Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Truth, honesty, and storytelling

I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of truth. This has been brought on by many things including the news; a panel I'm part of concerning truth and storytelling; and my own tendency towards over analysis. It's a big issue and one I won't solve here, but it's worth exploring.

Several years ago I was in the audience at a story slam. The theme was "Beginnings." For those of you unfamiliar with slams, the rules usually state that the stories told must be original, somehow relate to the theme, short, and true. The events happened. Slams are judged events and the winner can get anything from a moment of glory to cash prizes.

The winning story was a poignant one, about the teller's birth. It was beautifully constructed, well-told and fit with the theme. We were all in tears. He won and rightly so; it was hands-down the best story of the night. A few days later it was revealed he had made the whole thing up. It was fiction. The local storytelling community was in an uproar, feeling betrayed and questioning the artform itself.

One could speculate endlessly on why he did this, he certainly knew the rules, but that isn't the point of this essay. I'm interested in the question of factual truth, emotional truth, and honesty in storytelling. I've written about some of the technical issues of truth and storytelling before, but this time let's think about philosophy. There is no way this essay can dive deeply into these topics (whole lives have been spent on them) but I'd love to start a conversation.

So what is truth? Honestly, that sentence always seems like it should be the punchline of some obscure joke. I don't know if objective truth exists, my personal philosophy tends towards not.

I do know that there are facts. Factual truths, for the purposes of this essay in the context of storytelling, are verifiable. I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. I was premature and underweight. Evidence exists. Emotional truths (again for the purposes of this essay) are those metaphors, similes, fictions and sometimes verifiable events, that hold emotional power and meaning, revealing something about what it is to be human. I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. I was premature and underweight. I was a small, scrawny, homely infant, yet when my father first saw me he cried, "She's beautiful!" To an objective viewer I was anything but beautiful (really, I've seen the pictures) but to my father I was exquisite. Both are true. One view contains emotional truth even if it might not be verifiably factual.

One of the wonderful things about storytelling is that we can express emotional truth through many means. Personal or factual stories, fiction, myths, fairy tales, and more. Because storytelling is neurologically powerful, we need to remember that the emotional truths we share can easily cause powerful reactions. Storytellers, whether intentionally or not, are truth-tellers if for no other reason than that we are wired for story. I would hope that we all use these different kinds of truth ethically, remembering that we are directly messing with our listeners' brains. It doesn't matter if you're telling a funny story, a fairy tale, a tall tale, a personal recollection, or something else, they all contain some form of emotional truth. We laugh at things that are absurd because we KNOW they are saying something about what is real. We need metaphor to help us understand the world and our lives. And those deep, personal stories help us all know we are not alone.

Which leads me to honesty. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling a story that doesn't contain factual truth. The emotional truth makes it worthwhile and worth hearing. What we must do, as artists and craftspeople, is to remain honest with ourselves and with our audiences. Let the story serve the greater purpose of conveying emotional truth, but don't be afraid to own that you may have altered facts to serve truth. They are not "alternative facts." Fiction and metaphor are a vital part of what it is to be human and gives us safe ways to talk about the unspeakable. It may still be true and is no less powerful for not having actually happened. We have always needed fiction and metaphor, and we always will; the morally ambiguous moment is when fiction is presented as fact.

In performance storytelling practice, I'm certain many "true" personal stories have been polished a bit to be better stories, but if they retain most of their factual truth and it enhances their emotional truth, I'm okay with it. We violate trust only when we present something largely fictional as factual.

Storytelling gives us a way to craft the truths we hope are real. It gives us tools to speak of the things that might be too difficult to say otherwise. And we become responsible for the truths we offer, so we must remember our obligation to the audience to not deceive them as they strive towards their own truth.

All of this raises the question of how storytellers can present the story honestly to the audience with neither exposition nor apology, but still owning what kind of truth exists within. You don't want your audience to listen less deeply because they think the story isn't true, but you don't want to lie to them. This essay is long enough without tackling this issue and I don't have a magic solution, though there are several possibilities, three of which I'd like to touch on here, then build upon in another essay.
  • You could, for example, weave in some kind of I wish that that was the way it had happened statement, perhaps at the end of the story. This tells the audience it isn't factual but emotional truth you're striving for, and may add to the poignancy of the whole thing. I do this in several stories, including Retellings and The Longest Day of My Life. In the first I tell the facts of the matter, then retell it the way I wish it had happened; while in the second I tell the facts and admit to the lack of resolution, then give myself the ending I wish had happened. Both are emotionally satisfying and give the audience honesty as well as meaning.
  • You could create a fictional setting in which to set your stories. Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories are full of emotional truth and appear to be factual, yet everyone knows they are fiction. His audience is more than willing to suspend disbelief. I do something similar in my Crazy Jane stories. 
  • You could present yourself as an unreliable narrator, then tell it however you want. Something as simple as, "I think this is how it happened, but it might not all be true" will make your audience laugh and identify with you, since everyone exaggerates from time to time. It also allows your audience to listen on several levels at once, for both emotional truth and with a grain of salt around the facts.
So what do I think happened with the teller in that slam? He told a powerful, emotionally true story. I wish he had told it in a different setting or had given us a hint that it was what he had hoped for, and that he hadn't felt the need to deceive his audience. But I don't really condemn him for all that I think he was dishonest. We all yearn for emotional truth, recognition and that sense that we are not alone. We all yearn for the facts of our lives to be different. Maybe he was telling the truth as he wished it had been. We all do. We just need to remember to be honest in the process as we search for our own truths.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What would you like to read here?

Hello friends,

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted in April. I've been thinking about why I maintain this blog, what purpose does it serve, and how it might be most useful for you, the kind people who read it. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, but it seems as though the best thing I can do is ask you.

What would you like to read here? What do you most enjoy? What do you get the most out of? Is there anything you routinely skip? Do you prefer the more personal posts? The practical ones? What would be most helpful for you?

These days I write mostly about storytelling (thoughts on the art and craft, tips and tricks, stories you can use, and so on) and life after my husband's death (grief, thoughts on life after your love has died, love after loss, etc). In the past I've posted bits of fiction and poetry, oddservations (observed moments), challenges and contests, videos, and so on.

In all honesty, you are a significant part of why I blog. It is rewarding to me to know that others find what I have to say interesting, useful, illuminating, funny, whatever.

Send me an email, leave a comment, let me know. Since you are kind enough to give my writing some attention, I'm interested in making sure it's worth your while. I can't promise I'll make everyone happy all the time, but I do believe my work is one of service. Thanks!

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 31, 2017

Grief has always been with us

This post was inspired by a question asked by Kim Go, founder of Alive and Mortal. She is a kind and wise person who helps the grieving.

As of this past Tuesday, it's been three years since Kevin died. I was expecting it to be a difficult day, but I found it wasn't much harder than any other day. There were some rough moments but mostly I engaged the everyday business of living. I grieve some every day, so Tuesday was no different.

Grief is persistent. It colors much of what I do and say, but it's no longer the predominant tone in my palette. Here, three years out, my life is no longer black and white, nor even sepia, but back in full-tones, even if the array of color may be different from what it was before he died.

Over the last few days I've had the privilege of talking with a number of people who have experienced deep grief; what I am struck by is how very universal it is. I've written about this over and over, if you love you will grieve, even if we all grieve in our own ways. This reminder has helped me so much, remembering that the grief is a pallid though powerful reflection of love.

I am in no way the first person to observe this nor the first to grieve deeply. In the months after Kevin's death I turned to mythology and folklore for solace (those of you who know me will not be surprised). Humans have been experiencing grief for a long, long time, nor are we the only animals to do so.

I looked in a lot of places. In the past (when I had cancer in my 20s) the Gilgamesh story helped, with his great love and grief for Enkidu. Later I found solace in Demeter's grief for her lost daughter Persephone. This time I needed a story of a wife grieving her husband. I found it in the story of Isis and Osiris.

In brief, Osiris is killed by his jealous brother Set who then cut the body into pieces and scattered them across Egypt. Osiris' wife Isis scours to earth to find each piece, restores him to wholeness and conceives their child Horus. In spite of his restoration Osiris is no longer part of the living world and becomes the lord of the land of the dead. No matter how great her grief, no matter how profound her effort, Isis can never be fully restored to life with her husband. She is willing to do anything to have him by her side again and it will never be entirely possible. Even gods are foiled by death.

I found such resonance in this story. I would have done anything to heal Kevin or to bring him back from the dead. If I could have removed the cancer from his body and placed it in mine, I would have. If I was told that committing a horrible crime would restore him, I would have done it. Anything.

I found comfort in this story not only because it reflected a depth of grief I was experiencing, it also reminded me that I was neither the first nor the last person who had lost someone they loved beyond measure. I found echoes of my own struggle in the story of Isis, a goddess who held the secrets to the universe, felt such grief and was unable to fully restore her beloved. It helped me feel less alone.

I have yet to perform this story. I've worked on it but even now, three years out, it's still raw. I will tell it eventually but for now it offers me comfort, as it has been comforting people for thousands of years. If we love, we will grieve, whether human or god. It is part of what makes us who we are.

 (c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What to do when emotions rise during performance: Three tips

Hilda Dokubo
courtesy wikimedia
A few weeks ago I wrote about storytelling and telling tenderness. A risk of letting tenderness inform our stories and performances is that emotions may rise up unexpectedly when we tell. I’m not talking about when our audiences express emotions when we tell something meaningful, but the times when we are telling and find ourselves experiencing an upwelling of feeling.

For example, when I tell stories about Kevin I sometimes find myself on the brink of tears. How should I manage this? Should I not tell stories about him? Should I only tell these stories once I have thoroughly processed the emotions I feel when I talk about his life and death?

There are some who believe we can only tell stories that we have thoroughly processed. Others believe storytelling is inevitably a kind of therapy so it’s okay to tell truly raw pieces. I think both of these are extremes: If we wait to tell a given story until we have thoroughly processed the emotions attaches we may never tell certain important stories, but if we use storytelling performance as a substitute for therapy we violate the trust of the audience by forcing them to worry about the teller and their own experience of the story is sabotaged.

I know, beyond a doubt, that part of a being professional means I craft narrative that leaves room for the audience to have their own experience of the story; they have my permission to not really think about me if my story sends them into their own narrative. This is part of the story triangle, which I have written about extensively here. I also know, beyond a doubt, that storytelling like any other art has therapeutic applications for the artist and that some experiences will always be raw. If we talk about them there is a risk that our own emotions will well up.

So how do I balance this? How do I tell stories that are emotionally alive for me without violating the audience’s trust? What do I do when I slip and feel more than I intended?
  • I try to head the problem off by practicing. If I know a story is likely to evoke a response I don’t want to reveal in my performance, I can make it predictable and so build a pause into the performance. There is a point in a particular Crazy Jane story where, every single time, my throat gets tight. Since I know it’s coming I now have a natural pause there, so I have a moment to swallow before I continue. Practicing also helps me develop some insulation from the emotion, so I am less likely to have an unexpected response than if I’d not practiced.
  • If I do have a strong, unexpected response, I can often counter it by imagining the next part of the story as a series of PowerPoint slides. Nothing sucks the emotion out of a moment more than PowerPoint. If I can pause for a beat, see the bullet points of the next scene as a slide, I can usually regain control over my wandering emotions pretty quickly and easily. You may need a different metaphor from PowerPoint, this is the one that works for me.
  • Lastly, if I do need a moment, if I get teary or need to take a breath, I remind myself that storytelling audiences are generally very understanding. I may pause, take a breath, smile and thank them, then continue. I find audiences appreciate honesty and vulnerability enough that, as long as I don’t run off the stage sobbing, they understand and will give me a little latitude. 
I should add, I have never needed to stop entirely. I’ve always practiced enough that I was able to continue with a deep breath or two. Professionalism matters.
These tips work for me. You may find other ways to balance the necessary honesty and vulnerability with professionalism. I’d love to know what works for you!

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An open letter to my husband, three years after your death

Dear Kevin,

Here we are, March 28th. It's astonishing to me that it's been three years. It seems impossible that you've been gone so long. My life is at once rich and barren, familiar and unrecognizable.

I'm in the office of my apartment, a place you never saw. While it's only six blocks from our house, I don't know if we ever walked down this street together. My home looks like the homes we shared because it has much of the same stuff, but it's proportioned for me. At 5'1" that is quite different than the choices we made to accommodate your 6'3". This room is full of windows and I look out to see the forsythia and the neighbor's project truck. It is a place of great comfort for me, where I have written and thought well, yet you've never seen it. You've never read the writing that happened here, never heard the stories I mused on while looking out these windows.

This is an impossibility, a flaw in the universe, yet here it is.

Beyond my office is my kitchen, smaller than even our old kitchen, yet proportioned well for me. I don't cook like I did before you got sick. That you had a GI cancer manifested first with stomach and eating issues has changed my relationship with food and cooking. I still cook some and I've made some good meals here, but it's not what it used to be. I miss it and hope I eventually find my way back to it, but I don't know if I will; there is some fear associated with good food equating illness. I've tried new recipes (I need recipes now, I never really did before) that you never tasted. I've shared those meals with people who love me, people you've never met though they have heard about you over and over again. You would have enjoyed those meals and conversations yet you weren't here.

This, too, is an impossibility, a flaw in the universe, yet here it is.

I have a light work week in front of me, but next week I have paid work every day. The next few months are busy. My business, though not making me rich, is supporting me. I work harder now than I ever have and most days I love what I do. You and I talked about what success meant as a self-employed person and I have passed those initial criteria. I pay my own bills with money I have earned through freelance storytelling, consulting, teaching, coaching and writing. I am making it. I celebrate every single check that comes in. You aren't here to celebrate with me.

An impossibility. A flaw. And yet...

This is life three years after your death. I believe you have continued in some way (you've made it abundantly obvious) yet wherever you are now, you are not physically here. I am. And I've done exactly what you asked me to do: I've lived. It's taken me awhile to learn how because in many ways I died with you, but life in the afterlife isn't bad. There are great sweetnesses here. I love and am loved. I work and am recognized. I create. I laugh. I play. I cry sometimes. And I miss you every damned day.

In those desolate months right after you died, a number of widows who had been at this life longer than I told me that sooner or later the love would be bigger than the pain. I believed them while I couldn't imagine it. I knew that the pain was a reflection of the love. Now there are days when the love and the good memories are more present than the absence and the loss. Not every day, but often enough.

It bothers me more than I can say that you are part of the past and not the formative part of my future. I hate the sense that you are now part of my story and not the focal point, as you were for so many years, but I am so grateful that you were that guiding force and still are a part of who I am now.

I am so different. I look much older. My hair is about to shift to more gray than brown. I don't smile as often, my sense of whimsy is less constant and my introverted streak is broader than ever. Many of the changes in who I am are good. I am more independent and confident than I ever was. The worst thing that could happen to me has happened, so very little scares me now. I am more comfortable with who I am, more willing to fail and make mistakes, less worried about what anyone thinks of me.

Everything relates back to you not being here, even as everything is also pulling me forward. All of this is because you were in my life and believed in me. And because you are in my life and believe in me. And it's also because you died and I had to learn how to live without you.

Today I will work. I will go to the gym. I will look at your picture and likely cry. I will remember the warmth of your skin, the light in your eyes, the attention and care you gave to me and to everyone you loved. I will have flashbacks to your last day and I will remind myself that your death does not define your life. I will be okay, for all that it will feel like hell sometimes. (If I've learned nothing else about grief I've learned that I can survive the worst storms even as I think I will not.)

I will celebrate you as I mourn you, just as I do every day. I will live. Because I can think of no better way to honor you than to continue, just as you asked, as you made me promise.

I love you, Kevin. You are in my every cell, every motion forward in my life bears your fingerprints and whispered support. I will watch for you today, as I do every day. I will reach for gratitude and tissues, forward to love and grace, back to connect with you and how you help me live.

Thank you, always and forever.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)


 (c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Step away from the screen: Breaks matter

I love my work. Just about every day I get up and think I am so lucky. I am making a living doing work I love that helps people. Yes, it's hard work. Yes, I know I am privileged to be doing so. Yes, I am profoundly grateful.

I work harder now than I ever did when I was in the private sector. Sure, I sleep a little later, but I work later, I work on weekends, I work when I wake up in the middle of the night. I may have more flexible work time but I also have more work time; self-employment means I am my own admin, support staff, marketing director, book-keeper and so on, all in addition to being a storyteller, coach, writer and consultant. That's just the way it is with self-employment, or maybe it's that way because I love what I do so much of it doesn't feel like work. I've spoken with other self-employed people and they describe the same thing: They work all the time because most of it doesn't feel like work and the parts that do are supporting the rest of it. That makes sense to me.

When you love what you do it can become easy to focus only on work. Sure, there are days when you'll feel like you would do ANYTHING to avoid work, but you still work more than you don't. It's easy to forget that, even when you love what you do sometimes you need to take a break.

It may seem counterintuitive, why stop what you're doing when you love doing it? Taking a break gives you a chance to reboot and come back to work with a fresh perspective. It gives you a chance to remember that there are other worthwhile things in the world beyond you and your vocation. It's kind of like sleep; we all need restorative time.

Breaks can be big or small. It can be as simple as walking around the block to taking a vacation. Here are some ideas:

I try to take small breaks every day, though to be honest my breaks often look like chores (getting the dishes done) or time that isn't that restorative (Facebook, which frustrates me as much as anything else). I love my work, but I'm feeling a bit worn, so I'm taking an honest-to-goodness vacation this week. As you are reading this I am someplace beautiful, though I'm writing it before I leave (a funny kind of time-travel). I've been thinking about nature and culture and my own life and maybe even not much at all. I have very limited internet access (though I still have some because, you know, work. I need to be able to answer emails at least). In all likelihood, the first few days were difficult. I was probably antsy and uncomfortable because I wasn't working, but I know it's good for me. And after a few days I likely relaxed. That knot in my back, the one from muscles supporting my arms at the keyboard, that knot relaxed, I hope. I'll read something unrelated to fairy tales, consulting, storytelling, coaching or writing. I'll spend some time staring out at the sky.

When I return I will be ready to go. I will have had some time to think about what I do and how I do it, so I'll return with some new ideas and will be excited to implement them. I might not have those ideas if I don't take a break. I might burn out sooner if I don't take a break, and then this thing I love will become a burden and I really don't want that to happen.

Take a break, big or small. Make it a real break, not Facebook or dishes. Give yourself permission to live fully in all parts of your life. It will feed the things you love and you'll feel happier, more productive and more sure of your path.

I'll let you know how my break went in a little bit. In the meantime, I'm taking a nap.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 17, 2017

A very resilient muscle

We are surrounded by wisdom, even if some of it comes from places you might feel a little weird about. Kevin loved Woody Allen. I used to, but grew tired of the neurotic humor and then the whole controversy about his relationships with his children, his wife and his child/wife broke. I gave up on Woody Allen. But he said some things very, very well.

Like this.

I think of this often, that the heart is a very, very resilient little muscle.

When Kevin died I thought I would never be in another relationship. I didn't think I had it in me. Frankly, I couldn't imagine being alive in the world without him, so the thought of ever letting someone else into my heart was beyond comprehension. A bit over a year after he died I moved from our shared home to my own apartment. A lot of things drove the move, including economics, but at the heart of it was the knowledge that I needed to start figuring out what it meant to be alive in the world without him. This seemed, and sometimes still seems, impossible.

The move was a nightmare, though I was very well supported by people who love me. I was lucky.

Once I settled into my new home I wrote up a list of what it meant to be alive in this world. If I was to accept that I am still here, I needed something to do with the years in front of me. The list was pretty wide-ranging, including work, writing, good food, being outside, spending time with people who love me, travel, etc etc. Buried in there was flirting. Not being in a relationship, but flirting, that lovely little back and forth fed by attraction and possibility. It wasn't even really about sex, but about knowing I wasn't invisible in the world.

But where does a middle-aged, overweight widow go to flirt? I've always hated bars. I've never liked crowded places and I don't really have a social group here. I reminded myself that this is the modern world and set up a profile on a dating site, expecting and wanting only online flirtation. That felt safe.

It was safe, so much so that I was bored and frustrated. The number of people in the world who cannot spell or construct a sentence is astonishing and this is apparently my low bar. I was about to call the experiment a failure when an intriguing profile popped up in my feed. Smart, funny, geeky, cute, can write the hell out of a personal ad. I wrote. He wrote back. His sentence structure was complex, layered and grammatical. Beyond grammar, he was interesting. It was quickly apparent there was real chemistry between us. And he was thankfully far away, so I didn't have to deal with a real person.

Except everyone is a real person. It soon became obvious that something could really happen between us and I didn't know if I was capable of it. Remember, when Kevin died, I died too in many ways. And I still love Kevin, is it fair to even consider another relationship? So I wrote to him (for the sake of this essay and his privacy we'll call him C) and revealed that I was a widow. I didn't know if I was able to be in a relationship and I didn't want to hurt him.

C wrote back with the only thing that could have kept me going. I don't remember the phrasing, but he said something to the effect of, "I can't imagine how hard that must be. Of course you don't know if you can do this, your marriage never ended. I believe the heart is capable of a great deal of love. I'd like to see where this can go; at worst we get to be friends. I'm willing to risk it if you are."

So I did. We did. And here we are, about a year and a half later. Friends, lovers, partners. In a relationship.

None of this means I don't still love Kevin. I always will. I also love C. It's a very strange place to find myself. I am passionately in love with two men. Some days I panic and am afraid that loving C means I am somehow dishonoring Kevin, that I am betraying him. I know he would want nothing other than my happiness, but that knowledge doesn't always balance the emotions. Other days I fear that I will drive C away by still loving Kevin, though he understands and accepts me so thoroughly I know that won't happen. So I take some deep breaths. Sometimes I cry. And I continue. I do my best to be resilient. There are days when resilience means crying and taking a nap. That is good enough.

These coming days will be very hard. It is the third time now I have lived through the anniversary of the last of Kevin's life. It will be hard to remember the 15 years of love, companionship, friendship, hard work, and joy; instead I will be thinking about his face when he realized he was at the end. I will be thinking about the faces of his children as they tried to do the terrible work of saying goodbye to their father. I will be thinking about the love that surrounded us. I will be thinking about everything he told me with his gaze when he was too weak to talk. I will cry and write and feel stunned, angry, shocked. Alive. How can that be?

Throughout this tumult I will not be alone. I know Kevin will be with me. I know you will. I know the many people who knew and loved him, as well as those who have come to love him through this blog, will be there. And the amazing man who loves me now will be there, holding me while I cry for another. I will feel such conflict, such gratitude and guilt. I will be reminded again and again of just how lucky I am, in so many ways.

I was listening to an extraordinary podcast recently, Terrible, thanks for asking. This is, perhaps, a more comfortable source of wisdom. The producer, Nora McInery, tells her own story of loss and love in the very first episode. I wept (making the person seated next to me on the airplane rather uncomfortable) because it was so damned familiar. Nora says, "I am in love with two men." She is right. One love does not deny, eliminate, lessen, mitigate, or undermine the other. The heart is a very resilient little muscle. It is capable of marvels. So are we all.

With love and gratitude,
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 10, 2017

Grief and time

I've written many times about how no two griefs are the same. This is true whether it's different people, different losses, or different times. For example, I've met other women around my age who lost their spouse to pancreatic cancer, yet we each experience the grief in our own way.

So it is now that I am experiencing my third anniversary of Kevin's death. This time is different from the second, just as the second was different from the first. This makes sense, I am different now, but I have to admit some of the ways the grief manifests are unexpected.

I'm not crying as much this year.
I am having very vivid and odd dreams in which I cry uncontrollably. I wake up with dry cheeks.

I'm not as abjectly miserable.
I am very tired and really don't want to do much of anything.

I am not as enraged.
I am more stunned that Kevin hasn't been embodied in the world for this long.

Most of what I'm feeling is exhaustion and an odd kind of body-less-ness. I don't feel really connected to myself. This isn't surprising, I'm just noticing it more this year. Last year I wrote in my journal about physical pain and a sense of extra gravity. This year I keep forgetting where my edges are. I bump into things.

None of this is to say I don't miss him, or that I am not sad that he died, or that I am not still grieving, but it is different this year as I expect it will be different again next year. I am sad but I am also full of wonder at my own life, at the riches I have been graced by, at the love that is the overwhelming feeling when I think of him.

I was talking with a friend the other day. She asked me how I am and I told her I'm sad. She wanted to comfort me, to help me be okay, so I told her that I am okay. I am also sad. It is appropriate that I be sad. What I am finally learning is that the sadness is as much a part of me as the joy. Time is helping me learn that.

It's all very odd. They say time heals all wounds. I don't believe that. The wound, the loss, will not vanish. What is happening instead is that I am growing around the loss. I am still growing. I am still in the world, much to my astonishment. And the loss is still there. I do not regret my grief and sorrow, just as I do not regret loving Kevin so much that there will always be a void. Now, three years on, when the grief rises as fatigue or tears or something else, it reminds me of the love.

We are shaped by our losses, by the gifts we are given, by time itself. I am still here. And, in his own way, Kevin is too.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Three ways to bloom into a better storyteller

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Spring is in full force where I live. I look out the window and the forsythia blooms bounce in the breeze like captured sunlight. The magnolia is opening up to the world as if it's sipping the air. The green shoots of crocus, hyacinth, and daffodils are everywhere.

I spent most of my adult life (to date) in New England, where spring was precarious. We never knew when a frost might rush in and doom the new growth, all the while knowing that summer would land on us before we were ready to give up the tender colors of the world reborn. In my current hometown, spring is a long, drawn-out affair, sultry and unmistakable. I love it. For the first time in my life, I really get spring.

In light of all the lovely life surrounding me, I wanted to offer you three ways you can nourish your own, artistic spring, three ways you can grow into a better storyteller.

  1. Regardless of where you are in your artistic journey, remember that growth takes time. You plant a seed and then you have to wait. If you dig it up to check on it, you'll disrupt that vital, dark, embryonic time that all art needs to bloom. 
  2. Once you have a sprout of an idea for a new story, a new way of working, or a new path, you nourish it, give it enough water, protect it from harsh environments and make sure it has adequate sunlight. Pulling on it won't help it grow any faster. Giving it the right kinds of support will
  3. Once that story has bloomed, it may need pruning to make it the best it can be. Don't let your ego or attachment to a given phrase stop you from crafting the best story possible. Keep asking yourself why you love the story, how does it serve the audience, is it crafted to serve both your needs and those of the listener, and so on. 
How do you support your own artistic spring? Don't go it alone. Talk with friends, fellow artists or others in your community. Consider hiring a coach. Tell your story to people you know understand how tender, new art can be easily crushed and ask them for help nourishing it. I wrote recently about the power of appreciation in the workplace; this applies to artists as well. Get appreciated. And remember that being the best storyteller you can requires time, practice, encouragement and the faith that spring will come.

I hope you spring into new art and new life this year. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 3, 2017

Breathing in, breathing out

Three years ago, very early in the morning (or maybe it was late the night before) Kevin began to have trouble breathing. We sat together on our bed. I gave him medication and we practiced slow, deep breathing. Breathing in, breathing out. After several hours with a hospice nurse we decided to go to the hospital as a preventative measure. As we slowly walked down the stairs together I remember banishing the thought that this was the last time he would be in our bedroom.

I was right. When we got to the hospital we found he had a blood clot in his left lung. This wasn't really surprising, cancer can make the blood kind of sticky and more prone to clotting, but it was very bad news. We got him installed in an ICU room and he was given a bi-pap mask, a more intense version of the c-pap you might have at home. He soon fell asleep as air was forced in and out of his lungs. Breathing in, breathing out.

Our oncologist asked if she could talk to me and it was there, in that little room next to his ICU room with four chairs in an L-shape, that I heard for the first time that she told me that he didn't have long. She explained that pulmonary embolisms were very serious. It was possible he wouldn't survive the night and I should call his kids if they wanted to come.

I don't remember if I wept. I'm sure I wanted to. I'm equally sure that I took several deep breaths so I could calm myself and think.

I went back into his room and held his hand, listening to the mask that helped him breathe. I don't know if I slept that night. I remember the rhythm of the machine. I remember watching his chest as he slept deeply for perhaps the first time in weeks. I remember matching the pace of my breath with his. Breathing in, breathing out.

Early the next morning I called his kids. We didn't know we had only 25 days left.

These memories are so sharp and fresh, yet they have a patina as well. Time is beginning to leave its mark on my memory. This is both a blessing and a curse. I want to remember him as immediately as if he had only just walked out of the room, but I know the only way I can survive is if I let time soften them. Sometimes it is in remembering the details that I find the connection and the wound again. Other times it is much easier, the memories are the bright, healthy ones, but not today.

March is a hard month. January 18 to March 28 are the brutal season for me, the dates that mark diagnosis to death, and now I'm really in the thick of it. Some people tell me to not focus on it, but honestly I don't know how. This was perhaps the defining time in my life and, while it hurts to remember,  it also helps remind me that Kevin was such a gift, that I am so lucky. I swim through the memories, thinking of his hands, his laugh, his shock that he was so ill, his joy in me and those he loved. I remember the rhythm of his chest, rising and falling, in that hospital room, as we lay side-by-side in our own home, and in the first night we spent together. Breathing in, breathing out.

These memories make my life now, living in the Twilight Zone, that much richer. When the sorry threatens to drown me I come to the surface and I take a deep breath. Sometimes those breaths are ragged with tears, other times the air fills my lungs and I breathe for us both.

Please don't worry. I am okay. It is appropriate and right that I feel sad, that I miss him. Kevin was the love of my life (and yes, my new love is too, but that's another conversation. I am in another life now, I am another me) so I will always miss him. Sometimes, like now, the wound is as fresh as if it were yesterday. This hurts. And I am still grateful for the pain, because it pales beside the love even as it is a reflection of it.

In each moment that we are here and breathing, I hope you are well and loved and doing the best you can. Be kind. May kindness grace you. And may each breath sustain you through stormy seas and smooth.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tender stories and storytellers

Here we are, March first. I know that winter may not be done everywhere, but the beginning of March has always felt like the start of spring to me. Here in Kansas City, green shoots are nosing their way out of the ground. The crocuses are in bloom and the first forsythia showed yesterday. I know, some of this is unfortunate, due to climate change, and those tender buds are likely in for a chilly surprise, but still, these glimpses of spring help lighten my outlook. We have survived another winter and can loosen our armor, we can be revealed again as tender beings.

I've written before about storytelling and vulnerability, pointing out Brene´ Brown's beloved TED talk. I wanted to take a moment to remind myself that tenderness is vulnerability's sister, and just as important.

It's easy to focus on the negative connotations of tenderness. Easily hurt, weak or delicate, immature. Yet the word has other meanings that I think have relevance to performance storytelling and art making in general. Not tough. Gentle. Moved to emotion easily.

We all enter the world as tender beings. We are vulnerable, soft, delicate, moved to emotion easily. As we grow we toughen up, hiding the tenderness that still exists under the skin because it is too risky, too vulnerable to let it show.

New stories are tender things, like babies or those new shoots poking out of the ground, requiring a gentle touch to grow into the rugged moments on stage. When we recognize the tenderness at the beginning we are less likely to be frustrated when the story grows at its own pace - you can't hasten a flower by pulling on the stem. When we remember the tenderness of the beginning we can approach each telling with joy in the creation, with wonder that it even exists. When we let glimmers of our own tenderness show - say the affection we hold for the villain, the truth that a story still has meaning to us - the audience may be more likely to let themselves experience it all more deeply.

How do you allow tenderness into your art? Here are some possibilities.

  • In early development, let yourself feel how a story affects you. Ask yourself why you are drawn to it, why you feel how you feel about it. Understand your own tenderness.
  • Appreciate the tender moments in the story. What happens when the protagonist sees their love for the first time? What about when we remember the shame linked to part of a personal narrative? If we let ourselves feel those things as the story develops we can more easily communicate it to our listeners.
  • Let yourself feel tenderness for your characters and narratives. Sure, your bad guys may be utterly reprehensible, but if you understand where they are tender they will be that much more believable and maybe just a little bit sympathetic. When your audience can sympathize with the villain they fall more deeply into the story and are left with more to think about. Even Disney villains have a tender spot we can feel for - Jafar has been overlooked for his brother his whole life. The wicked queen has only her beauty for comfort and is deeply betrayed by the mirror's honesty.
  • Honor your own tenderness throughout the process. Don't think you need to become hard and cynical to become an effective teller. Leave room for your own heart and the hearts of your audience. Some of the best, funniest storytellers I've ever heard have tenderness at the core of their narrative. 

I'd love to know how tenderness helps or impedes your art. What do you think?

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 24, 2017

Truth in dark and light

I've written about this before, how January through March has become a challenging season, since it charts the days between Kevin's diagnosis and his death. I'm in the thick of it now and I find myself on the usual roller coaster.

I was talking with a friend just a few days ago and I commented that at least it's becoming familiar. I know I will be sad and I know what being sad feels like. This may sound like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I assure you I'm not looking for reasons to clutch my breast and mourn him. I have just come to recognize that this time of year is likely to bring up some challenging memories.

When I'm in the midst of it I don't always remember this, I don't always recall that I have been here before, but sooner or later the memories surface and I give in. Each time it is simultaneously a shock and expected. I remember how my body feels to be this sad. I remember that I have felt this before. I let myself weep. I let myself watch numbing television. I let myself do what it takes to travel through the sorrow, back to holding onto the love more than the pain.

It's like walking a familiar path blindfolded. I know there are bumps and curves, I know they are somewhere around here, but each time they take me by surprise.

Not only is it familiar, to some degree it is welcome. I am not someone who believes that the only way I can express my love for Kevin is by being sad. I know there are people who hold onto the pain as their most tangible reminder of the one they have lost. I will not tell someone else how to grieve; if that's what works for them, then that's what works for them. I do know that living my life, saying his name, honoring his light in the world, these are all effective ways for me to remember Kevin and to celebrate him. Yet there is sometimes comfort in the pain. There is comfort in letting myself feel so sad I can barely breathe. There is comfort in letting myself feel my ongoing shock that he is no longer in this world. There is comfort in saying yes, I love him so much that I have broken apart, healing into a new shape that encompasses his loss.

This is not to say there isn't comfort in many, many other things as well, but to deny the familiarity, to deny the comfort of loving him enough to still mourn, that would be the same as denying other truths in my life, like love and laughter and the way I honor Kevin and myself by living as fully as I can. He would want no less. I want no less. I want it all, the love and the laughter and the pain and the sorrow. I would rather live fully than deny the truth of the dark as well as the light.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Creativity in times of stress: This is how it started video

I wrote last week about the power and frustration of everyday life when something hugely disruptive occurs. I wrote about it in the context of grief as well as in the current U.S. political climate.

As an artist, I have been somewhat stymied in the last few years. I'm working, I'm performing, but Kevin's death has changed the way my creative process functions. It is much harder. I feel as though I'm operating in a vacuum, that my greatest ally, co-creator and most constructive critic is no longer around. It feels this way because it's true. In the last year or so I've been slowly finding new ways to create new work, but it's hard.

The recent U.S. election and inauguration has added to my difficulty creating. I find myself questioning the worth and value of the art I make in this climate that feels so antithetical to what I do best. It feels the way it did in the first few months after his death when I felt alone and adrift, that my art could make no difference in the world. I question the value of the work, the thing that has shaped me and my life for years, and therefore my own value.

The answer, of course, is to keep working. To be silenced is to capitulate, to say that yes, the arts in general (and my art in particular) lacks relevance. I don't believe that, though some days it's hard to remember. I believe that now more than ever we need art; as sustenance, as distraction, as fuel for the hard work of creating change; as that necessary break that helps us remember the best of who we are and the possibilities of who we might become.

Part of my answer to the question of my own relevance is to make art that I find meaningful. Part of my answer is to help others find their own voices, to help create space where we all can be heard, to take that subversive step of believing that what we do and who we are still matters.

It's not easy. I am faltering every step of the way. But it's something. It helps me build connection, nourish others and myself, and find a way through in these challenging times.

What arts are nourishing you? What are you creating? How do you keep going? I'd love to know.

The following video was recorded in January of 2017 at the Atlantic City Story Slam. This story has changed some, but it's a start and sometimes letting the flawed process be visible is as important as anything else.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 17, 2017

Disruption and every day life

I've been thinking a lot lately about how to continue every day living when life seems terribly disrupted. When Kevin was sick, everyday life became something new. It was a routine that involved the hospital, doctors, and taking care of him, but it still had a kind of every-day-ness to it. There was still routine even as it was a new and very difficult pattern.

After he died I found it very difficult to re-establish some sense of every-day-ness. How could I do the dishes? My beloved was dead. What did it matter if I worked? The world was so out of balance, so unrecognizable, what difference could my work make. What point was there in my voice when his voice was gone? I felt as though the world within which I was living was so alien and unwelcoming that there was little point in engaging in the day-to-day acts of everyday life. This feeling persisted for some time and it still rises up occasionally.

I am encountering some of that same sense now, though not to the same degree. It's been triggered by changes in the American political landscape that violate my sense of this country as being one dedicated to helping others. I know, my politics may not agree with yours and you may wildly disagree with the prior comment, but stick with me here for just a few sentences more. I promise, this isn't a political post to any great degree, beyond the fact that the world has again changed dramatically and I feel displaced.

It has sometimes been challenging, finding my rhythm for work and other everyday activities, in this rapidly changing landscape. What is the point of my work, my belief in the importance of listening and the value of sharing stories, when the world is consumed with shouting and disagreement? Some days it's been very hard to work or do other every day things.

What I discovered, both after Kevin's death and am rediscovering now, is that the every-day-ness is part of what kept me alive, even as my beloved had died, even as my values are being challenged. It is my belief in the value of listening and stories that keeps me working. It is the every day tasks, like washing the dishes or making the bed, that help me retain some sense of control over my own life and so makes me more able to act in all kinds of ways, big and small.

I remind myself over and over again that life will be disrupted in ways big and small. I will stub my toe and the flash of pain briefly disrupts my thoughts. My beloved will die and my entire life will change. The world will change in ways I wasn't expecting and I will be forced to find ways to adapt. Disruption is inevitable. The thing I can manage is my own reaction to it. Even when I feel as though all is hopeless, the small acts of compassion or action remind me that I am still here. I am still alive. I still have a voice. And I can choose what to do next.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Story you can use: Sacred Flame

I wrote last week about the importance of ritual in storytelling and more generally in our lives. I said Ritual helps us see ourselves as part of a continuum of work. It helps us state our role in the web of the world. It helps us remember why we do what we do. It helps us set aside the time we need for something we might otherwise consider foolish. I am, by no means, the first person to make such an observation. Ritual also helps us remember that there is meaning in what we do, even if we lose the details over time.

I probably first heard this story from the wise Doug Lipman, but I'm not sure. There are dozens of versions floating around. For those of you who need some context, the Baal Shem Tov was an 18th-century mystic rabbi, generally credited as the founder of the Hasidic movement. While I am not Hasidic, I have great affection and respect for the stories told about the Baal Shem Tov. What follows is my version of this tale.

Whenever the Baal Shem Tov was troubled, he had a habit of walking to a certain spot in the woods. There he would light a fire, say a particular prayer, meditate, ask for help and find comfort or even a solution to his woes.

Time passed and the great teacher died. His student, upon finding himself troubled, went to the woods and found the spot where his teacher gone. He lit the fire, meditated and asked for help, but he didn't know the words to the prayer. In time he was comforted.

Time passed and this student became a teacher himself. He told his students the story of the Baal Shem Tov and showed them the place in the woods. In time he too died. His students when troubled would go to the place in the woods, meditate and ask for help, but they didn't know how to light the fire in the right way. In time, they too were comforted.

And time passed. The next generation knew of the woods, but not the particular place. They knew only to meditate and ask for help. And the generation beyond knew only to ask, yet they too were comforted.

Now, in our own troubled times when we face our own woes, we are left with the plea for help and the story. The story still can offer comfort and guidance, even if we have lost the particulars of the place, the fire, the prayer and the meditation. The story and the memory alone can offer us hope.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 10, 2017

Grieving what we never had

I was talking with a friend the other day. She lost her adult son several months ago and was marveling at the cultural assumption that we grieve for just few weeks and then move on.

"I will never stop grieving him," she said, "I will never stop missing the boy I knew and the man I wish I knew."

This rang true. When my father died this past August I learned all about who he was to other people. I heard stories about him and descriptions of a man I never knew. My relationship with my father was never without tension so hearing about this relaxed, gentle man almost made me wonder if we met the same person. I didn't know him as the man others described. I wish I had.

This longing expands the sorrow I feel over his death, because I will never have a chance to know the man his friends and my cousins described. I knew only one facet of him; that side and all the others are gone now.

That's one of the aspects of grief that lingers. We mourn what we never had and now will never have. I have also realized it's one of the gifts of collective mourning. I might never have heard these stories about my father had my cousins not told them to me at his memorial service. While it adds to my sense of loss, it offers me some comfort that he had more relaxed relationships with others. It adds to my understanding of the whole man and, since we are never truly lost as long as we are remembered, remembering more of who he was, more than I knew and something closer to the whole package, means he isn't yet truly gone.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Storytelling tips and tricks: Ritual

The first storytelling venue I ever attended, and the one that launched me into this work, was run by the amazing Brother Blue and Ruth Hill. A couple dozen storytellers crammed together in the cafe of a small, basement-level bookstore. It was great. This was before storytelling had taken off, before The Moth, before "storytelling" was a buzzword. We gathered because we loved to hear and tell stories, and Brother Blue was a master who fostered that love in others. If you don't know him, take a look at the video below. If you do, take a look anyway. It's worth it. I'll wait.

Brother Blue was very much his own person. He encouraged us to be "fools for story" just as he was. One of the things he did to make this safe was to start each storytelling gathering with a ritual, wherein he would call upon the muse to help us climb the mountain towards great storytelling. He would declare breath sacred and invite the storytelling to begin. It was great. It was also, to the uninitiated, strange. Why ask for help from the muses? Why do this weird ritual?

We asked for help because any creative act cannot be done in a vacuum. We need help, whether it's from friends and colleagues or from some iteration of then divine. We did the ritual because it mattered to Brother Blue and, over time, it mattered to us. It helped us to shift into the mindset of listening, of doing our best. It helped us understand that the time to tell stories was sacred.

I have become a believer in ritual. Maybe nothing as elaborate as what Brother Blue did, but I know there is real power in setting an intention and then leaning into it. I do this through small rituals. For example, each morning when I start my work day I light a candle and take in five deep, slow breaths. This gives me a chance to come fully into the day, consider what needs to be done and how I should prioritize it. I then review my to-do lists, set some goals and get to work. Another example is in performance. When I was a newer storyteller I would sometimes feel very nervous before I went on stage. I developed the habit of taking a few deep breaths before I stepped out, then looking at the audience and greeting them, saying good morning or good evening, whatever was appropriate. By so doing I acknowledged them, I started a relationship with them politely, and I had a ritual to give myself a moment on the stage before I launched into the story. I still take a few deep breaths and greet the audience in some way.

My rituals have changed over time. None of them are as elaborate as Brother Blue calling the muse, but they serve a role in my creative and working life. They give me a chance to ground myself and a way to remember that the work I do is meaningful, bigger than I am.

Ritual helps us see ourselves as part of a continuum of work. It helps us state our role in the web of the world. It helps us remember why we do what we do. It helps us set aside the time we need for something we might otherwise consider foolish. It doesn't matter where you're telling stories - the classroom, stage or boardroom - what matters is that you take a moment to remind yourself that this is real, this is meaningful, this matters. It can be as subtle as a breath or as broad as calling out to the muse.

What rituals might you use or are you using? I'd love to know.

brother blue: Boston's griot from joshua bee alafia on Vimeo.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The fire of inspiration

What inspires you? What inspires you to create, to act, to feel as if you are part of something greater than yourself?

Today is St. Brigid's Day, the Christianization of the day sacred to the Celtic goddess Brigit. Brigit was the goddess of (and later the saint of) early spring, healing, poetry, high places, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, fire and more. She was represented by a sacred flame and by woven reeds. She is the embodiment of practical and inspired wisdom. She is a symbol of inspiration and new life out of winter dark. Her animal, not coincidentally, was the groundhog, which explains why we look for the little fellow to tell us if we can expect an early spring. You can read more with a quick google or wiki search, this is enough for the purposes of this post.

I love Brigit's Day. I use her day as a chance to consider what inspires me, how I can stoke my own creative fires, and to put some energy into nourishing that which makes me more creative. Of course, I try to do this every day, but this annual reminder to my own practical and inspired wisdom helps.

Many years ago I found myself in Kildare, Ireland on St. Brigit's Day. Kildare is the place where her sacred flame has been tended for millennia, first by women priestesses and then by the nuns who served the cathedral build at the site of her sacred well. I went to the site of the flame and found it littered with offerings. Tiny scrolls, shards of pottery, tiny goddess figures and more. I took the poem I had written in her honor and burned it in the flame.

That night I dreamt I was made of clay and a woman's hands were reshaping me. She molded me into a form I could not see then put me in the kiln. It hurt terribly but when I emerged I was stronger, reborn.

In trying times it helps to remember what inspires you and what you are inspired to do. It helps to take the time to nourish what it is that leads you to create. It helps to tell the stories of those who have gone before to inspire those who come.

So again I ask, what inspires you? What inspires you to create, to act, to feel as if you are part of something greater than yourself? How do you feed your flame? I'd love to know.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Link round-up: Opportunities, application, international, related arts

At the end of each month I'm offering a round-up of storytelling related links, a list of things I found interesting. I hope you find these useful. Please send me any that you'd like me to consider for this post next month, though I can't promise to use all that I receive.

Storytelling-in-action, performance and more
International news

Related arts
(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 20, 2017


Wednesday was January 18th. On January 18, 2014, while sitting in a room in the ER, Kevin and I were told there was a mass on his pancreas and it didn't look good.

Two days ago was the anniversary of the start of our last adventure together. It may seem callous to call it an adventure, but Kevin insisted it was just another adventure, just another chance to be in the world together. So we were.

January 18th has become one of the notable dates in my personal calendar. I've been in this Twilight Zone life for almost three years now so I'm noticing patterns and disruptions. There has been enough time that these things are becoming visible. On January 18, 2015, I was consumed by pain. I don't remember much of the day, my journal is full of sorrow and longing. I wrote about it shortly thereafter here. Last year (2016) my personal pain was compounded by the loss of one of my cultural icons, also from cancer. I was full of rage.

And this year?

I don't know what this year was. It was an odd day. The sky was grey and featureless. I felt like the sky. Grief has become a deep part of who I am, the loss of Kevin a scar that runs through my entire being so I spent the day knowing the scar ached but not really acting upon it. I didn't spend Wednesday howling, in some ways I wish that I could have but it wasn't there. I worked. I read. I spent a fair bit of time trying to feel nothing at all and maybe that's the most honest thing I can say about the day. It may be that the convergence of national events and this particular anniversary were more than my emotional immune system could handle, so I just shut down.

There are no good modern cultural models for grief. Sure, we see images of people bereft in the beginning and then either "getting over it" or "never moving on." There aren't many good models or guidelines about what it is to live altered by a loss but to still live. To let life back in while never forgetting the absence. I didn't really know what to do two days ago. So I just lived. Maybe that was the best thing to do, though I feel some discomfort that it could be misinterpreted as no longer caring. Nothing is further from the truth.

Grief is its own beast, sometimes ferocious and roaring, other times docile and familiar. There are no rules for taming it, only the chance to look up and say Ah. Hello. Have a seat and let's see where the adventure leads next. Two days ago it happened to be an unusual calm, who knows what it will be later today?

I miss you, Kevin. You're right, in its own way it was another adventure, another chance to be in the world together. So we were. So we are. So we always will be. And maybe that's why I didn't need to rail, because the adventure hasn't ended yet.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Story you can use: Invisible clothes

It can be hard to speak truth to power. It's been that way for a long time. The most commonly known version of this story comes from Hans Christian Andersen, but there are many other versions told around the world for generations. You can read variants here

Many years ago there lived an emperor who loved beautiful new clothes so much that he spent all his money on being finely dressed. His only interest was in going to the theater or in riding about in his carriage where he could show off his new clothes. He had a different costume for every hour of the day. Indeed, where it was said of other kings that they were at court, it could only be said of him that he was in his dressing room!

One day two swindlers came to the emperor's city. They said that they were weavers, claiming that they knew how to make the finest cloth imaginable. Not only were the colors and the patterns extraordinarily beautiful, but in addition, this material had the amazing property that it was to be invisible to anyone who was incompetent or stupid.

"It would be wonderful to have clothes made from that cloth," thought the emperor. "Then I would know which of my men are unfit for their positions, and I'd also be able to tell clever people from stupid ones." So he immediately gave the two swindlers a great sum of money to weave their cloth for him.

They set up their looms and pretended to go to work, although there was nothing at all on the looms. They asked for the finest silk and the purest gold, all of which they hid away, continuing to work on the empty looms, often late into the night.

"I would really like to know how they are coming with the cloth!" thought the emperor, but he was a bit uneasy when he recalled that anyone who was unfit for his position or stupid would not be able to see the material. Of course, he himself had nothing to fear, but still he decided to send someone else to see how the work was progressing.

"I'll send my honest old minister to the weavers," thought the emperor. He's the best one to see how the material is coming. He is very sensible, and no one is more worthy of his position than he.
So the good old minister went into the hall where the two swindlers sat working at their empty looms. "Goodness!" thought the old minister, opening his eyes wide. "I cannot see a thing!" But he did not say so.

The two swindlers invited him to step closer, asking him if it wasn't a beautiful design and if the colors weren't magnificent. They pointed to the empty loom, and the poor old minister opened his eyes wider and wider. He still could see nothing, for nothing was there. "Gracious" he thought. "Is it possible that I am stupid? I have never thought so. Am I unfit for my position? No one must know this. No, it will never do for me to say that I was unable to see the material."

"You aren't saying anything!" said one of the weavers.

"Oh, it is magnificent! The very best!" said the old minister, peering through his glasses. "This pattern and these colors! Yes, I'll tell the emperor that I am very satisfied with it!"

"That makes us happy!" said the two weavers, and they called the colors and the unusual pattern by name. The old minister listened closely so that he would be able say the same things when he reported back to the emperor, and that is exactly what he did.

The swindlers now asked for more money, more silk, and more gold, all of which they hid away. Then they continued to weave away as before on the empty looms.

The emperor sent other officials as well to observe the weavers' progress. They too were startled when they saw nothing, and they too reported back to him how wonderful the material was, advising him to have it made into clothes that he could wear in a grand procession. The entire city was alive in praise of the cloth. "Magnifique! Nysseligt! Excellent!" they said, in all languages. The emperor awarded the swindlers with medals of honor, bestowing on each of them the title Lord Weaver.

The swindlers stayed up the entire night before the procession was to take place, burning more than sixteen candles. Everyone could see that they were in a great rush to finish the emperor's new clothes. They pretended to take the material from the looms. They cut in the air with large scissors. They sewed with needles but without any thread. Finally they announced, "Behold! The clothes are

The emperor came to them with his most distinguished cavaliers. The two swindlers raised their arms as though they were holding something and said, "Just look at these trousers! Here is the jacket! This is the cloak!" and so forth. "They are as light as spider webs! You might think that you didn't have a thing on, but that is the good thing about them."

"Yes," said the cavaliers, but they couldn't see a thing, for nothing was there.

"Would his imperial majesty, if it please his grace, kindly remove his clothes." said the swindlers. "Then we will fit you with the new ones, here in front of the large mirror."

The emperor took off all his clothes, and the swindlers pretended to dress him, piece by piece, with the new ones that were to be fitted. They took hold of his waist and pretended to tie something about him. It was the train. Then the emperor turned and looked into the mirror.

"Goodness, they suit you well! What a wonderful fit!" they all said. "What a pattern! What colors! Such luxurious clothes!"

"The canopy to be carried above your majesty awaits outside," said the grandmaster of ceremonies.

"Yes, I am ready!" said the emperor. "Don't they fit well?" He turned once again toward the mirror, because it had to appear as though he were admiring himself in all his glory.

The chamberlains who were to carry the train held their hands just above the floor as if they were picking up the train. As they walked they pretended to hold the train high, for they could not let anyone notice that they could see nothing.

The emperor walked beneath the beautiful canopy in the procession, and all the people in the street and in their windows said, "Goodness, the emperor's new clothes are incomparable! What a beautiful train on his jacket. What a perfect fit!" No one wanted it to be noticed that he could see nothing, for then it would be said that he was unfit for his position or that he was stupid. None of the emperor's clothes had ever before received such praise.

"But he doesn't have anything on!" said a small child.

"Good Lord, let us hear the voice of an innocent child!" said the father, and whispered to another what the child had said.

"A small child said that he doesn't have anything on!"

Finally everyone was saying, "He doesn't have anything on!"

The emperor shuddered, for he knew that they were right, but he thought, "The procession must go on!" He carried himself even more proudly, and the chamberlains walked along behind carrying the train that wasn't there.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 13, 2017

Personal calendars

I could blame it on the limited daylight or on the strep I am still recovering from, complete with a blocked ear. Both would be true. I could say that I haven't slept the night through in several years. That, too, would be true. But the more honest truth is that I am tired because I am sad.

I am in the hard season, the time when memories of Kevin being ill are much more vivid and timely than the ones of the 14.5 years we had when he was well. By this time in 2013 we knew something was seriously wrong. He was diagnosed on January 18th and died 69 days later, so right now? Even the date is a reminder of what has been lost and how hard it was.

I think that's part of what happens when we lose someone we love. We develop a new personal calendar that isn't bound by season or arbitrary time delineation, but by memories. Ah yes, this was when we went to the hospital. I remember the sunrise over the icy roofs, it looks the same doesn't it. My body remembers in ways my mind may not so I am tired.

This is my third time hitting these particular calendar pages. Each year it's been different and I expect it will continue to change. I do know that right now I'm tired and much more prone to cry at stupid commercials. Grief is expressing itself as fatigue.

And that's okay. There is nothing wrong with being sad because Kevin died almost three years ago. There is nothing wrong with being pissed off and stunned that the world has continued. There is nothing wrong with simultaneously experiencing laughter and hope and sorrow. There is nothing wrong with noting my own personal calendar and saying Ah yes. Here we are again. So it goes. So it goes.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Storytelling tips and tricks: Interviews

I love backstory. This is the stuff that the audience may never know but can significantly deepen your understanding of your story and characters, so your telling will become richer. For example, if you tell the Three Little Pigs it might be interesting to know if the wolf is truly hungry, if he was bullied by pigs when he was a pup, or if he just wants some shelter and kind conversation but has poor social skills. Your telling might change based on your answers, even if you never share that information with the audience.

I would love to say I always take the time to develop backstory but that would be untrue. What I can tell you is that when I do take the time, I always learn something that makes the story more meaningful to me and pushes me to be a better storyteller.

One of my very favorite ways to develop backstory and therefore deepen my understanding of the story is interviewing. I get together with a trusted friend, one whom I know is interested in helping me be a better artist, and I tell them just a little bit about the story I'm working on. I give them a general outline of events and characters. Then I select one of the characters and invite them to ask me questions as if they were interviewing the character.

I do this only with trusted allies because I need to know I won't be interrupted while I answer and that they will let me think my answers through. The interviewer needs to let the subject remain in charge of the interview.

Once the ground rules are set, we begin. Typical questions might include:

  • What is your name? Why were you named that?
  • Do you have any siblings?
  • Who was your best friend when you were young?
  • What do you think of so-and-so (another character from the story)?
  • What makes you happy?
  • Do you have any career goals?
  • etc
Sometimes you'll uncover something that might be a real story-changer or may lead you to a new story entirely, a piece of backstory you didn't expect. My first-person telling of Hansel and Gretel from the witch's perspective came out of one of these exercises. This technique extends far beyond traditional material. Try it with a personal story or something out of the public domain. It can get pretty silly but it just about always yields some kind of new information about the character or story. You may not need to share this information with your audience but it might change how you present a character or a situation. For instance, did you know the Big Bad Wolf used to keep kosher? 

I'd love to know how this works for you. 

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, January 6, 2017


Yesterday was my wedding anniversary. On January 5, 2013, after 14 years of loving one another, Kevin and I spoke vows in front of our community, promising to love for as long as we both shall live, until death do us part.

We had no way of knowing death would part us so soon.

I have been a widow for far longer than I was a wife, but I have kept my promise. I still love him. I always will.

The one wedding anniversary we had together before Kevin died is a very tender memory. He was already very sick though not yet diagnosed. I made his favorite dish for dinner; he could barely eat. I'd been cooking the best things I could, both flavorful and nutritious, to try to lure his taste buds into action. I watched him swallow a few bites, look at me, then try a few more. It was, in many ways, his anniversary gift to me. He tried so hard. We sat snuggled together in our living room and re-read our wedding vows to one another. I was so happy. I was so grateful. I was so scared.

He was diagnosed 13 days later.

I would not change any of it. Had I known then what was lurking so near I would have made the same choices. Had I been told 14 years earlier that this would lead to the most painful thing I could experience, I would still have said yes, I will. I am so grateful I was Kevin's lover, his friend, his wife. I am so grateful that we eventually married; it was something I had wanted for a long time and once he was diagnosed it made everything bureaucratic so much easier. It means I am his widow legally as well as emotionally. I think this all would have been even harder if we didn't have the legal bond. This is no way is intended to suggest that those who are unmarried and lose a partner suffer any less, I just know that being his wife and legal widow gave me comfort.

I will always be Kevin's wife and his widow. Should I marry again I will speak my vows with no less sincerity and intent than I did the first time, then I will enter into a state of emotional bigamy and I'm okay with this. The human heart is a very complex and resilient bit of muscle.

Love doesn't die. As long as I am alive, as long as Kevin's kids and others who love him are in this world, he will be remembered and be loved. I am so glad I had a chance to be his lover, his friend, and his wife. I am so glad I was able to be his protector and advocate in those last desperate days. In some strange and complex ways, I am now - not glad. Never glad. But something akin to grateful beyond the loss and pain - that I get to be his widow.

I spent part of yesterday snuggled up on my living room couch. I re-read our vows to one another. I remembered. I let myself be comforted by the memories of what we were. And I will continue to be comforted, happy, and grateful that he and I were greater than the sum of our parts and always will be.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Video: Storytelling and empathy

One of my favorite things about storytelling is the way it functions as a magic trick. A well-told and well-crafted story evokes a very specific kind of neurological response which makes us more predisposed to building relationships or acting in the way the narrator hopes to move you. This makes storytelling an incredibly powerful tool, moving the audience to action. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill, but you will use it more effectively when you understand how it works.

The following video is by Paul Zak, the leading researcher on brain chemistry and narrative; I refer to his work extensively in my own consulting, coaching and teaching work, using science to support better storytelling. This video clearly and simply explains some of what happens when you hear an emotionally evocative story with a clear narrative arc. This may be useful for you in your own work as you think about how to craft meaningful stories.

I will come back to applied neurology and storytelling in the coming months.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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