Buddy can you spare a dime?

On Thanksgiving I was talking with my friend Nancy, who works at Manna Food Bank, about our drive at work to raise money for them.  We have a Manna display in front of each cash register and ask customers if they wish to donate.  Some of us do it better than others.  I do it well sometimes, not so well other times.

It was great to get Nancy, who is so close to the action, talking about where the money goes.  She was talking about “food insecurity”.  The vast majority of people helped by Manna are not street people – they are working poor who at certain times in the month don’t know where their next meal is coming from.  They may have to choose between food and paying a utility bill.

We had a pretty fabulous spread at Thanksgiving - wonderful food, beautifully prepared, abundant.

We had a pretty fabulous spread at Thanksgiving – wonderful food, beautifully prepared, abundant.

My plate - I ate well, and I had been to another feast a few hours earlier.

My plate – I ate well, and I had been to another feast a few hours earlier.

I liked getting a better picture of the issue because I am not all that great at asking for money.  When I am “pumped up” (manic), I’m pretty good at it.  I don’t take it personal when people say “No” – it just feels good to ask, to feel like I’m doing my part for the cause.  When I’m depressed, the “No”s feel punishing – they grind me down.  I just don’t have the energy to ask.

My friend Feather who I worked with at another store said of these kinds of drives, “You’ve got to not care whether they give or not.”  There’s a lot of wisdom in that – and it has helped me hang in there.  But now I think I’m taking it a step farther.

When I am asked to give money – at a cash register, on the phone, or on the street – sometimes I give and sometimes I don’t.  I don’t always know why.  I’m fortunate enough that usually there is at least a little bit of money in my checking account at the end of the month – I usually could give a buck or a few bucks.  It’s not as simple as mania and depression – they don’t directly correlate to giving or not giving.  I just know that sometimes it feels right to say “Yes” and other times the only authentic answer i can come up with is “No”.

Sometimes to come up with an authentic "yes" or an authentic "no" is a victory in itself.

Sometimes to come up with an authentic “yes” or an authentic “no” is a victory in itself.

If sometimes my genuine (healthy?) answer is “No” – and I don’t know why and can’t predict when – then who am I to know what is right for the person on the other side of the cash register?  This may be a moment where saying “No” is a truly life-affirming thing for them.

So now when I pump myself up to ask for money for Manna Food Bank, I coach myself with three points:

  1. Don’t profile them. That skinny little girl who you assumed had no money gave $5.  The gruff guy who you assumed would bark at you gave $2.
  2. Give them a chance to give.  Giving feels good.  If you don’t ask, you are depriving them of a chance to feel good.
  3. Get over the idea that you know what’s right for them to do.  It’s deeper than “don’t care”.  Go ahead and care about them – and want them to do what’s right for them to do.  And you don’t know what that is.

For me, the deepest reason for asking is that it gives me the chance to practice humility, to practice not knowing, to practice letting go.  There is no deeper life lesson.  I don’t want to miss a chance to practice that.

 

“Making beauty is good for us in every way.”

Something is happening here.  My blog has been live for five days.  This morning two customers, Betsy and Andrea, stood next to each other in my line.  Both are good friends of mine, but they did not know each other.  When they discovered that they both are big fans of my blog – are gobbling it up – we had a little three-way party.  Eliot is a Grammy Award-winning musician whose work I greatly admire.  I would say we are acquaintances.  This morning he checked out through someone else’s line, but when he walked past me, he pointed dramatically to me and said “Great work – thanks for putting me on your list.”  Thirty-seven people have signed up to follow my blog in five days – it took months to reach that number in the past.

What’s going on?  Right idea, right time, right person.  I think all that is true, but there is something more.  I am fully surrendering to the Muse.  I am trusting this sucker.  I am prioritizing it.  I am willing to stay up late for it.

Complete surrender holds tremendous power.

Complete surrender holds tremendous power.

I am making a commitment to my readers. I am committed to sending a personal greeting to each of my subscribers.  I haven’t done it with everyone yet, but I have time free this weekend – time I’m keeping free to do this.  I am committed to responding to each comment people leave on the blog.  I’m committed to thanking each person who sends me an email cheering me on – and there are a lot of them.  And to thanking the people who cheer me on face-to-face, like the girl who works in produce who said, “Your blog is inspiring me – I want to be better with customers”.

Your Muse may not yet have clearly announced herself – you may not yet have a particular “art form”.  But maybe you express your creativity through cooking or gardening or interior decorating or parenting or through an intimate relationship.  If none of these feels like a direct hit, what supports your creativity?  Listening to music?  Walking in the woods?  Eating soul-satisfying food?  Making love?  Are you willing to make a commitment to your creative force – to prepare a place for it?  Are you willing to take a stand for your creativity – to claim that you are a creative person?  Are you willing to make sacrifices for your Muse – to choose for it?

This afternoon in the checkout line I was talking about all of this with Anita, who is similarly throwing herself into her ceramic art.  She took several steps towards the door, then came back as I had begun talking with the next customer and said, “Making beauty is good for us in every way”, and she left.  That felt right, felt powerful – but I knew I hadn’t really integrated it yet.  One of my principles of customer service is “Include the customer in whatever conversation is going on.” I frequently get successive customers involved in the same conversation.  So I asked Colleen (whom I had never met) what that meant to her.  She described a man “who I’ve been making music with” who is totally committed to making beauty.  I told her that it sounded to me like she also is committed to her creative force.  She said, “If you’re not creating, you can forget it.”

I love to dance – free-form improvisational dance (Asheville Movement Collective “dance church”).  It makes me happy.  It definitely expresses and feeds my creativity.  And I love the Friday night dance.  Early today I told Tom – my old roommate, dance buddy and work-mate – that I was definitely dancing tonight.

Tom and I do contact improv dancing as we pass each other in the store aisles.

Tom and I do contact improv dancing as we pass each other in the store aisles.

Late in the day I told him. “I can’t dance tonight – I gotta write.”  I had accumulated so many hand-written notes today – three posts worth, including this one.  Letting go of my beloved Friday night dance was a big deal, but my Muse required it – and it wasn’t really a sacrifice, I loved writing tonight even more than I loved dancing.

Tom very dramatically (he can be dramatic) said, “You’re not dancing…you’re not dancing” as he backed out of the store.  Lindsay, my lovely and brilliant young customer who had just heard this exchange, looked at me and said, “Tonight, writing is your dancing.”

“I need a supervisor!”

I guess I just needed to throw a fake tantrum.

It was the day before Thanksgiving – the busiest grocery store day of the year.  The previous day (the second busiest day of the year?), the pace had also been very intense, but the whole atmosphere had felt really festive.  I had fun.  Was today more intense because the holiday is right on us?  Or was I just more worn down?  Maybe both.  I had been going full-throttle, no slack moments, for two hours and was due for a break.  I guess I was also due to snap.

The day before Thanksgiving - some people are doing their whole big shopping trip and some are grabbing things they forgot to get last time.  The lines are long. Customers and cashiers are stressed.

The day before Thanksgiving – some people are doing their whole big shopping trip and some are grabbing things they forgot to get last time. The lines are long. Customers and cashiers are stressed.

 

My customer – a very pleasant, somewhat stocky 60ish woman – pulled a paper shopping bag off the stack to bag her groceries.  (We don’t have baggers and are glad to bag for people, though most of our customers seem very happy to bag for themselves.)  She said, a little frustrated but not apparently irritated, “This bag has a hole in it.”  She set it aside and picked up another.  “And this one is missing a handle.”

I took a step over to the faulty bags.  “No handle?!” And I threw it violently on the floor.  “A hole?!!” Throwing it on the floor.  “This is terrible.  I need a supervisor!” (Loud enough to sound like I was yelling, but not loud enough to actually get the attention of a supervisor.)

By this point, I was really having fun – and I could tell, out of the corner of my eye, that the customer was enjoying my theatrics, so I leaned into the tantrum act even a little more.  I kicked the bags back to where I had just been standing, then stomped on them.  Sherry Lynn, who was working back-to-back with me, stopped what she was doing to watch all of this, but we goof around all the time and she obviously knew I was playing.

“This is disgusting.  Something’s got to be done about this.”  Then I went back to ringing up my customer’s groceries as if nothing had ever happened – and she picked up a functional bag and commenced bagging.  I winked at her and she winked back.

My break was a half-hour late in coming, but my stress had been released and I was in a great mood.  When I did get my ten-minute break, I spent it furiously writing this post.  I have a pretty strong hunch that my customer left the store in a good mood too.

“I could use a blessing right now.”

Julie was 40ish, 5’2″, cute, sweet, gentle and even as she walked up to my register I thought she seemed a bit wistful (but I so sometimes make shit up in my head, so I wasn’t sure).  I asked her how she was spending her Thanksgiving.

Packaged cranberries are fine, but I love them floating around in the bin.

Packaged cranberries are fine, but I love them floating around in the bin.

“Just a low-key time at home.”

“Oh, by yourself or with friends?”

I've got a hunch Julie wasn't having a turkey.

I’ve got a hunch Julie wasn’t having a turkey.

 

“Just by myself.”

I was searching for some element that could make this a positive, life-affirming experience.  I asked

“Do you have any little rituals that make the day special for you?”

“No.  when I used to eat meat there were things I used to do, but not now.”

(I was not sure what meat-eating rituals there might be, but chose not to follow that one up.)

I was stuck.  We were down to her last few items to ring through and there were people behind her.  She was keeping on a game face, but I sure got sadness from her.  I wanted to do something, but I needed to do it fast.

She gave me just the opening I needed.  She asked me,

“Do you have any rituals?”

“Yes, in fact I have a ritual for blessing food that I like a real lot.  You could use it if you want – I’ve        posted it online.”

Thich Nhat Hanh blesses food by acknowledging its connection with all of life - see 11/25 post

Thich Nhat Hanh blesses food by acknowledging its connection with all of life – see 11/25 post

 

Julie brightened right up.

“Oh, I could use a blessing right now – where would I find it?”

“Google ‘Real life in the checkout line.’  Leave a comment about how it worked for you.  My email address is in the right column.  I’d love to hear from you.”

Julie left with a spring in her step.  And I stood taller.  I had the highlight for my day.

Blessing our food

It’s Thanksgiving time – a time when we pay extra attention to being grateful for our food, to blessing it.  My old meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh – the world’s foremost Zen master and I think our greatest living spiritual teacher – is currently extremely ill and is very much on my mind and in my prayers – as he is for people around the world.  It seems like a good time to share his practice for blessing food.

Thich Nhat Hanh - his students call him Thay, Vietnamese for teacher.

Thich Nhat Hanh – his students call him Thay, Vietnamese for teacher.

Thay teaches “Interbeing”: things inter-are.  They exist within each other.  They require each other to exist.  Everything exists within a great web of life.  It is from this backdrop that you can view the blessing of food.  All of life is contained within the food we eat.

“Thank you for this food.  Thank you for the rain which nurtured it.  Thank you for the sun which made it grow.  Thank you for the earth in which it grew.  Thank you for the people who tended the crops and harvested them.  Thank you for the people who brought it to market – and to the cars/trucks/boats/trains/planes that got it to us.  Thank you for the market that sold it to us.  Thank you for everybody and everything that helped us to have the money to purchase it.  Thank you for the cooks.  Thank you for all of us around this table who will eat it.  Thank you for everybody in every other home who is also celebrating this feast (eating today).  We send our love and compassion to everybody and every sentient being who is not eating today or not eating enough.  May all people and all beings feel love and find peace.  May this food serve us for health, healing and happiness.”

And let’s add, may our beloved Thay, who taught us these concepts and this relationship with food, feel the love that so many people around the world are sending him today.

“I thought about you.”

I don’t ask people “How are you?” – you mostly get back bullshit.  I ask “What’s been a highlight of your day?”  All day long, I ask most of my customers – unless I am tired, too depressed, too burned out from one customer after another, or if the order is really small.  Very often they ask the question back of me and I get to share one of my highlights.  Sometimes, something in the encounter is a highlight for both of us – that’s where magic happens.  This is one of those encounters.

I asked, “What’s been a highlight of your day?” to a cute 30ish woman who later turned out to be a very accomplished potter.  (Asheville is so loaded with talented people, artists, musicians – they turn up everywhere.)  As so often in this job, she knew me, but I did not yet recognize her.  For all I knew, she might have never before come through my line – but she had.  She said,

“I was at Lowe’s this morning, having a nothing exchange with a cashier – and I thought about you.  I thought how you would ask me what was a highlight of my day – and something real would happen.”

This took my breath away, made me feel like it’s all worth while – and got me even more committed to asking my question.  I’ll never ask it all the time – and it would not be useful to do so.  Sometimes customers who I don’t remember or recognize insert it themselves when I haven’t asked it: “The answer to your usual question is….” Or they’ll start the encounter by saying, “I’ve been thinking about how I would answer your question today….” But I want to not miss the chance to ask it – I want to feel into “Is this a time to ask it, even if I’m tired or overextended or depressed?”

I want to not miss a chance to make it real.  What if this is a customer who at Lowe’s this morning was thinking about me?

“Thank you for being unfriendly.”

I can’t keep up the high-intensity connecting, customer after customer, indefinitely.  I need to chill back, coast, ground myself.  Stay pleasant, friendly – but somewhat more in myself as opposed to out there with them.

Some customers help that – they are not available for connecting. They may be in a generic grocery store mode – they don’t expect the cashier to engage them. Don’t try – take this as a chance to drop back in.

The other day, I tried to engage with an attractive 40ish woman, but got nowhere.  I decided that she was just kind of shut down.  Then, after she left, I looked over my shoulder and saw her all animated with another customer.  Don’t take it personal.  For whatever reason, today, at that moment, she needed the cashier to be simply a cashier – not a multi-dimensional person.  It’s alright.

When you get someone who is distracted or even unfriendly, thank them inside.  “Thank you for braking my momentum” (especially when I am manic/speedy/overextended).  “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to ground myself.”  Thich Nhat Hanh encourages people to stop periodically throughout the day – just stop, in your chair, in the middle of the room – and come back to center, come back to who you really are.  He tells us to thank a stoplight for stopping us.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

So we can thank a person for stopping us.  Stopping is good.