Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Telling Life: Nourishment

I am writing this from the Maine coast. It is a stunning day, crisp and bright, the water smiling the sun back at me. Yesterday I read an entire book in one day (something I used to do regularly but not in years) all while curled up by the fire. I am actually taking a break from my usual work life, which is wonderful but still work.

It's very hard for me, as a self-employed person, to take a break. I know whenever I take a break it means there are opportunities I will miss, even as I believe that more will come. My work is what drives me. I work all the time, even here on vacation. You'll note this is a new blog post, not the old one I was thinking I would repost. Yet breaks are important. We need to nourish ourselves and sometimes that means taking a break. I need to recharge by letting the sound of the wind and waves fill me.

We need to rest. Being here in Maine is nourishing for me. I am recharging my batteries on all levels, physical, emotional, creative and spiritual. By giving myself a break I am likely to be much more creative and energetic when I return home.

How do you nourish yourself? How do you give yourself permission to set down the pen or the phone and just rest?

I'm going back out to the deck now. The trees and water are calling.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 23, 2016


My father's memorial service was last Sunday. It was a lovely event. My mother told the story of his life, weaving in all the people attending. A cousin remembered my father as someone who was able to seriously listen to children, a rare skill. An old friend recounted some of their childhood exploits.

I struggled with what to say. My dad and I had a challenging relationship. We came to peace with one another before he died, something I will be eternally grateful for, but it's still not easy for me to talk about him and how we interacted, who we were with one another. I don't know if it ever will be. Much of it still feels too raw and too private.

A memorial service is not the place to pull out recrimination. We need to remember the dead honestly but gently, especially at memorials. Our survival gives us a chance to remember that no one is perfect and forgiveness makes life easier for the living. I know not all of you will agree with me and that's fine. Perhaps I should say that I need to remember my father honestly and gently, and was not willing to roll anything else out at his memorial.

I wrote earlier about all of this and I did what I planned. I acknowledged the complexity, saying something to the effect of all lives are complicated, all relationships are complicated, but here and now, let me share with you some of the shimmering memories I have of my father.

It was the right call.

I talked about being a child and listening to him tell me the stories he heard as boy on the radio. I may have been the only five year old in 1970s Philadelphia doing imitations of The Shadow. I talked about the stories he made up for me. I talked about watching the night sky with him, with all of the night noises surrounding us, and the constellations watching us back. I talked about how he was able to fix things, solve things, make things better. It was the right call. I felt better by remembering him at his best and I hope it was meaningful to everyone there.

At the end I invited everyone to take a moment and bring their own shimmering memory to mind, whether of my father or of someone else they love who is gone.

In the end, that's what we come down to. We are shimmering memories. We live as long as we are still a glimmer in the ether, a moment that bring a pause in the day. There are plenty of harsh memories but the sweetness is there too. By remembering it all, letting it illuminate us as we will eventually illuminate others, the world continues. The constellations still watch. The stories remain in the air. We still shimmer.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Telling Life: Our own fairy tale

If you've spent more than five minutes with me, you know I love fairy tales. If you've read my writing or been to a performance, it pretty quickly becomes clear that my work is influenced by these magical, whimsical, terrifying stories. Heck, beyond my work, my whole life is influenced by them.

It's easy to think that the appeal lies in the justice for the wicked and the hazy happiness at the end of many fairy tales. The evil are usually punished and the heroic live lives of happiness to the end of their days in some far distant future. When I was little that was certainly part of the appeal, but now I wonder just what happily ever after means.

I thought Kevin and I would live happily ever after, working and loving one another until some time when we might slip away, holding hands, both wrinkled and grey. I was wrong. That wasn't our happily every after. We were living it all along but just didn't know it; ever after was far too soon. There was no just punishment of the wicked; cancer can't be punished. Our story stopped short and I am left with forging ahead, finding a new kind of happiness, a different ever after.

So if it isn't happily ever after that I live in then perhaps it's once upon a time. 

I love the idea of once upon a time, of a time out of time. I like those kinds of liminal spaces, neither here nor there. I sometimes feel as though that's where I live, neither of this world nor removed from it, but somewhere between. Once upon a time captures this rather nicely.

I experience once upon a time when I am in the woods. When I am meditating. When I am particularly engaged and happy with what I'm doing. Maybe for me once upon a time is actually flow state. Maybe it's something else.

Or maybe it's all of it at once. Maybe we are living fairy tale lives even in the midst of traffic lights and collection notices and stomach aches and demanding bosses.

If we remember that we live our lives in a simultaneous state of once upon a time (that place where we are most ourselves, where possibility lingers) and happily ever after (the knowledge that this moment, this life is as glorious and eternal as a breath or as dark and fragmented as a hand gone slack) then maybe we can find that still place where everything is possible. The moment when the hero hasn't yet taken up the quest but knows they will. Where fairies don't need to grant wishes. Where we are the princesses and poor boys, the old women by the side of the road and the magical cat. Where we can lift ourselves up and make our own best story.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 16, 2016

Truth, story and complexity

My father died a month ago. At the end of his life he was peaceful, one sharp breath and then finally letting it all fall away. He was ready. My mother and I were as ready as we could be, though I don't know if one can ever be ready for the death of someone you love.

As I'm writing this I am tossing around what I want to say at his memorial service, a few days after this post publishes. I knew exactly what I wanted to say when Kevin died. That was easy. My love for him was fairly uncluttered; we had 15 really good years, with the usual ups and downs any couple may have, but the love was never in doubt. It was easy to talk about him and remember him publicly. Heck, I've been remembering him publicly in this blog for years now. (Years. That's hard to believe.)

It's harder for me to craft what I want to say at my father's memorial. For one his death is still somewhat abstract for me; I haven't lived near him for many years so his absence is taking longer to sink in. More significantly the relationship wasn't always an easy one. We certainly loved one another, but it was a more complicated relationship than the one I shared with Kevin. I want to honor my father's memory and life, but it's not a tidy set of memories. There are good memories but just as many difficult ones. What I say at his memorial service is part of how I will shape my ongoing memories of him, the lasting thoughts, so I want to be true and honest and kind.

I don't think his memorial service is any place to air the harder memories. I want to give my mother something she will feel good about, I want to know that I am honoring the best of my father, not holding onto that which is gone with him.

Grief is complicated, isn't it. I am grieving the whole relationship, good and bad, but I want to celebrate his being in the world at all. I know I'm not the only person who has had to contend with grieving a complex relationship, but this is a whole different animal than anything I've yet experienced.

So this is what I plan to do. I want to name the complexity but not dwell in it. Everyone there will know that my father was complicated (something he took great pride in) so I don't need that to be the story. Instead I'd rather remember some of the simple, lovely, shining things we shared. Memories of stories and movies and the night sky.

It's taken me some time to come to this, some balancing between what happened, what I remember and what is True.

This is the job of story, isn't it. To sift through what happened and what we remember then arrive at a deeper truth. Even in the midst of complexity and sorrow, relief and grief, I can share gentle truths, let the harsher ones rest, and remember my father as the parent he wanted to be. I can give him that last gift.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 9, 2016

Living the life of a storyteller. Or just living life.

When Kevin and I first got together as a couple the phrase living the life of a storyteller quickly became one of our in-jokes. You know what I mean, one of those things that you and your lover say that means more to you than it would to anyone else. What we meant by this particular phrase was something about accepting that life is a wild ride and everything that happens has potential for both humor and horror. We meant that living like a storyteller meant a kind of deeply engaged but still highly observational life.

We found that this attitude made it easier to bear some of the difficulties we encountered. It meant that we both knew there was someone who would get the absurdity of the everyday. Yes, there were things about it that were specific to us both being storytellers and writers, but mostly it meant we weren't alone.

A big part of what I found so difficult after Kevin died was losing this specific connection. I no longer had the single person in my life with whom I could communicate so much through a glance or a simple phrase. This isn't unique to me, I think it happens to most widowed people. My mother is experiencing it now in the weeks following my father's death. Kevin and I just had a catchphrase.

The last few days have brought that phrase to mind again. In the last 36 hours or so I've had a number of notable experiences that reminded me that being open to the world is part of the storyteller's work. They include:
  • Finding out that a friend had an encysted twin which was causing a variety of health problems. Now that it's gone they are in much better shape.
  • Performing a wedding ceremony in a jail.
  • Listening to stories about Szechuan province, learning about Chinese opera and hearing a traditional Chinese love story, all told to me by the owner of a wonderful Chinese restaurant who was so happy that a non-Chinese person loved his cooking and his brother's recipes.
  • Having a conversation with two Indian Muslin men about the best brand of tea and how their mothers taught them to brew it. They both wanted me to know the best way to make tea and fully expect me to come back and tell them which method I prefer.
  • and more. But I thought these examples were enough.
This is living the life of a storyteller. Or maybe it's just life. I wish I could tell Kevin about these encounters. He would grin, then laugh and tell me that this stuff only happens to me, though we both knew that wasn't true. Things like this make me miss him more acutely, even as I have other people with whom I can share and who I know understand the absurdity of it all.

Maybe some of these events will find their way into a story. Or maybe not. What all of this really tells me is that I am alive. Missing him is part of being alive now. I am still part of the world, even though there were times in the first year of mourning when I thought that would never be and I never wanted it to be.

All of this tells me that, as long as I keep living this life, it will be one of stories told and others hidden away with a small smile. It will be one of remembering Kevin and keeping him in the world by saying his name, by sharing the things I know would delight him, even if no one else will quite get why and how. It will be a life of story and sorrow; humor and horror; wrenching pain, even in moments of joy; laughter, even in grief; life, even after death.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Telling Life: Quiet reconsidered

Today I am recycling a post from 2013, with a few tweaks.

As you know, 2016 has seen me on the road and away from home more than not. Through trial by fire, I'm learning what I need to feed myself creatively when I'm away from my usual resources. One of the most important, and one of the hardest to find, is quiet.

I have a great need for quiet in my life if I am to be creative. I need time and space around me within which I can think or not think. Time when I let my mind wander. It's a funny thing, knowing that day dreaming is part of my job and for that part to be effective I need quiet. I certainly need to be heard, need to talk and think things through with friends, but quiet is where it all starts.

That quiet that works for me can actually be quite noisy. It could be the rumble of a coffee shop, the crash-and-hiss of the ocean, the wind in trees... any kind of white noise works as well as quiet and sometimes even better. I have several apps that create white noise, including the sounds of being in a cafe. Going for a walk is another kind of quiet that supports creativity; I find the physical motion helps loosen up my mind. What doesn't support my creative process is interruption, directed noise or voices I need to attend to.

I don't work well if the music around me is in English, for example. I don't have day dreaming room if I don't have some physical room, crowded environments are hard for me.

It's important that we figure out what kind of environments support our creativity. I know I need quiet, I need blocks of time, I need good light and a comfortable place to curl up. What do you need? What fosters and supports your creativity?

If you are in the position of helping others be creative, what do they need? Do cubicles and florescent lights really support their creativity? What might help? How can you help them alter their environment so they can find their own sparks?

Put some thought into your environment. Find the quiet and space you need to listen to the still, small voice inside. You might be surprised by what it has to say.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 2, 2016

Hello old friend. Thanks for the pie, now go away.

I don't sleep the way I used to. When Kevin was sick I remained alert most of the time so I could help him if he needed it; since his death I've not regained the ability to sleep through the night. It's rarely that bad, so now I just think of it as the way it is, the way I am. Every so often though I find myself unable to sleep and awake at the wee hours. Last night was like that. All night long I lay in the dark, thinking about Kevin and how much I miss him. I had no choice in the matter, the grief was there and nothing I could do would change it.

I'm pretty sure I know why; my father's death has opened up more intense grief for me again. What's more, in this past week two friends have died (both from cancer), the son of another friend died, and yesterday I had a long talk with yet another friend about how we never stop missing those who have passed on.

I lay there in the dark and thought about Kevin. I thought about my father. I thought about my friends. I cried. And I thought about how very familiar this feeling was. Lying there in the dark I realized that, for all that I didn't want to be awake, for all that I was in emotional pain, it was kind of comforting. It reminded me that while people I love have died, the love doesn't die. It reminded me that everything I do from this point out, whether done in joy or in mourning, it is a reflection my past and it's a way to keep them in the world. By remembering them they are not gone. It reminded me that I am still here to feel these things and those who have died would want nothing less.

Shortly after Kevin died a dear friend talked with me about her experience with grief. She said something to the effect of You never know when she's going to visit. She'll kick down the door and won't leave until she's good and ready. You can't do anything about that no matter how hard you try. She's kind of a bitch. But sometimes she brings pie. My friend is right. Grief is its own creature and it arrives when you least expect it. But every once in awhile she brings pie. She did last night, helping me remember that the pain is only a shadow of the love. And although she is not the visitor I would have wanted, I am grateful for the reminders of all the sweetness.

There are still, there will always be, crumbs of grief in my sheets to remind me of the love, the sweetness, and the pain.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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