Blessing their parenting

I have spent a lot of time in my life shopping in standard, big-chain grocery stores.  Now, with my health food proclivities and – let’s tell it straight – my 20% discount, I do most of my shopping in my store.  One of my bad memories of those big stores is the terrible parenting you got to see: the yelling, the threats, the slaps, the yanked arms.  We see actually very little of this in our grocery store.  Mostly the children are very well-behaved – and when they do act up the parents overall do a very good job of managing them.  I get to see enormous sweetness between parents and children.

And one of the blessings to me is the chance to bless their relationship – to hold up to parents and children just how well they are doing.  That happened for me with two particular families today.

Ira is a big, bruising guy who was so amazingly sweet with his five-year-old (I estimate) daughter – praising her in so many ways. For the way she put groceries on the belt from the cart in which she was standing: “I like the go-for-it way you stacked those boxes there” (5 high) – “they’re very even and balanced.”.  For the way she bagged the groceries: “I really like the way you put the heavy stuff on the bottom.”  (I bet he coached her on this on a previous trip.) “Hey, that was good thinking there – I like the way you did that.”  

When I said to him how much I admired his parenting, he said, “You know, sometimes I’m sleep deprived and not as good as this.  We have three-month old twins at home and it can all get kind of stressful.  But we regard each of them as a blessing and they come each of them with their own personality and we want to support it.”  He totally knocked me out – and I tried to get that across to him.  He seemed to get it, to receive my affirmation.  I think it made him feel good.

We get little snapshots of the parent--child relationship - but that picture can say a thousand words.

We get little snapshots of the parent–child relationship – but that picture can say a thousand words.

Later that same afternoon, a heavy mother came through with a likewise heavy daughter (maybe 10).  They were both really sweet – and there was such a sense of comfort between them. I said to the mom, “You’ve got a great relationship.”  She said, “Well, we like each other – we’re friends, in addition to being mom and daughter.”  It really showed that they were friends.  And they both lit up from having the light of affirmation shine on them.

No parent does a good job every moment.  There is a real tendency for us to judge ourselves based on our weakest moments.  To be witnessed doing well – and to have an outside person hold up that good moment, to be told that we are doing a good job – this can be powerful.  To have the chance to do this witnessing and affirming, this can be very gratifying.  Cashiering may often not seem like a powerful job, but here is a chance to make people feel better about themselves – now that’s power.

Who are these people?

A short post (it’s late – and I work at 9) after our staff holiday party – grocery stores don’t party in the big push before the holidays.

Who are these people?  Getting to know them outside of work, hearing their stories, they become much bigger – surprising, yet I kinda knew there was going to be lots more when I got a chance to know them better.  And I know that I have just barely scratched the surface.

  • Katie talking about her twin passions – painting and cheese.  I ask, “Could you hook me up with some new cheese?  I’m a little bored with my regulars.”  Her eyes get big.  “I’d love to.”
  • Charles talking about his passion for Kung Fu – especially exciting for me, because I’m going to start Tae Kwon Do (a related martial art) on Friday

    Martial arts -Charles lit up talking about his Kung Fu, and I lit up thinking about my first Tae Kwon Do class this Friday.

    Martial arts -Charles lit up talking about his Kung Fu, and I lit up thinking about my first Tae Kwon Do class this Friday.

  • watching Cierra, our team leader, get down and have fun
  • seeing Harlen, the toddler of our previous team leader Emmalea and her husband James – back to party with her old team – released from the shopping cart and running, dancing, being overall mesmerizing
  • Hearing A lay down some really great music
  • Charles (older than the kids), Tom (way older than the kids) and me (way older still) bust some moves on the dance floor that open some eyes.  I was half-way down the stairs to leave when I said to myself, “You left without saying goodbye to anybody – what a depressive thing to do.  You go back and say some goodbyes.”  Then the sight of Charles and Tom jamming combined with A’s beats lured me out on the dance floor –  first in my heavy winter coat, then with a couple layers stripped off.
Dance - between staying away when I've been depressed and going to Asheville three weeks ago,I haven't danced for three weeks.  And I still cut loose!

Dance – between staying away when I’ve been depressed and going to Asheville three weeks ago,I haven’t danced for three weeks. And I still cut loose!

And this old fart left at 10:30 – with another 90 minutes of party left.  I could regret the opportunities missed, but in this moment – still typing at 12:39 – I will not regret leaving early.  I had other work I needed to do at my computer before writing this.  I think I have just energy enough to pull up a photo or two (I hate to post just straight words).  Now there’s some kind of snag – I think a Word Press thing – with uploading photos.  And backing out of that it looked like I had erased this whole post.  I’m thrilled to have it back and am gonna go with straight text.  It’s not even amazing prose, but I’m posting it.  Hope it gives you a little glimpse of our party.  (And then – at 1:15 – the photos finally did work.  Geez, I gotta get to bed!)

“What’s been a highlight of your day?”

This is my stock question with customers.  Not “the” highlight of your day.  When people repeat my question back as “the highlight of my day”, I routinely re-route them: “No, not the highlight – that raises the bar too high.  Just any little thing that made you smile.”

This routine has several benefits:

  • It sidesteps the usual “How are you”s, which tend to yield nothing of value – and can be a set-up for insincerity, or bullshit.  When someone initiates before me with “How are you?”, I will say “Fine” – but mostly just to blow past that question and move on to my highlight question.  This question more encourages something genuine.
  • It gets me focusing outsides of myself and on them.  This is especially helpful when I’m depressed.
  • It takes us to a positive place.
  • It encourages – in me and in them – the habit of noticing little highlights to which we might otherwise pay no attention.

    One of my highlights at work is the amazing children I get to see.

    One of my highlights at work is the amazing children I get to see.

It doesn’t always work.  Sometimes they just can’t generate an answer – to this question or to my follow-up: “What are you looking forward to today?” (More on this later.)  S0metimes I can’t tell if they are ignoring me or just haven’t heard – this feels pretty awkward.  Sometimes they give answers that are hard for me to hear – like if they are the 30th person to say what a beautiful day it is outside.

Often they will ask me back.  This can lead to a good exchange.  Sometimes I use it as a chance to promote the blog – and I like my customers knowing about it and reading it.  Sometimes, when I’m depressed, I may have a hard time coming up with an answer.  I’ll write on this in another post.

I don’t ask the question all the time.  I will skip it if the person has a really small order (2-3 items), if they seem to be in a big hurry, if I have gone on automatic or am just too depressed to get there.  But overall things seem to go better if I am asking it – and blessing people’s replies, being happy for them that they are having these happy things in their lives, cheerleading for them for saying their good things out loud.

When we have to wait – tonglen practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we have to wait….

Most all of us spend time waiting in lines – including those of us who work for a living serving  customers who wait in line to get to us.  When we are waiting in line, we may get restless, frustrated or irritated – or we have the option to use that time otherwise.

  • If we notice that we have gotten to any extent upset from waiting, we can have compassion for ourselves – forgive and bless ourselves in this hurting state.
  • We can welcome the waiting as a mindfulness bell. bringing us back to this present moment.  A fortyish guy who came through my line the other day said, “I kind of like waiting – it gives me a chance to slow down.”
  • We can bless our purchases.  This may be easier if we are buying something as positive as good food.
    • We can pay attention to the feel of each item as we put it out on the conveyor belt.
    • We can feast on the colors, sizes and shapes of the items.
    • We can arrange them on the belt in some way that is fun or satisfying for us.
    • We can picture these products giving us health.
    • We can be grateful for having the money to buy them.

      We can use our time waiting to play with our food, like this customer did.

      We can use our time waiting to play with our food, like this customer did.

  • Whether or not we have a cashier who is liable to ask us “What’s been a highlight of your day?”, we can rehearse our answer to that question.  We can say it to our cashier even if they don’t ask.  We can ask them what’s been a highlight of their day.  If they have been under pressure with a long line, they may especially profit from such an injection of positive energy.
  • We can chat with the people in front of or behind us.
  • We can bless the cashier as we are waiting to get to them.
    • May they not be stressed.
    • May they be efficient and accurate.
  • This blessing of the cashier can be especially powerful when we get in front of them.  We can be a little bomb of positive energy.  Our smile and our words can be an invitation to the cashier to come out into the light.


When we don’t have access to any of these strategies – when it seems that the best we can do is to get frustrated and irritated – we can return to forgiving and blessing ourselves.

Loving the hostile old man in me

My therapist Lorrie is reading and loving this blog.  This is flattering, affirming and encouraging.  One way this is a mixed blessing is that when she sees in my writing an area where I’m stuck, she feels empowered to offer me the chance to get unstuck.

A week ago, December 21, in a post entitled “Customers who piss you off” (the search box in the right hand column will take you right there), I described a customer: “About 60 – tall and wiry – he presented very defended – strong male body armor, cold, hostile.  I immediately took a dislike to him.  I didn’t want him in front of me.”  At my therapy session two days after this post went up, Lorrie asked, “What was it about him that made you not want him in front of you?”

What made it so hard for me to respond to this guy with compassion?

What made it so hard for me to respond to this guy with compassion?

I knew immediately that I had been found out.  What made me reject him?  Well the part of me that is like him.  Some would call this the shadow.  I like my persona – what I lead with, what I identify with.  My persona is soft, undefended, warm, embracing.  It’s how a lot of people would describe me.  But it’s not all there is to me.  I have a part of me that is very defended, cold and hostile.  I hate it when I go there.  I hate me when I go there.  I have it in me to get mad when I think I’m being charged the wrong price.  I don’t go there very often, but I could go there.

So I got mad at this guy because he reminded me of me – a part of myself that I reject.  This is probably true most of the time that a customer (or anyone) pisses us off.  And the rest of the time they probably are reminding us of someone from our past who hurt us or who for some other reason we still resent.  This makes these people real gifts to us – they expose what in us still needs healing, still needs loving.

If we seem these people as gifts, we may see that they are clearly in pain – or they would not be behaving in unfriendly ways or radiating toxic energy.  If we see them as gifts and in pain, we may find it in our hearts to have compassion for them.  And the big payoff of having compassion for them is that it will open up the possibility of having compassion for the part of us that is like them.

I won’t be able to catch this dynamic right away every time it happens.  I will still get pissed off at the occasional customer.  I will need to have compassion for myself for having a hostile response to a customer.  Having compassion for myself will make it easier for me to have compassion for the hurting person in that customer.  Having compassion for them will make it more likely that I can have compassion for the hurting part of me that they remind me of.

And that’s not a bad deal at all.

A grocery store holiday greeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Happy holidays.”

This present moment

Today is going to be my first full-on bipolar post – particularly dealing with depression.  It had to happen eventually.  My good friend Johanna said to me the other day, “If you don’t write about your depression, the blog will have no integrity.”  It’s for sure that there’s no way to write with integrity about my experience today without writing about depression.  It makes me very squeamish: lots of my co-workers are reading this, lots of customers.  But I signed on for this – I promised to write through the lens of someone who lives with bipolar disorder.  So let ‘er rip.

It’s been a very hard day.  My cruel biochemistry is having its way with me.  My core depressive symptom – painful physical contraction – has been very intense.  Add on to that a lot of discouraged and sad feelings, and wretched self-talk and you have a recipe for misery.  It’s been punishing and unrelenting.

The physical contraction of depression can be crushing - can make it hard to stand up straight.

The physical contraction of depression can be crushing – can make it hard to stand up straight.

Except not totally unrelenting, if I be completely honest.  I have had many little positive experiences.  I want to say that none of them has helped, because I keep returning to the same miserable, contracted state.  But in fact, in the middle of those positive experiences I have had moments of release.

Several of my friends have come through my line or waved as they moved through the store.  None of that shifted my mood – but did my heart not lighten momentarily at the sight of them?  My friend Christine came through my line.  When I told her I was glad to see her, I meant it.  And when, at the end of our encounter, she said that she was happy to see me, I could see in her face that she meant it.  That touched my heart.  It didn’t matter that moments later my contracted biochemistry asserted itself – that moment still happened.

When Caroline and her husband – my “Stickers for seniors” couple from yesterday’s post – came through my line and she said, “We’ll take the senior discount – and stars”, that made me happy…even if only for that moment.

When – out of the corner of my eye – I saw my friend Jenn in my line, my heart skipped a beat.  My heart got happy – that was real, no matter what happened next.

When Caryl and Brian came through my line, we did a little happy dance about Monday’s post where I described her giving me her hat.  They loved the post as much as I did.  It was a sweet encounter.  That can’t be taken away from me.

I have had more lovely experiences in this one day than most people have in a week – or longer.  That didn’t have the power to stop my suffering.  I could pile on the punishment by blasting myself for not being able to hold on to the good feelings: “Look, you’re such a wreck that you have all these wonderful things happen to you and you waste them.”  But I don’t need to go there.  The suffering doesn’t need to invalidate the good experiences.

I had moments of joy today.  I had moments of love.  They didn’t last – but no feelings last.  Yeah, these went away really fast and really thoroughly – but that doesn’t make them any less valid.  It may make them a little more heartbreaking – to have a taste of joy and then have it snatched away.  But still it was real.

I am very fortunate to work in a setting where I get to experience moments of joy, moments of love.  The real waste is not to have them go away – that could not be helped.  The real waste would be to not be grateful for having them.  I may end the day feeling as bad as when I started – the physical contraction, at least, is not likely to have changed.  But I will end the day a richer man – a genuinely lucky person.