Making the world a sweeter place

I really am not giving up on this blog.  I continue to have wonderful experiences at the grocery store, some of which don’t have any obvious hook to the new blog – and I will want to write them up here.  But, honestly, most of my writing energy right now is going to “Releasing the Force: Activism with Heart.”

Here’s this morning’s post, which comes out of my shift yesterday at the grocery store and clearly lives in both worlds.

girl-in-grocery-line

Have you ever gotten to the checkout and realized you had forgotten something?  That’s what happened to McKenzie. 

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Merry Day After the Day After Christmas

I sing a song of Christmas
All  the things that happened and that didn’t happen
The times I reached out
And the times I kept my mouth shut
Christmas more than any other day
Is so overloaded with meanings
Memories and disappointments
How do we touch the fantasied
Joys of Christmas past?
How do we make up for
All the pain we have endured on this day?
And it’s not just us
All around us – everywhere in our society
Societies
People reaching too high
Being brought too low
If I can get this to happen with this person
I will be vindicated as a person
It will validate my life
Once all these false ornaments
Have fallen off the Christmas tree
What is left?

Today
Today I kept my mouth shut
When I felt the urge to say things
That could have stirred old wounds
Today I completely emptied my storage locker
Itself an exercise in confronting old demons
And tiny Christine, the property manager
Offered, from the goodness of her heart,
To help me of the broken wing
My immobility an assault on my manliness
Not inconsequential
To hoist two boxes into my car
Then did it all by herself
And my hundred dollar monthly payments end today
Today, my therapist Lorrie listened to me
And helped me make sense of all this and more
Helped me understand
That I’m making up all the meanings I put on these things
That I don’t have to do anything to fix these things
That my pain is mine to deal with
That no one needs to heal it
That no one needs to hear it
But maybe my therapist and maybe a good friend
Today my housemate Lucy
A good friend
Listened to me
While I reinforced what I needed to remember from Lorrie
While I sorted out some things that were still not clear
While I praised  myself for some little victories
While I extolled my love for people who have helped me
And people who have pissed me off
Today the guy at Hearn’s Cycles
To whom I took my brother’s old bike

picture-of-old-bicycle
That he gave me when he was dying of cancer
And now it seems that I am never going to ride
And have no place to keep
Which I desperately wanted to save from  the dump
The Hearn’s guy, on whom I dumped all this story
Gave me a strong handshake
Looked me in the eye
And said “Your brother’s bike will have new life.
I promise you this.”

Today, having returned from slaying and being half slain by
All these dragons
At the storage locker and the bike shop and the dump
My little four pound dog Toni
Greeted me like the hero I’ve always tried to be
And in one day have proved so often not to be
And maybe am anyway
She snuggled in my arms
And got very quiet and totally content
In that moment she wanted nothing else
And in that moment, that one blessed moment
Neither did I.

I went to heaven

(I continue to be on sick leave from my broken arm.  Some combination of solitude, newly living in the country with a wonderful housemate, and all the love and support my friends have been pouring out on me seems to have me reflecting on my spiritual life.  Here’s part of the story.)

My early life was quite religious, but never spiritual.  My family life was loaded with trauma and my Catholic schooling was populated with a vengeful God – not a God of love, not a channel for transcendence.

Using marijuana in college (late 60’s) and taking several acid trips in grad school, I started to dismantle my ego.  Each acid trip started with an experience of such intense oneness that I just wanted to stay there – and was followed by my ego fighting back and leading me to terrifying dark places.

Also in graduate school I was exposed to Eastern religion. I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation and that first initiation took me to heaven – the freedom from the ego that I felt with acid, with none of the chaos or loss of control.  But, while I had many more nice experiences during my two years of TM meditation, I never went to heaven again.

Si Chinmoy took me to heaven.  I read Be Here Now by Ram Das (didn’t we all?) and came away from that reading really wanting a teacher.  I never had any sense that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM might be my teacher, but now I was ready for one.  I was living in upstate New York, but my wife and I had taken jobs in Nova Scotia.  Two weeks before we moved, I went to a yoga retreat at a nearby spiritual center that I had never visited.  I had heard that Ken Pillar, the director of the center, had a reputation as a psychic.  When I walked into the center for the first time, Ken called to me across a large room, “You’re going on a long tip – you’re going to meet your teacher.”

About a month after moving near Amherst Nova Scotia (we bought a little farm house on the Bay of Fundy 20 miles from our jobs in Asheville and in the neighboring Spring Hill), I was looking at a bulletin board in town.  It was devoid of any reference to personal growth, consciousness or Eastern religion.  Except for one poster for the Halifax Sri Chinmoy Meditation Center: “Open meditation Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Sunday mornings at 10 a.m.  No charge.”

Halifax was about three hours from Amherst.  I called the number on the poster and spoke with a very warm and friendly young man named Jim.  We arranged that I would leave work an hour early the next Wednesday and drive to Halifax, then stay overnight in a guest room at the center and drive back to Amherst the next morning before work.

That next Wednesday I was filled with happy anticipation: I was maybe on the path to meet my teacher!  I understood from Jim that Sri Chinmoy lived full-time in New York City (the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens).  It was a long trip from Halifax, but the “disciples” – which the committed students called themselves –  and other students would frequently pile in a car (lots of drivers) and drive the thirteen hours to New York, so there wold be plenty of opportunity to see “Guru”.  None of this talk of disciples or guru fazed me: I wanted a guru and I was ready to be a disciple.

srichinmoycloseup

Sri Chinmoy

I arrived at the meditation center about 15 minutes early and had some animated chatter with Jim and Harvey, who lived at the center, and about eight other people.  I was told that not all of them were disciples, that there was a special process you went through to become one – and that male disciples were dressed in crisply pressed white shirt and pants, and women in saris.  None of this caused even a bump for me.  I was picturing myself in those white shirts and pants.

Jim explained that Sri Chinmoy’s path followed a Hindu lineage called bhakti yoga – the yoga of love, devotion, and surrender.  This lineage was strong in the part of Bengal where Sri Chinmoy was born, including the Sri Aurobindo ashram where he grew up. The way you meditated was to sit (everybody sat in straight-backed chairs) and look at a table with a tall lighted candle and a picture of the guru in his highest meditation.  You could meditate on the candle flame or the picture.  Because, in the picture, Guru was looking at the divine – the Supreme, our divine father – looking at him could take you there.

Sri Chinmoy meditates

Sri Chinmoy looking at God

When the meditation began, I had a few minutes of restlessness, then got quiet inside.  After two years of TM, 20 minutes twice a day, I did have some skill at quieting my mind.  But I was not prepared for what came next: I went back to heaven!  That experience of transcendence that I had experienced once only in two years of TM was right here again – and if anything even stronger.  I’m not going to try to describe how happy I was.

That night I went to bed filled with peace and happiness.  Even though I was sleeping in a strange place, I slipped easily into sleep – and all night long I had terrifying dreams of a strange Indian guy who was trying to steal my mind! In the morning, I dressed quietly and slipped down the hall to where my shoes would be waiting by the front door – and I could escape.  When I tiptoed past Jim’s room, he called out, “John!” “Yeah.”  “Do you want to meditate?”  “Er, uh, sure.”  I don’t remember what went through my mind as I prepared to meditate.  What I remember with extraordinary vividness is that as my breathing quieted and my body got peaceful and I looked at the picture of  the guru, I went right back to heaven again!

This experience of visiting heaven repeated many times over the next three years on the Sri Chinmoy path – and very seldom in the forty years since I left it.  I’ve had many wonderful experiences, but not that.  As my friend Tom Kilby said to me tonight when I described some of this to him, “Dude, you’ve been to heaven!  What’s up now?  Why are you not going there?”  In this time of solitude and no work and all this love and support flooding in to me, I think I am meant to explore this question.

 

You are so beautiful

I’m on the shelf – injured, out of work.  It’s meant to be a time of reflection.  My minister, who prizes my  poetry, threw down the gauntlet: “Write a poem about yourself.”  (My therapist had given me the same assignment a half-dozen times – “But I wasn’t out of work then, Lorrie!”) My last blog post “The miracle of the surgery scheduling” is all about being loved and protected – and that story keeps making me cry.  My friend Kimberly  read that post and left a comment: “You are so loved and protected every minute of the day. We all love you Majo!” I sent that to my therapist, who I am scheduled to see on Tuesday, along with this thought from me: “I think I was put here to discover the truth of that. If realizing that the OR scheduler saved a precious slot for me makes me cry every time, then realizing how totally loved I am – what will that do?”  I’m meant to get my hands around this. And so I wrote a poem.  It poured out as fast as I could type it.  It came from somewhere else – certainly not from my limited mind. Some of it may speak to you. 

You Are So Beautiful
When I was growing up, it was not safe to be good
I was born nine years into my parents’ marriage
A miracle baby, when they had almost given up
I was adored – a little God
My karma was set – I was meant to be worshipped
Then 16 months later my little brother was born
I was the miracle child – the prince
And he was, “Oh, he’s nice too”
And thus my real life path was set
I am meant to be wonderful
But not to get caught at it
By someone who will be hurt by it

Then, after my father died
My mother remarried
A man who hated me for being the apple of her eye
My own father’s jealousy was softened by his pride in me
I was his son
My stepfather not only hated me
He hated my mother for loving me
And so I was the cause of so much pain between them
Not just me – my goodness
My goodness caused pain
My goodness was a bad thing

The nuns taught us about the sin of pride
To like yourself is a bad thing

I have spun several theories about why in college
I loved my fraternity so much
Awesome parties, drinking was a lot of fun
The frat drew pretty girls
The guys in this particular fraternity
Were serious students, very smart, very funny
I have, over the years, spun several theories
But now, in this moment, I go to the heart of it:
I liked that fraternity
Because those guys liked themselves
And so they liked me
And they were a kind of community
When I shined in academics
Or in running track – really, it was a few years ago
I reflected well on them
It was safe to be good

My friend Kate the other night
Was journaling on her shadow
She asked me “What’s the opposite of jealousy?”
I said oneness
I learned it from Sri Chinmoy
My old spiritual teacher
When we would be jealous of the San Franciso meditation center
So loaded with musical talent
He said, “You are separating yourself
From them – that’s the big mistake.
Feel your oneness with them.”

And now at Jubilee
People love me so much
Appreciate my poetry so much
But they appreciate me
Because my poetry is so personal
I show so much shadow in my poetry
Poke so much fun at myself
I think people get it that
I’m not all full of myself
But still it’s safe to like myself
When I need a fix
I’ll go to the prayer wall, to Ruth Stephens
She’ll say, “We all love you so much”
It’s a community – it’s about us
It’s like a fraternity on steroids
Or really on grace
It’s why we like the musicians and the other artists
When they shine – the Paulas, the Delias, the Daniels, the Shems, the Jim Taylors, the Brian Claflins
Then we shine

I have this housemate Lucy who clearly is amazing in many ways
I told her so – “You really are amazing”
She admitted it – “I think I really am amazing”
It was thrilling – we have it out in the open, not hidden
If she knows that she’s amazing
Then I don’t have to hide it that I’m amazing
She won’t hate me for it
She loves me for it
One thing on which we always seem to agree
We each think the other is amazing

Yesterday at Jubilee
We sang to a newly baptized little boy
As his parents carried him around the room
For us to adore him
The Joe Cocker song
“You are so beautiful”
Did I resent him for being adored?
No, I got really happy!
It happens most every time
Baptisms are the best!
I think for mostly all of us
Why do we not get jealous of these little babes?
There is some magic here
Is it their innocence, their vulnerability?
Is it the active or latent parent in each of us
When we see this little child so deeply loved
We feel loved too
They called the child Redeemer
And so it is – we are redeemed.

“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.

Is it a good thing for them to give?

Not always.

We’re asking for money at the cash registers again – for a very good cause, one I can really get behind (Our Voice, a community agency that fights against sexual and domestic abuse).  There are all kinds of good reasons why it might be good for our customers to say “No”.  They may need to pull their energy in today.  Even thinking about this agency may trigger some of their own traumatic experiences.  The bottom line is that in that moment “No” may have the most integrity for them – may in some way even be healing.

Brother...

If we want to let it be equally as good for them to say “No” as “Yes”, then – to keep our own energy intact – we need to somehow just not care whether they give or not.   We need to plant our feet, take a deep breath, hold our center – and simply be glad we asked.  That’s all: we did our part in the dance.  Now we turn it over.

Now here’s where there’s a delicate paradox.  At the same time that you don’t care whether they give or not – while you say to yourself that “No” may be just the right answer for them – still it’s OK and maybe useful to have another part of your mental machinery that is pulling for them to say “Yes”.

Why?  Because, overall, yes is more life-affirming than no.  It’s good to say yes. It’s a celebration of life.  Be happy for them that they are in a place of yes.  If they are in a conflicted place, cheer for them to break through their no barriers and choose life.

Bless them whichever way they choose.  This is good for you too.  Embrace life. Don’t ask because you are supposed to ask or because it will look good in your numbers.  Ask because you believe in the cause.  Ask because you want be filled with yes energy.  Ask because you want to offer your customer the chance to have a yes moment.  Ask  because it’s a chance – in a job that sometimes can become robotic – for real human contact.  Ask because otherwise you’re just swiping groceries.

Bring out all your compassion for customers who are in a place of no.  It’s a painful place.  I say “Great”, whether people say yes or no – and I really mean it.  When I say “Have a great day”, I lean into it even a little more with people who have said no.  “I think your day maybe hasn’t been all that great so far.  I wish for it to get better.”

I give them all my big toothy grin at the end.  If they think I’m a goof, so be it.  It may help them dispel any energy that accumulated during this transaction.  It might be right.

My blessings list

All day long at the grocery store, I ask people “What’s been a highlight of your day?” I breeze right past “How are you today?”, which tends to pull for a lot of bullshit.  If they beat me to the punch and ask me how I am, I give the obligatory “Fine” (which they are liable not to believe any way) and jump to the good stuff.

If they reflect my question as “What’s been the highlight of my day?”, I correct them.  “A highlight, not the highlight – you don’t have to figure out what was the biggest one.  Just pick any one of the little ones.”

Part of the point of this is to get us/me to focus on all these little ones – to notice that they are happening.  Another, less secular version of this is my blessings list.  I periodically wander away from this – forget to do it for months at a time.  Then a big blessing is that something brings me back to it.

Absent practices like this I become a little unintentional atheist.  My ego/mind takes over and convinces me that all is chaos, that I am alone and helpless in this big, uncaring world.

I can create my list in lots of formats: maybe my fav is here in my laptop, but I can also write them down in my little pocket-sized spiral-bound notebook or aloud as I drive home from work.  When my dog was still alive, I used to do this almost every evening as I took him for a walk – that was a juicy way to do it, because I was surrounded by blessings: being out for a walk, my neighborhood which I liked, the company of my dog who I loved.  I can directly trace the loss of this practice – two years ago, yikes! – to the loss of my dog.

This example, from my morning, shows how little these blessings can be:

  • Tuesday – 2/9
    • 67 biltmore – spotting that brochure just when i was trying to remember the name of the restaurant
    • google calendar – lots of good stuff, really apprecitaing my smartphhone
    • i get to get a new phone in July!
    • I can feel so good about something happening so many months from now!
    • making plans with the cortes family
    • Netflix worked – Kung Fu Panda shipped
    • a whole new world of Netflix! (I used to belong, but not for several years now)
    • I am having a very pleasant time at my desk thismorning
    • I made myself a nice breakfast

 

I am making plans to attend a meditation at the Open Heart meditation center here in Asheville.  Just thinking about this – and talking with Steve Swearingen and Bob Lantis, two friends who attend and are very enthused about it – has got me going back to two practices that massage my heart: my prayer list (which I resumed a couple of weeks ago) and this blessings list, resumed yesterday.

What’s going to happen when i crack the book Steve loaned me or listen to the meditation CD – much less make it to the actual center?!