically different, that I've become one of those trees that was struck by lightening but somehow managed to not die. It may have wanted to die. I did. But it eventually sent out another green shoot and now is essentially a different tree than it was before the strike. It had to learn to grow around the wound, cradling the damaged part and incorporating it because to lose it would mean losing the place where the new growth emerged. 
  2. I don't want to deny the important dates. His birthday. Our anniversary. Even the date of his death, which was the hardest and holiest day I have lived through. How would I want to forget any of it? Admittedly, some of those days are hard, but not all of them. On the last anniversary of his death my new love and I went for a walk. We found fossils. We talked about Kevin and remembered him. I cried and was comforted. It was a gift of a day where we celebrated the small things that go into making a life. Remembering is one of those things that we cannot escape, so I would rather embrace and incorporate it.
  3. For some it may be very important to not remember the specifics, but I don't know how not to. Every part of the year is in some way associated with Kevin and also associated with his illness. By October 2013 we knew something was wrong but didn't know what. No one thought cancer. So I remember the good days and the bad. I remember my birthday party and how happy he was to be with me. I remember his smile as I blew out the candles on the cake. And I remember how he barely ate any cake because his stomach hurt. I cannot remember the good without sometimes also remembering the hard. It's just how I am. It may be how most of us are. 
We all mourn in our own way. There is no set of rules. I don't need to count days anymore but I still feel his loss on the 28th of every month. I toast him every Friday. And that's okay. Other widowed people I know, those who lost their partners a long time ago, have told me that you never stop missing them but it becomes easy to remember the good times and not just the hard. I already have noticed this. I think of Kevin and smile far more often than I cry now.

I bear my new growth with astonishment and wonder. I cradle my scarred places tenderly and cherish the love that created the wound. I wouldn't choose differently; I would rather keep him alive in memory and word, even if it sometimes hurts. I am a different person now, forged by love and loss and being too stubborn to stop living.

And in case you were wondering, it's 937 days. 

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Telling life: Sacred breath

In just a moment I'm going to ask you to stop reading this post. I'm going to ask you to sit up a little straighter, to relax your hands in your lap, to close your eyes and to take in a slow deep breath. As you do, feel your lungs expand and contract. Feel the warmth of the air you expel, the rush of it through your nostrils or lips. Let go of the stress and tension you may have been holding. After you've done this two or three times, come back to this post. There's more I'd like to share with you.

Okay. It's time. Stop reading, close your eyes, relax and breathe. I'll wait.

Now do it again.

Welcome back. How do you feel? A little more grounded, I hope?

My mentor and friend, Brother Blue, used to start each of his storytelling sessions with a collective breath. He said it was calling the muse. It was. With that great sigh we, those assembled, became a community and blessed the room with our breath. We took that moment to allow creativity to flow through us. It gave us a sacred pause.

There is a commonly touted belief that, with each breath, we breath air shared by Julius Caesar and maybe even dinosaurs. That isn't precisely true, but the truth is even more amazing. Every breath we take, every time we inhale, we are breathing in atoms that have been here (functionally) forever. Our bodies break apart those air molecules and take what they need, then we exhale the waste. The oxygen we breath is a byproduct of life: When the planet was young there was very little oxygen, it developed thanks to photosynthetic organisms, so the oxygen we breath is life giving to life. The carbon dioxide we exhale may go on to nourish a tree that will emit oxygen and, in time, decompose to carbon that will nourish other organisms, some of which your grandchildren may eat.

Every time we speak our bodies shape our thoughts, into vibrations in our vocal cords. What is quite literally an image of the electrical activity directed in our brains is then pushed by breath and creates sound vibrations that ripple through the air and directly impacts the tympanic membranes of our listeners. The vibration we feel in our own bodies as we tell stories is felt by our listeners.

So what does breath have to do with storytelling? Everything. It helps us connect to our listeners in real, physical ways - the electric spark of thought becoming vibration, powered by breath to become sound. Each breath contains some element of the birth of life.

When Brother Blue would ask us all to sigh together it was more than creating community, more than imploring the Muse for assistance, more even than gathering thoughts to tell stories, it was blessing each other with life. With hope. With story.

Breath is sacred. Breathe deep.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 7, 2016

Reading grief, reading life

Someone asked me recently where I found refuge in the difficult times in my life. My first response was not what he expected, but it was the most honest one I could give. "Books," I said, "I found solace, refuge and safety in books."

It is my hope that I will eventually write a book about Kevin, our love, his loss, my grief and transformation. I'd like to start with the blog posts I've written that you have all so kindly read, then add onto it. I'm not there yet, but I would like to do this. I hope it might help others. I hope it may be a solace, a refuge and a safe place to know they are not alone.

As I'm thinking about this more and more, I've started doing some research into memoirs about love, loss and transformation. I've read quite a few, including:

What I have gathered from all of these (and this is no surprise) is that grief is universal, constant, similar and utterly unique. I have learned that I am not the only who has found solace in writing and shared my beloved and my emptiness with unknown readers. I am responding to a basic human drive and I do not regret it.

I have said hundreds of times that if we are lucky we will love and if we love we will grieve. I would not undo my love for Kevin if it meant that I would be spared the pain.

I'm wondering what you may have read that resonated with you. I'd love to know. And I am so grateful that you are sharing my journey.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Telling Life: Some thoughts on storytelling in a political season

My heart is breaking. Every time I watch the news, read the paper or open Facebook I feel myself flinch. The words spoken, the stories told in this political season are destructive, selected to tear down the other and enclose the tribe in walls of thorns and poison. I shudder and close my eyes, hoping it will all go away.

You probably feel this way, too, regardless of your political persuasion. Whether you support this side or that, our dark selves are being revealed, reviled and reveled in. My heart cracks as I see people I thought "better than that" say things they might never have dared say before. In some ways this may be a good thing since it means we now know just how many of the other there are, but I still want to believe, need to believe that we are more alike than we are different, that we still all care about similar things, that we will be kind when we can.

What's a storyteller to do?

I can think of three responses that don't rise out of fear and instead reflect the things that drive me to tell stories, listen to others and do my best to create a world in which all can be heard.

The first is to remember that these are stories and that storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool. Our brains change when we listen to stories. The politicians have master craftspeople working with them to tell the stories that they think will persuade more people to vote for them. Whether they use fear, empathy, demagoguery or logic, they are using spoken stories to make us care. It is all manipulation, all political storytelling. When I remember that this is the dark side of storytelling it helps me listen with more clarity. It helps me feel less afraid.

While it doesn't necessarily make me feel any better, I think it's worth remembering the basic neurology of storytelling in times like these. It can be used for good or for evil and when we, the audience, remember this we can more easily choose how to respond. We can decide if we want to believe what our brains are telling us and we can remember to look deeper. I'm not suggesting that we need to go into every storytelling experience with this level of skepticism, but I do think we need to remember that the things we do as performers to build empathy and connection with the audience, to entrance them, are no different from the things being done to us as political consumers. This also helps me when I wonder how anyone can support a candidate with whom I disagree. It helps me feel empathy for the audience if not for the story and the teller.

The second is to remember that so much of the response to what is being said arises out of fear. We are all afraid that we are alone, that we are different, that we are not of the tribe or we are fearful of those outside our tribe. If I cut to the chase and listen to those who believe things I may not, I am often surprised by what I hear. They (whoever they may be) likely care about the same things I do. We both want our families to be safe and secure, we both want to know that the world will not harm us, we both want to feel as though things we believe in are being done in our names. The methods may differ as may some of the hoped-for outcomes, but the underlying fears and hopes are largely the same. I can use my story ears to listen to each individual and hope that they will listen to me, I can use my storytelling skills to encourage empathy, I can believe that we can find common ground. It won't always work, but I know I feel better, feel less disempowered, if I at least try.

A third thing I can try, though I have to face down all my fears to do it, is to tell my own story in a clear compelling way. I may not change anyone's mind, but I know I have tried. I can choose what story I tell and how. For instance, this year on election day I will drive people to the polls. I need to know I tried. Sometimes we need to know we have acted so we can tell ourselves the story of self that we most need to hear regardless of the context within which it exists.

None of  this stops my heart from breaking. None of this stops my fears from gripping me in a stranglehold. None of this will stop me from voting for my candidate as you vote for yours. But maybe remembering that these stories are deliberately manipulative and the "other side" is little different from me will help assuage the fear and remind me that there is still room for hope.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Telling Life: Nourishment

I am writing this from the Maine coast. It is a stunning day, crisp and bright, the water smiling the sun back at me. Yesterday I read an entire book in one day (something I used to do regularly but not in years) all while curled up by the fire. I am actually taking a break from my usual work life, which is wonderful but still work.

It's very hard for me, as a self-employed person, to take a break. I know whenever I take a break it means there are opportunities I will miss, even as I believe that more will come. My work is what drives me. I work all the time, even here on vacation. You'll note this is a new blog post, not the old one I was thinking I would repost. Yet breaks are important. We need to nourish ourselves and sometimes that means taking a break. I need to recharge by letting the sound of the wind and waves fill me.

We need to rest. Being here in Maine is nourishing for me. I am recharging my batteries on all levels, physical, emotional, creative and spiritual. By giving myself a break I am likely to be much more creative and energetic when I return home.

How do you nourish yourself? How do you give yourself permission to set down the pen or the phone and just rest?

I'm going back out to the deck now. The trees and water are calling.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 23, 2016


My father's memorial service was last Sunday. It was a lovely event. My mother told the story of his life, weaving in all the people attending. A cousin remembered my father as someone who was able to seriously listen to children, a rare skill. An old friend recounted some of their childhood exploits.

I struggled with what to say. My dad and I had a challenging relationship. We came to peace with one another before he died, something I will be eternally grateful for, but it's still not easy for me to talk about him and how we interacted, who we were with one another. I don't know if it ever will be. Much of it still feels too raw and too private.

A memorial service is not the place to pull out recrimination. We need to remember the dead honestly but gently, especially at memorials. Our survival gives us a chance to remember that no one is perfect and forgiveness makes life easier for the living. I know not all of you will agree with me and that's fine. Perhaps I should say that I need to remember my father honestly and gently, and was not willing to roll anything else out at his memorial.

I wrote earlier about all of this and I did what I planned. I acknowledged the complexity, saying something to the effect of all lives are complicated, all relationships are complicated, but here and now, let me share with you some of the shimmering memories I have of my father.

It was the right call.

I talked about being a child and listening to him tell me the stories he heard as boy on the radio. I may have been the only five year old in 1970s Philadelphia doing imitations of The Shadow. I talked about the stories he made up for me. I talked about watching the night sky with him, with all of the night noises surrounding us, and the constellations watching us back. I talked about how he was able to fix things, solve things, make things better. It was the right call. I felt better by remembering him at his best and I hope it was meaningful to everyone there.

At the end I invited everyone to take a moment and bring their own shimmering memory to mind, whether of my father or of someone else they love who is gone.

In the end, that's what we come down to. We are shimmering memories. We live as long as we are still a glimmer in the ether, a moment that bring a pause in the day. There are plenty of harsh memories but the sweetness is there too. By remembering it all, letting it illuminate us as we will eventually illuminate others, the world continues. The constellations still watch. The stories remain in the air. We still shimmer.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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