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.

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A highlight? That question.

It had been a hard day – the third day in a row of standing eight hours at the cash register.  It had been a hard month – five weeks of depression.  Not as depressed as I have recently been, and not as long as I have sometimes been, but five weeks is a long time to be depressed.  And today I was not writing.  The last two days my shift at the cash register had stimulated ideas for blog posts, which I furiously recorded between customers and on my breaks. Today nothing.  Writing brings meaning to  my job – makes me feel like I’m meant to be here.  Absent that, my cashiering time can feel empty.  All  this agonizing is unnecessary – the stuff I write when I write makes it clear that this work has meaning.

But today I wasn’t getting that bit about the meaning.  The guy in front of me was big and muscular in ways that I profile as not sensitive in ways that would make them open to my blog – or to my standard question, “What’s been a highlight of your day?”  I don’t know what prompted me to ask him anyway – maybe I was getting a little desperate to inject some meaning into this day.

His answer blew away my preconceptions.  “The highlight of my day?  Having you ask me that question.  That you might care about my answer.  Some days you just need a dose of that kind of energy.”

Sometimes asking someone what was a highlight of their day can be itself a highlight or even the highlight of their day.

Sometimes asking someone what was a highlight of their day can be itself a highlight or even the highlight of their day.

Suddenly it all had meaning to me – the blog, the question , the job.  I was on fire.  The rest of our relatively brief transaction (he didn’t have a lot of purchases) had a positive charge: I told him I would write this exchange up in the blog, then said I would do it that night.  I started it that night, but am not finishing it until today.

In the next two hours – the end of my shift – I jotted notes for three more blog posts, based on further encounters I had with people.  I came away from my day with three principles:

  1. When things seem meaningless, a meaningful question can turn things around.
  2. Don’t profile people – you don’t know what may come out of them.
  3. We need each other – what helps one may simultaneously help the other,

What would Monty do?

My best buddy Monty, who died ten weeks ago, was expert at tuning into himself – at not doing things that “don’t serve me”.  I’m not so good at this, do lots of things that don’t serve me – that if I took the time to ask myself, and had a better sensor for what is good for me, I wouldn’t do.  I did three of them last weekend.

I was on a roadtrip.  Me and three other guys were headed to Louisville, KY – them to attend the Humana Theater Festival, me to visit my son, daughter-in-law and grandbaby.  When all four of us had rendezvoused and gotten in the car, John produced a treat he had gotten for us – four beautiful truffles from the Well Bred Bakery in Weaverville.  Had I taken a moment to ask myself what served me in this situation, I would have accessed the fact that I was several days into staying off of sugar.  Eating the truffle didn’t serve me at all!  Life made this really clear when the cocoa powder that my truffle was drenched in just exploded onto my lap, leaving several splotches of chocolate on my tan pants.  There was going to be no way for me to ignore or forget that I had betrayed myself.

If the first instance of my not doing what Monty would do involved letting myself down by indulging in something I had committed not to have, the second instance had to do with denying myself something that I had been trying not to have.   We stopped for lunch at a diner that was so proud of their chili that they served each customer a little taste of it before they ordered.  I liked it a lot, but did not let myself order it because the beef was probably not “ethical meat” – the cows were probably not humanely treated.  Now there are all sorts of snags here: the assumption that the meat served in this restaurant was not ethically treated, the assumption that fish (my usual alternative) suffer less from factory farming than do cows or chickens, the whole concept of “humane slaughter” of animals.

What would Monty have done in this situation?  Unless his choice would not have served him – like eating sugar when I have clear reasons to not have it, he would have eaten what he wanted.  I ended up very dissatisfied with the fried fish I ordered – and jealous of Patrick’s chili.  Could I have known in advance that it would turn out this way?  I think so – if I had tuned into myself and asked myself “What do you really want?”

Monty's choices frequently leaned towards no, but his commitment to do what served him had a very positive thrust.

Monty’s choices frequently leaned towards no, but his commitment to do what served him had a very positive thrust.

The third situation involved my son and granddaughter – and me letting go of decision-making.  My son and daughter-in-law cooked up a plan for her and her mom to take the toddler to the zoo while my son and I would go to a movie – or, actually as it turned out, rent a movie.  There was something to be said for this plan – movies are a rich part of our history together.  But it was a beautiful spring afternoon, I had a short visit and not too much time to be with the baby – and would have preferred going to the zoo.

Monty would very likely not have allowed this situation to happen.  He had a policy of not acting until he got a clear “yes” about proceeding. He said that he sometimes paid a price for this non-action, but that overall it was worth the price.  He would have been much more sensitive to plans being made for him that he had not been part of.  Monty’s whole orientation towards action was based on himself, listening to himself, and not much based on others.  It erred at times towards self-involvement and insensitivity to others.  But there’s no question to me that I could use more of it.

“What would Monty do?” will not always lead to the right choice.  But not taking care of myself in my decision-making may increase depression – and in these three instances I think that asking “What would serve me?” would have been very helpful.

That’s why we’re here…

I had just had a brief exchange with a coworker who recently experienced a terrible loss.  The exchange itself had not been particularly deep – she was showing me a meditation passage on loss that was meaning a lot to her.  But then every exchange with her on this topic is feeling very deep – and this little conversation gave me goosebumps.

Then I had to pull away to wait on  a customer.  I initiated my usual exchange with “What’s been a highlight of your day?”  I honestly don’t remember Jill’s reply, but when she asked the question back of me, I related what had just gone on with “a coworker”.  I ended by saying “It gave me goosebumps…and now, telling you about it, I’ve got goosebumps again.  I’m really feeling it – and feeling so deeply is a highlight for me.”

Jill said “That’s what we’re here for, is to feel things.  We’re not here to be up in the clouds.”  This felt right on the money, and I felt very seen.

When I googled for photos of feelings, I kept getting things about love.  A Course in Miracles says there are two basic feelings, love and fear.  When we are in fear, we may get so frozen that it's hard to keep feeling and hard to communicate, but maybe there is the chance for big healing if we open our heart to our fear.

When I googled for photos of feelings, I kept getting things about love. A Course in Miracles says there are two basic feelings, love and fear. When we are in fear, we may get so frozen that it’s hard to keep feeling and hard to communicate, but maybe there is the chance for big healing if we open our heart to our fear.

Bipolar disorder can facilitate the feeling of feelings – and can impede it.  When I’m a little bit speedy, I tend to feel things intensely, I am touched by the feelings and situations of others and am moved easily to tears.  I can also be deeply touched by joy or beauty or love.  Similarly, when I am just a little bit depressed, I can feel things strongly – especially sadness or loss or pain.

When I get too speedy, I get way up in my head and don’t feel my feelings – except for anger, which comes more easily.  When I am too depressed, I also get into my head – ruminating over what I have done wrong or how screwed up everything is.  I get frozen as a defense against the pain.

Moving towards other people can be an antidote to the isolation of mania or depression – or of human life in general.  This includes really showing up when a coworker is sharing her pain, even when the content is a little heady,  It includes  being grateful for feeling feelings, even feelings that include a sense of vulnerability.  It includes opening up to  the comments of customers – to let them be teachers to me.

A missed opportunity

Bertha at Charter Communications – the cable company – missed a chance today to give me a good feeling about their company.  I was returning Monty’s computer router.  Whe she asked why I was returning it, I said that he had died.  That was the moment where she could have reached out for some genuine human contact – just a sincere “I’m sorry.”  I like to think that I do that consistently, even if someone is referring to their loved one passing a long time ago.  It pretty much always seems to create that human touch. But Bertha stayed buried in her computer screen, typing away.

It could have been a customer service slam dunk - anything like a human response has me leaving their office feeling better about the company.

It could have been a customer service slam dunk – anything like a human response has me leaving their office feeling better about the company.

I have heard a lot of criticisms of Charter.  This was a chance for Bertha, in this one instance, to soften that impression. Now why did Bertha not respond with human touch, in a situation where that would be so natural and appropriate – and where there was no apparent time pressure (no one behind me)?

  • She may actually be under some time pressure – lots of these computers can time a call – or, I’m sure, a face-to-face encounter.  I had a job as a call center operator where my supervisor consistently said, “You’re great with the customers – tops – but you’ve got to speed up your calls.”
  • She may have recently been told by a supervisor that she’s too chatty with customers, that she should keep it more to business.  This also happened to me on another job.
  • She may be having a migraine that is making it hard for her to even stand up.
  • She may have lost a loved one lately – or is on the verge of losing one – and my mention of a deceased loved one really triggered her.

I could go on and on – there are so many reasons that a customer server could be unresponsive to us.  And so many ways this could be helped.  It’s a truism that customer support people tend to treat customers as they themselves are treated. Give them respect and compassion and they tend to give it to their customers.  That’s not the whole story – there are some bad apples out there – but it’s a good place to start.  Helping your managers and supervisors treat others with more respect and compassion has got to be a win all around.

The day the store was so slow that the cashiers….

The store was super-slow today.  Yesterday the weather forecast was for lots of snow overnight, so the store was a madhouse yesterday with people stocking up on the necessities: milk, bread, chocolate, wine sushi ($5 on Wednesday!).  There actually was lots of snow overnight and today everybody stayed home.  A couple of our cashiers were similarly snowed in, but even shorthanded we had lots of time on our hands.  So we used that time:

Sparring with each other over  produce codes.  Actually there was no real competition – just fooling around.  These kids totally blow me away with the nimbleness of their brains.  I hold on like it was the holy Bible to a laminated list of produce codes which I tape to every cash register where  I work.  Occasionally I will leave it taped to the cash register I have just left.  When I discover that it’s missing, I will sheepishly go over to Jessica, for example – who at that point has been doing the work for all of a month.  “Hey, do you want that produce cheat sheet?” “Nah, i don’t need it.”  And she doesn’t – they’re amazing.

So today I am for some reason saying some of this to the middle-aged lady I am checking out.  I shout across the way to Regina.  “Hey Regina, what’s the code for Romanesco cauliflower?”

Romanesco cauliflower (or romanesco broccoli) -wild and wonderful, a cross between broccoli and caulifower.  Everybody says it's quite tasty.  i was gonna get some after work today, but then had to run out fast.  Hopefully there will be some there tomorrow.

Romanesco cauliflower (or romanesco broccoli) -wild and wonderful, a cross between broccoli and caulifower. Everybody says it’s quite tasty. i was gonna get some after work today, but then had to run out fast. Hopefully there will be some there tomorrow.

We’ve been selling it for just a couple of weeks and you get less than one bunch a day.  I’ve got the code just to my right on another list that has been taped to our counter,  but want to show Regina off to my customer.  “94630.”  “See – she’s amazing.”

Regina said today that even she doesn't know how or why she learns the produce codes so fast.  It can be an item you sell once every couple of weeks, and she doesn't hesitate to spit out the code.  She's awesome - and a very cool person who adores children and babies and is great to work with.

Regina said today that even she doesn’t know how or why she learns the produce codes so fast. It can be an item you sell once every couple of weeks, and she doesn’t hesitate to spit out the code. She’s awesome – and a very cool person who adores children and babies and is great to work with.

But I had to find a way to pull her chain.

“What’s 94237?”

“94237?  Nuthin’.”

“Ha – organic bananas.”

“No way. Organic bananas are 94011 – it’s like the first code we learn.”

“yeah, 94237 is organic bananas too.  They’ve been coming across the last couple of weeks, just some of them.  Maybe they’re from a different distributor or something.”

That was fun.

The other way I amused myself today was bantering with Rowdy about his PA announcements.  Rowdy is a very cool, funny, creative guy with a huge heart.  All the staff and customers love him.  I’m almost the only person who isn’t entertained by his sense of humor in these announcements and I think I have genuinely hurt his feelings.  Today i tried to inject enough playfulness into our back and forth to maybe detoxify the exchange.

Rowdy is really tall and big in all kinds of ways. He makes a very strong impression and mostly a very good one.  He's good for the store.

Rowdy is really tall and big in all kinds of ways. He makes a very strong impression and mostly a very good one. He’s good for the store.

Rowdy, in a totally over-the-top southern drawl (he’s not southern), “Attention Earth Fare shoppers, produce you have a call on line 2.  Could the fine people in produce please pick up line 2.”

“Oh now you’re turning us into a totally hick store.”

“This is Appalachia – I’m talking Appalachian.”

“You’re talking like a redneck – they’ll never take us seriously.”

“I’m just having fun.”

“You sound unprofessional.”

Here I am criticizing a young guy who is committed to creativity and i’m taking a stand for professionalism.  I can’t believe my own ears, but his announcements really do bother me, if almost nobody else.

Rowdy makes another countrified announcements and I ask the customers in front of me, “Now what did you think of that?”  “I think it’s funny.”  “Yeah, most people do.”

But not everybody, at least not all the time.  One day Rowdy made one of his classic low, slow, breathy, stage whisper announcements.  Lou Anne yelled, “Rowdy, that’s creepy.”  “That’s two of us for creepy.”

I can get away with teasing Rowdy because he knows I like and admire him.  And today it was so darn slow, we needed the distraction.

Life…and more life

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

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

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

Here is the poem.  Sally liked it.

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

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

LIFE – AND MORE LIFE
(Majo, 11/19/05)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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