“Here, take this – I want you to have it.”

Michael is a new cashier, a young guy – full of energy and dreams and promise for his future.  I think he’s in pre-med and plans to be a doctor. We were talking in the cafe  – me on my last ten-minute break, he (having started later than me) on his lunch.

Michael

Michael

“I was reading your blog the other night – I read it until 3 a.m., three hours worth.  So much of it spoke to me.”  This post is mostly going to be about concrete things people have given me at work.  I’m going to violate some time-honored writing principles by starting with the biggest one – this personal, non-concrete gift from Michael.  Michael was letting me know that my writing had given him gifts, but in the process he gave me one of the biggest gifts I could receive – he helped me to believe in myself.  He told me that my writing has value, can help people.

This post I’m writing here has been sitting dormant for two weeks.  Two weeks ago I wrote the barest outline – a list of several things people have given me at work, and maybe a few words about each.  (I can’t even find that outline now.)  But nothing has happened with it since  – I’ve written not one more word.  I believed in this post – I thought it could be really strong.  One night I sat down to try to write it, but it was 8:30 p.m. already and I soon succumbed to sleepiness.

But I came away from my really very brief conversation with Michael today charged up. “I’m meant to be writing! And that post is next!”  So here I am, having walked the dog after work (during which time I was writing this in my head), and now I’m at my computer writing.  No emails, no reading the Washington Post online – I’m writing.  Thank you Michael.  And I shall steer you Michael towards this post after it’s posted – and I think you may get some good stuff from it.

I’m going to start my list of gifts given to me at work with the oldest one and then work towards the present.  Some of these names (not Michael) have been changed to protect people’s privacy – or just made up because I didn’t know the person’s name.

( 4 years ago)PBR
Walter was clearly intoxicated.   But that didn’t invalidate his good-hearted generosity when he shoved at me one of the beers he was buying from me and said, “Have it – pop it open.  Let’s both have one.  You’re a good guy – I want you to have it.”  I obviously couldn’t drink a beer during my shift at the cash register, so Walter’s kindly insistence was really kind of comical, but it was also really kind of sweet – he wanted to share with me.

(2 years ago)hat and gloves
I was immediately drawn to Sharon’s beautiful red homemade knit hat.  When I expressed my appreciation of it, she said, “Thank you, I made it.”  “Wow, do you sell them somewhere?”  “No, I mostly just give them away to my friends.”  “Well I want to buy one from you.”  She took a breath as if considering for just a moment, then took the hat off her head and handed it to me – along with matching fingerless gloves (perfect for cashiering in a cold grocery store) she had in her purse.  “Here, I want you to have them.”  I protested, but she was very clear that she wanted me to have them, as a gift – and, truth be told, I also really wanted to have them.  I have taken a lot of pleasure in wearing them.

(6 months ago)

Andy beer

Andy’s favorite beer.  

Andy and Debbie have become friends of mine.  We had lunch together once.  They are not party people and don’t come to my  birthday parties – but we love our brief time together every Monday.  And I know that they care about me – when they ask how I am doing, they mean it.  They read my blog and know that my ups and downs are more ferocious than most people’s.  Andy has a favorite beer that he stocks up on periodically.  I’m on a quest to find out what beers I most like and was asking him about his.  He pulled one out of his grocery bag and gave it to me.  It was an effortless gesture – what you would do with a friend.  And it was also effortless to let Andy know later that I like his beer a lot.

(4 months ago)
Peter and Jessi are regular customers of mine.  They are young, energetic (rock climbers) and fun – and they did come to my birthday party last year, along with Peter’s kids Jack and Ruby.  Peter is a big, strapping young guy.  As soon as  Peter came through the door  one morning, he came straight over to me and said, “You told us you are going to move – do you need help?”  “Well, uh – sure.”  He flexed his enormous bicep: “I’ve got this…and a truck.”  I’ve probably told that story 20 times and I still laugh with delight – it was so perfect.

IMG_20171029_143458571_HDR.jpg

Peter, Jessi and their new friend, my Toni.

(2 months ago)
That new house, with two friends taking me in, was always meant to be short-term.  Six weeks later I was moving to my friend John’s house – also agreed to be short-to-medium term, maybe several months.  When Peter and Jessi arrived to once more help me move, I told them so apologetically, “John just called me.  He got a text from his landlord that he is selling the house – we have 30 days to get out.”  Peter paused a few moments before saying, “We’re going to have to just keep doing this until we get you settled somewhere.”  When two days later I saw Jessi at the store, she said, “That’s just who he is – generous.  He’s like that every day.”

(3 weeks ago)|
I didn’t remember ever seeing Mary before, but I was very personally drawn to her.  I didn’t even know just what I liked so much about her, but I liked her a lot.  When I went through my regular routine of asking myself what  I would like to validate about her,  I couldn’t even immediately come up with anything.  She was pretty, but that didn’t feel on target for a validation.  I just kind of irrationally liked her.  We had a sweet mini-encounter.  Nothing especially meaningful got said, but I felt good about it.  And then she was gone.Trilogy

And then three minutes later she was back.  She stood behind the customer I was waiting on, held up a bottle of Synergy brand kombucha, Trilogy flavor – my favorite flavor.  “I asked around what you might like and they said this.”  I was dumbfounded.  She gave me a huge smile and glided towards the door, looking at me and smiling all the time.  I raised my hands in a shrug and mouthed, “Why?”  I thought she enjoyed my confusion.

I think that part of what made that encounter, that act of generosity, so special to me was the very fact that I didn’t understand it.  I didn’t think I had done anything to deserve it.  When, during my ten-minute break, I told a coworker about this scenario I added – in my attempt to  make sense of this – that the whole time I waited on Mary I was also thinking about my new roommate Lucy.  I was thinking about what validation I wanted to give Lucy next.  The one I had on the tip of my tongue was seeming too superficial and I was reaching for something more meaningful.  My coworker said, “That’s it – the whole time you were waiting on Mary you were standing in a field of love, and she felt it.  She became part of it.”  That felt and continues to feel really right.

(2 weeks ago)
chocolate ba.jpg
I didn’t remember Linda and nothing special happened between us – but I enjoyed the encounter with her.  The last item that I swiped and that she picked up off the counter and dropped in her grocery bag was a chocolate bar.  “Do you like chocolate?” she asked.  “Sure.”  “Chocolate with orange pieces in it?”  “Yeah”?  (Where is this going?)  She pulled that last chocolate bar back out and handed it to me.  “Here, I want you to have this.”  “Why?” (I was genuinely confused.)  “Because you’re awesome.”  (But why am I awesome?  I didn’t do anything.)  I indicated to Linda how genuinely happy this made me.  I didn’t comment on my confusion.  I think she got that, and maybe even took a little satisfaction from it.  (What does it mean to be awesome and why would she want to give me her chocolate bar?)

(4 days ago)
rose
When I got back from my lunch break, there was a beautiful rose (probably from our floral department, just steps away from the cashier area) in front of my cash register.  This time, along with a little bit of “Why?”, I more just accepted it – and felt really, really good.  Somehow having no idea who or why made it more possible for me to just let go of the questions.

(3 days ago)
Jose hat
I was sitting in the café, fussing over a predicament.  The next day I was going to a benefit “Sock hop” with a 50’s theme.  The family I was going with (Peter and his family) had all put together 50’s style clothes – and I had nothing, nothing that felt in any way 50’s.  As I was sitting there I looked across the café and saw my friend Jose from the meat department wearing a blue seersucker bomber cap – that looked to me like 50’s!  I’ve gotta have that hat!  So, in a move that felt to me bold and intrusive and maybe even inappropriate, I went to Jose, explained my predicament and said, “I’ve gotta borrow your hat!”  Jose immediately took it off his head and seemed positively enthused to loan it to me.

At the cash register that afternoon, at the party and at the cash register again on Monday (Jose wasn’t due in until 2 p.m.), I got so many compliments about the hat that I started saying, “Either this hat is really great or you just don’t expect me to wear anything cool.”  One of my customers said, “That hat is so you – you need to not give it back.”  I was almost ashamed to admit to myself that I really kind of did not want to give it back.

Jose cafe

Jose told me today that he would be glad to let me take his picture – if he could wear his motorcycle helmet.

When, on my afternoon break, I went back to the meat department to give Jose his hat, he wouldn’t take it.  “No, it’s your hat now.  It’s really you – it’s yours.”  I was both completely knocked out by this generosity – and also somehow not surprised.  It just fit with how I know Jose.

(Today)cookies - 11-15-117
Today when I came back from my break, there was a chocolate chip cookie in a bag at my station.  How did it get there?  Was it a “put back” – somebody decided they didn’t want it and gave it to the cashier working next to me, who then accidentally pushed into my area?  This seemed far-fetched.  I asked Megan, my podmate.  She knew nothing about it.  “Maybe you have a secret admirer.” “I think I have a lot of them.”

In one of J.D. Salinger’s books there is a character who describes himself as a “reverse paranoid – I think that the world is conspiring to make me happy.”  I think this is happening to me.

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A three-minute video improv poem on self-criticism

We Welcome Majo Madden to the SHINE Expansive Spotlight!
 
Majo Madden, Featured Guest of SHINE Expansive, is here to ‘Release’ before your very eyes. He is releasing himself from his pre-written poetry or a script of any kind, and opening instead to letting his true self shine through his wholeness in the improvisation of this moment.
Majo shares:
“This video emerges from my pain around self-criticism. Making this video feels courageous, authentic, and vulnerable because I improvised and I leaned into my pain. To create this video I had to move beyond the fear of being seen in my vulnerability. This video feels like a true self expression because it was not censored or edited.”

Enjoy Majo’s poetic example of Release: “Releasing You ~ Releasing Me.”
To watch this video, enter Password: Day 25

at this website: https://vimeo.com/143056487

How does it feel?

To have crashed and burned?
To have lost it halfway through performing my poem?
To have completely blanked out on what came next and spent five minutes – OK, maybe 30 seconds – trying to get it back?
To have humiliated myself in front of friends and associates?

“How do you feel?”  The question was asked me in a very solicitous way by a woman I didn’t know, in a tone that suggested to me that she expected me to feel crappy.

The answer took a while to get clear for me, then came through loud and clear….”It feels thrillingly human.” It feels like a relief.  It’s something that I knew had to happen sometime.  I have been performing poems at Jubilee four times a year for ten years and I’ve never had a poem not hit a home run.  I’ve had little ripples – times when babies cried and it threw me off my game and I would lose a line.  But nobody would ever know.  I always rallied and took it home.

This time I did rally also and finished strong.  And I did once again have people say that it worked for them – and that my stuck place, which in this case was totally obvious to everyone, did not take away from the impact of the poem, that the poem meant a lot to them.  One person said that it was her favorite part of the whole show.

So, thrillingly human – someone who can make mistakes.  There’s no safer place for me than Jubilee to make mistakes.  This poem opened the show for a dance performance – a very sweet movement and story-telling show filled with amateur dancers.

My poem opened for a dance performance on the topic of legacy - and my poem sprang from a friend's legacy of being abused as a child..  The choreographer and dancers, familiar with my track record as a killer poet and performer, expected me to open the show with a bang.  Was it a terrible thing that I fell apart delivering my poem?

My poem opened for a dance performance on the topic of legacy – and my poem sprang from a friend’s legacy of being abused as a child.. The choreographer and dancers, familiar with my track record as a killer poet and performer, expected me to open the show with a bang. Was it a terrible thing that I fell apart delivering my poem?

What if the worst had happened?  What would have been the worst?  The worst would have been for me to not recoup – for me just not be able to get it together, and to slink off the stage in shame.  That would be the worst.  Maybe not the worst though – because even that I could have recovered from.  Tonight I feel OK with that.  The worst, maybe, would be if that was not OK with me – if my infraction tonight stirred my self-hate – that would be the worst.  But even that wouldn’t have been so awful, because it’s human, because I go in and out of it all the time, because I’ve developed more skill in recuperating from self-hate and I bounce back from it.

In truth, what happened was not so awful.  In truth, it provided the audience with a wonderful experience – a chance to reach out to a performer, to be pulling for me.  Is it not possible that them opening their hearts to me, right at the beginning of the program, gave them a chance to be an even better audience for the rest of the show, to really open themselves to the dancers and the storytelling about their lives and their innocent, heart-felt,amateur dancing? I think that almost certainly this was true..

So the worst happened and it was OK.  No, the worst didn’t happen because I was OK with stuff that I surprised myself by accepting.  I fell apart in a way that I would have told you in advance was terrible and it was not.  In fact, it was perfect.

Mike the barrista/cashier/pianist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did it happen?”

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

“You’re lucky to still be alive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re too weird!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A journal of the heart

I recently had a housewarming party. My friends Keith and Maddie, along with many other friends, walked through my room and spend time there to check it out.  One of the things they saw was my print of Gustav Klimt The Kiss. I have kept it in my room for a couple of years now, because I think it’s beautiful – and also as good luck around love and romance in my life.  Sometime in the following week, Maddie was in New York City and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and picked me up a housewarming gift: a very generous gift – a journal based with that painting beautifully rendered on the cover.

Keith (I work with him) and Maddie (his wife) saw this print in my room.

Keith (I work with him) and Maddie (his wife) saw this print in my room.

And Maddie got me this journal from the Metropolitan Museum of Art!  It's exciting just to have something that came from there!  I still have the bag!

And Maddie got me this journal from the Metropolitan Museum of Art! It’s exciting just to have something that came from there! I still have the bag!

When I sat down with my lovely book, my first thought was to make it a journal focused on romance. “That’s the ticket – I’ll make only entries that have to do in some way with romance. But it didn’t take too long for me to realize that this was too narrow a focus.  So I made it bigger: the heart – what’s going on with regard to my heart.  So now every day, right before bed, I make an entry on what has happened that day which nurtured or activated my heart. It doesn’t matter how big or small: some days I have listed several things, one day I wrote one line – but one that meant stuff to me.

In the twelve days since I started, I haven’t missed a day.  I go to bed more in touch with my heart.  I bet it affects my sleep and my dreams.

You might want to steal my idea and create a similar journal just for your heart.  Or a notepad or a document in your computer or your phone – voice recordings would work great.  Or put a note on your nightstand or somewhere reminding you to think about this before bed.  Or maybe you’ll just think about it today.

  • Who did you see or think about that you love – or like a whole lot?
  • What gave you access to your emotional life?  What feelings did you have?
  • Who was nice to you?  To whom were you nice?
  • Was there a way that you were good or kind to yourself?
  • Did you think or talk about something that’s important to you?
  • Did you create or make a heart connection with art?
  • Read “The longings of the heart” – December 6.

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.