The home stretch

Compassion - Kornfield

I can’t say this about very many days, but I know exactly where I was at this time on this day 21 years ago. I know because it was the day my life started to unravel. Just a little thread that day; I didn’t realize that it wasn’t easily repaired and that ultimately everything would come apart. I would lose everything that mattered to me, including a business I put heart and soul into for 5 years. I would end up in bankruptcy court and the judgment would be harsh. It would take years to recover financially, mentally and emotionally.

But that was all still a long way off on this day in 1998. That day I was starting a new job waiting tables at the Country Club. I know it was this particular Saturday because the first day I worked was on the afternoon of the Kentucky Derby that year. I was working as a waitress, serving wealthy people who came to watch the Derby and drink mint julips in the lounge with their rich friends. I think of that afternoon every year on Derby day. I’ll never forget it, for lots of reasons.

First, never in my life had people been so rude to me. I had worked in restaurants on and off since 1976, but I had never waited table. I wasn’t very good at it, and the people I was waiting on were not very understanding. It was a LONG afternoon. It sucked, but I went back the next day, and the next night and on  and on for a couple of months because I had to.

I had a business, and a client who didn’t pay on time and I was in financial turmoil. I had to do something to keep myself and the business afloat, so I took that second job at night and on weekends to bring in some cash. During the day I did client work as usual, and at 4 o’clock almost everyday I put on my uniform and sturdy shoes and went to work serving privileged and unpleasant people.

I hated every minute of that job. Every single second. The chef was a tyrant and the members were unkind and dismissive. I had one man tell me he thought I should go get a job at Burger King because that seemed to be more my pace. This after he had known me a half hour, and because I had made a mistake on his wife’s drink order. Please, just shoot me now. What would make you believe it would be okay for you to say something like that to a complete stranger? And what makes you think it’s so easy to work at Burger King, asshole? Money does strange things to people.

They were all like that. I would like to report that most people were kind, but that would not be true. With the exception of one couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and had obviously saved up for a special dinner out, every single person I waited on for the two months I was there was simply unkind and impatient at best and verbally abusive at worst. I’ve never been so happy to leave any job in my life, and I’ve had a lot of jobs.

I left after two months because I got a job at a different restaurant in town where I could make more money and where I knew a lot of the staff. It was better, and I stuck with it until Thanksgiving that year. The extra money helped and I thought I would be okay then, but the writing was on the wall and two years later I would have to admit it was there and that it was true. I closed the business and got a “real” job doing graphics work for Acme Health Services. I’m still there today, and it has been a good thing, though it has taken me a long time to see it that way.

It`s been a long road. It was hard and on any given day I would have said that I would never recover all that I lost that summer and after. But here I am, and I’m okay, and if I need money like that again I know exactly what I won’t be doing. I’m grateful for the experience though, for several reasons.

  1. It humbled me. I took the job cuz I thought it would be an quick way to make money. I never considered that I wouldn’t be good at it. As I said, I had worked in restaurants on and off for 25 years at that point, bussing tables, hostessing, and even as the bookkeeper one summer. I thought I knew everything there was to know about hectic dining rooms, eccentric staff and rude clientele. This experience opened my eyes about just how horrible human beings can be to another when they believe they are superior to someone else.
  2. It taught me that sometimes you just can’t have what you want, no matter how hard you try to get it. For a long time that made me REALLY bitter. I carried around a chip on my shoulder about that experience and the client who had done me wrong and caused me to have to go to those lengths to survive. It got too heavy, though, that chip, and I finally laid it down. I realized that it had been my naivete as much as his callousness that had gotten me in that situation. It was a valuable lesson in just how much control you have over other people (zero) and that good people don’t always do the right thing.
  3. Not having any money and the bankruptcy experience taught me so much about so many things.
    1. Failure doesn’t kill you, but if you let it, it will transform you.
    2. Poor people are not lazy or stupid. I didn’t believe this to begin with, but this experience deepened my compassion for people who are down on their luck.
    3. Not everyone is good at their job and even people who are supposed to be on your side will let you down. My attorney was late for my bankruptcy hearing, didn’t have everything with him that he was supposed to, and didn’t say a word on my behalf during the hearing. The judgment was harsh (it took 10 years for me to pay it off). After the hearing, the attorney said he hoped I had learned my lesson. I considered not paying his staggering bill, but finally decided that was not in my best interest. A year later he was dead of cancer. I had learned my lesson, but I wonder if he learned his before he died.
    4. Being forced to give up my business and take the job at Acme was one of the best things that has happened to me in my life. I didn’t see it that way for a long time, but looking back I see it very clearly now. I think I was on the right path in my business – it was the happiest and most fulfilled I’ve ever felt – but financially it wasn’t working and I wasn’t seeing that. I believe in karma, and looking back, I see that situation with my delinquent client through that lens and then it makes sense. I was getting deeper and deeper in debt (metaphors in our lives are very powerful, aren’t they? The universe is so eloquent) and I had to give up something that mattered very much to me to pay the karmic debt. The money took a lot longer, but I paid that debt, too, thanks to the stability of my job at Acme. The other things I’ve gained in the last 19 years, and the ways in which I’ve grown through my relationships there and the work we do, all tell me that I’m right where I should be, doing exactly what I should doing, even though some days it’s not what I want to be doing.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses (or mint julips), but the whole experience, beginning on that day so long ago, has been worth the pain and the struggle to survive. I wish I had been wiser and could have made those changes without the body-slam from the universe, but that’s not how it happened then, and I’m not sure it would happen any differently now, though I fancy myself as being a little wiser than that waitress in 1998.

Humans are a hard-headed, stiff-necked group, though, and I’m 100% human. I hope the next time I’m so clearly headed off-course, that the universe will steer me right once again, though a little more gently next time, please. It’s those hard come-arounds that give you whiplash and do damage to the ship. However it happens, though, I trust that there is more in store for this old girl.

I hope so. Cuz, man what a trip around the track it’s been so far!

Kindness matters


When I was in business, I had a client who used to make big speeches about “random acts of kindness.” He had read a book, and was convinced that the secret to life required only these unexpected gestures; even the smallest act could yield enormous results. He was very excited to think that each person could make a difference. He always made a point of relating every such act he had performed recently in order to illustrate the theory and how well he was adhering to it. The upshot of the speech was, of course, what a great place the world would be if everyone was as thoughtful as he was. What a great guy.

The truth is he was a good guy, but he evidently was only committed to random acts. Anything as structured and regular as paying invoices on time didn’t seem to qualify. He didn’t pay me, he didn’t pay his employees, and presumably he didn’t pay his other suppliers. His delinquency was one of the contributing factors in the loss of my business, and certainly caused hardship for his employees. He was aware of the effects of his actions, but was not able to take responsibility for them.

He was causing other people pain, but kept talking about kindness.

The reality of who we are is often divorced from who we think we are. Most people see themselves as either far better or far worse than they really are. Not many people see the truth: that most of us are just doing the best we can. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. We are both the best and the worst that we think we are, and a lot of stuff in between.

I remember a conversation I had once with friends at a Chinese restaurant. Someone’s fortune said: “Everything will now come your way.” Everybody oohed and aahed over it. How great! Everything is going to be terrific! I pointed out that it doesn’t say “Everything will be terrific.” It said, “Everything will now come your way.”

Big difference, but it took them a while to see it. Everything is simply…uh…every thing. All things, good and bad, welcome and unwelcome. And that’s life. Everything does come our way, but we reject some things as being “bad,” and rejoice at the rest. Where there is light, there is shadow. We forget the shadow part — forget that it is a normal part of life — that without the shadow there can be no light. Light is defined by shadow, and vice versa. Black needs White, Good needs Evil. They both have to be present.

Often we can’t accept the shadow in ourselves. We don’t even see it most of the time. It’s there, believe me. In everyone. No one is perfect, and I think, actually, that is the point. The shadow — our own, others’, the country’s, and the world’s — the shadow side of life in total, is our path to freedom, but because it’s strewn with big ugly rocks that are difficult to pass, and guarded by big hairy monsters, we’d rather not go down it. We keep thinking there must be another way.

I would like to believe there’s an easy way, too. But I just don’t think there is. There is just the one path, this “human life” road, rocks and monsters and all. The thing is, though, that it’s an exciting journey; for better or worse, and sometimes it’s a lot of fun. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes arduous. But it is always worth it.

Yes, I believe that. Even when people let me down. Even when life lets me down. Even when I let myself down. We’re all just here, and we’re doing the best we can, and that’s okay. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others. It’s hard for everyone.

Step into your shadow. Examine it. Understand it. It really is everything coming your way.

Ultimately, it’s the only way.


Of feathers and flocks…


My best friend has chickens. Last week, the whole flock ganged up on the smallest hen, and beat her up pretty badly. They pulled out all her tail feathers with such force that chunks of flesh were gone, too. My friend took her to the vet and she’s going to be okay, but she won’t be able to be returned to the flock.

About the same time another friend told me that she had had to send her 14-year old daughter to a different school, because she was being bullied so badly by “the meanest group of 8th grade girls” this woman had ever encountered.

Even my two little cats – my sweet babies – are not immune. They’re only about a month apart in age, and I got them both as kittens, within a couple of months 6 years ago. The first kitten was an “only” for about a month before the second kitten came in to our lives, but that was long enough to feel threatened, I guess. She was merciless in her treatment of her new furry roommate. Now, 6 years later, the bullied kitten has become the bully. Payback? I have no idea. They’re both infinitely gentle with me, but they try to kill each other at least once a day.

Clearly this is a thing in all of our brains – not just human brains. We want to believe that babies (and kids and kittens and all creatures) are gentle by nature. Perhaps they are, but that’s not all there is to any of us, apparently. There is something so integral to creature brain structure that it spans all species and manifests in similar ways.

Perhaps it was a survival tactic that no longer serves us as humans living privileged lives, or chickens or cats, for that matter. Maybe it was beneficial to try to make the weakest member of the flock stronger by threatening it, or encouraging it to leave the group so it’s not longer a drain on resources, or even killing it to get rid of it and its genes so that only the fittest continue on.

It must have served some purpose, but like many residual brain things no longer necessary for modern life and survival, it doesn’t serve us. I don’t know, but I know I have a mean streak, and that at times in my life, I have treated weaker people badly. At the time I didn’t realize I was doing it, especially when I was a kid. I look back now, though, and I can see it pretty clearly. I wish I could say that I grew up and became an enlightened person who always reacts correctly to everything with kindness and wisdom.

Far from it, and still not true, even though that is exactly what I aspire to. Why not? Why can’t we all just get along and be nice and do the right thing all the time? All the religions tell us that’s what we should aspire to. All the self-help books, TV talk shows.

I used to have a poster that a friend gave me that said “If it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” I think in the 70s this is what passed for wisdom. 🙂 I think that poster pretty accurately sums up the way most humans live, including me. Maybe not the Dalai Lama, but the rest of us regular folks, just trying to get through the days.

What happens when you feel superior to someone, especially if you’re being cheered on in your thinking or your actions by other people? You feel better about yourself. You feel great! You feel special. All your doubts and fears about how horrible you are disappear in an instant. Who can resist that? It’s heady stuff, especially in a world where what we see on TV and in movies every minute of every day tells us – especially as women – that we are NOT okay as we are.

There is great comfort in thinking that you’re doing it right and others are wrong, and for some reason, it’s not enough to just think that, it’s necessary to prove it to other people – or chickens or cats – as well. And really, that’s the problem; making other people wrong in trying to make yourself right.

I think bullying in schools is one of the biggest problems we, as a society, face. It’s getting worse all the time, and real damage is being done to young creative minds. I think it’s all mixed up in the constantly rising level of addiction and mental illness in this country, cuz people feel so bad about themselves all the time – the bullies and the bulliedthat they have to find a way to escape the overwhelming anxiety.

But if it’s integral to our brains – a fundamental part of all life on this planet – what can we do? I don’t know. I don’t have answers. I wish I did. I’m part of the question, like most everyone else. I can’t fix myself, let alone all the problems in the world. I’m trying though.

Let it begin with me.