Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Astonishing Human Capacity to Be Sorry

Photo Credits Steinar Engeland

I work in a busy office as a receptionist - as Gatekeeper, I greet clients, answer phones, field questions, confirm meetings and deliver documents.

All this is secondary, I feel, to my higher calling of whispering prayers, calming nerves, deescalating anger, floating grace, smiling at strangers, finding humor and sometimes bringing cookies to fellow staff.

Now that retirement is pulsing like a tiny blip on my radar, I certainly cannot coast. A dear friend has cautioned me against coasting: "Stay on your game," she warns, "Don't go into neutral. Your lifetime of experience and people-skills are still needed 100 per cent." 

Oh, great.

So I'm staying in the game and there are days, like last Thursday, that push me to the brink of desperation. People disappoint. Life is unfair. Bad things happen.

Last Thursday was one for the books -- depressing and raw; loud and irritating; heartbreaking and shrill.

A client stormed in, visibly riled up.  The man, larger than life, filled my reception window. 

I remember I stood up, as if answering a call to battle. 

Everything went silent. 

Except for the rage spilling from this broken man. He reminded me of a Viking, ruddy with wild red hair, ice blue eyes and a determined jaw.

Two things happened.

First, the security guard walked over to my post and stood vigil. Silently, his presence eased my nerves and filled me with courage.

Second, the angry man continued his rant, increasing his volume, demanding answers. 

It was like watching a sea of emotions, all salt and waves, yet not being in the sea.  

Joe, the security guard, remained a sentinel at my side, saying nothing. I knew he was calmly waiting for Viking Man to run out of steam.

And he did.

He ran out of steam and his eyes, those eyes, they were still desperately pleading.
Without incident, we got him settled in the waiting room until another worker would come to speak with him; to answer his questions.

It shook me, of course. But more than that, it called up a visceral compassion in my gut. This man wasn't attacking me, he was crying for help. In his world, all the resources meant to assist him, were failing him. He felt trapped and abandoned.

All that anger with no place to go.

It just so happened that Viking Man spilled his pain in our agency, at my window.

The day got worse from there, with a series of mishaps, a few mistakes, a flurry of difficult phone calls and a slog through the icy air to my car at the end of an impossibly long day. My emotions were fried, my body aching from tension.

And then came Friday.

I drove into the office, mentally rehearsing what my friend had said: "Don't coast, Kathy. Give it your best and remain present until your last day. You'll be glad you did."


Guess who came to my window -- again. The Angry Viking. Only this time, he wasn't all thunder and bluster.  No - this time, just one day later, he still loomed large, filling my window. But he was noticeably solemn.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," he said.

He was a mountain of pure humility.

"I didn't mean to scare you," he said. "You see, I have Bi-polar Disorder. When my meds aren't managed well, I really, really struggle."

He paused.

"I know I was inappropriate when I came in before, and I just want to apologize."

And terribly sorry for how his behavior had affected me.

Seriously. Just when I'm about to give up on people, they come through and surprise me.

The security guard, Joe, silent sentinel of strength. He had my back.

The Viking Man. He yelled at me, but really he yelled at his situation and I was there to bear witness. And then he was sorry, and he manned up and showed up and delivered the sweetest apology.

I wonder how many more surprising things will happen between now and Retirement?

I guess I'll need to keep showing up to see.

Photo Credits Michael Olsen

This blog supports, timely gifts for all seasons. Please visit the link to see my newly-launched book, "Breath of Joy! Winter Whispers".

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Poetry Tax

If I were stranded on a remote island in the middle of the deep blue sea and given only two choices on which to survive – words or numbers – I’d choose words.

Words can paint poetry.
Words sail over an aching heart, whispering strength.
Words bolster up the discouraged; they call armies into battle.
Words inside of prayers have the power to storm the very gates of heaven.
Words form apologies, mend fences, bring loved ones back into the fold.

Words, words, words.
I'll call my little dot in the sea The Island of Poems.

Yeah, not so much.
Unless, of course, you are a numbers person. If you’re a numbers person, then you would be in your zen, surrounded by facts and figures, numbers and percentages. 

That island is called The Island of Numbers.

I think you Island of Numbers dwellers are amazing and a little bit mysterious. Because, why you’d want to crunch numbers all day – particularly, somebody else’s numbers – is beyond my scope of imagination.

But I’m so glad you belong on that island, because we, the taxpayers, need you.
We need you to rescue us from our fear of numbers.

And our fear of the Unknown.

This past year, a new thing was launched  - a thing called the Internet Sales Tax, and honestly, it's got me a little wigged out. Consumers don't think they need poetry and books the way they need technology, clothing and appliances. 

When authors and poets make so little on a book as it is, I find it intimidating to navigate the calculations and reports that might be required to justify what I already know to be a valid, consumable necessity. 

It feels counter-intuitive, like showing up for battle unarmed.

We authors may as well call it the Poetry Tax.

There was a time, way back, when I warmed up to numbers as potential allies; friends, even. 

It was in college, during a class in Math 101. The professor said it this way: “A math equation is beautiful, in the same way a poem is beautiful.”

He had me at poetry. I leaned forward. I started taking notes. 

All because of his many references to words, I passed that course and lived to tell about it. I remember in my notebook, I started lining up numbers in stanzas, or sometimes in free verse. The affinity to words actually helped me form an alliance with a required math course.

Numbers aren’t so scary when they flow like a well-metered poem.

In my book, Breath of Joy! Winter Whispers, there’s an entire page devoted to tax preparation: 

“When the holiday table morphs into the dreaded paper melee of annual accounting…and an advisor singing the music that paying higher taxes is not all bad, for retirement payouts are based on them.”

My editor was so jazzed about putting a positive spin on tax season. 

Taxes and tax preparation, in my estimation, have forevermore been a necessary evil in the throes of winter. And now we have the "Poetry Tax", emerging officially as Internet Sales Tax.

But she was undaunted, my high-spirited editor. “We need this phase of wintertime,” she insisted. "It's part of the season."

Turns out, she was right. Readers often point out this page as “a refreshing look at a gloomy task”, and “a reminder to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, a reference to Matthew 22:21.

As I approach my own season of retirement, I’m beginning to see at least one of the benefits of gathering in all the papers, the receipts, the records.

Accuracy will ensure my future; integrity will protect me and also my children.

It’s not always about the amount of the return, or the date it hits your bank account, or how you might spend the proceeds.

It’s really about the annual passage from a messy pile of papers to a tidy result that’s beautiful – like a poem.

This blog supports, timely gifts for all seasons. Please visit the link to see my newly-launched book, "Breath of Joy! Winter Whispers".