Friday, January 12, 2018

Landmines and a different understanding of time

In March it will be four years since Kevin died. From my birthday in October through the anniversary of his death is a minefield of tough dates and triggering memories. I know to expect that now. Then there are the unexpected things that bite me on the butt.

I moved in with Charley last June. You know how it is with a move, it takes time to really be there. We have our first houseguest arriving tomorrow, so we're dealing with some stuff we hadn't touched since we moved in. 

I just found a bag with walkie-talkies in it. I'm sitting here crying over stupid cheap walkie-talkies. 

Kevin died 69 days after his diagnosis; it was brutal and fast. Most of that time, between diagnosis and death, he was in the hospital, but there were a few stints at home. By what was to be the last time he was home, the cancer had stolen his voice on top of everything else. We set him up in a hospital bed in the living room. I slept by him most nights, but I couldn't always be there. We got a pair of walkie talkies so, if he needed me and I wasn't in the room, all he had to do was push the call button. 

By this time the cancer had invaded most of his body and was affecting his mind. He couldn't figure out which button to push, so we put bright green tape on the appropriate button. He was so weak and  dazed that even that was too much to ask. Within a few days he was back in the hospital and a few days later he was dead.

I put those walkie talkies in a plastic bag, figuring I'd deal with them later. 

Is this later? I found them sitting amongst a pile of stuff leftover from the move and started crying. My new love, who is a good and understanding man, just held me. Now they are sitting in their bag on the kitchen table, waiting for me to see if I have the wherewithal to give them away or if they need to wait for a different later.

Time and memory carry different weight after a big loss. It's not as if the sorrow ever goes away or the memories become less tender, but it changes. Right now is later. It is also then. It is also when I packed them up, when I decided to move in with Charley, and 20 minutes ago when I found the walkie-talkie landmine waiting for me.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year's Eve 2017

I made it. You made it. I know I'm not the only one who found 2017 challenging in all kinds of ways, but here we are. Still standing, even if we're a bit wobbly.

Take a moment to feel that. You are still here. It may be bittersweet, but there it is.

With that in mind, the truth that we are still here, I want to look to 2018. I sent out a newsletter recently with some thoughts about stories and gratitude as the year comes to an end; here I'd like to dream forward. I'm not trying to be a pollyanna - 2017 was really hard in so many ways - but if all I focus on is the anger and frustration I will not create the possibility of improvement.

I'm not and never really have been a resolution kind of person. I know myself well enough to admit that sure, I might make a New Year's resolution, but the likelihood of my keeping it because I declared it a resolution is no greater than any other new start I might undertake at any other time of the year. I try to live my daily life with clarity, integrity and forthright hope. That intention makes resolutions feel a little flat, a little false.

I'd like to look at what I am already doing well and will carry forward. By focusing on my successes I give my self-doubts less fuel. The voices that tell me I'm an imposter have a little less authority. I invite you to do this with me - what are your achievements this year? How have you continued to grow and move closer to being the person you want to be? Please let me know. The more we remember and build our strengths, the harder it becomes to shut us down, to make us doubt ourselves and our motives, to tell use we are less than. You are not less than. Neither am I.

So here it is, a few things I have done well and hope to carry into the new year. What does your list look like?

  1. Self-care. If the last few years have taught me nothing else, it's that there is no way I can create change in the world if I don't take a little care for myself now and then. For example:
    A few years ago I decided I would take real vacations (as a self-employed person my home is my workplace so I'm not good at staycations). I take two vacations a year now, even though it makes me a little crazy to lose the work time. The rest and the break both help me be better at my work and my life.
    I'm better at saying no.
    I have been deliberate in creating supportive networks for myself.
    Sure, there are places where I'm not good at self-care, but remembering the places where I have succeeded helps me think I might do better in other realms.
    I will continue to care for myself so I can care for the world.
  2. Compassion and kindness. These may be my guiding values. If I model compassion and kindness maybe others will be a little more able to do the same. If I treat those I don't understand with compassion maybe the walls will crumble a bit. I've done a good job at this, in 2017 especially.
    I will continue to offer compassion and kindness as a reflex and first option; this is not weakness.
  3. Better work and writing habits, facing the voice of the saboteur. I spend a lot of time telling myself I don't work effectively, that I'm not good at what I do, that I'm faking it all the time. The voice of the saboteur is loud and persistent. This year I have taken concrete steps to build better work and writing habits, and have tried to embrace my own competence. Yes, imposter syndrome still kicks my ass, but at least I recognize it when it visits. This feels like a victory.
    I will continue to do the best I can and will try not to believe the liars in my head.
  4. Using my voice, being less afraid. 2017 was not a year to be quiet, but I couldn't bear to only yell. I've tried very hard to post real information, to have reasoned discussions, and to help others keep going with my #barkagainstthedark and #storyseeds. Plus I have my representatives on speed dial. Additionally, I have found that my best response to fear is to step into it. I am certainly afraid of looking like a fool, being hurt, being wrong, etc, but if I dwell in fear I do nothing.
    I will not be silenced, I will not let fear win.
  5. Loving. I wrote recently that love is the easiest thing and I stand by that. I am good at loving the world, people (even those who frustrate me), and believe that love is not weakness, nor does it mean I get to control that which I love. It is a gift to me as well as to the world.
    I will not stop loving in the face of anger and fear.

So that's my list. What's yours? What shall we celebrate as we gird ourselves for 2018?
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Looking forward, looking back. An open letter to Kevin on Christmas Eve

Dear Kevin,

I am missing you terribly right now. Four years ago today we were trying to do all the things we usually did on Christmas Eve: We mulled wine, you put on Christmas music, we stayed in pajamas for as long as we could, we wrapped presents. We admired the Christmas tree and decided against any last minute shopping. We were trying to pretend it was normal, but it wasn't. This was the first Christmas Eve when we wouldn't be seeing the kids the next day, so the present pile was pretty small. We were also both so careful with you. You were so sick. We didn't know yet that this was our last Christmas together.

In some ways I am grateful for that ignorance. Had we known earlier, had you been diagnosed a month or two before, that Christmas would have been consumed by treatment and celebration around the edges. It is so unlikely it would have saved your life; at best it would only have prolonged it by a few months.

That's the story I tell myself, anyway. The guilt is sometimes still pretty intense, that I didn't insist on a CT scan earlier, that I didn't scream at you to go to the ER sooner. I can see you grimacing at me, reminding me that I did the best I could. Some days I know that. Some days I think I would do anything for those extra few months.

Today, four years later, I am in my new home in Minnesota. My new love C is driving his mother across several states so she can spend Christmas with us. I am not going to Boston because my mom needs me here. In Minnesota. (I can see you looking horrified that I moved north, into the cold.) Dad died a year and a half ago. Is he with you? Will you see Christmas in together, watching over all of us from Boston to Minnesota to California? I hope so.

Not long before you died, you asked me to promise you that I would be okay. I promised, knowing it was a lie. Now I know it was and was not. I am okay. And I am not. I feel as though I have become the embodiment of Whitman's, Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

I think that's part of the essential nature of loss. If we let ourselves love deeply then we will, at some point, experience grief. We will never be the same. If we are lucky then we have a chance to build something new, but the broken parts never go away. I have become the city of Troy, built and buried then built again upon the shards.

I know you are still extant in some way but not the way I yearn for, even as I know if you were I would not have the wonders in my life now. It is an odd tension to hold. Very well, then I contradict myself. I want both.

Tonight C and I will have dinner with our mothers. We will go to our home, full of things you would find familiar and new, and wrap presents. I will admire the shimmering lights and the soft blur from tears. I will look for you in the lights. We will drink hot cider and celebrate life in this broken world. I will love you both, and find myself living two lives simultaneously. What else is there to do but live, love, and be grateful?

I love you and always will,
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, December 11, 2017

Relentless cheer? I'll be in my pillow fort.

Sure, the songs say it's the most wonderful time of the year, but I often find the holiday season to be challenging and stressful. This isn't just because I find it very triggering for grief, it's because I have to deal with so many people all of the time and they are telling me I should be happy because it's Christmas. It's harder to find the quiet time I need to function well and I'm more likely to feel guilty about claiming it as needed. I'm not sure why, all I really need to do is go home and make a pillow fort, but something about the relentlessness of it all makes it seem as if I'm being a spoilsport by taking the time I need for my own mental health. This year in particular is difficult because it feels as though I am walking on cultural glass all the time; we have become so ready to demonize one another.

I love giving gifts. I love celebrating with the people I love. I love the foods and some of the music and even the lights. I just don't want to feel as if there is a mandate to consume and smile on demand.

None of this is to say I want to be a Scrooge. Most of the time I'm reasonably cheerful and relish the joy of others. If you love Christmas, that's great! I just don't always want to love it with you or at least not in technicolor-90-decibels-comply-comply-comply.

Maybe this is because I miss Kevin fiercely this time of year. Maybe it's because, as a non-Christian, I feel a bit excluded from the festivities. Maybe it's because I worry that if I actually wish someone a Happy Hanukah I'll both be at risk and will make someone else feel embarrassed. Maybe it's just because I'm tired of the constant messages that we should be HAPPY!

I don't always want to be merry and bright. Sometimes I just want to curl up with a cup of tea and read. Other times I find I can savor a bad mood for a while and want to be quietly grumpy. Sometimes in the privacy of my own home, I might even let my lower lip stick out a little and stomp while I walk. And sometimes I just want to marvel at the stars in the winter sky and be grateful for the world without having to ascribe a particular meaning to it.

Do we really need a holiday to be nice to one another? Must we wait for one time of the year to spend time with those we love? Is it required that we schedule cheer by the calendar? I hope not. I'd like to think I am kind to people most of the year. I try to spend time with those I love. My calendar is full of all kinds of reminders of joy. So, for the moment, you can find me over here, wrapped in a blanket, idly reading a book and maybe nibbling on just a little bit of peppermint bark while I ponder just how many latkes I will make on tonight.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Oh hey grief! So nice of you to visit.

I haven't written about grief in awhile. Don't misunderstand, I still feel grief, but I've not had much to say that seemed original, interesting, or necessary. The loss exists inside of me now as one of many emotional notes, not the driving one, most of the time anyway. In general when I feel that deep longing and loss I take a few deep breaths and remind myself to be grateful for the pain. It will pass soon enough. I might take a walk, talk to Kevin in the aether, and keep myself moving along.

Then my birthday rolled around, followed quickly by Thanksgiving and BAM! here I am, back in the land of the lost. Hi grief, how nice to see you. Pardon me while I wail for a bit.

I've written before about surviving the holidays, and that this time of year can be very difficult for those of us struggling with loss. There are such strong cultural and personal associations with Thanksgiving and Christmas (regardless of religion) that this season can be quite triggering. I'm finding it that way now, even as I approach my fourth Christmas without Kevin, even as I am living with my new love and building new traditions with him, even as I have learned to breath into the void.

Sometimes when grief visits, it helps to remember the sweetness and not just the sorrow, even though it makes me sad.

Kevin and I celebrated our first Christmas together with home baked bread and an open house for our entire community. The next year we did the same thing, only to lose power in the midst of celebrations because of a significant snowfall. We lit candles and the house was warm and bright with love and companionship. I remember how incredibly happy we were. We had a new tradition and one that we knew we would do for the rest of our lives.

And so we did, for the rest of his life anyway. I haven't had a Christmas open house since he died and I doubt that I will again. New traditions are rising up, but it's not the same. It can't be.

I miss him. I miss his excitement over Christmas (both the celebration and the religious aspect); I miss strategizing with him about gifts; I miss his dense, heavy bread; I miss how everyone would glow in the light he reflected. With Kevin I was almost able to believe in Santa Claus again.

Some people seem to think that because I have a new love I don't still miss Kevin, that one has replaced the other. That's nonsense. Our hearts are capable of enormous amounts of love, so having a new love doesn't mean the old one is forgotten or dissipates. It doesn't mean I won't miss him, won't hunger for what was even as I feast on what is.

I don't yet know what the holidays with C will bring this year, but I know they will include love and laughter and their own kind of light. They will also include tears because missing Kevin, feeling grief, is just part of who I am now.

It doesn't matter how new or old the loss is. When we love we run the risk of loss; grief is a part of what it means to be alive. The grief remains and visits at the most inconvenient times (I sometimes think of it as my own personal vacuum cleaner salesman knocking on the door. "Hey, let me just dump this dirt in the middle of your life.") but the love endures. Sometimes the visitation from grief just makes that love more robust and vibrant in the moment. Sometimes it just hurts. And neither the grief nor the love will be any less than a part of who I am.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

It isn't enough to be grateful: 10 ideas for action

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I am a fan of gratitude. Keeping gratitude front and center in my life has helped me through some of the most difficult things I have ever experienced. It helps keep me grounded and, I hope, encourages me to maintain perspective on being one among many in the world.

In this season, when we are bombarded with reminders to be grateful, to be thankful (at the same time that we are bombarded with advertising for more stuff) I find myself thinking that gratitude isn't enough. It is important. It is an excellent first step, but it is just that, a first step. If all we do is list what we are grateful for then not think of it again, it has done nothing to change our lives, the lives of those around us, or the world. If we don't let people know we appreciate them how will they know? If we don't act to perpetuate the things we love, how will they be maintained?

Here are some ideas for turning gratitude into action. I hope you find this useful. I'd love to know how you act upon your feelings of gratitude and how you change the world.

  1. Start with a list. Write down what and whom you're grateful for and a little bit about why. 
  2. Make it a habit. Write down a few things you are grateful for every day.
  3. Tell someone you are grateful for them and why. It might be uncomfortable or embarrassing but it's worth it; would writing a letter make it easier? We all like to know that we are appreciated and remember, that person may not be around forever. Let them know while you can.
  4. Share something you love with someone you love. Gratitude can be viral and it's fun sharing something you are grateful for and enjoy with someone you love and are grateful for. If more people share your sense of gratitude for something then they are more likely to help it remain in existence.
  5. Make a donation or volunteer to support something you are grateful for. For example, I am grateful for the internet. I am acting to try to protect Net Neutrality so everyone can have access to a free and open internet. I've also made donations to organizations that provide reduced cost internet to needy communities.
  6. Protect the things you're grateful for. Be active in your community to keep the things you love safe. Love the outdoors? Work to keep public spaces public. Grateful for your education? Make a donation so someone else can go to school. Speak up when someone suggests that no one cares about something you are grateful for.
  7. Ask others what they are grateful for. Listen to their answers. Maybe you'll learn something new about that person or yourself. 
  8. Don't be too hard on yourself if you need a gratitude break. This season can be tough for a lot of reasons. It's easy to feel as if we're not good enough because the dinner wasn't perfect, we didn't get the right gift or we aren't grateful enough. Give yourself a break, we're all doing the best we can.
  9. Encourage others to express gratitude. It can be embarrassing to name the things you're grateful for. You can help others realize that it's a generous and good-feeling thing to do.
  10. Be grateful for yourself. You may not realize it, but you make the world better every day, by being aware and grateful of what's around you, by being generous when you can, by offering others the chance to share what matters to them. You are worthwhile and I am grateful for you. Thank you for being here.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, October 26, 2017

50 for 50, day 50: So now what?

This is the final post of 50, celebrating my 50th birthday. You can read more here.

I set up these 50 for 50 blog posts as a kind of personal challenge. I wanted to see if I could do it, I missed blogging, and I hoped I might say something useful along the way.

So now what? 

Life is now what. Life continues. Tomorrow I turn 50 and I doubt if I will actually be much different than I am today. It's unlikely my hair will all have turned white or my breasts will suddenly sag down to my knees. I won't be appreciably wiser or richer or more enlightened. I will feel much the same as I do today. I will continue from moment to moment, trying to learn a little bit more as I travel forward.

That's the way life is. If we are very lucky we learn that no matter what is thrown at us the only thing we can really control is how we respond. We can become bitter or more compassionate, we can do our best to respond with kindness (though tempered with steel sometimes) or we can be dismissive, we can curl up and hide or we can try to create change. I hope I tend towards compassion and kindness and strength and hope. I don't always. All I can do is try again.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we are each the center of the universe. No matter how hard I try I will always see the world through my eyes so, for example, right now when my back is still giving me some trouble, it's hard for me to remember that not everyone has back trouble, that not everyone needs to be careful as they move. As I move forward into 50 and beyond I hope I remember this; we each are the center of the universe. Our own children will be the most important children. Our own pains will be the most important pains. Our own beliefs will be the most real. I hope remembering this makes me more able to see the world broadly, more able to connect and more able to create meaningful change. 

So what do I want to leave you with, you kind people who are taking some of your time to read this post? A few things.
  1. I am so lucky. Or blessed. Whatever you want to call it. You are, too. We are lucky to have the chance to try again and try differently, to fail again and fail better. We are blessed to have relationships and love and hope in our lives. 
  2. If I had a chance I would do it all again. Even with the pain and the sorrow, I would still have my parents, I would still love Kevin, I would still try and fail and try again.
  3. Love is worth the risk.
  4. Eat cake and ice cream (or whatever your equivalent may be) even when it isn't your birthday. Use the good china more often. Our time here is so brief. Please live your life.
  5. Don't be afraid to look foolish or be too afraid of what others think. Your own heart, your own standards are what will guide your life. If Brother Blue could live his life out loud and so powerfully, we can do the same. If I let fear stop me I never would have become a storyteller, a writer, or much of anything.
  6. I love you. All of you. Love is the easiest thing and I will not be a love miser.
Happy birthday to all of you. I'll see you soon.


p.s. I'm inviting anyone who wants to, to make a birthday donation to something they know I would love. You can find more here

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

50 for 50, day 49: With gratitude for my life and for you

This is post 49 of 50, celebrating my 50th birthday. You can find the rest here.

Yesterday I posted one of my favorite poems, a reminder to love ourselves and treasure our lives. I am so grateful for my life and for all of you who help make it what it is.

I am grateful for my body, mind and spirit.
I am grateful for my resilience.
I am grateful for my weaknesses as well as my strengths.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for all of the friends who have sustained me in spite of my failings as a friend. If you are reading this then you are one of them.
I am grateful for those of you I've never met in person, but who have shown me kindness nonetheless.
I am grateful for the passing kindnesses from strangers.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for books, for words, for poetry and story and song.
I am grateful for my own voice.
I am grateful for the ocean, for trees, for the chipmunks in my back yard.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for the pain.
I am grateful for the love.
I am grateful for the laughter, the tears, the wrenching silences and the howls.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for the strength to fight and the moments of rest.
I am grateful for my passion.
I am grateful that sometimes I make a difference.
I am grateful.

I am grateful for the chance to witness.
I am grateful for the chance to mend.
I am grateful for my place in this world, for this moment, for this life.

I am grateful.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

50 for 50, day 48: Love after love

This is post 48 of 50 celebrating my 50th birthday. You can read the rest here.

Every so often I will copy out this poem by hand and give it to someone I love as a birthday gift. I know of no better celebration of coming into yourself, finally, than this. I would like to think that here, at the cusp of 50, I am learning what it means to be home in myself.

Love After Love
- Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, October 23, 2017

50 for 50 day 47: Wishes

This is post 47 of 50 celebrating my 50th birthday.

I used to be a big fan of wishing. I've read the stories and know the risks; wishes are fickle things and not to be trusted, but I wished anyway. I wished on birthday candles, on the first star of the evening, on eyelashes and ladybugs and shooting stars and and and... This time of the year, four years ago, I was frantically wishing on anything I could think of, wishing that we would find out why Kevin was getting sicker and please make him well.

I don't tend to make wishes anymore. Not that way, anyway. And honestly, I feel so much more aware of the dark side of wishing that I just don't know if I could phrase that which I most yearn for in such way that it could not be corrupted. After all, I kept wishing for Kevin to be okay and, by some theologies, he now is.

All that being said, birthday wishes are special. There is something so intimate and knowing about making a wish on the day that celebrates your arrival into the world. I had a late lunch today and the waitress gave me ice cream with a candle in it at the end of the meal. "Make a wish!" She said with a big smile. By instinct, I did. I made a small wish and blew out the candle, then froze, feeling that traumatized fear that my wish would go awry.

I don't really think it will, of course, but still... it was an uncomfortable and surprising moment, both in the wishing and in the reaction.

My birthday is at the end of this week. If I were to make a wish, at this time in my life with my history of wishes as a folklorist, a storyteller, a widow, it might be something like this:

May I inspire kindness in all those I meet. May we all treat each other as we wish to be treated when we are at our best. May we receive blessings from all we meet and may we bestow equal blessings.

Maybe this isn't a wish so much as a creed I can consider carrying as I move forward through the rest of my life. Maybe that's what the best wishes are, after all, a roadmap that gives us a guide and agency to the best, kindest life.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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