Tuesday, September 19, 2017

50 for 50 day 13: The world through my eyes

This is the 13th of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

Yesterday I told you that I lost a bunch of photos I had wanted to share with you. Here are some others. They will never be as luminous as the ones we can now never see, because what we have never shimmers like what we have lost, but they are still worth seeing.

The world through my eyes. Some of the things I've noticed in the last few months. All images (c) Laura Packer, licensed through Creative Commons.

Before the storm
Persistent (taken on the shores of Lake Superior)
Everyone comes to the fair (MN State Fair)
Backyard neighbor
I'm sure one more will fit
(With thanks to my hand model, Charley)
Cooper's Hawk in the backyard
The moon is always full
This is what 50 looks like. Still watching the world.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, September 18, 2017

50 for 50, day 12: Mistakes

I had the best post planned for today. I've done a few posts in the past where I share photos I've taken so you can see the world through my eyes. I like those because they break up the walls of text I tend towards and they help me see my own photography in a new light.

That was what I was going to do.

I spent yesterday at the arboretum and it was one of those crystal clear autumn days. I took pictures of butterflies, of shadows on petals, of textures, all kinds of things. In the last few months I went to the Minnesota State Fair, saw some neat birds, had some other adventures, and all of it was captured in my camera. I was excited about sharing them with you.

I got home and transferred everything to my photo storage drive and started sorting through them, picking out the best ones. I put the memory card back in my camera and erased it, so I'd have plenty of room for the next round of photos.

You know what I was going to do.
And you know what I did.

I failed to transfer the images from yesterday, maybe 300 pictures, and I didn't notice. I erased the card. They are gone. I still have some of the others, but those fleeting colors and shadows? Lost. It rained last night. Even were I to go back to the arboretum, those blooms are likely gone.

I. Am. SO. Annoyed. It was a stupid mistake and made me stomp around like a three year old. I didn't sleep well because of it and have been gnawing on it ever since.

All things considered, I've made worse mistakes, but this rankles. They all do, don't they. Mistakes. And we all make them. Some are minor and easy to forget, others are catastrophic. On the grand scale of things, this isn't that big a deal though it is disappointing.

As I've grown older I've started trying to welcome mistakes or at least acknowledge them as part of the work of living. I make mistakes all the time, most less irksome than this one. I try to think of mistakes as evidence that I'm still trying new things, still learning. This one, of course, is evidence of carelessness because I thought I knew what I was doing and I've learned from it, but they aren't all like that. I'm not trying to say it feels good, making a mistake, nor am I suggesting that some aren't truly horrific but... we all do it. We may as well learn to live with it.

If we stop making mistakes we have ceased acting. Mistakes are inevitable. All we can do is try to learn from them, not beat ourselves up too much, apologize as necessary, and keep moving on so we can make more mistakes.

I'm trying to do all of that. I still wish I had those photos to share with you though.

This is what 50 looks like. Still screwing up. Still trying again. Fail again, fail better.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, September 17, 2017

50 for 50, day 11: A film I love

There are a few films, books, and other kinds of art that changed me the first time I saw them. You have those too, I'm sure. I revisit some from time to time, and I thought I might share a few of them with you, as I move through this blog series.

I was a freshman in college. That alone should tell you something about my state of mind; I was primed for transformation. It was a transformational time in many ways (among other things, that was when I met Brother Blue) and there were many people who helped. Ned was one of them. He was also a freshman and we met (I think) in an Anthropology 101 class. Or maybe the dining hall. Or somewhere else, it doesn't really matter. Anyway, Ned was one of those friends that you find in college, the ones with whom you stay up into the wee hours, talking philosophy and music and solving world problems with the assurance of a person just stepping into adulthood. If the world was run by people in their late teens to early twenties we might be in much better shape than we are now, because at that age I had much more certainty than I do now. I don't know.

Anyway, Ned and I were talking about something and this movie came up. He told me it was amazing and strange and Australian and I needed to see it, so we trundled down to the local video store, rented a VCR and the tape. Remember those?

I watched Bliss with rapt fascination and indeed, I did need to see it. It's become one of those movies I revisit every few years. I've shared it with a variety of people and the reaction is predictable: They either love it and are fascinated, finding themselves in it, or they are bored. I've learned to not be judgey about it, but really, how can the story of living in hell be boring? I went on to read the book, written by Peter Carey and well worth the time. I picked it up during my first solo overseas trip and I have crisp, clear memories of reading it in a tiny cafe while it poured outside, drinking strong tea, and being aware that I was in the same kind of transformational moment that the protagonist finds himself in.

It's not a terribly original storyline. Honestly, how many stories of transformation are, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that we need those kinds of stories because they help us remember that we are not alone in our quest (conscious or not) for a more fully lived life.

American Beauty is basically a Bliss remake; both tell the story of someone living a life they don't know is killing them. They have a revelatory experience and are different from there on out, which turns out to be terribly disruptive. Transformation is like that. It may not be particularly original but it speaks to me. Bliss is more effective for me than the American version, maybe because it's more magical, maybe because the protagonist is just a little less skeevy, maybe because I saw it at the right time. It doesn't real matter. What does matter is that it works for me.

The preview, like most, doesn't do the film justice, but here it is anyway. If you want to watch the movie in whole, you can find it in three parts on youtube. The first is here.

I'd love to know what movies hit you in exactly the right way at exactly the right time and why. Maybe I'll watch a few of them.

This is what 50 looks like. Continuing to be transformed.

Creative Commons License

Saturday, September 16, 2017

50 for 50, day 10: Rest

This is the tenth of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

Today's post will be brief. Of the many things I am learning as I age, the need for rest is one of the most important. It used to be that I could short myself of rest for extended periods of time and think I was still okay. Not so now. Not so then, either, but I was better at fooling myself.

Today I am resting. I read a book this morning (Gods Behaving Badly, if you're interested. It was a fun, quick read), had several cups of tea and a leisurely breakfast. I'm about to go run errands. All of these constitute a kind of rest I used to undervalue. Rest isn't just sleeping. It can be an active state.

I hope you have a wonderful day, with a good balance of activity and rest.

This is what 50 looks like. Smart enough to know when to shut up and rest.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 15, 2017

50 for 50, day nine: Love is the easiest thing in the world

This is the ninth of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

I was talking with a friend recently and ended the conversation by telling her, "I love you." She hesitated for a minute, then replied that she loved me, too. We hung up. It was a mildly awkward moment but one that I soon forgot, until I got an email from her, telling me how my declaration made her feel. A little bit uncomfortable, was this some kind of come on? Then warm and comforted. Loved. And of course she loved me, too. She wondered why friends didn't say that kind of thing to each other more often.

I do. I tell my friends, family, and even many acquaintances that I love them. I wasn't always like this, it was a conscious choice and one I don't regret at all.

I grew up in a family where saying "I love you" was weighted and infrequent. (Mom, I'm sorry that this paragraph will be hard to read. I love you.) It was sometimes a weapon, with implications of I love you, how can you do this to me. Sometimes it was an expression of power. Occasionally it was offered as a bit of comfort and, every once in a while, as a declaration of affection, but that was rare. It was never said without the expectation of being returned and gratefully so. It was often said in a ponderous tone. It was never simple.

As I grew older and developed other relationships, I went through a phase in my teens where I needed to tell people I loved them, but it wasn't easy. It felt terribly vulnerable and was always uncomfortable. Sometimes it was badly misunderstood, which led to even more discomfort. My first few romantic relationships drove my understanding of love, so I had some trouble differentiating between "loving someone" and "being in love" with them. Now I understand those as very different things.

It was once I was involved with Kevin that I began to understand love as something essential and easy. He regularly told his kids that he loved them and heard it in return. By seeing the way he loved I began to be better at loving, both in a romantic context and beyond it. I began to tell my parents that I loved them. For quite some time I remember their surprise and then the worried response. Was this somehow transactional? Was something wrong? Did I have terrible news? As they got used to my casual declaration of love, they began to relax. Soon it was a more regular part of our dialogue, ending easy conversations with "I love you."

I found myself starting to do the same with my friends. Do I not love them? Should it not be an acknowledged and comfortable part of our relationship? And it grew from there.

I don't want to suggest that I am one of those people who tells everyone that I love them, thus cheapening the idea of love. I'm not. Instead I have become one of those people who has discovered just how easy it is to love. I start from the assumption of offering respect and love, then see what happens from there. Love is the only thing I know of that grows the more you give it away. The more I love and the more broadly, the easier it is to do. I can love my friend, my partner, my parents, my neighbor, my colleague and more, with still more love inside of me. It's not a sappy, flower-scented, blind-to-flaws kind of things. It is a love that encompasses and celebrates our very human-ness. Our flawed nature. Our ability to try again and try a little better next time.

It is the easiest thing in the world.

Sure, love requires some vulnerability, but I can choose how I respond to that. I can close myself up and dole out love like a miser, or I can offer more knowing that I am more likely to receive it when I give it away.

I'm not saying that you need to do this. I'm telling you that I have found, as I near 50, that I would rather love than not. Sure, there are some whom I would be hard pressed to love. But if I allow myself to feel compassion I can, at least, start down that path. And I'd rather not hate or fear anyone if I can avoid it.

Here are some things I have learned as I practice loving the world:

  • Love does not beget, obligate, or require love in return. It is not transactional.
  • Love without attachment helps me be more compassionate, patient, and set better boundaries.
  • Love is the responsibility of the lover. I own my own feelings and responses. Just because I love someone that doesn't mean we have a relationship or anything beyond my willingness to celebrate their being.
  • There are big differences between love and in love.
  • I am much more likely to expect and receive kindness, compassion, and help if I assume that starting from love is the answer. I get what I receive most of the time.
  • I can love the chipmunks in my back yard knowing all they care about is the peanuts I provide. Why can't I offer that same kind of gift to the world? Sure, it may backfire (and certainly has), but I'd rather start with the open hand and the snack.
  • Happily ever after is a great deal of work and is an extension of love. I love my neighbor but don't expect anything back from him. I love my friend and want a lengthy friendship (a kind of happily ever after) so we work at it. I love my lover and want happily ever after there, too, so we must love each other with great forgiveness and resilience. 

How does love work for you? When did you last say "I love you" and what was it like? I'd love to know.

Oh. I love you.
Thanks for reading this.

This is what 50 looks like. Loving the world fiercely.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, September 14, 2017

50 for 50 day 8: Barking against the dark

This is the eighth of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

I don't remember the first time I stood up for someone else. It might have been when I was eleven or twelve and in summer camp, though I expect it was earlier. Two of the girls in my bunk were refugees from Vietnam and had been sent to the camp by a charitable organization. They were teased by some of the other campers for looking different, for not speaking English, for whatever the reason of the day might have been. The girls had arrived at camp excited and happy; now they flinched and were silent. Their joy had been stolen.

I spoke up. I yelled at the mean kids and eventually publicly confronted the camp manager so he couldn't pretend it wasn't happening. The bullies backed off, the girls began to smile again, and I had two loyal companions who tried to teach me Vietnamese while the rest of my bunk ignored me. I didn't think of it as a big deal, it was just the right thing to do. I still don't think of it as a big deal, it was just the right thing to do, though now I can see that this may not have been usual behavior for an eleven year old.

I have always believed in barking against the dark. When we are silent in the face of evil we become complicit. (Your definition of evil and mine may differ, and that's part of why I support freedom of speech, but that's another post.) I don't practice this perfectly, consistently, or particularly effectively most of the time, but I try.

Have you ever been in a situation where you've seen something upsetting and thought someone should do something about that! I am someone. You are, too. We have voices and can choose how to use them. It may sometimes put us at risk but, personally, there are times when I'd rather be at risk and know I did something than have to live with the knowledge that I shrank back. Much of the time all barking requires is a willingness to not close your eyes and pretend you don't see. It requires not being that camp manager.

I bark in all kinds of ways. Some are direct and confrontational; others are the subtle acknowledgements that yes, there are terrible things, and yes, there are things worth fighting for. Sometimes a bark is momentary break from the friction. It might be a moment of compassion, choosing to listen instead of argue, donating to a cause I believe in, or as simple as pointing out that something makes me uncomfortable. And sometimes I am too tired to bark, so I give myself permission to rest today and bark more tomorrow. I fail all the time. Then I try again when I can.

As I approach 50 I find myself more willing to bark and more willing to not bark, because I know there will be new opportunities tomorrow. I certainly cannot save the world alone, but the world will never move towards justice if we all choose to be silent instead.

How do you bark against the dark? How do you give yourself permission to rest? When did you first speak up? I'd love to know.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

50 for 50 day 7: Self Care

This is the 7th of 50 posts leading up to my 50th birthday. You can see them all here.

Someone told me recently that I am a model for good self care. I was stunned. I feel as though I often fail at self care, that you need only look at me to know. Her comment led me to think about how important it is to take care of ourselves and, equally, how part of self care is forgiving ourselves for doing the best we can.

As I approach 50 I hope that I have learned that I must care for myself before I can effectively care for others. This lesson doesn't always hold true - sometimes my own care must come second - but in general I know I will be better able to write, tell, create, love, live if I take care of myself. I've also learned that sometimes self-care means not trying to engage in self care. After Kevin died I watched hundreds of hours of River Monsters. That may not have looked like self care from the outside, but it was the best I could do.

Self care is more than pedicures and baths. It's knowing when to say "no" and knowing when to ask again. It's knowing how I respond to difficult situations and taking steps for recovery afterwards. It's asking for accepting help, even when I don't want to. Sometimes it's Godzilla movies. And sometimes it's just taking a deep breath before moving onto the next thing.

There is a lot of jargon and privilege-speak around self care. All we can do is the best we can.

I'd love to know how you care for yourself and what pitfalls you know to watch out for. Maybe we can help each other be a little more tenderly cared for.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

50 for 50 day six: oh, my aching back

Oh, the arrogance of youth! I remember when I was younger not really getting what it was like for people with aches and pains. Sure, my knees hurt sometimes and I got migraines, but nothing like what grown ups had to contend with. I tried to be sympathetic, but I didn't really get it.

Now I do.

My back hurts today (I'm writing this at an improvised standing desk). I still get migraines though not as often. I have arthritis in my feet, occasional stomach issues and did I mention the asthma? I'm sure there are more complaints I could mention, but really, who wants to read a shopping list of aches and pains? I'm annoyed and bored writing this, it must be worse for you.

All of this leads me to two thoughts that I hope are more interesting and certainly more useful than my whining.
  1. Your pain is real and so is mine. What is painful to one person may not be painful to another, so I can't tell you that your aching back doesn't really hurt, just as you can't tell me that my back isn't as bad as yours. My younger self would sometimes question the validity of another's experience. I'm sure I still do this. I wish I didn't. All I can do is try to remember that yes, my back does hurt even if I look fine. Yours might, too. This can, of course, be extended to other experiences. Subjective experience is valid.
  2. I am grateful for the body I have. There are a lot of things I can (and maybe will) say about my body and my relationship with it as I blog to 50, but for the purposes of this post what I want to remember is that my body is doing the best it can. It will respond appropriately to how I treat it. If I do things to encourage healing, it will try to heal. If I ignore it by (for example) forgetting to stretch when undertaking a three-day drive across country, it will let me know that it needs attention. 
As I age, as most of us age, we will encounter more aches and pains. We won't heal as readily and will eventually have to contend with the breakdowns that accompany a longer a life. That's perhaps what I'm really grateful for. I have lived long enough now that I need to care for my body differently. I am old enough that I can no longer take good health for granted. This realization is a huge gift as I walk towards 50. Achey and with care, but still walking. Being here that long is a gift.

This is what 50 looks like. A bit sore but still upright. And 50 smells like Icy Hot patches apparently.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, September 11, 2017

50 for 50, Day five: History

Today is September 11th. It is (among other things) the birthdays of several people I love and others with cultural weight including O Henry, DH Lawrence and Harry Connick Jr.; the anniversary of Krushchev's death; and the date upon which "The Star Spangled Banner" was first sung at a baseball game. It is also the anniversary of the September 11th attacks in the United States. This date has become a kind of secular holy day. The president will say something about it that will be broadcast on tv. If you knew people who died in those attacks, you'll think of them. If you were in any way affected by it, at some point today you will pause and remember. I cannot help but remember where I was when I heard. You'll probably think about that, too.

That's the thing about living long enough. You have personal memories linked to larger events. You have personal context.

I remember when I was little, asking my mother where she was when JFK was killed, how she found out. I asked about King's assassination, the moon landing, the bombing at Hiroshima, on and on. Every time I learned about a new 20th century historical event I would ask her where she was, what it was like and how she felt. I think I was hungry for both a sense of history as something in living memory, and some understanding of the personal impact.

I was a year old when humans first walked on the moon. I don't remember it. I have vague memories of the Vietnam war, Nixon and Watergate, and the Iran Contra scandal. The first moment that I know I can tell you where I was, what it was like and how I felt was when Elvis died. I was ten years old and in summer camp. The flag was at half-mast and we were told, "Mr. Elvis Presley died last night." I remember this date not because Elvis mattered to me but because I didn't know who Elvis was. I remember being mocked and feeling the shame of not being in the know. Later, when John Lennon was killed, I reacted personally and immediately (my mother told me as I was eating breakfast before going to school. I remember the cereal spoon pausing on its way to my mouth). Lennon meant something to me. I had learned to care at least a little about pop culture and this time it hurt. These memories are visceral, personal, and offer some context for my life and the larger moment.

The next broad cultural moment I remember is when the Challenger exploded. I was in the vegetarian dining hall during my freshman year in college. Someone had a transistor radio that we huddled around. I ran back to my dorm because I knew my friend, who was studying to be a rocket engineer, would be devastated. I spent the afternoon sitting with him, missing all our classes and not caring. We watched the coverage on a crummy black and white television. I had to hold the antenna for reception.

It didn't stop there, of course. Other memories, other where were you moments have layered themselves into me. Some were big and global (the start of the first Gulf War, for example) while others are smaller but no less important (my first email account and my first computer). Some have had a greater influence than others but they all are part of my personal history and context as well as the more general ones. Each moment has turned into a kind of litmus test, a shorthand I can use with others to place each of us into time and memory.

All of this helps me know who I am, where I have been, and gives me the tiniest bit of a path to follow when the next big moment happens. If nothing else, I know that the next big moment will happen.

I am old enough now to be part of history and to tell the where was I when stories. I think this is one of the gifts of getting older; personal meaning and context to broader histories. When we tell these stories we make the global personal, and we are able to say I am here. I am part of the world. You are, too.

So where was I on September 11, 2001? At work. In the kitchen, chatting with Clara. As I watched the news play out I remember thinking everything is going to change now. Nothing will ever be the same. I remember knowing at some point I would have to choose how I would react to people, events and the world. So it is, over and over again through history. Where were you. What was it like. How did it feel. We live through these moments and can choose to learn about ourselves and the world, or choose to forget.

This is what 50 looks like. Old enough to remember.

 (c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, September 10, 2017

50 for 50, day four: Be the fox

I have posted this poem at least three times. It's worth posting again, especially at this age, in this era.
This is what 50 looks like: Unashamed to go in the wrong direction. With thanks to Elsa who introduced me to this poem.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage
Copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, September 9, 2017

50 for 50, day three: This is water

This is the third of 50 blog posts leading up to my 50th birthday.

I've written about this before, but that doesn't mean it isn't still meaningful and worth thinking about. (I suspect I'm going to say this a lot as I blog my way to 50. So be it. Maybe that means I've learned a few things that are worth sharing.)

When I was a kid I thought it was kind of cool to think of myself as a control freak. I'm not sure why I thought that was a good label to own, but I certainly embraced it. I tried to control the world around me, the reactions of the people near me, the forces that pressed in upon me and I failed. Trying to do so is, at best, self-defeating and more likely self-destructive.

I learned at a young age that there is very little I can control. In fact, the only thing I really can effect is how I respond to the world, to people, to the circumstances in which I find myself. As a result of this understanding of my own power and powerlessness, I have tried to live my life as an act of being present. I fail all the time, but I keep trying.

I'm not talking about the things I have control over, like paying my bills or washing the dishes or deciding if I want to have a glass of water or a cup of tea. I'm talking about the external forces that press in on us all the time. I can't change those. I can choose which I attend to, but I cannot stop the world around me, whether it's politics or the climate or standing in a long line. I've learned a few things.

  • I've learned that there is a far more that I cannot control than what I can.
  • I've learned that the only thing I can truly control is my response to the moment. David Foster Wallace talks about just this in his wonderful speech, This Is Water, linked below.
  • I've learned that I need to learn this again. Over and over and over again. Almost every day.
  • I've learned that when I give myself permission to just be present in the moment, whatever it may be, the moment is often more bearable than I expected. If it remains unbearable I at least know it will change. 
  • I've learned that change is pretty much the only constant.
  • I've learned that sometimes presence can change lives. By accepting that I may not be able to control the broad outlines of the world, I can instead have significant impact on the small details. By listening, by choosing to be kind, by accepting that every moment is a part of my life with no less import than any other, I am, in fact, not powerless at all.

This is what 50 looks like. Choosing to breathe when breath is impossible. Choosing to listen because that may make all the difference or at least enough. Choosing again and again and again.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 8, 2017

50 for 50, day two: Some thoughts on 30-60

This is the second of 50 blog posts counting down to my 50th birthday. You can find the start here.

When I turned 30 (oh, those many years ago) my mother told me that a woman is at her most beautiful and powerful from ages 30 to 50. Early in my 30s I extended that to 60, since people age differently now and dammit, I didn't want only 20 years of my prime. Additionally I know many powerful, beautiful, amazing women who are well over 60, so maybe I should extend it to 70.

As I near 50, I have to say both my mother and I were on the right track about age, power and beauty, but neither of us was thorough in our assessment. We didn't go far enough. It's about more than beauty and power. It's assurance, determination, and self-confidence. It's about turning into my own version of Wonder Woman regardless of my age.

My 20s were largely about figuring out who I was. That decade was full of more angst and drama than I'm comfortable admitting though from conversations with other women, I'm not alone.

In my 30s I began to get a real sense of who I am and where I want to be going, while my 40s have seen me pursue my dreams with a fierce dedication. I couldn't have done this in my 20s. I wasn't strong enough nor was I focused enough. I cared too much about what other people thought. Now? of course I still care. Sometimes. But my own assessments (with input by those I trust and respect most) of my worth and ability matter more.

My 40s have also honed me in some pretty substantial ways. I know I am strong. I know I am resilient. I know I have internal and external worth. I own myself in ways I never thought I could. Confidence, self-assurance and self-knowledge make me feel a heck of a lot more attractive than I ever thought I was in my 20s or 30s. While it's true that I still don't really feel grown up, I do feel more capable, able and determined than I expected when I was younger.

So yes, a woman is beautiful and powerful from 30-60, but we are more than beauty and power, and I hesitate to say when anyone might peak. We are growing into ourselves, or at least I am; it is an ongoing process. I am becoming, more and more. And who knows what might happen at 70? Or 80? I may find that is when life really begins to feel coherent.

This is what 50 looks like. Standing with her hands on her hips, facing the world.

(P.S. None of this is to exclude men, but I can't speak clearly to male growth and discovery. I'd be curious to know when anyone reading this, male/female/other, feels as though they really came into themselves. I am still becoming, how about you?)

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, September 7, 2017

50 for 50, day one: Introduction

I realize this is in no way an original statement, but I really don't feel my age. When I was a child I imagined that by now I would be married with several children of my own. I would have a house, a career in some easily understood field working in some kind of organization making plenty of money because all grown ups seemed rich. I'd probably have a dog and imagined myself as slim but old looking because when I was a kid anyone over 25 was old looking. I thought people at the age I am now had impenetrable cocktail parties where they talked about boring grown up things. I thought people at the age I am now had given up junky horror movies and only watched Bergman films. As a child, the age I am now seemed impossibly old, impossibly grown up. I thought people at the age I am now had it all figured out.

Boy, was I wrong. I am widowed with stepchildren, amazing grown people who don't really need me on a regular basis. I have never owned a home and, while I definitely have a career, it's not a typical one and I am by no means rich. I don't currently have a pet and I am neither slim nor particularly old looking. I don't really enjoy cocktail parties (though I sometimes like a good cocktail) and I value both junky horror movies and Bergman.

More than anything, most days I consider myself lucky to find my way out of bed, let alone figure anything else out. It seems to me that being an adult means being better at faking it and having more confidence in your ability to recover from the wrong guesses. It's not that you know so much more but that you know you can navigate it better.

So what is the advanced age I can't believe I'm approaching? I'm almost 50. In fact, I turn 50 in 50 days, so to celebrate and reflect I thought I would post something every day leading up to my 50th birthday. It might be a piece of writing or something I love and would like to share, I don't really know. I make no promises of anything lucid, enlightening or even interesting, but I hope you'll come along with me for at least part of this journey.

This is what 50 looks like. Surprised to find myself here.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Hi honey, I'm home!

I'm going to start this post the way I'm not supposed to. I'm sorry I've been gone for so long. I hit a wall composed of self-doubt, political malaise, and busy-ness; something needed to go and apparently, this was it. That isn't to say I didn't miss you and writing here, but I needed a break.

I'm back! I've been thinking about what purpose this blog serves, what I want to do with it, what I hope to offer and get out of it, so I think it may change shape a little, but here I am.

I started True Stories, Honest Lies as a simple way to write to an audience. It evolved into a storytelling and personal blog pretty quickly, then took a left turn when Kevin was diagnosed. Soon this blog was dedicated to his illness and then my grief over his death. All of this was exactly what I needed it to be, and some of you needed that, too.

It's no coincidence that I took my blogging break just over three years after Kevin's death. Let me be clear: I am never going to be "over" him. I still love him and I always will. I still miss him and I always will. There will be times when I laugh more easily and other times when I just curl up and cry. That's the way loss is. You get used to it. You learn to live with it. If you're lucky, you eventually feel the love and gratitude at least as much as the absence and pain. I will always mourn him.

All that being said, I was starting to feel a little trapped into writing about grief and loss as if that was what was expected of me, as if it was all I experienced or thought about. No one expressed such expectations, of course, but I did notice that posts about loss vastly eclipsed anything else in terms of readership. I had to ask myself if I was still being authentic to my own emotional state. What did I really want to write about? Mind you, the loss posts were and are still genuine (I'm not very good at being inauthentic, certainly not here) but what do I want to write about now?

My life now continues to evolve and I want this blog to reflect that. We all evolve throughout our whole lives so I hope my evolution will be of interest and use to you.

I will, of course, encounter walls. It's not as though the self-doubt, political malaise, and busy-ness have gone away. But I missed you, missed the writing and decided that I could open a door in that wall to see what was on the other side.

So now what? It's going to take me a little while to re-establish a blogging rhythm. I'd love to know what might be of interest to you. I write a blog because I want people to read it. What would be fun for you? In the past I have:

  • Written extensively about storytelling, including my personal experiences as a teller, how-to pieces, tips and tricks.
  • Written about my life, personal essays and memoir that cover a broad range of topics.
  • Posted stories from other cultures that I thought might be of interest.
  • Shared my experiences as a widow. I'm sure this will continue, but I may not write about it as frequently.
  • Shared my observations of the world, often the whimsical or unusual things I notice.
  • Posted photo essays.
  • Shared videos, poems and other art that moved me.
  • Run contests with a variety of prizes.
  • Other stuff I'm undoubtedly forgetting.

What did you like or find helpful in the past? What would you like to see more of? Please let me know (you can comment below or email me).

It's good to be back. I am looking forward to seeing what we create together.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Truth, honesty, and storytelling

I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of truth. This has been brought on by many things including the news; a panel I'm part of concerning truth and storytelling; and my own tendency towards over analysis. It's a big issue and one I won't solve here, but it's worth exploring.

Several years ago I was in the audience at a story slam. The theme was "Beginnings." For those of you unfamiliar with slams, the rules usually state that the stories told must be original, somehow relate to the theme, short, and true. The events happened. Slams are judged events and the winner can get anything from a moment of glory to cash prizes.

The winning story was a poignant one, about the teller's birth. It was beautifully constructed, well-told and fit with the theme. We were all in tears. He won and rightly so; it was hands-down the best story of the night. A few days later it was revealed he had made the whole thing up. It was fiction. The local storytelling community was in an uproar, feeling betrayed and questioning the artform itself.

One could speculate endlessly on why he did this, he certainly knew the rules, but that isn't the point of this essay. I'm interested in the question of factual truth, emotional truth, and honesty in storytelling. I've written about some of the technical issues of truth and storytelling before, but this time let's think about philosophy. There is no way this essay can dive deeply into these topics (whole lives have been spent on them) but I'd love to start a conversation.

So what is truth? Honestly, that sentence always seems like it should be the punchline of some obscure joke. I don't know if objective truth exists, my personal philosophy tends towards not.

I do know that there are facts. Factual truths, for the purposes of this essay in the context of storytelling, are verifiable. I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. I was premature and underweight. Evidence exists. Emotional truths (again for the purposes of this essay) are those metaphors, similes, fictions and sometimes verifiable events, that hold emotional power and meaning, revealing something about what it is to be human. I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia. I was premature and underweight. I was a small, scrawny, homely infant, yet when my father first saw me he cried, "She's beautiful!" To an objective viewer I was anything but beautiful (really, I've seen the pictures) but to my father I was exquisite. Both are true. One view contains emotional truth even if it might not be verifiably factual.

One of the wonderful things about storytelling is that we can express emotional truth through many means. Personal or factual stories, fiction, myths, fairy tales, and more. Because storytelling is neurologically powerful, we need to remember that the emotional truths we share can easily cause powerful reactions. Storytellers, whether intentionally or not, are truth-tellers if for no other reason than that we are wired for story. I would hope that we all use these different kinds of truth ethically, remembering that we are directly messing with our listeners' brains. It doesn't matter if you're telling a funny story, a fairy tale, a tall tale, a personal recollection, or something else, they all contain some form of emotional truth. We laugh at things that are absurd because we KNOW they are saying something about what is real. We need metaphor to help us understand the world and our lives. And those deep, personal stories help us all know we are not alone.

Which leads me to honesty. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling a story that doesn't contain factual truth. The emotional truth makes it worthwhile and worth hearing. What we must do, as artists and craftspeople, is to remain honest with ourselves and with our audiences. Let the story serve the greater purpose of conveying emotional truth, but don't be afraid to own that you may have altered facts to serve truth. They are not "alternative facts." Fiction and metaphor are a vital part of what it is to be human and gives us safe ways to talk about the unspeakable. It may still be true and is no less powerful for not having actually happened. We have always needed fiction and metaphor, and we always will; the morally ambiguous moment is when fiction is presented as fact.

In performance storytelling practice, I'm certain many "true" personal stories have been polished a bit to be better stories, but if they retain most of their factual truth and it enhances their emotional truth, I'm okay with it. We violate trust only when we present something largely fictional as factual.

Storytelling gives us a way to craft the truths we hope are real. It gives us tools to speak of the things that might be too difficult to say otherwise. And we become responsible for the truths we offer, so we must remember our obligation to the audience to not deceive them as they strive towards their own truth.

All of this raises the question of how storytellers can present the story honestly to the audience with neither exposition nor apology, but still owning what kind of truth exists within. You don't want your audience to listen less deeply because they think the story isn't true, but you don't want to lie to them. This essay is long enough without tackling this issue and I don't have a magic solution, though there are several possibilities, three of which I'd like to touch on here, then build upon in another essay.
  • You could, for example, weave in some kind of I wish that that was the way it had happened statement, perhaps at the end of the story. This tells the audience it isn't factual but emotional truth you're striving for, and may add to the poignancy of the whole thing. I do this in several stories, including Retellings and The Longest Day of My Life. In the first I tell the facts of the matter, then retell it the way I wish it had happened; while in the second I tell the facts and admit to the lack of resolution, then give myself the ending I wish had happened. Both are emotionally satisfying and give the audience honesty as well as meaning.
  • You could create a fictional setting in which to set your stories. Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories are full of emotional truth and appear to be factual, yet everyone knows they are fiction. His audience is more than willing to suspend disbelief. I do something similar in my Crazy Jane stories. 
  • You could present yourself as an unreliable narrator, then tell it however you want. Something as simple as, "I think this is how it happened, but it might not all be true" will make your audience laugh and identify with you, since everyone exaggerates from time to time. It also allows your audience to listen on several levels at once, for both emotional truth and with a grain of salt around the facts.
So what do I think happened with the teller in that slam? He told a powerful, emotionally true story. I wish he had told it in a different setting or had given us a hint that it was what he had hoped for, and that he hadn't felt the need to deceive his audience. But I don't really condemn him for all that I think he was dishonest. We all yearn for emotional truth, recognition and that sense that we are not alone. We all yearn for the facts of our lives to be different. Maybe he was telling the truth as he wished it had been. We all do. We just need to remember to be honest in the process as we search for our own truths.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer
Creative Commons License

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What would you like to read here?

Hello friends,

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted in April. I've been thinking about why I maintain this blog, what purpose does it serve, and how it might be most useful for you, the kind people who read it. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, but it seems as though the best thing I can do is ask you.

What would you like to read here? What do you most enjoy? What do you get the most out of? Is there anything you routinely skip? Do you prefer the more personal posts? The practical ones? What would be most helpful for you?

These days I write mostly about storytelling (thoughts on the art and craft, tips and tricks, stories you can use, and so on) and life after my husband's death (grief, thoughts on life after your love has died, love after loss, etc). In the past I've posted bits of fiction and poetry, oddservations (observed moments), challenges and contests, videos, and so on.

In all honesty, you are a significant part of why I blog. It is rewarding to me to know that others find what I have to say interesting, useful, illuminating, funny, whatever.

Send me an email, leave a comment, let me know. Since you are kind enough to give my writing some attention, I'm interested in making sure it's worth your while. I can't promise I'll make everyone happy all the time, but I do believe my work is one of service. Thanks!

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 31, 2017

Grief has always been with us

This post was inspired by a question asked by Kim Go, founder of Alive and Mortal. She is a kind and wise person who helps the grieving.

As of this past Tuesday, it's been three years since Kevin died. I was expecting it to be a difficult day, but I found it wasn't much harder than any other day. There were some rough moments but mostly I engaged the everyday business of living. I grieve some every day, so Tuesday was no different.

Grief is persistent. It colors much of what I do and say, but it's no longer the predominant tone in my palette. Here, three years out, my life is no longer black and white, nor even sepia, but back in full-tones, even if the array of color may be different from what it was before he died.

Over the last few days I've had the privilege of talking with a number of people who have experienced deep grief; what I am struck by is how very universal it is. I've written about this over and over, if you love you will grieve, even if we all grieve in our own ways. This reminder has helped me so much, remembering that the grief is a pallid though powerful reflection of love.

I am in no way the first person to observe this nor the first to grieve deeply. In the months after Kevin's death I turned to mythology and folklore for solace (those of you who know me will not be surprised). Humans have been experiencing grief for a long, long time, nor are we the only animals to do so.

I looked in a lot of places. In the past (when I had cancer in my 20s) the Gilgamesh story helped, with his great love and grief for Enkidu. Later I found solace in Demeter's grief for her lost daughter Persephone. This time I needed a story of a wife grieving her husband. I found it in the story of Isis and Osiris.

In brief, Osiris is killed by his jealous brother Set who then cut the body into pieces and scattered them across Egypt. Osiris' wife Isis scours to earth to find each piece, restores him to wholeness and conceives their child Horus. In spite of his restoration Osiris is no longer part of the living world and becomes the lord of the land of the dead. No matter how great her grief, no matter how profound her effort, Isis can never be fully restored to life with her husband. She is willing to do anything to have him by her side again and it will never be entirely possible. Even gods are foiled by death.

I found such resonance in this story. I would have done anything to heal Kevin or to bring him back from the dead. If I could have removed the cancer from his body and placed it in mine, I would have. If I was told that committing a horrible crime would restore him, I would have done it. Anything.

I found comfort in this story not only because it reflected a depth of grief I was experiencing, it also reminded me that I was neither the first nor the last person who had lost someone they loved beyond measure. I found echoes of my own struggle in the story of Isis, a goddess who held the secrets to the universe, felt such grief and was unable to fully restore her beloved. It helped me feel less alone.

I have yet to perform this story. I've worked on it but even now, three years out, it's still raw. I will tell it eventually but for now it offers me comfort, as it has been comforting people for thousands of years. If we love, we will grieve, whether human or god. It is part of what makes us who we are.

 (c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What to do when emotions rise during performance: Three tips

Hilda Dokubo
courtesy wikimedia
A few weeks ago I wrote about storytelling and telling tenderness. A risk of letting tenderness inform our stories and performances is that emotions may rise up unexpectedly when we tell. I’m not talking about when our audiences express emotions when we tell something meaningful, but the times when we are telling and find ourselves experiencing an upwelling of feeling.

For example, when I tell stories about Kevin I sometimes find myself on the brink of tears. How should I manage this? Should I not tell stories about him? Should I only tell these stories once I have thoroughly processed the emotions I feel when I talk about his life and death?

There are some who believe we can only tell stories that we have thoroughly processed. Others believe storytelling is inevitably a kind of therapy so it’s okay to tell truly raw pieces. I think both of these are extremes: If we wait to tell a given story until we have thoroughly processed the emotions attaches we may never tell certain important stories, but if we use storytelling performance as a substitute for therapy we violate the trust of the audience by forcing them to worry about the teller and their own experience of the story is sabotaged.

I know, beyond a doubt, that part of a being professional means I craft narrative that leaves room for the audience to have their own experience of the story; they have my permission to not really think about me if my story sends them into their own narrative. This is part of the story triangle, which I have written about extensively here. I also know, beyond a doubt, that storytelling like any other art has therapeutic applications for the artist and that some experiences will always be raw. If we talk about them there is a risk that our own emotions will well up.

So how do I balance this? How do I tell stories that are emotionally alive for me without violating the audience’s trust? What do I do when I slip and feel more than I intended?
  • I try to head the problem off by practicing. If I know a story is likely to evoke a response I don’t want to reveal in my performance, I can make it predictable and so build a pause into the performance. There is a point in a particular Crazy Jane story where, every single time, my throat gets tight. Since I know it’s coming I now have a natural pause there, so I have a moment to swallow before I continue. Practicing also helps me develop some insulation from the emotion, so I am less likely to have an unexpected response than if I’d not practiced.
  • If I do have a strong, unexpected response, I can often counter it by imagining the next part of the story as a series of PowerPoint slides. Nothing sucks the emotion out of a moment more than PowerPoint. If I can pause for a beat, see the bullet points of the next scene as a slide, I can usually regain control over my wandering emotions pretty quickly and easily. You may need a different metaphor from PowerPoint, this is the one that works for me.
  • Lastly, if I do need a moment, if I get teary or need to take a breath, I remind myself that storytelling audiences are generally very understanding. I may pause, take a breath, smile and thank them, then continue. I find audiences appreciate honesty and vulnerability enough that, as long as I don’t run off the stage sobbing, they understand and will give me a little latitude. 
I should add, I have never needed to stop entirely. I’ve always practiced enough that I was able to continue with a deep breath or two. Professionalism matters.
These tips work for me. You may find other ways to balance the necessary honesty and vulnerability with professionalism. I’d love to know what works for you!

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An open letter to my husband, three years after your death

Dear Kevin,

Here we are, March 28th. It's astonishing to me that it's been three years. It seems impossible that you've been gone so long. My life is at once rich and barren, familiar and unrecognizable.

I'm in the office of my apartment, a place you never saw. While it's only six blocks from our house, I don't know if we ever walked down this street together. My home looks like the homes we shared because it has much of the same stuff, but it's proportioned for me. At 5'1" that is quite different than the choices we made to accommodate your 6'3". This room is full of windows and I look out to see the forsythia and the neighbor's project truck. It is a place of great comfort for me, where I have written and thought well, yet you've never seen it. You've never read the writing that happened here, never heard the stories I mused on while looking out these windows.

This is an impossibility, a flaw in the universe, yet here it is.

Beyond my office is my kitchen, smaller than even our old kitchen, yet proportioned well for me. I don't cook like I did before you got sick. That you had a GI cancer manifested first with stomach and eating issues has changed my relationship with food and cooking. I still cook some and I've made some good meals here, but it's not what it used to be. I miss it and hope I eventually find my way back to it, but I don't know if I will; there is some fear associated with good food equating illness. I've tried new recipes (I need recipes now, I never really did before) that you never tasted. I've shared those meals with people who love me, people you've never met though they have heard about you over and over again. You would have enjoyed those meals and conversations yet you weren't here.

This, too, is an impossibility, a flaw in the universe, yet here it is.

I have a light work week in front of me, but next week I have paid work every day. The next few months are busy. My business, though not making me rich, is supporting me. I work harder now than I ever have and most days I love what I do. You and I talked about what success meant as a self-employed person and I have passed those initial criteria. I pay my own bills with money I have earned through freelance storytelling, consulting, teaching, coaching and writing. I am making it. I celebrate every single check that comes in. You aren't here to celebrate with me.

An impossibility. A flaw. And yet...

This is life three years after your death. I believe you have continued in some way (you've made it abundantly obvious) yet wherever you are now, you are not physically here. I am. And I've done exactly what you asked me to do: I've lived. It's taken me awhile to learn how because in many ways I died with you, but life in the afterlife isn't bad. There are great sweetnesses here. I love and am loved. I work and am recognized. I create. I laugh. I play. I cry sometimes. And I miss you every damned day.

In those desolate months right after you died, a number of widows who had been at this life longer than I told me that sooner or later the love would be bigger than the pain. I believed them while I couldn't imagine it. I knew that the pain was a reflection of the love. Now there are days when the love and the good memories are more present than the absence and the loss. Not every day, but often enough.

It bothers me more than I can say that you are part of the past and not the formative part of my future. I hate the sense that you are now part of my story and not the focal point, as you were for so many years, but I am so grateful that you were that guiding force and still are a part of who I am now.

I am so different. I look much older. My hair is about to shift to more gray than brown. I don't smile as often, my sense of whimsy is less constant and my introverted streak is broader than ever. Many of the changes in who I am are good. I am more independent and confident than I ever was. The worst thing that could happen to me has happened, so very little scares me now. I am more comfortable with who I am, more willing to fail and make mistakes, less worried about what anyone thinks of me.

Everything relates back to you not being here, even as everything is also pulling me forward. All of this is because you were in my life and believed in me. And because you are in my life and believe in me. And it's also because you died and I had to learn how to live without you.

Today I will work. I will go to the gym. I will look at your picture and likely cry. I will remember the warmth of your skin, the light in your eyes, the attention and care you gave to me and to everyone you loved. I will have flashbacks to your last day and I will remind myself that your death does not define your life. I will be okay, for all that it will feel like hell sometimes. (If I've learned nothing else about grief I've learned that I can survive the worst storms even as I think I will not.)

I will celebrate you as I mourn you, just as I do every day. I will live. Because I can think of no better way to honor you than to continue, just as you asked, as you made me promise.

I love you, Kevin. You are in my every cell, every motion forward in my life bears your fingerprints and whispered support. I will watch for you today, as I do every day. I will reach for gratitude and tissues, forward to love and grace, back to connect with you and how you help me live.

Thank you, always and forever.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)


 (c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Step away from the screen: Breaks matter

I love my work. Just about every day I get up and think I am so lucky. I am making a living doing work I love that helps people. Yes, it's hard work. Yes, I know I am privileged to be doing so. Yes, I am profoundly grateful.

I work harder now than I ever did when I was in the private sector. Sure, I sleep a little later, but I work later, I work on weekends, I work when I wake up in the middle of the night. I may have more flexible work time but I also have more work time; self-employment means I am my own admin, support staff, marketing director, book-keeper and so on, all in addition to being a storyteller, coach, writer and consultant. That's just the way it is with self-employment, or maybe it's that way because I love what I do so much of it doesn't feel like work. I've spoken with other self-employed people and they describe the same thing: They work all the time because most of it doesn't feel like work and the parts that do are supporting the rest of it. That makes sense to me.

When you love what you do it can become easy to focus only on work. Sure, there are days when you'll feel like you would do ANYTHING to avoid work, but you still work more than you don't. It's easy to forget that, even when you love what you do sometimes you need to take a break.

It may seem counterintuitive, why stop what you're doing when you love doing it? Taking a break gives you a chance to reboot and come back to work with a fresh perspective. It gives you a chance to remember that there are other worthwhile things in the world beyond you and your vocation. It's kind of like sleep; we all need restorative time.

Breaks can be big or small. It can be as simple as walking around the block to taking a vacation. Here are some ideas:

I try to take small breaks every day, though to be honest my breaks often look like chores (getting the dishes done) or time that isn't that restorative (Facebook, which frustrates me as much as anything else). I love my work, but I'm feeling a bit worn, so I'm taking an honest-to-goodness vacation this week. As you are reading this I am someplace beautiful, though I'm writing it before I leave (a funny kind of time-travel). I've been thinking about nature and culture and my own life and maybe even not much at all. I have very limited internet access (though I still have some because, you know, work. I need to be able to answer emails at least). In all likelihood, the first few days were difficult. I was probably antsy and uncomfortable because I wasn't working, but I know it's good for me. And after a few days I likely relaxed. That knot in my back, the one from muscles supporting my arms at the keyboard, that knot relaxed, I hope. I'll read something unrelated to fairy tales, consulting, storytelling, coaching or writing. I'll spend some time staring out at the sky.

When I return I will be ready to go. I will have had some time to think about what I do and how I do it, so I'll return with some new ideas and will be excited to implement them. I might not have those ideas if I don't take a break. I might burn out sooner if I don't take a break, and then this thing I love will become a burden and I really don't want that to happen.

Take a break, big or small. Make it a real break, not Facebook or dishes. Give yourself permission to live fully in all parts of your life. It will feed the things you love and you'll feel happier, more productive and more sure of your path.

I'll let you know how my break went in a little bit. In the meantime, I'm taking a nap.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 17, 2017

A very resilient muscle

We are surrounded by wisdom, even if some of it comes from places you might feel a little weird about. Kevin loved Woody Allen. I used to, but grew tired of the neurotic humor and then the whole controversy about his relationships with his children, his wife and his child/wife broke. I gave up on Woody Allen. But he said some things very, very well.

Like this.

I think of this often, that the heart is a very, very resilient little muscle.

When Kevin died I thought I would never be in another relationship. I didn't think I had it in me. Frankly, I couldn't imagine being alive in the world without him, so the thought of ever letting someone else into my heart was beyond comprehension. A bit over a year after he died I moved from our shared home to my own apartment. A lot of things drove the move, including economics, but at the heart of it was the knowledge that I needed to start figuring out what it meant to be alive in the world without him. This seemed, and sometimes still seems, impossible.

The move was a nightmare, though I was very well supported by people who love me. I was lucky.

Once I settled into my new home I wrote up a list of what it meant to be alive in this world. If I was to accept that I am still here, I needed something to do with the years in front of me. The list was pretty wide-ranging, including work, writing, good food, being outside, spending time with people who love me, travel, etc etc. Buried in there was flirting. Not being in a relationship, but flirting, that lovely little back and forth fed by attraction and possibility. It wasn't even really about sex, but about knowing I wasn't invisible in the world.

But where does a middle-aged, overweight widow go to flirt? I've always hated bars. I've never liked crowded places and I don't really have a social group here. I reminded myself that this is the modern world and set up a profile on a dating site, expecting and wanting only online flirtation. That felt safe.

It was safe, so much so that I was bored and frustrated. The number of people in the world who cannot spell or construct a sentence is astonishing and this is apparently my low bar. I was about to call the experiment a failure when an intriguing profile popped up in my feed. Smart, funny, geeky, cute, can write the hell out of a personal ad. I wrote. He wrote back. His sentence structure was complex, layered and grammatical. Beyond grammar, he was interesting. It was quickly apparent there was real chemistry between us. And he was thankfully far away, so I didn't have to deal with a real person.

Except everyone is a real person. It soon became obvious that something could really happen between us and I didn't know if I was capable of it. Remember, when Kevin died, I died too in many ways. And I still love Kevin, is it fair to even consider another relationship? So I wrote to him (for the sake of this essay and his privacy we'll call him C) and revealed that I was a widow. I didn't know if I was able to be in a relationship and I didn't want to hurt him.

C wrote back with the only thing that could have kept me going. I don't remember the phrasing, but he said something to the effect of, "I can't imagine how hard that must be. Of course you don't know if you can do this, your marriage never ended. I believe the heart is capable of a great deal of love. I'd like to see where this can go; at worst we get to be friends. I'm willing to risk it if you are."

So I did. We did. And here we are, about a year and a half later. Friends, lovers, partners. In a relationship.

None of this means I don't still love Kevin. I always will. I also love C. It's a very strange place to find myself. I am passionately in love with two men. Some days I panic and am afraid that loving C means I am somehow dishonoring Kevin, that I am betraying him. I know he would want nothing other than my happiness, but that knowledge doesn't always balance the emotions. Other days I fear that I will drive C away by still loving Kevin, though he understands and accepts me so thoroughly I know that won't happen. So I take some deep breaths. Sometimes I cry. And I continue. I do my best to be resilient. There are days when resilience means crying and taking a nap. That is good enough.

These coming days will be very hard. It is the third time now I have lived through the anniversary of the last of Kevin's life. It will be hard to remember the 15 years of love, companionship, friendship, hard work, and joy; instead I will be thinking about his face when he realized he was at the end. I will be thinking about the faces of his children as they tried to do the terrible work of saying goodbye to their father. I will be thinking about the love that surrounded us. I will be thinking about everything he told me with his gaze when he was too weak to talk. I will cry and write and feel stunned, angry, shocked. Alive. How can that be?

Throughout this tumult I will not be alone. I know Kevin will be with me. I know you will. I know the many people who knew and loved him, as well as those who have come to love him through this blog, will be there. And the amazing man who loves me now will be there, holding me while I cry for another. I will feel such conflict, such gratitude and guilt. I will be reminded again and again of just how lucky I am, in so many ways.

I was listening to an extraordinary podcast recently, Terrible, thanks for asking. This is, perhaps, a more comfortable source of wisdom. The producer, Nora McInery, tells her own story of loss and love in the very first episode. I wept (making the person seated next to me on the airplane rather uncomfortable) because it was so damned familiar. Nora says, "I am in love with two men." She is right. One love does not deny, eliminate, lessen, mitigate, or undermine the other. The heart is a very resilient little muscle. It is capable of marvels. So are we all.

With love and gratitude,

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 10, 2017

Grief and time

I've written many times about how no two griefs are the same. This is true whether it's different people, different losses, or different times. For example, I've met other women around my age who lost their spouse to pancreatic cancer, yet we each experience the grief in our own way.

So it is now that I am experiencing my third anniversary of Kevin's death. This time is different from the second, just as the second was different from the first. This makes sense, I am different now, but I have to admit some of the ways the grief manifests are unexpected.

I'm not crying as much this year.
I am having very vivid and odd dreams in which I cry uncontrollably. I wake up with dry cheeks.

I'm not as abjectly miserable.
I am very tired and really don't want to do much of anything.

I am not as enraged.
I am more stunned that Kevin hasn't been embodied in the world for this long.

Most of what I'm feeling is exhaustion and an odd kind of body-less-ness. I don't feel really connected to myself. This isn't surprising, I'm just noticing it more this year. Last year I wrote in my journal about physical pain and a sense of extra gravity. This year I keep forgetting where my edges are. I bump into things.

None of this is to say I don't miss him, or that I am not sad that he died, or that I am not still grieving, but it is different this year as I expect it will be different again next year. I am sad but I am also full of wonder at my own life, at the riches I have been graced by, at the love that is the overwhelming feeling when I think of him.

I was talking with a friend the other day. She asked me how I am and I told her I'm sad. She wanted to comfort me, to help me be okay, so I told her that I am okay. I am also sad. It is appropriate that I be sad. What I am finally learning is that the sadness is as much a part of me as the joy. Time is helping me learn that.

It's all very odd. They say time heals all wounds. I don't believe that. The wound, the loss, will not vanish. What is happening instead is that I am growing around the loss. I am still growing. I am still in the world, much to my astonishment. And the loss is still there. I do not regret my grief and sorrow, just as I do not regret loving Kevin so much that there will always be a void. Now, three years on, when the grief rises as fatigue or tears or something else, it reminds me of the love.

We are shaped by our losses, by the gifts we are given, by time itself. I am still here. And, in his own way, Kevin is too.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Three ways to bloom into a better storyteller

This was originally published in my newsletter along with some subscriber extras. If you want more content like this please sign up. I promise not to spam you or sell your name.

Spring is in full force where I live. I look out the window and the forsythia blooms bounce in the breeze like captured sunlight. The magnolia is opening up to the world as if it's sipping the air. The green shoots of crocus, hyacinth, and daffodils are everywhere.

I spent most of my adult life (to date) in New England, where spring was precarious. We never knew when a frost might rush in and doom the new growth, all the while knowing that summer would land on us before we were ready to give up the tender colors of the world reborn. In my current hometown, spring is a long, drawn-out affair, sultry and unmistakable. I love it. For the first time in my life, I really get spring.

In light of all the lovely life surrounding me, I wanted to offer you three ways you can nourish your own, artistic spring, three ways you can grow into a better storyteller.

  1. Regardless of where you are in your artistic journey, remember that growth takes time. You plant a seed and then you have to wait. If you dig it up to check on it, you'll disrupt that vital, dark, embryonic time that all art needs to bloom. 
  2. Once you have a sprout of an idea for a new story, a new way of working, or a new path, you nourish it, give it enough water, protect it from harsh environments and make sure it has adequate sunlight. Pulling on it won't help it grow any faster. Giving it the right kinds of support will
  3. Once that story has bloomed, it may need pruning to make it the best it can be. Don't let your ego or attachment to a given phrase stop you from crafting the best story possible. Keep asking yourself why you love the story, how does it serve the audience, is it crafted to serve both your needs and those of the listener, and so on. 
How do you support your own artistic spring? Don't go it alone. Talk with friends, fellow artists or others in your community. Consider hiring a coach. Tell your story to people you know understand how tender, new art can be easily crushed and ask them for help nourishing it. I wrote recently about the power of appreciation in the workplace; this applies to artists as well. Get appreciated. And remember that being the best storyteller you can requires time, practice, encouragement and the faith that spring will come.

I hope you spring into new art and new life this year. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, March 3, 2017

Breathing in, breathing out

Three years ago, very early in the morning (or maybe it was late the night before) Kevin began to have trouble breathing. We sat together on our bed. I gave him medication and we practiced slow, deep breathing. Breathing in, breathing out. After several hours with a hospice nurse we decided to go to the hospital as a preventative measure. As we slowly walked down the stairs together I remember banishing the thought that this was the last time he would be in our bedroom.

I was right. When we got to the hospital we found he had a blood clot in his left lung. This wasn't really surprising, cancer can make the blood kind of sticky and more prone to clotting, but it was very bad news. We got him installed in an ICU room and he was given a bi-pap mask, a more intense version of the c-pap you might have at home. He soon fell asleep as air was forced in and out of his lungs. Breathing in, breathing out.

Our oncologist asked if she could talk to me and it was there, in that little room next to his ICU room with four chairs in an L-shape, that I heard for the first time that she told me that he didn't have long. She explained that pulmonary embolisms were very serious. It was possible he wouldn't survive the night and I should call his kids if they wanted to come.

I don't remember if I wept. I'm sure I wanted to. I'm equally sure that I took several deep breaths so I could calm myself and think.

I went back into his room and held his hand, listening to the mask that helped him breathe. I don't know if I slept that night. I remember the rhythm of the machine. I remember watching his chest as he slept deeply for perhaps the first time in weeks. I remember matching the pace of my breath with his. Breathing in, breathing out.

Early the next morning I called his kids. We didn't know we had only 25 days left.

These memories are so sharp and fresh, yet they have a patina as well. Time is beginning to leave its mark on my memory. This is both a blessing and a curse. I want to remember him as immediately as if he had only just walked out of the room, but I know the only way I can survive is if I let time soften them. Sometimes it is in remembering the details that I find the connection and the wound again. Other times it is much easier, the memories are the bright, healthy ones, but not today.

March is a hard month. January 18 to March 28 are the brutal season for me, the dates that mark diagnosis to death, and now I'm really in the thick of it. Some people tell me to not focus on it, but honestly I don't know how. This was perhaps the defining time in my life and, while it hurts to remember,  it also helps remind me that Kevin was such a gift, that I am so lucky. I swim through the memories, thinking of his hands, his laugh, his shock that he was so ill, his joy in me and those he loved. I remember the rhythm of his chest, rising and falling, in that hospital room, as we lay side-by-side in our own home, and in the first night we spent together. Breathing in, breathing out.

These memories make my life now, living in the Twilight Zone, that much richer. When the sorry threatens to drown me I come to the surface and I take a deep breath. Sometimes those breaths are ragged with tears, other times the air fills my lungs and I breathe for us both.

Please don't worry. I am okay. It is appropriate and right that I feel sad, that I miss him. Kevin was the love of my life (and yes, my new love is too, but that's another conversation. I am in another life now, I am another me) so I will always miss him. Sometimes, like now, the wound is as fresh as if it were yesterday. This hurts. And I am still grateful for the pain, because it pales beside the love even as it is a reflection of it.

In each moment that we are here and breathing, I hope you are well and loved and doing the best you can. Be kind. May kindness grace you. And may each breath sustain you through stormy seas and smooth.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com.
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