“Here, take this – I want you to have it.”

Michael is a new cashier, a young guy – full of energy and dreams and promise for his future.  I think he’s in pre-med and plans to be a doctor. We were talking in the cafe  – me on my last ten-minute break, he (having started later than me) on his lunch.

Michael

Michael

“I was reading your blog the other night – I read it until 3 a.m., three hours worth.  So much of it spoke to me.”  This post is mostly going to be about concrete things people have given me at work.  I’m going to violate some time-honored writing principles by starting with the biggest one – this personal, non-concrete gift from Michael.  Michael was letting me know that my writing had given him gifts, but in the process he gave me one of the biggest gifts I could receive – he helped me to believe in myself.  He told me that my writing has value, can help people.

This post I’m writing here has been sitting dormant for two weeks.  Two weeks ago I wrote the barest outline – a list of several things people have given me at work, and maybe a few words about each.  (I can’t even find that outline now.)  But nothing has happened with it since  – I’ve written not one more word.  I believed in this post – I thought it could be really strong.  One night I sat down to try to write it, but it was 8:30 p.m. already and I soon succumbed to sleepiness.

But I came away from my really very brief conversation with Michael today charged up. “I’m meant to be writing! And that post is next!”  So here I am, having walked the dog after work (during which time I was writing this in my head), and now I’m at my computer writing.  No emails, no reading the Washington Post online – I’m writing.  Thank you Michael.  And I shall steer you Michael towards this post after it’s posted – and I think you may get some good stuff from it.

I’m going to start my list of gifts given to me at work with the oldest one and then work towards the present.  Some of these names (not Michael) have been changed to protect people’s privacy – or just made up because I didn’t know the person’s name.

( 4 years ago)PBR
Walter was clearly intoxicated.   But that didn’t invalidate his good-hearted generosity when he shoved at me one of the beers he was buying from me and said, “Have it – pop it open.  Let’s both have one.  You’re a good guy – I want you to have it.”  I obviously couldn’t drink a beer during my shift at the cash register, so Walter’s kindly insistence was really kind of comical, but it was also really kind of sweet – he wanted to share with me.

(2 years ago)hat and gloves
I was immediately drawn to Sharon’s beautiful red homemade knit hat.  When I expressed my appreciation of it, she said, “Thank you, I made it.”  “Wow, do you sell them somewhere?”  “No, I mostly just give them away to my friends.”  “Well I want to buy one from you.”  She took a breath as if considering for just a moment, then took the hat off her head and handed it to me – along with matching fingerless gloves (perfect for cashiering in a cold grocery store) she had in her purse.  “Here, I want you to have them.”  I protested, but she was very clear that she wanted me to have them, as a gift – and, truth be told, I also really wanted to have them.  I have taken a lot of pleasure in wearing them.

(6 months ago)

Andy beer

Andy’s favorite beer.  

Andy and Debbie have become friends of mine.  We had lunch together once.  They are not party people and don’t come to my  birthday parties – but we love our brief time together every Monday.  And I know that they care about me – when they ask how I am doing, they mean it.  They read my blog and know that my ups and downs are more ferocious than most people’s.  Andy has a favorite beer that he stocks up on periodically.  I’m on a quest to find out what beers I most like and was asking him about his.  He pulled one out of his grocery bag and gave it to me.  It was an effortless gesture – what you would do with a friend.  And it was also effortless to let Andy know later that I like his beer a lot.

(4 months ago)
Peter and Jessi are regular customers of mine.  They are young, energetic (rock climbers) and fun – and they did come to my birthday party last year, along with Peter’s kids Jack and Ruby.  Peter is a big, strapping young guy.  As soon as  Peter came through the door  one morning, he came straight over to me and said, “You told us you are going to move – do you need help?”  “Well, uh – sure.”  He flexed his enormous bicep: “I’ve got this…and a truck.”  I’ve probably told that story 20 times and I still laugh with delight – it was so perfect.

IMG_20171029_143458571_HDR.jpg

Peter, Jessi and their new friend, my Toni.

(2 months ago)
That new house, with two friends taking me in, was always meant to be short-term.  Six weeks later I was moving to my friend John’s house – also agreed to be short-to-medium term, maybe several months.  When Peter and Jessi arrived to once more help me move, I told them so apologetically, “John just called me.  He got a text from his landlord that he is selling the house – we have 30 days to get out.”  Peter paused a few moments before saying, “We’re going to have to just keep doing this until we get you settled somewhere.”  When two days later I saw Jessi at the store, she said, “That’s just who he is – generous.  He’s like that every day.”

(3 weeks ago)|
I didn’t remember ever seeing Mary before, but I was very personally drawn to her.  I didn’t even know just what I liked so much about her, but I liked her a lot.  When I went through my regular routine of asking myself what  I would like to validate about her,  I couldn’t even immediately come up with anything.  She was pretty, but that didn’t feel on target for a validation.  I just kind of irrationally liked her.  We had a sweet mini-encounter.  Nothing especially meaningful got said, but I felt good about it.  And then she was gone.Trilogy

And then three minutes later she was back.  She stood behind the customer I was waiting on, held up a bottle of Synergy brand kombucha, Trilogy flavor – my favorite flavor.  “I asked around what you might like and they said this.”  I was dumbfounded.  She gave me a huge smile and glided towards the door, looking at me and smiling all the time.  I raised my hands in a shrug and mouthed, “Why?”  I thought she enjoyed my confusion.

I think that part of what made that encounter, that act of generosity, so special to me was the very fact that I didn’t understand it.  I didn’t think I had done anything to deserve it.  When, during my ten-minute break, I told a coworker about this scenario I added – in my attempt to  make sense of this – that the whole time I waited on Mary I was also thinking about my new roommate Lucy.  I was thinking about what validation I wanted to give Lucy next.  The one I had on the tip of my tongue was seeming too superficial and I was reaching for something more meaningful.  My coworker said, “That’s it – the whole time you were waiting on Mary you were standing in a field of love, and she felt it.  She became part of it.”  That felt and continues to feel really right.

(2 weeks ago)
chocolate ba.jpg
I didn’t remember Linda and nothing special happened between us – but I enjoyed the encounter with her.  The last item that I swiped and that she picked up off the counter and dropped in her grocery bag was a chocolate bar.  “Do you like chocolate?” she asked.  “Sure.”  “Chocolate with orange pieces in it?”  “Yeah”?  (Where is this going?)  She pulled that last chocolate bar back out and handed it to me.  “Here, I want you to have this.”  “Why?” (I was genuinely confused.)  “Because you’re awesome.”  (But why am I awesome?  I didn’t do anything.)  I indicated to Linda how genuinely happy this made me.  I didn’t comment on my confusion.  I think she got that, and maybe even took a little satisfaction from it.  (What does it mean to be awesome and why would she want to give me her chocolate bar?)

(4 days ago)
rose
When I got back from my lunch break, there was a beautiful rose (probably from our floral department, just steps away from the cashier area) in front of my cash register.  This time, along with a little bit of “Why?”, I more just accepted it – and felt really, really good.  Somehow having no idea who or why made it more possible for me to just let go of the questions.

(3 days ago)
Jose hat
I was sitting in the café, fussing over a predicament.  The next day I was going to a benefit “Sock hop” with a 50’s theme.  The family I was going with (Peter and his family) had all put together 50’s style clothes – and I had nothing, nothing that felt in any way 50’s.  As I was sitting there I looked across the café and saw my friend Jose from the meat department wearing a blue seersucker bomber cap – that looked to me like 50’s!  I’ve gotta have that hat!  So, in a move that felt to me bold and intrusive and maybe even inappropriate, I went to Jose, explained my predicament and said, “I’ve gotta borrow your hat!”  Jose immediately took it off his head and seemed positively enthused to loan it to me.

At the cash register that afternoon, at the party and at the cash register again on Monday (Jose wasn’t due in until 2 p.m.), I got so many compliments about the hat that I started saying, “Either this hat is really great or you just don’t expect me to wear anything cool.”  One of my customers said, “That hat is so you – you need to not give it back.”  I was almost ashamed to admit to myself that I really kind of did not want to give it back.

Jose cafe

Jose told me today that he would be glad to let me take his picture – if he could wear his motorcycle helmet.

When, on my afternoon break, I went back to the meat department to give Jose his hat, he wouldn’t take it.  “No, it’s your hat now.  It’s really you – it’s yours.”  I was both completely knocked out by this generosity – and also somehow not surprised.  It just fit with how I know Jose.

(Today)cookies - 11-15-117
Today when I came back from my break, there was a chocolate chip cookie in a bag at my station.  How did it get there?  Was it a “put back” – somebody decided they didn’t want it and gave it to the cashier working next to me, who then accidentally pushed into my area?  This seemed far-fetched.  I asked Megan, my podmate.  She knew nothing about it.  “Maybe you have a secret admirer.” “I think I have a lot of them.”

In one of J.D. Salinger’s books there is a character who describes himself as a “reverse paranoid – I think that the world is conspiring to make me happy.”  I think this is happening to me.

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Is it a good thing for them to give?

Not always.

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

Brother...

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

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

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

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

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

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

My blessings list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Whale (Majo,2005)

I ride the back of a massive whale
Called luck
Or chance
Or the convergence of the spheres
Or “Just coincidence, you dreamer, you”.

When my son was 12,
I told him that God winked at us
When things converged
He thought me more goofy then
Than even I was wont to be.
Today he says it back to me.

I worked as a gasoline station cashier
I played with numbers all day long
They winked at me many times a day.
My boss and I talked of what life was like
In the 70’s in the good old USA
As we talk, this woman writes her check
For her gas and cigarettes combined
It comes to 19 dollars and 70 cents –
Why?

This girl says her birthday is today
She’s 29 years old
Her several purchases add up
To twenty-nine dollars on the head.
What kind of dance is this
This rhythm of the spheres?

At my fav place to fill my tank
My charge for gas is thirty dollars and thirty-nine cents
The cashier there knows my numbers thing
And is less enrapt with the synchronicities of life
“Boring number this time, hon.”
Next stop the food co-op
My total there thirty dollars and thirty-nine cents.

This whale
Which dwells so far below
The waves which toss our human lives
Has breeched
It takes my breath away
While my mind sees but an empty sea

This is the first or second grade
Of the “everything thing in synch” elementary school
But fun and helps me pass the time
And, in their so-light ways
These connections
Dare me to still believe
This world is chaos, just
The senseless random bounce
Of the billiard balls of life.

Why is this old song
On the radio at this just perfect time?
Or, coming ‘round that bend
Why is this perfect person there?
Is everything connected?
Do my five senses know
How to perceive beyond
The seeming separateness of things?

This sixth sense – sleeping most the time
Sees the web, the one tapestry of life
Can see what’s next
Because it’s all there at once
All the time.

Could it be
No matter what I think of you
Or my gripes that you
Are even here at all
That you were always meant to be right here
Right this moment, now?

If I dive deep
Engage with you more full
It might get clear
The wink you have for me
And I for you

If some events synch up like this
How can I make this happen more
Here in Asheville, where these things go on
Faster and much more than in the normal world?

What if the secret is
That it’s not for me to do it all
That I may not do anything?
This freeze-frame
Where all seems one
May really mean that all is one
There are no actors
Or those they act upon.

There is just life
Dancing its dance
Dancing us
Even when we just sit and watch.

God winking at us

About ten minutes ago, I was wandering around my apartment looking for something (I can’t even remember what anymore).  It’s a sign of how random are the workings of my mind that i also cannot anymore remember why I was trying to remember the name of the restaurant on Biltmore Ave. where I have had some lovely times hanging out with my laptop.

I remember now!  I was (for some reason I no longer remember) thinking about having tea (or juice) next Thursday with my friend Kelly McKibben at Nectar Cafe and Juice Bar on Merrimon in North Asheville.  My sweet friends Tim and Pippin Boissy (it’s her birthday today – Ha, Facebook started this whole thread) opened this restaurant a few months ago and I have not even made it there.  Wouldn’t it be nice if it were to become a fav new internet cafe for me?  I could rotate with Green Sage/Westgate and that other restaurant on Biltmore.  I felt a little wave of frustration at not being able to remember its name, but thought that probably it would eventually come to me.

Then I walked into my bedroom, still looking for that elusive something, and on the lower shelf of my nightstand, peering clearly out at me from a perch that I swear i have not looked at for months, was a brochure for the restaurant named 67 Biltmore!  I took that brochure to order side dishes for my Christmas feast at Johanna and Tom’s – which I sure didn’t do, I brought a sixpack of beer.  Why was that brochure still sitting there?  So it could tickle my funny bone today?

When my son was in his early teens, I used to point out these synchronicities to him and refer to them as “God winking at us”.  In spite of (or because of) his mom dragging him to church every Sunday, he was an early atheist.  He thought this was one of the stupidest things I ever said (amidst strong competition).  A few years ago (he’s now 40), he told me that now he says it sometimes to himself when he encounters this kind of uncanny coincidence.

Our atheist mind sees all these coincidences as random, the mindless careening of the billiard balls of life.  The mind/ego experiences itself as separate/alone and thinks that’s true of everything.  But we know better, right?

Tomorrow I’ll post a poem that a wrote a few years ago about all this.  It’s called “The Whale”.

 

 

Heaven help us.

Heaven help us, I’m praying.

I am comfortably ensconced at my table at Green Sage Cafe, my current fav place to hang out with my laptop.  I have 2-4 hours of work ahead of me, which I will only relax if I accomplish this afternoon.  I have not made a blog post for weeks.  I have several topics floating around in my mind, in my little spiral notebook, dictated into my phone.  But there is this other work.  I know! I will write a short post – quick and dirty or, as my writing coach Nina Hart says, short and crappy.

I will write about what I am going to do next, still before launching into the dreaded “work”.  I am going to pray for my friends.

I am not a big prayer guy. My vision of a Great Spirit is not personal – I have no one to whom to pray.  But I have this little recent (or recently renewed) angle into prayer.  I don’t think that anybody thinks of me when I am not right in front of them – in spite of some people telling me they do, in spite of a variety of friends or even acquaintances describing to me incidents in which they were thinking of me or sending me positive energy or praying for me.

And I know why I don’t think that anybody thinks of me when I am not right in front of them: I don’t often think about the other people in my life, even very important other people like my son and my brother.  I am absorbed in survival.  In Steven Covey’s terms, I focus on what is or seems urgent, as opposed to what is genuinely important.  So I am going to take a page from people who regularly pray for their friends.  I’m going to do that too.

The other day I spent an hour or two creating three prayer lists, to use on three rotating days.  Each has the short list of my most intimate people, for whom I will pray every day:

  • my son
  • my brother
  • the woman I have been dating (or something, it’s not clear what, but I want to affirm her importance in my life)
  • my roommate Patti
  • the guys in my men’s group and their partners
  • my best friend Lynn
  • my 35-year best buddy Monty (one year deceased)
  • my dog Buddy (two years deceased but lately on my mind)
  • my parents (long deceased, but I am wanting to think of them more – to be grateful to them).

Each list also has a somewhat longer list of a whole variety of people I want to make important, to remember at a minimum every three days:

  • my seven housemates (who live in the other two apartments at our house, as opposed to Pattie who shares my  apartment with me)
  • people I work with
  • people I dance with
  • people i go to church with
  • people I practice Tae Kwon Do with
  • cashier-servers at my fav internet cafe (where I am now)
  • the man who molested me (very long deceased)
  • some living less-close relatives (one of whom I don’t like)
  • my old girlfriend

My goal is to spend at least a few minutes every day focusing on one of these three lists.  i want to make my friends – and other people in my life – important.  I want to remember that i am actually connected with others.  I want to make it easier for me to believe that others also actually think about me.  I want to open my heart.

 

 

 

Crying behind the cash register

Last weekend I attended a grief workshop.  Sobonfu Some brings African traditions to the West to help us move past our collective and individual suppression of our grief.  She says, “There is a deep longing among people in the West to connect with something bigger — with community and spirit. People know there is something missing in their lives, and believe that the rituals and ancient ways of the village offer some answers.”

Her website says:

“Destined from birth to teach the ancient wisdom, ritual and practices of her ancestors to those in the West, Sobonfu, whose name means ‘keeper of the rituals’ travels the world on a healing mission – sharing the rich spiritual life and culture of her native land Burkina Faso, which ranks as one of the world’s poorest countries yet one of the richest in spiritual life and custom.

“Recognized by the village elders as possessing special gifts from birth, Sobonfu’s destiny was foretold before her birth, as is the custom of the Dagara Tribe of Burkina Faso, and was fostered by early education in ritual and initiation in preparation for her life’s work. ‘My work is really a journey in self discovery and in building community through rituals,’ says Sobonfu. Dagara rituals involve healing and preparing the mind, body, spirit and soul to receive the spirituality that is all around us. ‘It is always challenging to bring the spiritual into the material world, but it is one of the only ways we can put people back in touch with the earth and their inner values.'”

The weekend workshop consisted primarily of an extended ritual to support the 120 of us in releasing grief that perhaps was a reaction to a recent loss, but more typically had accumulated over years from a variety of losses and could be a reaction to international and global pain as well as personal.  The village that here came together to support us in this release was mostly strangers, but still very quickly came to offer a lot of genuine support.

grief hug

It takes a village to heal a grief.

 

When early in the workshop it was my turn to announce what losses I wanted to offer for healing, I said that it was the death of my best buddy Monty last January and the recurring loss every seven to ten days of all my good feelings – about myself , my life and life itself – when my depression comes rolling in.

I realized just a few minutes after my turn that the other loss I would offer for healing is the very loss of my ability to deeply feel and release my grief.  Once I was very good at surrendering to tears, having reclaimed this ability through personal growth experiences in my mid-twenties and on.  But depression itself has crushed some of this spontaneous and natural release.  And even my psychiatrists have acknowledged that the mood stabilizers that I take to even out my ups and downs also tend to dampen all my feelings.  It’s a tough call, but I continue to opt for the reduction in emotional pain that the meds afford me.

grief-counseling

I haven’t cried over Monty yet. I guess it will happen when it’s meant to – but I also believe that surrounding myself with support can help to get at it.

When I am manic, I am more able to connect with feelings and to release them  than when I am depressed. I was depressed at the workshop and predictably stayed fairly frozen right through from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon – though there were moments when it felt like something might be moving within me.  On and off, touched by someone else’s grief, I felt spontaneous shudders roll through my body.  When I would take my turns – with another ten to twenty people in various stages of deep breathing, wailing and screaming – to approach the grief altar (you chose whether to do this, how often and for how long), I progressively got more aggressive about also screaming and loudly crying, though my crying was without tears and my screaming felt hollow and without connection to genuine feeling.

On Monday, the day after the workshop, I was inclined to say that nothing  meaningful had gone on for me there.  But I noticed on and off through the day, in the middle of a kind of typical depression, waves of genuine sadness.  I felt like crying, for no reason that I could lay my hands on.  I was nowhere near actually crying, but I felt some of the feelings that might lead one to cry.  If I was not depressed and not behind the cash register, I might actually have cried.

This morning I learned in an email from my close friend Byron that his son-in-law Phil has been diagnosed as having “terminal cancer”.  I believe that I have never met this man.  His wife Sarah, my friend’s stepdaughter since her late teens, I have probably not seen for 20 years or more.  But I felt a genuine fondness towards her after just a couple of meetings back then – and certainly they and their three children, all still young, are an important part of Byron’s life.

grief, bench

My brother is still very much alive, but every day his cancer threatens him and his family with the spectre of his absence.

But, still depressed, I was unprepared to have such a visceral response to the news of Phil’s cancer.  I felt really sad for Phil, his wife Sarah, their three kids, Sarah’s mother Nancy, and Byron.  When I started to launch into an email back to Byron, I said to myself, “You just sit here and feel this for a minute.”  And so I did.

Then I decided, for whatever reason, that writing this post would keep me closer to the feelings. I could follow it by writing to Byron.  There’s a risk that writing would drive me up into my head and lose the visceral connection, but so far – as I go back to connect within – I still feel some shudders and seem to not have lost the thread of my genuine feelings. It’s feeling like writing is really helping me to process the feelings, is keeping them real for me.

Now I will let go of writing, will go back to just feeling the feelings – for as long as that feels alive for me – then probably write the email to Byron.  And I will bless myself and my grief, which now seems to include some people who I had not previously considered to be part of my family, but now do.

grief, swim

Did reading this stir in you any feelings for this family, whom you really do not know, or about any people closer to you (and including you) who are experiencing illness, loss or pain? It’s OK to feel it, to find somebody to talk to about it, to describe it in a comment here.  It’s all part of staying alive.