Come Ride With Me 2

Today I was part of the third and final video conference for the Shine Expansive online creativity and life purpose workshop I have been participating in for the month of October.  I was great out of the starting gate in this course – right up to writing the “Come Speak To Me Of Love” poem on Day 7 – then I promptly fell apart in my participation in the workshop.  I was depressed – I fell apart everywhere.  I even went 10 days without going to Tae Kwon Do.  And I haven’t been writing here (that’s been going on longer and there’s got to be more to it).

So I arrived at our conference today feeling behind the eight ball. (I had quickly scanned two weeks’ worth of Shine materials in advance of performing my improv poem – Wednesday’s post here – then done nothing since.)  I saw Jessica, our instructor, at church on Sunday and confessed what she already suspected from my lack of participation on the online forum that is one element of the Shine.  She said the last three days of the workshop would be the big finish and that she was encouraging everybody, regardless of how far “behind” they were, to go through the last three days together. I was feeling like so much of a loser in regard to the workshop that I wasn’t ready to commit, but did tuck away her invitation for considering.

On Wednesday, I scanned the assignment for the day, then did get on the conference.  And pretty quickly, the depression that has been dogging me for ten days went to work on me.  I was convinced that, having participated so poorly in the course, I had no business asking for attention on this call – so I stayed on the sidelines for the first 2/3 of the time.  And, reviewing my life from the sidelines, I got to see how this depressive “You don’t belong here” voice torments me in many areas of my life when I’m depressed: at church, on the dance floor (very much a communal activity in the Asheville Movement Collective), in my household, in my depression and bipolar support group (of all the crazy places to not feel like I belong).

Seeing how tormented I tend to be when I’m depressed, I pushed back my reluctance and the next time the floor was open for someone to solicit Jessica’s consultation I raised my hand.  And we did some terrific work together:

  • With her support, I backed off some from the vision I announced in my “Come Talk To Me Of Love” poem, where I would no longer let depression drive my car.  There is so much history around this and the pull of my biochemistry is so strong that sometimes depression is going to take over.
  • What I can do, however, is to monitor very closely its behavior, and when it gets too destructive – torments me too painfully – bump it back in the passenger seat.  Some of the ways I can do this are
    • to write a blog post – or, if that’s too much of a stretch, at least organize my notes for a post (from the liittle spiral pad where I enter these notes at work) or at the very least review some of these notes
    •  to practice my Tae Kwon Do – or if that’s too much of a stretch read or watch some videos on our center’s Facebook page.
  • When depression is having its way with me at work, I can
    • pull out my little pad and start capturing notes from my encounters at the cash register – there is pretty much always something there.
    • I can find things to appreciate about my customers and co-workers.  This comes easily and naturally when I am up, but is difficult when I am down – when I am more likely to find fault with everyone around me.  Or I will judge them as lots better than me – more attractive, more successful, etc.  In this case, I can reach for ways we are alike – maybe just our common humanity, that we both have our struggles, heartaches, etc.

Today I have already had some success in this regard. When depression started to take over the driver’s seat:

  • I cued up the website with my Tae Kwon Do videos and practiced my current form.  When trying to learn from the video got too frustrating, I settled for learning one new move and then shifted to watching a video from the Facebook page – an interview with one of the other students whom I like quite a lot.  This made me feel good.
  • I’ve been writing this blog post, harvesting my notes from the conference call yesterday.

As with any positive new habit, success with these tactics will probably come and go.  I will probably need to develop some cues to remind me to do them.  When you see me – or with an email (my address is at the bottom of the right column) – feel free, actually encouraged, to ask me how it’s going.


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.

At the movies…

Michelle, a manager at Carolina Cinemas, is my new customer service star.  (They’re everywhere!)

Me and three of my seven roommates from Lotus Lodge, along with one of their boyfriends, were in a very good mood, headed to the movies.

Lotus Lodge is halfway between an intentional community and a boarding house: 8 people trying to discover what community means to them.  For me, one thing it means is outings like this one.

Lotus Lodge is halfway between an intentional community and a boarding house: 8 people trying to discover what community means to them. For me, one thing it means is outings like this one.

None of us do this very often, so it was a big treat.  And we like each other and don’t get together as often as we would like, so we were very animated in the car riding there.  None of us knew much about Birdman – just that it had won several Oscars exactly one week ago and that it stars Michael Keaton, whom several us like quite a lot. (“How about Beetlejuice?!”  Several of us raved about that movie – agreeing that it was wacko in all the right ways.  “Yeah, and The Dream Team!?”  I stumped them with that one – nobody else had seen it.  I informed them that it’s a very good, very funny movie.)

Things quickly went south when we arrived at the theater.  The kid selling tickets had two pieces of bad news for us.  We had arrived right on time, 1:50, and he said that the show was actually scheduled for 2:30.  How could that be? Three of us had seen the time in two different online places, including the Carolina Cinemas website.  He had no answer, except to add that in addition the 2:30 showing was already sold out.

We indulged in several varieties of being bummed out.  For whatever reason, I was mostly able to quickly refocus on what else we might see.  I asked the kid, where are your movies and times listed?  “Usually on that TV screen over there by the concessions, but it’s turned off because the movie times were wrong.”  By that time, two of our members had pulled up the list of films on their phones.  The only one that any of us had any enthusiasm about was a Kevin Costner film, McFarland USA – and only me, because I had seen and liked the trailer two weeks before.

McFarland USA is kind of a classic Kevin Costner feel-good movie - and we all agreed that he had done a good job.

McFarland USA is kind of a classic Kevin Costner feel-good movie – and we all agreed that he had done a good job.

Movies like this are a good answer to my "I can't do it" voice (2/24).  You come out of there thinking. "If I want it bad enough, I can do it."

Movies like this are a good answer to my “I can’t do it” voice (2/24). You come out of there thinking. “If I want it bad enough, I can do it.”

The kid was able to tell us when the movie came on – also around 2:30.  I asked to speak with a manager.  He called one and said she would be right up.  My friends all look quizzical: “Why a manager?”  “They’ve jerked us all around – I want a discount on our tickets.”  This seemed a novel notion to all four of them, but to me when a business jerks you around, they are usually very ready to somehow make it right to keep you as a loyal customer.  I routinely send food back when I don’t like it – or have even complained about it after eating it, especially if they ask if everything was OK.  I’ll say, “No, actually….” I almost always get the food replaced, taken off the bill, etc.  And i find that if you make your complaint assertive but friendly – not defensive, just like you know in advance that they will want to make things right with you – the vibe almost never gets bad.  (OK, there have been exceptions – and those are mostly places that i never then do go back.)

Michelle showed up pretty quickly.  Watching her brisk step and air of authority as she walked across the lobby, a couple of us said simultaneously, “Looks like a manager”.  Tall, olive-complexioned, attractive, maybe 30, she picked us out right away as the customers with a beef and came up to us very graciously – giving no indication of any defensiveness or that she thought this might be a difficult encounter.  If I were to read her body language, which I do pretty instinctively, she planned for this to be a good conversation with a positive outcome.

“Hi, what’s going on?”  I took the lead, explaining how we had been jerked around.  One little bit of logic had not occurred to me (or any of us, I think) and which Michelle, if she had thought of it, had the graciousness not to point out.  As we had gotten caught up in our bummed-outedness, we never thought: “If the movie started at the time we planned, we still were too late – it was sold out.  Bad planning on our part, with a movie that won a bunch of Oscars one week before.”  So we had not thought that and Michelle showed no sign of having thought that.

I wrapped up my presentation by saying, “So we’re wishing that we could get discounted tickets for McFarland USA”.  Michelle said, “I have no way to give you discounted tickets.  What I can do is to give you free passes for a movie now or in the future.”  She was so friendly about it all that you would swear she enjoyed giving away free passes – and maybe she does.  I had said that several of us were devoted customers – though in fact it was only me, and not so much lately.

Michelle also explained to us why the times had gotten screwed-up.  On Sunday mornings they rent out one of their theaters to a church group and that group had been very late getting out of there today.  She got all kind of inclusive in telling us about it: “It’s the second time it’s happened – we have to figure out what to do about it.”  She was making us part of the team.

She even parlayed a little joke by me into a much funnier line.  I said, with a poker face, “So do we need to be prepared for some serious spiritual energy in there?”  “You always need to be prepared to encounter some serious spiritual energy, everywhere.”  Whether she really believes that (which would be very cool) or was just playing with me, either way it was a wonderful comeback and totally cracked me up.

She also went on to say that everyone she has talked to about McFarland has really liked it – including several of their staff.

Here we are (minus the camera man) - happy campers.  Well, relatively happy cuz we just got in the movies for free.  Our happiness is tempered by the fact that everyone but me is a little skeptical about a Disney movie.    Michelle, while she seemed positive about a blog post and fine with me using her name, did not warm up to a photograph.  I'm struck by how many very attractive women are hesitant to be photographed.  I think we do a number on them about what it means to look good.

Here we are (minus the camera man) – happy campers. Well, relatively happy cuz we just got in the movies for free. Our happiness is tempered by the fact that everyone but me is a little skeptical about a Disney movie.
Michelle, while she seemed positive about a blog post and fine with me using her name, did not warm up to a photograph. I’m struck by how many very attractive women are hesitant to be photographed. I think we do a number on them about what it means to look good.


Well, we loved the movie.  Oh, several of us loved it – I don’t know about all.  But we mostly all agreed that for the genre – go-for-it, feel good movies – they pretty much got it right.  Only one of the five of us did not volunteer that they got teary-eyed in places (and she didn’t deny it, just didn’t comment beyond saying she liked the movie).  For myself, I actually shed tears at several points.  My emotions are way near the surface when I’m manic, as I am today.

I got big points from my cohort about my negotiating with Michelle and we all went home happy – and beginning to make our plans to see Birdman.  (I talked with my friend Lynn later in the afternoon and she said that life had spared us by bumping us to this other movie and that I’d be better off skipping Birdman altogether.  I trust Lynn’s judgment, though it doesn’t always mesh with mine.  We’ll see.)

Mike the barrista/cashier/pianist

Extraordinary cashiers and other customer service people are everywhere.  Musicians or other artists, writers, master gardeners, creative parents – they find all manner of creative outlet.

I’m at the City Bakery on Biltmore Ave., waiting for my car to be done at Toney’s Car and Truck, my current favorite mechanic who got three votes on my recent informal Facebook poll of local mechanics.  What I brought to them today was not heavy-duty mechanical challenges for them, but maybe challenges nonetheless.  My dome light burned out and I absolutely cannot see a way to get at it.  People tell me there will certainly be a step-by-step video on YouTube about how to do this, but I not only am not handy but I have a real block around stuff like this.  Someday maybe my personal growth will move in this direction, but right now I’m happy to pay for stuff like this – and celebrate that I do have enough little financial cushion to pay for it.  Now when the transmission goes out I’m gonna look it up on YouTube.

Pretty much everywhere I go, I’m telling cashiers about this blog and, when I get the chance, interviewing them about their work and lives – and hearing so much great stuff.  Here at City Bakery, Mike just took care of me.  He gave me great service: my coffee routine includes that when I put all my half-and-half in my coffee it becomes not hot enough for me, so I ask baristas to either microwave it for me after I have doctored it up or, if they have no microwave, to steam some cream for me – the latter of which Mike did for me very cheerfully.  Great service, good tip and good feelings all around.  I tend to tip cashiers, restaurant servers, etc. well.  Hey, we do hard work – largely unrecognized or misunderstood by people who think it’s easy or mindless – and for shit wages.

I have come to expect that people who make their living doing front line customer service also have some artistic outlet.  Maybe it's more so in Asheville, I dunno.  Mike is a pianist and composer.  I'm gonna check out his music on YouTube.

I have come to expect that people who make their living doing front line customer service also have some artistic outlet. Maybe it’s more so in Asheville, I dunno. Mike is a pianist and composer. I’m gonna check out his music on YouTube.

So I told Mike about the blog. (“I’m a cashier too, at x grocery store – and I’m also a writer.  I write this blog about cashiering, which is also about customer service more generally – but it’s also about bipolar disorder, which I’ve got, and about mindfulness and human relations and Tae Kwon Do and lots of other stuff.”)  Mike did what most cashiers do when I give them this spiel – he got excited, as did his coworker Joe, who was listening in from behind.  “Hey, sounds like fun – I’m definitely going to check it out.”  I think they always mean that when they say it, even if they don’t always end up doing it.

Then, because Mike was steaming my half-and-half and there was no line, we got a couple of minutes to talk.  Mike said, “You gave me your card – I’ve got one too.”  As he struggled a bit to pull his card out of his wallet (sometimes my cards don’t always ease their way out of my wallet), I noticed that his left hand and arm were dramatically misshapen.  His card read: “Mike Anderson – pianist”.  There was a really nice open vibe between us – I was liking him a lot – so I made bold to ask him about the arm.

“How does it work for you playing the piano with that arm?”  Mike did not blink, acted not at all surprised or put out by my directness.

“I hold my arm at this angle.  I mostly improvise, so I don’t use these fingers very much and it works out fine overall.”

“How did it happen?”

“I was in my 20’s, driving too sleepy, fell asleep and went under a semi.”

“You’re lucky to still be alive.”

“Big time.”  Charming, warm, friendly, smart – physically wounded but personally very intact.

“Could I write a post about you?”  “Sure.”

“Can I use your name?”  “Yeah.”  “Maybe I’ll include your contact info – you might get some business.” “Great.”

“Can I get a photo?” “Sure.”  “Can I include your bad arm in the photo?”  “Let’s not. I don’t want it to be shtick about the handicapped guy or for sympathy or anything like that.”  Got it.

So here he is: Mike Andersen.  Cashier, barista, pianist, composer – cool guy.  Yes a barista – and good at it.  But so much more.  Patronize him at City Bakery and get great, warm, real service.  Book him for an event.

Mike Andersen: (850) 481-5596,,

Life…and more life

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

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

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

Here is the poem.  Sally liked it.

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

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

(Majo, 11/19/05)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



I want everybody to watch this video

I want everybody in the world to watch this video.

It’s the highlights of the third degree black belt testing last year of Amy Dexter, who is a very beloved Tae Kwon Do instructor at the martial arts school I attend.  It’s probably especially inspiring to women, maybe especially little women (she’s not 5′) – but it inspires me tremendously.  You don’t need to be considering martial arts practice – it’s about what you can do in all areas of your life if you really go for it.  Go to this link and scroll down to December 15.

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.

You’re too weird!

I did something creative at work today.  In honor of the first day of the year, I let go of my standard customer question “What’s been a highlight of your day?” and instead asked “What’s a way you intend to express your creativity in the new year?”  I got back some great answers, ranging from “Continually adapt to new cultures as I practice my international consulting business” to “Learn how to build a table – I’m a musician, not a carpenter” to “Parent my two-year-old”.

Our cafe at work is celebrating the creativity of our staff with every wall covered with staff art.  This massive, beautiful painting was created by my old roommate Will, a brilliant artist in several media.

Our cafe at work is celebrating the creativity of our staff with every wall covered with staff art. This massive, beautiful painting was created by my old roommate Will, a brilliant artist in several media.

I felt good about the results of the question – and, as always, a lot of people asked me the question back.  I had some fun responding to this by talking about writing, but sometimes when you target a positive new behavior what you get first is a clearer picture of where you’re stuck – what’s in the way of  that behavior.  That’s what I got today – more clarity about what makes it hard for me to be creative.

Over lunch I had a conversation with a colleague in which I told him that I don’t like the way he does announcements over the public address system in the store – that it’s too weird for me.  I’ve been chafing on this for a while – waiting for the right time to tell him.  Some part of me had a fantasy  that he would wake up, repent, start doing more normal announcements.  He didn’t do any of that – but he also didn’t get defensive.  I think his lack of defensiveness allowed me to take a look at myself.

By the end of our 20-minute conversation, I was asking myself What is it about his weirdness that I find so threatening?  Why does it bother me?”  I’m all about creativity, improvisation and risk-taking – and that’s exactly what he’s doing.  Why don’t I support it?  Why don’t I regard him as a real role model?  What kinds of risks do I take with my announcements?  None – they’re very straight-arrow.  I’m sure not practicing improvisation in that area of my work life.

Which differences are OK?  Which ones are exciting for the ways they open up the envelope?  Which ones are too weird?  Is it possible to let all these questions go and let these differences just be different?

Which differences are OK? Which ones are exciting for the ways they open up the envelope? Which ones are too weird? Is it possible to let all these questions go and let these differences just be different?

So this stuck with me today – especially in the face of what I was doing to celebrate creativity, to aim towards creativity.  It really was hitting me between the eyes, in terms of how I get in my own way.  All the ways that I focus on what’s negative – but maybe especially my fears of being weird.  I have a mental illness – bipolar disorder.  What does that mean?  For some that very term means weird – and definitely not good weird.  Sometimes I’m just fine with it – it feels like just one more way to be in the world.

Today when people were asking me where I planned to express my creativity this year, I would say “Two writing projects” and I would tell them the title of this blog, but not the subtitle – “The ups and downs of a bipolar cashier”.  I not once got around to telling them about the second writing project – online training for people with bipolar disorder.  I left that out because I would have to explain about me having bipolar disorder.

It seems like as long as I’m holding a concept of weird as a bad thing to be, I’m going to keep myself stuck around my creativity and self-expression.  What is weird anyway?  It’s different too much or different bad.  So am I going to go through life scrutinizing my differences, to see which ones are bad? Am I going to have a continuum that goes “normal – creative – eccentric – weird” and continually be assessing where people lie on the continuum?

It seems like the more I give other people a break – room to be different – that will automatically translate into giving myself a break.

Just that time of year…

My Christmas poem.

Really kind of long – and dark in places, like the season.  But worth it, I think.  Set aside maybe 5-10 minutes or more (it’s most satisfying consumed in one sitting), get yourself in a comfortable chair with a good cup of coffee or tea or a glass of wine – and maybe with a journal and pen.  My journey is not your journey, but perhaps in places they may touch.  I wish you love and hope at this dark – for some of us at times very difficult, but really still pretty special – time of year.

winter dark 4


Just that time of year…  (Majo, 12/15/14)

It’s that time of year again
Jingle bells and all
But is there really all
That much to celebrate?

The cold and dark have returned again
Do pretty much the same time every year
I try to be cheerful about them
But this little whoosy man
Gets depressed with the onset of the shorter days
And pisses and moans pretty much the same
The whole winter through

The events in the world
Wars, gang shootings
Racial profiling and horrific injustices
Seem no better than ever
I want so badly to believe
That the human race and societies
Are somehow evolving
Somehow getting better, smarter
More fair, more loving
But can see no signs
That this is true

In my own so-limited human life
What sign is there of positive change?
My biochemistry maintains as cruel a reign
Over my desperate moods
As does the Islamic State over
Its desolate segment of humanity
Oh, I’ll give you that
I have not now been suicidal for five years
No more trips to the hospital – or even close
Housing – with Tom and Will for two years
And with Lotus Lodge newly now
Has been a good part of my life
OK, actually very good
After some extended tsuris before that
Alright, I can’t deny that work has been good
A really good year at my new job
With no end in sight

winter dark 2

OK, I will not deny that
There are some good things
OK, very good things
In my life
But what about my moods?
My moods!
Ten days up, fourteen down
Pretty predictably these days
Now is that fair!?
The steady repetition of the cycles
Is so discouraging
The ups slightly to more-than-slightly
Out of control
If also predictably a lot of fun
But the downs, the downs
So painful, so disheartening
So much self-hate
So much of everything looking ugly and wrong

I had my one big shot at a shift
October 18-25
Eight days of training in
Brainwave Optimization
I put a lot of eggs in that basket
My Chicago friends Sally and Mary Ellen
Who knew a lot about it
And who deeply love and support me
Had very high hopes that it would help
Gave me financial support
To make it happen
My friends Byron and Nancy
Took this traveler in
For ten days in my home Chicago
I got to see my beloved brother Terry
Three times on this visit
Instead of one on my last week-long visit
Just back in May
His new chemo is hitting him less hard
He has more strength
For spending time with his
Intense handful of a brother

winter dark 4

The brainwave treatment is very subtle
No effects promised for 3-6 weeks
But half-way through I got depressed
And everything else looked like shit
In the throes of depression
Nothing ever seems to have changed
And I have no hopes
For anything new to help

On November 6, the Shine Expansive
A very exciting personal growth workshop
Stood before me like a shining city on a hill
But I got depressed the day it began
And was significantly depressed for all three days
But the Shine did have power – enough power to
Keep me moving, with even some real high points
And I came away with a new mission statement
“I shepherd my flock”
Which seems to pull together
All the threads of my life up to this time

But my mood swings
Remain unabated
What of the Brainwave Optimization?
What of the Shine Expansive?
What of any of it?
What of positive change in the world?
The dawning of the Age of Aquarius –
My youthful dream?
What of my hopes for humanity?
For the world?
What of peace on earth?

winter dark 8

But then there is this blog…
Born 11/24/14
Now 21 days later – an adult?
Not in blog years – still a baby
70 followers in three weeks – unprecedented
In my personal experience with writing blogs
1085 page views
261 on one particular day
55 yesterday
So many people posting beautiful comments
So many people emailing me encouraging words
So many people telling me on the street
How much the blog means to them

Except for an occasional poem
My writing had been stuck
For over a year
Now completely unstuck
My sense of purpose in my life
Fully reborn
My mission from the Shine
“I shepherd my flock”
Being lived out

winter 1

I have now several very potent flocks
The community of people sharing the blog
My community of co-workers at my store
One of my blog posts is in our cashier log book
At my boss’s suggestion
And many of my colleagues are talking about it
I will soon post one of my blog entries
By the time clock
(Again my boss’s suggestion)
Where all my coworkers can read
And maybe return to the blog on their own

My customers are a flock
I tell them about the blog in the checkout line
The other day, two customers
Friends to me but strangers to each other
Discover that they are each fans of the blog
And begin an animated conversation about it
My boss says
“When you print up business cards for the blog
Give them out to customers”
Amazing support from the store
I had thought that if I gave out cards
From my cash register
I might get in trouble with the brass
And so I will print them up and give them out
The blog creates for my customers
A sense of connection with our store
With our staff
With each other
With the cashiers of the world
And with me

winter 2

And what of those cashiers of the world?
About ten years ago
Working as a cashier
At the Enmark gas station on Merrimon Street
Standing in that little kiosk
Selling gas and cigarettes for a year
Until I got fired for calling a customer a bitch
But oh she deserved it
I didn’t just use the term
When she said
“How dare you call me a bitch”
I looked her straight in the eye and said
“Sometimes it just fits”
She took it badly
But I never regretted it
Even my boss did not blame me for it
“I never would have fired you for this
But she went straight to a company VP
I had no choice.”
It was a great moment in cashiering
Though obviously a strategy
I cannot recommend in this blog
Except in moments of great trial
And when your integrity demands it
I used to teach Empowerment Training
At a local community college back in Chicago
And taught people to say “Fuck you”
When no other assertiveness technique worked
And when their sense of self
Was at stake

But I digress
But then it’s my poem
And I did tell you to curl up in a good chair
With a good cup of coffee

So there I was spending all my work time
In this little kiosk
I wrote a blog on customer service
My own model
Authentic Customer Service
I got really very excited about it
46 posts, 2650 page views
Check it out
There’s really some very good stuff on it
A great payoff from that at times boring
At times very stressful job
Along with some very good
Experiences with customers
(No coworkers there in that lonely kiosk
One of the biggest downsides)

winter 3

So I have this blog
My ability to keep writing when I am down
Unprecedented in many years
Perhaps the Brainwave Optimization is working
And the Shine Expansive
And my newly refined but longtime mission
To shepherd my flock
I have a walking stick that Annie gave me at the Shine
When she so ably facilitated us
Through our mission-developing process
A flag hanging from the handle reads
“I shepherd my flock”
Amazingly more apropos for a staff
Than if it said “I sell more widgets this year”

So maybe I do have more light in my personal life this year
Even as my grueling moods remain unabated
Maybe I don’t get to have my whole Christmas list
Delivered for me under the tree
But then the human race
My brothers and sisters
Do not get to suffer appreciably less this year
And maybe you readers of this poem
My brothers and sisters
Still have pain in your lives parallel with my moods
My brother still has his cancer
My friend Bob still has his grief
From his wife Nina’s so-recent passing
My roommate Jesse has his
Search for a fulfilling job
My old roommate Tom has his
Pressing need to unload
His desperately financially depleting house
My old roommate Will has his frustrating
Quest to live out his calling as an artist
My store has its battle to contend
With all the supermarkets
Flooding this saturated market
My coworkers have their struggles
To make ends meet on paltry wages
To live out their gifts
As artists and musicians
To manage their relationships
Their health, their work aspirations

winter dark 7

Everybody, it seems
Has their struggles and their sorrows
Caroling at the hospice last night
In the Community Room
I looked around and it looked like only us present
“Where are the dying people?” I thought
Then I looked to my left and saw
In a little pod, three of my dear friends
Who have had tragic losses
In the last few years
I realized that we were singing
Not just for the shut-ins we were visiting all evening
But also for ourselves

We – all of us
Need to buck up our spirits
At this dark time
We – all of us
Need all of us
To come together
To love each other
We – all of us
Need this poem
We – all of us
Need to create
Whenever we can
However we can
We – all of us
Need to hope for the future
For our writing and painting
And music-making
And our gardening and cooking
And parenting and love-making

We need to come together
As we are reading this poem
As we read this blog
We are coming together
As all of us staff at my grocery store
Are serving all of our customers
We are coming together
As all of our customers
Rub shoulders in our store
Stand next to each other
In our checkout lines
Greet and often hug their friends
You are coming together
As all of us front-line customer servers
In all of the various stores
Serve all of our customers
Who, at other times
Are all of us
Who, when we are not working
Also patronize these other stores
We are all
Every one of us who deals
With customer servers
Coming together

We are serving our customers
Trying to put a smile on their face
Trying to put a smile on our face
Trying to get our customer’s needs met
Trying to check them out
Quickly and accurately
Bagging their groceries tenderly
Ripe avocados on top
Trying to exchange some pleasantries
And, when we are lucky
Even some meaningful exchange
Some “What’s been a highlight of your day?”
Trying to be real for each other
And to be kind
Trying, trying, trying
All of us humans trying
To make things work
To make this a better year
And when we are lucky
To love, even

winter final


“The ups and downs of a bipolar cashier.”

Most Wednesday evenings, I attend the Asheville Magnetic Minds chapter of the national Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.  It’s a terrific group of people, great support, very stimulating – and often healing – conversations, and more good laughs than one might expect.

We start the evening by deciding on a topic to talk about.  Tonight I said, “I’d like us to talk about labels.  One of my friends who is steeped in the ‘Mental health recovery’ movement doesn’t like the subtitle of my blog.  She says that calling myself a bipolar cashier is just a setup for stigma – for all the negative stereotypes that people associate with mental illness.  She wants me to position myself as a complicated person with many strengths who happens to also have bipolar disorder.  I think that really is the point of the blog, but it kind of sucks as a title.  The writer in me is willing to play a little loose with mental health correctness and hope that people will read far enough to have their stereotypes exploded.”

We talked about variations of this topic for the next 90 minutes.  Here are some highlights:

  • The “Recovery model”, which has been imported from addictions recovery, falls down in at least one big way: you don’t get to have n days sober – you don’t divide your life into before and after you got clean.  Mania and depression are states I continue to visit – and may for a long time, maybe forever.

    Ups and downs that for many people are simply an exciting place to visit can for others be part of daily life - and sometimes frighteningly out of control.

    Ups and downs that for many people are simply an exciting place to visit can for others be part of daily life – and sometimes frighteningly out of control.

  • Stigma is alive and well – and there are risks connected with being “out” about a mental illness.  I did a lot of thinking before deciding to have bipolar disorder be part of the content of a blog I would share with coworkers and customers.
  • At least within the group, most people find terms like depression and bipolar disorder helpful shorthands, but maybe with some subtlety.  In spite of my willingness to be provocative in my blog title, in the group I actually avoid calling myself a bipolar person.  I typically introduce myself by saying that I’m living with bipolar disorder.
  • Some people in the group mostly aspire to “cope with” or “manage” their illness.
  • I said that I see our weekly group as basically a recovery group, where together we throw off victimhood and take charge of our own healing – partly by creating close relationships with each other.  I see problems with the Recovery model, but find it more inspiring than just coping or managing.
  • One of my friends who doesn’t like the Recovery model, but who I think has tremendous recovery, said “I don’t see why you would claim that saying you have bipolar disorder is a sign of stigma.  I think it’s a badge of honor.  Most people with bipolar disorder have gone through all kinds of hell and survived – and usually learned a lot in the process, stuff that the average person has never had to learn.”
  • This got me all excited and brought me back to two elements of recovery that are important to me: 1) you create a big life, of which your illness is just one part (I think of my dancing, my cashiering and my writing) and 2) you embrace your illness as a path of healing.  For me, bipolar disorder is a spiritual path – and what I learn about ups and downs is meant to be shared with others who have more regular ups and downs.

    What if my intensified ups and downs really are a spiritual path?  Maybe I'm meant to bring back what I've learned to help others - anybody who sometimes gets ungrounded or who sometimes wrestles with depression.

    What if my intensified ups and downs really are a spiritual path? Maybe I’m meant to bring back what I’ve learned to help others – anybody who sometimes gets ungrounded or who sometimes wrestles with depression.