What does this guy want?

It was a tight parallel parking spot, but doable. I still have some of my Chicago parallel parking skills, though they honestly are pretty rusty. So this had me slightly stressed.  But there was more:

  • I’m parking near the County Courthouse, so I can go to the sheriff’s office – cops, eek!  I’ve had so many good experiences with cops over the years, including spending six months teaching stress management to every cop on the Syracuse, NY police department – and still I have a stress response to them.  Actually I just a few years ago had a very bad experience with a sheriff’s deputy who was assigned to transport me from the Mission Hospital ER to the psych ward at Rutherfordton Hospital because there were no beds at Mission.  This guy treated me like I as a criminal who needed to be watched and controlled at every moment.  OK, so cops still set off alarm bells for me – there’s some trauma there that’s not healed yet.
  • I was there to drop off all of Monty’s medication to the sheriff’s department – quite a lot of pill bottles.
    Monty's son, when he was clearing out his dad's apartment, asked me to drop Monty's meds off at the sheriff's department.

    Monty’s son, when he was clearing out his dad’s apartment, asked me to drop Monty’s meds off at the sheriff’s department.

    Medication – I’ve been taking psych medications for about 15 years and they mostly have never helped.  My current optimism about my new med’s is so unprecedented that I don’t know what to do with it.  So here I have a big dishwashing tub full of meds.  All these meds are  stressful to me in and of itself – but they also speak to how fragile Monty\was in his last months.

  • Monty is dead.  That’s what this whole errand is about, is that my 35-year best friend died about four months ago.  This is not a neutral errand.

And then there’s this guy.

This young guy is headed towards my car.  I immediately go on the alert.  If I knew how to put my psychic shields up, I would have.  His shirt is only half-buttoned and he’s coming up to me fast.  We’re right near the courthouse – what was he there for?  He does what I feared he would do – he comes right up to my car.

I do what my instincts tell me not to do – I roll down my car window.  He says, “My car is two spots up ahead here.”  (He wants a jump – or for me to take him for gas.)  “I’m pulling out and there’s about two quarters left on my meter, if you want to park there.”

So what do I do with this?  This guy who I was sure was trouble actually comes to me with a gift – an act of well-wishing that I would not likely think of if the roles were reversed. The trouble was not in the guy but in my own suspicious mind.

A missed opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life…and more life

The husband of one of my coworkers (let’s call her Sally) died a couple of weeks ago.  It was not exactly sudden, but greatly unexpected.  He just developed one medical complication after another for about three weeks, until finally the doctors told them he had a week to live.

Sally is much beloved in our department and throughout the store. One person used the term “angelic” to describe her.  It’s a word I would be slow to use to describe a mortal, but she is so consistently sweet and warm and positive that it really kind of fits.

I was greatly honored when she asked me if I had a poem about death that I could offer at her husband’s memorial – and told her that in fact I do have one.  I felt good about going to the memorial service last night.  There were several other workers from our store, a couple previous workers who have moved to jobs at another grocery store, and several customers who have over the years gotten fond of Sally.  These are the kinds of situations that poke through the distance that work roles may set up between us, between us coworkers and between staff and customer.  Mixing together in ways like this makes the relationship more personal, more meaningful.

Here is the poem.  Sally liked it.

What's after life?  Native Americans call it "the great mystery".

What’s after life? Native Americans call it “the great mystery”.

(Majo, 11/19/05)

We have been wandering around, you and I
By ourselves, with each other, never knowing
We bump against our different selves
We hold foreign who is our home
We see the dark because we know the light

What is this fog that holds us?
What in us would let be held?
Where are we going?  Where have we been?
What is “us”?  “You”?  “I”?  “Her”?  And “him”?

Life – what is that?
This mystery in which we are lost
The light that leads us
And where does it end?
Where is there that life is not?

Our minds want to separate
Thrive on boundaries
Do not see how dark connects the light
Make you and I imagine
A gulf between the isness that we are

Each moment arises from nowhere
Then slips silent from our grasp
Our grasping punctuates the moments
Makes them seem separate, which they never are

Letting go is our nature, who we’ve always been
And how we got here
Our parents surrendered to the moment
Life has been conceiving us anew ever since

Every birth requires a death
Call it what we will, life changes
Stays not one moment the same
We are not who we were, who we will be

Where we think we see a wall, a cliff, an end
Life continues, in forms we never imagined
We emerge, again and again
New beings of light we never knew

Light is held and framed by dark
As dark is surrounded by light
Our minds see difference
Life does its dance of many forms

Where will we go?  Where have they gone?
Our human eyes, limited as they are
See a river where there is a sea
This connection in which we swim
Has no beginning and no end

If we but shift our gaze
Oh so gently, no effort, no looking for
See the light under the dark and light
The We that always holds you and me
We will not go, they have not gone
We are all right here, one unending now

Drop into this breath of life
Do not try to make this or that
Nothing goes away, while all must die
Life is us, we are Life
We feel the good under “Goodbye”.



Learning to grieve

I have about a dozen topics in my “Real life posts” file.  Some of them are just titles of posts I want to write (some of these have handwritten notes strewn throughout three notebooks I have had with me at work), some of them have a little outline, a couple are mostly written.  None of them make sense to me right now.  In the last couple of days, I started to write two others – new ones – but couldn’t complete them.  I would get to a certain point and just stare at them.

Monty died ten days ago -  part of me still doesn't get how he could be gone.

Monty died ten days ago – part of me still doesn’t get how he could be gone.


It’s happening again – I am lapsing into numbness, just staring at the computer screen.  Let’s see if I can push through this time.  This time I am expecting nothing of myself but to write what’s going on.  I have a voice in me that says, “Enough of this personal stuff – get back to the grocery store.”  My friend Johanna said to me some weeks ago, “If you don’t write when you are down, it will have no integrity.” Some of my readers are liable to say, “He thinks he’s got losses.”

I haven't cried over Monty yet.  I guess it will happen when it's meant to.

I haven’t cried over Monty yet. I guess it will happen when it’s meant to.

A few weeks ago, my target was to post every morning.  I have now missed two mornings and am at risk of missing another.

People keep telling me how well-written this blog is.  I think this post will be a little incoherent.  I have to live with that.

I have an appointment in about two hours with a CarePartners bereavement counselor.  I have a voice in me that says that I have no right to use a bereavement counselor.  Monty was not family to me, just my buddy – my 35-year best buddy.

I've gotten some good hugs in the last ten days, but they're tending to not get through.

I’ve gotten some good hugs in the last ten days, but they’re tending to not get through.

And what about other recent losses?  My dog died 15 months ago.  I thought I was well over that one.  Back in September, my stepbrother Joe, my  roommate from three years previous Avtar and my dear friend Nina died within a week of each other.  In the last many months, three people from church with whom I was not intimate but with whom I had real relationships (Laurie, Sandy and Carol) have died.  I’m trying on a new concept (to me), that some or a lot of the depression I experience on a regular basis (including now, the last three four days) is really grief – grief at the loss of the internal light, of my good feelings, of my self-confidence, of my capacity to see connections in the world.  And that this accumulates, showing up every couple of weeks.

I feel alone whenever I'm depressed - how is this different?

I feel alone whenever I’m depressed – how is this different?

Maybe I have an accumulation of old griefs that pile on when I have a current (kind of enormous around Monty) grief in real time.  Maybe I am short on skills for grieving.  Maybe if I go through the CarePartners six-week bereavement class, and then maybe join a bereavement group, I will get better.  Maybe posting this – taking my grief to this community – will help.

My highlight is you

Grieving is different when you’re manic and when you’re depressed.

My 35-year best buddy Monty died a week ago today.  (https://rlcol.com/2015/01/12/my-best-buddy-monty/) I was manic for three days before he died, then the last seven – until today.  For the last week I knew I was in pain, knew I was messed up – but I felt good.  It was confusing.  My friend Marlisa wrote, “Friendship of a lifetime, loss of a lifetime.  Take good care of your grief.”  I grabbed hold of those words and repeated them to almost every person who asked how I was doing.  I also repeated, “I’m manic now – when I’m depressed and he’s still gone it’s going to be different.”

Where did he go?  One moment he seemed very alive.  I just don't get it.

Where did he go? One moment he seemed very alive. I just don’t get it.

I’m seeing the ways that grief is like depression.  Depression is so much about loss – loss of momentum, loss of happiness, loss of connection with others, loss of hope. When I am depressed, everything looks ugly and chaotic.  “This is bullshit.”  When I am grieving, it seems like nothing matters.  No matter what you do, everyone dies – so nothing matters.  Even when that person was 86 years old and apparently ready to go, this nihilism can still kick in.  When I am depressed, I blame myself – I ruminate over what I have and haven’t done.  When I am grieving, I run over in my brain what I should or shouldn’t have done differently.

At work today, in the middle of my grief and depression – reaching for something to keep me afloat – I grabbed on to my stock question to ask customers: “What’s been a highlight of your day?”  That can do a good job of getting my mind off of myself, but a lot of my customers also then ask me what has been the highlight of my day.  What do I say then?

For lack of any better answer, I used the one I have been saying most often anyway: this blog.  At first it felt and sounded pretty lame, but as I experimented with ways to get behind it, it started to work for me -at least some of the time, at least a little – on three levels.

  1. I’m still creating.  Even today – miserable with grief and depression – I’m getting ideas for blog posts, I’m kind of frantically jotting down notes during my breaks and even at the cash register.  Many of them will make no sense to me when I go back to them, but I’m writing. (Tonight, after work – now 9:01 p.m. – so much of me wants to just crawl into bed, but it feels desperately important to get this written and scheduled to post tomorrow morning.  I’ve got to create.)
  2. My writing is reaching people.  A lot of people are reading the blog.  A lot of people tell me that it means something to them.  They say it in comments on the blog, in emails to me, and face-to-face. They say it strongly, eloquently – it breaks through my isolation.  I have copy and pasted a lot of it into a “Rainy day” file.  I have recorded some of it to listen to.
  3. I’m offering it to you.  I step beyond my shyness and embarrassment, I push past the depression and grief – all of which would keep me isolated and cut off from you (you my customer and you my reader).  I tell you about my blog. I say that it’s good. I takethislittleVistaprint business card and give it to you.

    I give you a piece of my heart.

    I give you a piece of my heart.

Monty isn’t here.  Myself as I like to know myself – the person with so much pizzazz – isn’t here.  You are here.  In this moment, grieving and depressed, I meet you.  I look you in the eye.  I let myself care for you.  I want good for you. I don’t just meet you – I offer you something, a piece of me.  I offer you this card and say, “Check this out – I think you will enjoy it.”  Monty was all about “putting his stuff out in the world” – it was a healthy obsession with him. He also felt that in my battle with depression, too often I let depression win.  I think that in this moment Monty would be proud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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