Physical support like hugging can sustain us through the long haul – but touch can be very tricky and sometimes oppressive. We are learning this in our society more and more. I can’t shake the image of that creepy young guy in the Access Hollywood tapes telling the young actress “How about a hug for the Donald?” Hugs aren’t always innocent.
This talk that I gave at Jubilee last Sunday outlines three principles for keeping them sweet and safe.
Today, at a rare slow moment in the store, three of us grocery workers were kibbitzing at the front desk. I had actually missed the first part of the conversation, but as I came up one of the workers who I really admire was saying, “The company may treat us like shit, but we love each other.”
I sometimes think it’s a good company and sometimes less so, but it is clear to me that my co-worker relationships make my experience what it is. My customer relationships too, but the co-workers is the real base. And, blessedly, in our store we mostly love each other.
The obvious topic here is “Power to the People” – and I will go into that in some depth in another post – but here I want to follow up on my last post about men and women to look at men and women working together.
My friend Tom Kilby likes to talk about “creepy old guys”, which we agree we both are, him 60 and me 70 working with a lot of attractive young women. Each of us has horniness, each of us is susceptible to sexual thoughts and feelings about co-workers – and here we are working in close proximity to each other, bumping into each other, exchanging sometimes extended hugs. What to do with all this? What keeps it from crossing into a toxic zone?
Four things I have learned from Tom:
He sees women’s inner beauty. He has described women as beautiful that I would not have thought of this way – but I then started to after he said it.
He loves to use the word “brilliant” to describe a person or something they did or something that happened. He frequently will describe a female co-worker as brilliant. He affirms them. He sees their intelligence. He admires them.
He wants to know more about them – he craves opportunities to learn more about them. He soaks up everything he can in little two-minute encounters in the grocery aisles. He will leap at any opportunity to go watch them perform (many of our co-workers are poets or musicians or dancers or artists).
He is the least homophobic straight guy I know. The creep factor is kept tamped down because he is as interested in guys as women. He wants to know about us, wants to play as we work together, wants to support our art.
Oh, there’s so much more to learn about us working together, men and women. I don’t want to stop writing about this yet, but I think it actually is a good place to stop. I love Sherri Lynn and Pierce and Kelly and Sepi and so many more. I think there will probably be several more blog posts about this.
Oh now, working and being friends with transgender colleagues – of which we have several at work, just the ones I know about…there’s a learning edge for me. Let’s save a blog post for that :).
In my last two pathetically depressed weeks, I made no attempts to promote this project and blog. Friday, with my spirits finally floating back to the surface, I started to talk about all this – at the right time, with the right person…maybe 6-7 people in an 8-hour shift. Some of them already knew the grocery store blog I had been writing, on and off, for two years. I tried to contrast the two blogs. A couple of times I put the two business cards in front of them. “This is the blog you know – ‘Real Life in the Checkout Line‘. It’s about the interactions I have here with you all. This new blog ‘Releasing the Force’ is more political.”
This characterization of the two blogs felt wrong. Some of my new blog posts clearly come out of my experiences in the grocery store. Is it fair to say that my new blog posts are “political”? They don’t all deal with politics – maybe most of them don’t. Some of them are very personal. Out of fumbling over all this with a few people came some more clarity.
Some of this new clarity came from turning over my “Releasing the Force: Activism with Heart” card to show the tagline – “Making our country a better place by doing that which is meant to be done by me.” I started saying things to these select customers (somehow they felt like a good person with whom to be talking about all this) like, “It’s not about what you think you should be doing – or what anybody else, including me, is trying to get you to do. You – what’s coming out of you? If you were to do one new thing – and maybe the genuine answer to that is no, that you don’t need one more thing on your plate – what might it be? What would fit in your life, with your skills and interests, with your family situation? What if you had more support – maybe from a group of people, maybe from one confidante, maybe from this blog?”
The last guy of the afternoon with whom I had this conversation – not with all the words above, but some shorter approximation – was a very engaging 35ish guy. When I parted with him with my classic Friday question “What are you looking forward to this weekend?” he didn’t hesitate with his answer. “No question – making Valentines with my four-year old daughter. She’s been all about this for two weeks now. We have all her art supplies out in one area. She’s amazing.”
I gave a genuinely delighted laugh and wished him well. Then, before he had taken two more steps, I got it and called out to him: “That’s it! That’s your contribution! That’s what you’re meant to do this weekend to make the world a more peaceful place! You making Valentines with your daughter is growing her up to be a more loving person – and it’s bringing out peaceful, benevolent, loving feelings in you. And in some mysterious but real way it’s radiating peace in all directions.” OK, I didn’t have the presence of mind to say all this yesterday, but I do believe it.
What’s your light saber? How are you meant to make our country a better place? It could be a little thing, mundane, unexpected. Give yourself time for this to come. Let yourself be surprised by the answer to that question.
McKenzie got off to a rough start in my grocery store checkout line. She had come in as the third person in my line, but when she got in front of me she realized she was missing a couple of items. She sheepishly apologized as she gathered up her groceries in her very-full arms. When I said “Hey, leave them with me – I’ll take care of them for you until you get back”, she was obviously touched and said, “Oh, you’re so nice.”
Grocery store lines run in waves. By the time McKenzie returned with her two new items, all our lines – even with the store manager out running a cash register – had reached their peak of the day. McKenzie dutifully took her spot at the end of my line – she was #6. Her sweetness had made an impression on me and I had been watching for her. When I finished with the guy in front of me, I loudly called out, “Where’s the girl who already came through the line? Right, you – you don’t have to wait again. Folks, she’s already been through the line once. She forgot some things and had to go back.”
McKenzie was, I think, pleased and honored and embarrassed. I think that, even in her embarrassment, she got it that nobody seemed at all miffed by her skipping to the head of the line. I think she just radiated niceness and they liked playing a part in being nice to her. While we finished her transaction, McKenzie in several ways said how happy this had made her – that it made her day. The lingering smile we shared at the end of her transaction also made my day.
I’m somewhat over my aversion to the word “nice”. This word and concept can be a trap – something that keeps you from being assertive. Women especially are oppressed by the expectation to be nice. All this can be especially smothering in the South, where I now live (though Asheville is a little cultural bubble of its own energy). I grew up being way too nice. In the little college where I taught for two years, I was voted the most popular prof in the school the same year that the student newspaper aimed a very trenchant spoof on me in their April Fool’s Onion-style issue. It had me at the dinner table, being asked to pass the mashed potatoes. I erupt with, “Fuck you – just fuck you. I’m sick of being Mr. Nice Guy.” They were on to me – there was something too much in it.
I have changed tremendously – through a lot of therapy and personal growth, many risks taken, some feelings hurt and lots of people surprised when they got to see my not-nice side. I was not terribly skilled with it when I started and occasionally was excessive, but I’ve gotten pretty skilled over the years. There was a period when I really resisted the “nice” word: “If you brought in a panel of people who really know me well, they would not call me nice. They have seen me being other ways than nice.”
These days I am less triggered by “nice”, but I prefer a couple of other words. Some people think the word “sweet” is as oppressive as “nice”, but I had a spiritual teacher – Sri Chinmoy – who really gave “sweet” a lovely meaning for me.
To him, being sweet was very spiritual – radiating a lovely spiritual essence. When he had met my genuinely very lovely two-year old boy in my arms after a large public meditation, afterwards he said to the meditation students around him, “Did you see that baby? So sweet – so sweet.” So when I think or say that someone is sweet, I’m saying something really nice :).
About ten years ago, Frank Marshall gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received – something that has totally stuck with me. He already knew me – but not intimately – from church. After I had facilitated a three-hour Saturday morning workshop, he said to me “You are the kindest man I’ve ever met.” It was easy for me to think of examples where I had not been kind, but it still got under my skin. There’s no question that this was also projection on Frank’s part, because he is an exceptionally kind man. When yesterday Frank was breezing through the grocery store and yelled “Hi” to me, I yelled “You have got the greatest smile”, and he, inevitably – but honestly, I really do believe – yelled back “You too.”
So Frank and McKenzie go through the world making it a kinder, sweeter, nicer, more peaceful place. People around them have their own sweetness pulled to the surface. And, if you catch me at a good moment, I guess I can be nice too.