For Cheryl

Here’s the poem I offered – and briefly messed up – at Barry Barton’s dance performance.

For Cheryl

Your father took the poison pill
Of hate for self
He swallowed it and went away
Was struck dumb and then could not
Speak on your behalf or his
He did not wield his pen of truth for you
When they served to you the same sick drug
Toxic with their shame and pain
They saw your lovely innocence
And tried to claim it for themselves
They carved in it their names
“If I scar it, then it’s mine
Let me leave a handprint on your face
Or a mournful dream of your small hand
Placed on me against your will”

But the twisted trying there
To wrest from you your life, your love
By those who loved so wrong, so wrong
Could not quench your fire, your self
The would-be spirit breakers did not know
What spirit truly is – nor saw your soul
Or they would have touched you not those ways
For fear your angels would have struck them down.
The gold of that sweet soul was not destroyed
Just melted and formed new again
Nothing burned away but dross
You wanted gone so long

And when you felt your most alone
And when you were the most at risk
Of saying yes to that last dose
And lying in the fitful sleep
Of those who dream when they were real

And when you felt your most alone

And when you felt your most alone

Your truly faithful dad – long one with you
In the bonds of suffering and fierce love
Somehow coughed up his toxic wad
Smiled his warm and human smile of old
And said to you, his precious child
“Don’t swallow, darling girl of mine
You must not follow me
Into this silent truthless place
I need your words so bad
They are my legacy
Perhaps tomorrow I will find my own, but now
Rage at what they’d have you eat
You are my little queen
All the forebears of your mother’s and of mine
Salute you as you spit this back”

And so with raging, potent, loving words
You gather to you us
All of us who hold our own
Toxic dose of pain
Carried still in pouch of silk
“When all else fails eat me
I will kill you fast or slow
But I am all you really know”

You say to us with loud ferocious tones
“No-no-no-no-no-no!
Give me those precious pouches now
This whole sad pharmacy of fear and lies
Place all these pills together here
On this basement floor within
Flush them with our healing tears
And we who have been sick but have not died
Shall come away the stronger still
And make a pact to grasp those pills
Wherever they be found
And give that purge to all the lost
And bring the de-pilled people home
Into our sacred tribe
And love ourselves and our poems
And each other – and the children we create
And our parents too, who need it most

“Because I say so
And I am Cheryl
Triumphant and alive
And innocent and good.”

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Mike the barrista/cashier/pianist

Extraordinary cashiers and other customer service people are everywhere.  Musicians or other artists, writers, master gardeners, creative parents – they find all manner of creative outlet.

I’m at the City Bakery on Biltmore Ave., waiting for my car to be done at Toney’s Car and Truck, my current favorite mechanic who got three votes on my recent informal Facebook poll of local mechanics.  What I brought to them today was not heavy-duty mechanical challenges for them, but maybe challenges nonetheless.  My dome light burned out and I absolutely cannot see a way to get at it.  People tell me there will certainly be a step-by-step video on YouTube about how to do this, but I not only am not handy but I have a real block around stuff like this.  Someday maybe my personal growth will move in this direction, but right now I’m happy to pay for stuff like this – and celebrate that I do have enough little financial cushion to pay for it.  Now when the transmission goes out I’m gonna look it up on YouTube.

Pretty much everywhere I go, I’m telling cashiers about this blog and, when I get the chance, interviewing them about their work and lives – and hearing so much great stuff.  Here at City Bakery, Mike just took care of me.  He gave me great service: my coffee routine includes that when I put all my half-and-half in my coffee it becomes not hot enough for me, so I ask baristas to either microwave it for me after I have doctored it up or, if they have no microwave, to steam some cream for me – the latter of which Mike did for me very cheerfully.  Great service, good tip and good feelings all around.  I tend to tip cashiers, restaurant servers, etc. well.  Hey, we do hard work – largely unrecognized or misunderstood by people who think it’s easy or mindless – and for shit wages.

I have come to expect that people who make their living doing front line customer service also have some artistic outlet.  Maybe it's more so in Asheville, I dunno.  Mike is a pianist and composer.  I'm gonna check out his music on YouTube.

I have come to expect that people who make their living doing front line customer service also have some artistic outlet. Maybe it’s more so in Asheville, I dunno. Mike is a pianist and composer. I’m gonna check out his music on YouTube.

So I told Mike about the blog. (“I’m a cashier too, at x grocery store – and I’m also a writer.  I write this blog about cashiering, which is also about customer service more generally – but it’s also about bipolar disorder, which I’ve got, and about mindfulness and human relations and Tae Kwon Do and lots of other stuff.”)  Mike did what most cashiers do when I give them this spiel – he got excited, as did his coworker Joe, who was listening in from behind.  “Hey, sounds like fun – I’m definitely going to check it out.”  I think they always mean that when they say it, even if they don’t always end up doing it.

Then, because Mike was steaming my half-and-half and there was no line, we got a couple of minutes to talk.  Mike said, “You gave me your card – I’ve got one too.”  As he struggled a bit to pull his card out of his wallet (sometimes my cards don’t always ease their way out of my wallet), I noticed that his left hand and arm were dramatically misshapen.  His card read: “Mike Anderson – pianist”.  There was a really nice open vibe between us – I was liking him a lot – so I made bold to ask him about the arm.

“How does it work for you playing the piano with that arm?”  Mike did not blink, acted not at all surprised or put out by my directness.

“I hold my arm at this angle.  I mostly improvise, so I don’t use these fingers very much and it works out fine overall.”

“How did it happen?”

“I was in my 20’s, driving too sleepy, fell asleep and went under a semi.”

“You’re lucky to still be alive.”

“Big time.”  Charming, warm, friendly, smart – physically wounded but personally very intact.

“Could I write a post about you?”  “Sure.”

“Can I use your name?”  “Yeah.”  “Maybe I’ll include your contact info – you might get some business.” “Great.”

“Can I get a photo?” “Sure.”  “Can I include your bad arm in the photo?”  “Let’s not. I don’t want it to be shtick about the handicapped guy or for sympathy or anything like that.”  Got it.

So here he is: Mike Andersen.  Cashier, barista, pianist, composer – cool guy.  Yes a barista – and good at it.  But so much more.  Patronize him at City Bakery and get great, warm, real service.  Book him for an event.

Mike Andersen: (850) 481-5596, Ma.Piano@gmail.com, http://www.youtube.com/mikeandersenpiano.

My highlight is you

Grieving is different when you’re manic and when you’re depressed.

My 35-year best buddy Monty died a week ago today.  (https://rlcol.com/2015/01/12/my-best-buddy-monty/) I was manic for three days before he died, then the last seven – until today.  For the last week I knew I was in pain, knew I was messed up – but I felt good.  It was confusing.  My friend Marlisa wrote, “Friendship of a lifetime, loss of a lifetime.  Take good care of your grief.”  I grabbed hold of those words and repeated them to almost every person who asked how I was doing.  I also repeated, “I’m manic now – when I’m depressed and he’s still gone it’s going to be different.”

Where did he go?  One moment he seemed very alive.  I just don't get it.

Where did he go? One moment he seemed very alive. I just don’t get it.

I’m seeing the ways that grief is like depression.  Depression is so much about loss – loss of momentum, loss of happiness, loss of connection with others, loss of hope. When I am depressed, everything looks ugly and chaotic.  “This is bullshit.”  When I am grieving, it seems like nothing matters.  No matter what you do, everyone dies – so nothing matters.  Even when that person was 86 years old and apparently ready to go, this nihilism can still kick in.  When I am depressed, I blame myself – I ruminate over what I have and haven’t done.  When I am grieving, I run over in my brain what I should or shouldn’t have done differently.

At work today, in the middle of my grief and depression – reaching for something to keep me afloat – I grabbed on to my stock question to ask customers: “What’s been a highlight of your day?”  That can do a good job of getting my mind off of myself, but a lot of my customers also then ask me what has been the highlight of my day.  What do I say then?

For lack of any better answer, I used the one I have been saying most often anyway: this blog.  At first it felt and sounded pretty lame, but as I experimented with ways to get behind it, it started to work for me -at least some of the time, at least a little – on three levels.

  1. I’m still creating.  Even today – miserable with grief and depression – I’m getting ideas for blog posts, I’m kind of frantically jotting down notes during my breaks and even at the cash register.  Many of them will make no sense to me when I go back to them, but I’m writing. (Tonight, after work – now 9:01 p.m. – so much of me wants to just crawl into bed, but it feels desperately important to get this written and scheduled to post tomorrow morning.  I’ve got to create.)
  2. My writing is reaching people.  A lot of people are reading the blog.  A lot of people tell me that it means something to them.  They say it in comments on the blog, in emails to me, and face-to-face. They say it strongly, eloquently – it breaks through my isolation.  I have copy and pasted a lot of it into a “Rainy day” file.  I have recorded some of it to listen to.
  3. I’m offering it to you.  I step beyond my shyness and embarrassment, I push past the depression and grief – all of which would keep me isolated and cut off from you (you my customer and you my reader).  I tell you about my blog. I say that it’s good. I takethislittleVistaprint business card and give it to you.

    I give you a piece of my heart.

    I give you a piece of my heart.

Monty isn’t here.  Myself as I like to know myself – the person with so much pizzazz – isn’t here.  You are here.  In this moment, grieving and depressed, I meet you.  I look you in the eye.  I let myself care for you.  I want good for you. I don’t just meet you – I offer you something, a piece of me.  I offer you this card and say, “Check this out – I think you will enjoy it.”  Monty was all about “putting his stuff out in the world” – it was a healthy obsession with him. He also felt that in my battle with depression, too often I let depression win.  I think that in this moment Monty would be proud.

You’re too weird!

I did something creative at work today.  In honor of the first day of the year, I let go of my standard customer question “What’s been a highlight of your day?” and instead asked “What’s a way you intend to express your creativity in the new year?”  I got back some great answers, ranging from “Continually adapt to new cultures as I practice my international consulting business” to “Learn how to build a table – I’m a musician, not a carpenter” to “Parent my two-year-old”.

Our cafe at work is celebrating the creativity of our staff with every wall covered with staff art.  This massive, beautiful painting was created by my old roommate Will, a brilliant artist in several media.

Our cafe at work is celebrating the creativity of our staff with every wall covered with staff art. This massive, beautiful painting was created by my old roommate Will, a brilliant artist in several media.

I felt good about the results of the question – and, as always, a lot of people asked me the question back.  I had some fun responding to this by talking about writing, but sometimes when you target a positive new behavior what you get first is a clearer picture of where you’re stuck – what’s in the way of  that behavior.  That’s what I got today – more clarity about what makes it hard for me to be creative.

Over lunch I had a conversation with a colleague in which I told him that I don’t like the way he does announcements over the public address system in the store – that it’s too weird for me.  I’ve been chafing on this for a while – waiting for the right time to tell him.  Some part of me had a fantasy  that he would wake up, repent, start doing more normal announcements.  He didn’t do any of that – but he also didn’t get defensive.  I think his lack of defensiveness allowed me to take a look at myself.

By the end of our 20-minute conversation, I was asking myself What is it about his weirdness that I find so threatening?  Why does it bother me?”  I’m all about creativity, improvisation and risk-taking – and that’s exactly what he’s doing.  Why don’t I support it?  Why don’t I regard him as a real role model?  What kinds of risks do I take with my announcements?  None – they’re very straight-arrow.  I’m sure not practicing improvisation in that area of my work life.

Which differences are OK?  Which ones are exciting for the ways they open up the envelope?  Which ones are too weird?  Is it possible to let all these questions go and let these differences just be different?

Which differences are OK? Which ones are exciting for the ways they open up the envelope? Which ones are too weird? Is it possible to let all these questions go and let these differences just be different?

So this stuck with me today – especially in the face of what I was doing to celebrate creativity, to aim towards creativity.  It really was hitting me between the eyes, in terms of how I get in my own way.  All the ways that I focus on what’s negative – but maybe especially my fears of being weird.  I have a mental illness – bipolar disorder.  What does that mean?  For some that very term means weird – and definitely not good weird.  Sometimes I’m just fine with it – it feels like just one more way to be in the world.

Today when people were asking me where I planned to express my creativity this year, I would say “Two writing projects” and I would tell them the title of this blog, but not the subtitle – “The ups and downs of a bipolar cashier”.  I not once got around to telling them about the second writing project – online training for people with bipolar disorder.  I left that out because I would have to explain about me having bipolar disorder.

It seems like as long as I’m holding a concept of weird as a bad thing to be, I’m going to keep myself stuck around my creativity and self-expression.  What is weird anyway?  It’s different too much or different bad.  So am I going to go through life scrutinizing my differences, to see which ones are bad? Am I going to have a continuum that goes “normal – creative – eccentric – weird” and continually be assessing where people lie on the continuum?

It seems like the more I give other people a break – room to be different – that will automatically translate into giving myself a break.

When we have to wait….

Most all of us spend time waiting in lines – including those of us who work for a living serving  customers who wait in line to get to us.  When we are waiting in line, we may get restless, frustrated or irritated – or we have the option to use that time otherwise.

  • If we notice that we have gotten to any extent upset from waiting, we can have compassion for ourselves – forgive and bless ourselves in this hurting state.
  • We can welcome the waiting as a mindfulness bell. bringing us back to this present moment.  A fortyish guy who came through my line the other day said, “I kind of like waiting – it gives me a chance to slow down.”
  • We can bless our purchases.  This may be easier if we are buying something as positive as good food.
    • We can pay attention to the feel of each item as we put it out on the conveyor belt.
    • We can feast on the colors, sizes and shapes of the items.
    • We can arrange them on the belt in some way that is fun or satisfying for us.
    • We can picture these products giving us health.
    • We can be grateful for having the money to buy them.

      We can use our time waiting to play with our food, like this customer did.

      We can use our time waiting to play with our food, like this customer did.

  • Whether or not we have a cashier who is liable to ask us “What’s been a highlight of your day?”, we can rehearse our answer to that question.  We can say it to our cashier even if they don’t ask.  We can ask them what’s been a highlight of their day.  If they have been under pressure with a long line, they may especially profit from such an injection of positive energy.
  • We can chat with the people in front of or behind us.
  • We can bless the cashier as we are waiting to get to them.
    • May they not be stressed.
    • May they be efficient and accurate.
  • This blessing of the cashier can be especially powerful when we get in front of them.  We can be a little bomb of positive energy.  Our smile and our words can be an invitation to the cashier to come out into the light.

 

When we don’t have access to any of these strategies – when it seems that the best we can do is to get frustrated and irritated – we can return to forgiving and blessing ourselves.

Seeing stars

Back in 1995, James Redfield’s book The Celestine Prophecy was a monster best seller.  I was a little suspicious of a “spiritual” book that was so commercially successful, but I kind of surprised myself by liking it quite a lot.

On the surface, the book is a novel – but actually the story, which is not the strongest aspect of the book, is a vehicle for spiritual teaching.  It did not seem to me that much of that teaching was original, but then how much spiritual teaching really can be original at this point – it’s really a matter of packaging old truths in fresh new ways that get our attention.  I think Redfield did a good job at that.

A couple of concepts from this 20 year old book have stayed with me.

A couple of concepts from this 20 year old book have stayed with me.

The idea from that book that has most stayed with me suggests that when you are having an encounter with another person, if you stick with the encounter long enough – often longer than is comfortable or beyond the point where you might otherwise have moved on – the purpose of your encounter with this person will often become manifest.  I have this experience a lot at work – and will devote tomorrow’s post to that arena.  Here I want to report three experiences I had tonight at the Jubilee (the funky non-denominational church I attend here in Asheville) Christmas party.

Edna is a very engaging, attractive, 5’4″ woman who told me that she had just recently celebrated her 62nd birthday.  I felt a little victorious connecting with her tonight because I remembered her name: over several years of being nodding acquaintances, I succeed at that only some of the time.  When I found myself standing next to her in the lovely hallway of the beautifully rehabbed Elizabethan mansion that our minister Howard reclaimed from disrepair over many years, I decided it might be a good time to get to know her a little – she has always seemed interesting, so I was enthused about this.  But when I’m manic – which I still am after ten days (it’s time when I usually will shift) – I tend to be restless, and after a few minutes of talking (even though it was all genuinely interesting) I was starting to think of some of the other people at the party that I wanted to connect with.  So when Edna said, “I have a story about my 62nd birthday that I could tell you if you want”, I had to think for a moment about whether I actually did want.

But the Redfield idea has been on my mind lately, and I decided to settle in and see what I might learn about my connection with Edna.  She proceeded to tell a gorgeous story about being out of her comfort zone camping in the western mountains at her son’s land, of waking at 2 a..m. on her birthday and coming out of the tent into the cold mountain air and having her mind blown by the brightness of the Milky Way.  The story goes on to have her wishing she could share this amazing moment with someone and her son promptly calling out to her and then coming out to join her – and a really gorgeous mother-son moment ensuing.  My eyes were moist by the end of the story and I had at least a first take on why we were meant to have that conversation. (Who knows what other layers may present themselves for me or her?  Writing this blog post is one more layer for me.)

The Milky Way in the mountains at 2 a.m. on her birthday blew Edna's mind.  Her story opened mine.

The Milky Way in the mountains at 2 a.m. on her birthday blew Edna’s mind. Her story opened mine.

A couple of brief conversations later, I encountered Matt – a big strapping 40ish guy who started our conversation by saying how much he likes the poetry and comedy I offer at Jubilee.  (I have done this four times a year for ten years and lots of people know me from it.)  After thanking him for the compliment – and being genuinely pleased by it, though I do get it a lot – I attempted to move the conversation along by asking “How long have you been coming to Jubilee?”  Even before the question was fully out of my mouth, I thought “Now what kind of a bullshit question is that?”  It’s like “Do you come here often?” in being destined to not generate any interesting answers.

But after he said “Six years” (“Yeah, so what?”) I had a better idea.  “In those six years, what have been some highlights for you of coming to Jubilee?”  Now Matt really warmed up to the conversation.  “The music and Howard’s talks.”  When I followed that with “What have you liked about Howard’s talks?” we were off and running.  Matt had lots to say – stuff that revealed his depth and sensitivity and passion about Jubilee.  It was great fun.

Jubilee is a special place.  Getting Matt talking about it revealed how special he is.

Jubilee is a special place. Getting Matt talking about it revealed how special he is.

My final conversation was with Victoria.  I had just a little bit started to get to know her several years ago, but she moved away and hasn’t been around much.  She always seemed interesting, though, so when I ended up standing next to her I felt good about talking with her.  But still, after just a couple minutes of talking, I noticed my body language: I was standing sideways, perpendicular to her.  I was not committing to the conversation at all – I was poised to leave!  I realized that – with the party about to end – the restless part of me was wondering who else I ought to see before I would go home.

I decided to let go of the restlessness and commit to Victoria – and to try one more experiment in discovering why this other person and I were having this encounter.  The answer didn’t take more than a minute to reveal itself.  I can’t trace back how we got there, but Victoria said that she was interested in the Asheville Movement Collective (AMC) “Dance Church” – the free-form improvisational dancing to which I am so passionately committed.  This gave me a chance to really ignite over a topic, which was big fun because Victoria was really interested.  I know from lots of experience that coming to AMC can change people’s lives – has mine – so it’s a lot of fun offering it to people.  And if Victoria never comes or comes and doesn’t like it, we had a conversation that connected us in a fun way and she spent some time thinking about her own creativity and her inner dancer.

Dance is one of my favorite ways to express my creative self, but each of these three people had given me a peek at their creative soul.

Dance is one of my favorite ways to express my creative self, but each of these three people had given me a peek at their creative soul.

I had three experiences in under two hours where what could have been routine conversations with regular people left me instead seeing stars.

A very special place

The grocery store where I work is a very special place.

The heart and soul of our store is the healthy groceries.  A week ago, a customer said to me, "We drive a long ways to shop here.  Our local grocery store abuses us with the produce they expect us to settle for.  Here the produce is all so beautiful."

The heart and soul of our store is the healthy groceries. A week ago, a customer said to me, “We drive a long ways to shop here. Our local grocery store abuses us with the produce they expect us to settle for. Here the produce is all so beautiful.”

It’s got most of the downsides of other human and corporate systems.  Sometimes management make decisions or enforce policies that I wish they wouldn’t.  Sometimes it seems like the bottom line upstages human needs in unfortunate ways.  Sometimes people feel unfairly treated by their supervisors.  Sometimes coworkers don’t get along, feel that the other is not pulling their weight, etc.

But all this happens here a lot less than most other places I have worked.  Much more, it looks to me like management has their heads on straight, support workers from the top of the store on down, are willing to pitch in and do whatever needs to get done – including cashiering and bagging groceries.  (I’ve had the store manager bag groceries for customers I am working with.)  Most coworkers like each other.  I don’t have as much data about other departments, but in my “front end” department (cashiers, juice bar, “floaters” who cashier/clean the store/round up carts) people generally get along really great and have a lot of fun with each other.

Grocery store love.  Tom is a great grocery guy (keeping the shelves stocked). He also was my roommate until a couple of months ago.  Marta is a dancing friend to both of us. Not all store hugs are quite this go-for-it, but there are plenty of them.

Grocery store love. Tom is a great grocery guy (keeping the shelves stocked). He also was my roommate until a couple of months ago. Marta is a dancing friend to both of us. Not all store hugs are quite this go-for-it, but there are plenty of them.

And then there are the wonderful customers.  OK, not all of them are wonderful, but an extraordinarily high percent of our customers range from good people to amazing/fascinating/totally cool.  They are willing to invest money in healthy eating.  They tend – more than the average bear – to take personal responsibility for their lives, to be progressive and creative and out of the box, to be into personal and spiritual growth.

Great customers and great kids, well parented - it's a real perk of this job to get to be around such beauty and wonderful energy.

Great customers and great kids, well parented – it’s a real perk of this job to get to be around such beauty and wonderful energy.

And they like each other.  They run into friends, hug, erupt in high spirits – and have great conversations with people they have just met in the checkout line.  One day, as two friends were excitedly rediscovering each other in my line, I said, “Wow, you two are really having fun!”  One of them said, “If you can’t have fun at <this store>, where can you have fun?”  That was a great little moment and for me captured some of the vibe of this place.

One of my customers occupied himself while waiting for his turn by decorating his bag of flour with his kiwis. It was an absolute delight to turn and be greeted with this bouquet. This stuff goes on all the time around here.

One of my customers occupied himself while waiting for his turn by decorating his bag of flour with his kiwis. It was an absolute delight to turn and be greeted with this bouquet. This stuff goes on all the time around here.

I have somewhere (I really hope I find it again) a little button that came down from the corporate office (marketing, it must have been) that says, “Keep <my store> weird.”  This wonderful little play on one of Asheville’s favorite mantras, “Keep Asheville weird”, again captured some of what makes our store special for me.  Our store is kind of weird.  Staff are eccentric, creative, out of the box – lots of artists, musicians, writers and generally creative souls.  People with whom you can have really cool conversations.  Our customers likewise are really interesting.  And this button came from corporate!  How cool is that?!

The produce people take a lot of pride in what they sell.  I was talking with Kristie about this blog, then asked her "What's your art form?" - pretty confident that I would hear something interesting.  "She didn't miss a beat: I crochet hats and scarves - and I make custom-designed hula-hoops." Later that day, I ordered hats and scarves for me and my best buddy Monty - and one hula hoop for me and one for a Christmas gift.  A few days later, I realized that I had been manic when I committed to all that expense - and reneged on the hula hoops.  Kristie understood - and is excited about the hats and scarves.

The produce people take a lot of pride in what they sell. I was talking with Kristie about this blog, then asked her “What’s your art form?” – pretty confident that I would hear something interesting. “She didn’t miss a beat: I crochet hats and scarves – and I make custom-designed hula-hoops.” Later that day, I ordered hats and scarves for me and my best buddy Monty – and one hula hoop for me and one for a Christmas gift. A few days later, I realized that I had been manic when I committed to all that expense – and reneged on the hula hoops. Kristie understood – and is excited about the hats and scarves.

I could go on about all this more than is strategic for a blog post – and may (probably) weave more of this stuff into future posts.  But I want first to mention one final aspect of – for me – my store’s coolness, and that is the support I’m getting for this blog.  This is not a corporate blog: it’s a little eccentric, left of center.  It’s by and about a guy who is very out about being bipolar – and frequently writes about it.

And my boss really loves it!  She told me to put something about it in our front end logbook (done – and people are reading the post I put in there).  She told me to put something by the time clock, where all staff can see it. (I will put something up there.)  She encouraged me to talk to customers about it.  I think that honestly is a strategic move, because this blog can support a customer’s relationship to the store – but I worried that I might get in trouble for this.  And here my boss is encouraging me to do it! Very cool.

So cool store, cool merchandise, cool staff, cool customers – and I honestly think this blog is supporting this community that embraces all that.