Thursday, February 28, 2013

Story Quote: the shape of the world

The world is shaped by two things: stories told and the memories they leave behind.
- Vera Nazarian

What stories have you told lately? How will they be remembered?

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Snow days

When I was a kid I yearned for snow days. Ached for them. Living in Philadelphia, they didn't happen too often, but when they did, they were bliss. Snow days meant sweet, grainy, instant hot chocolate (the only kind that existed through my childhood), the burn of cold on my cheeks, they meant remembering how to steer my sled and the long trudge up the hill, the prick of an icicle on my tongue, the chill of making a snow angel and the rustle of snow pants. Snow days were glaring white offerings from the universe that there was still time to be a kid in the midst of school and homework and chores.

As a teenager, snow days meant I could sleep late, read the day away, finish up the paper I had avoided. They meant hours on the phone with my friends, watching the same tv shows back when we didn't have cable and our choices still seemed limitless. Snow days were a chance to stay inside, a reminder from the universe that I didn't have to venture out into the world yet.

In college, snow days were snow forts and snowball fights and hours in the library. They were more frequent, since I had moved to New England. Snow days meant developing a certain blase´ attitude towards the snow and the inconvenience. I was in Boston now, snow? Bah. Snow days were a chance to feel nostalgia for a childhood I didn't exactly have, an opportunity to play ferociously.

Then I got a car that needed to be shoveled out. And a parking space that had to protected. And a job that never closed. And had to pay taxes that only sometimes seemed to result in good snow removal services. There were no more snow days, only days with snow. I forgot the wonder of icicles and the comfort of looking out my window with the phone pressed tight to my ear.

Snow became an inconvenience, the glare a trigger for migraines. I found myself one of the adults who had lost the wonder of snow, frozen instead by inconvenience. Sure, I would stop from time to time and admire the shape of a tree limb in the snow, but then I would go back to shoveling or curse the driver who stole my parking space. I didn’t have the time for snow days anymore.

Life changes and changes you. Sometimes for bad and sometimes, in unexpected ways, for good.

Now I am living far from New England, in a city that is crippled by the snow. Since I moved here we’ve had two storms, significant even by New England standards. I am not blase´ about this snow, since there is a real possibility I could lose power and heat. The roads are unplowed. I have the awesome opportunity to remember that, once upon a time, snow storms were fatal. They sometimes still are. What’s more, while I still have a car and the attendant inconveniences, my time is my own. My job is here, in this house.  No one is expecting me to show up for work on time because work is all the time, any time. This means on this snow day I can drink hot chocolate (better than the grainy, sweet stuff of my childhood) and look out the window, marveling in my warmth and safety, stunned by the beauty of the storm.

I can take a snow day, slow down and work in this warm house while watching the world transform into black and white. I can walk through the snow and hear the squeak beneath my boots, stop and help my neighbor shovel, fall on my back and make a snow angel, shuddering as snow slips down the neck of my coat. I can again stop to admire the hush of the world. 

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Less to do with pain, more to do with beauty

When I was a kid, I didn't fit in. I know, as you read this, you're thinking neither did I or so what, who did? None of us did. Even the kings and queens, I'm sure, had their moments when they felt like they didn't belong and really, we don't know what goes on behind closed doors, what happens in homes or behind someone's eyes.

When I was a kid I was teased for being weird. For reading too much. Or for not reading the right stuff. Or for not reading enough. For being fat. For being too quiet. Or too loud. For having green eyes, because that meant I was a witch. I remember, one year at summer camp, I spent as much time as I could in the library, because there I would be left alone. This was after the morning we all lined up and saw the flag at half-mast. When we were told Elvis Presley had died and I asked who he was, my fate was sealed. I was the weird one, the one who knew Vivaldi but not Elvis, the one who didn't fit in.

I was also one of the lucky ones. I had enough resilience and enough resources that I made it out. I was feral enough that no one picked a fight with me more than once. I told people my green eyes meant I had the evil eye, so they wouldn't mess with me. I had an imagination that gave me friends and allies no one else could see. I was fortunate enough to see beauty even when around me was litter and anger and unmeetable expectations. I was tough enough that what happened at school or at home, at camp or any where else made me all the more determined to fuck them all and get out alive.

I was lucky. Even if to this day I still flinch at Elvis, still stand up a little too much for the under dog, still cringe when I hear a certain tone in a teenage girl's voice, still brace myself when someone comments on the color of my eyes.

Today I saw this stunning animation of the poem, To This Day by Shane Koyczan, reminding me that I was not the only one who didn't fit in. Reminding me that there are so many of us who are strong and scarred. That my flinches are nothing to be ashamed of. That the stories we tell have an impact we might never dream of, helping someone when they most need it. That I am still here. That I am one of the lucky ones.

And you are, too. I'm glad we're here together.

To This Day from To This Day on Vimeo.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Just some crows playing in the snow

Ooo! Look, Mom, I'm gonna make a snow crow! Thanks to boingboing for posting this one.

 (c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Video: In case you are having trouble doing the work

No matter what your work is - storytelling, writing, glass blowing, carpentry, brick laying, cooking, anything - it takes time and practice to be as good externally as we know we can be internally. Ira Glass nails it.

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, February 11, 2013

A story told in tweets: The Magic Pot

Over the last few days I told another story in tweets; this means it was told 140 characters at a time in hourly posts, about 10 posts a day, over three days. I first did this a few months ago; you can read the first story here. You can also go to my twitter feed and search for #tweetale.

It's an interesting challenge, figuring out how to tell something this way. Each individual post has to be compelling unto itself yet make sense in the whole. I'm enjoying the challenge and it's a fun way to share stories.

This time I picked a folktale I read when I was a child. It's a story found throughout the Middle East.  I told the variant I know. The tweets are posted below, not quite in the form I posted them but in my draft version, so a few posts are longer than 140 characters. I also removed the hashtag for readability. I hope you enjoy it. And keep your eyes on my twitter feed for the next #tweetale!

And now, my dear friends and followers, let us begin another #tweetale!

Once upon a time there were two brothers. While they may have been related by blood they were as different as two people could be.

One was rich and the other poor. One was miserly, the other generous. One was convinced the world was a harsh place while the other found kindness. 

One day the poor brother's wife told him she wished to invite her family to eat with them. "But wife!..." 

"…Even if we had enough rice, we haven't a pot large enough to cook it in!"

His wife smiled. "Let's borrow a pot from your brother. Perhaps he will find it in his heart to be kind." 

With great trepidation, the poor brother knocked on the door of the rich brother's house. After a long wait he was invited in and told to not touch anything.

Finally, the rich brother sauntered into the parlor and settled himself into a chair covered with a fine carpet. "Brother," he said, "Why have you come to my home?" 

Gathering his courage into his hands, the poor brother explained that he would like to borrow a large cooking pot, so he could feed his guests. 

The rich brother considered his poor sibling. He never cared for him and didn't particularly want to help. But family was family. 

"Very well," he said. "But if it's damaged in any way you will have to repay me with gold or labor, I don't care which." 

The poor man thanked his brother and, cradling the pot like a baby, carried it home to his wife. When he told her the conditions… 

…the poor man's wife smiled. "Ah, how kind of him to let us use his pot. We will see how we can reward his generosity."

The poor man was confused but he knew his wife was wise. He trusted her. The fragrance of rice and the joy of family filled their home. 

The next morning the wife gave the pot to the man to return to his brother. Inside was a tiny pot, swaddled in soft cloth. 

The man looked at her in astonishment. "Why are we rewarding his greed with one of our own pots? We can't afford to give one away!" 

She smiled. "Tell your brother your pot gave birth and had a baby. Give it to him. See what happens." 

The poor man carried the large pot and the small back to his brother's home. Again, he waited a long time for his wealthy brother to grant him an audience. 

His brother draped himself in his chair and gestured for his poor sibling to bring him the cooking pot. He inspected it carefully, checking for the slightest flaw. 

The wealthy, cold hearted man gasped. What was this small pot doing inside his cauldron? He asked his brother, who explained… 

"You see, brother, while your pot was a guest in our home, it gave birth to this little baby pot. So, by rights, this small pot is yours." 

The greedy brother had never heard of a pot giving birth before. While it seemed odd, it was also in his favor, so he asked no questions. 

"You are correct, brother, both pots are mine." His greedy heart was filled with glee. 

The poor brother wandered back home, dismayed at both the loss of the small pot and at his brother's ungenerous nature. 

"Don't worry," assured his wife, "I have a plan." And soon enough, she again asked him… borrow the big cooking pot from his brother. The poor man was dismayed. His brother would surely think him a fool! 

When the hard-hearted brother heard his foolish sibling was again asking for his cooking pot, he grinned gleefully, seeing opportunity. 

He again gave his brother the pot, reminding him that not only must it be returned unscathed, any children it might bear would be his property. 

The poor man trod home, his heart heavy. How could his brother be so greedy? 

His wife listened to him and, once again, smiled. "Maybe we can help him learn that there is more to life than pots. 

That evening the man forgot his troubles as he shared his meal with friends and family, admiring his wife's laughter and eating from the cooking pot. 

The next morning his wife again swaddled a smaller pot into the larger. "Tell him it had another baby." The poor man sighed, but did as he was asked. 

This time his rich brother scarcely made him wait. As soon as the greedy man saw the little pot inside the big, he grinned. "Ah, my pot is prolific!" 

Once home, the poor man asked his wife why she was doing this. "You will see, my husband. Everyone knows pots don't have babies" 

And a few weeks later, she again sent her husband to borrow the big pot from his selfish brother. The rich man reminded his poor sibling of the rules. 

"Remember, what's mine is mine. If the pot gives birth then the baby is mine." The poor man wondered who was the fool as he walked home. 

This time, after the meal and the guests had gone home, the wife washed the pot and put it away. "Won't we give it back to my brother?" 

The wife smiled. "No," she replied, "Let's see what happens now." The poor man closed his eyes and sighed. 

A day passed, then another and a third. Finally, not too early in the morning, but not so late that he might be seen by his cronies, the rich brother knocked on their door. 

The poor man let his brother in. The rich man sniffed and looked around their simple home. He wrinkled his nose as if he smelled something bad. 

"Brother, you know why I am here. Where is my pot that I so generously loaned you?" The poor man began to shake. "Well, I… I mean my…" and his wife stepped forward. 

"Oh! Ooooohhhh!" she wailed. ""I'm so sorry, but our grief must be nothing compared to yours." And she collapsed on the floor weeping. 

The poor man and his rich brother both looked at her in astonishment. "The pot!" she cried, "That poor, poor pot. She tried so hard." 

"What is your wife going on about?" asked the rich man, "She seems half mad!" But before the poor man could answer the wife replied, "Your pot - she died!" 

The men looked at one another. "Died?!" said the rich man. "Yes," she replied, "She was giving birth, again, and both the big pot and the baby died!" 

The rich man began to sputter. He knew a pot couldn't die. But before he could say anything, the woman looked him in the eye and said… 

"Surely anything that gives birth to babies can die, can you dispute it?" And the rich man could say nothing in reply, thinking of the baby pots he had claimed for his own. 

The rich man stomped out of the house. The poor man helped his wife up off the floor and soon they were laughing in each others arms. 

And the pot, the man and woman all lived happily ever after. 

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The scared is scared

So I've been having to look at quite a few of my fears lately. Moving, marriage, self-employment, leaping off into the unknown... Any one of these would be enough to derail me. All of them happening at once is so big that there isn't really any point in being afraid, all I can do is move forward, one tiny step at a time.

My friend Annette Simmons posted this video recently, wherein a six-year old boy talks about a lot of things, among them the things that scare us. It's the best thing I've seen in a long time. I hope you love it as much as I did.

the Scared is scared from Bianca Giaever on Vimeo.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, February 4, 2013

The smells of my new home

I'm sure you've heard somewhere that scent is the most reliable trigger of memory. I've also read, though I have no idea where, that scent is an infant's first reliable sense. I've always had a fairly acute sense of smell and navigate the world, in part, by its aroma. This isn't always a good thing, but it does provide a deeper understanding of people, places and things. It means I understand the world, in part, by how it smells.

I wrote recently about the sounds of my new home, how the wail of the train is a new song. It smells different here, too, and I thought I'd share some of the smells with you before I become inured to them.

  1. Oh, you know this one had to be first. Barbecue. Drive around Kansas City on a Saturday night with the windows open and all you can smell is the sweet, smokey, rich scent of people eating, drinking, laughing and striving for a good time. Frankly, it's a little stunning how the whole place smells like a cook out.
  2. And on the other end of the spectrum, sewage. The sewers here must not run as deep, because standing near a street drain often carries with it a whiff of human waste. It's not overwhelming, but it's there and reminds me that while our own shit is inescapable I don't need to stand there and wallow in it.
  3. My street smells like sycamore trees, sweet and spicy. I love sycamores (aka plane trees). They have such a distinctive scent, I used to collect their leaves and stuff pillows with them.
  4. Fresh water. Kansas City is a pretty dry place, but there are hundreds of fountains and two rivers. In Massachusetts we'd get whiffs of marsh and salt water. Here, I smell fresh water.
  5. Smoking regulations vary state-by-state and are more relaxed here than back east, so I often smell cigarette smoke. While I can't say it's my favorite smell, it does remind me of younger days when clubs smelled of smoke and I wrote poetry about the ways we obscure ourselves with ash and embers.
  6. Lastly, my house is starting to smell of spices and books, the way my old home did. I walk in the kitchen door and smell hints of curry and garlic, cinnamon and tea. The stairways smell like the old books shelved there. The craft room has the faint scent of sandalwood incense.  It is, finally, smelling like home.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 1, 2013

Keep the fires burning - Imbolc

I am something of a spiritual magpie, finding expressions of gratitude and solace in traditions from around the world. I don't believe this to be contradictory or disrespectful, as all of these traditions are born from human need and are yearnings towards the inexpressible, so whether something comes from my own Judaism, from Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, or some other faith, it's all about being alive in this world and finding a path through our magnificent, confusing, awe-inspiring, heartbreaking lives.

Today is Imbolc, the Celtic day to honor the goddess Brighid. It's also St. Brighid's Day, no coincidence there. Brighid is the goddess of fire, of creativity, of poetry, medicine, arts and crafts, smithing and birth/spring. She's my kind of girl.

Many years ago I was traveling in Ireland in the spring. It was a pivotal time in my life, turbulent with change. Among other things, I was truly beginning to embrace my calling as a storyteller, beginning to label myself as such, so it felt very daring to tell people that this was my work. In the U.S., when I said I was a storyteller, the assumption was that I read to children or that this was my hobby, not at least an avocation. But in Ireland, no one flinched or wondered, they just nodded and said, Oh, you're a shanachie! It was so much easier. An old man in a pub asked for a story and, when I was done, nodded, then told me I had the gift so I'd best go visit Kildare and be blessed by Brighid. Americans all said I should kiss the Blarney stone (which I didn't get to) but this old man, with his pipe and muddied boots, wasn't to be denied. I went to Kildare, where Brighid's sacred well lies and her eternal flame once burned.

I found myself outside of a church, St. Brigid's of Kildare. It was a cool, wet day and I wandered through the grounds, my shoes soaking through. Towards the back of the churchyard was the site of her sacred flame, extinguished for many years (since rekindled). As I looked into the earth I saw offerings. Shattered crockery, small figurines, stacked rocks, notes folded and decayed. I closed my eyes and in that moment I saw two sturdy hands, working clay and I knew I would survive this turbulence. I knew I would emerge reshaped, not unscathed, but whole.

I left an offering. I gave my thanks. I walked into the Norman cathedral and listened to the Good Friday mass; I hadn't realized the date until the priest welcomed me in and invited me to stay. I had never before paid much mind to this particular story of sacrifice with the hope of redemption. I sat in the cold, feeling the world reshape itself around me. I could feel a small flame alight inside as I welcomed myself back home. I could live this life, be this person, do this work. When the service was done I left an offering. I gave my thanks. And I walked back to the rest of my life.

Now, every year on Imbolc, I light a candle to Brighid. I consider hands, shaping clay. I remember an old man, pointing me to Kildare, inviting me to be blessed. I keep my fires burning.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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