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
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