Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The telling life: Five tips for self-care

It's happened again. I let myself get run down and I have another cold. My head is congested, my eyes are watery and all I want to do is huddle in a lump, feeling sorry for myself.

That isn't really an option, though I'm certainly moving more slowly than usual.

What this is making me think about is how I care for myself, especially when things are busy or I feel yucky. In lieu of a detailed post (because, really, I feel crummy) here are my top five self-care priorities, the things I try to do regardless of how busy things are. Please let me know how you take care of yourself, maybe your tips will help me head off the next cold. Bear in mind, this list is heavily influenced by my current slow state; what I would write when well might be quite different!

  1. I try to get enough sleep. If I can't get a full night's sleep I at least try to schedule a nap here and there. If I make it my habit to sleep enough then my mood is better, my body can more readily fight off infection and I am more creative/spontaneous/generous in my responses.
  2. I try to get outside most days. Even now, when I have a cold, I will at least stand on the porch for a few minutes and breath fresh air. It helps me remember that there is a whole world out there. It also means that I take a little time for myself every day.
  3. I try to do something kind for someone else. Even at my most miserable, if I can say something nice, give someone a smile or express gratitude, I remind myself that the world is bigger than I am. I know, this sounds kind of polyanna-ish, but it's true. 
  4. I try to be realistic in my objectives and be kind to myself. These are related. For example, days like today when I feel as though I can't think well or focus for long are not the day to write a deep and meaningful blog post. I'd rather admit that and do the best I can with who I am in the moment. When I can't, when I know I have to exceed my current capabilities (say I had a big gig) then I suck it up and do what I need to shine. I then give myself permission to crash later and prepare for that crash ahead of time, since I won't be able to do much in the moment. 
  5. I try to do the best I can, whatever that may be. Today the best I can is this post and then a lot of tv, tea and napping. Tomorrow it will be something else. Whether self-employed or working for someone else, the best we can is all we can do. I don't get paid if I don't work so I try to avoid sick days (I try to make every day a productive day) but I know it's necessary sometimes. Tomorrow will be something else. If I approach every day as a new best I can  then each day offers new opportunities. This is self-care because I understand that the best I can will change. 

What are your tips for self-care, whether healthy or ill? Really, I'd love to know so we can all benefit from our collective knowledge.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, March 28, 2016

Dear Kevin: An open letter, two years later

Dear Kevin,

Oh, I miss you. I miss you with ever fiber, every breath. You know this, of course. You are the one who is there when, even now two years on, I wake up looking for you in the dark. Sometimes I still hear the cadence of your breath. I remember.

I love you. I still hold you inside of me, carry your heart, remember your touch. You know this, too. You are the one who taught me to believe that maybe there is such a thing as unconditional love, you are the one who told me once that you couldn't wait to see my face when I realized that could be true. You did. I remember.

And I am okay. It is an ongoing shock to me that here and now, without you in my life as a physical constant, I am upright. I laugh and smile and yes still cry. I love and am loved. You know this as well as you know my love and my sorrow. There is no okay without you and yet I find, there is. It is a different kind of okay. You are the one who asked me to promise that I would be okay. I did, but I was lying even as I pretended I was not. It turns out you were right about this one, too. I remember.

If memory is truly immortality then you will live forever. I take some comfort in that most days, though some days it tastes like nothing but ash. I remember you as do your kids, family, friends. You touched so many people. You would walk into a room and the light would coalesce around you. Now you are the light.

The easiest way for me to think of my current life is that I'm living in a science fiction story, or maybe an episode of The Twilight Zone, one of those written by Rod Serling, of course. Those were the best, the twistiest, the most human. I have slipped into a parallel universe or maybe the theoreticians were right and every moment the universe breaks into a multitude of possibilities. I stumbled into a different universe than the one I wanted to be in. I can't even say this parallel universe is worse than the one where you never got cancer. It is a greyer place much of the time, and a sadder one, but the world is still here. It is perhaps more tender than the one I lived in before. There is still beauty. There is love. The world may taste of salt now, the faint crust on my cheek and under my eye, but the world still has taste.

None of that is to say I don't miss you, don't hate what happened, don't long for you to be back. And yet... here I am.

I am so different now, though on the surface I may look mostly the same. I know my hair is much greyer. I don't laugh as quickly nor for as long. I am more forgiving more easily. My quiet side, always present though often unbelieved, is a bigger part of me. I need a great deal of time alone. I am softer. I am not discontented. Many days I am even happy, but I always feel the lack of you.

You are the one who, seen or unseen, present in spirit or as energy in the universe, opened the door for this odd place. You are the one who loved me so well in life that I find I can love again in the after life. You are the one who believed in me far more than I have ever believed in myself and so gave the the strength to find my way into this side world.

Now, here, two years out, I still miss you ferociously. I cried in my new love's arms last night and I'm sure I will do so again. He is a good man, I think you would like him. I hope you do. His presence in my life doesn't change the fact that I miss you and want you back. Sometimes that's a hard contradiction to hold, but it's there. I miss you in every breath, every time I laugh, every time I experience something that we would have shared with a sideways glance. I miss your shining face.

Now, here, two years out, I love you passionately. That will never go away, nor should it. The love we built, the way I love you, the way you love(d) me informs everything in my life. It shapes how I love now.

Now, here, two years out I find myself okay. And most days I think of you predominantly with enormous love and unmeasurable gratitude. Yes, I am different. Yes, I will never get over your death nor would I want to. Yes, this alternate universe is not where I would have chosen to be. But you taught me so much. Even in death. Even in those last moments, two years ago right now.

I remember the light streaming into the hospital room the moment after your heart stopped beating. You were in the light then. You are now. You always will be.

I love you, Kevin. More than anything else, more than the pain in this moment, more than missing you, the love remains. Thank you.


(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 25, 2016

Physics revisited

What follows is a post I published just over two years ago, when Kevin was very sick but we hadn't yet received word that we were at the end.

I've been struggling with what to say as I approach the second anniversary of his death at the same time that my father is dying, and I keep coming back to this post.

It's no less true now than it was then. Thinking of the physics of energy and matter helps sometimes.

It's no less false now than it was then. The grief and loss are deeper than any comfort can touch sometimes.

I've written before about how I feel as though I'm living in a parallel universe, that something shifted while I wasn't looking, and I ended up here. I am a living scifi story. Maybe another time I'll explore the physics of multiple universes, but I think that offers less comfort. If I can't undo the past then comfort is what I need, even when I don't know how to express what I want, even when I find my current time and place beyond easy understanding.

Here, two years to the day when he was alive but dying.
Here, two years to the day when he was drifting between this world and whatever lies beyond.
Here, two years to the day when my life is again rich but different, sometimes sepia toned.

I remind myself that with every breath I inhale particles he exhaled.
I remind myself that our DNA is intertwined.
I remind myself that energy can be neither created nor destroyed.

I remind myself that love is greater than death.

*     *     *

This post was originally published on March 10, 2014, 18 days before Kevin Michael Brooks left this earth.

The cancer journey is a hard one. (Yes, it's a platitude, but it's no less true.) It strips away everything it can take.

It strips away the future.
It strips away strength.
It strips away faith.

I have been struggling to retain faith in something, hope in something, as Kevin walks this hard path. I keep coming back to physics.

When I was younger I loved reading popular science books, and especially books about physics. I retained some of it and find that now it gives me hope. If my interpretations are wrong please keep it to yourself, let me find comfort where I may.
  • The butterfly effect. Tiny actions may have incalculable results. Leading to -
  • The observer effect. We change things by observing them. We may even change things by thinking about them. The mere fact that hundreds if not thousands of people are thinking about and praying for Kevin may still have an unexpected, amazing effect. Even if it doesn't, all of that good energy will change those who are holding him in their hearts and ensure that he is always here in some fashion or another. Which brings me to another other law of physics I love.
  • Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it can only be converted into another form. All of the energy that went into making the stars, the earth, each and every one of us, is still present. The energy that existed in the forms of those long dead is still here. Every bit. So when we lose someone their energy still exists, just in a different form. Maybe they are now part of an ocean wave or a bit of light headed off to explore new worlds. But their basic components, at the most basic level, still exist.
More than these, I remember the law of physics I learned when I was a young teen, from those masters Lennon and McCartney. This one gives me the most hope of all.
  • And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.  Which means, no matter what, Kevin is here now in a far greater form than his body and will always be here. You will remain, too. And me. The love is not lost or destroyed, it can only grow. The more we love, the more we are.
And that's really all I need to remember, to help me retain the future, strength and faith.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer

p.s. Yes, I have read the wonderful NPR column by Aaron Freeman. I found it after I started pondering physics. If you haven't read it, you should.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Telling Life: Giving voice to the unvoiced; commissioned pieces

I had the honor of presenting a commissioned work at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University last week, in celebration of Women's History Month. I was hired to prepare and present a lengthy piece on the life and influence of Sojourner Truth. It was a wonderful and challenging experience, well-received, that has me thinking about how storytellers can, should and sometimes should not give voice to the unvoiced.

Before I delve into this, in case you don't know, Sojourner Truth was born in New York state, enslaved, in 1797. She was named Isabella Baumfree. She self-emancipated in her late 20s and began to preach on both salvation and emancipation. In her 40s she renamed herself Sojourner Truth and added women's suffrage to her speeches. She was illiterate but with the help of a friend published her autobiography when she was 50. She continued to speak and preach on emancipation, equality and women's suffrage for the rest of her life. Truth died in her mid 80s, having seen the end of slavery across the nation but not the vote for women or anything resembling equality for black people.

When I was first approached about this piece I urged them to hire a storyteller of color. It didn't feel right that I tell this piece. I sent them references to several local tellers of color I admired, however the committee had heard me perform and was clear that they wanted to work with me.

Developing this piece presented some challenges. Among them:
  • I was hired as a storyteller, so I knew I didn't need to present it as a lecture, but I was telling historical fact, I wanted to make sure I got all of the data right. How to merge detailed historical data and immersive story?
  • More importantly, how could I tell the story of an enslaved African-American woman who died over 130 years ago without straying into appropriation? I certainly wasn't go to put on black-face or pretend to speak in her voice. We don't know what she sounded like, her accent or even what she really said. Beyond that, it would be insulting were I to try to imitate her.
  • How could I tell her story with any authenticity when she never wrote a thing down? Everyone who did write something down inevitably filtered it, because her story was written by middle-class, free, white people, all of whom had their own agenda. I, of course, have my own agenda but mostly I want to make sure she is heard and not forgotten. 
  • Last but not least, I wanted to make sure I was giving my client what they needed. How to do that?
These were not the only challenges I faced when putting this together, but they were certainly the most compelling. What follows are some thoughts and the solutions I enacted.

Giving voice to the voiceless. 
As a storyteller, part of my job is to give voice to the voiceless. I love telling fairy-tales from unexpected points of view, so the overlooked characters have a chance to speak. I enjoy playing devil's advocate and giving the villain voice. I view it all as a part of my work in the world, allowing my listeners a chance to consider another point of view. Storytellers can be especially subversive with this aspect of our work, since oral storytelling is such an effective way to build empathy. This is part of why I was (and am!) so excited about this piece. I knew that this was an unparalleled chance to talk about issues we still confront and to help ensure that someone amazing is not forgotten.

Data and narrative.
I need to work on this more, but what I kept reminding myself of is this: I am a storyteller. I am hired to help people connect emotionally with each other, with themselves and with a narrative. While I need to avoid factual errors, I don't need to turn the story into a recitation of dates and data points. By humanizing the data and events I make it more relatable and, frankly, easier to tell. I can tell it as a series of human experiences, not newspaper articles.

Truthfully, I'm still working on this aspect of the story. I had notes so I wouldn't make mistakes on the dates. In future tellings I intend to minimize the number of dates I refer to and instead talk about it as stages in a life with historical context thus eliminating the need for notes.

Working with my client.
This was the easiest of problems to solve. I made sure we each understood what we were getting and why. I asked about their goals and hopes for the piece. I listened. I did the best I could and tried to give them more than they were asking for, as I do with all of my clients.

Authentic voice and appropriation.
Sometimes storytellers, in pursuit of authenticity, try to give literal voice to the unvoiced. They use accents or other tools to bring someone to life. I do not do that, though this is a discussion for another day. I've written about it briefly here. If I can't do an accent perfectly then I being more insulting by trying. How many times has a white person played a Native American in a film and used a generic "Indian" voice?

For one, I am a short, white, middle-class, 21st century woman who has always had the right to vote, not a tall, African-American, born into slavery, 19th century woman who was arrested when she tried to vote. I could not be her. It would be arrogant and inappropriate for me to try.

For another, we don't know what she actually sounded like. We know her first language was Low Dutch and that she learned English in her early teens. Most of the people who wrote down her words added Southern U.S. phrasing and cadence to them, because by the mid-19th century slavery was considered more of a Southern phenomenon even though people were enslaved in the north into at least the 1820s. In her lifetime Sojourner Truth's actual voice was altered by her reporters to serve their own purposes. Truth was aware of this and of the power it conveyed, so she didn't object as far as we know, but we don't know for sure.

If I'm not going to speak in her voice AND I want to build empathy and connection with my audience, avoiding giving a lecture, what could I do? I solved the problem with a variety of methods.
  1. I acknowledged this issue at the outset of the story.
  2. I used rich imagery to bring the audience back to her time, so they felt present in another place.
  3. I created a fictional amalgam who did speak in first person. This white, middle-class woman knew Truth when she was young. She spoke to her experience with Truth. Yes, it could be argued (and some of you will want to do this because you're annoyed at my stance on appropriation to begin with) that I am not an 18th century woman and I did not know Truth, so how can I speak in her voice? I was willing to go this far. It is a personal choice and one I felt I could do with authenticity, integrity and without insulting Truth or the experience of the enslaved and unvoiced.
  4. At the end of the performance I reminded the audience that we don't know what Truth actually sounded like, but that she was a woman of great savvy. She had likely heard many of the pieces written about her and those written theoretically in her voice, so I concluded with a reading of her best-known speech. I did not try to sound like an aging African-American woman, nor did I try to change the language as it was written. I presented it as the closest approximation of her voice that we have, and that I wanted her to have the last word.
None of these were easy choices to make and I'm certain I will keep modifying the program, but it has been a fantastic experience, one that made me work and think hard, as well as question some of my beliefs about how professional storytellers give voice. I am grateful for the opportunity and look forward to performing it again.

I'd love to know how you work with these kinds of issues. What lines do you draw? How do you deal with things that might be taken for appropriation? How do you give voice?

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 18, 2016


Earlier this week I found myself in Niagara Falls, NY. I was there for work but couldn't be that close to one of the wonders of the world without venturing out to see The Falls. Those words have to be capitalized. The power of all that water tumbling is truly awesome. I stood for a long time on the banks of an island, right near the edge of the falls. If I let my eyes unfocus enough it felt like I was part of the water. The sound was a great and constant roar, with small variations if you listened hard enough. I could feel the solid earth beneath me trembling. It was, frankly, overwhelming. 

At the same time that I was transfixed by The Falls themselves, I kept looking across the water to the walls of the gorge. The Niagara gorge is deep. The river has been running there for a long, long time and has had time to erode many hundreds of feet into the earth. I could see layer upon layer of strata, millions of years visible to me. I was as transfixed by the earth as I was by the water. The sedimentary rock told me of the passage of eons, of gradual or sudden change. The water told me of the inexorable nature of erosion and movement. Each told a story of power and time and enormous shifts not immediately visible.

I saw myself in that stony wall. 

So it is with grief. 

The second anniversary of Kevin's death will be in just over a week, on March 28th. Last year I could barely breath. I went on a trip with his children, my beloved step-children, so we could be together. On the anniversary of his death we walked on the beach, admired the waves, sprinkled some of his ash, cried and laughed. 

These memories were layered onto the memories of the year before when he was dying and the years before that, when he thrived. I remember being astonished by how much had changed and how little. I remember being astonished that I was still upright. It was a story of change and endurance. It was a story of love between partners, parent, child, siblings, friends. 

This year I will spend the anniversary of Kevin's death with my new love, a man who, on the surface is very different from Kevin but in essentials is much the same. I am sure I will cry. I am sure I will laugh. I am sure I will be astonished by how much has changed and how little. I have not stopped loving Kevin, nor will I. I love more now, both the old and the new. I have love layered upon love layered upon love. 

So it is with love. 

This year also finds me preparing for my father's death. He is now in hospice care at home and is very weak. I am writing this from my parents' living room as my father moves slowly in the bedroom, gathering himself for the day to come. I can hear him moving about, slow shifts and pauses, quieter but no less a part of the world than the rush of the water.

It is inevitable that my father's illness and death reminds me of Kevin's. Too, I am reminded of all the ways each of these men have lived. All the ways I have lived. I am reminded of how our lives are layer upon layer of experience, emotion, connection.

I don't like to think life erodes us away, as the water erodes rock. I'd rather think we are slowly exposed and our complexity, all of the things that build us into the wonder that we are, the love and grief and fear and hope, all of these things become astonishing strata that we can look at in awe. Our stories exposed. We are the water and we are the rock.

So it is with life.

(C) 2016 Laura Packer
Creative Commons License

Friday, March 11, 2016

I was supposed to do this with you

Life is very strange sometimes. Most of the time. Not long after I began storytelling I knew that I wanted to be a self-supporting artist. I knew that I wanted to find a way to make a living doing the work I love. I've had some false starts, but here I am, supporting myself as an artist, writer, consultant and teacher. I make enough money that I can pay my bills, put a little aside and pay my taxes.

When I began to plan seriously for this working life I knew Kevin would be by my side. I knew he would be my thinking-partner, work-mate, safety-net, companion throughout. I couldn't imagine doing this work, building this life, without him.

He was there for a long time. He was there to help me plan, to encourage me, to believe in me when I no longer could. And now he's not.

He wasn't here to celebrate when I filed my taxes this year, earning enough money that the government wants its share.
He wasn't here when I was accepted to this conference or that venue.
He wasn't here when I realized that I am living the life of a working artist; helping people, performing and living the dream with all of the ups and downs.

None of this could have happened without him, of course, but it remains baffling to me that I am succeeding without him. He is supposed to be here. He isn't.

I know, he is here in other ways, manifest in things I notice and things I don't. But it's not the same.
I miss celebrating with him. I am so lucky, I have others to celebrate with, others who hold me up and believe in me. But it's not the same.
I am loved and love. I have other thinking-partners and companions. But it's not the same.

Nor should it be. Each person brings their own gifts and I am rich in love and life.

Kevin filled a powerful and unique role in my life, just as each individual fills unique roles in our lives. One cannot be replaced with another. Each enrich us in their own ways.

But god, I miss him. When I get home from this trip I will look at his picture and tell him about everything that happened. I will tell him about the good things, the times when I embarrassed myself, the things I wish I had done differently. He will listen, silent and smiling. I will imagine the things he might say, the Kevin-in-my-head sounding right but not right. I will tell him about the love and support I am receiving, all of the things that make this life possible, and I will tell him, "I was supposed to do this with you."

The Kevin-in-my-head will smile and tell me that I am. That he is there. What's more, my new love is there. And my friends. My companions on the path. He will remind me I am not alone.

I will smile back, knowing he is right. And none of that will change the fact that he is not here.

So it goes.
So it goes.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The telling life: Seven ways to reconnect

I've been grumpy lately. More than that, I've been sulky, irritable, fatigued and just sick of myself. Part of it is because of the looming anniversary of Kevin's death. Part is because of other circumstances in my personal life. And part is because I have been feeling disconnected from my own artistic self.

Does this ever happen to you? Do you ever just feel out of sorts because you have wandered away from the sources of your art? It happens to me more often than I care to admit because being a working artist is as much about marketing and administration as it is about creating. I understand that and I welcome the entire package, I wouldn't choose to live another life, but... sometimes it makes me really crabby.

When this happens my first reaction is usually to run as hard and as fast as I can away from the things that will help. I want to watch mindless television, buy something, go to sleep. I want to feel numb rather than doing the things I need most, because doing them will often make me feel more. When I finally stop running long enough to notice what I'm doing (and I run just about every time, it's amazing I manage to create anything) I feel sheepish. Kind of ashamed and relieved that, in all likelihood, no one noticed me running. Everyone else is too busy with their own avoidance runs to see mine most of the time.

Once I've caught my breath I make a cup of tea and try to reconnect with myself enough to know what will help me through this moment of grumpiness, what will help me reconnect with my artistic source for just this moment. Once I manage one moment I can often manage another and feel much better until the next time I disconnect. And I will disconnect again.

Here are a few things that help me reconnect to myself and my artistic passion. I'd love to know what helps you.
  1. Really, I make myself a cup of tea. But this time, I try to pay attention. I try to notice the water steeping, the color changing. I watch the swirls of milk. I let the flavor unfold on my tongue. I use this as a chance to have a meditative moment and be present. Sometimes I'll do something physical so I can feel the push and pull of my muscles, reminding me of my own strength. 
  2. I go back to the old stories. I pull a real book off my shelf and read about Baba Yaga or Nasrudin or Jack. I remind myself of some of the universal truths about being human and connect with the stories I love. 
  3. I get listened to. I find someone who cares about me and I tell them a story so I can remember that I am good at this. Sometimes I might invite several people over and put on a mini-concert. I remind myself of how whole I feel when I create and when I perform.
  4. I write a love letter. It might be to a person. It might be to a story. It might be to a tree. I sit down and remind myself specifically of why I love something or someone and detail it. This helps me connect with sensory imagery and emotional truth. I usually burn the letter afterwards though sometimes I will share it. And every once in awhile I try to write one to myself. This is much harder. 
  5. I take in art I love. I go to a museum and look at a specific piece of art, one I've looked at before. I listen to Brahms or Chopin or Miles Davis. I read aloud a poem by someone whose words I love. I feel it in my mouth and bones.
  6. I get away from the screen. I try to write something by hand or hold a real book. I turn off my cell phone. 
  7. I spend time around others. I might go to a cafe or someplace where other people are working so I feel more push to work on something, too. Peer pressure helps.
  8. Bonus! I spend time in nature. I walk with trees or by the river. I remind myself that I am very small but as essential as that blade of grass or this ant. I am part of a whole. 
All of this helps. It helps me remind myself that everything I do has an impact. When I run, I have an impact on the world; I decrease myself and my place in it. When I create, when I listen, when I am present, my ripples are likely to be less violent and more connective. I'd rather connect. Most of the time, anyway.

What do you do when you need to reconnect? How do you stop yourself from running?

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 4, 2016

The gift of details

Two years ago today Kevin experienced the first of several pulmonary embolisms. It was the beginning of the end that came before we even adjusted to the beginning of the beginning. The embolisms weakened him so much he couldn't endure chemo, let alone any other invasive treatment. This marks the first time the doctors pulled me aside and told me it could happen at any time, that death was hovering. It was the first time I called his kids and had to say I don't know. It might be important that you come now. We had 23 days left. We didn't know that.

Those days are a blur to me now. I rely on his Caringbridge site to help me remember the progress of those last weeks. I wanted to say those last desperate weeks but I don't want desperation to be the prevailing memory. I'm sure I felt desperation but now, two years gone, what I remember is the love and sorrow and fear, the fatigue, the casting about for something - anything - that might make a difference, as I knew there was little difference to make. I remember the way we were connected, as if there were no boundaries between his heart and mine. I remember the arc of his eyebrows and the way he finally slept with the oxygen mask on, my relief as he rested beside me.

I remember the little details more than the larger story and, in many ways, I think that's a good thing. It's in the details that I find the tenderness, the connection, the reminders that life is bigger than death. The bigger story, the Kevin died from pancreatic cancer story, is too much and too simple. His life was more than that. Our life together was more. Our story and his story are better than that.

I remember listening to his breath.

I remember the feel of his skin.

I remember the kindness that surrounded us. I remember the nurse who held me while I sobbed as I truly grasped that it wouldn't be long. I remember the small kindness between all of the friends and family who were there. I remember the love I felt from all the people following from afar.

I remember the care Kevin took of me, even as he was dying. I remember him doing his best to make me laugh, to ensure that I know how much he loves me.

I remember the love.

I remember the love.

I remember the love.

And that is enough. The cancer may have stolen his life but it didn't steal everything. When I look, in the details of the memories and the present moment, the love endures.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Telling Life: Using storytelling for evil or good

I have been teaching storytelling in a wide variety of settings for many years. There comes a moment in every class when I make students laugh with what I think is actually one of the most important and serious instructions I can give them.

I remind them that storytelling is so powerful that they need to be careful how they use it. It can be used for good. And it can be used for evil. At this point everyone laughs until I give them some examples of the dark side of storytelling. Hitler. The Cultural Revolution. Rwanda. The Ku Klux Klan. So many times, the incredible power of spoken narrative has driven people to commit terrible acts, to believe the worst about the world around them and to lash out. Students grow quiet. Their eyes widen. I can see each of them considering the stories they have told and the ones they have believed. They see its power abused and remember what people have been driven to do.

It's not a joke. I wish it were. 

Storytelling is so effective because our brains are wired for story. We feel more empathy and are more likely to act when we hear a compelling story than through just about any other form of persuasion. For that very reason we need to both be deliberate about the stories we tell and the messages we give AND be aware of when we are being manipulated by a well-told story.

We live in a nuanced world. There are few absolute evils and absolute goods. Fairy tales make things simple; this is not a fairy tale world, life is rarely that clear-cut. When we believe stories that tell us that one life matters more than another, that one group of people is responsible for the woes in a culture, that our own fears and hopes can be answered by hurting others, we need to consider the narrative. Consider the speaker. Consider ourselves. 

No one is immune from a well-told story. Yes, story can change the world. We get to decide what stories we believe, what tellers we follow and how we want to respond. We get to decide what world we want to live in. Don't forget that a well-told story can be as dangerous as an incitement to riot, a call to war, a wall that divides us. Why not use story to build bridges instead?

(c) 2016 Laura S. Packer
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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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