Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Power of Words - Part 3

Funny how I find such power in words that when vocalized I seldom trust. Maybe it’s been too long listening to politicians but I find the written word far superior to that of the spoken. For this reason, perhaps, I have always found it difficult to write fiction—it is hard to write a non-truth. Not that it is easy for me to tell a lie but I find a lot of people, including myself, are prone to hyperbole. It is something I try to amend whenever I feel it bubbling inside but because of this innate tendency I usually add a grain of salt to words spoken by another. (Because I do it, you must also). As for writing, I have my own auto-correct built in: whenever I am not quite writing my truth it feels like I am trudging up a steep hill with 100 pounds on my back. The written word is sacrosanct to me.
That said, I do write fiction but most of my tales seem to have at least some foundation of truth. I discovered that it is just a matter of taking that hyperbolic  tendency and stretching it a little bit further. My friend, “Sam”, was instrumental in helping me break through this literary barrier.
When I first told Sam about my problem he gently berated me for equating fiction with untruths. You have to look at it another way, he said. His theory is that because there must be countless solar systems and, in them, a myriad of civilizations and experiences, somewhere , sometime, whatever my imagination dreams up has to be based on someone’s reality… just not my own. Makes sense in a weird way. I keep it in mind anyway.
Sam and I have been friends for over ten years: he’s a man of great generosity and, having been around the proverbial block a few times, one of the true survivors. I met him in the late 90s when I was working at an emergency shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Sam didn’t live at our facilities but would come to visit in the evening or stand in line for the sandwiches made from surplus food. One night he came to watch some TV when a particularly nasty neighbourhood denizen was also visiting. “Keith”, like Sam, was a survivor but his longevity was steeped in amorality—he was a good looking, smooth talking bully among the defenseless. Knowing this the shelter staff kept a close eye on him whenever he was present and therefore, that night, when he started verbally abusing a middle aged mentally challenged woman, I was on him immediately. I ordered him out. He complied but not before letting us all know, in very colourful words, exactly what he thought of me. Sam, by this time, had had enough and got up to defend my honour.  More words were shouted and physical stances made before I separated the two, got Keith out with an indefinite ban and watched the night settle down to its normal craziness. A while later Sam left. He came back the next day with a black eye and swollen face. Keith, it seemed, had lain in wait outside the shelter, beating him up as a cautionary warning never to get involved again.
I left that job about a year later, lost contact with Sam and eventually moved to a calmer neighbourhood on the north shore. Walking home one afternoon then, I was more than pleasantly surprised to see Sam binning in the back alley. I walked up to him and, reminding him of how he defended me, gave him a hug and teasingly called him my hero.
It has been about eight years now that we’ve shared the same neighbourhood. Sam prefers to sleeps rough. Although he has been known to take the generosity of folk who offer him work as a house sitter he finds construction sites and parks more to his liking than soft beds and warm feet.  One Christmas, I gave him an IGA gift certificate. I meant well but I embarrassed him—he prefers to give rather than get and his “getting” is always the result of a barter or a dumpster find. Most times I see him pushing his shopping cart down the street or juggling great big garbage bags full of cans and bottles on his bike. When we see each other we always stop and chat. I keep it short when he’s been imbibing over a certain limit but more often than not we find something meaningful to talk about. But not, that is,  before he has offered me a gem or two of what he has found… it is amazing what people throw away.
I like Sam, even admire him, but I have never invited him home for tea. I kid myself and say it’s about the alcohol and how it triggers certain familial memories. Then I think, no, he’s just too dirty.  But I am not so sure either of those reasons are my truth.
My home is my sanctuary: my own fictional tale of the perfect life. His life is messy, uncertain and, at times, precarious: a reverberation of my own reality tale. I try to keep the two separate but … maybe this is why it is hard for me to write fiction… it exposes too much.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Power of Words Part 2: For the Love of Fiction

Continuing on with last week’s discussion, I want today to give praise to the power of words that align themselves in tales of fiction.
I’ve always been an avid reader but I think my love of story ignited when I was twelve. My mom gifted me with Anne of Green Gables and I was smitten. I still remember its apple green wrapper showcasing Anne perched on a fence with high neck collar, sun hat and black sturdy boots. It was my first hard cover. I knew by the way my mother gave it to me, the reverence she placed on it, that it was more than just her favorite book.  It was, in some way, my literary menarche. I stopped reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon and forged on to new adventures. I went from Romance to Westerns, Sci Fi to Suspense. By my mid-twenties I had moved on to the classics and devoured Dante and Homer, Dostoyevsky and Milton. I read Toni Morrison and Atwood, Ondaatje and Lessing. Forty years later I am truly an eclectic reader with, on average, three different genres on hand for various needs: a classic for settling me down before a hectic day; a mystery, fantasy or romance for relaxing at the end of one; and a non-fiction text for moments in between.  I not only love them all but am continually amazed by what they give me. Regardless of the genre and their ranking between high and low brow, books, especially the fictitious ones, not only comfort me but open doors to new perspectives.
I remember years ago, during a rather difficult time when I needed lots of support, a two-bit cowboy romance helped me get past the depression I felt for being so dependent. In the story the hero suggests to the “maiden in distress” to think of him like the stake used to hold up a tree damaged by a winter storm: the stake, he says, is only needed until the tree establishes its roots again. I held on to that metaphor and was able to go forth with hope and belief that I, too, would grow strong again.
Sometimes it is just a sentence or a word that opens my eyes to a new way of looking at an issue. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote in The Great Gatsby: He paid a high price for living too long with a single dream helped me begin the grieving process after leaving a certain position. And, upon reading the word “legitimize” in some suspense novel, I was immediately granted an answer to a problem that had been holding me back.
I know I am not alone in this. Last week I wrote of a chapter in Primo Levi’s book: Survival in Auschwitz.  I read and reread his words, sinking into their power as he tried to remember Dante’s retelling of Ulysses’ single-mindedness and ultimate shipwreck. I felt a strong affinity to Levi’s emotions of needing to get the story out, to be understood… to share the magnitude of how we are so tied to history and the words of those that came before us. I felt myself urging Levi on, wanting his desire to be fulfilled: not only that his friend, Jean, would understand Dante but that he see what Levi, himself, was only just beginning to sense—a possible meaning, a parallel cause that linked Ulysses’ fateful voyage to their own. It was as if at that moment, fiction opened a door so that Levi could somehow name his experience, illuminate it— if only for a moment—and somehow ease the pain of his powerlessness.
And that is why I love fiction. Beside its idyllic companionship and entertainment value, fiction serves me in learning more about myself. It doesn’t spew facts and research; dole out expert analysis or professional opinion but opens, instead, a portal to possibility. Fiction breaks down walls and rejuvenates the idea of Jung’s collective unconscious. One has only to read Homer to know that our humanness is age-old and founded on a continuum: we may have evolved in some ways but we still do greed, anger, grief and love in much the same way as our ancient ancestors. In many ways, fiction is what ties us together, what proves our interdependence.
So, I ask you, what does fiction do for you?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Power of Words

There is this incredibly beautiful chapter, The Canto of Ulysses, in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. In it Levi attempts to teach Italian to a fellow inmate, Jean, on the hour long walk to the kitchens. Levi writes:
I would be pleased to teach him Italian: why not try? We can do it. Why not immediately, one thing is a good as another, the important thing is not to lose time, not to waste this hour.
He starts the lesson with the twenty-sixth Canto of Dante’s Inferno which describes the eighth circle of hell where the counsellors of fraud are kept.  In this verse Ulysses, infamous for his smooth talking ways, tells the story of his last voyage. Levi writes:
Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. But we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour.
Levi is determined to not only remember Dante’s lines but to teach Jean the words. He is tormented that he can only bring forth bits and pieces. Several stanzas, however, remain intact and he recites Ulysses’ inspirational speech that ultimately pushes his men onward to their death:
 “Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.”

Levi continues:
As if I also was hearing for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am… [Jean] begs me to repeat it. How good [Jean] is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message…
I would give today’s soup to know how to connect … the last lines [together]… [but] it is late, we have reached the kitchen, I must finish:
“And three times round we went in roaring smother
With all the waters; at the fourth the poop
Rose, and the prow went down, as pleased Another.”

 I keep [Jean] back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this “as pleased Another” before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today …
We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. “Kraut und Ruben? Kraut und Ruben? The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: Choux et navets. Kaposzta es repak.
Levi’s chapter ends here at the soup kitchen with the last line of Dante’s Canto—the last line spoken by Ulysses:
“And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.”
Levi speaks to me on a level I find hard to express. His writing is strikingly poignant and so utterly defiant—that in the face of such deprivation and brutal savagery, humans can count on the power of words to get them through another day, perhaps only an hour … even a second.
I have never faced the degradation and humiliation that Levi and others in the concentration camps suffered. I have never had to fear death at every moment or to feel continued powerlessness, hunger, fatigue and defeat. But I have known the power of words and felt uplifted by them. They have reached deep within me, a reassurance that I am not alone.
I will write more on this but Levi’s urgency, the force that urged him to teach Jean the words of Dante, is contagious. I find I need to get this out tonight in whatever state.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Joyful and Peaceful Expression of Self

A man spoke to me today about the “blessings” of work. He said that he never quite understood its value until he retired. Now he sees how eight hours of work; eight more of play, and eight of rest is a perfect balance. Without it, he said, he is listless and finds less joy in life.
Another spoke in wistful terms as he watched me refill a bin with nails. I like work like that, he said, you can see what you’ve accomplished. My work, he lamented, is so nebulous with its meetings and report making…
I pondered upon these two encounters, both on the same morning, as I continued my day: ringing up sales; restocking shelves.
I am currently reading Primo Levi’s  Survival in Auschwitz. He writes of the infamous sign above several concentration camps where men and women were mercilessly worked to their death. It translates to read: Work gives freedom.
Three views of work: a blessing from structure; rewarding through accomplishment; freedom through death.
Okay, that was unfair of me to include the latter. There was no choice involved in Auschwitz, no monies exchanged; no fairness exacted. The work instead was a euphemism for brutal slavery. But still, it is good for me to keep Levi’s story in the back of my mind. I can get into a state of self pity when I view my current employment as a cashier. Sure, I still have a part-time BodyMind practice and my writing but I, in my humanness, want more. Or, at least, more of the work I love and less of that I do not.
A few days later I sat in the lunchroom after a long eight hours of serving customers. There were five of us, all cashiers, waiting to head into a mandatory meeting that none of us had the inclination to attend. Jackson was teasing Susan, a high school student; Anna was texting a friend and Georgia, a woman of my age, was sitting across from me, on the other side of the table. There were more of us to come but at that moment there was just a small comfortable gathering of work friends. I t was almost Walton-esqe in feeling, a family-like intimacy that bespoke of camaraderie and homespun tolerance.
Georgia got up and walked around to where I was sitting. I’ve done some energy work on her in the past, a couple of times, here and there, during lunch or coffee break. Nothing formal, just a few minutes to relax her shoulders or release a headache.   It works for both of us: I get to do the work I love; she feels better. As she approached she smiled and, in her accented voice, said: “Jo-Ann, my neck … touch me.”
So, for the next few minutes I worked on Georgia while Jackson and Susan played and Anna texted. Another view of work: a joyful and peaceful expression of Self.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Mr. Dressup, Bugs Bunny and Other Childhood Mentors

Mr. Dressup turned 85 this week. I grew up with this man and his pal, Casey; Rusty and the Friendly Giant, and the ladies at Chez Helene. Although the latter, I must admit, was always beyond my comprehension. I think I watched it only because it came on the same channel and I didn’t know how to switch it over to something else.
I’ve been thinking about childhood memories, at least the televised ones, since my friend Kristen, The Good Typist, wrote a blog asking which character on Sesame Street was your favorite. She posited a theory that who we most related to is reflected in our lives today as adults. I wrote in her comment section that although I was (ahem) outside the Sesame Street era I did have what I call my childhood mentors. The most important one coming not from TV but from a book: The Ugly Duckling. Family legend has me begging my Nana to read it aloud every night. And, even though I was a cute kid (really!), something inside me must have resonated with that little duck. Perhaps I just needed to feel hope that everything was truly going to be okay. Does the duckling reflect who I am as an adult? I would have to say yes in that my life goal seems to be about transforming my so called “ugly” parts—the ones I am ashamed of—to work for rather than against me. The little duck was indeed my mentor.
Then there were the other cartoon characters of my childhood. How did they colour my personality? I definitely admired Bugs Bunny with all her street smarts and the innocent looking but savvy Tweety Bird but I think I thought they were beyond my reach.  I would still love to be able to toss out the wise cracks of Bugs but most times I feel like the hapless Wile E. Coyote. Then again, maybe that is a good thing. I like the way he always picked himself up and carried on after a tough day of chasing the Road Runner. And while I truly hope the latter didn’t brush off on me with her subtle passive aggressiveness, I fear I learned her lessons all to well in times of darkness.
So which childhood cartoon or book character were your mentors? Who helped form your adult personality? I invite your comments and, just for fun, let’s keep this to the time you were real small, when picture books, easy readers or the cartoons on TV were your main source of inside entertainment.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Pomegranate

I ate a pomegranate the other day. I didn’t want to eat it, didn’t even want to look at it… just got so damn tired of seeing it in the fridge. Round, red lushness, rich as a cherry; lascivious as the first apple—it lured me in like the sirens of past lore. I held it in my hand and felt its firm outer shell. Inviolate, I thought, silent, mysterious; inviting, yet, in a way not. Memories surged forth: my first love cutting it in half; painstakingly scooping out each reluctant piece of treasure. I didn’t want to go back.
Persephone didn’t want to go back. Then again, maybe she did, and it was her mother that held her captive. Demeter petitioned Zeus; fought hard against the hell she figured destined for her daughter. She almost won, half won, in fact. Six months in heaven; six below.
I didn’t want to go back. What good lay in it for me? Who would rightly choose a half life of darkness?
The ripe fruit sat still in my hand. It was cool to touch; smooth, unblemished. Hunger stabbed me. I wanted it; I wanted it all. The knife thrust downward, eight times. Glistening rubies shone bright, burning my eyes. Memories disintegrated as I spread open the peel. Cerise niblets fell to my plate with ease; no pain. I ate of it as ribbons of red juice ran down my chin.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Shadow

Recently I’ve had some interesting conversations about the nature of evil and its relationship to shadow. Out of them came the idea that evil is perhaps nothing more than the experience of fear around the manifestation of, shall we say, our darker side—the side of which we tend to ignore and, at times, even deny.
The shadow, however, doesn’t have to be something universally abhorred. Although I believe that every one of us is capable of deeds from the most profound good to the most dastardly bad, the shadow is not necessarily “evil”—it can simply be a behaviour or belief of which we are ashamed.
The thing about shadows is that the more we deny them the more they creep into our lives. Lisa Unger, a suspense novelist, goes so far as to state that the universe has a personal dislike of denial and goes out of its way to set up situations that make us face the things we would rather not acknowledge or see in ourselves.
Although I’ve exposed several of my shadows through years of reflection I doubt my personal closet of skeletons is far from empty. I have no issue with this but find it funny how I always end up surprised when the unconscious finally comes apparent. It is not so much that I cannot believe this newly revealed fact about myself, it is more of a feeling that I’ve known this part of who I am all my life. It is like having a déjà vu experience: you’ve been there, done that… you know about it already. And this is shadow’s truth: we do know about it, it is just that it is all … unconscious.  
Lately I have been faced with one of my more devious shadows through the behaviour of an aged relative. At first I didn’t realize what was happening, I just found myself getting angrier and more frustrated in my relationship with this family member. It is the nature of these beasts to be subtle. If these darker parts, for example, were to broad side us with blatant actions there would probably be an immediate turning away, a quick denial of how it holds no relationship to who we are. Sliding in with its understated persona allows it to insinuate itself into our thoughts, actions and emotions before we even know what has happened.
This current shadow, manifested by my relative, expresses itself as a certain passivity towards life.  It threw me a bit. I thought I had dealt with this side of myself—held dealt with my fears.  Living with depression for many years, I’ve experienced the extremes of passivity’s darker side. I know the urge to end it all: the seductive tease of finding peace, of not caring; not having hope or having the energy to reach out. However, I have also partook in its illuminated side and found there was plenty to celebrate. A passive life is one of reflection and of being receptive. It allows for stillness and the ability to sit and watch one’s path unfold. Passivity is also about surrender and letting go. I have worked hard on nourishing these positive aspects. I thought I was making conscious choices each day of acknowledging the darkness but still living with full participation in the evolution that is life. I guess I was wrong. The shadow, like I said, has a way of showing its face and exposing our fears, especially when we are most smug.
My aged relative has, over the past year, been sliding into the more negative form of passivity: he slowed down on his activities; ignored or downgraded the inherent joys of the day and started living under the idea that life was only going to get worse. I tried everything to get him out of it. I used well versed therapeutic techniques and, when that didn’t work, laid out the facts like a coach: I was blunt then was gentle; was angry then sad. I tried anything and everything to make him understand that he was throwing away the opportunity of life. The more I pleaded, however, the more it felt that his decision making processes had this vice grip on me that was making it more about my survival than his. I knew I had to step back.
It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to let go. But after a few weeks of wading through familial issues that fed some of my more intense feelings of grief, anger and responsibility, what finally emerged was that he was manifesting my shadow… the shadow I thought was no longer an issue. Turns out, I still had fears that my shadow would waft in and take control. And, even though I am quite effective when my clients manifest this particular darkness, seeing my relative act it out in real life got me scared; very scared
The good news about shadows, however, is that once we bring them into the light they are no longer as frightening as they once were. In coming into awareness of the main cause of my angst I was eventually able to let it go. Insight gave me knowledge and, from that, power. I found that I was in charge of my passivity and not it in charge of me. In re-exploring this darker side of myself I discovered I had no need to be afraid when it manifested in a family member. I began to see with utter clarity that my relative’s life was his own; that we have unique paths and that his choices are solely about himself. I know now, with surety, that I would have only hindered our relationship had I continued along the path I was walking.  In letting go I not only freed myself but empowered him to do his own exploration. Funny enough, since I’ve come to this conclusion he has, indeed, turned a corner.
The shadow works in mysterious ways. We can fool ourselves and think we know about life and all its ins and outs when in fact, the only thing we end up discovering is, well, what can I say … only the shadow (really) knows.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Jack of the Petit Dumpling

I carved myself a Hallowe’en pumpkin on Wednesday. It’s been years since my hands laid a knife to squash (for purely celebratory reasons, that is) and you know, it felt good. I wasn’t planning on doing it. In fact I told a friend a few days ago that I had no plans for Hallowe’en whether that be decorations, trick-or-treaters or crazy faced pumpkins. I live in an apartment, I said, no children live here. Besides, I am on the upper floor, decorations in my window would mean nothing.  Jack-o’-lanterns are for others to enjoy as they pass by one’s door, it would be for naught.
I didn’t think about what I had said until two days later, the eve of Hallowmas. I realized that by saying “it would be for naught,” I was indirectly stating that I was unimportant: that my gaze upon a thing of beauty … well, sort of beauty, meant nothing. It was a subtle sort of self negation. Can I not create just for myself? Am I not worth it? I reflected on this until I finally said enough; got up from my comfy chair and walked to the store.
Now five p.m. on Hallowe’en is not the time to start gathering pumpkins.  But intrepid soul I be, I made my way to the local IGA. As I wandered over to the vegetable stand my creative juices started to flow. The idea of creating for myself felt like an infusion of magic. My soul yearned for expression and I called on Thalia, the muse of abundance and comedy, to aid my desire. With barely restrained excitement I queried the grocery clerk as to where his pumpkins were hidden.
We are all out, he said.  What? I exclaimed. My eyes widened as Thalia perked up and ran herd over my now unrestrained senses: no glossy jacinthe fruits of the vine? No deeply painted nacarat or lurid shells to carve? The clerk started to back away.  Oh come on, I said, what about saffron or even a faded ochre husk that cries out to be cut (yet ever so creatively) open? I leaned forward to stress my point but it was too late, the vegetable man had already inched his way back, lost forever behind boxes of Poptarts and Lucky Charms. I harrumphed, they just don’t make grocery clerks the way they used to.
Not willing to give up I steered myself towards the root vegetables. Perhaps, I thought, maybe, I prayed, there would be another form of marrow that will tickle my fancy. And, sure enough, there among the petit pan and carnival, the buttercup and golden acorn was my little wannabe Jack — a flavescent petit dumpling with splendid stripes of glaucus and a subtle croceate.  I grabbed him by the nape of his stemmish neck, paid my $2 and ran home with visions of devilment dancing in my head.
It took less than five minutes to perform the lobotomy and, after a few moments of decisive pondering, I quickly slashed left, then right and scooped a bit here and a little bit there. An evil eye now watched me as I gave him a leer and pronounced him complete. With a strike of a match my homunculus was born: a beautiful creation for a person of beauty (that would be me) to perceive. 
Happy Hallowmas to you all!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Tsunami of Heat Waves

I am sure, dear reader, that you are getting tired of me talking about, or at least alluding to, my peri-menopause blues or, as it were, excess heat. But here we go again.
The hormonal imbalance of middling years, otherwise known as peri-menopause, is a phenomenon of many faces. I know of some women who are asymptomatic or, at least, never complain about their symptoms. Others get moody or have migraines, have hot flashes and night sweats. I am overjoyed I don’t get headaches and I’ve always been moody so extra emotions don’t faze me. I do get tired, fiercely tired actually, but it is nothing that ten hours of sleep and a nap or two wont cure. Other times the excess heat from the imbalance makes me light headed. This, too, is okay as long as I have a vertical wall nearby for reference. It is the logic scattering days that truly get my hackles up—those brain defying moments that leave me yearning for a dollop of cognition or a whollop of common sense… the days that make others look at me and wonder what the hell I am thinking let alone doing.
Take last week. There I am at my part-time job when I have to give a customer $35 in change. Easy, you say? All I need is a twenty, a ten and a five? Well, guess again. I take out a five and my brain, stymied by a wet mass of cotton that has somehow eased its way into my cerebral cortex, tells me to stop while reaching for a ten. The “logic” goes as follows: two fives make a ten; I have one five in my hand so I need another one. Oh, but stop, I already have a ten in my hand and two fives, a ten and a twenty will be too much money. I put the bills back to start anew and yet again I get stumped at the ten and how many fives go into it. I stare at the five, and then at the ten. It is as if in staring at the thin coloured paper an answer will arise. But nothing comes forth except an acceleration of brain synapses attempting to fight their way through the cotton batting. I try to slow them down, take a deep breath and rethink the whole process. My brain won’t let me. Instead, I feel the cotton morph into waves—big waves, rolling waves; a tsunami of heat waves of which I am trying desperately to stay afloat. The movement pushes and pulls, submerging me in a metaphoric cold sweat that once had me pleading for an early coffee break so I could cry in a bathroom stall bemoaning my early onset dementia.
I finally take a breath and, holding the bills in my hand, look at my customer. He smiles reassuringly. Are you doing okay, he asks. I want to cry. Yes, I say, yes, all I need is to get through this day and I will be okay. He nods. It is like he has just held out his hand and I know, with the surety of a drowning victim, that I am safe again; that I will get through this moment. And that I do.
It is funny how some people’s words can do that for you. They are full of understanding, compassion … even empathy. 
A few days later my brain goes into overdrive again. I am trying to do a relatively easy, but not often used procedure on the till, when I find that I can’t remember how to do it. My mind goes blank. I feel flustered and irritated. I look up at the customer; he says: take a breath. I want to punch him. It was like someone just told me that I was stupid or needed brain surgery. It took all my energy to focus on not snapping at him and calling for someone to assist me in completing the task.
Later I compared my reactions to the two events. With the first I was able to compose myself and carry on; with the second I went from flustered to irate with nary a breath in between. I then thought about the two customers. Both, indeed, offered kind words but perhaps it was the latter man’s giving of advice (at a rather trying time) that changed the dynamics. Sure it could have been my state of exhaustion after a long day of customer service but I wonder it if was something to do with his intent. There is a big difference between offering advice and just being present; between being empathetic and giving pity or even sympathy. The first man stayed calm: he didn’t rush or urge me to be kind to myself; he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if he knew, first hand, this happens to all of us.  With a few gentle words, surrounded by a blessed silence, he let me know that I was okay. The second man’s voice, however, when I try to recollect, felt more like he was coming from a place of knowing better, or of trying to help the poor store clerk get through her day. It felt condescending. Then again, perhaps I am just projecting on to him.
Regardless, I know now through my experiences of being at the other end of a cash counter I will never, ever say to a store clerk who seems to be having trouble:
“You must be new here.”
“It’s okay, honey.”
“Try it this way.”
I know I have made similar comments in the past, especially the first one, but I think I have learned my lesson. In future, when I come across a flustered retail clerk I will give him or her the space and time they need to get through a difficult moment.  Then again, isn’t that what we all need? Space and time, a helping hand if necessary, but mostly just the knowledge that without judgment, without urgency or impatience, someone cares; someone understands enough just to be present.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Survivor: The Real Reality Show

I was thinking about the human dynamics of my part time job the other day when I realized it was analogous to that of survivors stranded on a deserted island. There are those who try desperately to get off; those who have accepted their fate with bitterness; and those who have accepted it with grace and humility. And yes, there are those who actually like the island but, as in my job, they are few and far between.
In situations as these—minimum wage jobs and other such shipwreck scenarios—coping strategies are brought to the forefront. Behaviours in these theatres of the absurd can be extreme, even bizarre. Take this one conversation I had with a fellow employee. I had just met this person; it was our second conversation with the first being rather perfunctory.
Colleague: I am tired today
Me: Yeah, me too
Colleague: I had a friend over last night
Me: [nod]
Colleague: Yeah, you know when you have someone new in your bed how it’s hard to sleep?

Okay then.
Others (and I definitely include myself) cope with behaviours that range from passive-aggressiveness to humour, perfectionism to flirtation. The job is a microcosm of the human stage: incredibly fascinating and endlessly entertaining.  Moreover, when I can sit in the observer’s seat with a dispassionate eye I not only learn a lot about myself but can be more compassionate about some of the more ridiculous things we all can do to be seen, heard and just plain validated.
The other day, for example, I found myself trying to dig up dirt on a fellow employee. This employee had hurt me, albeit indirectly, when she had asked, rather indelicately, about a facet of my appearance of which I am very sensitive. Fortunately, the person I had tried to recruit as a co-conspirator didn’t respond the way I had hoped and the malicious intent of my question: "so how is it to work with so and so?" went by unnoticed. Later, in the comforts of home, I thought about how I had almost entered the shark-infested waters of gossip.  At first I was just plain disgusted with myself. I hung on to that for a few moments until I realized that I didn’t need to go there. No damage was done, nothing was stirred up, and no one was hurt. True I had crossed a line, there is no denying that, but in that crossing it also enabled me to explore a part of myself that I don’t like to acknowledge: my passive aggressiveness. This part is age-old. And, while I can normally keep it under control by a more mature ability to respond directly when hurt or challenged, I am currently living on my own deserted island: I am not always at my best. 
So, with just a little bit of introspection, I worked through why I had felt the need to do it: I was hurting; I was angry about being hurt and, because I hadn’t responded appropriately at the time of the insult, that is, stated how her comment hurt me, was using passive-aggressive tools in an attempt to make myself feel better. Then I thought about my intended victim. I don’t really think she consciously intended to insult me. Perhaps she was trying a one-upmanship on appearances but, in reality, I also know her to have poor boundaries (hence the comment) and even poorer coping strategies.  Then again, mine were not so great either.
Sigh. Living and learning as I go.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cure for Boredom

A few weeks ago I went on one of my regular walks: up the hill through the residential area and to the forest trails beyond. I am extremely fortunate in where I livetwenty minutes of walking gets me on a trail that leaves the houses and streets behind in another fifteen. I head up here usually twice, sometimes three times a week depending on my schedule. From the trail head I can access several peaks or just enjoy a leisurely walk in amongst the alders, cedars and hemlocks. I am, I repeat, extremely fortunate.
I like to consider these trails as my own personal sanctuary. I seldom meet anyone. Sure, I come across the occasional dog walker but as I keep my sojourns to the weekdays my path is usually undisturbed by any of the two legged species. I’ve seen the occasional bear and a coyote but mostly it is just the squirrels and birds that keep me company.
A few weeks ago, however, my refuge was invaded. I had just crossed a narrow creek bed and climbed the short but steep path on the other side when I spotted some wads of toilet paper. I immediately tensed; I stopped and looked around. Who had done this? A few steps later I found an empty beer bottle, then a plastic bag and, incongruously, a tube of toothpaste. The tension became anger. I picked up the bag and stuffed within it the other pieces of debris. I continued on but was on high alert. I knew that anyone who denigrated nature would have no qualms against disrespecting a person. And although I always carry bear spray I am conscious that I am still a woman alone in the mountains. Bears may be unpredictable but humans, I have no doubt, trump their unpredictability in spades.  Still I try to let caution rather than fear rule my path.
Walking slowly up the short rise just beyond the makeshift toilet and bottle dump I spied the campsite. It sprawled over the path and up the hill. I quickly stepped back below possible observation. For a brief moment I considered going forward and confronting these miscreants. I am a strong advocate of “taking back the night” and other such actions that challenge the philosophies that keep women tethered to the safe and known, but I am no fool either. I gathered what garbage I could (excluding the toilet paper) and retreated back the way I had come.
On the walk home and the days that followed it was interesting to note the degree of violation I felt. Not only had my sanctuary been treated with disdain but I felt sullied and, irritatingly so, afraid.
Fear is no stranger to me. In the past I’ve been afraid of the dark, of men and dogs, bears and a general assortment of authority figures including teachers, cops, and bosses. Over the years I have worked hard at creating a safe inner haven that defeats these fears while physically pushing my limits to challenge them. I have walked and hiked in the dark, camped in the wilderness on an overnight solo trip, and learned how to approach animals with cautious respect. Authority figures can still create an internal tremble but that, too, is far from the fear it was.  I like to think I know my fears and can deal with them. So it was with surprise and eventual anger that fear dropped in on me in a place where I had done so much work in confronting my anxieties. I felt enraged that some disrespectful campers/partiers could disrupt my hard earned peace. 
Although anger can be a great motivator it took me a while to take back to that trail. A few days lapsed with stewing over the audacity of these individuals. Then there was almost a week of days where I couldn’t return due to other commitments and several more days of just plain procrastinating. In all it took two weeks to go back and face my goblins.
I knew the campers wouldn’t be there on the day I went up but still I was far more wary than usual. Armed with plastic bags to pick up garbage I slowly hiked back into the hills. Autumn had fallen with alacrity and alder leaves strewed the pathway. Despite this the still air was quiet. Even the birds were silent as I walked through the windless trees and over the drought heavy creeks. As I approached the destination my pace slowed and my senses heightened. I stopped to listen. Silence greeted me. I moved on. With relief I noticed the toilet paper was gone and, clearing the small rise, saw nothing of the blue tarp that had called out like a beacon when the camp was still up. I walked on and saw how others had been there before me. It must have been a work party that descended on the camp as the ground showed the effects of rakes and shovels. I can only imagine what was there before that needed such a cleanup. I toured the area and picked up some missed over odds and ends: broken glass, torn pieces of foil wrappers, cigarette butts and bottle caps. I said a few words of thanks to nature for forgiving the trespass and to the folk for cleaning it up and carried on.
In writing this now I think not so much of the fear but of my arrogance in the surprise I felt when I fell into fear. I thought I had built up enough internal safety that an external event like that would not have disrupted me on such a level. For a few days I was even distrustful of others and cynical of people’s behaviour and motivations. True the denigration was in a place I consider a sanctuary. Also true was that the anxiety didn’t last but it is interesting the denial and self deception that we can fall into: I didn’t think my fears could ignite so quickly and, however temporary they were, be so inhibitive.
I was talking with a friend the other day about the parts of us we don’t show, even, sometimes, to those we know and trust on an intimate level.  He was saying how his current partner wanted to know “all of him” and part of him was rebelling in revealing too much, too soon. I said, you can always tell her that she’ll never get bored with you because of the continuous new discoveries she’ll have each day. I guess the same goes with me: the fearful parts within me, the parts that seldom show their face even to me, can still hold too much sway in certain circumstances … and while that surprises me, it also confirms I’ll never be bored.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Her Shawl Wrapped Around Me

<i>I went down to the place
Where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow
I said, Mother I'm frightened
The thunder and the lightning
I'll never come through this alone
She said, I'll be with you
My shawl wrapped around you

My hand on your head when you go
And the night came on
It was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, Go back to the World
This is the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s <i>Night Comes On</i>. I feel the lyrics deep within. They force me to face the longing I have felt most my life. Although I lost my mother when I was 18 she had disappeared long before through an avid appreciation of alcohol. Unlike the mother in the verse she has no gravestone of marble to mark the presence she once carried on earth. It was not her desire.

Several years back, acting on my own desire, I created a shrine in the mountains where I could go and visit her. It was not that I needed a place to praise or show respect; I needed instead a place to rage and call her out on her behaviour. I did this for many years. Sometimes I could feel her presence: a wall of denial, a victim pointing the finger back at me; but other times there was only the quiet stillness of the forest, one that held the space, accepting my need for expression.

Over time I stopped visiting the memorial. I moved on to other paths and the need to vent slowly leeched away. This morning, however, the need to see her, visit her; feel her presence, was overwhelming. I followed the inner calling.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the forest was that my old trail had corroded. It was never well used but now it was cluttered with debris: branches, fallen trees, and large rocks that made the steep gravelly slope more treacherous than enjoyable. I chose another route, one farther down the mountainside. This trail paralleled the one of old but was longer, less direct and had other points of call. I had taken it years before but it too had changed. Countless feet had smoothed the way and trees were now marked with blazing orange tags.

I missed the old way and soon got off this newcomer and transversed the slopes back to the original line. It wasn’t hard to find. I had been up and down this trail over a hundred times: it was like a homecoming. I saw the boulder I used to pretend a bear was behind and where I expressed my inner rage by hitting broken branches against it. I noticed how many branches lay upon the ground inviting me to vent. I passed by remembering how, years ago, I would always run out of these make shift weapons.

My way leveled out and I spied the remains of summer flowering asters, arching the trail with delicate leaves and slender stalks. I loved this part of the path, it was an elfin like entrance to the shrine not far ahead.

I walked on. My feet went by memory singling out the irregular shaped stones and angled wood that remained in place from years gone by.  All was familiar until I came to the washout. It had always been there but now heavy rains and rock fall had eroded it further: it was too dangerous to cross as I had in the past. Another soul had marked a trail that skirted up and around. I followed it as it safely led me over the debris and, ironically enough, above the shrine. The trail carried on, up and to my right but my destination was below. I cut back down.

It is funny how the washout only destroyed the trail just metres before my mom’s “resting place”.  It meant that no one would pass in front of it, that the place was held in sanctuary. I skirted down the slope past ferns, rotting logs and hemlock saplings. The old path was still there but unused. The log I used to sit on calmly waiting.

I spoke to her then. It is not the first time we have talked since I stopped visiting her memorial. I have spoken to her many a time in the comforts of my home and security of my journal but it was different being back to the place where so much was said, so much expressed. I told her how my need had motivated the visit; how Leonard Cohen had inspired me. I didn’t realize her presence until I belatedly felt the warmth. I should have been cold or at least cool in the early morning shadows of the forest. Instead what I felt was as if a shawl had wrapped around me. I knew she was there.

I am a firm believer in magic. I trust in the twists and turns of life that brighten the eye, whisper music in the ear and sensitize the touch. I believe in trails that disappear one day and return another and trees that warn and protect if only you listen. I also see magic in the everyday encounters with people on the street, in stores, and afar from a seat on the bus. I know if I open my heart to experience the energy I transform, however quietly, however dramatically.

I also know that some folk will place my experiences with mom in a pretty box labeled projections of self healing and forgiveness. And yes, sure, that analysis is true, the outer always reflects the inner. But I also know it is not so much about forgiveness or letting go of the past as much as holding out my hand to the future.

In reaching out to mom I don’t assume to know why she did the things she did or that she was only “doing her best”. We all do things we regret and, sometimes, we don’t act with integrity at the times most needed. What I do know is that I am willing to be supported by her today as much as if she was alive and sober and opening her arms.

Maybe it is easier to make amends and new commitments when communing with the dead. Then again, perhaps not, it took over thirty years to get this far. The bottom line is I don’t want to shut her out anymore. I want her shawl wrapped around me and her hand on my head … and that, because I have asked for it, is what I shall have.

Friday, August 17, 2012

What's in a Name?

What’s in a name? More than I figured, it seems.

In my role as a retail clerk I have my name prominently displayed on my vest, on the left side just above that of the store label. My name, therefore, is out there like a commodity on the shelf—the brand is the store’s name and I am the individual product. As such, I have become quite protective of it. I am taken aback, for example, when a customer uses it—seems rude, somehow, inappropriate. Almost akin to reading over someone’s shoulder or stepping inside one’s personal space: a boundary violation however subtle.

I’ve handled the unexpected use of my name in several ways. For most I ignore the vulnerable creep up my spine and carry on. To some I have replied: It seems I am at a disadvantage here, and what’s your name? And to a couple of others, I am slightly ashamed to admit, I let the offenders know of their travesty with a momentary glare before moving on with professional politeness. Regardless, each time it happens I feel I have just been robbed or pinched on the bottom.

Perhaps it is because using someone’s name while protecting, however innocently, your own is a form of power over—knowledge is power. It would be different if they said: Hi, my name is John, may I call you Jo-Ann? But this has never happened. And there is a world of difference between calling someone ma’am, miss or even lady (“girl” will never do) than hearing your name spoken aloud by a stranger. Sir and ma’am imply respect while unilaterally using someone’s name suggests a hierarchical order where the person who is named is definitely below those who are not.

Ironically, before I started this job, I have been known to use a clerk’s name. I have done so with good intentions. In stating the other’s name I have had hopes of establishing a connection; a temporary bond that showed care and, funny enough, respect. Equally ironic I have been bemused by the unappreciative look that has often appeared on the faces of those I have named. I finally understand.

Makes me think of other times I have hurt or offended another all in the desire for connection. What it also tells me, though, is that our interconnectedness cannot be realized through artificial means. The intricate web that weaves between and around us does not originate or even strengthen through the naming of another; the wearing of a ring or the signing of a piece of paper.

Interconnection is a truth. It is not something we can establish by force or try to make real. It doesn’t need naming or signing; it is there regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not. What it does need, however, is respect. Respect is what strengthens our bonds, helps us believe in beauty, celebrates our uniqueness, delivers us from the desire to do harm, and gives us the trust to carry on.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Living the Slow Life: Proust and Me

I’m moving slower these days. Or rather, I should say, trying to move slower. Part of it is because I have to: peri-menopause has its own rhythm and innate sense of control—if I don’t surrender to the whims of hormonal fluctuation my body steps in and forces me to. I take a lot of naps (between hikes, that is), meditate and, lately, have started writing letters. By that I mean real letters, not the quick as a flash text or its slightly older but just as speedy email. I am talking instead about hand written, pen to paper, mistakes crossed out and crooked lines kind of letter writing—that which once was a skilled art form and a good reason to look forward to the daily mail. Probably was also the start of many a new romance with said mail carrier.

Letter writing slows me down. It is analogous to reading Proust: the time needed to digest and appreciate paragraph-long sentences is as much as that needed to create a shorter sentence where spell check and delete buttons are non-existent. I must say, at first it wasn’t easy to move away from the computer to ink. Then again, it wasn’t easy adjusting to Monsieur Proust. But necessity breeds innovation and my need to slow down has introduced me to these new experiences. I’ll probably write more on this subject later but I want to dwell now on the second reason why I feel compelled to step off life’s whirlygig. It is this part-time job I’ve acquired: I’ve seen the world of time challenged folk and want out.

Case in point: We have an unspoken rule at work that there should never be more than two people in a line-up. Our retail outlet is not alone. Service is everything they say, no one should wait. Okay, let me amend that: the customer can wait (and wait, and wait again) for service on the floor but waiting to pay is strictly forboden. Line ups at the cashier have become so denigrated that waiting for longer than a minute is considered not only outrageous but cause for complaint.

This (ahem) superior service, however, has been disastrous on human communication. Shortened lineups and the presumed need to hurry out of the store to conduct far more important, if not crucial, activities makes interaction with fellow line bearing beings near impossible. We are so used to being herded along über fast that if we are not served within seconds of arriving in a line-up our senses go on alert for a quicker checkout.

Like the lioness preparing for the kill you first see the hyper-awareness in the eyes. The irises go all a-quiver, oscillating at an alarming speed as they scan the floor for a potential opening. Then the body joins in. More subtle in movement as it initially appears in a frozen state, a rigid preparedness that speaks of inborn tension waiting to be sprung: the sprinter at the blocks; the diver on the board. Finally, with the strain impossible to contain, false starts become rampant as the person jerks this way then that as potential openings to freedom appear and then dispiritingly close. The sighs then follow with increasing volume; the kind that make you look up in fear that your despairing mother has suddenly appeared. It is akin to watching kindergarten children squirming in their seats before recess. I would laugh but I don’t think the humour would be appreciated or shared.

We have no tolerance to wait and, in fact, see it as our god-given right to be served faster than we can receive the text twitter waiting in our hands.

And god (tree spirit/ favorite charm under your pillow) have mercy upon the poor cashier who happens to look up and witness the barely held forbearance upon the faces of those in a slow lineup. How many lives have these cashiers ruined because they were too sluggish or stopped to joke with a like minded customer? How many opportunities were missed (by these long suffering customers) because the clerk did not shut down all interactions for the sake of speed and efficiency? As a cashier should I hide my head in shame as all fingers point in my direction? Shall I throw myself in front of the queue and beg for mercy?

Nay, I say. Enough is enough.

Well, enough, that is, in my own life: it is not like I can rebel at work and not bear the consequences. But speaking for myself I do vow to make changes. As this blog is my witness I vow to slow down when I am in a store. I promise to not juggle line-ups like a celebrity trying to beat the airport queue; and to take a cleansing breathe when the customer in front takes time to count his $10 bill in pennies. Most of all, I vow to attempt conversation, a real dialogue with the person next to me as we await our turn. And perhaps, maybe, you never know, I will even get their address… it is never to late to start writing a letter.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Art of Good Living

A quote from author, Katherine Paterson:

If we marvel at the artist who has written a great book, we must marvel more at those people whose lives are works of art and who don’t even know it, who wouldn’t believe it if they were told. However hard work good writing may be, it is easier than good living.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Living in the Moment: A Tale of Two Lives

In correspondence with a friend last week I was humbled by the words she wrote in response to my last blog.

As I relate what you say to my own life … I am learning to simply accept what is - not always what I'd choose - and move on...continuing to be who I am and learning to approach the future with an open and hopeful heart. This is really necessary for me as I become more and more involved with necessary support for [my family member].
How incredibly poignant that lessons gleaned from a cashiering job can have parallels to that of caring for a loved one living with a chronic and debilitating condition.

As a cashier I, too, have to “simply accept what is” (including my failings) and relentlessly push on. I need to let go of negative encounters, guilt and anger, and to open up, again and again, to the next connection, the next customer. On a busy day I may do this fifteen to twenty times an hour. For me it has been a crash course in living in the moment, finding joy in the present, and not holding onto past regrets.

My friend also wrote of the potential consequences of not opening her heart:Withhout that, I think the undertow of the situation would swamp who I am, and I would become bogged down in depression and despair.

Her words reverberated within me. When I first started this job I could only dwell on how it did not inspire me and was, so I thought, beneath my creativity. Taken on as a financial necessity I saw it only as a means to an end, not as a paving stone to further my career or even a part of my life. As a result I tried to negate this “dirty secret” of mine by keeping it from friends and family and distancing myself from who I was when I was at work. I bemoaned my fate and the countless things I should have, could have been doing. Within the first two weeks, however, I knew that I would have to get over myself or, as my friend said, be overcome in “depression and despair.”

Over the past three months I have worked through (and in some cases am still working through) the embarrassment of having old colleagues and friends come up to my till in surprise: “Jo-Ann! Is that you?” Then there is the challenge of learning (and remembering) new computer pathways through a hormonal daze; the shame of making mistakes in front of strangers whose countenance bear the suffering of yet another imbecile in their presence; and the vanity driven sense of foolishness in wearing a silly looking vest—these are all daily occurrences. Yet so are the heart opening moments when a connection is made, humanity is shared and barriers lifted. Moments when what I do for money is inconsequential compared with whom I am in that instant. Times when our interrelatedness is all there is.

I cannot delineate life as that which begins here and ends there. Regardless of the cliché, every moment is one to be treasured; none found wanting but all rich and full of potential.

These are the lessons I have learned, lessons of life, it seems, regardless of the situation: ringing up a cash sale or caring for a loved one.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Heaven and Hell

Hmm, the lessons keep coming … number four, is it not? I feel like Robert Fulghum, author of “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten.” Although I can’t really compare cashiering to pre-school there is a slight parallel in that while my work is seemingly basic is has, like kindergarten, not only unlimited potential for learning and growth but universal applications.

So, here we go. I was serving my umpteenth customer when, between a combination of both of our ignorance, we irritated each other. It doesn’t matter what the cause but with dual stubbornness we both chose in that immediate moment not to remedy the situation but stay in our grumpiness. She left, dissatisfied at best, and the next customer appeared. I looked at this new person. The better part of me wanted to establish a connection but another part, one buried deep within, age-old and bitter in taste, was bearing down with heavy hands. It hung onto the mood left over by the last encounter. It didn’t want to breathe in new air; it wanted to suck in the fumes of self-righteousness, judgment and self pity. These, however, were but masks that hid what I was really feeling. Feeding these noxious vapours was guilt: I had failed, it was my fault the connection had gone awry; I was in the wrong.

Hanging on to guilt, taking too much responsibility and indulging in self recriminations are part and parcel of codependent behaviour. Seductive in nature these behaviours urge you in soft, warm tones to continue the self-torture, convincing yourself that the pain of failure will only be relieved with self-abnegation. Feelings like these have a sense of the familiar that is almost ... almost pleasant. Usually learned in childhood, they have been with you for a long time—there is a comfort in what you know. Moreover, they provide the illusion of protection: it is near impossible to open your heart to another when you are closed off behind dark thoughts—it is better to kick yourself, the purported rationale goes, than risk being kicked by another.

In the past I was quite adept at hanging on to those soulless thoughts. Even if my role, in whatever conflict there was to be had, was very small, I could (and did) take on more than my share of responsibility. Remorse could last all day; sometimes many days. But times have changed. It has been easier these past few years to shed the burden of always being wrong. I haven’t always been successful, as those who read my blog know so well, but something clicked that day. I had choice. I could continue feeling guilty and miss out on creating a connection with this new customer or I could just acknowledge my part in the previous transaction, remedy (if necessary) my behaviour and move on. Time, as clichéd as it sounds, stood still: noises ceased; movement slowed; a choice was to be made… had to be made.

I won’t say it was easy. I won’t even say I did it willingly. A part of me wanted so much to hang onto the feelings that spoke of my failure. But another customer was before me demanding my attention. I looked at him; I looked within. A wall of my own making stood between us. I made a choice. It surprised me how well it worked. I opened my heart.

Milton said it best when he gave words to the Archangel Lucifer soon after his fall from Heaven: The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. What matter where, if I be still the same …

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Joys of Being Inept

This part-time job I have so recently undertaken has become a barrel full of… no, not fun, but life lessons. I talked in my last blog about developing the strength of heart to keep oneself open to new connections and how it pertains to much more than just a cashier’s lineup. Previous to that I spoke of identity and how we are much more than what we do for money. This newest lesson finds me joyfully accepting my limitations.

If truth be known, and I know many already know this truth, is that I am fairly inept at being a cashier. Don’t get me wrong, I am great with customers (and that will save me from being let go), but the computer and I have, shall we say, some relationship issues. Perhaps if I had taken this job a few years ago things would be different but as my peri-menopause days drag on, my brain becomes foggier. New concepts take longer to sink in, my short term memory is … very short, and my stress levels are … very high: I have little tolerance for life’s irritations and none for mechanical devices that squawk and beep at the slightest provocation. In my “doddering” middle age I have come to enjoy stillness and quiet from these man-made machines, not insolence… nor, as it were, tales told behind my back. Whenever I push the wrong button or try to force the wrong pathway in this DOS based horror filled maze, it beeps. It not only beeps to me but does so with such voluminous gusto that the cashier thirty feet away hears my error filled ways. I’ve tried talking to it, pleading with it and even telling it to shut up but still this evil toting PC clone continues to tell the world of my ineptitude. And, yes, in my doddering middle age, I also anthropomorphize a bit too much.

At first I was quite stressed over the whole affair. I mean, I have always strived to be good, even great at things. Personal achievement was my goal whether it was in baking bread, working with clients or running up a mountain. Things were not done unless done perfectly or I died in the attempt. Somewhere, however, along day ten or so of this new job, I realized perfection wasn’t going to happen and more so, it really didn’t matter. I was stressing about a skill that I had no intentions of doing for more than was necessary, i.e. until my bank account looked a little healthier and, in stressing out I was making myself quite miserable. I took a step back. And then another. Things became clearer. It didn’t take much longer for me to say, hey, not only am I not good at DOS-based cash registers/computers but I am okay with not being good.

At first I stuttered over the words even as I mumbled them to myself. Then, as it got easier I began to let others onto my secret. The stuttering happened again but this time from my audience. They were shocked. Not that I wasn’t good at the work—that was obvious—but that I would say that about myself. No, no, they said, you are not inept, you are learning. Yes, yes, I replied, but learning aside, I am not good at it. Give yourself time, they admonished, you are being too hard on yourself. Time is not a factor, I shot back, and I am, for once, being kind to myself. But, but… they said; no, no… I replied.

Our society is one that idolizes the achiever, the one who pulls themselves out of the ditch and overcomes all odds; the survivor cum thriver; the new Canadian who works five jobs and becomes a self-made billionaire. These examples are all good and fine and I, too, find a lot to admire in these folk. But we tend to transpose those traits onto all endeavours forgetting, along the way, that as humans we are just that, human and predisposed to not being perfect. We forget to leave space for tripping up, losing our way, not getting to the top, and not getting it right. Most of us are not lulelemon or Nike prototypes. We are in definition and name, human: not perfect.

When I first started calling myself inept as a cashier I felt a weight shift upon my shoulders. It didn’t quite leave but it gave me a hint, a faint suggestion; a wisp of the freedom to be had. As I gained more confidence with my truth I began feeling truly buoyant. It was like finally coming out of the closet; telling the world that I am okay with being me. Looking back on my life there have been too many decades of playing the role of the übercodependent: needing to be good at things; to know things; to be smart, strong and capable only to find myself lacking at the end of the road. Click here for more information about codependence.

These attempts at being superhuman, of course, were attempts at finding some semblance of self worth. Over the past few years I have made many inroads into dismantling this mindset but it wasn’t until I got this job and found my inadequacies announced to strangers and colleagues alike on a regular basis that I truly began to see the light. It’s quite a relief to be human.

Oh sure, I still get slightly stressed at the beeps and withering looks of those waiting in line for me to get it right—it is hard to change completely within a two month period. For the most part, however, I am okay with it. My skills, or lack thereof, have nothing to do with any aspect of my self worth. I am okay.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Strength of Heart

Lessons, as we all know, often come in the most interesting packages. Recently, one has come to me in the form of a part-time job. It’s a cashiering position at a busy building supply store. I wanted a job that I could leave at the worksite: a place of employment that gave me money but no extra worries; a job that gave me time and space to write and do my Bodymind sessions with ease and clear mind. But, as they say, be careful what you wish for.

I haven’t done this kind of work in many years, probably since I was a teenager. Back then it would have been easy: new computer programs a breeze and the camaraderie with other staff a bonus. Coming at it from the late stages of peri-menopause with its concurrent foggy brain and perpetual fatigue I’ve discovered it to be a far greater challenge. One of the biggest feats, however, is how to maintain an open heart.

A busy hour can see up to fifty people pass my till. Some shifts are such that those busy hours last all day. I try for the most part to greet each person as an individual and then send them off with eye contact and words of care. I laugh a lot and even bop along to the sixties rock playing in the background. Most people respond in kind with the result that a connection, albeit a temporary one, is made. It feels good.

Ever so often, however, the routine is broken and someone comes in with a combustible mood. Regardless of whether it has to do with something the store sells or doesn’t sell, bad service or whatnot, the cashier is usually the place where the spark is ignited. I’ve been handling it fairly well letting the words slide off me but a few days ago there were just a few too many sly innuendos, despairing looks and plain rudeness pointed in my direction. I came home feeling like my heart had been trampled upon. Thankfully, I was off for a few days but I maintained a listless and melancholy mood for the next 24 hours. In an attempt to self-medicate I retold my tale of woe to three friends and countless times to myself but still felt the same emptiness. It wasn’t until that night while lying in bed that I finally got the story right. It wasn’t so much the fact that people can be hurtful but that one day, I might not bounce back; that one day, I may close myself off and stop caring.

Every day I go into work determined to sing and dance my way through customer interactions with as much grace as possible. I vow to let the occasional bad experience slide off me and open my heart to the next encounter. For the most part my plan works but I am finding it is taking a toll. I feel it in my body at the end of the day as I drag myself home. I feel it in a slow but burning desire to shut myself off when faced with yet another question, another problem. I see it on the faces of those who have done this job for many more years than I: the protective mask that comes down as the customer approaches. Facial expressions that go blank or worse, appear with a pasted smile and eyes that flatten out as all gears shift into neutral.

Initially this mask is used only when there is need but soon takes over with even the most subtle of provocation. At the end stage, it is there with all encounters and may even become defensive. While it is maddening for the customer it is, at times, a survival necessity for the clerk who feels they cannot risk being exposed to yet another irritated client; another hurtful comment. The shield works well. The unfortunate thing is that while the shield blocks out the negative, it also wards off the positive.

The challenge I set for myself is to keep that shield at bay.
A friend humbled me with her response as I spoke of my concerns. She compared it to a family situation in which her attempts at connection were constantly disdained by someone with bonds too close to ignore. She said that for her it was about finding strength of heart to continue despite the pain. I sat with her words. At first I wanted to deny that my trivial work concerns could even compare but then I saw the universal truth in her statement. Life throws us all sorts of challenges whether they be intimate and long term or mundane and temporary. To compartmentalize them and say, this one is worthy while that is not, undermines the integrity of heart-centred living and belies the connection we share with all other beings.

The question is the same regardless of the situation: do we have the strength of heart to continually open ourselves up to the next possible connection?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I Yam What I Yam

A few weeks ago I was invited to a potluck. Except for the hostess my eating companions were strangers. Regardless, they were easy to get to know in that informal party way: conversation flowed in and around the joys of life as we talked of eating, travelling and humorous happenstances. I was enjoying myself when, in dialogue with an otherwise lovely man, he asked me how I filled my days. Now while I admit it is neither an offensive question nor, really, an invasive one, it still took me by surprise and made me somewhat irritated. Perhaps it was the energy behind it but what I heard was a variation of the age-old: “what do you do for a living”. Not only did I not expect it but I didn’t want to answer. Oh, sure I could have told him what I did on that particular day: baked bread and went for a long walk but that wasn’t what was being asked. He wanted to know my profession.

When I got over my surprise I felt my vocal chords tighten and my belly do a minor twist. I knew my reactions to be strong and perhaps unreasonable but still, there was something there that bade me to listen to them. In response, therefore, I was vague and then joked about my evasiveness in suggesting I was a gangster—incognito. We laughed but soon my cannot-tell-a-lie integrity betrayed me and I responded that I was a BodyMind therapist and writer. We chatted for a bit longer, me with discomfort, him with nonchalance, until we thankfully drifted away. I let the conversation go and went back to enjoying the business of partying: good food; laughter and other in-the-moment joys.

On the bus ride home I thought back on that particular conversation. What, I asked myself, made my body react so strongly? In answer, and regardless of the man’s seeming innocence, it brought up questions about my identity—who am I? This question is one that has been central to a rather long period of self-reflection. It started last year, a few months before I turned fifty and has gathered steam to the point where I am almost loathe to pigeon-hole myself into anything. I have discovered in a powerfully visceral way that my identity is somewhat nebulous and, specifically, that I am much more than what I do and, paradoxically, much less.

About ten years ago, I did my first “who am I?” exercise. I am sure it is familiar to many of you but to summarize, it is when you sit in front of a witness and answer the “Who am I?” question for about twenty minutes. It is a simple exercise but quite profound. It reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges’ last words in his short story, The Immortal: I have been Homer; shortly I shall be No One, like Ulysses; shortly, I shall b all men; I shall be dead. In other words, if I interpret Borges correctly, we are everything and therefore, nothing; all human traits, all emotions and capabilities lie within us. To identify with one aspect is to potentially negate another but to identify with all aspects ultimately has no meaning.

Since I was fifteen, I have held thirty-six different jobs … in twelve different fields. The longest tenure continues to be my bodymind practice, the shortest was a stint at Safeway for six weeks. If I had to count on working experience as my identity I would be giving Sybil a run for her money. And that does not even include my non-paying identities of daughter, sister, aunt, baker, hiker and lover of good books. The list goes on.

In the past I often over-identified with jobs or career manifestations. I was what I did; I did what I was. This was especially true with my therapeutic work. Then, some years back, I experienced a steep decline in clients: they stopped coming. Without my work, I was, or at least felt I was, nothing. It affected both my mental and physical health; I felt lost, confused and abandoned.

This rather melodramatic event along with some other intense personal relationships was what propelled me into researching codependency. After years of soul searching and then writing and teaching about the subject I returned to health and, funny enough, the clients returned. It is interesting then to note that this return of identity questioning has climaxed into a time that once again coincides with a slowing down of my practice. Who am I?

It was hard at first, this revisiting of an old issue but ultimately, it has proved rewarding. It’s like the return of an old acquaintance who once was tedious but now is tolerable due to stronger boundaries and a deeper trust in the journey of life. Despite the fact that I have had to get a part-time job to support my budget, I am not at the “depth of despair” nor on the door to burnout as I was during the first round when my business slowed down. Oh sure, I went through some periods of self pity and bouts of “why me?” but the bottom line is that my identity hasn’t changed with the vagaries of my practice. As Popeye once said: I yam what I yam. This moment I am a blog writer and later I will be a walker. An hour ago I was a BodyMind practitioner and tomorrow I will bake bread and then go on to my cashier job at RONA. I am many things—a myriad of things—yet, at the same time, none of these things. I am just me.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick's Day

Way back when, when I was a wee little lass, I had a speech impediment. It was nothing that a few sessions with the therapist couldn’t clear up but I had problems distinguishing my “sh-es” from my “esses” and my “th-es”. So my mouth became my mouse and I could sink but not think. I also talked way too fast forgetting to take a breath between sentences let alone paragraphs. It was too such an extent that only my family could understand what I was saying: I was a language unto myself. When asked by others why I spoke so … differently, I assured them it was just my Irish accent and immediately backed it up with an Irish Jig. Or at least what I thought to be an Irish jig. I put my hands over my heads and jumped over an imaginary sword a few times while channeling the Irish Rovers singing the Unicorn song. A legitimate replica to be sure.

Funny thing is my Irish ancestry is at least a few generations back. Perhaps my maternal great grandparents came from that emerald isle but then again, I may be pushing it. Regardless, St. Patty’s day holds a special place in my heart even if it is just in my political and environmental leanings.

Speaking of which, I just read in today’s Globe that the federal government has plans to water down the fisheries act. If they succeed it will be easier to push through projects such as Enbridge’s pipeline from the oil sands to BC’s west coast.

“This government is convinced that the Fisheries Act is an impediment to economic activity, and that is just BS.,” said Otto Langer, former head of habitat protection for DFO on the West Coast. …

The proposed changes, Mr. Langer said, strip reference to “habitat” from the act, and make the legislation difficult to enforce by introducing vague and obscure wording.

Currently the act makes it illegal to damage fish habitat. The new version refers instead to harming “fish of economic, cultural or ecological value.”

“If you can’t prove any of those values exist, you can’t take anyone to court,” said Mr. Langer, who added his former colleagues in DFO were surprised when he brought the changes to their attention.

For more information, read here. I am writing my MP and the various ministers involved. Please consider this action for yourself. To find your MP go to

I believe letters sent by snail mail are taken more seriously than petitions or email. Letters sent to the following address do not need postage.

Name of MP
House of Commons
Parliament Buildings
Ottawa, OntariO
K1A 0A6

Write your letter to:

1. Minister of Fisheries and Oceans - Keith Ashfiel
* Fin Donnelly (New Democratic Party)
* Lawrence MacAulay, (Liberal Party of Canada)

2. Minister of the Environment – Peter Kent
* Megan Leslie (New Democratic Party)
* Kirsty Duncan & Grant Mitchell (Liberal Party of Canada)

3. Your Member of Parliament

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Torture: A Fear Based Reaction

On February 7, the Globe and Mail reported that “[t]he federal government has directed Canada’s spy agency to use information that may have been extracted through torture in cases where public safety is at stake.”

On first reading I was shocked. How can we, as citizens of a country that disallows and, from all accounts, abhors torture, permit others to be hurt, maimed or even killed for information that is, at best, dubious? As Bob Rae stated: “The law in Canada has been pretty clear that information based on torture, first of all, is not reliable and, second of all, is not permissible”.

I read the article again. Two quotes stuck out. The Canadian government has directed CSIS to “make the protection of life and property its overriding priority.” This was followed by: “Our government will always take action that protects the lives of Canadians.”

Of course, I thought, the safety of Canadians must be the government’s overriding concern. And thus began a convulsive penduluming as I explored the various pros and cons of allowing information gained through torture.

If I knew someone was withholding life saving information about a loved one, would I limit the methods I use to force it out of him or her? Would I turn a blind eye to someone being threatened, emotionally battered or hurt if I knew it would coerce them into saving another? Would I, as captain of a shipwreck, ask the weakest member to jump ship in an overburdened lifeboat?

It is the age old question: do the rights of one supersede the rights of others or do the rights of the collective override those of the individual? It is also the interdependent question: how can I create a safe and respectful environment that supports my needs, desires and goals while still respecting those same rights in others?

Interdependence requires conscious awareness and, therefore, a creative response to life that is built on a foundation of respect, mutuality and self leadership. Every day we make decisions that affect not only ourselves but those around us. Each decision is an opportunity to show how we can respect and honour our interconnectness. Torture is not a creative response. It is, instead, a reaction to fear—one that devalues both the life of the abuser and the victim. By allowing information gleaned from torture we diminish ourselves.

Please write your Member of Parliament and tell them how you feel. As Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada stated: “The bottom line is that as long as torturers continue to find a market for the fruit of their crimes, torture will continue. Firmly rebuffing torturers when they offer up information extracted through pain and suffering is a critical plank in the wider campaign to eradicate torture once and for all.”

Sample Letter

Dear Mr. Toews:

I cannot understand the recent policy reversal that has information gleaned from torture considered as potentially reliable intelligence. Torture is illegal and morally wrong. The information obtained from torture is dubious in value and founded on the blood of others. There is no hierarchy as to human value: the life of one is not more or less worthy than that of another. Do not let Canada slide down this slippery slope of repugnant disrespect for human rights.


Write your letter to:
1. Minister of Public Safety - Vic Toews

2. Critics
Sandhu, Jasbir (New Democratic Party)
Baker, George (Liberal Party of Canada)
Scarpaleggia, Francis (Liberal Party of Canada)
Mourani, Maria (Bloc Québécois)

3. Your Member of Parliament

To find your MP go to

I believe letters sent by snail mail are taken more seriously than petitions or email. Letters sent to the following address do not need postage.

Name of MP
House of Commons
Parliament Buildings
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6