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.

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www.thinkstory.com
(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,
Laura

www.laurapacker.com
www.thinkstory.com
(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.

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www.thinkstory.com
(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.

www.laurapacker.com
www.thinkstory.com
(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.

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(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tender stories and storytellers

Here we are, March first. I know that winter may not be done everywhere, but the beginning of March has always felt like the start of spring to me. Here in Kansas City, green shoots are nosing their way out of the ground. The crocuses are in bloom and the first forsythia showed yesterday. I know, some of this is unfortunate, due to climate change, and those tender buds are likely in for a chilly surprise, but still, these glimpses of spring help lighten my outlook. We have survived another winter and can loosen our armor, we can be revealed again as tender beings.

I've written before about storytelling and vulnerability, pointing out Brene´ Brown's beloved TED talk. I wanted to take a moment to remind myself that tenderness is vulnerability's sister, and just as important.

It's easy to focus on the negative connotations of tenderness. Easily hurt, weak or delicate, immature. Yet the word has other meanings that I think have relevance to performance storytelling and art making in general. Not tough. Gentle. Moved to emotion easily.

We all enter the world as tender beings. We are vulnerable, soft, delicate, moved to emotion easily. As we grow we toughen up, hiding the tenderness that still exists under the skin because it is too risky, too vulnerable to let it show.

New stories are tender things, like babies or those new shoots poking out of the ground, requiring a gentle touch to grow into the rugged moments on stage. When we recognize the tenderness at the beginning we are less likely to be frustrated when the story grows at its own pace - you can't hasten a flower by pulling on the stem. When we remember the tenderness of the beginning we can approach each telling with joy in the creation, with wonder that it even exists. When we let glimmers of our own tenderness show - say the affection we hold for the villain, the truth that a story still has meaning to us - the audience may be more likely to let themselves experience it all more deeply.

How do you allow tenderness into your art? Here are some possibilities.

  • In early development, let yourself feel how a story affects you. Ask yourself why you are drawn to it, why you feel how you feel about it. Understand your own tenderness.
  • Appreciate the tender moments in the story. What happens when the protagonist sees their love for the first time? What about when we remember the shame linked to part of a personal narrative? If we let ourselves feel those things as the story develops we can more easily communicate it to our listeners.
  • Let yourself feel tenderness for your characters and narratives. Sure, your bad guys may be utterly reprehensible, but if you understand where they are tender they will be that much more believable and maybe just a little bit sympathetic. When your audience can sympathize with the villain they fall more deeply into the story and are left with more to think about. Even Disney villains have a tender spot we can feel for - Jafar has been overlooked for his brother his whole life. The wicked queen has only her beauty for comfort and is deeply betrayed by the mirror's honesty.
  • Honor your own tenderness throughout the process. Don't think you need to become hard and cynical to become an effective teller. Leave room for your own heart and the hearts of your audience. Some of the best, funniest storytellers I've ever heard have tenderness at the core of their narrative. 

I'd love to know how tenderness helps or impedes your art. What do you think?

(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.
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