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.

 

 

 

He was just trying to greet me.

This post is about twice as long as is recommended for blog posts, but I think you will find it very thought-provoking.

About a dozen years ago, on a lovely Spring afternoon, I was walking down a pretty Chicago side street, talking on my cell phone.  I had my cordless headset on with the actual phone in my pants pocket, so was not obviously on the phone.  It was totally understandable that the schizophrenic guy walking toward me on the other side of the street, also talking to somebody who wasn’t there, took me as one of his peeps.  He gave me a big smile, a hearty wave and a super-friendly “Hi”.  I will always regret pulling my phone out of my pocket to let him know that I was actually talking to a real person.  Why did I have to do that?  Sure I’m not schizophrenic, but I had already for several years carried a psychiatric diagnosis (first clinical depression, then the more accurate bipolar disorder) . But schizophrenics are at the bottom of the mental illness food chain – they are really crazy (never mind that I have met schizophrenics who are very high functioning, many better in some ways than me).  There are some who claim to have completely recovered from mental illness – and look and sound for all the world like they have.  But I still don’t want “them” in my support group – I want it to be “just us”.  Anyway, my compadre on the other side of the street just hung his head and continued on.

A little while ago, on an equally lovely Fall morning, I put my sweater over a table outside a cafe in the perfect-temperature sunlight and went inside to order some food.  I immediately became aware that the young guy at a table at 11 o’clock was mentally challenged. I don’t know what his diagnosis would be.  When I was trained as a clinical psychologist 40 years ago, they didn’t put much emphasis on mental retardation. You would have had to work hard to get a practicum working with “that population”. (Hey, back then they didn’t even know about bipolar disorder; it was manic-depressive psychosis – if you didn’t have delusions and/or hallucinations, you didn’t get diagnosed.) But I’ve had enough experience with “mentally handicapped” people to recognize the look – and the sound. And I somehow, out of the corner of my eye, spotted the family member or social worker who was with him.  Or maybe I just assumed they were there – this guy was not out and about alone, I felt sure.

So I recognized his voice when, ten minutes later – with me all caught up in my lunch and my laptop, pretending to multitask while I am swayed by the research showing that we really can’t do that very well. He came up behind me, talking to his voices or his worker – or me! I felt a hand on my back and knew it must be him.  That was literally a first.  In my 69 years of life, I think it’s totally possible that I have never touched a “retarded” person, old or young. If perhaps I did an assessment with one (with instruments that were primitive for “normal” people and probably grossly inappropriate for mentally challenged people) during my clinical training forty years ago, we were taught by our Freudian supervisors never to touch a “patient” (not “client” or – gasp! – a “consumer”).

This guy who was apparently attempting to talk to me: Do other people understand him? Does he understand them? Does he know how to use a phone? Does he have a job? So much I don't know. I guess acknowledging that I don't know is a start.

This guy who was apparently attempting to talk to me: Do other people understand him? Does he understand them? Does he know how to use a phone? Does he have a job? So much I don’t know. I guess acknowledging that I don’t know is a start.

As I turned in his direction – being careful to not make eye contact (what do I think?  It’s catching?) – it became clear that he was talking to me.  Now in Asheville initiating a conversation with a stranger on the street is more the norm than inappropriate.  Even if the person is very odd, like the woman who joined in Marian and my conversation yesterday on the porch at Greenlife.  The fact that we were talking about bipolar disorder, which I have, did make it seem inappropriate – and then she was odd in other ways. She had in her shopping cart some broken-down cardboard boxes which she set up on her table around her laptop, creating an impromptu cubicle.  (I guess the Greenlife management turned down her request for a private office.)  But even here we let into our conversation.  Actually, Marian was very polite and talked with her some.  I had earlier on diagnosed her as “crazy”, just from the boxes, and didn’t want any part of this conversation, even though the little parts of it I did hear seemed only odd, not loony-tunes.  I finally, when this person showed no signs of tiring of the conversation, interrupted to say, “Marian and I actually have some business to transact” (which was true, though it would not have been truthful to say that there was any objective hurry for the two of them to break off their conversation).

So anyway (who’s tangential – one of those words I learned in my psychiatric training and maybe have never used since, to this very moment.  Probably no loss.), it was clear that this young guy was talking to me.  I looked at his worker (family member? How could you tell? Could they look alike, in spite off having such different stations in life?), who shrugged her shoulders like she didn’t have any more idea than me what he was saying.  I still hadn’t made eye contact and made an instant decision not to.  I went back to my work with my computer, burying my nose in it – if you can do that like you do with a book.  He took an abrupt step back from me and then continued down the street – I thought with slumped, discouraged shoulders.

What was he trying to tell/ask me?

  • “You look like a nice man.”
  • “Do you come here often?”
  • “I had the soup, too – it was great.”
  • “I’m lonely.”

I’ll never know, maybe because

  • I didn’t pay attention to him.
  • No real attention had ever been paid to teaching him to speak better.
  • His worker was not well-trained and not able to translate for him.
  • She had not been on the job long, like pretty much no one stays in these “entry-level”, poorly paid jobs.

So I who pride myself in being all about engagement with people – including spontaneous, improvisational encounters on the street or in the theater – missed a chance. Missed a chance in a way that I chronically miss chances – chances to engage with people who are in general marginalized and maybe thus even more in need of friendly connection. Missed the chance to reward a guy who was maybe pretty heroic to reach out, given that he gets responses like this all the time and I had not given him any encouragement.

I missed a chanced.  I’m disappointed.  But I got a blog post out of it.  And if I really listen to what I’m writing here, I may not always miss these opportunities.  I may still miss some – old habits die hard.  But maybe not all.  And if I take a chance and it goes well – even to just exchange smiles and head nods, like I do with foreign language speakers at my cash register – these successes may build on each other and I  may be on the way to a new habit.

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.