Making art

Yesterday I wrote how I struggled through to affirm the value of the positive experiences I was having at the cash register, even though they didn’t lift the punishing biochemical depression that had me in its grips.

But there was another dynamic at work.  On and off throughout the day – and especially towards the end of the day – as I was having these positive experiences and these miserable experiences, in my head I was writing about them…planning to write this post.  During my afternoon ten-minute break I wrote (dictated, actually, into the voice recorder in my phone) about them as fast as I possibly could.

So for much of the day I was operating on two tracks: on the level of my immediate physical/emotional/mental experience, I was having moments of release followed by the return of crushing contraction – but on another level, I was detached from all that…was observing it.  The writer in me was observing – was creating a state of mindfulness, where I was not caught in my experience but could stand outside of it and notice it.  And mindfulness is liberating – to the extent it was operating, part of me was free from the suffering that was still going on.

Once again I celebrate my old meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught me lots more than I understand about mindfulness.

Once again I celebrate my old meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught me lots more than I understand about mindfulness.

So writing can trigger mindfulness and that can be freeing.  There was one other way that writing this post in my head was freeing.  Writing is a major identity for me – it feels like a big part of my mission in this world.  And right now writing this blog – writing about my job, about customer service, about bipolar disorder – is at the heart of that mission for me.  So even while my biochemical/emotional/mental suffering continued unabated, part of me was happy – was doing a little dance.  “I’m writing.  I feared that this depression would keep me from writing, but it’s happening.  I may hurt like hell all day, but I’m going to come out of it with a pretty interesting blog post.  I may end the day as fully in the grips of biochemical contraction as I started, but – regardless of how late it may be (and I do have a meeting tonight), before I go to bed I am going to write.  Depression can’t take that away from me.”

And now, at 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday that’s exactly what I’ve done.  I wrote Thursday’s post and this post to go up on Friday – and I feel good about both of them.  My body feels like crap, but my spirits are good.  I may feel lousy all over again tomorrow.  I don’t want to program myself to feel bad, but lots of hard experience tells me that this is likely.  But I have written.  I have found meaning in my experience.  I have created something that could possibly be helpful to somebody else.  I have transcended my pain.  I have made art.

“I like your hat!”

I haven’t known Caryl and Brian long, but there has been a nice chemistry between us.  I think they already knew me from coming through my line, but the first time I really registered (ha-ha) who they were we got to talking about resale shops.  I don’t know what was the connection that opened this up, but I told them that I was going to take my buddy Monty shopping for stuff he needed for his new apartment.  They immediately and enthusiastically recommended a resale shop that benefited the local CarePartners Hospice.  They said it had great merchandise at good prices, and for a wonderful cause – and recommended that I go on Thursday, the day that new merchandise usually hit the floor. That was perfect, because the next day was Thursday and I was off – and was already intending for me and Monty to go shopping.

The positive connection with Caryl and Brian continued the next day when Monty totally hit it at the resale shop, finding almost everything he needed – at good prices.  He especially loved the white sofa he got.  I actually preferred the larger faux-leather grey one he had considered, but decided against.  (Once he got the white one in his apartment it was clear that the grey one would have been too big.)  I was especially enthused by the tan dresser he got – a beautiful piece of furniture, not cheap but very reasonable.

That positive connection was boosted even more when, as Monty was paying for his treasures, Caryl and Brian came through the door.  They weren’t looking for anything in particular, just liked this place and enjoyed shopping together (I think they just enjoy being together period).  It was an awful lot of fun seeing them – and they seemed very gratified that their tip had worked out so well for us.

This fun connection continued a few days later when they again came through my line (I think they’re gonna use my line now even if it’s longer than some others), when we found out that we had all lived in Syracuse at the same time (I think that’s where they met) and had all worked for the federal government, though me in a different branch and in Chicago (I’m pretty sure that’s how they met).

Yesterday Caryl (no Brian – I think it’s the first time I’ve seen her without him) came through my line.  I like to compliment people on an item of clothing they are wearing, but only if it’s genuine – if I really like it.  But it was easy to get enthusiastic about the really interesting red hand-knitted hat she was wearing.  “Wow, I am so much looking for a cool hat like that – I am completely sick of the boring, generic old ski hat that I’ve worn for too many years.  Where did you get it?”  “I made it.”  “Wow, you can make stuff like that!?  How much of it do you do?”  “Oh, fairly much.”  (My reading was that she was a little shy over how much of a fuss I was making, but that she also knew I was sincere and was kind of liking it.  I do like to make up stories about what’s going on inside the other person’s head – a hazard, I guess, of working as a psychologist for 20 years.)  “Do you ever sell them?”  “Mostly no – I just make them as gifts for friends.”  “Wow, well it’s amazing.”

We chit-chatted through the rest of her relatively long transaction.  (I love it when somebody I like has a lot of groceries, so we can really visit.)  When all her groceries were bundled up, her credit card had gone through and Caryl was about to leave, I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “I want to buy one of your hats.”  She seemed to ground herself intentionally and did something that I think she had been working up to: she took off the hat and handed it to me.  “Here, I want you to have it.”

I was so completely blown away that I don’t really know what I said next.  I think I stammered something like, “You can’t do that – it’s your hat.”  I’m pretty sure I said, “I wasn’t fishing for that.”  “I know – I think it will look great on you.”  And a look of pure happiness washed over her face, which told me that what was going on was absolutely right and that I could relax into the moment and receive.  And then I got really happy.  I pulled the hat on my head and she immediately said, “It really does look great on you.” And I believed her.  Then she pulled out of her pocket two matching fingerless gloves – with the same intricate ribbed pattern as the hat.  Fingerless gloves are perfect for cashiering, where our hands do get cold from the front doors continually opening, but we need to have our fingers free for running the cash register – and I didn’t have any.

 Head warm, hands warm, heart warm

Head warm, hands warm, heart warm

This radiant exchange stayed with me all day – and I was genuinely thrilled with my gifts.  As I told and retold the story over the course of the day, one thing moved more and more into center stage: for as happy as it made me to receive this gift – and the spontaneous generosity of it did definitely blow me away – it really seemed that giving the gift had made Caryl even happier.  And I felt that I was understanding giving, in my gut not my head, a little deeper than ever before.

“I could use a blessing right now.”

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

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

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

“Just a low-key time at home.”

“Oh, by yourself or with friends?”

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

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


“Just by myself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have any rituals?”

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

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

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


Julie brightened right up.

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

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

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

Blessing our food

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for being unfriendly.”

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

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

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

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

“Don’t be sure…”

Mostly this blog will be about my work at the grocery store, but some other incidents just beg to be written about.

Ecstatic dancers celebrating their feet

Ecstatic dancers celebrating their feet

I do ecstatic dancing every Sunday morning.  We hang our coats and miscellaneous items on coat racks outside of the dance hall.  There are volunteers positioned right next to the coat racks, it’s a real honest group of people – and mostly we all feel fine leaving pretty much anything out there.  I routinely leave my watch, phone, wallet hanging in my street pants or coat pockets.  This morning I was wearing a shoulder bag (“man bag”) and had all those things in it.  I hung it from the same coat hanger as my coat.

When I got out to the car, I realized that I had taken my coat but left the bag behind.  I schlepped the half-block back to the Masonic Temple, where the dances are held, and methodically looked at all the coat hangers from several in front of where mine would have been to several behind.  No bag.  I had finished the dance in a great mood – and this good mood was mostly sticking with me, in spite of some frustration and just a little bit of anxiety about where was my bag.  I patiently looked on the floor under the coat rack – and in a couple of other spots where it didn’t make sense that I would have taken it, like where I put my shoes on.  No luck.  I must have taken it out to the car.

Another trip back out to the car and it definitely wasn’t there – so back to the Masonic Temple.  Nobody ever steals things in this group – but there was that time, three years ago, when Michael’s wallet and iPhone were stolen.  I’m getting a little more anxious.  This time as I come through the door, my volunteer friends at the welcome table start to tease me about all the back and forth.  I confide my predicament to them – and my building frustration and anxiety.  Sweet Leslie, a pretty, slender blonde woman in her 5o’s (very interesting person, terrific dancer) says “Show me where you had it.”  I follow her over to the coat rack, saying “I looked all through there – looked under all the hanging coats, everywhere.”  “Yeah, but basically where was it.”  And in less than 30 seconds she finds it – hanging from one of the empty hangers, where I felt sure I would see it if it was there.

I used to study meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh, an extremely holy teacher of Zen Buddhism – who is right now apparently dying.  He is on my mind.  Thay (“teacher” – what his students call him) used to entreat us not to be sure about things.  “Which way is up?”, he once asked us.  When we all pointed up (as we understood it), he said “Our friends in China would not agree.”

ThichNhat Hanh with Martin Luther King

ThichNhat Hanh with Martin Luther King

I was sure that my bag was no longer hanging on the coat rack.  How can my life be different if I don’t go around being sure of things?  How might this soften my rigidities, leave me open to more possibilities – easier to deal with, to live with.  Easier to be with for myself.  Thay, thanks.  I’m sure I love you.  I’m sure that you are an amazing man.  I think you are our greatest living spiritual teacher, though I guess I can’t be sure about that.  It feels to me like this world will be a more empty, sadder place with you gone – but I’m pretty sure you would encourage me to not be so sure about that.