Friday, January 29, 2016

Still grateful for the pain. And everything else.

I'm in the tough season now. I am more likely to cry, I am fatigued, I am cranky. I am in the window between Kevin's diagnosis and his death, a tough and inescapable set of memories.

Two years ago today we were in the beginning of Kevin's second hospitalization; we didn't know there would only be two more. He was moved to the oncology floor, a harsh reality and yet one that suggested hope, the right doctors and treatment. He could still speak, the cancer hadn't yet stolen his voice. He could still walk though not without difficulty. He had been diagnosed ten days ago and we thought we'd have months to fight the cancer, time for one last trip to the ocean, time to say goodbye, time for the movie finish because that was all we really knew about death. We didn't have that time.

Two years ago yesterday I wrote about his diagnosis for the first time on this blog. I wrote about how I am grateful for the pain.

Two years ago I wrote I have never cried so hard as I have this week, though I expect I will have lessons in crying harder. I cannot bear to imagine what he will have to go through, what is to come, yet it is all I can think about.

I was right. I have learned to cry much harder, crying until I vomit or my body simply gives out. I have learned what is to come and it was worse than I could have imagined. It was also better. My heart is still beating. It beats for us both. Sometimes it feels as though my heart is wrapped in barbed wire. Each pulse may hurt but each reminds me that I am still here, that my heart is beating. Just as his heart beat.

I recognize that it's taken me 22 months to get to this place, but here it is. Shortly after Kevin died several other widowed people told me I would eventually feel better and remember the love more than the loss. I barely believed them. I understand it now. It still hurts like hell, but the pain is usually muted and the love is greater.

What I am coming to is this: I am grateful for all of it. Kevin was a gift beyond measure. Walking with him through his illness and to his death was also a gift, though it was one I never wanted nor one I would wish on anyone. The life I have now is a gift, one I take note of every day. Some days it is almost unbearable that I am still here but I remind myself to be grateful. I don't take my breath for granted, nor my heartbeat. I don't assume I will always have love, my family, my friends. I don't take my life for granted, even though there have been days when I wanted to die.

I am so grateful for all of it. While I would still do anything to have him back in the world, he was in the world. The world is better for his life.

We don't get through this life without some pain, without some barbed wire, without loss and regret. I have found solace in remembering that even the pain holds gifts.

It is in finding gratitude that I have found some measure of peace. When I remember how his hand felt in mine, when I remember the expression on his face when I walked into the room, when I remember the 15 years of love and happiness and struggle and growth, I am honoring all of it, I am holding his life more dear than his death. When I remember his influence on the people around him and celebrate the things that have come into being because of him, I remember that, while cancer may have stolen Kevin from this world, it didn't win.

Though it is sometimes a struggle to remember, Kevin's life is bigger than his absence.
I am so grateful.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Telling Life: Balance

Some of you have noticed I've not been posting quite as consistently lately. Thank you for your concern, I'm fine. I've been struggling to balance all of the different facets of my life and so blogging has suffered. It's a lot to juggle.

Balance is something we all contend with, every day. We may not notice it but we are continually making choices, prioritizing one activity or person over another. For the last few months I've been prioritizing income over creativity. It's important and has been worth it (it's easier to be creative if you know you can pay the rent) but I'm aware of the cost to creativity and the business needs of my own work.

I frequently remind myself that the story I am telling in this given moment is only the story of this moment. My narrative will change with time and, ultimately, things are likely to balance out. It doesn't always feel that way, especially when I neglect something I value, like my blog.

As a coach I often help my clients think through issues of balance and priority, trying to understand what story they are telling about their lives and how they use their time, and why. I need to apply more of those same practices to myself.  Maybe I can come up with a better method for remaining balanced, even when I'm attending to other needs. For example, I recommend my clients use timers to help do unpleasant tasks - you can do almost anything for 20 minutes. I use this method all the time for things I resist. Maybe I'll apply it to things I love doing but skip when I'm fatigued. For example, I can try writing for 20 minutes, even when I've worked 14 hours on a job site and all I really want is a bath then to go to bed. Or maybe I'll write a list of the things I can let go of, the stuff that I know I won't get done anytime soon. Or I will forgive myself for missing a week in this blog, and will forage ahead even when I am unsure, as this post demonstrates.

Creative people struggle with these kinds of issues routinely. We need time and space to create. We need to perform or exhibit or whatever we do. We need to tell the story of our own creative selves. We also need to wash the dishes, take care of the kids, earn some money, pay the bills and on and on. It can be overwhelming, figuring out all of the stories in our lives and prioritizing what needs to be done to keep them all going. I rarely encounter narrative media that captures the small details of everyday life, all at once, so I look to you for those stories. The small victories that make up the day (I put away the laundry! Where is my parade?) are sometimes as close as we come to happily ever after.

I'd love to know what you think. How do you balance things when you have competing priorities? Maybe together we can come up with some methods that will help us craft life stories we can live enthusiastically. Or at least manage until we come to another plot point and can change our path.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 15, 2016

And the horse it rode in on

Content warning: 
This post contains harsh language. I am angry and sad and I use four letter words. For those of you looking for my usual thoughts about grief and returning to life, this week I need to write about something else.

David Bowie died from cancer this week.
So did Alan Rickman. I'm sure there are others of whom I am not aware. Some are likely people you know and love.
This past Monday I had my bi-annual MRI to make sure the cancer I had at 26 has not returned. I was in the same facility where Kevin had his chemo, where he had to use a wheelchair because he could no longer walk more than 15 feet and where we briefly thought there was some version of hope.
This past Monday was the anniversary of the death of my new man's father, lung cancer.
Tomorrow, Saturday, is the third anniversary of the death of another friend, pancreatic cancer. Early this week was the anniversary of another friend's mother, glioblastoma.
And on this coming Monday it will be two years since Kevin, my sweet, strong, smart, amazing husband, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

It's everywhere. Cancer is fucking everywhere. 

I can only think it's in the water, the air, our food, clothing and very cells. I can only think it's waiting for us all, the punchline to some terrible joke of our own misbegotten humor. And yes, I know the mechanisms so I understand that yes, it is technically waiting for us all. I am not interested in recommended cures or preventatives at this moment, nor am I interested in theories about who is responsible and why. Right now I am angry and I need to rage. I held my anger in check while he was ill because it wouldn't have helped. Since his death I have been careful about what anger I have vented in front of witnesses. Right now, in this moment, at this writing, I am angry.

Pancreatic cancer used to be rare. Maybe it was rare because by the time it's found it's typically everywhere so people didn't know it was pancreatic in origin, but it wasn't this common. It's about to displace breast cancer as the third most common cancer in the U.S. It is arguably the most fatal and yet still research is underfunded because it kills so quickly there is little profit in prevention or cure (1). 

When Kevin was sick and fighting it was very hard to not see the cancer as having some kind of malevolent intelligence. No matter what we did it snuck around us and had a more effective counter move. It was so fast. It was so wicked. I know, it has no innate intelligence but I'll be damned if it didn't seem like it did.

None of that really matters. What matters is that someone I love/d more than my own self was eaten alive by this demon. What matters is that someone you love was, too. 

Such a waste.

Fuck cancer. Fuck the culture that teaches us that it's better to smoke and to eat unhealthy foods than to love ourselves enough to take care of our bodies. Fuck the greed that says poisoning our environment is worth the risks. Fuck the mindset that says the treatment or prevention must make back the cost of research and development, never mind how many lives it might save.

Fuck cancer and the horse it rode in on (2). Today I am angry and sad and just needed to say all of this. Because I couldn't save him. Because even with all the good in my life, even with new love and hope (the new does not replace the old) I miss Kevin with a ferocity that tears me open and leaves me empty. Because cancer is the mother fucker that stole him from me. Because sometimes rage is the best we can do.


1. If you'd like to donate towards research, early testing and treatment I recommend these organizations: Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (which is more patient focused) and The Lustgarten Foundation (which has more of a research bent). For what it's worth, I have the Lustgarten Foundation set up for my Amazon Smile page.
2. I know many people reading this will have lost someone to something other than cancer. I am in no way minimizing your loss and pain. I'm just expressing mine. Thanks for understanding.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Telling Life: Storytelling, boundaries and well-meaning censorship

When I began storytelling (22 years ago, wow!) I initially told fairy tales without much embellishment or interpretation. Pretty quickly I moved toward radical reinterpretations of the same material, then original fiction and occasionally personal stories. I began to experiment with non-linear narrative, multiple point-of-view stories and taboo issues (sexuality and death in particular). Remember, this was over 20 years ago when most people told traditional material or mild personal stories so what I was doing was avant-garde and quite challenging for many listeners. I know that now sexuality and creative narrative forms are common, but then? Not so much.

I was experimenting and growing, and I loved it. I had found an art form that suited me where I could explore and expand. I had a community that supported my creativity and was willing to give me a pretty long rope to play with. I was careful about what I told to whom, where and when I tried more radical material. I paid attention to my audiences' needs while still feeding my own need for experimentation and creativity.

A few years into my telling career a beloved older mentor pulled me aside and told me that I had to reign it in. That I was offending people. That I didn't dress well so was insulting my audience and that my stories were largely inappropriate for any listener. She told me I had tremendous talent and gifts but that I was abusing it and my audience. Remember, I was in my mid-twenties, no one else was telling material like this and she was one of the community pillars.

I believed her.

I immediately went back to fairly strict interpretations of traditional tales and very little else. I acquired what seemed to be the appropriate wardrobe. I shrank and began to wonder if my stories were worth telling at all. I began to think no one wanted to hear my voice.

It was awful. For about a year I tried to fit in. I failed. I'm glad I did.

I eventually came to the conclusion that she was expressing her own discomfort with my stories and that there had to be an audience that would like them. I began to seek out new venues and build my own audiences. I started venues, went to places where storytelling wasn't the norm, expanded beyond my boundaries. It was hard work, but worth it. I regained my voice. I again told, and continue to tell, a wide range of material. Some of it's challenging, some of it isn't, but it's all mine and it's all work I relish.

It's hard to be an artist who stretches boundaries, regardless of the art form. I've been thinking about this quite a bit in these days after David Bowie's death. If he found a boundary, he pushed against it, and eventually became a role-model for so many of us who were struggling to find our own selves and own voices. When I was struggling to rediscover my authentic voice after that well-meaning but misguided advice, David Bowie was one of the people I looked to. If he could do it and so much more dramatically than I was, I could do it too.

The only thing I now regret about following my own passion for boundary-pushing work is that for a little while I believed someone who told me I was too much, that what I was doing was too extreme. I still push against boundaries. I'm sure I have a better sense of appropriate time, place and audience now than I did when I was in my mid-twenties, but when I see a boundary I tend to run at it. Honestly, this is one of the themes of my whole life. There is certainly a cost - for example, most people don't know I can tell a fine fairy tale appropriate for anyone so I don't get the bookings I might want - but it's a cost I've decided to pay.

Do the work that calls to you. Be smart about it, choose where and when to share it (for instance, I don't tell sexy stories to little kids, but I do tell them to consenting adults. Complete with dirty words sometimes.) but share it with the world. We need to push against boundaries, those we build for ourselves and those the world imposes.

Storytelling is so powerful because it's essentially a direct brain-to-brain connection. As storytellers, we open new worlds to our listeners. We are the explorers, the cartographers, the preachers, the scientists and the dreamers. So sometimes our work frightens others. Do it anyway. Break the boundaries and see what lies beyond. If you love strict interpretations of fairy tales, tell them. If you love historical work that challenges commonly held beliefs, pursue it. If you need to tell your truth then tell it as it stands. If you need to sing and dance and cry out to the sky as you tell, then sing and dance and ululate. Find your audiences. Tell your tale. Live the work.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 1, 2016

The things we carry

It is mid-day on the first of a new year.

Two years ago today I woke with Kevin beside me. We had fallen asleep early the night before, well before midnight, because he was so sick. We didn't yet know that this was the last New Year's morning we would have.

A year ago today I went to bed and woke alone, the first time I had ever awoken by myself on New Year's Day as an adult. I wrote about my resolutions for the day and have, by and large, met them all. I remember Kevin, who he was and all that we were together. I am living more thoroughly than I ever thought I could following his death. I have honored his memory, my life and all that these both entail. I have forgiven myself and continue to do so over and over again.

I am still here.

This morning I woke beside my new love. It was a wonder and very strange. He is the right man for me to be with now, like Kevin in his kindness, intelligence and compassion, quite different in the way he moves through the world. Where Kevin was seen, my new love observes. Both are wonders. Both love me deeply and authentically. I am stunned by how lucky I am.

For all that I again love and am loved, I still carry Kevin. I still carry grief. I still carry who I was, who he was, who we were. I carry all of these into my life-after-death. They are a welcome load though sometimes it's hard to carry what was and what is.

Choosing to engage with the world following his death doesn't mean I am abandoning Kevin or who we were together. I am saying this not to you, but to myself. I need to remind myself over and over again that Kevin is as firmly a part of who I am now as any new life and new love. Loving again, adding to my experience, bringing more light into the world, doesn't mean I will stop carrying all that has gone before. My new love understands this and welcomes it, probably more easily than I can. He reminds me, over and over, that we are not limited in our capacity to love and that more love in the world is a treasure.

It is not a betrayal. I have to keep reminding myself of this.
I am as deserving of happiness after Kevin's death as I was before it.

Whoever you are, whatever your love and loss, you too are worthy of love and happiness. You are allowed to forgive yourself.

You and I both did the best we could.

I could not save Kevin from pancreatic cancer, no matter what I did. This isn't a failure but was, instead, a monumental act of love. I loved Kevin enough to fight for him. I loved him enough to let him go. And I love him enough now to admit that I was worthy of his love and worth loving again.

Whatever you carry, it does not mean you cannot also make room for the new. We are worthy.

May 2016 bring us all peace, love and contentment.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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