Cashiering and healing

My friend Kimberly said to me before the Sunday morning dance this morning, “I’ve been reading your blog and I love it.  It seems to me that it’s important for your own healing.”  When I pressed her for more detail about this last part, she said it was “just a feeling”.

This was a new one for me.  I have known that I love the blog, that I am devoted to it, that I get tremendous satisfaction and self-expression from it, but – oriented as I am towards healing and familiar with that language – I hadn’t yet applied it to the blog.  But Kimberly is one deep soul, so what she says is tough to write off.

Is not all of life for our healing?  Kimberly and I share a spiritual teacher, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” I think the blog may be doing some of that.  The comments I get from people – here on the blog, in emails and face-to-face – say to me that what I am writing is reaching them, is helpful, touches places that are useful for them to go…that somehow they feel connected to it and to me.  I have a vision of those of us who are sharing this blog experience as a community.  That community especially lights up when people write comments on the blog where everyone can see them – but is equally present when people are in their own homes, silently reading the posts and connecting with them, responding to them.

"We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness."  Thich Nhat Hanh   Can a blog  help that happen?  Can writing it help that happen for me?

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” Thich Nhat Hanh Can a blog help that happen? Can writing it help that happen for me?

I recently went through a powerful personal growth experience called The Shine Expansive. My biggest takeaway from that three-day workshop was a personal mission statement: “I shepherd my flock.”  It’s easy to see that this has been the life purpose that has followed me from my teens in the Catholic seminary, studying to be a priest.  When I was an organization development management consultant at AT&T, my role felt very pastoral – I used to whimsically say that that 400 thousand person company was my flock.

So what if those of us who share the blog are one flock for me?  And what if the community of people around my grocery store are another flock?  It’s clear to me – if not to all of them – that the staff are a community.  And it’s also clear to me that the bigger group of staff and customers are a community.  What if my purpose there is to build community among staff and with customers – to help us connect with each other, to help us awaken from the illusion of our separateness?  And then there are the cashiers of the world – another flock to whom I feel a calling to minister with this blog.

If I think about it that way, then there’s no question that my cashiering job – and the blog which has sprung out of it – are healing for me.

Making art

Yesterday I wrote how I struggled through to affirm the value of the positive experiences I was having at the cash register, even though they didn’t lift the punishing biochemical depression that had me in its grips.

But there was another dynamic at work.  On and off throughout the day – and especially towards the end of the day – as I was having these positive experiences and these miserable experiences, in my head I was writing about them…planning to write this post.  During my afternoon ten-minute break I wrote (dictated, actually, into the voice recorder in my phone) about them as fast as I possibly could.

So for much of the day I was operating on two tracks: on the level of my immediate physical/emotional/mental experience, I was having moments of release followed by the return of crushing contraction – but on another level, I was detached from all that…was observing it.  The writer in me was observing – was creating a state of mindfulness, where I was not caught in my experience but could stand outside of it and notice it.  And mindfulness is liberating – to the extent it was operating, part of me was free from the suffering that was still going on.

Once again I celebrate my old meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught me lots more than I understand about mindfulness.

Once again I celebrate my old meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught me lots more than I understand about mindfulness.

So writing can trigger mindfulness and that can be freeing.  There was one other way that writing this post in my head was freeing.  Writing is a major identity for me – it feels like a big part of my mission in this world.  And right now writing this blog – writing about my job, about customer service, about bipolar disorder – is at the heart of that mission for me.  So even while my biochemical/emotional/mental suffering continued unabated, part of me was happy – was doing a little dance.  “I’m writing.  I feared that this depression would keep me from writing, but it’s happening.  I may hurt like hell all day, but I’m going to come out of it with a pretty interesting blog post.  I may end the day as fully in the grips of biochemical contraction as I started, but – regardless of how late it may be (and I do have a meeting tonight), before I go to bed I am going to write.  Depression can’t take that away from me.”

And now, at 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday that’s exactly what I’ve done.  I wrote Thursday’s post and this post to go up on Friday – and I feel good about both of them.  My body feels like crap, but my spirits are good.  I may feel lousy all over again tomorrow.  I don’t want to program myself to feel bad, but lots of hard experience tells me that this is likely.  But I have written.  I have found meaning in my experience.  I have created something that could possibly be helpful to somebody else.  I have transcended my pain.  I have made art.

“I could use a blessing right now.”

Julie was 40ish, 5’2″, cute, sweet, gentle and even as she walked up to my register I thought she seemed a bit wistful (but I so sometimes make shit up in my head, so I wasn’t sure).  I asked her how she was spending her Thanksgiving.

Packaged cranberries are fine, but I love them floating around in the bin.

Packaged cranberries are fine, but I love them floating around in the bin.

“Just a low-key time at home.”

“Oh, by yourself or with friends?”

I've got a hunch Julie wasn't having a turkey.

I’ve got a hunch Julie wasn’t having a turkey.


“Just by myself.”

I was searching for some element that could make this a positive, life-affirming experience.  I asked

“Do you have any little rituals that make the day special for you?”

“No.  when I used to eat meat there were things I used to do, but not now.”

(I was not sure what meat-eating rituals there might be, but chose not to follow that one up.)

I was stuck.  We were down to her last few items to ring through and there were people behind her.  She was keeping on a game face, but I sure got sadness from her.  I wanted to do something, but I needed to do it fast.

She gave me just the opening I needed.  She asked me,

“Do you have any rituals?”

“Yes, in fact I have a ritual for blessing food that I like a real lot.  You could use it if you want – I’ve        posted it online.”

Thich Nhat Hanh blesses food by acknowledging its connection with all of life - see 11/25 post

Thich Nhat Hanh blesses food by acknowledging its connection with all of life – see 11/25 post


Julie brightened right up.

“Oh, I could use a blessing right now – where would I find it?”

“Google ‘Real life in the checkout line.’  Leave a comment about how it worked for you.  My email address is in the right column.  I’d love to hear from you.”

Julie left with a spring in her step.  And I stood taller.  I had the highlight for my day.

Blessing our food

It’s Thanksgiving time – a time when we pay extra attention to being grateful for our food, to blessing it.  My old meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh – the world’s foremost Zen master and I think our greatest living spiritual teacher – is currently extremely ill and is very much on my mind and in my prayers – as he is for people around the world.  It seems like a good time to share his practice for blessing food.

Thich Nhat Hanh - his students call him Thay, Vietnamese for teacher.

Thich Nhat Hanh – his students call him Thay, Vietnamese for teacher.

Thay teaches “Interbeing”: things inter-are.  They exist within each other.  They require each other to exist.  Everything exists within a great web of life.  It is from this backdrop that you can view the blessing of food.  All of life is contained within the food we eat.

“Thank you for this food.  Thank you for the rain which nurtured it.  Thank you for the sun which made it grow.  Thank you for the earth in which it grew.  Thank you for the people who tended the crops and harvested them.  Thank you for the people who brought it to market – and to the cars/trucks/boats/trains/planes that got it to us.  Thank you for the market that sold it to us.  Thank you for everybody and everything that helped us to have the money to purchase it.  Thank you for the cooks.  Thank you for all of us around this table who will eat it.  Thank you for everybody in every other home who is also celebrating this feast (eating today).  We send our love and compassion to everybody and every sentient being who is not eating today or not eating enough.  May all people and all beings feel love and find peace.  May this food serve us for health, healing and happiness.”

And let’s add, may our beloved Thay, who taught us these concepts and this relationship with food, feel the love that so many people around the world are sending him today.

“Thank you for being unfriendly.”

I can’t keep up the high-intensity connecting, customer after customer, indefinitely.  I need to chill back, coast, ground myself.  Stay pleasant, friendly – but somewhat more in myself as opposed to out there with them.

Some customers help that – they are not available for connecting. They may be in a generic grocery store mode – they don’t expect the cashier to engage them. Don’t try – take this as a chance to drop back in.

The other day, I tried to engage with an attractive 40ish woman, but got nowhere.  I decided that she was just kind of shut down.  Then, after she left, I looked over my shoulder and saw her all animated with another customer.  Don’t take it personal.  For whatever reason, today, at that moment, she needed the cashier to be simply a cashier – not a multi-dimensional person.  It’s alright.

When you get someone who is distracted or even unfriendly, thank them inside.  “Thank you for braking my momentum” (especially when I am manic/speedy/overextended).  “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to ground myself.”  Thich Nhat Hanh encourages people to stop periodically throughout the day – just stop, in your chair, in the middle of the room – and come back to center, come back to who you really are.  He tells us to thank a stoplight for stopping us.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

So we can thank a person for stopping us.  Stopping is good.

“Don’t be sure…”

Mostly this blog will be about my work at the grocery store, but some other incidents just beg to be written about.

Ecstatic dancers celebrating their feet

Ecstatic dancers celebrating their feet

I do ecstatic dancing every Sunday morning.  We hang our coats and miscellaneous items on coat racks outside of the dance hall.  There are volunteers positioned right next to the coat racks, it’s a real honest group of people – and mostly we all feel fine leaving pretty much anything out there.  I routinely leave my watch, phone, wallet hanging in my street pants or coat pockets.  This morning I was wearing a shoulder bag (“man bag”) and had all those things in it.  I hung it from the same coat hanger as my coat.

When I got out to the car, I realized that I had taken my coat but left the bag behind.  I schlepped the half-block back to the Masonic Temple, where the dances are held, and methodically looked at all the coat hangers from several in front of where mine would have been to several behind.  No bag.  I had finished the dance in a great mood – and this good mood was mostly sticking with me, in spite of some frustration and just a little bit of anxiety about where was my bag.  I patiently looked on the floor under the coat rack – and in a couple of other spots where it didn’t make sense that I would have taken it, like where I put my shoes on.  No luck.  I must have taken it out to the car.

Another trip back out to the car and it definitely wasn’t there – so back to the Masonic Temple.  Nobody ever steals things in this group – but there was that time, three years ago, when Michael’s wallet and iPhone were stolen.  I’m getting a little more anxious.  This time as I come through the door, my volunteer friends at the welcome table start to tease me about all the back and forth.  I confide my predicament to them – and my building frustration and anxiety.  Sweet Leslie, a pretty, slender blonde woman in her 5o’s (very interesting person, terrific dancer) says “Show me where you had it.”  I follow her over to the coat rack, saying “I looked all through there – looked under all the hanging coats, everywhere.”  “Yeah, but basically where was it.”  And in less than 30 seconds she finds it – hanging from one of the empty hangers, where I felt sure I would see it if it was there.

I used to study meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh, an extremely holy teacher of Zen Buddhism – who is right now apparently dying.  He is on my mind.  Thay (“teacher” – what his students call him) used to entreat us not to be sure about things.  “Which way is up?”, he once asked us.  When we all pointed up (as we understood it), he said “Our friends in China would not agree.”

ThichNhat Hanh with Martin Luther King

ThichNhat Hanh with Martin Luther King

I was sure that my bag was no longer hanging on the coat rack.  How can my life be different if I don’t go around being sure of things?  How might this soften my rigidities, leave me open to more possibilities – easier to deal with, to live with.  Easier to be with for myself.  Thay, thanks.  I’m sure I love you.  I’m sure that you are an amazing man.  I think you are our greatest living spiritual teacher, though I guess I can’t be sure about that.  It feels to me like this world will be a more empty, sadder place with you gone – but I’m pretty sure you would encourage me to not be so sure about that.