Just that time of year

This is last year’s 10-minute Christmas poem edited down to three minutes.  I have a real fondness for that long, rambling Christmas letter of a poem – but I like this better.  It makes a lot of reference to my day job as a cashier at Earth Fare grocery store.  Enjoy.  Happy holidays.

Just that time of year…abridged  (Majo, 12/17/15)

It’s that time of year again
Jingle bells and all
But is there really all
That much to celebrate?
The cold and dark have returned again
Do pretty much the same time every year
I try to be cheerful about them
But this little whoosy man
Gets depressed with the onset of the shorter days
And pisses and moans pretty much the same
The whole winter through

The events in the world
Wars, gang shootings
Racial profiling and horrific injustices
Seem no better than ever
I want so badly to believe
That the human race and societies
Are somehow evolving
Somehow getting better, smarter
More fair, more loving
But can see no signs
That this is true

Everybody, it seems
Has their struggles and their sorrows
Caroling with the Jubilee group,
I realized that we were singing
Not just for the shut-ins we were visiting all evening
But also for ourselves
We – all of us
Need to buck up our spirits
At this dark time
We – all of us
Need all of us
To come together
To love each other
We – all of us
Need this poem
We – all of us
Need to create
Whenever we can
However we can
We – all of us
Need to hope for the future
For our writing and painting
And music-making
And our gardening and cooking
And parenting and love-making

We need to come together
As we are reading this poem
We are coming together
As all of us staff at my grocery store
Are serving all of our customers
We are coming together
As all of our customers
Rub shoulders in our store
Stand next to each other
In our checkout lines
Greet and often hug their friends
You are coming together
As all of us front-line customer servers
In all of the various stores
Serve all of our customers
Who, at other times
Are all of us
Who, when we are not working
Also patronize these other stores
We are all
Every one of us who deals
With customer servers
Coming togetherwinter-dark-2

We are serving our customers
Trying to put a smile on their face
Trying to put a smile on our face
Trying to get our customer’s needs met
Trying to check them out
Quickly and accurately
Bagging their groceries tenderly
Ripe avocados on top
Trying to exchange some pleasantries
And, when we are lucky
Even some meaningful exchange
Some “What’s been a highlight of your day?”
Trying to be real for each other
And to be kind
Trying, trying, trying
All of us humans trying
To make things work
To make this a better year
And when we are lucky
To love, even

Advertisements

Some things I’m not grateful for….

Thanksgiving 2015

There are a lot of things that I’m not grateful for.
I’m not grateful for all the terrible things going on on the world stage
Although that makes me even more grateful for my life
And it makes me think about and care about
People in the world who I might never have thought about otherwise

Well I’m not grateful for the knee replacement they say I need.
Though it does make me even more appreciate
Some of the things I right now can’t do
Like Tae Kwon Do
And it’s making me think about
What other kinds of work I might want to do.
That would not have me on my feet for eight hours in a shift

I’m not grateful for bipolar disorder
Every seven to ten days
Throwing me into the dark and cold
Where I can hold on to nothing
That the day before I loved
About myself and about life.
But my new meds seem to be helping some
And I am clearer all the time
That reaching out to my brothers and sisters
With this terrible disease
And writing and teaching about it
For those who love us or have to deal with us
Is my life’s work.

I’m not grateful about not seeing you people very often
Except it does make me appreciate you even more
And I’m actually probably as busy as you are – or more when I’m up
Busy and unavailable when I’m up
Flat on the floor and unavailable when I’m down
OK, us not seeing each other is not all your doing
And, in the here and now, here we are

So, I’m not grateful for er-r-r uh, a lot of things
I’m kind of good at not being grateful
So I have to learn how to love
All the players on the world stage
Even those who are doing heinous things
I’ve got to love my knee doctor and Lucille
And you people
And myself when I’m not being grateful

I’ve got to love myself no matter what
Gratitude will come in spurts
I will learn it over the whole course of my life
And I guess I can be grateful
That we have a day like now
A season like now
That encourages us to go to that place

So I’m going to be grateful for this present moment
Radiating out as best I can
In all directions
I’ll do it the best I can, for as long as I can
And ask some benevolent spirit
To give me a heads-up
When I return to whining.

Crying behind the cash register

Last weekend I attended a grief workshop.  Sobonfu Some brings African traditions to the West to help us move past our collective and individual suppression of our grief.  She says, “There is a deep longing among people in the West to connect with something bigger — with community and spirit. People know there is something missing in their lives, and believe that the rituals and ancient ways of the village offer some answers.”

Her website says:

“Destined from birth to teach the ancient wisdom, ritual and practices of her ancestors to those in the West, Sobonfu, whose name means ‘keeper of the rituals’ travels the world on a healing mission – sharing the rich spiritual life and culture of her native land Burkina Faso, which ranks as one of the world’s poorest countries yet one of the richest in spiritual life and custom.

“Recognized by the village elders as possessing special gifts from birth, Sobonfu’s destiny was foretold before her birth, as is the custom of the Dagara Tribe of Burkina Faso, and was fostered by early education in ritual and initiation in preparation for her life’s work. ‘My work is really a journey in self discovery and in building community through rituals,’ says Sobonfu. Dagara rituals involve healing and preparing the mind, body, spirit and soul to receive the spirituality that is all around us. ‘It is always challenging to bring the spiritual into the material world, but it is one of the only ways we can put people back in touch with the earth and their inner values.'”

The weekend workshop consisted primarily of an extended ritual to support the 120 of us in releasing grief that perhaps was a reaction to a recent loss, but more typically had accumulated over years from a variety of losses and could be a reaction to international and global pain as well as personal.  The village that here came together to support us in this release was mostly strangers, but still very quickly came to offer a lot of genuine support.

grief hug

It takes a village to heal a grief.

 

When early in the workshop it was my turn to announce what losses I wanted to offer for healing, I said that it was the death of my best buddy Monty last January and the recurring loss every seven to ten days of all my good feelings – about myself , my life and life itself – when my depression comes rolling in.

I realized just a few minutes after my turn that the other loss I would offer for healing is the very loss of my ability to deeply feel and release my grief.  Once I was very good at surrendering to tears, having reclaimed this ability through personal growth experiences in my mid-twenties and on.  But depression itself has crushed some of this spontaneous and natural release.  And even my psychiatrists have acknowledged that the mood stabilizers that I take to even out my ups and downs also tend to dampen all my feelings.  It’s a tough call, but I continue to opt for the reduction in emotional pain that the meds afford me.

grief-counseling

I haven’t cried over Monty yet. I guess it will happen when it’s meant to – but I also believe that surrounding myself with support can help to get at it.

When I am manic, I am more able to connect with feelings and to release them  than when I am depressed. I was depressed at the workshop and predictably stayed fairly frozen right through from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon – though there were moments when it felt like something might be moving within me.  On and off, touched by someone else’s grief, I felt spontaneous shudders roll through my body.  When I would take my turns – with another ten to twenty people in various stages of deep breathing, wailing and screaming – to approach the grief altar (you chose whether to do this, how often and for how long), I progressively got more aggressive about also screaming and loudly crying, though my crying was without tears and my screaming felt hollow and without connection to genuine feeling.

On Monday, the day after the workshop, I was inclined to say that nothing  meaningful had gone on for me there.  But I noticed on and off through the day, in the middle of a kind of typical depression, waves of genuine sadness.  I felt like crying, for no reason that I could lay my hands on.  I was nowhere near actually crying, but I felt some of the feelings that might lead one to cry.  If I was not depressed and not behind the cash register, I might actually have cried.

This morning I learned in an email from my close friend Byron that his son-in-law Phil has been diagnosed as having “terminal cancer”.  I believe that I have never met this man.  His wife Sarah, my friend’s stepdaughter since her late teens, I have probably not seen for 20 years or more.  But I felt a genuine fondness towards her after just a couple of meetings back then – and certainly they and their three children, all still young, are an important part of Byron’s life.

grief, bench

My brother is still very much alive, but every day his cancer threatens him and his family with the spectre of his absence.

But, still depressed, I was unprepared to have such a visceral response to the news of Phil’s cancer.  I felt really sad for Phil, his wife Sarah, their three kids, Sarah’s mother Nancy, and Byron.  When I started to launch into an email back to Byron, I said to myself, “You just sit here and feel this for a minute.”  And so I did.

Then I decided, for whatever reason, that writing this post would keep me closer to the feelings. I could follow it by writing to Byron.  There’s a risk that writing would drive me up into my head and lose the visceral connection, but so far – as I go back to connect within – I still feel some shudders and seem to not have lost the thread of my genuine feelings. It’s feeling like writing is really helping me to process the feelings, is keeping them real for me.

Now I will let go of writing, will go back to just feeling the feelings – for as long as that feels alive for me – then probably write the email to Byron.  And I will bless myself and my grief, which now seems to include some people who I had not previously considered to be part of my family, but now do.

grief, swim

Did reading this stir in you any feelings for this family, whom you really do not know, or about any people closer to you (and including you) who are experiencing illness, loss or pain? It’s OK to feel it, to find somebody to talk to about it, to describe it in a comment here.  It’s all part of staying alive.

 

 

 

He was just trying to greet me.

This post is about twice as long as is recommended for blog posts, but I think you will find it very thought-provoking.

About a dozen years ago, on a lovely Spring afternoon, I was walking down a pretty Chicago side street, talking on my cell phone.  I had my cordless headset on with the actual phone in my pants pocket, so was not obviously on the phone.  It was totally understandable that the schizophrenic guy walking toward me on the other side of the street, also talking to somebody who wasn’t there, took me as one of his peeps.  He gave me a big smile, a hearty wave and a super-friendly “Hi”.  I will always regret pulling my phone out of my pocket to let him know that I was actually talking to a real person.  Why did I have to do that?  Sure I’m not schizophrenic, but I had already for several years carried a psychiatric diagnosis (first clinical depression, then the more accurate bipolar disorder) . But schizophrenics are at the bottom of the mental illness food chain – they are really crazy (never mind that I have met schizophrenics who are very high functioning, many better in some ways than me).  There are some who claim to have completely recovered from mental illness – and look and sound for all the world like they have.  But I still don’t want “them” in my support group – I want it to be “just us”.  Anyway, my compadre on the other side of the street just hung his head and continued on.

A little while ago, on an equally lovely Fall morning, I put my sweater over a table outside a cafe in the perfect-temperature sunlight and went inside to order some food.  I immediately became aware that the young guy at a table at 11 o’clock was mentally challenged. I don’t know what his diagnosis would be.  When I was trained as a clinical psychologist 40 years ago, they didn’t put much emphasis on mental retardation. You would have had to work hard to get a practicum working with “that population”. (Hey, back then they didn’t even know about bipolar disorder; it was manic-depressive psychosis – if you didn’t have delusions and/or hallucinations, you didn’t get diagnosed.) But I’ve had enough experience with “mentally handicapped” people to recognize the look – and the sound. And I somehow, out of the corner of my eye, spotted the family member or social worker who was with him.  Or maybe I just assumed they were there – this guy was not out and about alone, I felt sure.

So I recognized his voice when, ten minutes later – with me all caught up in my lunch and my laptop, pretending to multitask while I am swayed by the research showing that we really can’t do that very well. He came up behind me, talking to his voices or his worker – or me! I felt a hand on my back and knew it must be him.  That was literally a first.  In my 69 years of life, I think it’s totally possible that I have never touched a “retarded” person, old or young. If perhaps I did an assessment with one (with instruments that were primitive for “normal” people and probably grossly inappropriate for mentally challenged people) during my clinical training forty years ago, we were taught by our Freudian supervisors never to touch a “patient” (not “client” or – gasp! – a “consumer”).

This guy who was apparently attempting to talk to me: Do other people understand him? Does he understand them? Does he know how to use a phone? Does he have a job? So much I don't know. I guess acknowledging that I don't know is a start.

This guy who was apparently attempting to talk to me: Do other people understand him? Does he understand them? Does he know how to use a phone? Does he have a job? So much I don’t know. I guess acknowledging that I don’t know is a start.

As I turned in his direction – being careful to not make eye contact (what do I think?  It’s catching?) – it became clear that he was talking to me.  Now in Asheville initiating a conversation with a stranger on the street is more the norm than inappropriate.  Even if the person is very odd, like the woman who joined in Marian and my conversation yesterday on the porch at Greenlife.  The fact that we were talking about bipolar disorder, which I have, did make it seem inappropriate – and then she was odd in other ways. She had in her shopping cart some broken-down cardboard boxes which she set up on her table around her laptop, creating an impromptu cubicle.  (I guess the Greenlife management turned down her request for a private office.)  But even here we let into our conversation.  Actually, Marian was very polite and talked with her some.  I had earlier on diagnosed her as “crazy”, just from the boxes, and didn’t want any part of this conversation, even though the little parts of it I did hear seemed only odd, not loony-tunes.  I finally, when this person showed no signs of tiring of the conversation, interrupted to say, “Marian and I actually have some business to transact” (which was true, though it would not have been truthful to say that there was any objective hurry for the two of them to break off their conversation).

So anyway (who’s tangential – one of those words I learned in my psychiatric training and maybe have never used since, to this very moment.  Probably no loss.), it was clear that this young guy was talking to me.  I looked at his worker (family member? How could you tell? Could they look alike, in spite off having such different stations in life?), who shrugged her shoulders like she didn’t have any more idea than me what he was saying.  I still hadn’t made eye contact and made an instant decision not to.  I went back to my work with my computer, burying my nose in it – if you can do that like you do with a book.  He took an abrupt step back from me and then continued down the street – I thought with slumped, discouraged shoulders.

What was he trying to tell/ask me?

  • “You look like a nice man.”
  • “Do you come here often?”
  • “I had the soup, too – it was great.”
  • “I’m lonely.”

I’ll never know, maybe because

  • I didn’t pay attention to him.
  • No real attention had ever been paid to teaching him to speak better.
  • His worker was not well-trained and not able to translate for him.
  • She had not been on the job long, like pretty much no one stays in these “entry-level”, poorly paid jobs.

So I who pride myself in being all about engagement with people – including spontaneous, improvisational encounters on the street or in the theater – missed a chance. Missed a chance in a way that I chronically miss chances – chances to engage with people who are in general marginalized and maybe thus even more in need of friendly connection. Missed the chance to reward a guy who was maybe pretty heroic to reach out, given that he gets responses like this all the time and I had not given him any encouragement.

I missed a chanced.  I’m disappointed.  But I got a blog post out of it.  And if I really listen to what I’m writing here, I may not always miss these opportunities.  I may still miss some – old habits die hard.  But maybe not all.  And if I take a chance and it goes well – even to just exchange smiles and head nods, like I do with foreign language speakers at my cash register – these successes may build on each other and I  may be on the way to a new habit.

Coming off the bench and ready for love

I just posted this on Facebook, then thought “If you’re serious about this, post it on the blog too.” So here it is.

Friends –

After many years of clearly not being ready for a romantic relationship, then a couple of years of melting – and also getting more solid – I’m declaring myself ready and open for love.  My heart has been softening and opening in so many ways – including grief at the deaths of so many friends.  I have also been very touched by feelings of fondness for women friends who for one reason or another are not appropriate or available for romance.  Exploring what is and is not possible with them has been like aerobics for my heart.

What would it be like to be two fingers of the same hand?

What would it be like to be two fingers of the same hand?

You, my Facebook friends, know me to one extent or another.  (And you who have been reading my blog know me in some ways very well.)  I’m asking you for support and cheerleading, visualizing and holding the intention for success for me in this area. affirmation of how you see me as ready and as a good prospect for romance – and matchmaking!  I trust your judgment more than Match or e-Harmony.  Such a pool of cool people have got to know lots of really great single women. I can’t promise to keep you posted about the whole process on Facebook, (or on the blog) but I may message you about how it’s going with matches you send me – hell, when things get tricky I may look to you for coaching – and I may actually post here about some of the changes I go through.  Ready though I think I am, this may put me through some changes.

Thanks for your support.  (And thanks to Mark Medlin for suggesting this bold strategy.)

Life…and more life

The husband of one of my coworkers (let’s call her Sally) died a couple of weeks ago.  It was not exactly sudden, but greatly unexpected.  He just developed one medical complication after another for about three weeks, until finally the doctors told them he had a week to live.

Sally is much beloved in our department and throughout the store. One person used the term “angelic” to describe her.  It’s a word I would be slow to use to describe a mortal, but she is so consistently sweet and warm and positive that it really kind of fits.

I was greatly honored when she asked me if I had a poem about death that I could offer at her husband’s memorial – and told her that in fact I do have one.  I felt good about going to the memorial service last night.  There were several other workers from our store, a couple previous workers who have moved to jobs at another grocery store, and several customers who have over the years gotten fond of Sally.  These are the kinds of situations that poke through the distance that work roles may set up between us, between us coworkers and between staff and customer.  Mixing together in ways like this makes the relationship more personal, more meaningful.

Here is the poem.  Sally liked it.

What's after life?  Native Americans call it "the great mystery".

What’s after life? Native Americans call it “the great mystery”.

LIFE – AND MORE LIFE
(Majo, 11/19/05)

We have been wandering around, you and I
By ourselves, with each other, never knowing
We bump against our different selves
We hold foreign who is our home
We see the dark because we know the light

What is this fog that holds us?
What in us would let be held?
Where are we going?  Where have we been?
What is “us”?  “You”?  “I”?  “Her”?  And “him”?

Life – what is that?
This mystery in which we are lost
The light that leads us
And where does it end?
Where is there that life is not?

Our minds want to separate
Thrive on boundaries
Do not see how dark connects the light
Make you and I imagine
A gulf between the isness that we are

Each moment arises from nowhere
Then slips silent from our grasp
Our grasping punctuates the moments
Makes them seem separate, which they never are

Letting go is our nature, who we’ve always been
And how we got here
Our parents surrendered to the moment
Life has been conceiving us anew ever since

Every birth requires a death
Call it what we will, life changes
Stays not one moment the same
We are not who we were, who we will be

Where we think we see a wall, a cliff, an end
Life continues, in forms we never imagined
We emerge, again and again
New beings of light we never knew

Light is held and framed by dark
As dark is surrounded by light
Our minds see difference
Life does its dance of many forms

Where will we go?  Where have they gone?
Our human eyes, limited as they are
See a river where there is a sea
This connection in which we swim
Has no beginning and no end

If we but shift our gaze
Oh so gently, no effort, no looking for
See the light under the dark and light
The We that always holds you and me
We will not go, they have not gone
We are all right here, one unending now

Drop into this breath of life
Do not try to make this or that
Nothing goes away, while all must die
Life is us, we are Life
We feel the good under “Goodbye”.

 

 

Charm their pants off

At work this week, we got news that sounded on the surface like bad news: some of our popular customer discounts were being reduced.

The very popular senior discount is now just one day a week.

The very popular senior discount is now just one day a week.

The equally popular military discount is also going to just one day a week - and is being cut from 10% to 5%.

The equally popular military discount is also going to just one day a week – and is being cut from 10% to 5%.

The student/teacher discount continues at one day a week.

The student/teacher discount continues at one day a week.

When I worked at Greenlife a couple of years ago, they had recently been taken over by Whole Foods and the very popular senior discount was discontinued.  I’m sure nobody ever determined how many  seniors took their business elsewhere (including to my current store), but certainly some did – and some stayed but harbored resentments.

So how do you deliver potentially bad news in a positive way?  The company gave us some talking points.  The strategy is to not get rid of the discounts altogether, but to move towards optimally low prices applied to everybody.  I feared people would respond to that one with cynicism – “Low prices, sure.”  But they mostly seemed to accept it.

It will make it easier to focus on the discount of the day – new people may learn that they are qualified.  I’m disturbed by how often people tell me, “I’ve been coming here for years, but I never knew there was a military discount.”  Now on Thursdays we may poll more thoroughly for it.

My strategy is just to charm the daylights out of them.  Really go after them.  Let them know we want their business and their loyalty.  If there is any part of me that genuinely loves my customers (and there is), then lean into that part now.  We have a community of staff and customers at our store – and I don’t want that community ruptured.

I personally happen to think this is a positive way to go.  I am influenced by the young people who complain “I’m way more broke than the average senior citizen – I think it’s unfair that they get a discount but not me.”  Parents of young kids say similar things.  And nurses wonder why they don’t get a discount. And firefighters and police officers.  And students and teachers have wondered why their discount was just one day a week – now there is more parity there.

I had mixed success today trying to use that argument with customers.  Two of them together said, “Our young adult children are way more affluent than us on social security”, while others seemed to accept the fairness argument.

We're the face of the grocery store.  This is a brief period where the goodwill of some of our customers is at risk.  Let's pull out the stops to let them know we value them and their business.  It could be practice for going after people we care about in our lives.

We’re the face of the grocery store. This is a brief period where the goodwill of some of our customers is at risk. Let’s pull out the stops to let them know we value them and their business. It could be practice for going after people we care about in our lives.

I think a little apology is fine – this is a disappointment, we want to show that we understand that.  But not to come across with an apologetic attitude.  Stay proud of the store and of our commitment to our customers.  Lean into whatever positive gambits you usually use with customers.  I have been working in my stock “What’s been a highlight of your day?”

Some customers may go away mad – probably not for good (our primary competitors don’t offer these discounts any day of the week).  But there is the risk of them leaving – or at least of their enthusiastic connection to the store being diminished.  It’s a critical juncture here – time to pull out the stops for their loyalty.  Time for me to get out of my comfort zone – really show them we want them.  This could be really good for me – may transfer to other relationships where I want to pursue someone, want to show them I value them, want to come from my loving heart.

Why not? Otherwise you’re just swiping groceries.

Thursday evening p.s. Today I ran into a few people who were determined to be mad about this change, but many more who were susceptible to charm.  I had some who responded to my fairness gambit by saying things like “Well that makes sense”.  Most of the people I dealt with who are adversely affected are seniors.  I developed a whole patter about that change: “Man, I’m disappointed.  These are my peeps (I’m 68) and I’ll be missing them because I don’t work on Mondays…It will be like a seniors club in here on Mondays…We’ll play mahjong and bingo in the cafe”, etc.  Lots of people who started out bothered, worried, etc. walked away seeming at least content.