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.