Just that time of year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Buy the card.”

Suzanne was tenacious.  She wanted me to buy the Barnes and Noble membership card.  When I came through her check-out line with my first set of purchases, she said, “You could have saved $8 – you’d be a third of a the way through to having your card paid for.” I hemmed and hawed and then said no.  “I come here once a year, for Christmas gifts – you have a great selection of gift books.”  They don’t have that big footprint for nothing.

bookstore-pic

Books – I love ’em.  It’s something that Suzanne and I have in common. And I don’t often indulge in my love for books.  It could actually be good for me to spend more time in book stores.

So I went away not buying the card.  Then I realized several more purchases I wanted to make – and came back to Suzanne with another $75 worth of books.  She said, “You know, if you had bought that card… and by the way, it’s not too late.  We could go back and re-ring that whole first sale.”  She was really willing to go out of her way to do this.

I was on the edge this time – and finally said, “No. I’m a Malaprops shopper.  I don’t buy from big chains. I support our local independent bookseller.  They have my loyalty – I don’t want to do something that will build loyalty elsewhere.”  Suzanne said, “Well, in some ways you are buying from independent booksellers.  I’ve been here 15 years.  I love to read and I’m a writer.  This is a job where I get to be around books.  Tony over here has worked for Barnes and Noble for 18 years.  You’re not buying from some high school kid – you’re dealing with book professionals.”

As Suzanne was bagging my books, she continued her sales pitch: “Each month you will get a coupon for 20% off certain kinds of books.  When you buy online you always get free expedited shopping.”  Now that made me perk up.

But I have loyalty to Amazon, too.  I think Amazon is great – it revolutionized the book industry.  What I couldn’t escape though, was that Suzanne was building a relationship with me.  She was my bookseller.  So I said yes.  Suzanne was pleased, though she kept her dignity.  She didn’t do a happy dance or anything gouche like that.

But she had gone the extra mile.  I know, from being a cashier, what it’s like to really invest in selling your company – to really invest in getting the best for your customer.  You have to put it on the line.  It takes energy.  Suzanne did it.  I don’t know how many customers a day she did that for, but she did it for me.

She had said that she’s a writer.  I pulled out my business card and told her, “I’m a writer too.  I write a blog about cashiering and you are a superb cashier.  I’d like to write a post about you.” She was tickled, a little shy but happy about this prospect.  I think she was happy just that there was such a blog, then doubly happy at the prospect of being featured in it.

I said, “Maybe tonight I’ll write this up.” I didn’t say “I’ve got about three other posts queued up in front of it – it might not be tonight.”

I took my new purchases over to the gift-wrapping station and while I was there I realized two missing pieces for this blog post – her first name and, preferably, a photo.  I went back around to the check out area.  This time there was a line.  She spotted me in the line and giggled right away.

When I went up to her I said, “I have two requests: I’d like to use your first name and I’d like a picture of you.”  She said, “I look terrible today.”  “I don’t think you look terrible – I think you look fine.  And it will make the blog post just pop.  And if you do that for me I promise that I will write a blog post about you tonight.”

BandN

Suzanne.  She’s alive, vibrant, warm, friendly – a real human being in a big corporation.  She’s beautiful.

Now it’s a promise.  There’s a good likelihood that by the time I get through some other to do’s tonight it will be late and I won’t feel like doing this – may actually have a hard time marshaling the level of focus needed to write this.  (But I actually have pretty directly transcribed all this from a digital recording I made right after leaving Barnes and Noble.)  I do well with accountability…not to say that every time I have promised to write a blog post I actually have done it.

Suzanne had won me over.  I wasn’t buying from Barnes and Noble – I was buying from Suzanne.  Now she was not really going to be my personal bookseller.  I wouldn’t be able to call her up.  But in this moment, in a merchandising market that can be so impersonal, she met me as a person.  She seemed to genuinely care about me. Even if she was primarily driven by a desire (or pressure) to drive her upsell numbers up, for me in that moment it was all personal.

I had a spiffy new Barnes and Noble membership card and a promise that lots of B&N promotions would be hitting my email inbox (“Just once a week”, Suzanne said).  I do not know if this card will actually end up saving me money – or in any way change my book buying habits.  I don’t know if it will draw me into the store, where I will immerse myself in the world of books.  I don’t know in which situations I will choose for Malaprop’s – certainly some.  And when I will choose for Amazon – probably sometimes I will comparison shop, though that may get to be a pain in the neck.

I left Barnes and Noble happy.  I had had a real exchange with a real person – doing her best, with a lot of dignity, to do a good job.  I felt like she liked me – and I definitely liked her.  She made me proud to be a cashier.

 

So much community

I have  an embarrassing amount of support in my life.  I have several separate groups where I am accepted, supported, even loved.

  • I have the Jubilee Spiritual Community, my funky unchurch (it’s sure not your gramma’s church) here in Asheville – which in times past has been more vital to me, but still is important as a base of many friendships and a venue for my poetry and stand-up comedy.  I am out about my bipolar disorder there.  I know that I am loved there – and that there are many people (some of whom also go only seldom or not at all) whom I genuinely love.
  • I have the Asheville Movement Collective ecstatic dance community, where people share not just dance but often become real friends.  When you are all making yourselves vulnerable together by taking the risk of authentic movement, intimacy tends to spring up.
  • I have the Magnetic Minds depression and bipolar support group: these are really my people and it feels like my real mission is to and for these people.  This extends to wider circles of bipolar people, whom I reach through this blog and through the online healing community which I am developing for people with bipolar disorder.
  • I have my grocery store community: our staff and staff-and-customers overlapping communities offer genuine support and at times even love.
  • For the last several months, I have been passionately involved in the Sun Soo Tae Kwon Do community.  In a couple of weeks I am going to the birthday party for an eight-year-old girl, who apparently thinks I’m her grandfather for the way she has adopted me.  Need I say more about community?  I’ve been averaging four Tae Kwon Do classes a week.

So why do I want one more community?  Because my overeating and sugar addiction have not been helped by these other communities.  So I need Overeaters Anonymous.  I went to OA for a few months about a year ago.  I had some good experiences.  I overall ate better.  Sometimes, when I was pulled towards sugar or compulsive overeating, I managed to call one of my OA friends and was able to stay straight.  But I left dissatisfied, and I think there were two interwoven reasons:

The 12 steps of AA and OA. Corny? Rigid? Oppressive? Too religious.? I have thought all of these things about  these steps. Deep and in some ways mystical? A potent vehicle for personal/spiritual transformation. I'm getting an intuition that, for me, it may turn out to be both of these things.

The 12 steps of AA and OA. Corny? Rigid? Oppressive? Too religious.? I have thought all of these things about these steps. Deep and in some ways mystical? A potent vehicle for personal/spiritual transformation. I’m getting an intuition that, for me, it may turn out to be both of these things.

  1. After a couple of months with a “food sponsor” who then moved away, which really kind of worked for me, I never got a sponsor. Except for that transitional sponsor (we signed on as a trial, then when she decided to move away she wanted to lighten up her commitments, I couldn’t find a sponsor who would work with my limits: I don’t want to weigh and measure my food.  I don’t want to submit a food plan for each day.  I need more spontaneity or I will totally act out or leave. It really did work for me to report every evening the food I ate that day.  Just this took a lot of discipline.  This accountability boosted my moment-to-moment mindfulness of my eating and helped me to make better food choices.
  2. I never immersed myself in the 12 steps, which is where the spiritual transformation happens.  To really work the steps, you need a sponsor – so these two problems interface with each other.  I have an intuitive feeling that the steps can be very powerful for me – could maybe be exactly what I need next spiritually.

So I went to an OA meeting on Saturday morning and another Monday evening.  I’m going to target two meetings a week – not enough, some would say, to do the job but quite a stretch goal in the context of my very busy life. I didn’t speak at the first meeting aside to introduce myself, but did see a couple of people there who I could picture being my sponsor.  At the meeting Monday night there were a couple of other prospects.  I got both of their phone numbers and actually approached one (a friend of mine from other circles) about whether we could meet and talk sometime. (She gave an enthusiastic yes.)

I do know that after several weeks depressed, yesterday (four days into my new food regimen, which I will describe in a separate post) I started to feel good.  No mania that I can see yet, but feeling good.  Is it getting away from sugar, off of wheat, off of caffeine?  Maybe all of this.  Maybe also my new meds, which I have been gradually increasing for several months now.  I may never fully know.

Oh well, that’s enough for now – more to come, I’m sure.

What’s the point?

Jill and I know each other from the grocery store, but even more from Interplay – a personal growth methodology featuring improvisational movement, story-telling and song.  The overall tone of Interplay is playful, but the work is also “sneaky deep”: the spontaneous quality of people’s participation allows you to know each other much more deeply and more quickly than would usually be the case.  So, while in absolute terms Jill and I have not spent a lot of time 1-1, we still feel like we know each other pretty well – and i would say that we actually do.

And she reads this blog.

In the context of this relationship, the question “How are you?” opens up much more than it might usually – and we were quickly (hey, it’s gotta be quick, we’re talking about a five-minute interaction) really talking with each other.  She said, “I really look forward to your blog posts.”  “Yeah, when I send them” (which I mostly have not lately).  Then she hit me right between the eyes: “You make a difference in my life.”

This took my breath away and immediately made it clear to me that I had to get back on my pony and write.  And revealed to me why I have not been writing.  More than half the time I have been depressed – and kind of brutally so, more than for a long time.  But I have also mostly not been writing even when I’m up.  I think that underneath the ups and downs I have had an underlying discouragement about making a difference to people – do I really have anything to say?

Over two years ago, I started writing online training for people with bipolar disorder – and came t0 believe that this would be my life’s work, and it may yet be. But it pretty quickly got stuck in the mud.  Lately it has seemed to me that what keeps that work stuck is a kind of devastating self-criticism: “Who are you to try to tell anybody else how to deal with bipolar disorder when you are still so much the victim of it?”

life purpose - 12-11-15I had another project at the same time, a blog specifically about bipolar disorder: bipolarintegrity.net.  “For my cohort and those who try to help, love or live with us.” From my current, momentarily clear vantage point, there’s a lot of really great stuff on that blog – check it out! But two years ago, it also had ground to a halt.

So one day at work I had an aha: if these big, weighty projects are stuck, write about what’s right in front of your nose – what goes on in the grocery store.  Lots of great stuff goes on here.  You talk about it a lot, so why not write about it?  Those other two projects may come off the shelf in time, but for now you will be writing.  That may at some point generate the momentum that one or both of those projects need.

For the first 24 hours after this idea was hatched, I told myself that I would leave bipolar disorder out, “just to keep it simple”.  Right…!  By Day 2 it became obvious to me that trying to leave out everything that refers to my bipolar disorder would gut the integrity from the blog.  It won’t be about bipolar disorder, but will provide a window into the life of someone who happens to have bipolar disorder. Similarly, I am a lot more than this cashier in the grocery store.

But lately I have mostly not been writing on the blog.  When I am up, I write lots of little notes at my cash register and during my breaks – but in my mania I never get around to organizing them into a post.  When I’m down, nothing happens. The net result is lots of discouragement.  If this is my interim life purpose and it’s dormant, then what does that say about my life?

life_purpose 2 - 12-11-15Jill today shined a light on all of this.  My life purpose can be expressed in writing projects like online training for healing from bipolar disorder or this blog, but it can’t be held by them.  My life purpose is to make a difference in people’s lives.  If I focus on that at work (and elsewhere), the aliveness that comes out of this may spill over into writing – like now, tonight, after my encounter with Jill today.

That mid-day connection with Jill triggered more than this writing.  For the second half of my shift, I was on fire for making a difference for people.  I’ll describe some of those encounters in another post.

 

Some things I’m not grateful for….

Thanksgiving 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crying behind the cash register

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

Her website says:

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

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

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

grief hug

It takes a village to heal a grief.

 

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

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

grief-counseling

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

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

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

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

grief, bench

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

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

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

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

grief, swim

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

 

 

 

“Hey, good lookin’…”

Complimenting a woman on her attactiveness is usually not the most powerful affirmation, but in a very short interaction you might not access anything more personal to affirm.  And for the right woman at the right time, being told that she’s pretty can have a lot of power.

Complimenting women on their good looks is a dicey proposition.  I think I get away with it better than a younger guy would because at 69 years old women assume that I’m harmless.  I also honestly believe that I have good intuition for when it would be useful information for a woman that she is seen as attractive.  I pass on the impulse to speak it as often as I act.  I don’t know exactly why I choose not to – something in me just says, verbatim, “Leave it out”.

I have a lot of ways that I tell women they are attractive.  I think they probably work best when they are invented on the spot, but some of these repeat.  To really work, I’ve got to absolutely mean them.

  • “You have such amazing eyes!”
  • “Wow, where did you get that hair?  Did your mother have beautiful hair like that?”
  • “You have the skin of a 20 year old.” to someone clearly well past that age.
  • “You are so pretty.”
  • “You have a perfect nose.”
  • “You are the most beautiful woman to come through my line all day.”
  • “You are our most beautiful customer.”
  • “You are the most beautiful woman on our staff.”

So, when I tell women they are attractive I have a pretty good hit average for responses that sure look like they liked it.

  • “You’re making me blush.”
  • “Wow, thank you.”
  • “You have no idea how good that is to hear.”
  • “I really needed to hear that today.”
  • “I could cry.” (And her eyes did tear up.)
  • “I’ve been telling myself that my skin looks all wrinkled.”
  • “I bet you say that to all the women.”  “Nope, I’m pretty scrupulous about only saying things I mean.”

I got an education from one of our customers yesterday, when I told her maybe four year old daughter that she was pretty.  She said to her daughter, “You know what you say when people tell you you’re pretty.” Then they in unison said, “I’m pretty and smart and strong.” With that last word, she held up both arms in a powerful gesture and growled.  I think she enjoyed the whole self-affirmation, but that last part seemed to especially tickle her.  I think that the next time I’m inclined to tell a little girl (including my little granddaughter) that she’s pretty I will give her the whole list.

grateful for ll that i have

When Linda came through my line yesterday, she was clearly as pretty as any woman I had seen all day, so I could have affirmed her on her looks.  But after just a couple of verbal exchanges, something else grabbed me more powerfully.  “You are so totally alive.  You’re amazing.”  “I’m blushing.”  Usually I take that as a cue to back off, but for some reason my inner guidance was to keep moving towards her.  “No, really, you’re radiant.  It’s a real treat to be standing in front of you.”  It’s kind of woo-woo to tell someone that they are very alive, but Linda had a very real quality – maybe a really core quality – that I could not find another word for. I knew that I had my finger on something real and I strongly believed that it would be useful for her to have this aspect of her mirrored back, so I moved past my own shyness to give her that which I had to give.

I told Linda that I was going to write that exchange up in a blog post that would go up today.  I’m going to be a day late, but I hope you do read this, Linda. If you do,let me know what you think of this – in an email if you want, but most powerful would be to put it in a comment attached to this post.

Long live beauty!  Long live aliveness!!  Long live the courage to move past our shyness and to give affirmation!!!