That’s why we’re here…

I had just had a brief exchange with a coworker who recently experienced a terrible loss.  The exchange itself had not been particularly deep – she was showing me a meditation passage on loss that was meaning a lot to her.  But then every exchange with her on this topic is feeling very deep – and this little conversation gave me goosebumps.

Then I had to pull away to wait on  a customer.  I initiated my usual exchange with “What’s been a highlight of your day?”  I honestly don’t remember Jill’s reply, but when she asked the question back of me, I related what had just gone on with “a coworker”.  I ended by saying “It gave me goosebumps…and now, telling you about it, I’ve got goosebumps again.  I’m really feeling it – and feeling so deeply is a highlight for me.”

Jill said “That’s what we’re here for, is to feel things.  We’re not here to be up in the clouds.”  This felt right on the money, and I felt very seen.

When I googled for photos of feelings, I kept getting things about love.  A Course in Miracles says there are two basic feelings, love and fear.  When we are in fear, we may get so frozen that it's hard to keep feeling and hard to communicate, but maybe there is the chance for big healing if we open our heart to our fear.

When I googled for photos of feelings, I kept getting things about love. A Course in Miracles says there are two basic feelings, love and fear. When we are in fear, we may get so frozen that it’s hard to keep feeling and hard to communicate, but maybe there is the chance for big healing if we open our heart to our fear.

Bipolar disorder can facilitate the feeling of feelings – and can impede it.  When I’m a little bit speedy, I tend to feel things intensely, I am touched by the feelings and situations of others and am moved easily to tears.  I can also be deeply touched by joy or beauty or love.  Similarly, when I am just a little bit depressed, I can feel things strongly – especially sadness or loss or pain.

When I get too speedy, I get way up in my head and don’t feel my feelings – except for anger, which comes more easily.  When I am too depressed, I also get into my head – ruminating over what I have done wrong or how screwed up everything is.  I get frozen as a defense against the pain.

Moving towards other people can be an antidote to the isolation of mania or depression – or of human life in general.  This includes really showing up when a coworker is sharing her pain, even when the content is a little heady,  It includes  being grateful for feeling feelings, even feelings that include a sense of vulnerability.  It includes opening up to  the comments of customers – to let them be teachers to me.

Advertisements

A missed opportunity

Bertha at Charter Communications – the cable company – missed a chance today to give me a good feeling about their company.  I was returning Monty’s computer router.  Whe she asked why I was returning it, I said that he had died.  That was the moment where she could have reached out for some genuine human contact – just a sincere “I’m sorry.”  I like to think that I do that consistently, even if someone is referring to their loved one passing a long time ago.  It pretty much always seems to create that human touch. But Bertha stayed buried in her computer screen, typing away.

It could have been a customer service slam dunk - anything like a human response has me leaving their office feeling better about the company.

It could have been a customer service slam dunk – anything like a human response has me leaving their office feeling better about the company.

I have heard a lot of criticisms of Charter.  This was a chance for Bertha, in this one instance, to soften that impression. Now why did Bertha not respond with human touch, in a situation where that would be so natural and appropriate – and where there was no apparent time pressure (no one behind me)?

  • She may actually be under some time pressure – lots of these computers can time a call – or, I’m sure, a face-to-face encounter.  I had a job as a call center operator where my supervisor consistently said, “You’re great with the customers – tops – but you’ve got to speed up your calls.”
  • She may have recently been told by a supervisor that she’s too chatty with customers, that she should keep it more to business.  This also happened to me on another job.
  • She may be having a migraine that is making it hard for her to even stand up.
  • She may have lost a loved one lately – or is on the verge of losing one – and my mention of a deceased loved one really triggered her.

I could go on and on – there are so many reasons that a customer server could be unresponsive to us.  And so many ways this could be helped.  It’s a truism that customer support people tend to treat customers as they themselves are treated. Give them respect and compassion and they tend to give it to their customers.  That’s not the whole story – there are some bad apples out there – but it’s a good place to start.  Helping your managers and supervisors treat others with more respect and compassion has got to be a win all around.

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”.

 

 

“I’m happy to hear that you are happy…”

“…because life is short.”  And she so clearly meant it – even though she struck me as too young to really get this concept.  I had asked her how she was – and when she asked the question back of me I replied that I was happy.  I surprised myself.  I knew I was a little manic and feeling good.  I knew that I was also grieving the death of my best friend just five days earlier.  Happy – interesting.

This girl made such breathtaking contact with a stranger.  Was she stretching her comfort zone - maybe because I was encouraging it?  Or was she just comfortable with this amazing level of openness?

This girl made such breathtaking contact with a stranger. Was she stretching her comfort zone – maybe because I was encouraging it? Or was she just comfortable with this amazing level of openness?

How old was she?  26?  Who am I to be deciding what kind of wisdom people are or are not capable of? She had a radiant, benevolent demeanor.  She was physically beautiful, but even more she was personally beautiful.  When she smiled at me, I felt really seen – she showed up with a lot of power, like there were no layers of self-protection.  She was poised and grounded, but also willing and able to really extend to the other, to connect.  I lit up because she was so lit up.  We have lots of cool customers, but some of them really take your breath away.

I was totally fascinated by who she was and how she got to be this way.  I think that young people feel that life will go on forever, unless they have had tragic death around them.  (My son had several suicides and car accidents in his circle when he was around 20 years old.)  I asked her, “How did you come to understand all this?” She said she worked on the farm her family leases, that she has two kids and a husband and some extended family around.  That she was from Mexico.  “I learned this from my mother – she told us that life is short.”  I think she said that she had not had deaths around – just that she got the concept.

I knew the truth that life is short because my best friend died last Saturday.  He actually had a good long life at age 86, but when his end came, it came so breathtakingly fast.  The ER doctor on Thursday said he had ten weeks left (dramatically shorter than the previous most pessimistic prognosis of one year, with his prostate cancer spread to his bones and his liver) – and then he lasted about 36 hours.  When the hospice nurse called me at 5:15 a.m. on Saturday, I knew immediately what the call must be.  She apologized, “We usually try to call in time for family and friends to come in before the patient passes on, but he skipped some steps.”  It’s a truism that it was merciful for him: he was in a lot of pain and his proud independence would have suffered even more from becoming incapable to take care of himself.  It just wasn’t the right timing for us. (His son was en route from Ontario.)

Monty was a devout atheist until the end.  I wonder if he got any surprises.

Monty was a devout atheist until the end. I wonder if he got any surprises.

I felt so connected with Elena that I broached the topic that I was mostly reserving for coworkers – I told her about Monty’s passing.  Her immediate compassionate response touched my heart.  I have been in and out of being able to genuinely feel around this, but looking at the sweetness of her face and the love in her eyes, I was able to feel.  What a gift to give someone – to help them feel.  I’ve got a hunch that Elena helps the people around her feel the gamut of feelings.  I really do want to only want to be me, but part of me wishes I had grown up in her family. I always wanted a sister.

 Elena – I told you I was going to write this, and you said I could use your name.  Did I get it right?  What would you change or add?  Thanks for coming through my line.

My best buddy Monty (RIP 1/10/15)

Monty was an individual - his gift was being true to himself.

Monty was an individual – his gift was being true to himself.

Monty (Montague Sam) Berman has been my best buddy for 35 years, but we have not lived near each other for 30 years – until last June, when he moved here to Asheville after living in the same house in Ithaca for 15 years.  Moved here at age 85 (I’m 68, but Monty thrives on close connections with younger people), knowing no one but me.  Came here hoping that he would somehow get more opportunities to teach than he was getting in Ithaca – and that maybe we would get a chance once again to teach or lead workshops together.

Monty could be very difficult at times - and could also be full of joy.  He pissed me off more than anyone else in my life - and there were other times that we totally, completely got each other's sense of humor.

Monty could be very difficult at times – and could also be full of joy. He pissed me off more than anyone else in my life – and there were other times that we totally, completely got each other’s sense of humor.

 

Monty and I led men’s groups together 30 years ago, before they became so popular.  He loves to tell the story of the one group where he played the good cop and me the “shit detector”, who would call men on their shit when they weren’t being really honest.  That’s a lot different from how I had facilitated before – or ever again did after that group.  And maybe the last time this irascible and challenging character Monty ever played the good cop in a personal growth group – maybe that’s why it was so much fun for both of us, because we were each going way outside of our usual personas.

Monty was incredibly smart - and largely self-taught.  He was in many ways a kind of personal growth guru - but he seldom ever set foot in a personal growth workshop.  He would read Fritz Perls and others, but mostly  he wanted the insights to come out of himself.  Even if something originated with John Welwood, he wanted to chew on it until it became his own.

Monty was incredibly smart – and largely self-taught. He was in many ways a kind of personal growth guru – but he seldom ever set foot in a personal growth workshop. He would read Fritz Perls and others, but mostly he wanted the insights to come out of himself. Even if something originated with John Welwood, he wanted to chew on it until it became his own.

When a new doctor asked Monty yesterday what brought him to Asheville, he said “My best buddy John”. (I’m still John to all my pre-Asheville friends.)  Maybe he moved here so I can help him die.  I have thought that thought several times since Monty’s lab studies and MRI’s over the last few months have showed his long-time prostate cancer to now be wildly out of control – moved probably to his bones, definitely to his liver.  The most recent prognoses have ranged from 1 – 1 1/2 years (his primary doc) to 4-5 years (his oncologist, who is very impressed by the new drug he put Monty on).  The new doc that Monty was talking to yesterday was the ER doc at the VA Hospital, who examined him, listened to his symptoms (a ferocious new pain in his side, which she thinks is bone cancer), went through all his records – and told him he may have just weeks to live.

Monty challenged me more than anybody else in my life - and sometimes quite harshly.  And nobody has ever admired me more.  Our relationship was sometimes a battle, but a battle between equals.

Monty challenged me more than anybody else in my life – and sometimes quite harshly. And nobody has ever admired me more. Our relationship was sometimes a battle, but a battle between equals.

 

She referred him to the VA hospice unit, with a promise that if he gets stronger he can go back to his apartment (or maybe better an assisted living apartment).  Monty and I have a tentative date to run a workshop at Jubilee in February: “The Case for God”.  Led by Monty (a devout atheist) and me (a non-theistic mystic), I think it will be hot.  Let’s all picture him being strong enough for it.

Monty adding his own vision to the "Before I die" wall on Biltmore Avenue - photo taken August 22nd.  Monty said that he didn't like some things about himself - like how judgmental he was of others - but that he never got down on himself for it, never felt bad about himself, never felt guilty.  I don't know how he pulled this off - I couldn't - but I believe he did.  When he walked through that final door, I'm sure he did it with no regrets.

Monty adding his own vision to the “Before I die” wall on Biltmore Avenue – photo taken August 22nd. Monty said that he didn’t like some things about himself – like how judgmental he was of others – but that he never got down on himself for it, never felt bad about himself, never felt guilty. I don’t know how he pulled this off – I couldn’t – but I believe he did. When he walked through that final door, I’m sure he did it with no regrets.

I wrote this post Friday afternoon, but didn’t have any of my Monty photos in the laptop I was using so didn’t post it.  Monty died Saturday morning at 5 a.m. All photos courtesy of Maureen Simon, who very quickly brought forward and captured so much of Monty’s spirit and depth and aliveness – and who I think kind of fell in love with him, which was maybe why he let himself shine for her. 

An angel made me do it

Lucy was about 5’4″, slender, brunette, very cute – and apparently, in the state I was in, ageless.  I had just had a string of enchanted interactions with customers (1/7, 1/9).  I wasn’t thinking of her as the 54 years old that her driver’s license would reveal her to be.  So I carded her for the bottle of wine she was buying.  I am a lot more conservative about carding than most of my colleagues.  From my 68 years a lot of people look younger than they do to my 20-something colleagues.  When I was trained for this job, I was told that if someone looks under 50 we should card them.  And I know from experience that older women generally like being carded – but that’s never why I do it, it’s always because I genuinely think they look young.

Maybe an angel made me do it.  Lucy thought so.  She was obviously excited and touched.  “You’re an angel to card me.  A ways back I passed a marker where I thought, ‘Will no one ever card me again?’ This is the highlight of my month!” (“Wow, her month!”  Her excitement lit me up.)

OK, it's a macho angel - but hey, I can visualize what kind of angel I'd like to be.

OK, it’s a macho angel – but hey, I can visualize what kind of angel I’d like to be.

When Lucy left my line, I was excited by the possibility of offering a customer exactly what they need in that moment to heal an inner wound.  Obviously we can’t really know what that would be, but what’s the harm in trying?  The next guy up in my line was significantly short for a guy – maybe 5’5″ or so.  Does he have any issues with being short?  How could I possibly know?  But if seeing Lucy as young had such a positive effect on her, then why not see this guy as tall?  So I did.  I didn’t look up over his head, but I just pretended I was dealing with a tall man.  Why not?  Did it have any positive impact on him?  I’ll never know, but I’m sure it did him no harm – and it had a positive impact on me.  I gave him more respect than I might otherwise have.  I have a woman customer who has suffered terrible burns over her face and I practice seeing her as beautiful – and I trust that this is a good and useful thing to do.  Why not see this guy as tall?

Why not imagine qualities where there is no physical cue for what the person might be needing?  Why not smart? Brave? Loving?  I could just trust my intuition to pop up a quality that is useful for that person.  Why not?  It’s more fun than just swiping groceries.  I’m going to play around with it.

Our “Real life” community

Friends –

I am more and more thinking of the group of us who participate in this blog – in whatever ways we do so – as a community.  We may participate in different ways. Some of you read an occasional post; some of you gobble up each new day’s post; some of you see me in my actual checkout line, and maybe comment on that morning’s post and/or maybe become material for the next day’s post – by giving me a hat (my now trademark, hand-knitted by Caryl red hat)

I had been getting to know Caryl and her husband Brian in the checkout line. One day I told them of my shopping plans to find some furniture for my buddy Monty's new apartment.  They recommended a retail store called The Screen Door. They said the best day to go is Thursday - the next day, the day we were planning to go shopping.  We went and scored big - mostly furnished his place, at good prices.  They came in while we were there, which was big fun - they got to meet him, got to see some of his treasures.  The next time I saw Caryl in the checkout line I was admiring her hat.  When she told me she made it, I told her how much I needed a cool hat and that I wanted to buy one.  She demurred: "I don't sell them - I just make them for friends." As she was getting ready to leave, I once more made my pitch: "I want to buy one of your hats."  She paused just a moment and then took it off her head and gave it to me, with a big shit-eating grin.  Her beautiful, spontaneous, generous gesture made her as happy as it did me.  And she gave me the beautiful matching fingerless gloves, which came in really handy at the cash register yesterday.  This is what community looks like to me.  Head warm, hands warm, heart warm

I had been getting to know Caryl and her husband Brian in the checkout line. One day I told them of my shopping plans to find some furniture for my buddy Monty’s new apartment. They recommended a retail store called The Screen Door. They said the best day to go is Thursday – the next day, the day we were planning to go shopping. We went and scored big – mostly furnished his place, at good prices. They came in while we were there, which was big fun – they got to meet him, got to see some of his treasures. The next time I saw Caryl in the checkout line I was admiring her hat. When she told me she made it, I told her how much I needed a cool hat and that I wanted to buy one. She demurred: “I don’t sell them – I just make them for friends.” As she was getting ready to leave, I once more made my pitch: “I want to buy one of your hats.” She paused just a moment and then took it off her head and gave it to me, with a big shit-eating grin. Her beautiful, spontaneous, generous gesture made her as happy as it did me. And she gave me the beautiful matching fingerless gloves, which came in really handy at the cash register yesterday. This is what community looks like to me.
Head warm, hands warm, heart warm

or offering me chocolate or a hug, etc. Some of you participate by adding comments, which I treasure and work hard to reply to in a timely fashion.  Some of you may come to the mental health recovery presentation with me next Friday (which I promoted in yesterday’s post) – and maybe come out to lunch with me after, which would be a real gas.

I have other communities: the Jubilee Spiritual Community here in Asheville, the Asheville Movement Collective dance community, my Magnetic Minds depression and bipolar support group (and community – we socialize with each other, beyond simply attending meetings).  I see the staff in our store as a community – and our customers with us as a bigger community.

But the community of this blog – which overlaps with all these other communities – is really close to my heart.  You all are really close to my heart.  My writer is a really important part of who I am, so to have so many people reading and participating in this blog is kind of thrilling for me.  I have frequently, since I left the corporate world behind about ten years ago (organization development – at its best I loved the work, but at its worst it really burned me out), said that I have become the working class hero I was always meant to be.  I identify with my brother and sister cashiers and all front-line customer servers: fast food workers, restaurant servers, retail sales associates, cab drivers, call center agents – I’ve done all of these in the last few years but fast food).  I have a vision of this blog reaching more people, giving lots of non-cashiers an insider glimpse of what our work lives are like for us, and being a positive influence in the lives of other cashiers/servers, influencing the people who manage us, etc.   I’m talking with my internet marketing guru friend Jason Spencer about how to do this.

Big dreams, but a very big current reality!  You are my community – you are my people.  I hope that you will more and more feel yourself a part of this community.  Leaving comments helps.  Emailing me or talking to me in the checkout line helps.  (My regular hours are 10-6 W/Th/Sat, but you can check with me in advance if I am going to be there by emailing me at heymajo@gmail.com.)  If you think of anything I could do or something I could write about that would build the sense of community for you, please leave a comment or send me an email.

Power to the people!