Friday, December 30, 2016

The observer effect

I’ve been thinking about the observer effect lately, about how the act of observation changes things. I wrote earlier this week about how storytellers and other artists are also observers and recorders, which can make a difference in a dangerous world, but now I'm thinking about it on a more personal level. The observer effect has certainly been powerful for me; I am an observer, a keek, and I’m aware that being observed changes what I do, how I behave and how I respond. I think this is true for most of us, but it feels especially active in my life, as a performer and writer. My own observation of the world and of myself have changed who I am, how I understand the world and my place in it.

I started this blog in 2007 in conjunction with my first NaNoWriMo. I loved that experience of daily writing and wanted to continue developing better writing habits, but knew I wasn’t likely to do so without some kind of audience, some kind of observer effect. So I began to blog. I wrote in a blog hoping others might read what I was writing, so I would write more. I had no idea how important that decision would be. I thought I was just writing.

At first, this blog was an ongoing series of ruminations about the world, but I quickly began to write more specifically about storytelling. By having an assumed audience of readers I had someone I could muse to about storytelling and so began to develop more complex and evolved ideas about the role of storytelling in the world. I wouldn’t have done that without you, the readers, without the observer effect. It has been very important to me to find a way to delve into the deeper meaning of the art that defines my life. Being observed meant that I had to express my thoughts more clearly than I might have otherwise. Thank you.

As you know, in January of 2014 this blog became a companion piece to Kevin’s caringbridge site, a place where I could express some of my own feelings in the midst of his treatment for pancreatic cancer. Once he died this blog became a place where I could think aloud about my grief, where I knew I was not alone.

There are many things that can be said about public grieving. There are many things I could say about my public grieving. I’ve had people tell me I overshare, that I shouldn’t say such things, that I am making a spectacle of myself, that I will chase away my new love by writing about the old. My response is that it’s my choice, that we each have different needs when we grieve, no one is forced to read this blog anyway and he repeatedly assures me that this is not the case. I’ve also been told that the things I write express what the reader thought was inexpressible, that I have given voice to those who have lost their most precious person in the world. As I’ve begun to rebuild (I don’t think of it as healing or moving on, I am someone so different now) I’ve thought aloud about that process, too. Again, I’ve been told it’s too much and I’ve been told that I’ve given hope in the midst of despair. And none of it would have happened without the observer effect because I wouldn't have written in the first place.

All of this has occurred without any specific intention. Much of my grief has been deeply private, moments you will never see and experiences I don’t want to share. The public part of my grief started as a way to give voice to the unbearable and has continued as a way to understand the world I now live in. Every time someone responded to one of my grief posts I knew I was less alone. That helped immeasurably.

More times that I can count this blog and you, the readers, have saved my life. Thank you. I never expected that when I began it way back when. In the midst of the most difficult thing I have ever experienced, being observed meant I chose to continue.

Now, 9 years and some 796 entries later (which means very roughly 70,000 words) I find myself here. I am maintaining two blogs (this one and my organizational storytelling blog) which means three entries a week, and occasional posts in my food blog. I am forced to have good writing habits to maintain this level of content. I rarely have more than 150 readers for a given post, which is very few in the blogosphere, but I continue.

I continue because the observer effect has made me a better writer. Knowing someone will read what I write makes me take more time, put more thought into it and craft it more than I might otherwise. The observer effect means I know I’m not alone. At least a few people read each post, even if it may not be as many as I might like. Knowing that I have shared my thoughts with someone has kept me going through some very dark nights. The observer effect has made me a better person. It means that just maybe something I’ve said has helped someone. And that’s the best part of all.

This is the last 2016 post in True Stories, Honest Lies; I’m considering what I want to do with this blog in the coming years. I hope to have more readers. More than that, I hope to continue this experiment with the power of an observed life, written.

I’d love to know about the observer effect in your own life and, more than that, I need to thank you. Your presence on this journey, even if you just stopped by once, has changed me. You’ve made me a better writer, a clearer thinker, and you’ve kept me going through tough times.

You never know what kind of impact you’ll have on someone. I hope some of what I’ve written has helped you. Thank you for keeping an eye on me, and I look forward to continuing to observe the world with you in the coming year.


(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Telling Life: Witness

This is the last storytelling post in this blog for 2016. As I was thinking about what I wanted to say here I kept coming back to the deep cultural role of storytellers, poets, musicians, writers and artists of all stripes. It's easy to think we can dismiss the arts in this era of easy entertainment and reality tv, but we still matter, maybe more than ever. When an authoritarian regime seizes power anywhere in the world, we are among those silenced first, and who can blame them? We are the ones who mobilize others. A well-told story will more effectively move people to action than will an order. We are catalysts.

Artists in general (and storytellers in particular) help societies remember where they came from and where they want to go. Our stories remind individuals of the ways we are connected, of how we prevailed in other trying times and that dragons can be defeated.

Just as importantly, we are witnesses. When the storytellers, poets, musicians, writers and artists of all stripes are blinded or turn away, history in the making can be more easily rewritten into dubious facts. Do not be blinded. Keep watching, recording and telling the stories of what you see, be it a small act of kindness or a moment of deceit.

Listening and observing are the building blocks of any effective art - we must understand the world within which we create and we must tell the stories we see - so many artists notice more than others might. We keep our eyes open. What we observe, we record. When we record we are inspired to create and in sharing those creations we keep hope alive. We are not powerless and we are not alone.

The world needs you. It needs your art, your observations, your voice. Be a witness. Tell your stories, whether broad and global or intimate and personal. Your stories help us remember that all of our voices matter.

I will be a witness and a voice moving forward. Join me.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
- G.K. Chesterton by way of Neil Gaiman

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 23, 2016

Charting territory

Whee! Splat. That's how I'm feeling these days. Elated then flattened. This isn't surprising, Kevin loved Christmas, so this time of year holds many wonderful memories. He was quite sick by Christmas and was diagnosed shortly into the new year, so this time of year holds many painful memories as well. I never know what to expect. I am driving without a map or GPS.

This is my third Christmas without Kevin. Even now, almost three years on, I can't really predict how I'll feel at any given time. Certainly there are times when it's pretty likely I'll feel okay or feel cruddy, but even then I surprise myself.

That's part of what grief is, what it becomes as you walk further out from the loss and further into the strange new land of life-after-death. Even as you begin to map it, to recognize the familiar landmarks, you will be surprised. I don't know if it ever becomes truly familiar territory. Maybe that's what life is all along, the unknown map, loss or not, but I am more aware of it now.

Here there be monsters, the unexpected hydra of grief rises up at the sight of a loved, familiar face or an overheard song. I cut off its head only to have more grow.

X marks the spot, the unexpected treasures that are revealed by a shared story, a shimmering memory I thought I'd forgotten.

I've written before about life as cartography. The older I grow and the more I consider the New World, this post-loss life, the more I realize there is no one map, there are many and they change all the time. All we really have is each other, reaching out from our isolation and guiding one another along the routes we know, holding up a light so that we all may see. We reach out to help each other across the unfathomable crevasses and hold on tight, hand-to-hard.

I miss you, Kevin. Thank you for being my guide for all of these years. And thanks to all of you who are walking the wilds with me.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Telling Life: Solstice stories and the long dark

Today is the winter solstice, that time when the Northern hemisphere experiences the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Our shadows stretch out before us like spider-limbed adventurers and we shiver during the brief light and long night as we wait for the dawn. In the darkness we can gaze up at the night sky and search for our own shimmer in the sea of stars; we require the dark to see the vastness and the beauty that surrounds us.

I love this time of year. I struggle with it as well, because the external dark leads me into my own darkness, but the deep quiet and long-lasting starry skies give me a chance to think, to dream, to ask myself honest questions and to find new stories that the light might have chased away. This time of year draws me closer to the ones I love as we huddle around whatever may pass for a fire and keep each other company so we don't feel alone in the dark. Recent studies suggest that language and human culture likely evolved in large part around the communal fire, that we went from communicating the technical details of how to stay alive to the deeper and more connecting material of stories and shared thought, the building blocks of culture and community, around that fire as we waited for a meal to cook and for the night to pass. As I look more deeply within myself, the dark and the fire remind me that I am not alone.

For as long as I've been living independently, I rise at dawn on the winter solstice (no hardship, dawn is late) and light a 24-hour candle to burn through the brief day and lengthy night, so the sun will find her way back in the morning. I write, often telling myself stories of my own darkness and survival. I tell others stories of light in the darkness so we may be reminded that we need both, and that even in the dark all is not lost. I consider how we must know our shadow to know ourselves. I watch the sunset and eventually find my way to sleep, where I try to take note of my dreams. Rhiannon is said to visit us on winter solstice night and gift those who can remember with prophetic dreams. I don't always remember nor do they always make sense, but I try.

Tomorrow I will wake up and thank the sun for returning. I will thank my little candle for her hard work of keeping light in the world. And I will return to my normal life, perhaps a little richer for the time spent considering the dark.

One last thing, a story of light in the darkness so you will remember you aren't alone, a story I can share with you so we are reminded of dark and light. May your solstice bring you stories, the treasures of the dark and the light, and may your own self be more deeply known.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 16, 2016

The best we can

I was visiting with a friend recently. Her husband died not too long ago and she was planning his memorial. She asked me to help, knowing I had to do the same for Kevin. She wanted to keep it small so we were talking about whom she might invite.

"What about so-and-so?" I asked.
"No, I don't want her there," she replied with real vitriol. I was surprised, last I knew they had been close.
"Why not? What happened?"
"When my husband was sick she never called to see how he was doing. Alright, she called a few times but not very often. And then when I posted on Facebook that he had died she liked the post. She didn't tell me she was sorry."

I didn't know what to say. I know the friend to be a considerate person so I was sure she had done the best she could, that she probably was at a loss for what to say or do. This seemed like a small thing to provoke such anger. Then I remembered how crazy I was when Kevin was sick and shortly after his death. The small things that cut me, things that now I wouldn't even notice or could at least laugh off.

I kept my mouth shut and we continued planning.

As I've thought about it since I am reminded of one of my life's truths, one that is easy to forget.
We all are doing the best we can, most of the time anyway.

My friend was so raw, in so much pain, that everything was magnified. I remember feeling that way. I remember being racked with guilt because I chose to spend a night at home instead of in the hospital with him, even though I desperately needed the rest. I remember seeing snuggly couples and being enraged that they held hands in my sight, because I was never going to be able to hold Kevin's hand again. I remember trying desperately to control everything I could because the thing I most cared about in the world was entirely out of my control. I remember being that raw and in that much pain. Everything hurt and I was hungry for some way to direct it. I did the best I could to be sane but I know I wasn't, just as my friend has been doing.

And I remember being that person (though not as much in recent years) who didn't know what to do, so did nothing by default. It wasn't that I didn't care, I wasn't concerned and wishing I could help, but that I felt unable to do anything constructive, so I figured they would ask if they needed anything, and I was silent. Now I know, of course, that reaching out and admiting my concern and inability would have been far better, but at the time, withdrawing seemed like the best thing to do. I did the best I could, just as my friend's friend did.

When Kevin was diagosed and later died I was acutely aware of people struggling with how to help. Some people disappeared, reappearing later when it seemed as though I was through the worst. I assume they were frightened and didn't know what to do. It helped me to remember that I have been frightened and unsure, too. Others were present and giving. Sometimes this was enough. Other times I just wanted to scream at them. They did the best they could and were loving enough to forgive me when I snapped. They were doing the best they could. I did the best I could, too.

It's certainly not always enough, not always the right thing, but I think most of the time most of us do the best we can. We often just don't know what to do and we are afraid. If someone you care about is having a rough time, letting them know you are there even if you don't know what to do might mean the world to them. And if you are the one in pain, when you come back to yourself try to remember that those around you did the best they could, even if it wasn't enough.

As we move through the end of this year and into the next, I hope we can remember that we are each trying as hard as we can. We are trying to be kind, compassionate, present, aware; we will succeed and fail every day. All we can do is try again and recognize the effort when we see it.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Telling Life: Creating set lists

December is an interesting month in this storyteller's life. Each year I am fortunate enough to be hired to tell "Christmas stories" and each year I have a moment or two of panic, thinking I don't know any Christmas stories! I do, of course, but I need to review and consider which stories I love, which I find trite, and which will work for a given audience. It is an ongoing exercise in creating an appropriate set list.

A few days ago I had a lovely gig telling Christmas stories for older adults. As I considered what to tell them I had to make my way along a fairly narrow path.

  • Stories appropriate for adults. 
  • Stories that honor the spirit of Christmas, even though I'm not Christian. 
  • Stories that won't make them uncomfortable and I knew this was a relatively conservative audience. 
  • Stories that will evoke their past and honor their present.
  • Stories they might not know. 
  • Stories I enjoy telling.

I pulled stories out of my repertoire and realized there were some holes. Because I was doing this work far enough in advance (thank goodness!) I had time to learn a few new short stories and add them into the set. At least one of those stories will likely become a permanent part of my repertoire (a story rarely becomes part of my permanent repertoire until I've told it several times).

I go through a similar process for most gigs. I realize this may seem time consuming, but it feels important to me. I do have set lists that generally don't change from performance to performance (Christmas story gigs, for example, are generally pulled from a set list that varies only slightly) but I want to make sure I am honoring this particular audience and doing my best to give them what they need based on who I understand them to be, every single time. Reviewing set lists also gives me a chance to find holes in my repertoire and add to it, as I did with this recent gig. From time to time I will wait until I'm in front of the audience before deciding what to tell, but that has become less frequent as I've become more confident in my abilities to tell the right stories most of the time.

I keep track of my set lists in the same program I use to track gigs, so I know I won't duplicate a set if I'm invited back by the same group. This is part of why I consider what stories to tell before every gig, I want to make sure I give them something new.

How do you select stories for a given gig? Do you have consistent set lists that don't really change or do you create new ones each time? Do you know what you're doing to tell before you get up on the stage or do you let the wind blow you where it will? I'd love to know!

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 9, 2016

Sometimes things just suck

Oh, I am in a mood.

Looked at objectively, things aren't bad. I have work I love that pays my bills, most of the time anyway. I am in a relationship with a sweet, smart man who loves me more than I often think I deserve. I have family and friends who care about me. I am generally healthy, my needs are met and I really don't have anything to complain about.

Not that this will stop me. Does it every really stop anyone?

I miss Kevin ferociously. The loss is tearing at me. All I want to do is curl up, watch tv, eat. I am numbing myself in any way I reasonably can. Part of this is the uncertain future, some because we are in the dark time of the year and I've always had a touch of seasonal affective stuff, but more of it is that it is the holiday season and Kevin is gone.

This mood is manifesting in some interesting ways. I have a stronger flinch response than usual. I feel terribly needy, craving assurance at every turn. I'm incredibly tired despite sleeping more than enough. I'm clumsy and find I need to be much more mindful of where I am physically. I'm having some truly epic nightmares. Each of these symptoms tells me that I'm grieving more actively than usual, even though they are different from symptoms I've experienced before. I know it comes in waves and I know this will pass. Right now it just feels crummy.

I've been hesitant to give voice to this because I'm tired of listening to myself whine. Part of me has bought the idea that I should be okay, that I should be able to handle this myself. None of that is true. At the best of times we need support and help, humans don't thrive in vacuums. During harder times we need the support even more, but that can be when it's hardest to ask.

I think I've also been hesitant to name these feelings because that makes it more real. It also means that I will have to contend with some well-meaning but poorly executed support. Someone told me yesterday to cheer up because it was Christmas and no one should be sad at Christmas time, it's Christ's birthday! I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. I thought a lot of things; you don't know me or what's going on, I'm Jewish, politics... I said nothing. I kept my mouth shut and reminded myself that she was well-intended.

So what helps when I feel this way? Naming it. Owning it. Saying to myself and the world that yes, my life is rich and yes, right now things suck, that helps. Asking for a bit of latitude helps. Reminding myself that I am not alone helps.

I have been rereading some of my writing over the last almost three years (that alone is a spear in my side) and that helps too. Reminding myself that I have survived this far. Reminding myself that these feelings come in wave and the only way out is through. Reminding myself that Kevin was and is in my heart. Reminding myself that, above all, I am so lucky to have loved and been loved so well.

With this in mind, I can truly remember that things aren't that bad even if they feel awful in this moment. I have work and love and family and health. This sorrow is the price I willingly pay for the radiant love I have experienced and am experiencing.

May all of our holidays show us the light in the darkness, even when the dark threatens to overwhelm us.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Telling Life: Finding the holiday spirit

I know people who love this time of year. The day after Thanksgiving, or maybe even before, they are decorating, planning, wearing brightly colored sweaters and more. Whether Christmas is a religious or secular event, they are thrilled that it's the holiday season.

I am not one of these people. Please don't think I'm a Scrooge, bah-humbugging everyone's fun, but Christmas isn't that big a deal to me. When I was a child I loved Santa, the tree, and the gifts. As I grew older I loved (and still love) finding gifts for those I cherish, but I became more aware of the complexities of Christmas. For one I'm not Christian, so the season sometimes feels a bit oppressive. For another it was often a time of family stress. Christmas began to be associated with careful navigation through hazardous waters and an increasing frustration with commercialism.

As an adult I finally found some Christmas spirit through rituals Kevin and I developed. We hosted a big open house every year. I loved and still love filling the kids' (now adults) stockings. I enjoyed the ritual of finding and cutting down a tree. None of it really felt like mine, but it was a fun thing to be a part of and a great opportunity to show people that I love them.

Then Kevin got sick. By this time in 2013 we knew something was seriously wrong but we didn't know how bad it was. Christmas now hold memories of the last weeks we had together before his diagnosis. Since his death, my stepkids and I have developed some wonderful new rituals, but it still feels a little strange for all that it is also loving and warm.

I know just how lucky I am because I know what I have lost. Christmas is now a mixture of love and sorrow.

So how do I navigate this time of year? How do I find holiday spirit so I at least won't be a drag for those who love Christmas beyond all else? This year I'm looking for the stories. I'm reminding myself of all the good times, all of the love and light and laughter. This is, of course, what we do at the holidays. We tell each other stories, the same ones we've been telling for years. They are part of the holiday ritual now.

My holiday stories are about spilled wine, unsteady menorahs, finding the right tree, baking bread, playlists, welcomed strangers, losing electricity, merged traditions, teaching the kids to gamble by playing dreidl, sledding miracles and more. For you the stories may be about a child being born, shelter from the cold, family and friends and sweaters that just didn't fit. I don't know yours and you don't know mine, but I do know these stories are lights in the darkness. They are stories of hope and love and faith in something when the world is cold and unwelcoming.

Keep telling your stories. Keep listening. They are our guideposts to find a deeper kind of holiday spirit than anything you can buy in a store.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, December 2, 2016


Image courtesy of wikimedia
I sometimes think about the events in my life as a series of lenses. First I had the lens of childhood, when I was protected and relatively innocent. I saw the world as my playground, a safe place. Then I added on the lenses of school and my growing understanding that others had lenses too, and that theirs were as valid as mine (hard as that is to believe sometimes). From there came lenses that included my political beliefs, ways of interacting with people based on my experience and so on. Some lenses stuck, others were dropped or altered. They accumulated, each one altering how I could see, making things bigger or smaller, sharper or blurred.

I found that those lenses altered how I see the world. You know how it is, you wear glasses for long enough and your eyes change to adapt to them. When you take the glasses off the world seems more unclear than ever.

I never expected the tinted lens of loss, the dimming lens of acute grief and the permanent alteration those lenses have caused in my sight. Once those were installed I never expected the lens of hope or love to return to clear my view. But they have.

If you've never worn these particular lenses, don't worry, you will. And you can choose now and again to try them on. It's important to see the world through others' eyes. I'll loan you mine if you let me look through yours.

We are all products of our experience. Those of us who have experienced significant loss and grief will never see the world without that tinge, but we learn to adapt. We learn to see the beauty of the world through these lenses because we see with more clarity. The sparkle of light on the water is more precious than ever, because we know our lost ones saw it too. It is more joyful than before because it contains all the love we felt for them and the joy we feel when we share it with someone new. It may be blurred now, tears creating their own lens across our eyes, but the aggregate view, lens upon lens upon lens, is one that allows us to see the world with more compassion, more gentleness, more ability to see the preciousness in each moment. All of this depends on our willingness to look through these lenses and not deny them, but oh, the world is still there. Beautiful and painful and sparkling.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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