You risk, I risk….

May was a slender attractive brunette, around 5’6″, maybe 35 years old.  She responded to my “What’s been a highlight of your day?” question in several steps of progressively greater openness – startling to me and maybe even to her.  “I had a really good hypnosis session….We’re working on fear….I’m a cancer survivor and lots of little symptoms bring up fear.”

My response was in its own way a little startling to me.  “Are you familiar with A Course in Miracles?”  Now why did I bring that up?  I’m sure not getting paid to promote far-out, channeled, New Age metaphysical programs.  I do know why I brought it up – because in my life A Course in Miracles has been a very powerful lever for working with fear.  But it still feels like a risk to be recommending it to a customer, maybe especially a customer who is at such a vulnerable point in her life.

May’s next response was also surprising.  She got positively electrified (I get goose bumps recalling it): “Yes – love is letting go of fear!  My hypnotherapist was telling me about it today!  This is total affirmation that it can be good for me.”

A Course in Miracles is a dense metaphysical system paired with a very concrete workbook with 365 daily lessons that tend to turn your daily reality upside down.  I spent 3 years making my way through the lessons, then turned around and spent another 4 years doing it again.  My life has been forever changed by it.  Jampolsky's book is a great introduction.

A Course in Miracles is a dense metaphysical system paired with a very concrete workbook with 365 daily lessons that tend to turn your daily reality upside down. I spent 3 years making my way through the lessons, then turned around and spent another 4 years doing it again. My life has been forever changed by it. Jampolsky’s book is a great introduction.

After May left, I had no mixed feelings about having recommended A Course in Miracles. I’m a big believer in synchronicity and felt as convinced as her that her hypnotherapist and I both recommending it within a few hours of each other indicated it could be good for her.

What did all this teach me about taking risks with customers?  Sometimes I’m the first one to risk – to offer something personal or unusual.  Today May disclosed first.  But is it really so easy to know who opens first?  Did May know from the way I asked my question that I was a safe person to open up with?  I don’t ask the question to everyone – did I pick up something from her that indicated that asking her the question would go someplace?  Was I in a more trusting place because of the enchanted interaction that I had had just an hour earlier? (“I’m vertical…”, 1/7) Why did she end up in my line?  Why shortly after this hypnosis session?

Sometimes it makes sense to think in terms of taking risks.  I want to develop my sense for which risks are worth taking and which are perhaps too risky – and to recognize when my customer has taken a risk, has made themselves vulnerable, and needs to be supported.  Yet it also seems equally valid to hold that we are always totally supported – and that love means to recognize this, to trust it, to surrender to it.  And as we do this we progressively let go of fear.  I learned that from A Course in Miracles.

“You’re fine” – soothing the apologetic customer

“You’re fine.” – the reassuring response to someone who has just apologized for bumping into you or for getting in your way.  Or – in the grocery store line – for entering their frequent shopper number incorrectly, for not noticing if their cucumber was organic or conventional, for forgetting their bags in the car, for running out of money and needing to take a couple items out of their order.

“You’re fine.”  I’m not sure it’s a southern expression, but I sure don’t remember it from up north.  I love it.  Not just “Never mind” or “Forget about it”, but “You’re fine”.  It’s a real affirmation. And at a perfect moment: the person is feeling apologetic – they could use some affirmation.  Our last post dealt with mistakes we ourselves make – here we deal with the other person’s “mistake”.

We cashiers often have the opportunity to make a difference in our customer’s day – by providing a genuine moment of contact, an acknowledgement of that person’s uniqueness.  But there is no more juicy moment than when the customer presents some apology.

Even a little bit of apology throws us into that "something-wrong-with-me" energy.

Even a little bit of apology throws us into that “something-wrong-with-me” energy.

We won’t, in one exchange, heal a customer from the tendency to apologize for themselves, but a well-timed “You’re fine” can help.

Or well-phrased:

  • for entering their frequent shopper number wrong, maybe “That machine is very confusing”
  • for not noticing the cucumber, “It’s our job to get labels on them”
  • forgetting their bags in the car, “100 people a day do that”
  • for running out of money, “I imagine this is very stressful, but trust me it happens to a lot of people.”

This person has just made themselves very vulnerable. Let’s put all our personal energy into the words we say, the eye contact we offer, and the feelings we put behind the words.  Let’s wish for that person’s total healing.  It’s maybe a little encounter – but if it can make even a little bit of difference in how much a person apologizes for themselves, how awesome is that?


When we have to wait – tonglen practice

In her best-selling book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron teaches the Tibetan Buddhist technique of tonglen.  The heart of the technique is to move from the ego – our own limited suffering – to connect with others who are suffering in similar ways.  It’s pretty challenging, deep practice, but can be very liberating – and can be practiced in a grocery store checkout line, or anywhere that we are waiting, or anywhere.

The source of much of our pain is isolation - being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience.  Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

The source of much of our pain is isolation – being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience. Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

Let’s say you are waiting in the grocery checkout out line.  You start by turning typical new age practice upside-down: instead of “breathe in the good stuff, breathe out the bad”, you open your heart and you breathe in any distress or pain you are experiencing.  And for a Buddhist, to the extent that you are not in touch with your inherent goodness and the goodness of creation, you are suffering.  So any impatience, discomfort, irritation, any judging of the situation, any separation from your natural state of oneness with all of life – breathe that all in and pay good attention to it.  Then breathe out a wish for your own healing – that you return to the experience of peace and oneness.

After spending some time on your own healing, you expand your gaze to focus on others who are experiencing similar distress.  When you inhale, along with your own pain, breathe in the waiting-in-line pain of the others waiting in your line – or if your line is very small, those in the line(s) next to you.  Feel the pain that all of you are holding about waiting in line, then breathe out a wish for healing for all of you.

Continue this practice in progressively widening waves.  Open your heart to:

  • all those who are waiting in line in this store
  • all those who are waiting in any store in this town
  • all those who are waiting in a store anywhere
  • those who are waiting for organ transplants or to get out of jail or prison, those who are waiting for loved ones to come out of surgery, etc.
We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. - all our people, all our suffering.

We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. – all our people, all our suffering.

We end the practice by blessing ourselves and all those we have included in our focus – all brothers and sisters of ours.  We offer gratitude to those who have developed and offered this practice.  See if it has shifted your experience of waiting in this line.  Let me know what you find.

A grocery store holiday greeting

(This post only started to formulate itself today – and kept bubbling up in me on and off all day.  Many or most of you may not see it until after Christmas, but my holiday wishes will still pertain.)

My standard greeting to people today was “Happy holidays”.  Besides my Jewish friends and customers, there’s Kwanzaa – and one lovely young woman in my line today said that when people wish her a Merry Christmas, she sometimes says, “I’m pagan and I celebrate the solstice.”  But when people wish me a Merry Christmas, I say it back: it’s my heritage and it is a day to celebrate Christ.  Whether or not you consider him the Messiah, he – along with others like the Buddha, Mohammed and others – certainly deserves to be celebrated.

Early in my 10-6 shift today, I got kind of obsessed with what was I really trying to communicate when I said, “Happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas”.  I realized that it’s different here at the grocery store, dealing with my customers, than it is in other parts of my life.  Here’s what I came up with.

“May the groceries I am selling you nurture you, be beautiful and delicious, and make you happy.

"May the food I am selling you nurture you...."

“May the food I am selling you nurture you….”

“May you get it that I care about you and like serving you.

“May you experience all of our staff as dedicated to your health and well-being – and that serving you is something we really like to do.”

“May the whole congregation that is our store feel to you like a community of like-minded souls...."

“May the whole congregation that is our store feel to you like a community of like-minded souls….”

“May the whole community that is our store feel to you like a community of like-minded souls, where people who care about their health. take personal responsibility for it and are willing to invest money in it come together – as a place where you meet old friends and have positive connections with new people you meet in the store, often in the checkout line.

“May all who gather around this food – at your table or someone else’s – thrive on this food and the good company,  If you will be spending a quiet day at home, may that be peaceful and fulfilling for you.

“May you have a wonderful new year, may our store be part of it, may I get to serve you again – and maybe even get to know you more, which would please me a lot.  Who knows, maybe this blog will increase your sense of connection with me, our staff, our store and your fellow customers.

“Happy holidays.”

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.

Just that time of year…

My Christmas poem.

Really kind of long – and dark in places, like the season.  But worth it, I think.  Set aside maybe 5-10 minutes or more (it’s most satisfying consumed in one sitting), get yourself in a comfortable chair with a good cup of coffee or tea or a glass of wine – and maybe with a journal and pen.  My journey is not your journey, but perhaps in places they may touch.  I wish you love and hope at this dark – for some of us at times very difficult, but really still pretty special – time of year.

winter dark 4


Just that time of year…  (Majo, 12/15/14)

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

In my own so-limited human life
What sign is there of positive change?
My biochemistry maintains as cruel a reign
Over my desperate moods
As does the Islamic State over
Its desolate segment of humanity
Oh, I’ll give you that
I have not now been suicidal for five years
No more trips to the hospital – or even close
Housing – with Tom and Will for two years
And with Lotus Lodge newly now
Has been a good part of my life
OK, actually very good
After some extended tsuris before that
Alright, I can’t deny that work has been good
A really good year at my new job
With no end in sight

winter dark 2

OK, I will not deny that
There are some good things
OK, very good things
In my life
But what about my moods?
My moods!
Ten days up, fourteen down
Pretty predictably these days
Now is that fair!?
The steady repetition of the cycles
Is so discouraging
The ups slightly to more-than-slightly
Out of control
If also predictably a lot of fun
But the downs, the downs
So painful, so disheartening
So much self-hate
So much of everything looking ugly and wrong

I had my one big shot at a shift
October 18-25
Eight days of training in
Brainwave Optimization
I put a lot of eggs in that basket
My Chicago friends Sally and Mary Ellen
Who knew a lot about it
And who deeply love and support me
Had very high hopes that it would help
Gave me financial support
To make it happen
My friends Byron and Nancy
Took this traveler in
For ten days in my home Chicago
I got to see my beloved brother Terry
Three times on this visit
Instead of one on my last week-long visit
Just back in May
His new chemo is hitting him less hard
He has more strength
For spending time with his
Intense handful of a brother

winter dark 4

The brainwave treatment is very subtle
No effects promised for 3-6 weeks
But half-way through I got depressed
And everything else looked like shit
In the throes of depression
Nothing ever seems to have changed
And I have no hopes
For anything new to help

On November 6, the Shine Expansive
A very exciting personal growth workshop
Stood before me like a shining city on a hill
But I got depressed the day it began
And was significantly depressed for all three days
But the Shine did have power – enough power to
Keep me moving, with even some real high points
And I came away with a new mission statement
“I shepherd my flock”
Which seems to pull together
All the threads of my life up to this time

But my mood swings
Remain unabated
What of the Brainwave Optimization?
What of the Shine Expansive?
What of any of it?
What of positive change in the world?
The dawning of the Age of Aquarius –
My youthful dream?
What of my hopes for humanity?
For the world?
What of peace on earth?

winter dark 8

But then there is this blog…
Born 11/24/14
Now 21 days later – an adult?
Not in blog years – still a baby
70 followers in three weeks – unprecedented
In my personal experience with writing blogs
1085 page views
261 on one particular day
55 yesterday
So many people posting beautiful comments
So many people emailing me encouraging words
So many people telling me on the street
How much the blog means to them

Except for an occasional poem
My writing had been stuck
For over a year
Now completely unstuck
My sense of purpose in my life
Fully reborn
My mission from the Shine
“I shepherd my flock”
Being lived out

winter 1

I have now several very potent flocks
The community of people sharing the blog
My community of co-workers at my store
One of my blog posts is in our cashier log book
At my boss’s suggestion
And many of my colleagues are talking about it
I will soon post one of my blog entries
By the time clock
(Again my boss’s suggestion)
Where all my coworkers can read
And maybe return to the blog on their own

My customers are a flock
I tell them about the blog in the checkout line
The other day, two customers
Friends to me but strangers to each other
Discover that they are each fans of the blog
And begin an animated conversation about it
My boss says
“When you print up business cards for the blog
Give them out to customers”
Amazing support from the store
I had thought that if I gave out cards
From my cash register
I might get in trouble with the brass
And so I will print them up and give them out
The blog creates for my customers
A sense of connection with our store
With our staff
With each other
With the cashiers of the world
And with me

winter 2

And what of those cashiers of the world?
About ten years ago
Working as a cashier
At the Enmark gas station on Merrimon Street
Standing in that little kiosk
Selling gas and cigarettes for a year
Until I got fired for calling a customer a bitch
But oh she deserved it
I didn’t just use the term
When she said
“How dare you call me a bitch”
I looked her straight in the eye and said
“Sometimes it just fits”
She took it badly
But I never regretted it
Even my boss did not blame me for it
“I never would have fired you for this
But she went straight to a company VP
I had no choice.”
It was a great moment in cashiering
Though obviously a strategy
I cannot recommend in this blog
Except in moments of great trial
And when your integrity demands it
I used to teach Empowerment Training
At a local community college back in Chicago
And taught people to say “Fuck you”
When no other assertiveness technique worked
And when their sense of self
Was at stake

But I digress
But then it’s my poem
And I did tell you to curl up in a good chair
With a good cup of coffee

So there I was spending all my work time
In this little kiosk
I wrote a blog on customer service
My own model
Authentic Customer Service
I got really very excited about it
46 posts, 2650 page views
Check it out
There’s really some very good stuff on it
A great payoff from that at times boring
At times very stressful job
Along with some very good
Experiences with customers
(No coworkers there in that lonely kiosk
One of the biggest downsides)

winter 3

So I have this blog
My ability to keep writing when I am down
Unprecedented in many years
Perhaps the Brainwave Optimization is working
And the Shine Expansive
And my newly refined but longtime mission
To shepherd my flock
I have a walking stick that Annie gave me at the Shine
When she so ably facilitated us
Through our mission-developing process
A flag hanging from the handle reads
“I shepherd my flock”
Amazingly more apropos for a staff
Than if it said “I sell more widgets this year”

So maybe I do have more light in my personal life this year
Even as my grueling moods remain unabated
Maybe I don’t get to have my whole Christmas list
Delivered for me under the tree
But then the human race
My brothers and sisters
Do not get to suffer appreciably less this year
And maybe you readers of this poem
My brothers and sisters
Still have pain in your lives parallel with my moods
My brother still has his cancer
My friend Bob still has his grief
From his wife Nina’s so-recent passing
My roommate Jesse has his
Search for a fulfilling job
My old roommate Tom has his
Pressing need to unload
His desperately financially depleting house
My old roommate Will has his frustrating
Quest to live out his calling as an artist
My store has its battle to contend
With all the supermarkets
Flooding this saturated market
My coworkers have their struggles
To make ends meet on paltry wages
To live out their gifts
As artists and musicians
To manage their relationships
Their health, their work aspirations

winter dark 7

Everybody, it seems
Has their struggles and their sorrows
Caroling at the hospice last night
In the Community Room
I looked around and it looked like only us present
“Where are the dying people?” I thought
Then I looked to my left and saw
In a little pod, three of my dear friends
Who have had tragic losses
In the last few years
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
As we read this blog
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 together

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

winter final


Cashiering and healing

My friend Kimberly said to me before the Sunday morning dance this morning, “I’ve been reading your blog and I love it.  It seems to me that it’s important for your own healing.”  When I pressed her for more detail about this last part, she said it was “just a feeling”.

This was a new one for me.  I have known that I love the blog, that I am devoted to it, that I get tremendous satisfaction and self-expression from it, but – oriented as I am towards healing and familiar with that language – I hadn’t yet applied it to the blog.  But Kimberly is one deep soul, so what she says is tough to write off.

Is not all of life for our healing?  Kimberly and I share a spiritual teacher, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” I think the blog may be doing some of that.  The comments I get from people – here on the blog, in emails and face-to-face – say to me that what I am writing is reaching them, is helpful, touches places that are useful for them to go…that somehow they feel connected to it and to me.  I have a vision of those of us who are sharing this blog experience as a community.  That community especially lights up when people write comments on the blog where everyone can see them – but is equally present when people are in their own homes, silently reading the posts and connecting with them, responding to them.

"We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness."  Thich Nhat Hanh   Can a blog  help that happen?  Can writing it help that happen for me?

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” Thich Nhat Hanh Can a blog help that happen? Can writing it help that happen for me?

I recently went through a powerful personal growth experience called The Shine Expansive. My biggest takeaway from that three-day workshop was a personal mission statement: “I shepherd my flock.”  It’s easy to see that this has been the life purpose that has followed me from my teens in the Catholic seminary, studying to be a priest.  When I was an organization development management consultant at AT&T, my role felt very pastoral – I used to whimsically say that that 400 thousand person company was my flock.

So what if those of us who share the blog are one flock for me?  And what if the community of people around my grocery store are another flock?  It’s clear to me – if not to all of them – that the staff are a community.  And it’s also clear to me that the bigger group of staff and customers are a community.  What if my purpose there is to build community among staff and with customers – to help us connect with each other, to help us awaken from the illusion of our separateness?  And then there are the cashiers of the world – another flock to whom I feel a calling to minister with this blog.

If I think about it that way, then there’s no question that my cashiering job – and the blog which has sprung out of it – are healing for me.