He was just trying to greet me.

This post is about twice as long as is recommended for blog posts, but I think you will find it very thought-provoking.

About a dozen years ago, on a lovely Spring afternoon, I was walking down a pretty Chicago side street, talking on my cell phone.  I had my cordless headset on with the actual phone in my pants pocket, so was not obviously on the phone.  It was totally understandable that the schizophrenic guy walking toward me on the other side of the street, also talking to somebody who wasn’t there, took me as one of his peeps.  He gave me a big smile, a hearty wave and a super-friendly “Hi”.  I will always regret pulling my phone out of my pocket to let him know that I was actually talking to a real person.  Why did I have to do that?  Sure I’m not schizophrenic, but I had already for several years carried a psychiatric diagnosis (first clinical depression, then the more accurate bipolar disorder) . But schizophrenics are at the bottom of the mental illness food chain – they are really crazy (never mind that I have met schizophrenics who are very high functioning, many better in some ways than me).  There are some who claim to have completely recovered from mental illness – and look and sound for all the world like they have.  But I still don’t want “them” in my support group – I want it to be “just us”.  Anyway, my compadre on the other side of the street just hung his head and continued on.

A little while ago, on an equally lovely Fall morning, I put my sweater over a table outside a cafe in the perfect-temperature sunlight and went inside to order some food.  I immediately became aware that the young guy at a table at 11 o’clock was mentally challenged. I don’t know what his diagnosis would be.  When I was trained as a clinical psychologist 40 years ago, they didn’t put much emphasis on mental retardation. You would have had to work hard to get a practicum working with “that population”. (Hey, back then they didn’t even know about bipolar disorder; it was manic-depressive psychosis – if you didn’t have delusions and/or hallucinations, you didn’t get diagnosed.) But I’ve had enough experience with “mentally handicapped” people to recognize the look – and the sound. And I somehow, out of the corner of my eye, spotted the family member or social worker who was with him.  Or maybe I just assumed they were there – this guy was not out and about alone, I felt sure.

So I recognized his voice when, ten minutes later – with me all caught up in my lunch and my laptop, pretending to multitask while I am swayed by the research showing that we really can’t do that very well. He came up behind me, talking to his voices or his worker – or me! I felt a hand on my back and knew it must be him.  That was literally a first.  In my 69 years of life, I think it’s totally possible that I have never touched a “retarded” person, old or young. If perhaps I did an assessment with one (with instruments that were primitive for “normal” people and probably grossly inappropriate for mentally challenged people) during my clinical training forty years ago, we were taught by our Freudian supervisors never to touch a “patient” (not “client” or – gasp! – a “consumer”).

This guy who was apparently attempting to talk to me: Do other people understand him? Does he understand them? Does he know how to use a phone? Does he have a job? So much I don't know. I guess acknowledging that I don't know is a start.

This guy who was apparently attempting to talk to me: Do other people understand him? Does he understand them? Does he know how to use a phone? Does he have a job? So much I don’t know. I guess acknowledging that I don’t know is a start.

As I turned in his direction – being careful to not make eye contact (what do I think?  It’s catching?) – it became clear that he was talking to me.  Now in Asheville initiating a conversation with a stranger on the street is more the norm than inappropriate.  Even if the person is very odd, like the woman who joined in Marian and my conversation yesterday on the porch at Greenlife.  The fact that we were talking about bipolar disorder, which I have, did make it seem inappropriate – and then she was odd in other ways. She had in her shopping cart some broken-down cardboard boxes which she set up on her table around her laptop, creating an impromptu cubicle.  (I guess the Greenlife management turned down her request for a private office.)  But even here we let into our conversation.  Actually, Marian was very polite and talked with her some.  I had earlier on diagnosed her as “crazy”, just from the boxes, and didn’t want any part of this conversation, even though the little parts of it I did hear seemed only odd, not loony-tunes.  I finally, when this person showed no signs of tiring of the conversation, interrupted to say, “Marian and I actually have some business to transact” (which was true, though it would not have been truthful to say that there was any objective hurry for the two of them to break off their conversation).

So anyway (who’s tangential – one of those words I learned in my psychiatric training and maybe have never used since, to this very moment.  Probably no loss.), it was clear that this young guy was talking to me.  I looked at his worker (family member? How could you tell? Could they look alike, in spite off having such different stations in life?), who shrugged her shoulders like she didn’t have any more idea than me what he was saying.  I still hadn’t made eye contact and made an instant decision not to.  I went back to my work with my computer, burying my nose in it – if you can do that like you do with a book.  He took an abrupt step back from me and then continued down the street – I thought with slumped, discouraged shoulders.

What was he trying to tell/ask me?

  • “You look like a nice man.”
  • “Do you come here often?”
  • “I had the soup, too – it was great.”
  • “I’m lonely.”

I’ll never know, maybe because

  • I didn’t pay attention to him.
  • No real attention had ever been paid to teaching him to speak better.
  • His worker was not well-trained and not able to translate for him.
  • She had not been on the job long, like pretty much no one stays in these “entry-level”, poorly paid jobs.

So I who pride myself in being all about engagement with people – including spontaneous, improvisational encounters on the street or in the theater – missed a chance. Missed a chance in a way that I chronically miss chances – chances to engage with people who are in general marginalized and maybe thus even more in need of friendly connection. Missed the chance to reward a guy who was maybe pretty heroic to reach out, given that he gets responses like this all the time and I had not given him any encouragement.

I missed a chanced.  I’m disappointed.  But I got a blog post out of it.  And if I really listen to what I’m writing here, I may not always miss these opportunities.  I may still miss some – old habits die hard.  But maybe not all.  And if I take a chance and it goes well – even to just exchange smiles and head nods, like I do with foreign language speakers at my cash register – these successes may build on each other and I  may be on the way to a new habit.

Expanding in a grounded way

I am participating in Jessica Chilton’s brilliant Shine Expansive:  30 minutes a day for 30 days, to clarify our purpose and summon our courage to move past our fears and start to shine – to live out our true expanded selves.  For today’s lesson, she had us write out some of our fears on postits and then post them around a doorway in our house.  She then encouraged us to have a conversation with each of them and see what they might be telling us as we prepare to move into a more expanded life.  Here’s what happened for me as I did this exercise.

What makes me fear a bigger, more successful, more love-filled life? Can getting to know those fears help me be successful in my expanded life?

What makes me fear a bigger, more successful, more love-filled life? Can getting to know those fears help me be successful in my expanded life?

As I posted my fears around my doorway, preparing to confront them one by one and find the courage to move past them to a more expanded life on the other side, I made a realization that amazingly managed to elude me at last year’s Shine Expansive. I have bipolar disorder and for me expansion has become equivalent with mania. Expansion= mania, contraction=depression.

A little bit of mania works good for me. I do manifest many of the characteristics of expansion that we are talking about here. But several of the fears I wrote on my postits are really fears of my own mania: “I fear that if I trust my own judgment too much I will make bad decisions”, “I fear that I will leave my job and not physically survive”,   “I fear that if I have a romantic relationship I will never work.” All of these fears have some realistic basis regarding things I have done when I’m manic. So them asking me to stop at the doorway is not a bad thing. I can see them as benevolent gatekeepers, asking me to get my feet firmly rooted on the ground before I go out into my big life. If I do this, I can retrieve the word expand for a good meaning: “not held back by depression”, “expanding into my big self, with my feet firmly on the ground.”

I’m going to keep those postits on my doorway and practice checking in with them before I leave for my day. Perhaps as some deeper and wiser part of me takes over the role of keeping my feet on the ground, I will have less need for depression to keep me in balance.

Killing the bat

“I ain’t givin’ you nuthin’.”  I thought this immediately and unabashedly towards the nasty man next in line at my checkout today.  Immediately after greeting the lovely young woman who was right in front of me, I turned to greet him as the person next in line.  I’ve been taught that it’s good practice to let them know that you see them and are looking forward to serving them, especially if they have been waiting a while and the order in front of them is somewhat extensive.  But greeting this sixtyish guy – well dressed, neatly trimmed beard – did not apparently serve the desired purpose: he only scowled and snarled some words that I couldn’t make out.

This threw me off center. My mood had improved over the course of the day from pretty depressed in the morning .  But my more upbeat mood felt fairly vulnerable – dealing with this hostile man could throw me way off my game. I immediately devised a plan.  I would pay as little attention as possible to this nasty bird, instead focusing all my attention on the lovely young woman.  I would milk as many good vibes as possible from connecting with her – and be filled up with good energy when I needed to deal with him.

The first leg of this strategy went well.  The girl was totally charming and the connection between us was very positive.  I did think, with some measure of delight, that seeing the sweetness unfolding between us might rub this guy’s nose in his own sourness.  By the time she finished up and left, I did feel solid and ready to do battle with this codger.

But the battle I had prepared for did not materialize.  The guy was not mean or nasty – more just limp and self-involved. I followed through on my plan of giving him nothing: I did the basic business questions: “Do you have a frequent shopper number or coupons or discounts with us?  Are you a student or teacher?” (student and teacher discount day)  He answered a glum “No” on all counts.  His order was small and processed quite quickly – then he was gone.

What had happened?  This guy who had started out so hostile, when he reached the head of the line presented just quiet and maybe a little defeated.

About 35 years ago, my wife and I lived in a cute little farmhouse on the shore of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.  It was sweet living in the country, but there were elements of country living for which we were unprepared..  One of these was the bat in our house.  One night, well after dark, my wife ran to me in the living room and somewhat hysterically announced that there was a bat in our bedroom.  I felt a swelling of male bravado and went to the kitchen where I picked up our broom, christened it Excalibur and headed for the bedroom.  But my challenger was not easily dispatched.  I missed him again and again and his attempts to elude me had him sometimes flying just above my head.  Had you asked me, I would probably have denied that I also had gotten kind of hysterical – but it would have been pretty much the truth.

Why have bats been such an archetype of danger in the night?  Why are we so quick to think that a stranger is dangerous?

Why have bats been such an archetype of danger in the night? Why are we so quick to think that a stranger is dangerous?

I had closed the bedroom door so that the bat could not escape to other parts of house, but there were moments when I regretted the intense battle to the death.  I really did not think that the bat had the wherewithal to kill me, but who knows what impact all those vampire movies were having on me.  Finally I landed a direct hit, crushing the bat between the broom and the ceiling, and he crumpled to the floor.  I pushed him around with the broom and he seemed to definitely be dead.  Killed him with one blow – attaboy Majo.  (Never mind the couple dozen missed swings.)

And what was the most salient element as I surveyed my vanquished foe?  How very, very small he was – a mouse with wings.  So fragile that one good shot with a broom killed him.  I felt tremendously sheepish for how much anger and anxiety I had directed towards him.  What kind of threat had he actually ever been?

And so what of my would-be nemesis in the grocery store checkout line?  To what extent had he ever actually been a threat?  What about his scowl and snarl from half-way down the line?  Were they actually directed at me?  Did I read his non-verbal signals correctly at all?  Did he simply have gas?  Or did his mood mellow as he moved towards me?  Did he ask himself, “Why am I so angry at this cashier?”  Did watching the lovely dance between me and the young woman in front of him have some kind of impact?  It could have increased his depression, if that’s what we was wrestling with.

I want to remember this story in a package with my bat story.  I want to not respond with hostility or aggression towards supposed foes who may actually be no threat at all.  I want to observe my own anxiety and see if I can ground myself, discover a peaceful place in myself.  I want to ask myself “Does this person need to be my enemy?”

I want to remember the coaching from A Course in Miracles that every person is always either offering love or asking for love. Including each customer.  Including me.

That’s why we’re here…

I had just had a brief exchange with a coworker who recently experienced a terrible loss.  The exchange itself had not been particularly deep – she was showing me a meditation passage on loss that was meaning a lot to her.  But then every exchange with her on this topic is feeling very deep – and this little conversation gave me goosebumps.

Then I had to pull away to wait on  a customer.  I initiated my usual exchange with “What’s been a highlight of your day?”  I honestly don’t remember Jill’s reply, but when she asked the question back of me, I related what had just gone on with “a coworker”.  I ended by saying “It gave me goosebumps…and now, telling you about it, I’ve got goosebumps again.  I’m really feeling it – and feeling so deeply is a highlight for me.”

Jill said “That’s what we’re here for, is to feel things.  We’re not here to be up in the clouds.”  This felt right on the money, and I felt very seen.

When I googled for photos of feelings, I kept getting things about love.  A Course in Miracles says there are two basic feelings, love and fear.  When we are in fear, we may get so frozen that it's hard to keep feeling and hard to communicate, but maybe there is the chance for big healing if we open our heart to our fear.

When I googled for photos of feelings, I kept getting things about love. A Course in Miracles says there are two basic feelings, love and fear. When we are in fear, we may get so frozen that it’s hard to keep feeling and hard to communicate, but maybe there is the chance for big healing if we open our heart to our fear.

Bipolar disorder can facilitate the feeling of feelings – and can impede it.  When I’m a little bit speedy, I tend to feel things intensely, I am touched by the feelings and situations of others and am moved easily to tears.  I can also be deeply touched by joy or beauty or love.  Similarly, when I am just a little bit depressed, I can feel things strongly – especially sadness or loss or pain.

When I get too speedy, I get way up in my head and don’t feel my feelings – except for anger, which comes more easily.  When I am too depressed, I also get into my head – ruminating over what I have done wrong or how screwed up everything is.  I get frozen as a defense against the pain.

Moving towards other people can be an antidote to the isolation of mania or depression – or of human life in general.  This includes really showing up when a coworker is sharing her pain, even when the content is a little heady,  It includes  being grateful for feeling feelings, even feelings that include a sense of vulnerability.  It includes opening up to  the comments of customers – to let them be teachers to me.

My best buddy Monty (RIP 1/10/15)

Monty was an individual - his gift was being true to himself.

Monty was an individual – his gift was being true to himself.

Monty (Montague Sam) Berman has been my best buddy for 35 years, but we have not lived near each other for 30 years – until last June, when he moved here to Asheville after living in the same house in Ithaca for 15 years.  Moved here at age 85 (I’m 68, but Monty thrives on close connections with younger people), knowing no one but me.  Came here hoping that he would somehow get more opportunities to teach than he was getting in Ithaca – and that maybe we would get a chance once again to teach or lead workshops together.

Monty could be very difficult at times - and could also be full of joy.  He pissed me off more than anyone else in my life - and there were other times that we totally, completely got each other's sense of humor.

Monty could be very difficult at times – and could also be full of joy. He pissed me off more than anyone else in my life – and there were other times that we totally, completely got each other’s sense of humor.

 

Monty and I led men’s groups together 30 years ago, before they became so popular.  He loves to tell the story of the one group where he played the good cop and me the “shit detector”, who would call men on their shit when they weren’t being really honest.  That’s a lot different from how I had facilitated before – or ever again did after that group.  And maybe the last time this irascible and challenging character Monty ever played the good cop in a personal growth group – maybe that’s why it was so much fun for both of us, because we were each going way outside of our usual personas.

Monty was incredibly smart - and largely self-taught.  He was in many ways a kind of personal growth guru - but he seldom ever set foot in a personal growth workshop.  He would read Fritz Perls and others, but mostly  he wanted the insights to come out of himself.  Even if something originated with John Welwood, he wanted to chew on it until it became his own.

Monty was incredibly smart – and largely self-taught. He was in many ways a kind of personal growth guru – but he seldom ever set foot in a personal growth workshop. He would read Fritz Perls and others, but mostly he wanted the insights to come out of himself. Even if something originated with John Welwood, he wanted to chew on it until it became his own.

When a new doctor asked Monty yesterday what brought him to Asheville, he said “My best buddy John”. (I’m still John to all my pre-Asheville friends.)  Maybe he moved here so I can help him die.  I have thought that thought several times since Monty’s lab studies and MRI’s over the last few months have showed his long-time prostate cancer to now be wildly out of control – moved probably to his bones, definitely to his liver.  The most recent prognoses have ranged from 1 – 1 1/2 years (his primary doc) to 4-5 years (his oncologist, who is very impressed by the new drug he put Monty on).  The new doc that Monty was talking to yesterday was the ER doc at the VA Hospital, who examined him, listened to his symptoms (a ferocious new pain in his side, which she thinks is bone cancer), went through all his records – and told him he may have just weeks to live.

Monty challenged me more than anybody else in my life - and sometimes quite harshly.  And nobody has ever admired me more.  Our relationship was sometimes a battle, but a battle between equals.

Monty challenged me more than anybody else in my life – and sometimes quite harshly. And nobody has ever admired me more. Our relationship was sometimes a battle, but a battle between equals.

 

She referred him to the VA hospice unit, with a promise that if he gets stronger he can go back to his apartment (or maybe better an assisted living apartment).  Monty and I have a tentative date to run a workshop at Jubilee in February: “The Case for God”.  Led by Monty (a devout atheist) and me (a non-theistic mystic), I think it will be hot.  Let’s all picture him being strong enough for it.

Monty adding his own vision to the "Before I die" wall on Biltmore Avenue - photo taken August 22nd.  Monty said that he didn't like some things about himself - like how judgmental he was of others - but that he never got down on himself for it, never felt bad about himself, never felt guilty.  I don't know how he pulled this off - I couldn't - but I believe he did.  When he walked through that final door, I'm sure he did it with no regrets.

Monty adding his own vision to the “Before I die” wall on Biltmore Avenue – photo taken August 22nd. Monty said that he didn’t like some things about himself – like how judgmental he was of others – but that he never got down on himself for it, never felt bad about himself, never felt guilty. I don’t know how he pulled this off – I couldn’t – but I believe he did. When he walked through that final door, I’m sure he did it with no regrets.

I wrote this post Friday afternoon, but didn’t have any of my Monty photos in the laptop I was using so didn’t post it.  Monty died Saturday morning at 5 a.m. All photos courtesy of Maureen Simon, who very quickly brought forward and captured so much of Monty’s spirit and depth and aliveness – and who I think kind of fell in love with him, which was maybe why he let himself shine for her. 

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.