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”.

LIFE – AND MORE LIFE
(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”.

 

 

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“I Want To Give You Space”

I performed this poem, which I wrote five years ago, at Jubilee today.  It’s a love poem and so fit the day after Valentine’s Day.  The text is below.  You can find audio (with beautiful keyboard by Chris Rosser and a slide show with sensitive photos thanks to Sandy Swanson) at http://www.somethingrises.com/Iwanttogiveyouspace.html.   Video of today’s performance (with lovely piano by Robert Thomas and beautiful dancing by Kathy Jennings) is at https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10155206822175716&set=o.54400281606&type=2&theater.  The poem is about four minutes long – if you like reading it, I’d encourage you to go onto the audio, and then maybe even the video.

Intro
I wrote this poem when I was in the throes of infatuation.  But even before I became uninfatuated I realized that it’s not really just about romance.  It’s actually about how I want all of my major relationships to work.  And it’s called “I Want To Give You Space”.

I want to give you space
But not by stepping back
I want to step towards you
All eyes and ears and heart and breath
All my nerves atingle
From the joy of seeing YOU!
In all your gorgeous, flawed humanity
You! As you are right now
You! As you soar and dance
And as you stumble, swear and fall
You!  In your frailty and tears
You! In your power and your glory
You! When you like yourself and when you don’t
You! When I like myself and when I don’t
But still to keep seeing you
Outside of my programs wants and needs
You! Beyond my foolish little dreams
Of who you are or ought to be
You! Bigger than you know or I know
You!  Never the same two days straight
You!  Becoming someone so big and free
She would scare both of us if we could see her now.

I want you to feel more space
To breathe and move
With me than by yourself
Or anywhere else
I want you to sing like only I am listening
To dance like only I am watching
To know I crave your anger and your joy
To know that I will step towards you
Or hold my ground – but not step back
No matter what

To know that my anger, also
Is a way I step towards you
And not a call for you to change
Even when I tell you to change
That’s not what I really mean
It means I don’t yet know
How to be with this part of you
But I will try
Or simply hold my ground
Until something shifts
And that something does
Not need to be you

I want to breathe and trust and be myself
And to know it’s not your job
To do or be anything for me
It’s my job to do and be for me
And to let all my friends help – including you
And my job to not mess with you
Just to love you, as best I can
And to get better at it all the time
And to keep my eyes open
Open wider all the time
To see who you are
And who you are becoming
And to let you take my breath away

 

Charm their pants off

At work this week, we got news that sounded on the surface like bad news: some of our popular customer discounts were being reduced.

The very popular senior discount is now just one day a week.

The very popular senior discount is now just one day a week.

The equally popular military discount is also going to just one day a week - and is being cut from 10% to 5%.

The equally popular military discount is also going to just one day a week – and is being cut from 10% to 5%.

The student/teacher discount continues at one day a week.

The student/teacher discount continues at one day a week.

When I worked at Greenlife a couple of years ago, they had recently been taken over by Whole Foods and the very popular senior discount was discontinued.  I’m sure nobody ever determined how many  seniors took their business elsewhere (including to my current store), but certainly some did – and some stayed but harbored resentments.

So how do you deliver potentially bad news in a positive way?  The company gave us some talking points.  The strategy is to not get rid of the discounts altogether, but to move towards optimally low prices applied to everybody.  I feared people would respond to that one with cynicism – “Low prices, sure.”  But they mostly seemed to accept it.

It will make it easier to focus on the discount of the day – new people may learn that they are qualified.  I’m disturbed by how often people tell me, “I’ve been coming here for years, but I never knew there was a military discount.”  Now on Thursdays we may poll more thoroughly for it.

My strategy is just to charm the daylights out of them.  Really go after them.  Let them know we want their business and their loyalty.  If there is any part of me that genuinely loves my customers (and there is), then lean into that part now.  We have a community of staff and customers at our store – and I don’t want that community ruptured.

I personally happen to think this is a positive way to go.  I am influenced by the young people who complain “I’m way more broke than the average senior citizen – I think it’s unfair that they get a discount but not me.”  Parents of young kids say similar things.  And nurses wonder why they don’t get a discount. And firefighters and police officers.  And students and teachers have wondered why their discount was just one day a week – now there is more parity there.

I had mixed success today trying to use that argument with customers.  Two of them together said, “Our young adult children are way more affluent than us on social security”, while others seemed to accept the fairness argument.

We're the face of the grocery store.  This is a brief period where the goodwill of some of our customers is at risk.  Let's pull out the stops to let them know we value them and their business.  It could be practice for going after people we care about in our lives.

We’re the face of the grocery store. This is a brief period where the goodwill of some of our customers is at risk. Let’s pull out the stops to let them know we value them and their business. It could be practice for going after people we care about in our lives.

I think a little apology is fine – this is a disappointment, we want to show that we understand that.  But not to come across with an apologetic attitude.  Stay proud of the store and of our commitment to our customers.  Lean into whatever positive gambits you usually use with customers.  I have been working in my stock “What’s been a highlight of your day?”

Some customers may go away mad – probably not for good (our primary competitors don’t offer these discounts any day of the week).  But there is the risk of them leaving – or at least of their enthusiastic connection to the store being diminished.  It’s a critical juncture here – time to pull out the stops for their loyalty.  Time for me to get out of my comfort zone – really show them we want them.  This could be really good for me – may transfer to other relationships where I want to pursue someone, want to show them I value them, want to come from my loving heart.

Why not? Otherwise you’re just swiping groceries.

Thursday evening p.s. Today I ran into a few people who were determined to be mad about this change, but many more who were susceptible to charm.  I had some who responded to my fairness gambit by saying things like “Well that makes sense”.  Most of the people I dealt with who are adversely affected are seniors.  I developed a whole patter about that change: “Man, I’m disappointed.  These are my peeps (I’m 68) and I’ll be missing them because I don’t work on Mondays…It will be like a seniors club in here on Mondays…We’ll play mahjong and bingo in the cafe”, etc.  Lots of people who started out bothered, worried, etc. walked away seeming at least content.

Some highlights: Wednesday, 1/28

All day long, as I stand behind my cash register, I ask people “What’s been a highlight of your day?” If they act all stumped and say “Gee, the highlight of my day…?”, I try to lower the bar: “not the highlight – a highlight, any little thing that  made you smile”.  Frequently they turn the question around and ask me.  Because I’m spending the day the way I am, my answers will frequently feature some of these very encounters with customers.  Here are some of my highlights from Wednesday, January 28.

10 a.m. – arrive at work. I’ve been depressed for 12 days.  My depressive cycles have been lasting, pretty consistently, 13-14 days – so I’m not expecting a change.

  • Five year old Shona arrives with his mom Mary and little sister Izzy.  He has had a crush on me for months, but lately he has been preoccupied with my 20-something rock musician wild man coworker Rowdy – who is really a very fun, charismatic young guy.  This morning Shona prevails on his mom to go to Rowdy’s line, which provokes lots of tears from Izzy, who wants me.  I feel honestly a little hurt to lose his loyalty, but am completely charmed by his parting line to the two of us: “Rowdy and Majo – think about me!” Totally precious.
  • Andy and Debbie – a delightful 50ish couple who have total loyalty to my line and are avid readers of the blog, talk with me about what they have been reading.  They have been finding situations in their lives to use the line, “Sometimes it just fits” – which I had ten years ago used on the apoplectic gas station customer who fumed at me “How dare you call me a bitch?!” (“My favorite firing”, January 15).  It feels great to know that people are reading and enjoying the blog, but to hear that something in the blog is affecting them in some other part of their lives – or in any way spilling over from the moments of reading – that really rocks.
  • This 65ish woman asks me where we keep our reusable bags.  Her irritated rough-mannered husband says, “We’ve got about 40 bags.”  “But they wear out, and we don’t have any with us.”  As she goes off to claim a bag or two, he – totally disgusted – says, “Aah, brother, more bags.”  I make the mistake of getting in the middle of the argument: “I’ve got bags for all the stores I regularly shop.  We love it when someone would rather buy a reusable bag than use a paper bag.”  “Aww, geez.”  The whole thing was actually pretty funny and really tickled me.

    I've got reusable bags for four grocery stores (including one I've entered twice in a year in a half - I bought them in a manic flush of excitement at the store's grand opening), two drug stores and one office supply store.  I know it's compulsive, but I just like to show them they are doing something good in providing these bags.

    I’ve got reusable bags for four grocery stores (including one I’ve entered twice in a year in a half – I bought them in a manic flush of excitement at the store’s grand opening), two drug stores and one office supply store. I know it’s compulsive, but I just like to show them they are doing something good in providing these bags.

  • My friend Jenn comes in: an adorable late-30’s mom who I have known from Jubilee for about seven years and am crazy about, as are so many people who know her.  She is smart, feisty, strong, funny, affectionate, a fabulous friend and a world-class mom.  Maybe the most painful part of being depressed is the way my heart gets closed.  Contact with Jen routinely opens my heart and this instance is no exception.  She has gone through another line, thinking I wasn’t there (I had been on break) and needs to keep moving to get back to work, but we have a sweet hug and exchange a few words before she heads for the door.  This brief encounter kind of takes my breath away from how open my heart feels.

All of these encounters happened in my first two hours of work.  Looking back, it seemed clear that my depression was already lifting before Jenn came through – but then seeing her kind of broke its back.  You just can’t feel this kind of love and be depressed at the same time.

When I am depressed, my heart seems unable to open.  Something is happening here.

When I am depressed, my heart seems unable to open. Something is happening here.

Was my biochemistry shifting in ways that allowed me to be moved by these exchanges?  Or were these lovely encounters overcoming the depressive biochemistry?  I’ll share more about this and more charmed encounters from this one amazing day in my next post.

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.

Diamonds on the soles of their shoes

(This is reprinted from the Authentic Customer Service blog, http://authenticcustomerservice.blogspot.com/, that I published from 2009-2011.)

I think that tonight I came up with a juicy strategy for staying in a centered, present moment state at work.

I was telling a friend how much I want – starting with tomorrow morning’s shift – to find that flowing, peaceful state while I’m running the cash register. I knew what it looks like to be in that state, but at first had no clue as to how more to get there. Then out of nowhere a method presented itself: “I want to like them.” Yep, I want to practice – as much as possible – liking each person as they come through my line. This focus outside of me can, I think (we’ll see), pull me out of my self-preoccupation and get me to show up in the moment.
Then my friend made a suggestion that made this strategy more concrete and tangible and specific – that I think will make it easier to operationalize. She suggested I see my customers as having diamonds on them. Appreciating and liking them can be like harvesting the diamonds that they are wearing from the soles of their shoes to the top of their heads.
How do I get myself to like each customer as they come through my line?  I'm gonna picture them as having diamonds on them - diamonds that I will pick off them as we interact with each other.  Why not?

How do I get myself to like each customer as they come through my line? I’m gonna picture them as having diamonds on them – diamonds that I will pick off them as we interact with each other. Why not?

I can hardly wait to try this tomorrow.