Thursday, November 30, 2006

Incense? Not a Problem!

The catalogues telling me what to buy have been arriving daily for the past few weeks. Most of them go unread into the shiny new trashcan in the kitchen. I did take a few moments to look at a catalogue from a company peddling religious icons and other religious wares. On a back page, I read this statement: “We can solve your incense problems.”

I hadn’t been aware of having any incense problems but it got me to wondering about incense. On my first day at the new job at 55 West & Co., Stephanie, the store’s owner, went through the list of procedures for opening the store each day--such things as wiping down the marble ledges in the exterior entrance, turning on the lights and music and . . . lighting the incense.

Stefanie said customers have varied reactions to the Nag Champa incense made in India. Nag Champa is often used in cathedrals (not without problems, apparently!) The pungent odor reminds some customers of high times in the dim city apartments of their wayward youth. As I’ve already said, so far, I’ve had no “incense problems” to speak of myself.

At 55 West & Co. we burn Sai Baba Nag Champa. According to their literature, it is enjoyed by millions and is the most popular incense in the world. Nag Champa is a hand-rolled blend of highly fragrant rare gums, resins, powders and pure Mysore Sandalwood Oil. It has been “appreciated for decades as an exceptional quality incense for deep calming meditation and for creating sacred spaces.” The scent of it will linger for in your room for hours.

Soon after I began my job, we ran out of the little sticks of incense and resorted to re-lighting the small remaining sticks left in the jar of sand behind the counter. Everyone breathed a gigantic sigh of contentment the day we received a huge shipment of Nag Champa and the store again smelled the way it was supposed to smell. Nag Champa adds something indefinable yet intriguing to the atmosphere at 55 West & Co. Stephanie sometimes describes what goes on in the large rambling two-story building in Millersburg as the “55 West Experience.”

Incense is only part of the “55 West Experience.” Other elements include the interesting and often funky music constantly playing on the stereo, the eclectic mixture of old and new home furnishings and apparel, and the hand-crafted, off-beat and interesting wares for sale throughout. Many visitors can’t resist the lure of “Salvage Central” in plain view but off limits to customers. There Stefanie and her crew give old tables, cupboards and chairs a quick coat or two of thin paint pastel colored paint. The creaking staircase with two landings leads to another whole floor of equally interesting stuff.

The place is a sensory feast and now that I’ve been working there a few weeks I’ve begun to unravel the mysterious draw the place has for me. According to Stefanie, people come back because of the entire atmosphere, including the friendly, energetic staff, and the relaxed ambience, the quirky merchandise and the strange aura of creative energy that seems to hover in the air of the store. She didn’t mention the dog, but I suspect some come in just for the chance to give Stef’s dog, Otis, a pat on the head as they walk by the counter.

As I listened to my new boss talk about her philosophy, I felt relief that she didn’t use words like “marketing,”, “customer service” or “retail sales.” In the end, her message was about the same as the words of one of my first employers, a newspaper editor whose parting shot was “Just be interested in other people and you’ll do fine.”

Maybe incense is the opposite of nonsense, I don’t know. At times the store takes on the qualities of a sacred space. It is not so far-fetched as one might imagine—the store as a cathedral. Here are objects artfully placed; light shines onto surfaces, people kneel to peer inside a cupboard, or raise their arms to lift something. There is a friendly welcome, someone willing to listen and care about your life. There is music, energy and respite from both the drudgery and madness of everyday living. In addition, there is that soothing scent, so indescribably aromatic, exotic and mysterious that it seems to awaken one to the sublime.

I have considered, this Advent season, sneaking into our church each Sunday at 8:00 and lighting a stick of Nag Champa. Then I would be singularly responsible for solving our “incense problem” something few people even know exists, unless they’ve lately perused a religious catalogue.
Lofty Thoughts

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Work History

I'm still catching up on a back log of life that flew past so fast I didn't take the time to chronicle it. Reflection is a necessary part of life for me and happens whether I get around to writing the reflections or just reflect in my head. A recent reflection related to my work history and the latest development in that department.

After almost two years of unemployment (by choice) I saw an ad for a job that seemed like it was a good fit for me because of past work history. It involved working with a church agency in communication and marketing. "Here I am, send me," I told God. "That is, if you can use me and want me there..." I filled out a lot of paperwork, got references and waited. In a few weeks I learned they'd decided not to hire after all due to a too-tight budget.

By now the idea of a part-time job sounded good to me, so I opened the newspaper and read the want ads, which I do sometimes just for entertainment (strange, but remember, I'm a novel writer looking for ideas, too). Under General Employment I read this ad: "Looking for outgoing creative people for P/T & F/T positions in fun new boutique in Berlin. Ideal candidate will thrive in a high energy and constantly changing environment . . . . Stop in at 55 West & Co., Millersburg for application."

It was this last bit that got my full attention-- the "boutique in Berlin" wouldn't ever cut it otherwise. But, 55 West & Co. is a store I discovered a couple of years ago. The owner, Stefanie Kauffman, is the epitomy of "outgoing, creative, high-energy." She has amazing charisma and her store is full of old cupboards, retro tables, and a variety of aging home furnishings, along with interesting accessories and other quality products that reflect a philosophy of sustainable living with style.

The day after I read the ad I went to see Stefanie. I filled out an application. She was seemingly thrilled and flattered that I'd want to work for her. I didn't tell her, but I think there are probably people who would pay HER for the privilege of hanging out at 55 West. The ancient two-story store building used to be Maxwell Brothers Clothing store for men. It has original tin ceilings, brick and plaster walls and wood floors. There is a hand-painted sign that says "Salvage Central" and behind that, a workbench and usually several dirty and scratched tables, shelves, you name it. A long wooden staircase of twenty some steps and two landings leads to the second floor where there are shelves with a gazillion throw pillows, hand-made rugs, and a large variety of Woolrich clothing. There is lots of stuff everywhere, too numerous to mention.

Stefanie called a few days later to invite me to an interview held in the office/workroom which defies description. I plunked down on a Victorian era sofa covered with canned-pea green velour and told Stef and her assistant, Jamie, (both of them are very thin and much younger than me) among other things that I think her store is a living metaphor for life--all of us with our dents and scratches and peeling paint, and that the restorations are another reminder that we still have value and in fact, we're treasures.

Apparently my interview was successful because I basically named my preferred hours (no evenings or weekends) but my new boss did extract a promise from me that I'd work one Saturday during October, my choice. She also was thrilled to learn that in a former (work) life I'd been a seamstress.

My new job is one of several I've had over the course of my life, beginning with a job gathering eggs in my dad's "caged layer operation." I've also taught third grade in Newfoundland, taught sewing in a fabric store, sold shoes and edited a church paper. My longest tenure was at the mental health board where I worked for ten years doing community relations.

During the past few weeks a lot of these memories have come flooding back, and some of my well-honed skills are back at the game. The "homes" of my two most recent jobs have both moved to new quarters. The other week I sat in a meeting at the conference office where I hadn't been for probably ten years. The pictures I'd loaned them were still on the walls there, but when they moved two weeks later, they returned them to me.

A few days after that, I went to an open house for the mental health board. They've moved into a great new office building thanks to the work of Julie, my replacement, who convinced them they were much too crowded where they were. (She was right). They're in a completely different part of town now, too. I signed up for the doorprize they were giving away--a free massage. This was the first time I would actually be eligible to sign up. Before, I was the one to find these prizes and call the winners. This time, low and behold, I WON!

These moves make me realize the truth of the saying "Life moves on." There is just a tiny bit of nostalgia as I think about these places I once worked and of course the friends I made in both jobs will always remain my friends.

I think of my life sometimes as a big adventure. I am constantly surprised by the things God brings into my path--and the people. I thought of that last evening when Stef, my boss, invited the entire staff to the store for our own private pre-holiday sale. After a bit of a sales talk which was given in her own zestful style, she sent us upstairs to the Victorian sofa. I along with my dozen or so new "sisters" at 55 West decked ourselves out in outlandish costumes from the store's jewelry counter and vintage clothing stock. I wore a "mink" stole, a felt and satin trimmed hat with a veil and earrings that are three sizes bigger than any I ever dare to wear. Stef's dog, Otis was in the picture too and the photographer actually got a shot where it looked like he was kissing her.

The next day I told Stef that driving home I couldn't believe I'd found my way to this store where incense and music and friendship create something that is--well--indefinable. She gave me her characteristic grin, the charismatic smile and said something that made me feel good, like there was no other place on earth for me to be but in this funky (word she says she uses too often ). place. Her new slogan is: "quite possibly the coolest store on the planet."

I am still trying to wrap my mind around a God who looked at me and said, "No, no, I don't need you to market Sunday school materials or work in mental health, I've got this other job for you at a funky store...Is that okay? And by the way, you can play dress up and arrange furniture and talk to lots of interesting people. Just let my love show while you're there if you can manage that, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, God. . . whatever You say. "

Quite possibly, I'm working for the coolest God in the Universe!

Lofty Thoughts