Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Telling Life: Gratitude

It's almost Thanksgiving, which means the media is full of three kinds of stories; 1) How to cook the perfect meal; 2) Don't forget, there are hungry people in the world; and 3) We should all practice gratitude all the time.

I've been keeping a gratitude journal on and off for years. I blog about gratitude each year on my birthday. Gratitude is one of the things that has helped me the most as I learn to live again after Kevin's death. It's something we should do every day, not just on Thanksgiving but most of us don't because the world is a distracting place.

Recent studies have demonstrated that a gratitude practice can have a measurably positive effect on our lives. This can be as simple as remembering to say "thank you" more often or as ritualized as a gratitude journal. Whatever works for you.

Sure, but what does this have to with storytelling?


When we remember to be grateful for those who want to hear us, for those who help us develop new work, for the vast array of stories available to us and for the community many of us have found through storytelling, we remember that we are so fortunate to practice this art. We have everything to be grateful for.

This article recently published in Psychology Today lists seven scientifically proven ways our lives are better when we practice gratitude. Take a look at and then read some thoughts about how this applies to storytelling.
  1. Gratitude opens the door to more relationships.  Storytelling is all about relationships. When we are grateful for those relationships and express that gratitude we are more likely to be remembered and invited back. When I let my audiences know I am grateful for their time, when I thank those who hire me, I am letting them know that they are just as valued as anyone else. We all need to hear that from time to time. 
  2. Gratitude improves physical health. My body is my instrument. When I am grateful for it I take better care of it. And if gratitude will help my body endure all I put it through (this traveling life takes a toll) then I will be grateful for it every day!
  3. Gratitude improves psychological health.  When we are grateful we are less likely to hold onto toxic emotions. What I am feeling is reflected in my performance, no matter how practiced I am. If I take the stage with gratitude I am less likely to remain annoyed at the promoter who mis-spelling my name or any of the other myriad annoyances. 
  4. Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression.  Storytelling is all about building empathy. Our brains are more likely to respond empathetically when we hear a story. If gratitude will help me feel more empathy then I'm all for it. 
  5. Grateful people sleep better.  Studies suggest writing in a gratitude journal before going to sleep can improve sleep. As storytellers we need to be rejuvenated and sleep helps. 
  6. Gratitude improves self-esteem.  Who doesn't need a little help here now and again? We are more likely to stop comparing ourselves to others when we feel grateful for them.
  7. Gratitude increases mental strength. And we all need strength. Performing can be exhausting. 
With all of that said, please know I am grateful for you. I am grateful for your presence in the world, for reading this blog and for your stories, whatever they may be.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tips for the holidays

I've written before about the struggle of the bereaved during the holidays. I wanted to take a moment and remind everyone that this time of year is tough. There are so many memories and expectations. We remember the things we did with those we loved, the rituals we will never engage in again because the key person is dead. We are surrounded by imagery of and pressure to have the best holiday ever, even when what we really want is to curl up and be left alone.

Here are some quick tips to keep in mind if you are grieving or care for someone who has experienced a loss. These are, of course, from my point of view, but I hope it will be helpful.
  1. Recognize the pain. If I recognize my own pain, instead of trying to bury it, then it becomes easier to bear and something I can share with others who care about me. When my pain is recognized I feel as though my experience is legitimate. 
  2. Recognize the joy. It's okay to celebrate and feel grateful, happy or joyful. Our loved ones would want us to cherish the holidays and our lives just as we cherish their memories.
  3. Don't try to cheer me up. Let me feel sad. It won't last forever and I have good reason to grieve. 
  4. Grief is non-linear. There are no corners to turn, no bill boards that will announce GRIEF AHEAD or NO MORE GRIEF IN SIGHT. I may seem fine one moment and the next tear up. Laughter, tears, chattiness, quiet are all part of grieving because they are all part of life. If I start crying it's not your fault. It likely has nothing to do with you, it's just another wave of grief. 
  5. Don't pretend my loved one didn't exist. Let me talk about him. Bring him up yourself and see how I react. I don't want the world to forget him. 
  6. Let me have time to myself. Or not. Give me options and help me figure out what is best in this given moment.
  7. You don't know how I feel. In any given moment I might be feeling eviscerated AND grateful that I had the time I did with him. It's complicated. Instead of assuming, ask. Each loss is different and we all need be honored in our own grief.
  8. And if I'm seeming okay, let me be okay. If I'm laughing and smiling it doesn't mean I'm all better, it means I feel okay in this moment. Isn't that great? It doesn't mean I grieve him any less, it means I am figuring out how to live in the afterlife.
This is by no means comprehensive. It's what I'm thinking of off the top of my head. What helps you through the holiday season? I'd love to know.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 20, 2015

Letting the light in

I am swamped with memories as we move into the holiday season. This is the time of year when Kevin and I knew he was sick but we didn't yet know how sick. I am hit with waves of grief more frequently these days, which stand in stark contrast to the richness of my life, even without him.

I've been thinking about how I have managed over the last almost 20 months, and I've realized there has been a pattern slowly emerging. I don't know if this will help anyone else. I do know it helps me.

Last week I wrote about inhabiting my grief. Early on I made a conscious decision (one in keeping with how I've lived much of my life) to let myself feel whatever I needed to. If I was feeling sad I let myself feel sad. If I was feeling null, then null it was. My grief counsellor observed several months ago that this was a really wise thing to do. By not denying the depth of my pain I was able to process it. I did whatever I needed to get through and this meant that I wasn't bottling anything up. I knew what I was feeling and why. I was present with it.

This week I want to talk about letting the light in.

About three weeks after Kevin died I was talking with a friend and she said something funny. I laughed. And I immediately threw my hands over my mouth, stopping myself. How could I laugh if he was gone? My friend, very lovingly, put a hand on my shoulder and said, "You're allowed to laugh. He would want you to laugh." I, of course, burst into tears. But it was the first crack of light I had seen in a long time.

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

I began to see more cracks, slim shards of light that illuminated my grief. Smiling at a child. Noticing the quality of the afternoon light in my living room. Remembering Kevin when he was happy, not just sick. With each of these moments I felt such a sense of betrayal. How could I see any light in a world where the sun had gone out? It didn't make any sense that there was any light at all.

It took time, but I began to accept these moments of light. I began to realize that my friend was right, there was no way Kevin would want me to grieve forever. If I was to fully inhabit my grief then I also needed to give myself permission to accept the moments of light.

It was incredibly difficult, but I began to notice mindfully the times when the grief lifted a bit. In time I began to cultivate those moments. Eventually I found there was more light than darkness and that Kevin was as present the light at least as easily as he was present in the dark. Choosing to let the light in didn't mean I loved him any less or would forget him. It still doesn't.

I will never stop grieving Kevin. I am certain that, no matter the joy and love in my life, there will be times when I feel his loss like a knife to the gut, especially this time of year. But Kevin was composed of light. He walked into a room and it lit up. His smile could have powered a small town.

If I deny the light I deny his light, too. I deny the possibility he represented and the possibility that still exists in the world; the possibility of love, hope, continuation. I am not denying the dark, I know it too well to pretend it isn't there and doesn't lurk near me, but I will not deny the light either.

When Kevin was dying, we sang to him. One of his favorites as well as mine, was This Little Light of Mine. He and I sang it together at night when the cancer had all but stolen his voice. It was light in the darkness. We sang it to close his memorial service, voices rising together to celebrate him. I cannot hear it or sing it without crying (I am crying as I write these words) yet I sing it still.

We are all composed of light. It may seem like a betrayal, but if we let the light in when things are at their darkest we might remember to take the next breath, and the next, and the next. We breathe for those who are no longer. We carry their light with us.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Telling Life: Stories of fear

I was all set to write about mentoring or gratitude or stories to fight off the seasonal dark.
I was looking forward to exploring my own process in the hopes that I found something uplifting or useful for you.
I was good to go.

Then Paris happened. And Nigeria. My Facebook feed has been consumed with conflicting posts just as the news is full of headlines in capital letters and politicians tell us what we should do. We are surrounded handwringing and fear and reaction and and and...

We absorb and tell ourselves stories every day. Stories that help us get out of bed and go to work. Stories that remind us of our goals, purpose and relationships. Stories that give us a reason to keep going. The stories we tell are the roadmap for how we live.

Right now I am hearing story after story based in fear. My heart breaks.

I've been thinking about the stories we tell when we are afraid. The stories that we hope will keep us safe by assuring each other that if we only do this, then that will never happen here.

The acts of terrorism we have witnessed in the last few days are just that; acts of terror. People were murdered in an attempt to create division and fear. The people who carried out these attacks believed stories that said the West is evil. Non-Muslims are less than human. Their lives don't matter.

So many of the stories I see in the news and social media make me afraid, not because of the terrorist attacks but because I'm afraid the terrorists are succeeding in their goals.

I am reading horrific statements from people I love, implying the depth of their fear.
Muslims are the problem. They are evil.
Don't admit any refugees because there may be terrorists among them. Why treat them as if they are human and in need if there is any risk?
Send troops and let's kill them all. Their lives don't matter, certainly they matter less if it will keep us safe.

These stories create more division and fear. Fear drives us to tell stories we know are lies, but they offer us comfort. It is easier to blame a faceless mass of people than it is to look for ways to change the narrative entirely. I am not denying the horror. I am not denying the risk and danger. I am suggesting that we have a choice in how we respond and perhaps we should look at the broad nature of the stories we are telling.

Most Muslims are not evil. Most people are not evil. And we all are capable of evil acts.
Most refugees only want safety for themselves and their children. Enough food. A safe place to rest.
Lives matter.

I don't know the answers here. None of us do; if we did these things wouldn't be happening.
I do know it isn't cut and dry, there is complex history here let alone our own animal nature to respond to fear with violence.
I do know some of you will be upset by this blog post and will choose not to read me any more. That's okay.
I do know, and this is the point of this blog post, stories create a deep response in our brains, so the stories we tell influence our actions.

When we tell stories about a generic enemy and the need for retaliation we create one kind of world. If we tell stories that certainly acknowledge the evil that exists but also leave room for compassion and hope, we create another. We don't have to be blind to be compassionate.

Any one of us could be the problem.
Any one of us could be a refugee.
Any one of us could lose our child to war be they a soldier or a victim.

Evil is in the way the story is told.
Humanity is created when we listen to each other's stories.
As Brother Blue said over and over, when we listen to each other, we all become brothers.

What would happen if we told different stories? How would that change our lives?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, November 13, 2015


I fail at mindfulness every day. This morning I made myself a lovely breakfast then automatically read when I ate, so I can only barely tell you about the crunch of the toast, the unctuousness of the yolk, the bite of pepper and salt. I forgot to be mindful as I ate, so I am left only with a fullness in my stomach and the faint sheen of oil on my lips.

So it is with all the ways I strive to be mindful, including with grief. That being said, a lifetime of mindfulness practice has helped me on this journey since the moment Kevin was diagnosed, and I'm beginning to formulate some ideas about mindful grieving, the steps and observations that have helped me survive.

Shortly after he died someone wisely told me that it was okay to be sad. It was okay for me to wail and moan and not get out of bed. My beloved had died. So it has been since he was diagnosed; I've given myself permission to feel what I feel.

This leads me to the first step that has helped me survive. Be present with what I am feeling, with where I am right now. Inhabit this moment because I have no idea what the next moment will be. I don't even know if there will be another moment.

In the early days after Kevin's death I gave myself permission to grieve as deeply as I needed. I found that suppressing any of it led to much worse feelings later. If I let myself wail after awhile I would find myself in a neutral place and neutrality was in some ways a relief.

This made some people uncomfortable, but frankly I didn't and don't care. No one else gets to tell you how to grieve. Because I inhabited my grief fully, because I was mindful about it, when I finally found points of light again I was able to accept them without much struggle. I knew how sad I was and how much I longed for him. The moments of light were nothing to be ashamed of, no indication that my love was any less.

I live my sadness every day, but I don't resent it. Instead, I inhabit the sorrow as well as the joy so that the wonderful moments are not about the fear of forgetting what has gone before, but about being alive (just as is the sorrow). I inhabit and enjoy them for their own sake. It's not easy. In fact, I'd say it takes much more effort to do consciously than it does to just stay sad, but with all my heart, I cannot tell you how worth it this is.

Inhabit this moment. This feeling. This life.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Telling Life: Yes, I said

A couple of weeks ago I took a look at the value of saying no to a gig. There are lots of very good reasons to do so and I think all tellers need to give themselves permission to turn down work and pass it onto someone better suited for that particular job. None of us are experts at everything.

That being said, I think it's very important to say yes to the world, yes to the things that scare you. When I want to grow and stretch I do something that frightens me. It doesn't have to be a big thing, but something that moves me out of my comfort zone.

My mentor, Brother Blue, was a believer in saying yes. He said yes to all kinds of things and had amazing adventures. He said yes to work, to people, to life in a way that very few others have. I try to emulate him with mixed success.

In my professional life I say yes to things that I suspect I will be good at but might not yet have material for. I say yes to adventures. I say yes to things that I know will make me stretch and learn, so I will then know if that experience is one I want to repeat.

This applies to most aspects of my life, well beyond storytelling. While there are some things I'm pretty sure I will not like (very crowded places, for example) I generally try to be open to possibility.

Storytelling is about opening ourselves, our audience and our world to possibility. It is about saying yes to the possibility that we are creatures of wonder and hope. It is about saying yes to the possibility of connection with strangers, to the gift from the old woman in the road, to the possibility that we may be able to heal.

When we say yes to storytelling we say yes to connection, to the next adventure, to the road that may lead to happily every after whatever that may mean to you.


p.s. If you don't recognize it, that's my wrist up there. The butterfly is to honor Brother Blue. The quote is from the end of James Joyce' Ulysses.

Take five minutes and embrace the world. Yes.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Telling Life: The things we carry

I don't know about you, but I have a deluxe engraved luggage set. I received the first piece when I was very small and have been adding to it steadily ever since. While it's not terribly practical - I can't carry anything in it - and it's quite heavy, it is at once one of my most guarded and most hated possessions.

You know what I'm talking about, of course. It's not real luggage but the baggage we all carry, simply from having been born into a world and families populated with other human beings. We acquire wounds, scars, habits and more that can weight us down, hence baggage. All of this has an impact on our whole lives, including our storytelling lives.

I find it worthwhile to remember this. If I'm struggling with a particular story; if I find myself resisting a certain kind of audience; if I get grumpy about a given work task, it's useful if I ask myself why? Sometimes it will be only that I'm tired. Other times it may be that the person who hired me is vaguely similar to that kid who bullied me in grade school, so old patterns and reflexes are at play. Or maybe now is not the time for me to attend a performance based on, for example, the loss of a spouse to cancer, because it is too triggering for me.

Understanding our own baggage gives us a chance to live more fully realized lives. Knowing that I simply dislike certain aspects of my work is useful. Recognizing that I am reminded of something challenging by something innocuous helps me moderate my responses. And knowing that a particular type of experience may have lasting repercussions gives me a chance to choose if I want to engage in it and pay the cost.

If we take the time to ask ourselves why we are drawn to or repelled by a given part of our storytelling lives (or any part of our whole lives, really) we can make better choices. We can choose to undertake a task knowing it will be challenging. We can choose to try to put down some of our baggage. Or we can can choose to let an opportunity go, knowing it will have significant impact on our internal lives. None of these responses are unreasonable if we have a sense of who we are and what we bring with us to the experience.

We all have baggage. We don't have to be controlled by it most of the time though there will always be times when we carry the whole damned set and don't even realize it. A little mindfulness can help though. By living a mindful life and least looking for and understanding potential triggers, we can become artists with greater authenticity, humans who are more honest with ourselves and those around us, and create a a world that is more connected, more interesting and more supportive of who we are and our work.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, October 30, 2015

Private and public

Grief is a private thing. The deepest, hardest parts are often the most isolating. The nights when I couldn't sleep, when I was incoherent with loss, were the times I shared with no one. I didn't want to. It belonged to me and it belonged to Kevin. It was private.

Grief is also a public thing. In my case I have chosen to make it part of my art. I write about grief, I tell stories about it. Part of my public identity is as someone who has grieved deeply and powerfully, allowing others to witness the process. An emerging part of my public identity is as someone figuring out how to return to life, even as the loss remains a part of who I am.

More than my personal choices around grief, it's public because it has such a significant impact on so many facets of our lives. It's hard to work, hard to interact, even the smallest thing may be a trigger. We all have public components to our grief, even if we may not want to share the experience. We must emerge from our carefully constructed cocoons (where it is safe to feel and express and make ourselves numb, where it is safe to do whatever we need to make it through) int the harsh world that doesn't know the world has ended. Grief can be so consuming that we can forget there are actually people in the world who don't know of our loss.  What's more, people in our communities may know of our loss and might not know how to interact with this new, wounded us. This is all part of being alive and much of this living happens in the public sphere; we must find ways to navigate it.

All of this came to mind because of Joe Biden's announcement that he will not run for the Democratic Presidential nomination, due to the time he needed to grieve the death of his son. Most of his grieving has been private, but this is a very public impact. Regardless of what you may think of Biden's politics, his thoughtfulness and integrity here are undeniable. He knew that a campaign and potential presidency would require his full engagement and when we are grieving deeply it is very difficult to pay attention to anything but the wound.

Those who have experienced a great loss need time and understanding from those around them. We need to know that we can maintain our privacy, share what we choose and that there will be understanding of the blurred boundaries between public and private; you can't always stop yourself from breaking down in a public place, at least I can't. The mourner is still one person, just with changed needs and abilities.

Everyone will grieve at some point in their lives. We all experience loss. And we all get to choose how we express it, what we share, and what we undertake while learning to live in the after.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Telling Life: Knowing when to say "no"

I love performing. I love the connection with the audience, the rush as I see them lean into the story, the chatter afterwards. It's exhilarating and addictive. I need to be careful though, like any addiction my desire for performance can lead to bad choices. I remind myself that there are times when I should say no to a gig.

I've written about this before, in conversations about ethics, but it's on my mind again in the wake of Joe Biden's decision to not pursue the Democratic presidential nomination, in part because he and his family have needs greater than that particular public office would allow. Regardless of what you think of his politics, his decision to forgo something he desperately wants because he cannot fully devote himself to it is to be commended.

I have made the mistake of taking gigs I wasn't the best teller for. I have found myself in front of wiggling 2 year olds and thought I don't know what to do here.  I've taken gigs that I knew would be emotionally difficult. I'd like to think I have learned something from these experiences, because now I am much more willing to say, "No, thank you, I'm not the right teller for you but so-and-so is." It's hard to do. Every single time a part of me cringes and fears I will never get more work, but when I say no to a gig that I am not suited for I am creating space for those that suit me best as well as behaving with an attitude of abundance.

Think of it this way, no one can be everything to everyone. Chefs specialize. Firemen specialize. Dancers and writers specialize. Professors, garbage men, politicians, librarians, construction workers, teacher, painters... I cannot name a field where there is not some specialization. I think it's hard for storytellers to do this because storytelling is such a basic part of what it is to be human: We all tell stories so those of us who do it professionally should be able to do all of it, right? Wrong. None of us are superb at every aspect of this art.

When we take that bold path of recognizing that we are not suited for a particular gig (whether it's personal circumstances as in Biden's case, training, natural inclination or for other reasons) we create several positive effects.

  • We raise the standards of our art by making sure our audiences hear great stories suited for them and those who hire us have a deeper appreciation for the art.
  • We build deeper relationships with our fellow tellers, by being generous and giving them the chance to be generous in the future.
  • We have an opportunity to increase our skill set. If we know we're not ready now we can learn more and be ready in the future. If you're not comfortable telling to preschoolers take a class and volunteer at the local homeless shelter. They need the stories and you need the practice. 
  • And, like Biden, sometimes we just need to admit we aren't prepared to devote ourselves fully to what is a very demanding art form. Would you run a marathon without training?
I know this may be hard to imagine but I have found that by turning down gigs for which I am not suited, I get more of the gigs for which I am the best suited. It sounds a little mystical maybe, but there it is.

This #tellinglife requires us to be mindful and honest with ourselves as well as our audiences. And isn't that a basic part of what storytelling is about anyway, authentic joy in the art and connection with the audience? No one would choose this path if they weren't passionate about it, it's too much work, so do the work you are passionate about and help others do it too by giving them the chances you don't need.

I'd love to know about your experiences saying no or about the times when you didn't and maybe should have. 

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Birthdays, gratitude and life after death

Today is my 48th birthday. I don't feel anywhere near that old, I scarcely think of myself as a grown-up, yet when I look in the mirror I see a woman (not a girl) with smile lines and lots of grey hair. I have considerably more grey hair now than I did at this time last year and even more than the year before.

As you know, if this blog is not new to you, my life has had some significant ups and downs in the last few years. For most of my life I've written lists on my birthday, things I am grateful for, one for each year of my life. The last two years I didn't write lists. Two years ago I was sick and last year I was grieving too deeply. It's time to revive the tradition. Gratitude is part of learning to live in the after-life and so I will take this chance to remember to be grateful.

On this, the 48th anniversary of my birth, I am grateful for many things. Some I am simultaneously deeply resentful of, but they are all worth mentioning. This list is by no means complete and I'd love to know what you are grateful for!
  1. Life. For the life I am living in spite of the pain and sorrow. It is good to be alive, to feel the breeze, smell the autumn leaves, to treasure each moment.
  2. Kevin's life. And love. And support and faith and so on.
  3. You. Every single reader of this blog has helped me keep going when things were at their darkest.
  4. My parents. We've had a bumpy ride sometimes, but I find myself with staunch allies and loving support.
  5. My step-children and child-in-law, whom I love and am proud of beyond measure. Thank you for keeping me around.
  6. My friends near and far, without whom I would not have survived the last 22 months. 
  7. My new love, who has such a big heart that there is plenty of room for my old love as well, and yet this new relationship is its own beast, for which I am grateful beyond words.
  8. Social media. Facebook means there is always someone to talk with.
  9. Storytelling. The art and craft of it gives me voice.
  10. And likewise, writing.
  11. This blog, which gives me a platform.
  12. Every audience.
  13. Every coaching client.
  14. Everyone who has believed in my ability to create something worthwhile and has held me up when I couldn't do so myself.
  15. Quiet. And music.
  16. Good books. And bad books that give me comfort.
  17. Stories, the way we understand our selves and our lives.
  18. Fairy tales and myths, because they have so much to teach us.
  19. Crazy Jane.
  20. Coyote.
  21. The things I have learned by shutting up and listening. The times I have been listened to.
  22. The strength in my own body.
  23. My senses, even as some begin to waver.
  24. My home. I love my home.
  25. My car.
  26. A fiscal safety net.
  27. The sounds of the world - wind in trees, rain, waves, laughter, kids playing, etc etc.
  28. The porch swing on my front porch.
  29. My neighbors and landlord.
  30. My own resilience. I never knew I could be this strong and flexible.
  31. And so the circumstances that have led to my being this resilient, as crappy as they sometimes have been.
  32. Grief. I have learned so much by embracing grief.
  33. Poetry.
  34. My camera.
  35. Trees and rivers and birds and grasses and flowers and the soil and the whole of the natural world in all its harshness and beauty.
  36. Wonder.
  37. Play.
  38. Every act of kindness I have experienced, even when I didn't recognize it as such in the moment.
  39. Tea.
  40. Dumplings.
  41. Soup.
  42. Chocolate. And other yummy things.
  43. Time.
  44. Touch.
  45. Mindfulness.
  46. Connection.
  47. Love. and love. and love.
  48. Life. Always and forever. I am grateful for every fleeting moment. I would not undo my life.
I could add so many more. Thank you for reading this list and for being in my life in whatever capacity that may be. May we all have years filled with light.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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