Expanding in a grounded way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who am I?

I presented this poem at Jubilee on Sunday.  Audio, with beautiful keyboard accompaniment by Chris Rosser, can be found at http://www.somethingrises.com/WhoamI.html.

Intro: About 15 years ago, I participated in a weekend workshop that was modestly called  the Enlightenment Intensive.  The primary activity in this three-day workshop is round after round after round of sitting opposite from another participant, who for five minutes asks you again and again, “Who are you?’ – and you give whatever comes to mind.  Then you return the question to them for five minutes.  Then you move on to another partner and repeat the same process.  For three days.  Two days after the workshop, this poem came through.

The title of the poem is,

Who Am I?

Who am I?
What the hell kind of question is that?
Do I not know who I am
After all these years of fumbling around?
I might as well give up the ghost….

….No, I don’t have an answer
I don’t know who I am.
Am I this bewildering array of thoughts, perceptions and sensations
Warring within my brain – pulling me this way and that?
Each grabs me and wants to own me –
I hope I am more than them.

You look at me so sincerely and ask me who I am….
Am I the reflection of me I see in your eyes?
I think I might like it better than my own view.
Am I the current I feel flowing between us
As we sit and look at each other?
I feel so connected to you – am I you?
And yet I feel separate somehow….

There are so many things and people that I want –
Am I them?
Am I the wanter?
Am I it that is observing the wanter?
Am I whatever is noticing the observer?
Or is that the same observer, observing itself?
How deep does this go, anyway?

….Am I the calm silence that
Has floated up in me since those questions exhausted themselves?
Or am I the “me” in which it has floated, the field in which it lies?
Or am I the thoughts and questions
Nibbling at the edges of this sweet silence?
Or the gentle mother voice shushing those thoughts
“Later, he’s resting now.”

Am I the sorrow I feel at being so many unharmonized voices
The sadness and shame at being a house so divided
A mind so mindless
A self so out of touch with itself…?

Yet there is still something else
I can’t see it or hear it, but I feel it…
A watcher of the watchers
Yet softer than watching
Not a voice, but a presence
Not words, but a warm radiance.
And now that I notice it, I realize
That it was present in every other level
Obscured by the noise, the action – but there.

I feel joy in its presence
And want only to sit here with it
To soak in the peace, the at-homeness I feel.
For truly, in the presence of this benign, tender something
Which I can only inadequately name “love”
I feel no distance,
No judging of it by me or me by it
No finger-pointing or name-calling – no identifying at all
No need to protect myself
Or to stay separate in any way.
And the question “Who am I?”
Slips easily into dust.
From here I can see nothing that I am not.
I am, I simply am
And will be, even when I forget.

And from here the only thing I want
Is not to forget.

Who are these people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This routine has several benefits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A grocery store holiday greeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Happy holidays.”

Seeing stars

Back in 1995, James Redfield’s book The Celestine Prophecy was a monster best seller.  I was a little suspicious of a “spiritual” book that was so commercially successful, but I kind of surprised myself by liking it quite a lot.

On the surface, the book is a novel – but actually the story, which is not the strongest aspect of the book, is a vehicle for spiritual teaching.  It did not seem to me that much of that teaching was original, but then how much spiritual teaching really can be original at this point – it’s really a matter of packaging old truths in fresh new ways that get our attention.  I think Redfield did a good job at that.

A couple of concepts from this 20 year old book have stayed with me.

A couple of concepts from this 20 year old book have stayed with me.

The idea from that book that has most stayed with me suggests that when you are having an encounter with another person, if you stick with the encounter long enough – often longer than is comfortable or beyond the point where you might otherwise have moved on – the purpose of your encounter with this person will often become manifest.  I have this experience a lot at work – and will devote tomorrow’s post to that arena.  Here I want to report three experiences I had tonight at the Jubilee (the funky non-denominational church I attend here in Asheville) Christmas party.

Edna is a very engaging, attractive, 5’4″ woman who told me that she had just recently celebrated her 62nd birthday.  I felt a little victorious connecting with her tonight because I remembered her name: over several years of being nodding acquaintances, I succeed at that only some of the time.  When I found myself standing next to her in the lovely hallway of the beautifully rehabbed Elizabethan mansion that our minister Howard reclaimed from disrepair over many years, I decided it might be a good time to get to know her a little – she has always seemed interesting, so I was enthused about this.  But when I’m manic – which I still am after ten days (it’s time when I usually will shift) – I tend to be restless, and after a few minutes of talking (even though it was all genuinely interesting) I was starting to think of some of the other people at the party that I wanted to connect with.  So when Edna said, “I have a story about my 62nd birthday that I could tell you if you want”, I had to think for a moment about whether I actually did want.

But the Redfield idea has been on my mind lately, and I decided to settle in and see what I might learn about my connection with Edna.  She proceeded to tell a gorgeous story about being out of her comfort zone camping in the western mountains at her son’s land, of waking at 2 a..m. on her birthday and coming out of the tent into the cold mountain air and having her mind blown by the brightness of the Milky Way.  The story goes on to have her wishing she could share this amazing moment with someone and her son promptly calling out to her and then coming out to join her – and a really gorgeous mother-son moment ensuing.  My eyes were moist by the end of the story and I had at least a first take on why we were meant to have that conversation. (Who knows what other layers may present themselves for me or her?  Writing this blog post is one more layer for me.)

The Milky Way in the mountains at 2 a.m. on her birthday blew Edna's mind.  Her story opened mine.

The Milky Way in the mountains at 2 a.m. on her birthday blew Edna’s mind. Her story opened mine.

A couple of brief conversations later, I encountered Matt – a big strapping 40ish guy who started our conversation by saying how much he likes the poetry and comedy I offer at Jubilee.  (I have done this four times a year for ten years and lots of people know me from it.)  After thanking him for the compliment – and being genuinely pleased by it, though I do get it a lot – I attempted to move the conversation along by asking “How long have you been coming to Jubilee?”  Even before the question was fully out of my mouth, I thought “Now what kind of a bullshit question is that?”  It’s like “Do you come here often?” in being destined to not generate any interesting answers.

But after he said “Six years” (“Yeah, so what?”) I had a better idea.  “In those six years, what have been some highlights for you of coming to Jubilee?”  Now Matt really warmed up to the conversation.  “The music and Howard’s talks.”  When I followed that with “What have you liked about Howard’s talks?” we were off and running.  Matt had lots to say – stuff that revealed his depth and sensitivity and passion about Jubilee.  It was great fun.

Jubilee is a special place.  Getting Matt talking about it revealed how special he is.

Jubilee is a special place. Getting Matt talking about it revealed how special he is.

My final conversation was with Victoria.  I had just a little bit started to get to know her several years ago, but she moved away and hasn’t been around much.  She always seemed interesting, though, so when I ended up standing next to her I felt good about talking with her.  But still, after just a couple minutes of talking, I noticed my body language: I was standing sideways, perpendicular to her.  I was not committing to the conversation at all – I was poised to leave!  I realized that – with the party about to end – the restless part of me was wondering who else I ought to see before I would go home.

I decided to let go of the restlessness and commit to Victoria – and to try one more experiment in discovering why this other person and I were having this encounter.  The answer didn’t take more than a minute to reveal itself.  I can’t trace back how we got there, but Victoria said that she was interested in the Asheville Movement Collective (AMC) “Dance Church” – the free-form improvisational dancing to which I am so passionately committed.  This gave me a chance to really ignite over a topic, which was big fun because Victoria was really interested.  I know from lots of experience that coming to AMC can change people’s lives – has mine – so it’s a lot of fun offering it to people.  And if Victoria never comes or comes and doesn’t like it, we had a conversation that connected us in a fun way and she spent some time thinking about her own creativity and her inner dancer.

Dance is one of my favorite ways to express my creative self, but each of these three people had given me a peek at their creative soul.

Dance is one of my favorite ways to express my creative self, but each of these three people had given me a peek at their creative soul.

I had three experiences in under two hours where what could have been routine conversations with regular people left me instead seeing stars.

A very special place

The grocery store where I work is a very special place.

The heart and soul of our store is the healthy groceries.  A week ago, a customer said to me, "We drive a long ways to shop here.  Our local grocery store abuses us with the produce they expect us to settle for.  Here the produce is all so beautiful."

The heart and soul of our store is the healthy groceries. A week ago, a customer said to me, “We drive a long ways to shop here. Our local grocery store abuses us with the produce they expect us to settle for. Here the produce is all so beautiful.”

It’s got most of the downsides of other human and corporate systems.  Sometimes management make decisions or enforce policies that I wish they wouldn’t.  Sometimes it seems like the bottom line upstages human needs in unfortunate ways.  Sometimes people feel unfairly treated by their supervisors.  Sometimes coworkers don’t get along, feel that the other is not pulling their weight, etc.

But all this happens here a lot less than most other places I have worked.  Much more, it looks to me like management has their heads on straight, support workers from the top of the store on down, are willing to pitch in and do whatever needs to get done – including cashiering and bagging groceries.  (I’ve had the store manager bag groceries for customers I am working with.)  Most coworkers like each other.  I don’t have as much data about other departments, but in my “front end” department (cashiers, juice bar, “floaters” who cashier/clean the store/round up carts) people generally get along really great and have a lot of fun with each other.

Grocery store love.  Tom is a great grocery guy (keeping the shelves stocked). He also was my roommate until a couple of months ago.  Marta is a dancing friend to both of us. Not all store hugs are quite this go-for-it, but there are plenty of them.

Grocery store love. Tom is a great grocery guy (keeping the shelves stocked). He also was my roommate until a couple of months ago. Marta is a dancing friend to both of us. Not all store hugs are quite this go-for-it, but there are plenty of them.

And then there are the wonderful customers.  OK, not all of them are wonderful, but an extraordinarily high percent of our customers range from good people to amazing/fascinating/totally cool.  They are willing to invest money in healthy eating.  They tend – more than the average bear – to take personal responsibility for their lives, to be progressive and creative and out of the box, to be into personal and spiritual growth.

Great customers and great kids, well parented - it's a real perk of this job to get to be around such beauty and wonderful energy.

Great customers and great kids, well parented – it’s a real perk of this job to get to be around such beauty and wonderful energy.

And they like each other.  They run into friends, hug, erupt in high spirits – and have great conversations with people they have just met in the checkout line.  One day, as two friends were excitedly rediscovering each other in my line, I said, “Wow, you two are really having fun!”  One of them said, “If you can’t have fun at <this store>, where can you have fun?”  That was a great little moment and for me captured some of the vibe of this place.

One of my customers occupied himself while waiting for his turn by decorating his bag of flour with his kiwis. It was an absolute delight to turn and be greeted with this bouquet. This stuff goes on all the time around here.

One of my customers occupied himself while waiting for his turn by decorating his bag of flour with his kiwis. It was an absolute delight to turn and be greeted with this bouquet. This stuff goes on all the time around here.

I have somewhere (I really hope I find it again) a little button that came down from the corporate office (marketing, it must have been) that says, “Keep <my store> weird.”  This wonderful little play on one of Asheville’s favorite mantras, “Keep Asheville weird”, again captured some of what makes our store special for me.  Our store is kind of weird.  Staff are eccentric, creative, out of the box – lots of artists, musicians, writers and generally creative souls.  People with whom you can have really cool conversations.  Our customers likewise are really interesting.  And this button came from corporate!  How cool is that?!

The produce people take a lot of pride in what they sell.  I was talking with Kristie about this blog, then asked her "What's your art form?" - pretty confident that I would hear something interesting.  "She didn't miss a beat: I crochet hats and scarves - and I make custom-designed hula-hoops." Later that day, I ordered hats and scarves for me and my best buddy Monty - and one hula hoop for me and one for a Christmas gift.  A few days later, I realized that I had been manic when I committed to all that expense - and reneged on the hula hoops.  Kristie understood - and is excited about the hats and scarves.

The produce people take a lot of pride in what they sell. I was talking with Kristie about this blog, then asked her “What’s your art form?” – pretty confident that I would hear something interesting. “She didn’t miss a beat: I crochet hats and scarves – and I make custom-designed hula-hoops.” Later that day, I ordered hats and scarves for me and my best buddy Monty – and one hula hoop for me and one for a Christmas gift. A few days later, I realized that I had been manic when I committed to all that expense – and reneged on the hula hoops. Kristie understood – and is excited about the hats and scarves.

I could go on about all this more than is strategic for a blog post – and may (probably) weave more of this stuff into future posts.  But I want first to mention one final aspect of – for me – my store’s coolness, and that is the support I’m getting for this blog.  This is not a corporate blog: it’s a little eccentric, left of center.  It’s by and about a guy who is very out about being bipolar – and frequently writes about it.

And my boss really loves it!  She told me to put something about it in our front end logbook (done – and people are reading the post I put in there).  She told me to put something by the time clock, where all staff can see it. (I will put something up there.)  She encouraged me to talk to customers about it.  I think that honestly is a strategic move, because this blog can support a customer’s relationship to the store – but I worried that I might get in trouble for this.  And here my boss is encouraging me to do it! Very cool.

So cool store, cool merchandise, cool staff, cool customers – and I honestly think this blog is supporting this community that embraces all that.