Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Telling Life: I hab a code in by dose

Ugh. I have a cold. It's a garden-variety, annoying, snotty, sneezy, slow-synapse, yuck kind of cold. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but certainly inconvenient and annoying. I don't have time for a cold (do we ever?) because I am entering a period of intense work with lots of travel. I have so much I need to get done in the few days I am home, I do not have time for cold.

Oh well. I guess I do. Because this mucus-clogged body is just not moving quickly. David Wilcox has a great song about how colds are reminders to slow down. I guess I needed the reminder. Phooey.

I have all the requisite stuff: tissues (though I need more), tea (though I need more), honey, soup, sinus wash, medication, a cozy blanket and netflix. All of this, of course, is just the icing on the cake because what I really need to do is rest. Slow down. The cold will pass. Most of the tasks will wait. I'm just cranky about it. I'm grateful I don't have any gigs today or tomorrow because performing with a runny nose is no fun for anyone.

Once upon a time (sniff) there was a king with three daughters (cough). Excuse me, hang on. (snort). Each daughter was lovelier than the rest and as kind. The people of the kingdom loved them almost as much as their father did. (disgusting throat clearing sound).

At least we are all spared that.

I have a very clear memory of being sick with a cold when I was maybe 8. My father went out and bought three different kinds of juices so I would have something yummy to drink; he wasn't sure which was my favorite so he got them all. I drank all of them so he would feel better too.

What helps you feel better when you have a cold? Any stories of loving comfort? What do you do if you have a gig you just can't reschedule or give to someone else?

This is a short post. I'm going to hunker down with my blankie and tea. I'll doze to netflix. I'll feel better soon, but in the mean time.... sniff. cough. snort... Excuse me. I need another tissue.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 19, 2016

Saying goodbye to friends, big and small

There are so many things I want to write about today.

I've just come back from my first vacation in 7 years, taken with my new love to a place Kevin enjoyed. I could write about that, about the wonder and the sorrow that walked with me throughout.

I could write about the power of words, how we need to name things so they exist and how that can help us in our worst times. I could also write about their power to impede healing and what better alternatives might be.

I could even write about my developing theory around grief and healing, the steps I have taken (so far) to not drown in sorrow. Or I could write about what the second year feels like. Or...

I could write about any of that. But what I need to write about is this:

My pet Victor is dying. He's a little grey guinea pig, 8 years old, and he's on his way out of the world. By the time you read this he will likely be dead.

Some of you read this and had to remind yourselves not to laugh. A guinea pig? Really? Yup. A guinea pig. He's a sweet little creature who likes to have his head scratched and has been a great comfort to me.

Victor rode in his carrier next to me when I left Boston for Kansas City, leaping into a new life and many unknowns. He sat on my lap while I cried over Kevin's diagnosis and later death. He gave me something small and vulnerable to care for when I could barely care for myself. He squeaked when he heard my footsteps because he knew I was the bringer of treats and he let me pick him up when no one else could. He loved me as much as a guinea pig loves anyone. He may be a guinea pig but he has been a good pet, a good friend.

Others read this and immediately felt your hearts contract in sympathy. It's really hard when a pet dies, regardless of what it is. If we love it and it dies, it hurts.

And some of you reacted with more visceral grief than you might have when I told you my husband died. It's easier, sometimes, to feel sympathy for something dependent on us and with a less complex relationship than a human being.

I am not nor will I ever compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a spouse or other deeply held human relationship. It has not been helpful for me when people tell me they know how I feel, mourning Kevin's death, because their dog/cat/bird/etc died. Each grief is valid but not all griefs are the same. I know some of you are outraged at this. I know how important pets can be and for some of us they are life saving. I'm simply saying that one grief is not necessarily like the other.

With all that said, Victor's death is sad in and of itself, as well as triggering my grief in general. I have all of the physical feelings I had shortly after Kevin's death. My throat hurts, I feel almost panicky. I feel sad. I will miss him. He has been a good friend.

So that's what I wanted to tell you about today. Thanks for listening.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer

p.s. This post couldn't have happened without my friend Joy and her dog Dobby. Thank you sweetheart! Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Telling Life: Living the dream?

Several years before I leapt into self-employment but was dreaming about it often, a friend looked at me quite seriously and said, "Don't do it. Don't decide that what you love is what's going to support you."

I thought he was nuts. How could being a professional, full-time storyteller be anything but a magnificent, rose-scented life? How could it not be a romantic adventure? I can hear some of you laughing now, those of you who know already. The rest of you who don't have already gathered that it's not what I thought it would be. This isn't to say I would choose to do anything else. I find the benefits outweigh the challenges and I love my work, I love seeing what happens when I tell, write, coach and consult. But it's much harder than I ever imagined and my current boss can be very difficult. Let me stress, I know I am deeply privileged to do this work. I am privileged to live in a time and place where I can support myself as an artist. It's just not quite what I expected before I leapt.

Let's take a look at some of what I assumed and what really is. This is, of course, my list and experience. I'd love to hear about yours!
  • Although I would have denied this with everything in my soul, I secretly believed my natural talent meant all I had to do was make myself available and I would soon be flooded with more work at better pay than I could ever actually do. In reality it doesn't matter how talented I or anyone else is. Being self-employed means that most of the work is looking for work, for the next gig, and that has an element of drudgery. I am still learning how to do the tasks I don't like. It's even harder to do them when I am the only one impacted by it. It can be much easier to work when there are others who depend on me.
  • I assumed I would be able to set my own schedule. Sure, I sleep later more often than many of my friends with day jobs, but my work hours are often longer (see below) and less predictable. What's more, I sometimes have to ask clients to wait on scheduling me while I wait for confirmation from other clients and so on. It can get pretty complex. It's not a reliable 9-5 kind of life.
  • I assumed I would have a life where work was play and play was work, that I would never feel bogged down by the work of my heart. Ha! Yes, I love my work (more on that below) but I miss time off. A break. But I have discovered that - 
  • I never, ever stop working. I work on weekends, I work at night. I go out and I always, always, ALWAYS have business cards and a spiel ready. Because if I don't work, I don't eat. I don't have the luxury of paid vacation, so I try to make sure that everything I do has some component of work to it. I just took five days off and, for the first time in years, didn't make the trip a work trip. It was great but there was ongoing low-level anxiety the whole time. I still checked email. I still made phone calls. This blog post is work. I do very little that doesn't get measured as a possible paid-work creating activity.
  • I forgot that artists (really everyone) need community; I assumed I would work in my cloister and thrive in isolation. As it is, I need to work to find connection with others; I have friends who help me with accountability, getting things done, brainstorming and more. Those relationships need care and feeding; they are vital to my work.
  • I assumed creativity would flow like sap in the spring without the distractions of a day job. It does sometimes. Other times I am utterly, totally dry. And it can be pretty scary knowing that my livelihood is dependent solely on me, my creativity and my drive.
These are just some of the things I didn't anticipate, or at least didn't anticipate to the degree they exist. Being a self-employed person is hard. There are many parts I would rather not do, but if I don't do them then I don't get to do the parts that I love. And that's what this post is really about.

Dreams don't come true because your fairy godmother waves her wand and decrees that thou shalt be an effortlessly successful artist. Overnight sensations are usually years of hard work and then breakthroughs based on that work. 

I am learning to value the hard parts of being self-employed because they give me the freedom to practice the parts I really, truly love. I am learning to treasure those other working artists and self-employed friends who help me get things done. I am learning to celebrate the small victories (yay! I wrote a blog post) as well as the big ones (yay! so-and-so booked me!). I don't think I will ever stop learning how to ask for help, how to manage the drudgery, and finding new ways to feed myself creatively. It is all worth it though sometimes I think I should throw in the towel and get a day job again.

Were I to do that, however, I would need to redefine myself. My work gives me definition and form that is worth fighting for.

I am a storyteller and performing artist who creates and performs works that entertain and move my audiences. 
I am a writer who helps people see themselves and their world with more clarity and meaning.
I am a communications consultant who get things done and creates meaningful change in organizations around the world. 
I am a coach who helps my clients create the lives and work they want, so they can dream bigger and go farther.

In all of that, I am a dreamer. I am living the dream. It's just a helluva lot more work than I anticipated. It is the sweet and the bitter, the boring and the burning. I know how lucky I am and I am grateful every day. There are parts that are more wonderful than I ever could have imagined. I am so lucky.

And if you're thinking of taking the leap? I won't tell you not to. Go ahead! Just don't forget that the dishes still need to get done, the bills have to be paid, and romance is as much about hard work as it is about passion.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 12, 2016

Valentine's Day with the dead and the living

As you are reading this I am on vacation, the first I have taken since 2009 when Kevin and I went to Jamaica to celebrate our 11th anniversary. I'm in New Orleans, with my new love, honoring and celebrating what was, what is and what will be.

I have a vial of Kevin's ashes with me and a valentine for him. I intend to leave them both here, though I'm not yet sure where. Maybe I'll burn the valentine and scatter all the ashes in the Mississippi. Maybe I'll tuck it into a corner somewhere on Bourbon Street, from where Kevin once called to tell me what he was seeing because he so wanted to share it with me. Maybe I'll fold it into a paper airplane and let the wind take it all away. I don't know. I just know it matters to me that I remind myself and the universe of how much I still love him, even as I love someone new. My new love understands this need and will help me however he can. He is a remarkable man. I have a valentine for him, too, just as heartfelt though very different.

I've never been a big fan of Valentine's Day. I'd like to think the loves I have experienced are worth celebrating every day, regardless of the calendar date. Kevin and I never made a big deal about it, though we sometimes would take Brother Blue and Ruth out for dinner. My new love and I have agreed that it's not that big a deal for either of us. I'll give him a little something. I expect he'll do the same, though if he doesn't, that's okay. What matters is that we're together. What matters is that my new love and I celebrate each other every day; Kevin is a part of this as he is a part of me.

Two years ago on Valentine's Day Kevin was in the hospital. He asked a friend to go to the gift shop and find a card he could give to me. She brought him two, one kind of playful, the other as sappy and romantic as you can imagine. Kevin wasn't a sappy man, but he picked the card with the words he always felt but rarely said. The words that celebrated me as his friend, his lover, his wife. The words that celebrated us. He signed it with only his name because holding a pen was hard. It's the last item he gave me and I treasure it beyond words. That Valentine's Day stands out in my memory in shimmering silver, a precious reminder of the depth between us. It was also the day he began chemo and, for a little while at least, we still had hope.

I think that's what Valentine's Day is about, for me anyway. It's about hope. It's about believing that love is worth celebrating every day and that love continues even when it's hard, especially when it's hard. I still love Kevin. I always will. I love my new partner and I hope I will always love him, too.

When I hold Kevin's ash in my hand on Sunday, my lovers by my side, one alive and one gone, when I let the wind or water take it, I am not letting go of all that was between us, I am not discarding or discounting it for the new. The new wouldn't exist without the old. I am instead, letting his physical matter spread through the world and carry his spirit further. I am reminding myself that his body may be gone but the love between us remains and grows, as the ash sparkles in the breeze. The love he and I shared is now part of me, part of my new love, part of my life as it always will be. I am honoring and celebrating all that was, all that is, and all that is yet to be.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Telling Life: Comfort

When I was little I lived with my parents in Philadelphia. I have fairly clear memories of our apartment; the layout, the sound the glass pantry cabinets made when we opened or closed them, the way the rooms seemed enormous, though I'm sure were I to see it now the apartment would be ordinary in size. The living room had a couch, a tv (a new color tv!), my father's recliner, the high-fi, and bookcases. I would fall asleep on that couch quite regularly, usually when I came home from school and needed a nap. Sometimes I would pretend to be asleep so I could listen to the homey sounds of my mother returning from work, my parents chatting, the clink of their coffee cups. I remember it had some kind of brocade upholstery, I think in blues and greens though I'm not sure. I remember the texture under my cheek. I remember the way it held me.

When I was seven or eight my parents sold the couch. I'm sure they decided it was old enough and it was time for a new one. This is a perfectly reasonable decision if you're an adult furnishing a home, but to a seven year old, it can be devastating. And it was. I remember howling as the couch was carried out of our apartment. My mother took me into my bedroom and held me while I cried. In my memory I was inconsolable and she was baffled. Both of my parents were, having no idea why I was so upset. Frankly, I don't think I knew either. Looking back I can see that it was probably something about change, something about losing my cozy place but in many ways that doesn't matter. What matters is my world was altered and I was distressed.

My parents struggled to soothe me long after the couch was gone. I'm sure they held me. My mother finally hit upon the right combination when she gave me my teddy bear then asked if I wanted an egg-and-ketchup sandwich and to watch (oh, I cringe now) Donny and Marie. All of these signified comfort. I stopped crying, sniffed and nodded. I remember the taste of my egg-and-ketchup sandwich now, long after I've forgotten what Donny and Marie sang. I remember being comforted.

There are so many things that can offer us comfort. Foods, ritual, touch, a familiar show. I think what truly comforted me in that long ago moment was my mother, knowing me well enough to know what to offer. I have become something of an expert in how to comfort myself, over these last few years. One of the most comforting things I have found is story.

I tell myself stories over and over again. I tell stories of connection and love. I listen to stories from people who have had similar experiences. I remind myself that my life is about more than loss (be it a death or a couch) by telling stories of meaning, by sharing memories and hope. I hold these memories close to me, as close as I held my teddy bear.

We need these stories. What's more, we need to share them because we never know when someone else might find comfort in them. When we hear stories of love and loss, hope and renewal, we know we are not alone and that can be deeply comforting. I think of all the fairy tales about people who survived loss and I am comforted. I tell my stories and I see comfort in the faces of my listeners. In the end, the stories are all we have and so it helps if we allow them to comfort us.

What stories comfort you? Which do you share and which do you keep secret?

I'm lucky. I still have my teddy bear. I still have my mother, who still makes me egg-and-ketchup sandwiches. Someday I won't. When that happens I will still have the stories. I will tell them, to myself and to anyone who will listen, over and over again, reminding each of us that we are not alone, we are not gone as long as we are remembered. I will tell them until we are comforted.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 5, 2016

"Okay" can mean many things

Here I am, barreling to two years since Kevin died. For anyone counting, I'm at 96 weeks. Two years ago today he didn't yet have the pain pump. We were in the midst of the second hospital stay. Jesus. Almost two years. How can that be? Just writing that I get teary. And yet I am okay most of the time. All of the time really, when I remind myself that okay now means many different things.

For example, take this morning. I feel kind of crummy. I had a bad migraine yesterday and still feel some lingering effects. My stomach is unsettled, I'm achey and light sensitive. I have a gig today so I need to gather my energy up and get ready to shine. I don't want to. All I want to do is go back to bed and stay there. I want to binge watch some comforting BBC mystery series but I have to get up and get out.

As I was starting to move this morning I was thinking that this feeling was familiar, more familiar than it should be. I had a visceral memory of the weeks right after Kevin's death when I felt this way all the time. Oh. Right. This is grief. This physical ache, the drain, the nausea. All of this is part of what intense grief feels like. Let's see, today is... and that means... Right. Of course I feel like hell. I'm grieving.

And that's okay.

It's not okay that Kevin got pancreatic cancer and died. That will never be okay. What is okay is that I feel shitty about it. I've had enough practice at grieving now, and I've paid enough attention, that I know this feeling will pass. Which is also okay. It's not a betrayal, it's just the way of things. Sometimes I will feel shitty, sometimes I'll feel neutral, sometimes I'll feel happy. All of these states are okay.

It's in realizing that all of this is okay, that grieving him hurts but loving him is better and endures, that everything I'm experiencing is normal and appropriate, it's in all of this that I find peace. Even when I am at my worst, crying and certain the world has ended, I now know that it will pass. I can remember how lucky I am to have had Kevin at all, that I will always love him even as I love others, that I am okay. He would want nothing less, in fact I promised him I would eventually okay. It just looks different now.

Okay now means everything I experience, whereas a year ago it seemed unachievable. I am here. I
 am alive.I laugh and cry.  I love. I grieve. All of this means that I am, still, okay.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Telling Life: Creativity and drought

Here we are, well into the beginning of a new year. If you're anything like me, you're busy pretending you haven't made any resolutions when, in fact, you have some ideas about what you'd like this year to bring. You just don't want to call them resolutions. Me? I call them goals.

I have all kinds of goals. One of the most important, maybe the most important, is to make sure that I take care of myself on the most fundamental levels, so I can continue to create and feel alive. Built into that is the need to nourish myself creatively and continue to make new things.

Right now? I can't think of a single damned way to do that. I'm in a drought, I'm cold and barren. Not only do I not want to create anything new, I don't want to work on something old nor do I want to do anything that might move me in that direction. I want to sit on the sofa, watch tv and maybe have some popcorn.

I hope some of you out there know what I'm talking about, it would be a terribly lonely thing to think I'm the only one who gets stuck like this. It's funny, often enough people comment on how creative I am, that I must always be working on something interesting, that they wish they could be as productive as I am. It's not true. Much of the time I'm trying to avoid the work, I'm staring at a blank screen where the words just won't appear, or I'm wondering if I should just give it up and get a day job. It may look as though I'm creatively flowing all the time, but it's just not the case.

I suspect it's this way for many creative people. When we look at other artists, be they storytellers, writers, visual artists, etc, it may look as though they are the most creative, most able, most gifted person out there. I suspect even Leonardo daVinci had his moments when he wanted his equivalent of sitting on the sofa with tv and popcorn. Comparing ourselves to others just doesn't help.

So what can we do when we're feeling dry?

I hate that question. If I'm feeling dry the last thing I want to do is anything that might fail to get me out of the rut, because failure feels like validation of my fear that I have nothing left. Rather than offer you answers when I am struggling with this problem, let me share a story with you.

I was driving through Iowa recently. The land was still snow covered, the trees leafless, the view long and rather barren. The part of Iowa I was driving through was all farmland, dedicated to corn, soy and other crops, but in that moment it looked like the aftermath of some terrible catastrophe. And yet I kept smelling manure. At first I was annoyed by it since I grew up in an urban environment and manure isn't immediately meaningful to me. Then I glanced again at the land around me. The ground was furrowed, dark patterns in the white snow. The earth had been fertilized, nourished, so in the spring it could produce riches.

Maybe instead of being barren winter, it was merely resting.

Maybe what we need to do is recast creative drought. Instead of it being a drought, what if we're lying fallow? A field left fallow is plowed but unplanted, so it can regain its fertility. What if some of the dry times are actually rest? Sleep? A chance to dream up something new? I'm not suggesting a serious case of writer's block isn't a problem, but maybe when we have those times when, for a day or two or a week, we have trouble soaring, we are simply lying fallow.

If we treat ourselves kindly and nourish ourselves creatively even during the fallow times, perhaps we can create more consistently. Perhaps we can give ourselves a chance to read, to take a break, to really enjoy catching up on that show and eating some popcorn. We can give ourselves that time and embrace it wholeheartedly if we know this is nourishment and that soon enough we will again be productive.

What do you think? Do you have tips for managing the fallow times? I'd love to know.

p.s. I do have one tip to offer you. Don't go it alone. If you're feeling frustrated that you're not creating, take a break and reach out to someone who can sympathize, brainstorm and help you feel less isolated. I had a rough time getting started on this post so I called my friend Elsa, who brainstormed with me. She spread some manure, is an excellent listener and even better friend. Thank you!

(c) 2016 Laura S. Packer
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