Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Dear Kevin: Some thoughts on love and grief four years on

(c) Jason Walker
Dear Kevin,

I couldn’t sleep last night, knowing that I would wake into today and yet… here I am. I can’t believe it’s been four years since you died. For that matter it’s sometimes hard to believe that you died at all. How can the planet continue to turn without you? I still love you. I always will. Four years of change and yet no time at all. 

I am writing this from Minnesota. I live here now. Yes, it is cold. You would hate the winter, but you would love the depth of the cold nights and the intensity of summer. It’s as if, knowing it will be brief, summer decides to be as sultry and full of light as it possibly can while it’s here. Kind of like you. You weren’t here long enough, yet in that time you warmed more people and shone more brightly than a dozen others.

You loved me so well I learned to love myself. You loved me so well I wasn’t able to give up on the world when you died, as much as I wanted to. 

You knew this would be the best path. Love is in my nature so I love and am loved, even as I am sometimes composed of cobwebs and twigs. Charley is a wonder, just like you were/are a wonder, though in different ways. He has room for me and you both in his heart, knowing you are a part of me. He is somehow able to make room for my love for you without feeling as if that impacts my love for him. I know I wouldn’t have been able to accept this indescribable gift had you not told me to, had I not known you wanted me to love and live again, had I not known that part of what you love/d about me is that I love the world. I like to think the two of you would be friends, that you would talk about Deep Space Nine and Doctor Who. That you would both bemoan my stubbornness and smile at my foibles while I glare, then we would sit down and eat together, both of you passionate about pizza and barbecue. 

I still have moments of gut-wrenching grief, those times when I feel nauseous with your absence, but as often as not, I remember your light. I wish I remembered with more clarity; you sometimes have that patina of memory, which underscores that it’s been four years. Four years. How can that be? In the early days after you died, I began to keep lists of thing I didn’t want to forget about you, too intimate and homely to cite here in public. I’m glad I made those lists, they are the only part of my journals from those days I read and reread. The rest is too painful, still, but this way I retain some of those details it’s so easy to take for granted and so easy to forget. 

It is so odd that you haven’t seen these glasses or my newer tattoos and that you aren’t here, cheering me on. It can still be confusing and disorienting. Even after four years I still turn to share an observation with you. I still dream  and wake up surprised that you are not by my side. I have moments when I want to ask if you remember so-and-so or such-a-thing, then remember that I cannot, that I am the only one now who has that memory. Sometimes it is very lonely without you, even for the richness in my life.

I do not like that you are a memory but I am grateful that at least you were/are, grateful that I have you to remember. I strive to hold on to that feeling, to let the love and gratitude be greater than the pain, though I can’t always. I am trying.

I have a good life but it often doesn’t feel like it’s my life. I am on a divergent path. I take comfort from the thought that somewhere there is a universe where you and I are still together, laughing until we cannot stand, working together, loving together, living together. I take comfort from the thought that my cells hold the memory of yours. 

For all of the pain, I am so lucky. 

Love is the only infinite commodity I know of and I strive to be profligate in my love, to give it away with abandon and to accept it with joy. Thank you for teaching me that. Oh Kevin, I love you. I always will. That is what I know most of all, four years out. It still hurts like hell, I would still undo it if I could (complicated though that would be) but the love endures. Love wins. 

I remain, always, your


(c)2018 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, March 24, 2018


Who could have predicted this season?
No computer model nor NOAA scientist sounded the sirens
telling us of the storm cells in your body.

Had I an early warning system,
radar that showed me the fatal confluence
of the incoming front,
I would have built a tornado-proof box
from bone. 
I would have sheltered you until
the gale passed.
I would have wrestled the wind itself
until the eye of the hurricane swerved and you were not drowned.

I could do nothing.
The storm ravaged you.

No weather report warned us.
There was no duck and cover
only corrosion and pain.

I am still here, walking
through the wreckage. 
I hold waterlogged photos
and torn notes
the remains of our life after
the tempest swept through and tore you

In the aftermath, no green, wet smell of possible regrowth.
I struggle to weather

the widow’s storm season.

(c) Laura Packer
Please do not steal.
(c)2018 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What grief feels like

Here we are, creeping up on the four year anniversary of my beloved husband's death from pancreatic cancer. I've been dragging for weeks and keep asking myself why I feel this way, then I remember.

I remember that four years ago today we were in our home for the last time. Four years ago today he was in a hospital bed in our dining room. I was sleeping in a chair by his side. We knew he was approaching the end but you never know the end has arrived until it does. Four years ago today he could still hug me, still tell me he loves me, still was breathing.

Three years ago today I was only just learning how to breath again. I was still questioning if I wanted to keep breathing in a world without him.

Two years ago today I went looking for fossils to remind myself that I and Kevin are but a moment in time, as permanent as a calcified shell, as impermanent as a breeze.

A year ago today I was in the Caribbean, thinking I could be sad someplace beautiful as easily as at home. I was right.

And today. Today I have worked. I ran errands. I wrapped myself in a blanket and cried. I thought and remembered and was in uncomfortable astonishment that I am still here.

I feel tired.
I feel physically uncomfortable, grief is often somatic.
I feel grateful for this sorrow, for this pain, for the memories.
I feel numb.
I feel bereft.
I feel forgetful and uneasy.
I feel grief and love and hope and impermanent and and and and and...

Please don't tell me that of course I am better now, it's been years.
Please don't tell me that of course I am better now, I have a new love.
Please don't tell me that I will feel better soon.

It doesn't matter that it's almost four years. It doesn't matter that I have love in my life. It doesn't matter that this, too, shall pass.

What matters is that I loved. And was loved. And love. And do love. What matters is that I remember and mourn and celebrate.

We each grieve in our own way and in our own season. Today I am feeling sad and weary. So it goes. So it goes.

(c)2018 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Conversation about Right Livelihood with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

What does Right Livelihood mean in the context of Transformative Language Arts? How does it relate to finding and staying in conversation with our life’s work while keeping the cupboards and gas tank full as well as caring for our health, art, soul, and community?

LauraPacker and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, between them, have decades of experience. They have teamed up to develop the Right Livelihood Professional Training, launching in June of this year. This 100-hour training kicks off with a long weekend at the beautiful Unity Village retreat center in Kansas City, followed by a 12-week online class, and weekly video conferencing with the likes of Harriet Lerner, Charles Eisenstein, Gregory Levoy, Patti Digh and other luminaries in the field. More about this comprehensive training to help you make a living doing what you love here --

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: When I was growing up, I had no idea how a poet would make a living, and although people pushed me toward journalism and advertising, it didn’t stick. I was made to make things, especially out of words.

Now I make a living in ways that didn’t even exist when I was a teenage poet: I teach in a low-residency master’s program at Goddard College, traveling from Kansas to Vermont twice each year to work with students intensively in designing and implementing their individualized studies and facilitate community writing workshops for many populations, particularly for people living with serious illness. I love what happens when mortality is at the table, and we speak, listen and write from our souls. I give talks, workshops and readings through the Kansas Humanities Council and University of Kansas Osher Institute, and mostly on my own, conversing deeply with audiences on everything from poetry and wild weather to oral histories of people who survived the Holocaust. My work is a kaleidoscope of gigs and teaching, mentoring and consulting, driving across the plains in the bright light of early spring and occasionally flying over the green wonder of the mountains surrounding Lake Champlain to land again in Vermont.

What is your work, Laura, and how did you find your way to it?

Laura Packer: While I was pursuing my degree in Folklore and Mythology I had a lot of people tell me to practice saying, “Would you like fries with that?” I ignored them and persevered. Truthfully, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the degree, I just knew that I loved stories and that my work lay in that direction.

I met the man who would become my mentor when I was 19. He was telling stories and, as I listened, I knew that this was my path. It took me awhile to realize I would have to build the path myself. I worked part time for many years while I pursued my craft, but now I support myself doing a wide range of things that all fall under the umbrella of storytelling. I perform around the world to a wide range of audiences. I’ve told stories in pre-school, at festivals, universities, homes and so on. I teach, running workshops and coaching people ranging from storytellers to CEOs to parents to marketers to non-profit professionals and more. I work with organizations, both for- and non-profit, helping them understand and refine the stories they tell. I give keynotes and lead workshops at conferences. And I write, blogging about storytelling and taking on freelance assignments from a wide variety of clients.
It’s never boring. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of. I am always learning, hearing new stories and remembering that the work I do matters. Everything I do, as diverse as it is, touches upon story and the ways that our stories matter. I know that the work I do supports me both financially and spiritually. I also know that the work I do helps others. It is the right path and one it’s been fascinating to create.

Caryn, I’m wondering about the work you do with TLA and what that has to do with right livelihood. For that matter, could you explain what right livelihood means to you?

CMG: When I first heard about the term “right livelihood”—at Goddard College during a session on making a living true to ourselves—it chimed in me as something I had been seeking for myself and my community for a long time. After being thrown out of journalism school (the extremes we will go to so we can land in the right place!), I earned my BA in labor history, drawing on my concern since I was a teen about how our work lives infuse the whole of our lives. What we “do” colors not just our workaday life but how perceive ourselves, our communities, our world, and our potential to change. If your work entails saying, “Would you like fries with that?” on regular basis, it’s likely that being a fast-food worker shapes your identity, sense of self and what’s possible for you, and even your belief about what kind of work you’re entailed to do in your life.

Right livelihood is a Buddhist term, part of Buddha’s eightfold path (which also includes right speech, another TLA concept in my mind), and it connotes work that does no harm. Stretched out, the term points toward work (both vocation and avocation, for pay and just because it feels like our work) that serves, including conversing with our own callings as well as our community’s calling.

I didn’t realize when I was studying labor history, and later working as a labor organizer and reporter—all the time writing and reading and breathing poetry—that all would converge into my own right livelihood. As a transformative language artist, I draw on the power of our words aloud and on the page, solo and choral, to herd us toward greater health, vibrancy, liberation, and connection with the living world. My work—both at Goddard as a faculty member and coordinator of TLA, and as a working artist facilitating brave spaces for others to find more of their own voices and visions—is how I practice my right livelihood. All of this aligns me with the continual conversation with a calling, but it’s also work that, at best, helps others articulate more of their own truest work in the world. In the Brave Voice writing and singing retreats I co-lead with singer-songwriter Kelley Hunt, we fly on the assumption that opening your voice in one way cannot help but strengthen your voice in your whole life, and I’ve witnessed many people making courageous leaps into who they already were and what they now need to do.

Laura, is that how it is for you too as a performer, teacher, mentor, and writer as well as someone I would call a fellow transformative language artist?

LP: Caryn, you hit the nail right on the head. Right livelihood means work that enlivens and enriches us thoroughly, from fiscal health to spiritual health and beyond. It’s work that nourishes our spirits as well as our bodies and allows us to function as contributing members of a larger community, which is what artists are.

When I remember the value of my work in that larger picture, as someone who brings something powerful to a community as well as enriching my own life, it’s easier for me to be able to charge appropriately, advocate for myself and remember that what I do, as well as all other artists, matters.

CMG: Absolutely! I think part of this work, to really put the “right” into “right livelihood,” entails making paths for and sometimes with other artists. Little makes me as happy as seeing someone I helped mentor come out with a first book or start giving writing workshops in their communities.
Laura, you’ve talked with me before about the importance of charging what we’re worth as a way to honor those who come after us. The whole issue of what to charge, and how to ask for what our work is worth, is challenging and variable for me. I’ll do some things for hardly anything or for free, and other things for a livable stipend, yet negotiations can encompass lots of gray areas. I find our system of working this out to be awkward: an organization will often not say what it can afford until I suggest an amount. I often present what I charge as a range from the lowest I’m willing to accept to the highest I believe I should be paid, and if it’s something I really feel is mine to do, I try to convey that I’m open to negotiation.

Of course, all these issues speak to our cultural tendency to soil our money relationship with shame, privilege, hurt, defensiveness and other difficult guests to host. I’ve had a lot of help along the way to ask for what my work is worth, even and especially as a poet. Once a representation of an organization I was working with told me, a few hours before my gig there, that they didn’t have enough in the budget to pay me what we agreed on, so would I take a cut in pay? The musician I was collaborating with wasn’t asked to take a cut, so we talked this over, and together told the organization, “no,” but it was eye-opening for me, re-affirming my bias against myself that poets don’t get paid or paid much. Having someone stand tall with me helped me to challenge my self- and poet-destructive thinking, and hopefully, as time goes on, may have some effect for others too.

How do you navigate all this?

LP: Oh, this is a hard one! I feel like I don’t navigate it well much of the time, but I do the best I can, which is all any of us can do. Money is such a taboo subject, I try to understand my own prejudices and fears as well as talk about it, so it becomes less taboo. I use several tools to help me think and talk about money.

First, I talk with my colleagues about what they charge. If we remove some of the secrecy, we can all charge a living wage AND put a dent in the cultural idea that transformative language art should be cheap and that those who hire us should pay us less than they would their caterer, organizer, musician or others. It’s related to your experience with being asked to take a pay cut when your musician friend was not; if we charge a reasonable amount and know that we aren’t pricing ourselves out of range of our colleagues but in alliance with them, it can be easier to ask for. Additionally, by talking about it with my colleagues we get to remind ourselves that we are charging for far more than the 30 or 60 minute event, but for all of the time and experience that lies behind it.

Second, I do what you do. I often give the representative a range of cost and then remind them that this is how I make their living. I also tell them that I am open to negotiation (if I am).

Third, if I give work away for free or at a greatly reduced cost, I always give an invoice that reflects what I would have wanted to be paid. This helps lay groundwork that what I, and other TLA artists do, is valuable and worth paying for.

Fourth and last, I remember what a wise friend said to me, when I asked him money questions. He told me, “You can always negotiate down, you can’t negotiate up. Think about what you want and then ask for double.” I don’t do it quite this way (asking for double feels too bold for me) but I do ask for what I want and a little more. I can lower my rate, shorten the event, barter for other services but once I’ve set a price I can’t really come back and ask for more unless they ask for more service first.

When I remember to financially value my own work I am not only telling myself that what I do is worthwhile, I am also telling the rest of the world that art matters.

CMG: That’s very wise advice, and I love the idea of the invoice for what this is worth. There’s something magical about saying on paper “this is what my work is worth” when it comes to inviting in more lucrative work to balance out what we feel drawn to give away.

I’ve been thinking of what I do for free lately because in the last few months. I have one project that I’m grappling with because it’s sort of a “closure” project with a group of people, a way to share some social capital after working with this group for many years in the past. In the long run, I know this project is what I should be doing, but it’s sometimes difficult to balance the volunteer work with the paid work and still have time (not!) to write.
I’ve also been editing a book for a wonderful poet in his dying days, and that’s a sweetheart labor of love through and through. It’s an immersion in grace to be able to do this for someone I love and whose poetry is so important to share with others who can find a lot of sustenance in what he has to say about death, dying and life.

Often though, it’s hard for me to know the impact of my work and if I’m making the best decisions about where to put my time. My husband, also a writer and grassroots organizer, and I often joke as we’re falling asleep that we won’t know the impact of our work until after we’re dead, and I think that’s true. We don’t know, and this makes think of a stanza in one of my favorite Rumi poems:

If you are here unfaithfully with us,
you’re causing terrible damage.
If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,
you’re helping people you don’t know
and have never seen.

So maybe all we can do is to try to be faithful in being here with our people, which also means being faithful to ourselves, and through our work and being, open our hearts (whether we use phrase like “God’s love” or not in describing this) to dropping our pebble in the pond and hoping for the best for what ripples we make and receive.

TLA involves bringing together people to make greater meaning and unearth greater vitality in how we live. It helps us find—through our words, images, rhythms—our work in this life. Mary Oliver said in one of her poems, “My work is loving the world,” and I feel the same. What I actually do for a living and beyond is just a form of that ritual: practicing how to love the world.

To learn more about the Right Livelihood Professional Training, please visit

To learn more about Caryn and her work please visit

This except of a longer interview is reprinted from Chrysalis: A Journal of Transformative Language Arts, 2016. The full interview is


(c)2018 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 2, 2018

#storyseeds Friday: The dark wood

If you follow me on Twitter or on Facebook, you know that I'm posting daily #storyseeds, a short prompt for creativity and imagination. I started doing them as much for myself as for anyone else. They make me stretch my mind a little bit each morning and they help me remember that I am a creative being. It's fun, a little therapeutic, and a little useful for others. I'm posting expanded #storyseeds here on Fridays, both as a chance for me to experiment with more complex prompts and as a way for you to have a playful start for the weekend. Let me know what you think, which worked for you and which didn't, and send me any prompts you'd like to see posted! I can't promise I'll use them, but I may very well.

“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.” 

― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

The dark wood is rich with story. It is the warning heart of so many fairy tales (those stories that offer guideposts to living), the place where old lives can be released and new beginnings may be found, rich with promise and peril, and the metaphor for some of the most catalyzing times in our lives. 

Let's spend a little time there, planting seeds for stories.
  1. Embodied
    How does your body feel when you are in wild places? Do you breath more deeply? Is there a kernel of caution? Do you feel it in your gut, your heart, your eyes?
    Equally, what do you feel when you venture into the unknown, whether it's a new place, a new way of thinking, a new activity?
    What does fear feel like? Or excitement? How do they differ? How are they the same?
  2. Described
    Imagine a wood, a place of mystery, beginnings, and endings.
    What do you see? What kinds of trees? Is there a path? Is it dirt or pine needles or something else?
    What do you smell? What are the sounds when you are moving through the woods or those when you are still?
    How did you get there? Does anyone live there, human or otherwise? Is the wood named or nameless? How big is it? Are you lost or do you have an origin and destination? Is it an urban wood or a remote place? 
  3. A seed
    While wandering in the wood for a pleasant afternoon walk, you glance down and see a white pebble. You pick it up, surprised the see such a bright stone here. A dozen feet down the path you find another. Then another.
    The trees are whispering.
  4. Story-story-go!
    Imagine you set out into the dark wood to find a solution or salvation. Who or what did you find? How did they help or hurt? How did you help or hurt those you encountered? Remember, this story takes place in the woods. How do you find your way out again?

(c)2018 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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