Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Stories for changing times

I originally posted the following story in my other blog, thinkstory. This is a modified post but the same story.

As I was pondering what to write today it occured to me that we need stories now more than ever, we need to look back to the old wisdom to remind ourselves that our problems now are not that much different than what they have been. Sure, I know modern media and technology has a huge impact, but humans are still driven by basically the same things.

What follows is a story we could consider now, when we are living in highly divided times. It serves as a reminder that perspective is everything. I hope you find it useful.

A few weeks ago I posted the story of the Two Wolves. Many of you liked it, so I'm going to start posting traditional stories that have modern applications at the end of each month. If nothing else, these stories remind us that the issues we face now are basic human issues, and things we have been struggling with for a long time.

The blind men and the elephant originated in India. Many different versions exist, which seems somehow fitting. I have found this story useful when dealing with multiple points of view, people who are convinced they are more right than anyone else in the room.

Once upon a time there were six blind men who lived in the same village. They worked together and helped each other as best as they could. 

On the day that this story takes place they were told an elephant was in the village center. They had no idea what an elephant was, so they decided to go meet it. They each could touch it and learn something about it.

They gathered around the animal and gently reached out their hands. 

The first touched the elephant’s leg. “An elephant is like a pillar,” he declared. 

"Oh, no! It is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.

“Fool! It is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk.

“Idiot! It is like a banana leaf,” said the fourth man who touched the ear.

“Are you mad? It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the flank.

“You are all wrong. It is like a solid pipe," said the sixth man who touched the tusk.

They began to argue and then fight about the nature of the elephant and each one insisted that he was right. 

A wise man nearby saw what was happening. He asked, "What is the matter?" They replied, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them shared their definition of the elephant. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one touched a different part of the elephant. The elephant has all those features. It is strong like a pillar, thin like a rope, thick like a branch, flat like a leaf, huge like a wall and solid like a pipe.”

The blind men each reached out and felt the elephant again (it was a very patient elephant) and understood that they all were right. An elephant, like so many things, can appear to be different depending on how you approach it. 

I'm sure you can find applications for this story in both your work and home lives. I'd love to hear how you might use it!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 25, 2016

Repost: Tips for the holidays

This post was originally published just about a year ago, but it still holds true. The holidays can be difficult for everyone and especially so for those who are mourning a loss. Whether you are just months out, years or decades, the holidays trigger memories of our loved ones who are no longer here and make the absence feel more acute. What follows are some thoughts about how to help ourselves and others who may be grieving as we move through the holiday season. Or really at any time.

Be kind to yourselves. We are all doing the best we can.

Laura, November 2016

What follows was originally published in November of 2015. It has been slightly modified. Copyright Laura S. Packer

I've written before about the struggle of the bereaved during the holidays. I wanted to take a moment and remind everyone that this time of year is tough. There are so many memories and expectations. We remember the things we did with those we loved, the rituals we will never engage in again because the key person is dead. We are surrounded by imagery of and pressure to have the best holiday ever, even when what we really want is to curl up and be left alone.

Here are some quick tips to keep in mind if you are grieving or care for someone who has experienced a loss. These are, of course, from my point of view, but I hope it will be helpful.
  1. Recognize the pain. If I recognize my own pain, instead of trying to bury it, then it becomes easier to bear and something I can share with others who care about me. When my pain is recognized I feel as though my experience is legitimate. 
  2. Recognize the joy. It's okay to celebrate and feel grateful, happy or joyful. Our loved ones would want us to cherish the holidays and our lives just as we cherish their memories.
  3. Don't try to cheer me up. Let me feel sad. It won't last forever and I have good reason to grieve. If my sorrow makes you feel uncomfortable that's not my problem. If you can sit with me and listen while I'm sad that may help more than anything else. 
  4. Grief is non-linear. There are no corners to turn, no bill boards that will announce GRIEF AHEAD or NO MORE GRIEF IN SIGHT. I may seem fine one moment and the next tear up. Laughter, tears, chattiness, quiet are all part of grieving because they are all part of life. If I start crying it's not your fault. It likely has nothing to do with you, it's just another wave of grief. 
  5. Don't pretend my loved one didn't exist. Let me talk about him. Bring him up yourself and see how I react. I don't want the world to forget him. 
  6. Let me have time to myself. Or not. Give me options and help me figure out what is best in this given moment.
  7. You don't know how I feel. In any given moment I might be feeling eviscerated AND grateful that I had the time I did with him AND happy to be with you. It's complicated. Instead of assuming, ask. Each loss is different and we all need be honored in our own grief.
  8. Help me take care of myself. Please don't nag because I'm eating another piece of pie. Instead offer to go for a walk with me. Let me take care of myself as best as I can.
  9. And if I'm seeming okay, let me be okay. If I'm laughing and smiling it doesn't mean I'm all better, it means I feel okay in this moment. Isn't that great? It doesn't mean I grieve him any less, it means I am figuring out how to live in the afterlife.
This is by no means comprehensive. It's what I'm thinking of off the top of my head. What helps you through the holiday season? I'd love to know.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Telling Life: The storyteller gives thanks

I try to practice gratitude every day. I've written about it here before but, even with it being part of my daily life, it isn't always easy. I get distracted by the same things we all get distracted by - money and politics and petty jealousies and so on. I'm sure you experience many of the same distractions I do. Yet when I remember to be mindful about gratitude, whether it's writing lists or making sure that I thank people  or something else - it changes my outlook.

This has actually been studied and we know that being consciously grateful can change our brains for the better. When we practice gratitude regularly it can decrease depression and anxiety, increase our levels of dopamine (this hormone rewards the brain and helps us move towards rewards) and the effects appear to be lasting. If this sounds surprisingly like the neurological effects of storytelling you wouldn't be wrong. Maybe when we practice gratitude regularly we are telling ourselves stories about the possibility of a better world which helps us move to make that world a reality. I don't know, but it seems like a nice idea.

In the spirit of the season and because I believe it's important every day, here are eleven things this storyteller is grateful for, specifically related to storytelling and its impact on my life.

  1. I am grateful for the sense of connection I feel when I tell or listen to stories. 
  2. I am grateful for the opportunity to tell at all. I would do so even were I not paid for it, but how fortunate I am that I can make my living this way. 
  3. I am grateful for every single person who has taken the time to listen to me.
  4. I am grateful for every single person who has hired me.
  5. I am grateful for artists of every stripe who have shared their work, so I may be inspired, intrigued, frustrated and moved. 
  6. I am grateful for those who have taken my workshops and believed I had something useful to say.
  7. I am grateful for those who trust me to coach them, what an honor!
  8. I am grateful for the stories themselves, that help me understand myself and the world more deeply.
  9. I am grateful to my teachers, those who have inspired me and believed in me, including my parents, my step-kids, Brother Blue, Ruth, Kevin, Charley and many, many more. If your name is not here please don't be hurt. I am grateful to you.
  10. I am grateful for the overheard moments, the books, the poems, the movement of the trees, the tastes, the everything that has inspired me to create.
  11. I am grateful for you, the listeners and readers, the people whose interest in what I have to say gives me the belief that maybe I have something worthwhile to say after all. Thank you. I could not do this without you. You have, quite literally, saved my life at times.
I fear this list may seem trite, or that I've overlooked something or someone terribly important, but it's a start. It's interesting to me, limiting this list to the impact of storytelling; there are many more things I am grateful for in general, but it was fun thinking storytelling specifically. What are you grateful for? What or who would you like to thank? I'd love to know. Let us give thanks, together. 

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 18, 2016

Repost: Letting the light in

I posted this just about a year ago. It still stands. In some ways it is even more relevant. I'm reposting it unedited, because it represents a certain moment in time as well as this moment in time. It's kind of a wormhole for me, helping me remember who I was, who I am, and suggesting who I may become. It also seems fitting since it references the late, great Leonard Cohen, who knew a thing or two about grief and light.

I hope your Thanksgiving is full of gratitude, kindness and sweet memories.

I am swamped with memories as we move into the holiday season. This is the time of year in 2013 when Kevin and I knew he was sick but we didn't yet know how sick. I am hit with waves of grief more frequently these days, which stand in stark contrast to the richness of my life, even without him.

I've been thinking about how I have managed over the last almost 20 months, and I've realized there has been a pattern slowly emerging. I don't know if this will help anyone else. I do know it helps me.

Last week I wrote about inhabiting my grief. Early on I made a conscious decision (one in keeping with how I've lived much of my life) to let myself feel whatever I needed to. If I was feeling sad I let myself feel sad. If I was feeling null, then null it was. My grief counsellor observed several months ago that this was a really wise thing to do. By not denying the depth of my pain I was able to process it. I did whatever I needed to get through and this meant that I wasn't bottling anything up. I knew what I was feeling and why. I was present with it.

This week I want to talk about letting the light in.

About three weeks after Kevin died I was talking with a friend and she said something funny. I laughed. And I immediately threw my hands over my mouth, stopping myself. How could I laugh if he was gone? My friend, very lovingly, put a hand on my shoulder and said, "You're allowed to laugh. He would want you to laugh." I, of course, burst into tears. But it was the first crack of light I had seen in a long time.

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

I began to see more cracks, slim shards of light that illuminated my grief. Smiling at a child. Noticing the quality of the afternoon light in my living room. Remembering Kevin when he was happy, not just sick. With each of these moments I felt such a sense of betrayal. How could I see any light in a world where the sun had gone out? It didn't make any sense that there was any light at all.

It took time, but I began to accept these moments of light. I began to realize that my friend was right, there was no way Kevin would want me to grieve forever. If I was to fully inhabit my grief then I also needed to give myself permission to accept the moments of light.

It was incredibly difficult, but I began to notice mindfully the times when the grief lifted a bit. In time I began to cultivate those moments. Eventually I found there was more light than darkness and that Kevin was as present the light at least as easily as he was present in the dark. Choosing to let the light in didn't mean I loved him any less or would forget him. It still doesn't.

I will never stop grieving Kevin. I am certain that, no matter the joy and love in my life, there will be times when I feel his loss like a knife to the gut, especially this time of year. But Kevin was composed of light. He walked into a room and it lit up. His smile could have powered a small town.

If I deny the light I deny his light, too. I deny the possibility he represented and the possibility that still exists in the world; the possibility of love, hope, continuation. I am not denying the dark, I know it too well to pretend it isn't there and doesn't lurk near me, but I will not deny the light either.

When Kevin was dying, we sang to him. One of his favorites as well as mine, was This Little Light of Mine. He and I sang it together at night when the cancer had all but stolen his voice. It was light in the darkness. We sang it to close his memorial service, voices rising together to celebrate him. I cannot hear it or sing it without crying (I am crying as I write these words) yet I sing it still.

We are all composed of light. It may seem like a betrayal, but if we let the light in when things are at their darkest we might remember to take the next breath, and the next, and the next. We breathe for those who are no longer able. We carry their light with us.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer (c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Two wolves: What do you feed?

Revised version of a post from earlier this week on

I posted last week, prior to the election, about listening in a political season. Essentially I was reminding you that we all need to be better listeners and this deeply divisive election perhaps reflected the deep listening deficit in our culture.

Now that the election has passed I am certain of it. Our culture is fractured and this will be reflected in every relationship and organization in the country. Even if everyone you know, everyone in your communities and work voted the same way and has the same feelings about the election, the national divides will have an impact (that may be the understatement of the year). There is a great deal I could say here about politics and fear and empathy or the lack thereof - I have said some of it elsewhere in this blog - but here I'd like to take a moment to tell you a story.

This story is attributed to the Cherokee people, though no one is sure of its origin.

One evening an old man looked at his grandson. He could see the boy was growing up, was beginning to compare himself to others and hunger for things that he has never wanted before. 

He told his grandson this story.

He said, “My son, there are two wolves that live inside of me. They live inside of you, too. One is evil. It is full of anger and jealousy, sorrow and regret, greed and arrogance. It is every darkness and unkindness. The other is good. It is compassion and joy, love and hope, kindness and empathy. It is every light and moment of connection. They are both fierce and powerful, and they are fighting.”

The old man was silent and watched his grandson consider the wolves. The boy thought, then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old man replied, “The one you feed.”

I tell you this story now, when we will experience stress and division made visible post election, because we need to remember that what we feed, thrives. How can you help your community feel listened to, especially those who fear they may be about to lose their voice? What kind of listening do you need? What about those who just voted very loudly? How do we create safety for all of our friends, our families, our communities and ourselves? What stories do we need now, in a rapidly changing world?

Please let me know if I can help.

(c) 2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 11, 2016

Grief and action

Preface: This post comes from a particular political point of view. If you don't share it then I invite you to remember a time when you felt lost and disenfranchised. A time when you grieved and then acted.


Well, that was some election, wasn't it.

We all live in bubbles. You would think with the increasing role of technology and social media in our lives, we would have broader perspectives, but many of us don't. I certainly fall into this category though I'd rather believe not.

Right now, many of us are in a state of shock over the election. I've heard over and over in the last 48 hours, how could that happen? We didn't expect it because we live in bubbles. And now many of us are in a state of deep grief.

We are grieving. That feeling in the pit of your stomach, that hole that feels like it will never be filled? Yeah, that's grief. I'm aware that my posture is the same as it was in the weeks following Kevin's death. This grief is legitimate, it's a shock to the system, it's a realization that the world is not what we thought it was because we live in bubbles. All of this is normal and human.

I'm not interested in the political conversation here, I'm doing that elsewhere and loudly. I am organizing and building and working and will continue to do so. What interests me in this post, is how we can work through this grief towards action. For some of us, this will be a very difficult four years. I will lose my health insurance and I'm one of the lucky ones. People I care about will have their marriages challenged. Other people will likely be killed in hate crimes. The environment will be devastated (I will miss polar bears). I could list more but it's stuff we all know.

We need to find our way out of the bubble so maybe we hear some of those who screamed so loudly we got Trump, hear them enough tha tthey no longer feel isolated and can realize he is a danger not a savior, so the other becomes us.

We need some time to grieve. Grief can consume you. We can choose to wear black and cry for the rest of our lives, we can allow our rights to be stripped away, we can be propeled into climate disaster and war, or we can be like the people who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving and use our grief to fuel action.

Be sad. Fight like hell. Listen to others and find a way through. Grief can fuel powerful things.

p.s. If you're interested I've written about grief and the election elsewhere, here and here.  

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Breathing when there is no air

It is the morning after the 2016 presidential election.

I'm not sure what to say. One story won. Another one lost. There are so many things I could say, about the power of story, about using story as a tool for building bridges and understanding, about listening, on and on and on. You know I can go on and on and on but this morning it feels too trivial. Too many people I love are going to be damaged by what is coming.

I initially titled this post When the story isn't yours. That's how I feel this morning, but I also realize that millions of people have felt that way for the last eight years (or longer). There are so many things I could say about that. About bridges and understanding and listening. But I won't. It feels ineffective, for all that I know in my heart of hearts that it is the right path. Too many people I love are going to be damaged by what is coming.

For today, for right now, I will breathe as best as I can. What else can I do? I invite you to do the same. Breath is the storyteller's instrument, it is what powers us and is sacred. It is life. So breathe. If your story won last night then I'd ask you to take a breath before telling those whose story didn't win that they are losers, then work like hell to make the world a better place. You have the power. If your story lost then take a breath before coloring all the winners hateful and the same, then work like hell to make the world a better place. You have the power.

I am not saying we can stay still. I am saying we can work and fight for what we believe in, breathing deeply the whole time. Too many people I love are going to be damaged by what is coming for me to stay still.

The amazing thing about stories is that we each get to tell our own. The amazing thing about stories is that when we listen to others we sometimes discover new worlds and new common ground. I can't believe that this is the end of our story. I won't.

Have your coffee. Take a breath then another. Grieve or celebrate. Be kind where you can be kind. Speak out when you can. And let's get to work.

p.s. I know some of you are, quite rightfully, looking at this as a load of bull. Bad things can, do and will happen. Listening doesn't stop someone from beating you because of what you look like or who you love. But I have to start somewhere. We all do. This is what I know how to do. That and work like hell for what I believe in.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 4, 2016

Fear, grief and elections

I want to write about something else. I want to write about anything else, but I can't. The presidential election is next week and I am having trouble thinking about unrelated things.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time then you likely have a good sense of my political leanings. I expect you and I have some similar feelings regardless of who we each are voting for. We're hopeful. We are afraid of the consequences if our opponent wins. If you lost someone you love you likely have thought something like Well, at least they don't have to see this, then gulping back tears and horror that you thought such a thing.

I never thought I would find a political season so triggering, but I am. I am actively afraid of what happens if my candidate loses and the fear makes me yearn for the safety of living with my partner. I find myself, for the first time, feeling unsafe because I live alone.

I think about the conversations Kevin and I would be having, the fears we each would name and those we would conceal to protect the other. I think about how he and I had our particular lenses through which we view politics - he was a black man and a Christian, I am a white woman and Jewish with some other leanings. We each focused on different issues but we generally selected the same candidates. I'm sure we would have this year.

I think about how he and I would comfort each other when we became afraid, saying No matter what happens we will make it through together. I suppose we did make it through together, though with very different destinations.

I think about my father and the loathing he expressed for one of the candidates, long before they ever sought political office. Frankly, when I think I'm so glad he doesn't have to see this I'm thinking mostly of my father. This election alone would have been enough to break his heart.

Political grief hides itself in legislation and decisions made for the wrong reasons, as punishment or payback. I pray our elected officials remember that they are representing all of us, that they remember loss and grief need not lead to retribution. I am experiencing political grief because I am stunned that so many Americans are supporting something I know in my bones is not kind, is not honest, is not what is best about America. I am grieving my belief that we were better than this.

There are so many things I want to write here, about fear and grief and hope. Instead I will say this.

I will try to remember that everyone is voting for their own reasons, driven by hope or fear or frustration. While I may not agree, those reasons are as valid (or invalid) as mine.
I will try to remember that feeling a grain of relief that Kevin and my father aren’t here to see this madness isn’t the same as being glad they are dead.
I will pray we all remember to be kind to each other after the election as some of us will mourn a different kind of loss, that of possibility. 

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Telling Life: Remembering the dead

My #tellinglife has had some strange moments in it. There was the time I told There's Always Room for One More to the passengers in a crowded airplane. And there was the time I told for a cannibis festival. Then there was the time at the nudist camp or the jailhouse wedding or... All of these were unusual gigs, but no less wonderful for their oddity. None of them, however, eclipse the times I've told stories at memorial services.

You already know that part of why I maintain this blog is to write about the death of my husband Kevin, grief, and life after death. That's not what I'm talking about in this post. Here I am talking about the role of the storyteller in remembering those who have died. It is part of our sacred work.

It has been my privilege to be invited to several funerals, where I told stories that the decedent loved or told stories about them. Each time it has been stirring and I was deeply honored that those who remained trusted me in that careful, painful moment.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. We remember those we love by telling their stories. It makes sense to have storytellers do this, so the mourning may grieve and remember without struggling for words. Some people call it speaking for the dead (derived from a book by Orson Scott Card, but not of the book). We sometimes need to hear these stories, these truths from someone else to make them more bearable.

Many Jews believe that no one has really died as long as they are remembered; living memory means the intangibles aren't yet lost. Their laugh. Their scent. The annoying little habits. We often come to understand those we have lost and our relationships with them more through those stories than we ever could while they were still alive. Hearing those stories in another's voice might help.

None of this is to say we shouldn't tell our own stories of those who have died. What I want to stress is that it's important to tell these stories. This is how we keep the dead alive in our hearts.

We are in the dark time of year now and Halloween has just passed. Now is when we explore the hidden stories, now is the time when we remember the dead. Don't be afraid to say their names. Don't be afraid to tell their stories.

I don't know if I will be asked to speak at another memorial service. In all honesty, I hope I am. I hope I can keep the memories of the dead alive through my voice, my memory and my stories. It is sacred work and work we all must do, so it will be done for us in turn.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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