Who am I?

I presented this poem at Jubilee on Sunday.  Audio, with beautiful keyboard accompaniment by Chris Rosser, can be found at http://www.somethingrises.com/WhoamI.html.

Intro: About 15 years ago, I participated in a weekend workshop that was modestly called  the Enlightenment Intensive.  The primary activity in this three-day workshop is round after round after round of sitting opposite from another participant, who for five minutes asks you again and again, “Who are you?’ – and you give whatever comes to mind.  Then you return the question to them for five minutes.  Then you move on to another partner and repeat the same process.  For three days.  Two days after the workshop, this poem came through.

The title of the poem is,

Who Am I?

Who am I?
What the hell kind of question is that?
Do I not know who I am
After all these years of fumbling around?
I might as well give up the ghost….

….No, I don’t have an answer
I don’t know who I am.
Am I this bewildering array of thoughts, perceptions and sensations
Warring within my brain – pulling me this way and that?
Each grabs me and wants to own me –
I hope I am more than them.

You look at me so sincerely and ask me who I am….
Am I the reflection of me I see in your eyes?
I think I might like it better than my own view.
Am I the current I feel flowing between us
As we sit and look at each other?
I feel so connected to you – am I you?
And yet I feel separate somehow….

There are so many things and people that I want –
Am I them?
Am I the wanter?
Am I it that is observing the wanter?
Am I whatever is noticing the observer?
Or is that the same observer, observing itself?
How deep does this go, anyway?

….Am I the calm silence that
Has floated up in me since those questions exhausted themselves?
Or am I the “me” in which it has floated, the field in which it lies?
Or am I the thoughts and questions
Nibbling at the edges of this sweet silence?
Or the gentle mother voice shushing those thoughts
“Later, he’s resting now.”

Am I the sorrow I feel at being so many unharmonized voices
The sadness and shame at being a house so divided
A mind so mindless
A self so out of touch with itself…?

Yet there is still something else
I can’t see it or hear it, but I feel it…
A watcher of the watchers
Yet softer than watching
Not a voice, but a presence
Not words, but a warm radiance.
And now that I notice it, I realize
That it was present in every other level
Obscured by the noise, the action – but there.

I feel joy in its presence
And want only to sit here with it
To soak in the peace, the at-homeness I feel.
For truly, in the presence of this benign, tender something
Which I can only inadequately name “love”
I feel no distance,
No judging of it by me or me by it
No finger-pointing or name-calling – no identifying at all
No need to protect myself
Or to stay separate in any way.
And the question “Who am I?”
Slips easily into dust.
From here I can see nothing that I am not.
I am, I simply am
And will be, even when I forget.

And from here the only thing I want
Is not to forget.

What does this guy want?

It was a tight parallel parking spot, but doable. I still have some of my Chicago parallel parking skills, though they honestly are pretty rusty. So this had me slightly stressed.  But there was more:

  • I’m parking near the County Courthouse, so I can go to the sheriff’s office – cops, eek!  I’ve had so many good experiences with cops over the years, including spending six months teaching stress management to every cop on the Syracuse, NY police department – and still I have a stress response to them.  Actually I just a few years ago had a very bad experience with a sheriff’s deputy who was assigned to transport me from the Mission Hospital ER to the psych ward at Rutherfordton Hospital because there were no beds at Mission.  This guy treated me like I as a criminal who needed to be watched and controlled at every moment.  OK, so cops still set off alarm bells for me – there’s some trauma there that’s not healed yet.
  • I was there to drop off all of Monty’s medication to the sheriff’s department – quite a lot of pill bottles.
    Monty's son, when he was clearing out his dad's apartment, asked me to drop Monty's meds off at the sheriff's department.

    Monty’s son, when he was clearing out his dad’s apartment, asked me to drop Monty’s meds off at the sheriff’s department.

    Medication – I’ve been taking psych medications for about 15 years and they mostly have never helped.  My current optimism about my new med’s is so unprecedented that I don’t know what to do with it.  So here I have a big dishwashing tub full of meds.  All these meds are  stressful to me in and of itself – but they also speak to how fragile Monty\was in his last months.

  • Monty is dead.  That’s what this whole errand is about, is that my 35-year best friend died about four months ago.  This is not a neutral errand.

And then there’s this guy.

This young guy is headed towards my car.  I immediately go on the alert.  If I knew how to put my psychic shields up, I would have.  His shirt is only half-buttoned and he’s coming up to me fast.  We’re right near the courthouse – what was he there for?  He does what I feared he would do – he comes right up to my car.

I do what my instincts tell me not to do – I roll down my car window.  He says, “My car is two spots up ahead here.”  (He wants a jump – or for me to take him for gas.)  “I’m pulling out and there’s about two quarters left on my meter, if you want to park there.”

So what do I do with this?  This guy who I was sure was trouble actually comes to me with a gift – an act of well-wishing that I would not likely think of if the roles were reversed. The trouble was not in the guy but in my own suspicious mind.

Yes sir, no sir….

How do you address customers?  The practice is fraught with complications – enough that I’ll do one post on the dynamics between a man cashier and a man customer, and then another on the man with a woman customer.  There’s a whole nother set of complications when the cashier is female, which I won’t claim to be able to address.  (The fortyish female cashier at the gas station convenience store today called me “bud” – a first for me.  I liked it.) And there’s another set of variables if the cashier is young, which I am not (68).  And still another one if they are a person of color.  I think I’ll let them comment on that.

Is there more expectation that a young male cashier use polite terms of address ("sir")  with an older man?  Probably so, and maybe especially in the South.

Is there more expectation that a young male cashier use polite terms of address (“sir”) with an older man? Probably so, and maybe especially in the South.

I tend to use the fallback of “sir” when addressing male customers,, but I like it less and less.  I don’t like it when or other customer service people call me sir – maybe because I wasn’t raised in the South.  It sounds too formal – and makes me feel too old, even when I am genuinely a lot older than the cashier (like most of the time).  It hurts my feelings a little “Can’t we both just be guys here?”  My son mostly grew up in the South. One lovely spring weekend we spent the weekend in a hotel with a pool.  His buddy Bobbie spent the weekend with us.  I pretty quickly prevailed on Bobbie to stop calling me sir or Mr, Madden and to use John (my name back then) instead.  Bobbie took to this right away and i projected that he found it liberating to break out of the formal mode of address.  When we were taking him home Sunday afternoon, however, he started to hem and haw his way through, “Uh, John, when you drop me off…”  I knew exactly where he was going.  “Do you want to call me Mr. Madden?”  “Yeah, my mother would have a cow.”

But I wasn’t raised in the South and – even after ten years here – being called sir doesn’t feel right to me.  So why do I use it so regularly with my own customers?  When I worked in the gas station, ten years ago, I made such regular use of casual modes of address (which I called buddyisms) – buddy, bud, pal, man, guy – that i wrote a blog post about it, (http://authenticcustomerservice.blogspot.com/2007/03/just-corporate-enough.html).

  • But that was a low-priced gas station – this is a relatively high-end grocery store.
  • Here my customers cover a socioeconomic spectrum, but tend to be middle class.  In the gas station, my customers again covered a spectrum. (I sold gas to the mayor.  One time she asked me if I would take a check.  I said, “Maam” – I did use a formal term of address – “You’re the mayor.”)  But my customer base was more tilted towards working class folks.
  • There much of the time I worked alone.  Here there are always supervisors around.  You can’t predict when the store manager will be right behind you.
  • In the interim since the gas station, I have worked in several other more formal situations where buddyism’s would have been frowned on: two upscale resorts, one upscale hotel, a telephone call center,
Male cashiers tend to be young, in school, or else this is a "retirement job".  In their middle years they seek more lucrative jobs; if they stay with the store, they tend to get promoted.

Male cashiers tend to be young, in school, or else this is a “retirement job”. In their middle years they seek more lucrative jobs; if they stay with the store, they tend to get promoted.

As I write about this, I am more inclined to move away from the formal terms of address (sir, mister) and towards buddyisms.  I realize that I have actually been moving in this direction, but not enough for me.  I want to experiment with this and see how it goes.  It does seem that the men with whom I do it tend to like it.

I will follow my intuition around when to stick with sir or mister.  This will include men of color and  very old white men. Having written this two days ago, I discovered that with a young black man I wanted to go to buddyisms. It’s all a big experiment here. I’ll plan to keep you posted.


Blessing their parenting

I have spent a lot of time in my life shopping in standard, big-chain grocery stores.  Now, with my health food proclivities and – let’s tell it straight – my 20% discount, I do most of my shopping in my store.  One of my bad memories of those big stores is the terrible parenting you got to see: the yelling, the threats, the slaps, the yanked arms.  We see actually very little of this in our grocery store.  Mostly the children are very well-behaved – and when they do act up the parents overall do a very good job of managing them.  I get to see enormous sweetness between parents and children.

And one of the blessings to me is the chance to bless their relationship – to hold up to parents and children just how well they are doing.  That happened for me with two particular families today.

Ira is a big, bruising guy who was so amazingly sweet with his five-year-old (I estimate) daughter – praising her in so many ways. For the way she put groceries on the belt from the cart in which she was standing: “I like the go-for-it way you stacked those boxes there” (5 high) – “they’re very even and balanced.”.  For the way she bagged the groceries: “I really like the way you put the heavy stuff on the bottom.”  (I bet he coached her on this on a previous trip.) “Hey, that was good thinking there – I like the way you did that.”  

When I said to him how much I admired his parenting, he said, “You know, sometimes I’m sleep deprived and not as good as this.  We have three-month old twins at home and it can all get kind of stressful.  But we regard each of them as a blessing and they come each of them with their own personality and we want to support it.”  He totally knocked me out – and I tried to get that across to him.  He seemed to get it, to receive my affirmation.  I think it made him feel good.

We get little snapshots of the parent--child relationship - but that picture can say a thousand words.

We get little snapshots of the parent–child relationship – but that picture can say a thousand words.

Later that same afternoon, a heavy mother came through with a likewise heavy daughter (maybe 10).  They were both really sweet – and there was such a sense of comfort between them. I said to the mom, “You’ve got a great relationship.”  She said, “Well, we like each other – we’re friends, in addition to being mom and daughter.”  It really showed that they were friends.  And they both lit up from having the light of affirmation shine on them.

No parent does a good job every moment.  There is a real tendency for us to judge ourselves based on our weakest moments.  To be witnessed doing well – and to have an outside person hold up that good moment, to be told that we are doing a good job – this can be powerful.  To have the chance to do this witnessing and affirming, this can be very gratifying.  Cashiering may often not seem like a powerful job, but here is a chance to make people feel better about themselves – now that’s power.