Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Telling Life: Endings and beginnings

Here we are at the end of another year. This is my last #tellinglife post for 2015. I hope you are enjoying this series and I would welcome any suggestions you may have. I'm always looking for topics that might be of interest.

A year is so little time and yet so long. In Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle King Arthur and his knights have one year to answer a critical question or the king will lose his head. Every time I tell it I am struck by how certain they are that a year is enough time and how it certainly is not. The king keeps his head but only by a hair. A year would not have been enough had the Court and king not had help from Dame Ragnelle.

So it is with our lives. Without the help of our friends, family and community (not to mention the occasional magical intervention) we would be unlikely to accomplish much of anything, let alone weather the great tests we encounter. We always assume there will be enough time and there never is.

When we tell that begin with Once upon a time we remember that long ago is still relevant. We remember that people long before us and long after have faced the same kind of adversity we encounter. We remember that we will likely endure. And we remember that we are not alone. A year is so little time and yet so so long; it is a once upon a time unto itself. 

A year ago I could barely think of anything other than the loss of my husband. My entire story was about grief. Today, just over 21 months since his light went out, I find myself looking back at the past with great love, and looking forward with great hope. The grief is not gone but is has eased enough that there is room for other parts of my life. It has only been a year but now my story is one of love and loss, hope and promise. With a great deal of help I find myself in a much better place.

Here at the end of 2015 we also stand at a beginning. Now is fine time to consider what has been and what you hope will be. What stories shaped the past year? All of the news round-ups will be full of stories of politics and fear with occasional moments of light. What stories are you believing and telling? What stories will you tell in the coming year? And who do you want to be when, next year, we are all amazed that another 12 months has passed and we are all, together, still standing.

With gratitude and love, I am looking forward to seeing what we discover in the coming years.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 25, 2015

For Kevin, on Christmas morning

Dear Kevin,

I am writing this letter in the watery light of early morning. I remember when I was a child how Christmas morning held wonder and possibility. The packages were still mysteries and any one was likely to be the best thing ever. Santa was real and had come. I would sit in my room and watch the day gradually emerge into the world; when it was light enough I would burst into my parents' bedroom and demand that we go see what Santa had brought. It was a miracle, every single time.

You were my miracle. More accurately, you are my miracle and one of several I have been blessed with throughout my life and certainly the one with the greatest impact.

The Christmases we had together were just as full of anticipation and wonder. Santa still came, in his own way, through your face as you watched your kids open their gifts, watched me. He came in the light pouring out of you as we hosted our annual Christmas open house, as you glowed in the light of the Hanukah candles. He was in your voice as you laughed with our friends. He was in your touch when we finally found our way to bed, where we would fall asleep, too exhausted to do anything else but full of love.

In some ways this second Christmas without you is more bearable. It's at least a little familiar. In other ways it's worse. This time last year I never would have believed that I would be this okay now. I never would have believed that the love has begun to outweigh the grief. But here I am.

I spent some time yesterday rereading some of my blog posts from the last almost 21 months. It was like diving into very cold, very deep water, that breathless shock and moment of recognition. I am so glad I've been writing my way through it. I'm so glad you kept encouraging me to write for all of these years. I don't know if I would have survived your death without writing. Thank you for believing in me.

I still can't believe that I have written those words, over and over again. Your death. Impossible.

And yet.
Here I am.
It is Christmas morning, the second I've had to navigate without you. Soon enough I will get up. I will have tea and talk with the family you gave me.
Your son. Your daughter. Your distant son. I love them as fiercely as if they were my own. They are my own, in their own way, just as they remind me that I am theirs.
Your daughter-in-law. Your son-out-law, whom you never met. Your daughter-in-law's father, who navigates his own grief along with me. Your ex-wife and her love.
Eventually I will talk to the man I love now, which in no way changes or diminishes the fact that I love you with every fiber of my being. You told me to be happy and I believed you. There is happiness and loss, joy and grief in my heart today, as there is every day.

I love all of these people and each one is a gift you gave me, a miracle in my life. Together we will open gifts and look at each other with wonder. Light will pour out of all of us. I expect most of us will also cry in some way, large or small.

Your name will be on our lips. We will look at your photo and smile. We will tell stories of you. Slowly we are building new traditions that include your absence. You will not be here in body but your light still is. Your energy shimmers about the room and we all still bask in you.

Thank you for the gift of your life.
Thank you for the gift of your love.
Thank you, in some deep and strange way, for the gift of your death which showed us all how it is possible to love so deeply that you will never be gone.
Thank you for being my miracle.

Merry Christmas, Kevin. I miss you. I love you. I always will.


(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Telling Life: Santa Claus and other stories of faith

I love Santa. I am not Christian and I was told the "truth" about Santa many, many years ago, but I still love him. He's my guy. At his most basic (ignoring the obvious consumer-oriented interpretations) Santa reminds us that kindness and generosity matter. He reminds us that we can ask for what we need. Since my first precept is be kind I love this embodiment of listening and kindness.

We are surrounded by culturally embedded stories that we have faith in. We may not be aware that these are stories of faith, but they are. Faith is simply trusting and believing in something for which there is no absolute proof. Looked at this way, almost everything is a matter of faith. Almost everything is the stories we choose to believe in.

These days it seems as though the loudest stories that inspire faith are those of fear. Be afraid of people who look different, be afraid of terrorists, be afraid of the police, be afraid of each other. When we are afraid we are more likely to assume the worst about each other, we are more likely to lash out. We are less likely to be kind. Having faith in these stories is understandable considering our news media and the state of the world, but they aren't the only stories.

There are stories of kindness and generosity. When we hear and tell these stories, when we have faith in our own better natures, we might be less likely to flinch when someone unfamiliar enters our world. We might be more likely to respond as if we were a character in a story of hope. We might be more likely to be generous and therefore the other may rise to those expectation instead of sinking to our fears.

I have met Santas, people who were kind for no reason other than our shared humanity, in every circumstance and every day. I have been sheltered by strangers, shared meals with the homeless, listened to by the frantically busy and loved by the unexpected. Every one of these people has been a Santa, offering me kindness, generosity and what I most needed in that moment.  I have been a Santa and hope I will be again.

My belief in the story of human decency is the deepest faith I hold. The stories we have faith in shape who we are, how we behave and how we are received in the world.

When we are kind we are often met with kindness.
When we are generous we are often met with the same.
Even if we are not given back what we have offered, we don't know what effect our actions may have in the long run. We don't know how we might change someone's story of the world, their lives and themselves.

Regardless of the season or your religion, be a Santa. You don't have to be Christian, white, male, large, bearded or dressed in red. Just be kind. Believe your kindness matters. Tell yourself the story of your best self. At worst you might build your faith in yourself as an embodiment of generosity and kindness. At best you may change the world.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 18, 2015

Remembering Kevin at Christmas time

Kevin loved Christmas. He loved decorating the tree and the house, placing electric candles in every window. He loved putting together Christmas playlists. He loved picking out and cutting down a tree. He loved making challah with his daughter and staying up late with me as we wrapped the gifts. He loved having all of our friends over for dinner on Christmas day. He loved all of it.

Christmas was historically more challenging for me. It was a stressful time and held some difficult associations, until I fell in love with Kevin. His joy was infectious. How could I not enjoy Christmas when it made him glow like a little boy? Together we believed in Santa. We were Santa.

New Year's varied. Some years we performed in Boston's First Night celebration. It was great fun telling stories to hundreds of happy people. We would walk to the subway afterwards, hand-in-hand in the cold, and make our way home to toast in the new year. Other years we stayed home and watching the Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy. We would share memories of each episode and then around midnight make our way to bed for a more private celebration.

All of these memories are sweet and I reach back to them as we move through the holidays. They live side-by-side with the memories from our last Christmas and New Year's. We didn't know it yet, but cancer was eating him alive. He could barely eat any of Christmas dinner and on New Year's Eve we went to bed well before midnight, where he immediately fell asleep only to waken several hours later, pain coursing through him. I held him as he writhed and I remember thinking this wasn't an auspicious start to 2014.

We didn't know how precious that last holiday season was. I know now.

All of these memories and more sweep through me. This will be my second Christmas and New Year's without him. It will be my second Christmas celebrating with his kids, where they will keep an eye on me to make sure I'm okay, or as okay as I can be. It will be my first New Year's with my new love, the first time he and I will make tentative new rituals. I'm sure one of those rituals will be my tears. My new home is undecorated. I haven't the heart to do it this year.

Even with these waves of sorrow, what matters most is the love. The sweet memories are far stronger than the pain, even when I am lost in that endless moment. I think of Kevin with gratitude and joy and love him no less now than I did when he was alive. Hope leaks into my life even if I resist it.

This is the season of light in the darkness. This is the season of the birth of hope and possibility. This is the season of gratitude and love.

I am so lucky to have been loved so well, to love so well, to be loved again.

I look to the night sky, to the stars and the moon and the clarity of the air, and I see Kevin's face. I see my past and I see my future. I see the universe and my tiny place in it. I keep him alive as long as I remember him. I keep hope alive as long as I am open to life, to love, to possibility.

I am so grateful.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer

p.s. The photo above was taken in December 2013. This was our last Christmas. He was the brightest thing in that room. The tree dimmed in comparison. Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Telling Life: Stories in the dark

We are just a few days from the Winter Solstice. If you live in the northern hemisphere, the world is dark. The sun may not rise until you are at work and it sets well before you leave. Even if you're self-employed, like me, what light there is has a peculiar slanting quality that lets you know it isn't quite comfortable visiting you.

I have always found these days difficult. Long before there was a formal definition of Seasonal Affective Disorder, I knew that dark calls to dark. I am more prone to depression, self-doubt and sorrow when there is less light. Part of me relishes these dark days; imagination flourishes in the dark but if I'm not careful, I drift into stasis and depression.

We all have stories about ourselves that help us navigate the world. For some, the story may be about family or achievement, for others it may be about injury or character. We use these stories to understand who we are and they influence the face we show to the world. My preferred story is about creativity, intelligence and kindness. I don't always live up to it, but it gives me something to aspire towards.

In the dark, other stories emerge.

In these short days and long nights I find it harder to hold onto my preferred story and drift towards the darker narratives. I begin to believe the parts of myself that tell me I am not a good storyteller. That no one wants to hear what I have to say anyway. That I may as well just get a desk job and let myself be swept away by the every day. That there is no point in striving for a creative life and that it would make no difference to anyone if I just gave up. That I am invisible and my kindness affects no one. Most of me knows these stories aren't true, but it's much harder to ignore them when the light wanes.

I am not asking for reassurance. Some of you don't struggle with this kind of darkness so it may read like a foreign language but I know some of you do. I am telling you this so you know you're not alone. The dark is powerful. It has things to teach us. But it is easy to forget that it is not everything in the world when we are in the midst of it.

Recent research suggests that human language and community evolved around the campfire as we told each other stories to keep out the dark. We can still do that. Instead of staying in my shrouded corner, if I remember that I am not alone I find the long nights are not as difficult. If I remember that I am one of many, clustered around a fire, listening and being listened to, then perhaps my darker stories are not true.

So, let me tell us both a story. Once upon a time we were born. There was light in the world with our births and we still carry that light with us, even when it feels like there is no light anymore. Our light shines out of our eyes and fingertips and the ends of our hair. We illuminate everyone we meet and when we tell our stories, be they joyful or somber, our light mingles with the light of everyone who hears us. When we listen to others our light sparkles and flies up into the sky to form the stars. This is how the first stars were made, by one person listening to the other and the sparks of their connection illuminate the dark to this day. We are part of the night sky and the bright day.

We are not alone in the dark. Tell. Listen. Shine.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 11, 2015

Just a normal day

So you know how it is. You're driving home when you see a car slammed into the median. Traffic is already starting to slow. As you creep closer you realize this only just happened and there are several other cars stopped, people trying to open the doors or break the window.

And you remember you have a crowbar handy.

So you pull over and run back, crowbar in hand, then hear the glass shattering just as you get to the car. You help open the doors and unbuckle the man in the front seat. He is clearly having a seizure. Vomit is fountaining up from his mouth. You help lean his seat back just a little and roll him into his side. You talk to him, even though you're not sure if he can hear you. You can smell vomit and feces and blood. The man helping on the other side has blood on his hands and you don't know if it's his from breaking the window or if the seizing man is bleeding somewhere.

Someone else has called 911. Someone else has pulled boxes to make a lane for emergency vehicles. Someone else is talking to the man's mother. Someone else hands you his wallet and you see his name, his military ID. You tell the person talking to 911 who the seizing man is and then you notice he isn't seizing anymore. You help put a rolled up t-shirt under his neck and support his head with your other hand. You tell him your name and tell him he's okay. Over and over again. He looks in your eyes and you see his confusion, you see him coming back to himself, you see his fear and shame and frustration. You see him flinch whenever someone moves too quickly. You tell him he's okay, even as it may be a lie.

You don't notice the pain in your back or the fluid on your hands.

You hear the sirens and look up. The lights are coming quickly, still half a mile away.

You stay there until the ambulance and fire truck and police cars come to a stop. Then you step aside and let them do their work.

You walk back to your car, feeling your hands shaking and the cool wetness of tears on your cheeks. Everyone else keeps milling around but they don't need you now.

So you get in your car and drive away. Back home you scrub your hands until they are raw and wipe down the steering wheel with disinfectant. You remind yourself that this man and his seizure, the vomit and feces and blood, are not the same as the vomit and feces and blood you had to clean up when your husband was dying. You remind yourself that you did the best you could in both cases. 

You think, "I should tell the people I love how much I love them." So you do.

And you get on with your day, because what else is there.

We don't know what will happen. We don't know if there will be kind strangers. We don't know if the next time the car might flip. We don't know.

Tell the people who may already know, or those who may not, how much you love them. We just don't know.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Telling Life: Uncomfortable

What follows is a lightly edited repost, originally published in 2013 as part of my storytelling alphabet. I hope you find it useful.

It's easy to do what's comfortable. For instance, I love telling fairy tales. I love telling twisty, difficult, dark fairy tales. Some people find this surprising, they think it must be hard to tell these stories because they go in such odd places. It's not. It's very comfortable. Equally, I love original fiction. I love creating worlds and inviting my listeners in.

What's uncomfortable, for me, is telling personal stories. For years I avoided it, telling any kind of fiction, myth and folktale instead. I told people I didn't have any personal experiences to tell stories about. It was so uncomfortable I turned down gigs instead of revealing things about my life in any kind of factual way. Eventually a kind friend helped me craft some stories from my life. Light ones at first and then increasingly difficult stories. It wasn't easy and it certainly wasn't comfortable, but spending time with that discomfort and working through the problems telling these stories presented made me a much better storyteller. What's more, I've embraced opportunities I might have otherwise found too uncomfortable to grasp. I've made friends and shared art I would never have had access to had I remained comfortable.

When we go to the places where we are uncomfortable, we grow. It's the same thing when we use our bodies; we need to be a little uncomfortable to build new muscle and endurance. Try using storytelling in new ways. Try telling the kinds of stories that are challenging. Try telling to audiences you might have avoided. Tell from an uncomfortable perspective. Find safe ways to do so and you will grow. What was uncomfortable might become your new favorite thing, you may have a new adventure. At a minimum you will stretch in new ways, learn new skills, and know your limitations are further away than you thought.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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