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.