“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 to ask? Giving part 2

When you are raising money for a good cause like the Our Voice sex abuse counseling center, one could make a case that you should ask everybody who comes through your grocery store check-out line.  But this is not feasible or even desirable: asking takes energy, being turned down can take it out of you, and some people are better off not being asked.

You can similarly make a case for not profiling who you should ask.  I certainly have gotten yes answers from groups my profiling would target as bad risks: too young, too old, too southern, too poor, too minority.  But I do still have a profile of who is most likely to give, for this charity especially: a woman between 25-50 with a big order and our frequent shopper account.  And I do find myself, when I am burned out from being turned down, trying to intuit who is going to say no, so as to maximize my yes’s.  Call it profiling or call it psychic or simply picking up on their energies, I’ll defend my right – even my responsibility to my own self-care – to leave some people out.  There are some other times that I think it makes sense to not ask:

  • when they seem worried or angry or hurried
  • if they are paying with food stamps (you don’t always know this until right at the end of the transaction)
  • when they are buying for work or for somebody else
  • if they make any reference to a recent financial reversal – big dental or vet bill, home remodeling that’s going over budget
  • they have had to wait a long time in line, you have created a complicated transaction right before them or you have otherwise pissed them off
  • they have already pulled out even change -or their change is going to be less than a dollar, the least we are equipped to take
  • they have gotten in a groove of saying no – or seem to be enjoying it too much. “No I don’t have your frequent shopper card.” “No I don’t want a bag.”  “No I don’t have a highlight to report” (my favorite conversation starter)
  • if you have made a big pitch for the frequent shopper program and they have said no
  • if they are with their mother or grandmother who is paying
  • if you get any kind of a bad vibe from them

In my first “Giving” post, I made the case for asking – even while I said that sometimes they would be doing right by saying no.  Here I’m making the case for not asking, mostly to take care of our own energy.  Sometimes we just need a breather.  The other day, in a burned out moment, I bargained with myself that I would ask the next three people and if none of them gave I would take some time off.  None of them did give, but I had so much fun with the  fourth person that I couldn’t resist asking – and she gave $5.  That kept me going for a while.

Sometimes we get burned out because we have lost our center and started to care too much whether they give.  The whole enterprise is a great opportunity to listen to ourself, to tune into our subtle sense of things, and to let go.  It can potentially enrich our experience of the work.

 

For Cheryl

Here’s the poem I offered – and briefly messed up – at Barry Barton’s dance performance.

For Cheryl

Your father took the poison pill
Of hate for self
He swallowed it and went away
Was struck dumb and then could not
Speak on your behalf or his
He did not wield his pen of truth for you
When they served to you the same sick drug
Toxic with their shame and pain
They saw your lovely innocence
And tried to claim it for themselves
They carved in it their names
“If I scar it, then it’s mine
Let me leave a handprint on your face
Or a mournful dream of your small hand
Placed on me against your will”

But the twisted trying there
To wrest from you your life, your love
By those who loved so wrong, so wrong
Could not quench your fire, your self
The would-be spirit breakers did not know
What spirit truly is – nor saw your soul
Or they would have touched you not those ways
For fear your angels would have struck them down.
The gold of that sweet soul was not destroyed
Just melted and formed new again
Nothing burned away but dross
You wanted gone so long

And when you felt your most alone
And when you were the most at risk
Of saying yes to that last dose
And lying in the fitful sleep
Of those who dream when they were real

And when you felt your most alone

And when you felt your most alone

Your truly faithful dad – long one with you
In the bonds of suffering and fierce love
Somehow coughed up his toxic wad
Smiled his warm and human smile of old
And said to you, his precious child
“Don’t swallow, darling girl of mine
You must not follow me
Into this silent truthless place
I need your words so bad
They are my legacy
Perhaps tomorrow I will find my own, but now
Rage at what they’d have you eat
You are my little queen
All the forebears of your mother’s and of mine
Salute you as you spit this back”

And so with raging, potent, loving words
You gather to you us
All of us who hold our own
Toxic dose of pain
Carried still in pouch of silk
“When all else fails eat me
I will kill you fast or slow
But I am all you really know”

You say to us with loud ferocious tones
“No-no-no-no-no-no!
Give me those precious pouches now
This whole sad pharmacy of fear and lies
Place all these pills together here
On this basement floor within
Flush them with our healing tears
And we who have been sick but have not died
Shall come away the stronger still
And make a pact to grasp those pills
Wherever they be found
And give that purge to all the lost
And bring the de-pilled people home
Into our sacred tribe
And love ourselves and our poems
And each other – and the children we create
And our parents too, who need it most

“Because I say so
And I am Cheryl
Triumphant and alive
And innocent and good.”

My five dirty secrets

See the happy, smiling cashier.  This cashier is not worrying about giving out bag points.  This cashier is thinking about getting laid tonight.

In my store, we give people bonus points on their membership account when they bring their own bags. These points eventually apply as a discount on your grocery bill. I have five dirty secrets about how I implement these bonus points:

  1. I frequently forget to touch the button on my touch screen that applies these points.
  2. To counteract this tendency, my policy is to give the points right up front to everybody who comes through my line – including people who take bags and thus don’t deserve the bonus (remember the parable about the laborers who work different durations in the fields), and people who don’t belong to our frequent shopper program and for whom these points are completely irrelevant.  (I picture them poring over their receipt at home and asking, “Bag points?  What bag points?”)
  3. Our system is a little screwy and often requires people to re-enter their credit card at the end of the transaction.  Sometimes, however, when I tell people “The machine is asking you to swipe your card again” a more honest statement would be, “I just realized at the end of the transaction that I had not yet entered your bag points.  Touching that button at this point in the transaction caused your credit card info to fall out.  I understand that the hassle of once again pulling out your credit card may greatly outstrip the value of your 5 measly points.”

    See the happy, smiling cashier.  This cashier is not worrying about giving out bag points.  This cashier is thinking about getting laid tonight.

    See the happy, smiling cashier. This cashier is not worrying about giving out bag points. This cashier is thinking about getting laid tonight.

  4. Sometimes, after the transaction is over, I have a moment of wildly neurotic insecurity in which I ask myself “Did I give them their bag points?” Then, in an environment that greatly values conservation and where we are all proud that we recycle unwanted receipt slips, I print out another copy of the receipt so I can see if I actually did dispense the magical five points (value 5 cents).
  5. More often than not the receipt says that I actually did give them the points.  What’s more out of it – to forget to do something or to do it and not remember doing it?

I really, really want not to care very much about all this: we’re talking about five cents, for chrissake!  But it haunts me.  It adds stress to my day.  It makes me feel like a bad cashier.

Oh, here’s the deal: it haunts me when I’m depressed.  When I’m manic I don’t give a shit.  

My favorite firing…

Here’s my favorite experience of being fired from a cashiering job. (It was actually the only time I’ve been fired from a cashier job, but I’ve been fired from other jobs – two because I got hospitalized for depression – and they were nowhere near as much fun.) Fav because I desperately needed to get out of there and fav because I went out with a bang, not a whimper.

I had worked full-time for a year as a cashier in the little kiosk in the Enmark gas station on Merrimon – mostly closing shifts that didn’t get me out of there until 11 or later.  I had been there too long, but working 40 hours I just wasn’t finding time to job hunt.  When my genuinely cool boss, with mock ceremony, handed me my one-year pin, I erupted very genuinely with “No, not a year!  I was never supposed to be here for a year!”  He totally got the truth and the humor of this.

No fancy convenience store at this gas station - I was stuck 40 hours a week in a little kiosk with barely enough room to turn around.

No fancy convenience store at this gas station – I was stuck 40 hours a week in a little kiosk with barely enough room to turn around.

My time on the meter had expired: I needed to get out of there, but I was not making it happen. So life helped me out – or maybe it was just my unconscious that put this last act in motion.

This woman was having trouble making her gas pump work.  I dutifully left the booth to try to help her.  But I couldn’t figure out why the pump wasn’t working – or what she had done to screw it up.  She became irate. “So I need to wait around here because you don’t know what you’re doing.”

To my credit, I kept it together for at least a moment, standing there in front of her.  “Let me go back to the booth and see what I can figure out.” Really, “Let me get away from you before I do or say something that I regret.”

But really it was already too late.  Looking back on the scene, I’ve always thought that if I didn’t pass Nancy, a friend from church, at the next pump – as I headed back to the booth – I wouldn’t have muttered under my breath, “Bitch!”

Under my breath, but still too loud. The bitch followed me back to the booth.  I locked myself in the kiosk, where I couldn’t actually strangle her.  She all but screamed at me through the window, “How dare you call me a bitch!”  What I did next guaranteed my firing – and I have never for a moment regretted doing it.  I planted my feet, looked her straight in the eye and said, “Sometimes it just fits.”  If I had left that out, she might not the next day have complained to a company vice-president.

Sure the word can be oppressive, but it also can be funny - and sometimes it's just perfect.

Sure the word can be oppressive, but it also can be funny – and sometimes it’s just perfect.

When I arrived at work at 3 p.m. the next day, my genuinely very cool boss Jim said, “I would never have fired you for this.  We all have our bad moments.  But my boss gave me no choice.”

So I got myself thrown out of the nest, which precipitated for me some anxiety, but mostly I knew that nothing was going wrong.  I actually came quickly down on my feet and found a better job.  And even if things had not worked out so well, I don’t think I ever would have regretted it.  That bitch was flat-out disrespectful – my integrity was at stake. I had to defend myself.  It was not the most elegant self-defense, but it was infinitely better than letting myself be run over.

I have yet to come across another front line customer server who is not thrilled to hear this story.  It was a great moment in cashiering.

You risk, I risk….

May was a slender attractive brunette, around 5’6″, maybe 35 years old.  She responded to my “What’s been a highlight of your day?” question in several steps of progressively greater openness – startling to me and maybe even to her.  “I had a really good hypnosis session….We’re working on fear….I’m a cancer survivor and lots of little symptoms bring up fear.”

My response was in its own way a little startling to me.  “Are you familiar with A Course in Miracles?”  Now why did I bring that up?  I’m sure not getting paid to promote far-out, channeled, New Age metaphysical programs.  I do know why I brought it up – because in my life A Course in Miracles has been a very powerful lever for working with fear.  But it still feels like a risk to be recommending it to a customer, maybe especially a customer who is at such a vulnerable point in her life.

May’s next response was also surprising.  She got positively electrified (I get goose bumps recalling it): “Yes – love is letting go of fear!  My hypnotherapist was telling me about it today!  This is total affirmation that it can be good for me.”

A Course in Miracles is a dense metaphysical system paired with a very concrete workbook with 365 daily lessons that tend to turn your daily reality upside down.  I spent 3 years making my way through the lessons, then turned around and spent another 4 years doing it again.  My life has been forever changed by it.  Jampolsky's book is a great introduction.

A Course in Miracles is a dense metaphysical system paired with a very concrete workbook with 365 daily lessons that tend to turn your daily reality upside down. I spent 3 years making my way through the lessons, then turned around and spent another 4 years doing it again. My life has been forever changed by it. Jampolsky’s book is a great introduction.

After May left, I had no mixed feelings about having recommended A Course in Miracles. I’m a big believer in synchronicity and felt as convinced as her that her hypnotherapist and I both recommending it within a few hours of each other indicated it could be good for her.

What did all this teach me about taking risks with customers?  Sometimes I’m the first one to risk – to offer something personal or unusual.  Today May disclosed first.  But is it really so easy to know who opens first?  Did May know from the way I asked my question that I was a safe person to open up with?  I don’t ask the question to everyone – did I pick up something from her that indicated that asking her the question would go someplace?  Was I in a more trusting place because of the enchanted interaction that I had had just an hour earlier? (“I’m vertical…”, 1/7) Why did she end up in my line?  Why shortly after this hypnosis session?

Sometimes it makes sense to think in terms of taking risks.  I want to develop my sense for which risks are worth taking and which are perhaps too risky – and to recognize when my customer has taken a risk, has made themselves vulnerable, and needs to be supported.  Yet it also seems equally valid to hold that we are always totally supported – and that love means to recognize this, to trust it, to surrender to it.  And as we do this we progressively let go of fear.  I learned that from A Course in Miracles.

When we have to wait – tonglen practice

In her best-selling book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron teaches the Tibetan Buddhist technique of tonglen.  The heart of the technique is to move from the ego – our own limited suffering – to connect with others who are suffering in similar ways.  It’s pretty challenging, deep practice, but can be very liberating – and can be practiced in a grocery store checkout line, or anywhere that we are waiting, or anywhere.

The source of much of our pain is isolation - being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience.  Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

The source of much of our pain is isolation – being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience. Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

Let’s say you are waiting in the grocery checkout out line.  You start by turning typical new age practice upside-down: instead of “breathe in the good stuff, breathe out the bad”, you open your heart and you breathe in any distress or pain you are experiencing.  And for a Buddhist, to the extent that you are not in touch with your inherent goodness and the goodness of creation, you are suffering.  So any impatience, discomfort, irritation, any judging of the situation, any separation from your natural state of oneness with all of life – breathe that all in and pay good attention to it.  Then breathe out a wish for your own healing – that you return to the experience of peace and oneness.

After spending some time on your own healing, you expand your gaze to focus on others who are experiencing similar distress.  When you inhale, along with your own pain, breathe in the waiting-in-line pain of the others waiting in your line – or if your line is very small, those in the line(s) next to you.  Feel the pain that all of you are holding about waiting in line, then breathe out a wish for healing for all of you.

Continue this practice in progressively widening waves.  Open your heart to:

  • all those who are waiting in line in this store
  • all those who are waiting in any store in this town
  • all those who are waiting in a store anywhere
  • those who are waiting for organ transplants or to get out of jail or prison, those who are waiting for loved ones to come out of surgery, etc.
We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. - all our people, all our suffering.

We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. – all our people, all our suffering.

We end the practice by blessing ourselves and all those we have included in our focus – all brothers and sisters of ours.  We offer gratitude to those who have developed and offered this practice.  See if it has shifted your experience of waiting in this line.  Let me know what you find.