Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Telling Life: Expect wonders

I sometimes struggle to find inspiration for anything. For writing, for stories, for cleaning the kitchen, for getting out of the house. I bet you do, too. Wonder, I have found, is an excellent antidote to the struggle. This may very well not work if you're in the throes of depression (I've been there, so I know), but if you're just feeling as though there will never be anything inspiring ever again and you want to sulk, open yourself up to wonder. Maybe the universe will come through this time. It often does for me.

Wonder is everywhere. I'm not talking about the BIG awe-inspiring wonders, like Niagara Falls or the birth of a baby, but the things we will see if we are willing to take some time to look.

I went for a walk in the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum with my sweetheart a few weeks ago. It was a hot, bright day, the air clinging to our skin and clothing. The arboretum has many different landscapes you can explore, all lovely and all full of wonder. There are sculpted gardens, rosebeds, woodland, marshes and more.

At first I saw the big things.



Then I began to see details.





And soon enough the world exploded into wonder.





Wonder is there if we look for it. You needn't be in an arboretum or any other special place, you just need to be willing to let it in. It's in the cracks in the sidewalk, the slip of paper left in an old book, the expression on a stranger's face, the arc of the clouds across the sky. It is big and it is little. It is in our pores and in the air we breath.

When we are open to wonder, we are open to the world and much more able to make something of it.

What wonder have you found lately?

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

An open letter to Kevin, on your birthday

Dear Kevin,

(What a small greeting for words that contain so much.)

I still can't believe that you're gone. Dead. Your vitality lingers, it is as tangible as the air. You had more impact on the world than most do with the full span of their years. I suppose you had the full span of your years, it was just a shorter span than we wanted, than anyone would have hoped. I can't help but wonder how you would have changed the world had you been here longer.

I spend a lot of time thinking about things like that, things I cannot change. All of the what ifs linger. I spend less time thinking about things like that than I used to. The what ifs are often replaced with aching gratitude.
How strange.

I think that phrase captures it best. How strange. 
How strange that you are not here. Your body seemed invincible.
How strange that I still am. I am not, of course. I am so different now. But how strange that the me's are continuous and contiguous. A rupture like this should leave a visible mark. I sometimes imagine a great scar running the length of my entire body and the healing uneven, evidence of being torn apart and coming back as something different.
How strange that I am in this alternate universe where you are not and I still am. That I have another love. That the world still spins.

I think the phrase aching gratitude is even more apt, especially today.
I am so grateful you were born and became the man we all love.
I am so grateful your children were born and your heart was big enough to invite me in.
I am so grateful for everything you taught me. I am a better person than I could have been without you.
I am so grateful for all the love, all the love, all the love.

Even as gratitude fills me, there is still a void and I ache. I remind myself that you are in my DNA, my cells, the air I breath. I close my eyes and feel your arms, your lips, your breath.

I see you everywhere.

Happy birthday, beloved. Thank you for being in the world, for sharing your grace with us, with me.
I miss you and always will.
I love you and always will.
How strange.
How lucky.
The world has felt your footsteps, your touch is forever on my skin, and for that I am grateful.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, June 24, 2016

The "why" game

Any of you who have spent time with young children know all about the why game. A child will ask a question, receive a perfectly appropriate answer for it, then ask, "why?". Every answer will be met with a why until the answerer - usually a parent or older sibling - turns into the Incredible Hulk in rage. Or at least feels like they could.

I play the why game with myself when I'm out of sorts, trying to figure out what's at the root of what I'm feeling. It annoys me no end and I want to throttle my inner four year old, but it works. For example, right now I am really cranky. I want to bark at everyone near me, like the very nice woman seated next to me who has an annoying incoming text tone. Some of the reasons are obvious - I'm in an airport, looking at delayed flights, and I'm already tired - but I travel a great deal and am used to this. It's not the root cause.

So what's going on?

Adult me: I'm cranky. I'm tired.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Because I'm trapped in the airport for who knows how long and that lady next to me has the most annoying incoming text sound on the planet.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Why does she have that text sound? I don't know. Maybe she likes it.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Because she has terrible taste?
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: I don't know, it's likely something to do with her childhood.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: What do you mean "why?"?
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Because I want to know. (As you can see, adult me is not much older than four.)
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Fine. I'm cranky because I'm going to get into Philly later than I was planning and I'm already tired.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: I didn't sleep well last night.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Oh, you know, I was in a hotel room and I never sleep well in hotels. Plus I just don't sleep well.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Why don't I sleep well? You know.
(Four year old me is quiet and looks at me with those wise child eyes.)
Adult me: Fine. I haven't slept well since Kevin got sick and certainly not since he died. It's a kind of PTSD thing, I think. I would wake up because he needed help or because I was afraid he had died while I slept and now I still wake up.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: That's a dumb question.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Why is it so bad now? Maybe because we just passed the anniversary of his memorial and next Tuesday is his birthday. And I'm frustrated that my flight is delayed.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Because I need to get to New Jersey.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: Because my father is dying. And I don't know what else to do.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: I don't know. Why do people we love die? Why is it so hard, why do the people left behind feel so lost? Why am I so sad when most of my life is so good? I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.
Four year old me: Why?
Adult me: You're right. Because that's the way of the world and I just want to have a tantrum about it and I'm tired of being the grown-up.
(Four year old me smiles, sucks her thumb and holds out her teddy bear. I think she's a lot smarter than I am.)

That's why I play the why game. Though I still don't know why that lady has such an annoying incoming text tone.
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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Telling Life: Ten tips for the road weary storyteller and others

You may have noticed I've not been posting quite as regularly lately. This is because I've been working a lot, which is great. Most of the work hasn't been near my home and has included very long hours, which is fine, but takes some management. I'm learning a lot about self-care, energy management and efficient packing so I thought I'd share. I'd love to know your favorite road-warrior tips! Please add them in the comments so others can benefit.
  1. TSA-PreCheck. I know, you're thinking this is a waste of money. It's not. Airport security lines are just getting longer and the $85 I spent on my Known Traveler Number has saved me hundreds of hours in line. I can be pretty confident that arriving an hour ahead of time is enough and I won't miss my flight; if you don't have TSA-PreCheck that's no longer a guarantee.
    If you're concerned about the government having your fingerprint or running a background check, that's another matter. You have to follow your conscience.  
  2. Money vs. time. It's always a trade-off. TSA-PreCheck, for example, is an excellent example where the cost per hour of the clearance is likely quite low for me. I expect the $85 spread out over the time it has saved me is barely $1/hour. My time is worth more than that. Likewise, when I park at the airport I use the lot where they pick me up and drop me off at my car. It's .50 more/day when I use a coupon and this way I don't have to wait for up to 30 minutes for a shuttle. Other things aren't worth it, but I always make sure I consider the trade-off between time and money when I can.  
  3. The right bags. I travel with two bags, my laptop backpack and my carry-on duffel. I use a duffel rather than a roller because I can get almost as much in it and it almost always fits in the overhead section, so I don't have to gate-check it. My duffel can carry about a week's worth of clothing along with all my toiletries and other sundries. Admittedly, I don't wear clean trousers every day, but it works. I'm currently using this bag because, if I want to bring my camera instead of my laptop bag, it's equipped for it. 
  4. Effective packing. My duffel wouldn't work if I didn't pack effectively. For one, I roll things instead of folding them. This takes up less room. For another, I make choices about what I can wear more than once (come on, you do this, too). I also make sure I'm wearing comfortable shoes for the travel days and pack only one other pair for work purposes. I also have a toiletries baggie that I leave packed and in the duffel. 
  5. E-readers and other technology. You can carry hundreds of books if you have an e-reader. Yes, I prefer paper books, but this technology has been life-changing for thousands of travelers.
    Equally, I use a number of apps that make everything MUCH easier. TripIt is amazing.
  6. Important info. I keep all kinds of important info in a notes program on my phone. This includes airline and hotel contact numbers. I was on a flight that was significantly delayed. We sat on the tarmac for close to an hour before they told us we were going to deplane and would have to wait several hours for another plane. This meant I wouldn't be home until the next day. I was already tired and cranky. As soon as the announcement was made, while still on the airplane, I called the airline and was rebooked on a flight leaving in 45 minutes. If I didn't have that number handy I might not have called.
    I also upload copies of presentations, notes and handouts to Dropbox, so I have backup copies that aren't dependent on my technology. Sometimes I copy them to a thumb drive that I carry with me. Technology can fail so keep backups of important info. And you already back your computer up before you hit the road, right?
  7. Mobile office. I have a mobile office that lives in my laptop backpack. It includes pens, a notebook, chargers for everything I might carry, a mini-powerstrip, paper-clips and so on. It adds a little weight but has been incredibly helpful when I'm working on the road. I also carry a little bottle of hand-sanitizer attached to my bag so I am less likely to catch a cold while traveling. 
  8. Don't assume you'll remember everything. I keep lists, writing down even the most obvious of things. Right now, when I have only a day at home, my list includes things like: laundry, pack (with a sublist of what I'll need), blog, dishes, buy toothpaste. These are simple things that I'd like to think I could remember, but I know I have such a dense schedule, I don't want to wake up before my big meeting and find I've run out of toothpaste.
  9. Timing. Timing is everything. Give yourself enough time and make choices about what will get done. You may not have time for everything. Maybe you'll need to ask for help. This is where lists can come in handy!
  10. Sleeping and other habits. Just because you're on the road you don't have to lose all of your good habits. Try to eat well on the road. Stay hydrated. Get enough sleep. I carry a few binder clips in my duffel because often hotel blinds don't close quite all the way and the room can be bright. I sleep better in the dark. Do what you can to continue the same good habits that you have at home while you're on the road. A little thought can go a long way to staying healthy on the road and back home.
  11. Mindfulness, patience and wonder. Your bonus tip is one of the most important. Remember, things will get screwed up. The computer hook-up will fail, the flight will be cancelled, you'll forget something important at home. You have some control over how you react to these things. If you get angry and frustrated things will seem even worse. If you can take a deep breath and remain calm, you may find people are more likely to help you and, at a minimum, your blood pressure won't spike. Most service people (like gate agents, pilots, hotel clerks and so on) are doing the best they can. A smile and thank you can go a long way. By being mindful that we are all in this together, by practicing a little patience, your travel hiccups will at least be easier to bear.
    And don't forget, you're in a new place doing work you chose. Even if you don't have time to explore, enjoy the sound of regional speech. Ask your hosts about what they love. Chat with the people in the airport waiting next to you, they may have wonderful stories to share. Don't lose the wonder of being on the road and the road will hold you up.
I'd love to know what tips and tricks have worked for you. I hope this list is helpful as you hit the road for work and adventure!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, June 10, 2016

Sometimes we have to cry

From shortly after Kevin's diagnoses, I cried. I tried not to cry in front of him too often, I didn't want him to worry about me (though I now think this was a mistake and that's a topic for a whole other post) nor did I want him to think I had given up on him, but I cried. A lot. When he died I learned that I could cry with such abandon that I would not be able to stand or even sit up straight. Sometimes I cried so hard I would have to stop before I vomited. I didn't always stop in time.

As time passed I cried less. More time would pass between the big bouts of tears and even those began to diminish in intensity. Now I cry infrequently and when I do it's almost always a momentary shower, not the overwhelming storm.

All of this is okay, it's all part of what happens for me in grief. Your experience may be different but for me it was important to let myself cry. I didn't want to bottle it up, which is what not crying would have been for me.

For the last few months, really since the anniversary of Kevin's death, I've been down. Not like I was, I can function and most of the time I feel okay, but I've been aware of more grief and sorrow in my body and spirit than I had felt in some time. This, too, is okay because grief is an unpredictable tide. This period of greater grief has been puzzling to me, however.

I learned how to manage the great waves. I learned to let myself succumb to them and just feel whatever it was I was feeling. I think part of why I am where I am is because I didn't fight it, I felt it. Now, over two years out (unbelievable) I find myself again in new territory. The world is no longer barren as it once was, but it is unfamiliar. I often think that I am living in a parallel universe where everything is almost but not quite like my old universe.

There have been times when I didn't realize grief was looming large (though it's never entirely gone) but this time I knew it was there, I just didn't know what to do with it. I've been writing in my journal, nesting, doing all the things that have helped before, but my mood has remained the same; not terrible, but not good either. I've been describing it as cranky. 

I kept thinking a good cry would help. I've cried a little in the last few months, but never enough to burn off some of the sorrow. I would sniffle and it would stop, even when I gave myself clear permission to let go. I find this frustrating and upsetting, wondering if it's somehow a comment on how much I love Kevin. I know that makes no sense but the doubt creeps in, maybe because of the lack of models for what healthy long-term loss looks like, though that's a whole other conversation, too.

Sometimes we have to cry. Sometimes we need to just let the feelings wash over us and see who we are once the storm has passed. Since the storm wasn't coming for me, I went looking for the storm.

I don't know about you, but every once in awhile I stumble across a piece of art that says more about what it is to be human than I ever could. Sometimes it's a painting, a piece of music, a story or a book. And every once in a while, very rarely, it's a television show. The last one that really did it for me was Six Feet Under. If you haven't watched it some of what follows won't make any sense to you, so please forgive me. Check out the link above if you'd like. I'll be here when you come back.

I didn't realize I was looking for the storm until a friend posted the finale of Six Feet Under on Facebook. I sat there, looking at the post for a long time before I clicked play. I knew what would happen. If you have seen it then you know, too. I'm not including the video in this post because a) if you know the show it will make you cry and b) if you don't know it then it pretty much spoils the preceding five seasons, but if you want to see it go here.

Within two or three seconds tears were streaming down my face and soon enough I was shaking with sobs. It was exactly what I needed. Right now, as I write these words, I am tearing up again. The floodgates are open and that is fine. As my body shudders with sorrow I also remember the love. I am able to forgive myself for the tears shed and those hidden. I am wholly in this moment instead of suspended between life and sorrow.

Crying is not a weakness. It is a way to express our very real feelings and move through them to whatever comes next. I have cried rivers. Sometimes we have to. Those rivers are carrying me to new lands; to new ways of understanding the world; to a new kind of relationship with grief, with life, with love, and with Kevin.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Telling Life: I am privileged

Caveat: I've been struggling with this post for awhile so am publishing it to get it out of my head. It's rambling and repetitive, I know. I'm throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Not long ago I declared an interest in writing a post about storytelling and privilege. That was dumb. This whole issue has me stuck in a mire of frustration and uncertainty, so I'm writing this post to get it out of my system. I have no answers, only questions and a reminder to admit my own good luck and circumstance.

I've gone around and around about what I want to say. I came up with sweeping generalizations, some scathing indictments of a culture that doesn't value arts adequately, pointed observations about how privilege hurts our art yet some of us profit from it. I had hours of conversations about privilege. I was told I should write about white privilege, economic privilege, cultural privilege and more.

My head was spinning and I got lost. This is such a big topic and so pervasive, I found I had too much to say and became mute.

What I can write about is my own, personal experience with privilege and my response to it. Perhaps some of you will feel a resonance with it and might be moved to think about privilege in your own artistic lives (or lives in general). If you're wondering if you might be privileged here is a quiz you can take.

Let me start with the following admission: I am living a life of incredible privilege. I am a white, middle-class woman whose appearance falls within ordinary parameters. I am mostly able-bodied and able-minded. When I decided to leap into self-employment I spent two years building savings specifically for a safety net AND I had a spouse who was willing to support me while I got the business up and running. When he died I still had an economic safety net, so I was able to make the choice to continue self-employment.

I am very lucky.

I feel as though I can only write about privilege in personal terms though it's a global issue. I hope that by acknowledging it, I become more aware of it on a routine basis and so will more readily extend a hand up to those what may not have my arbitrary advantages. I hope that my understanding of it will be sharpened and I can more readily monitor my own responses and be aware of those times when I get something not because I deserve it but because of my status. I hope that I remember my obligation to open those same doors for others. None of this means I feel particularly guilty about having these privileges, I don't see the point in that. What it does mean is I think I have an obligation to acknowledge it and to use it for the greater good.

I am absolutely certain there are gifted artists who do not have the option to devote themselves to their art. They create in the interstices, time stolen from their jobs or their families. I wish we lived in a world that would permit them more latitude. All I can do is support their work when I encounter it and try to create opportunity for them. I am also certain there are gifted artists who do not want to pursue art full-time and that's fine. Wallace Stevens maintained his insurance career while writing poetry that changed American literature. He wanted the security and social network a job provides. There is nothing wrong with that.

Storytelling is a universal art. If you are human, you tell stories. Yet when I look at career storytellers and those who are up-and-coming I don't see an even representation of my larger community. I am not an even representation of it. I try to counter it by being aware, by promoting and mentoring tellers who do not have the same privilege I do. I fail often. I try again.

I am writing this because I don't have answers. I don't know what to do about it, because it seems as though the ideal solution involves systemic change I don't know how to create (though I hope my small actions have ripples). All I can do is ask the questions and make the best, most informed choices I can.

I am incredibly lucky. I certainly have to make careful decisions but I am building the life I want through hard work, tremendous support and privilege. Economic, racial, cultural, sexual and more.

I am writing all of this because I am struggling with the idea of privilege and living the creative life. I don't believe starving artists are the only kind of legitimate artist - frankly I wish that stereotype wasn't ongoing and sometimes accurate - but I do believe many of us who are able to live this creative life are doing so from a place of privilege. We have a responsibility to at least acknowledge it then to try to make it possible for those less fortunate to experience the same opportunities. It's so often about access to opportunity; those who are less privileged may not hear of opportunities or may not have the resources to reach for them. I don't see the point in railing about a skewed cultural value of art and artists though I do believe our society has some misplaced visions of worth and payment. Mostly I believe I can make a difference by naming my own privilege, by trying to change systemic bias, by offering a hand when I can, by being grateful for what I have, and by continuing to ask difficult questions.

I don't have solutions for any of these questions but they are worth asking. I think we all deserve a chance to shine. I'd love to know how you think about privilege in general and in storytelling in particular.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, June 3, 2016

In sickness and in health

Like so many, when Kevin and I married we spoke vows, promising to stand beside each other in sickness and in health. This has become one of the memories that pops into my mind with some regularity, our hands clasped and our voices making these promises to one another. Every time I think had I known what was going to happen I would change nothing. This is still true. I would have welcomed Kevin into my life and my heart even if I had known that the end would come much too soon and in a way neither of us expected, leaving me shattered and faced with rebuilding into something new.

Throughout his illness I was Kevin's protector, interpreter, and sometimes even his voice. I would have done nothing less. This is a common story, one shared by so many of the widowed people I have met since his death. Another common story, but one I only experienced recently, is what happens in the sickness part of life, when you no longer have the person you expected by your side. Kevin had me. I no longer have him.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I am fine. Frankly, the details of the issue aren't relevant to this essay and aren't something I'm interested in sharing. It's enough for you to know that I am fine. I am healthy. (Mom, stop worrying, I'm okay, I promise.)


A few weeks ago I had some odd symptoms. Since Kevin's death I find I tend towards a touch of hypochondria. I get nervous when the slightest thing is off so I go the doctor more often. Every time she smiles and reassures me that I'm well. I'm fortunate, she understands my history so is patient and thorough as she examines me. She does not write off my concerns.

This time I went in expecting the same reassurances. She examined me, then said something to the effect of In all likelihood you're just fine, but there is a slight chance this is a symptom of something serious. Let's make sure. She ordered the appropriate tests and sent me home to wait.

I got home and burst into tears. It took me awhile to figure out exactly why I was crying but soon enough I realized it was because, if there was something wrong, Kevin would not be there to hold my hand and help me. I felt immensely alone. I felt angry; I took care of him and he was not longer here to take care of me. I felt isolated.

Bear in mind, I am not isolated. I have friends here in KC as well as further afield who love me and would find a way to care for me if I needed it. I have family. And I have a new love who I know would do everything in his power to support me. I am not alone.

In that moment this knowledge didn't matter. What mattered was that the man who had sworn to care for me in sickness and in health wasn't there. It felt awful. I howled.

Once I pulled myself together I made some calls. I spoke with a few local friends who assured me that they would be there if I needed them, that they are there regardless. One offered to come over immediately, another offered to go with me to get my results. I spoke with my new love who rapidly changed his plans so he could spend the weekend with me while I waited, take me for the last test and be there when I got the results. And I spoke with Kevin, who assured me (in his own ethereal way) that he is here and still with me.

I am okay. You don't need to worry, the tests were all negative and I just need to work on better stress management, like everyone else. My new love took wonderful care of me as we waited for the word. My friends all made sure I knew I wasn't alone. I am okay.

But in that moment, in that time between getting home and reaching out, I was reminded again (and again, and again) of just how big the hole is. I was reminded of just how much I lost when Kevin died. I was reminded of how much no one wants to be alone. And I was reminded of how glad I am that I was there for Kevin, that I could walk by his side and hold his hand to the end. I hope we all can be that lucky and that well loved.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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