Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Telling Life: Take a week off

Hey everyone, I'm taking a week off from writing a #tellinglife post. I'm working on a post for next week that tackles some big issues and I need more time to think about it.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you. What stories are you loving these days? Have you had any adventures in the #tellinglife? Are you looking forward to summer or building a dark, airconditioned bunker? How are you?

Thanks for understanding. Stay tuned next week for thoughts on privilege, creativity and life.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 20, 2016

Two years plus, the same and different

Language warning. One use of a swear word. This may be hard to read if you are still grieving Kevin.

So here I am, just over two years out from Kevin's death. For those of you counting, it's 111-and-a-half weeks. I still keep count without meaning to. Now I have to pause for a bit though I always know. So much is the same and so much is different. The last few weeks have been difficult, I've had big gulping waves of grief crash over me in ways that I've not felt in quite some time. I am reminded that, no matter how long it is, Kevin still is not here and I will always miss him.

At just over two years I am still shocked by his absence, still stunned that all of it really happened. He really had pancreatic cancer and he really died. That mother-fucker of a disease really did it. It ate him from the inside and extinguished his light. He really isn't on this planet anymore, at least not in the ways that I knew him best.

At just over two years I am at least as shocked by the fact that I am still here. Even more, I am stunned that I am at all functional, let alone doing pretty well most days. I miss him more than I can tell you yet I have found new joys in my life. I have been able to let in new love, been supported by new friends as well as old, and all of this still leaves room for Kevin. For me. For my grief which sometimes still overwhelms me. And that is okay, as it should be, all of it.

In the last two years I learned that it is okay to ask for help. I have learned that most people will be kind, if you give them a chance. I have sobbed in the arms of strangers and held others while they cried. I have learned that some people really do think it's their business how I grieve and how I express it. I have learned to ignore them, that no one can tell me or anyone else how long is too long. I have gotten really good at taking a deep breath before I respond to any suggestion that I have finished grieving Kevin. I have become much more comfortable with both silence and boundaries. I have been reminded, time and again, that we all are doing the best we can. Sometimes it is enough. Sometimes not. I have learned that the world will not stop as much as we may long for it to do so.

Two years is nothing and eternity. So much is the same and so much is different. I am so much the same and so different. The Laura I was before his diagnosis, illness and death is gone. I may look mostly the same but I am very different now. Yet I still am me. I am an altered me and in some ways I like this version more though the cost was too high.

What remains the same is the love. I still love Kevin, I always will. I still hold his love for me. I still love his kids, my family and friends. Love only creates more love, it is the easiest and best thing in the world to give away. I didn't know this as clearly then as I do now, but I have learned.

I have learned that love does not end. It does not end. It does not.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Telling Life: Technical storytelling

Last week I had the honor of presenting a storytelling workshop to a group of IT executives. It was great. I love working with technical people on storytelling because they are so good at it. I expect there is something deeply liberating in the permission to be human and connected in a technical context. Technology, after all, is part of what it is to be human; we've been using tools (and tools are technology) since we first picked up a rock.

We need to be able to talk about technology in understandable ways and storytelling, of course, makes the technical accessible. People who work in technology are still people and so want to know that their work has positive impact or want to learn from their mistakes. Stories are a great way to do both.

I asked the group to work on stories of a time when their organization overcame adversity. This meant that they were working on stories about when they overcame adversity, solved problems and made things better, just in the context of work. I loved watching them.

The first time around several people seemed to feel awkward. This makes sense, how often do we have a chance to tell a story of our own success without judgement or apology? By the last time they told their stories I could see people sitting up straighter. Their voices were lighter. They were more connected with one another. They were more aware of the human impact of the work they do every day.

Yes, they were telling technical stories, some of which were highly detailed and well beyond my understanding, but they were all stories of overcoming obstacles and helping people. They were all stories of human understanding, teamwork and achievement.

It's easy to think that the technology we use every day - whether it's a computer, a car, a hammer or a phone - has no emotional weight, but that's a lie. How often have you felt frustrated because your computer, car, hammer or phone didn't work the way you had hoped? When we let the technology of our lives be part of our stories it becomes easier to understand and perhaps easier to be patient with because we are reminded that this is another kind of story we all share. I was late because my car wouldn't start is a simple story we all can relate to because we all have experienced it. What if we add in the stories of connection such as I fell in love with someone I met online or I used my grandfather's hammer to build my home or My team solved a software problem for a program that's used by thousands worldwide.

Everything we do is part of being human because it can't not be. And humans use story and technology every day. Like everything else, when we tell stories about technology, about success and failure, we allow our humanity to permeate everything and we become more connected with other people through that shared experience. Let your computer, car, hammer and phone become stories.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 13, 2016

There is no vacuum

I'm traveling a great deal for work these days; I'm on an airplane and sleeping in hotels several times every month. There was a woman next to me on my flight to Chicago this afternoon. This isn't unusual, I know, in this era of oversold flights. I had been hoping for an empty seat, but there she was so we both had to make do.

We both settled in as well as we could, our ample hips brushing against each other. I held my arms in tight as did she, we were polite air travelers. I put on my headphones, noise canceling on, and listened to my podcast while I played a game in my tablet. I did my best to create my own little bubble around me, a place where there was no one else and the flight could pass as quickly as possible. There were at least 75 people on that plane, and we all pretended we were in some kind of vacuum, where the other 74 didn't exist except when the flight attendants came by to offer us water or coffee.

I thought she was doing the same thing I was, pretending no one else was there. She leafed through a magazine. She settled in to doze.

About midway through I realized she wasn't hugging her jacket as she rested, she was crying. It's an awkward thing, having a stranger cry next to you, but I have been so blessed by kind strangers when I was the one crying, I couldn't help but want to help. I waited until she was pulled together a bit, then I took off my headphones and asked if she was okay. She couldn't meet my eyes but said, in a voice so quiet I could barely hear her over the airplane white noise, "I'm going home to bury my mother. She died yesterday. I thought I had more time."

She spoke with her mother yesterday morning, a few hours before she died, and told her that she loved her. Her mom had been in the hospital a few weeks ago but they sent her home, saying everything was fine. They were wrong.

Her mom's name was Ruby and she lived in the town where she raised her children.

I asked if there would be anyone there who loved her, someone she could lean on. Her daughter, Laura Rachel, was meeting her there, she said. "I call her Rache, but I love the name Laura."

We talked on and off for the rest of the flight. I am so glad I reached through that crowded vacuum to ask her if she was okay. I doubt if she will remember me in a month, but that's fine. Sometimes all we need is someone to be with us in that moment. Sometimes all we need is to be the on who is present.

Her name is Judy. She is going home to bury her mother and she needed to know she wasn't alone.
(c)2016 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Telling Life: I am the wicked queen, the cursing fairy

I feel as though I should be writing this post in a tiny font or some other way of indicating a secret, a shame. I know what I’m about to say is no different from anything most of us feel, but we don’t talk about it, and I think that can have an impact on our work and our confidence in our abilities. It certainly undermines my sense of my own value as a storyteller, an artist and a human being. 

Here goes.

I love the villains in fairy tales. I know they can be truly awful and rarely do they actually learn a lesson - really it’s more about punishment - but they are so human. They are often the only characters who behave in understandable, if wicked, ways. They experience something that hurts. They lash out. 

There are days when I am the Wicked Queen from Snow White. I look in my mirror and see myself as old, outdated. I am in that odd generational gap commonly known as Gen X, sandwiched between the Baby Boomers and Millennials. When I began storytelling I was the baby in the room and when I tried to do new, innovative things (personal stories about sex, revamping fairy tales in experimental ways, judged storytelling events and so on) there was always someone telling me I was pushing too hard and no one would want that kind of stuff. 

Now that kind of stuff is all the rage. 

I now often hear stories and see performances that are similar to what I was trying to do 15 years ago; I truly celebrate that our art has grown so much and that there is room for more diverse visions of what storytelling is. Even in my celebration, every once in awhile that hurt part of me thinks what about me? I was doing that way back when and no one cared. I still do it. I still push boundaries. Does anyone care? I'm not the young generation now, does anyone want innovation from me? I stifle those voices and carry on. They help no one. I'd rather keep doing new work and supporting other tellers, but those voices are there. While I don't lash out, I do get jealous. 

There are days when I am the cursing fairy from Sleeping Beauty. I feel left out and so am less generous. I am the old woman in the road who offers spurned gifts. I am the giant who really just wants to be left alone. I am all of these villains some days. 

We don't have a community understanding of this kind of stuff. The storytelling community is amazing but still quite young, so we don't have a way to express these feelings in safe ways. We also live in a culture that doesn't support artists more generally, so there is little conversation about all the ways being an artist is also all the ways we are human, with good and bad feelings. I don't always know what to do with these emotions and I certainly don't feel safe expressing them. This post is terrifying me, I'm afraid to click publish. I'm afraid that by naming it I will lose work, I will not be considered for other gigs, or people - you, my colleagues whom I love and respect - will think less of me. I'm afraid I will be punished as all fairy tale villains are because I'm not supposed to feel this way, right?

What really matters, of course, is what I do with these feelings. Most of the time I acknowledge them and move on. If it's a particularly bad day I might call a friend and rant for awhile, then put on my big girl pants and try again. I do my best to not act on these feelings, to not become the wicked queen, even if I understand her more now than I ever thought I could when I was 25. I like to think it's the action (or lack thereof) that matters. All I can do is keep doing the best work I can and be as generous as I can be, regardless of some of my less noble feelings.

Who does it hurt? If I don't act on it and do my best to remain a supportive member of the community, then I hurt no one, right? Wrong. I hurt myself because I begin to doubt my own abilities, talent and voice. I hurt others because, if I feel obsolete, I am less likely to seek out performances and teaching opportunities, so I remove my voice from the world. And my voice matters, just as much as yours does, just as much as the newest storyteller who hasn't yet heard a broad range of performances so thinks all their ideas are new.

I know I'm not alone in this, but so rarely do I talk about it with anyone. I have two colleagues who has expressed similar feelings to me, and I am grateful because I know I'm not the only one who feels petty jealousy sometimes. Surely there are more than just the three of us?

I know I'm not the only storyteller artist human being to feel this way. The old stories tell me that, because there are so many characters who struggle with feeling left behind or worthless. But the old stories don't offer me a roadmap of a way out of these feelings; they tell me only that acting on them is evil. I remind myself that I still have worth even if I feel petty things. I do my best to not stifle others as I was stifled. I work to remain generous with my time, my mentorship, my leadership, my talent. But some days it's not easy and all I want is to have my mirror tell me that yes, I am still fair.

What do you do when you feel jealous, frustrated, and ashamed of having those feelings? Am I the only one?

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 6, 2016

The stories we tell

I had the pleasure of teaching a class this past weekend at the Northlands Storytelling Conference. It was called Storying our grief: Loss, transformation and storytelling and it was an unparalleled honor to help this group of 20 or so people think through their grief then begin to craft stories around it. It was difficult and wonderful.

I wanted to teach this workshop because I have come to understand both how pervasive and important grief is AND how taboo it is.

It's everywhere. Everyone grieves. Whether we grief a significant death, the loss of a job or role, a way of life, an understanding of the world or something else altogether, grief is a basic part of the human experience. I have said over and over again, if we are lucky we will grieve. If we are lucky enough to cherish something or someone, we may eventually have to mourn its loss or alteration. We will eventually mourn something. Grief means we are alive, we are connected, we are human

At the same time we are told that our grief should be hidden. We should just "get over it." We do not live in a time or culture that has good ways for supporting loss and helping the mourner embrace what they are feeling so they can eventually return to themselves. Grief and loss are not easily spoken of, especially when we are told to just cheer up and move on. I think this is especially so for men, though I know many women who have essentially been told to get over it.

I find this ridiculous. Loss, grief and contending with mortality have driven more human art than just about anything else with the possible exception of love. If art is how we process and understand our experiences then we have been working to process and understand grief for as long as we have been human.

We need to be able to talk about this stuff.

We need to be able to tell stories about what we have lost, about our experience of that loss and about how we have been transformed. The oldest recorded human story - Gilgamesh - is (in large part) about loss and transformation. The myths, folktales and personal stories about loss and change are vital. We need to hear them. They are our roadmap through a land we will eventually travel.

My workshop was an honor to lead and to witness, not just because I was present with people in the act of creation but because I was watching them listen to, support and help one another. By telling and hearing these stories we were all reminded that we are not alone. You don't need to be a storyteller to participate in an experience like that.

Next time you need to share your loss, please do. Tell your story to those who are willing to hear. Pay attention to their needs, sure, but don't silence yourself.

By being visible as people who have experienced and survived grief, by being heard as individuals who have mourned deeply and been transformed, by speaking up, we show the world that helping each other through grief is not tedious or dangerous.
It is the kindest thing we can do for one another.
It is necessary.
It is sacred.
And everyone will need that kind of help in time.

Here, this is what I learned.
You are not alone.

Here, this is what helped, what didn't.
You are not alone.


(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Telling Life: Teach what you know

I had the pleasure of attending the Northlands Storytelling Conference this past weekend. It was a joy. A bunch of people who love storytelling, gathered to tell, listen, talk, teach and encourage one another.

I presented a workshop called Storying Our Grief about using storytelling to process grief and then to help others. This is one of many workshops I teach on a wide variety of topics, a sampling of which you can see here, but it was by far one of the most challenging I have ever taught.

I struggled for months with imposter syndrome about this workshop. What right do I have to talk about grief and loss? I'm not a therapist, is this too dangerous a can of worms to open? Will anyone want to come? For that matter, do I know enough about storytelling to teach anything about it? My inner demons were alive and well as I worked on this one. It was rough.

I persevered. I kept working on it. Each time the negative thoughts got too loud I would counter them as best as I could.

  • What right do I have to talk about grief and loss? Well, I've experienced a significant loss. While each grief is different there are similarities too, and I can at least help remind people that we are not alone in our loss. 
  • I'm not a therapist, is this too dangerous a can of worms to open? True, I'm not a therapist. But I've attended and led risky workshops before and as long as I am clear about purpose and intention (remind everyone that this is not therapy but storytelling) I should be okay. Have some tissues on hand. Have a good strategy planned for help in case someone gets really upset.
  • Will anyone want to come? I can't control that. All I can do is offer something I believe to be worthwhile. 
  • For that matter, do I know enough about storytelling to teach anything about it? Oh, shut up. I've been doing this for 20+ years, I probably know a thing or two.

It went really well. I had maybe 20 people in the workshop, they all seemed to get something out of it, no one fell apart in a significant way and yet they all got to feel what they needed to feel. I learned more about how to facilitate a group, how to help people process, how to tell stories.

I was thinking about it afterwards and remembered that 1) I can't teach what I don't know and 2) every time I teach I learn something new. I do know something about storytelling. I do know something about grief. I would never have wanted this knowledge, this understanding of deep grief, but now that I have it, I may as well do something with it to try to make the world a more whole place. The rewards are huge.

Every time I teach I am sharing myself and my experience. I love it. I love seeing my students have their a-ha moments. I love everything I learn every time I teach. I love knowing that my offering will help them be more fully themselves and better storytellers to boot; it helps me in the same way. I hope that we all can come to a place where we recognize that we have something to offer, that our experiences give us something worth sharing, that we all get to be both teachers and students.

P.S. As always, I'd love to know what you think. And if you're interested in bringing me in to teach, let's talk!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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