Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pruning

Clipping off, cutting away
last year’s long vine, now brown
falls to the ground,
becoming mulch for this year’s
green, wandering vine,
this year’s blossoms,
this year’s fruit, at the end of summer.

Snip, snip,
down to the trunk, down to the core
of what it is to be a grape,
an apple tree,
cutting away the dead,
back to the basics,
ready for spring.

Pruners in hand
I look in the mirror
wondering
where do I need to start.

Neal Lemery, 3/2010

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Determination

Today, I saw determination.

Determination in the form of a friend passing his state board exam, to be a barber. This achievement came after nine months of barber college, of 1,400 hours of class, of commuting the 75 miles each way from Tillamook to Newport, through the winter rains and morning ice, while parenting a teenager and barely living on unemployment.

Tomorrow, he starts his new job, in the shop he will soon own, on his way in his new career.

Oh, friends, and family, and church were there, cheering him on. But, he ran the race, he plodded forward, making himself a new career, a big change. All because he decided to move on with his life.

Today, I saw determination.

Determination in the young man I visit every week in prison. He struggles hard with emotion, in finding the words to describe the turmoil and anguish inside of him, in being able to express himself, and to open the door to the garbage heaped upon him in his life, and to begin to make sense of it all, and to plot his own course in life.

Tonight, he found the words, he dug deep, and he is starting to see the monsters for what they are, and to put them in their place, and to finally bring order to his young life.

He says he feels lighter, freer, and has begun to grip the wheel steering his life, and tonight, he smiles at himself, perhaps for the first time.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Courage -- A Letter to a Young Man

In you, I see courage. You take your experiences in life, and where you are at, and you move forward. You move into the unknown, knowing that you take your past, and where you are today, and you feel you must move on.

On down the river, on over the wall, on up the mountain. Ever onward.

There are steps to take, challenges to face, explorations of who you are inside. And, you go.

You look backward, a bit, figuring out who you have been, what you have experienced, and what that all means. You try to make sense of it. You try to understand it, and what all that means, for the man you want to be. You do not live in the past, as you cannot change the past. You can only understand the past. That understanding gives you power.

Growing into manhood is hard work. It is not just taking each day as it comes, and being content to do the least amount of work to get by, to park yourself in front of the TV and not be engaged, to just let life go by. To snooze. If you snooze, you lose. Instead, you are awake, alive.

Instead of taking the lazy path, the path of least resistance, you step outside of your comfort zone, and you dig into your troubled past, and you dig into your gut, and you crack open the door of the dark stuff that lies buried, deep and dark, the scary stuff, deep inside.

You are curious of what lies there, in the dark and stink of your life, and you are readying your broom and your mop, and maybe your shotgun, getting ready to wrestle with the monsters that lurk down there. You are tired of the stink and the slime, and you want to clean house.

You soak up knowledge, hungry for news, hungry for challenge, hungry as your mind desires new ways, new approaches to life. You want a new world to explore, a new world in which to live, and fresh air to breathe.

You said this week that you’ve “been around the block”, and have sampled much of the dark side of what life has to offer, and there remains in your mouth the bitter taste of dissatisfaction, of emptiness, of shallow thinking. It is not enough for you, that bitterness, and you crave more, something sweet, substantial, meaningful.

And, so the light of understanding and the hunger for digging deep into your emotions and your gut now comes into your life. You realize there is more, so much more, in life. You are ready for this new adventure, this new calling, this need to be the explorer, the adventurer, and yes, the surgeon.

You are taking control of your life, and your mind. You are deciding not to live life according to someone else’s plan, someone else’s expectations for you. You are writing your own movie script, your own stage play, and you are now walking out onto the stage of your life, and taking the leading role. You are becoming the star in your own movie.

The journey into your heart and into your gut, into the emotional universe that lies within you, scares you. That place has been off limits for so long. Taboo. Forbidden. Too scary for words. It has been much safer to simply ignore that place, and not go there, and to fill that place with garbage and horror, and lock the door.

Yet, men do go there. Men crack open that door, and discover their heart, and their gut, and the emotions and feelings that are there, inside. For that is who we really are. We men are emotions, we are feelings. We are the currents and forces of conflicting and churning stuffs.

In you, there is anger. A lot of anger. I would call that righteous anger. Not anger for anger’s sake, or simply rising out of the hormones and stress of growing up in this often crazy world. Your anger is deeper, more complex, more intense.

As it should be. You have a right to claim your anger. You have a right to express your anger. You anger is earned from all the horrible and nasty experiences you have had, experiences that have tried to dehumanize you, to steal your manhood, your manliness.

My hope for you is that you claim your anger, to seize it, drag it out of its dark, filthy hiding place, and bring it into the light. Rip off its covers, and dump it out of its stinky box, and see it for what it is. Give it air. Give it light. Give it voice.

And rage, and yell, and scream, as you give it a name, and give your anger its voice. Express yourself and let it be known that you are angry, that you claim your anger, and that it is earned. Declare that it is a poison in your life and you are becoming free of it, that it will no longer have a claim on your manhood.

It is a righteous thing to do. It is seeking Justice.

And, when you do this, you will not be alone, and you will not be defeated. You will gather around you those people in your life who give you strength and support and love. We will be at your back, and we will cheer you on. You will draw from us the strength and determination you will need to give voice to your anger, and let yourself be heard.

There will be fear and hesitation and doubt. Yet, those are the sinister tools of your anger, the tools that anger uses to keep its power over you, its power to keep claiming your manhood.

And, knowing that will give you strength and courage.

We men are called to the river, and we are called to put our boats into the raging current and paddle out into the rapids. We are called to gauge the currents, and find the rocks and boulders, and hidden logs, and we are required to navigate the river, and to come to know its song.

And, as we run the rapids and as we come to know the river, and make it familiar, even beloved territory, we are finding our own song, our own rhythm, our own drawing of what our life is. The river song becomes our song, our melody. We men sing our song loudly, and with pride. It is our song.

As we men go into our hearts, and into our guts, and as we find the words and the songs to express what is inside of us, then we find our own songs. We find our strength and we find our gold.

In that journey, we open the windows in our soul, and we air out the stench of the ugliness, the bad times, the things that were so bad, so awful that we put them in black boxes and sealed them up with tape, and hid them in the darkest part of our basement. And, instead of letting those blackest, most evil things lurking and hiding in our basement, stink up our lives, we toss those boxes out onto the front lawn of our lives, and rip the boxes open. We let the wind carry off the stench, and we let the bright sunlight of our courage and our knowledge and our self confidence burn into the rotten garbage of the past.

We take our hose and flush away the filth, and the blackest slime and ooze, and make it all clean and fresh.

We call that stench, that filth, for what it is and we give it a name. We shout its name out loud, so that all our friends can hear. We do this so that the stink will know what it is, and so it will have no more power over us.

We feel clean, refreshed, pure. We feel that we are sacred and holy, for we are men. We are children of God, and we are good.

And, all of this is taking power, taking control. Becoming a man in your own house, your own soul.

None of us takes this journey alone. We bring our ancestors, we bring the strong, healthy members of our family, we bring our good friends. We bring our cheerleaders, our allies. We bring our armor and we bring our spears. We bring our courage.

You are the Captain now. You are the Man. You are the Boss. Not me. Not anyone else. And, definitely not the slime and the filth that has clogged and polluted your soul.
Be free.

And, be a man. Be the man you want to be.

--Neal Lemery 3/19/2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grandpa Henry

The last American veteran of World War I died this week, and yes, it is the end of an era. It didn’t seem that long ago that the World War I vets were a big part of our state. There was always a group of them riding in the Veterans Day parades, and they stood outside the grocery stores the days before Veterans Day or Memorial Day, handing out red paper poppies. I learned that I was supposed to give them a dollar for their gift, and they always acted so grateful for the donation.

Grandpa Henry was a World War I vet. It was hard to get him to talk about it. Grandma would interrupt him, saying “Shush, Henry. No one wants to hear about that.”

But, I did. And, when I was alone with him, when I’d go to the barn and help him milk cows, or ride the tractor down the hill to the fields to mend fence, or mow a field to make hay in the summer, I’d ask him.

It was hard to get him started. He was German, and was drafted into the Kaiser’s army when he was sixteen. His folks had thirteen kids and a big farm near the Danish border, and there wasn’t much room for him around the farm.

He was a foot soldier and was sent off to the eastern front to fight the Czar’s army. He fought in a battle or two, and then got captured. He’d get quiet when he got to this part of the story, and he’d look far away, his eyes glazing over a bit. It must have been an awful experience, especially for a young farmer turned soldier.

I could never get him to talk about the Kaiser’s Army much, or what it was like being a prisoner of war. About the only thing he would say is that he only ate potatoes for months on end. Nothing but potatoes.

At the end of the war, he finally made it back home. Germany was a mess, and there were no jobs waiting for him, even at the family farm. His parents were getting older and his oldest brother was taking over the farm. Back then, the oldest son inherited the farm and the other kids had to go somewhere else to make a living.

So, Grandpa came to America. He’d met some American soldiers after the war, and he always admired the Americans. They fed him, and they respected his bravery, fighting the Russians and being a prisoner of war.

When he got to America, he looked for a job. And, the only thing he knew except soldiering, was being a dairy farmer. Somehow, he ended up in the little town where my grandma lived, and came to work for her. He was the “hired hand”, and lived in the basement of the old farm house, the one Great Grandpa had built back in the 1890s.

Well, after my real grandpa died, Grandma married Grandpa Henry. My mom was twelve when they married, and she adored Henry. He was kind, and sweet, and was the best farmer the family farm had ever had. They raised Jerseys, and always got a good price for their milk at the little cheese factory in town.

Grandpa Henry was the only grandpa I knew. I always liked going to the barn with him. He taught me how to give a little hay to the cows, and some molasses, too. I always had to run my finger under the molasses keg tap, and taste the sulfurous, bittersweet taste of the dark molasses. We’d give each cow a little scoop of grain, and then a half cup of molasses once in a while.

I’m not sure why we did that, maybe it was some kind of vitamins or minerals to help them make richer milk. But the cows loved it, and scooped up the grain and molasses with their big pink tongues.

Grandpa loved his cows, and each cow had their own name and their own stantion. When they came into the barn, each cow would know where their place was, and in what order they’d be milked. Back then, before milking parlors, you brought the milking machine to the cow, and then, when the machine was done, you poured the rich, creamy milk into a big stainless steel pail. When two pails were full, you carried them back to the milking shed, and Grandpa Henry would heft the pails up high above his shoulder and pour the milk into the cooler.

The cooler had spring water flowing through its stainless steel pipes, and it cooled the milk down to nearly freezing, so you could fill up the milk cans. Every morning, after the morning milking, Grandpa would load the cans into his pickup and take them to the creamery.

He loved going to the creamery every morning. It was his only time away from the farm, and he could gossip a bit with the other farmers, and enjoy the trip into town.

One Christmas Eve, when I was about sixteen, I was helping Grandpa milk the cows. When we were done, he took me over to the neighbor’s barn. We were going to go see Emery. I’d never been there, even though the neighbor was a cousin of my grandma’s and they’d been neighbors forever. Emery gave us a big grin as we walked into his barn. The winter light was just fading, and we needed to get home for the big dinner.

Emery went over behind a big wooden post in his barn and pulled out a fifth of whiskey. Grinning ear to ear, he pulled off the top and took a swig, and passed it to Grandpa Henry.
Grandma was always death on drinking, and never would let alcohol in the house, so my mouth was wide open with amazement when Emery handed Grandpa the bottle and he took a big swig. He handed it to me and told me I could have a swig, too. So, I did.

“Now, don’t you tell Grandma,” he said, as we were walking back to the house. “She’d skin us both alive.”

And, she would have, too.

Years later, Grandma and Grandpa sold their farm and moved into town. They were getting too old to farm, and Grandpa was tired. He would walk around town and make his rounds, visiting the barber shop and the grocery store, visiting with some of his friends who’d also moved into town.

A few days before he died, we were talking a bit, and I reminded him of that Christmas Eve when we took a swig of whiskey with Emery. He grinned, his face lighting up with the good memories of his neighbor and sneaking a drink on Christmas Eve.

“Emery and me, we did that every Christmas Eve. That was just our little secret.”
After he died, my son wanted his hat. He’d always worn that hat around town, and I guess my son had good memories of seeing my Grandpa wearing his hat.

And, every Christmas Eve, I have a snort of whiskey, and remember that brave soldier in the Kaiser’s Army.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ocean in Motion

Ocean
in
Motion

The earth slipped, slid
water moved, climbed, broke
over the land
after buildings swayed, roads
cracked,
Earth shifted.

Spreading out, the waves
unseen, fast,
500 mph fast, moving across
horizon to horizon,
ten hours, five
thousand miles.

Building, crashing,
moving with the power of
Japanese mountains falling
against Oregon beaches.

1.6 nanoseconds faster
the Earth spins through space
all from cracks in the ocean
in motion
today.


Neal Lemery, 3/11/2011

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Gratitude

Its been a bit over a year. Now, the workouts at the Y are no big deal. I walk up and down stairs without gasping for breath, and I can walk a couple of miles with not even a thought. I feel healthy, strong, even vibrant, with 25 pounds of lard now gone, and still fitting in my much smaller jeans.

The memories of my heart attack last February are still around, and I still take my regimen of pills twice a day. Mealtime is a place to ponder how I will nourish my body, and bring new nutrients into my amazing body, rather than a time to wallow in processed food, sugar and fat.

Today, I had to crank up the exercise bike and increase the weight size I was lifting, just to give myself a challenge, raise the heart rate a bit, and give my body a reason to break a sweat. Its nice to be “too successful” at this exercise stuff and be needing to “raise the bar” every couple of weeks.

I’ve actually worn out gym shoes, and the sweatshirt I wear to the Y as a symbol of my commitment to working out, is getting a bit frayed around the edges.

There’s been some amazing conversations with other people this year, where we talk about our recent heart attacks, the hospital care, and our cardiologists. We survivors become reverent as we talk and compare notes, sharing that special knowledge of how precious life is, and how quickly one can come so very close to dying.

We share that zeal for each day that we wake up and feel good, feet on the floor and full of energy. Being alive is not taken for granted. Having a healthy heart is a gift, and oxygen is our drug of choice.

I celebrate the small things now, like coffee with my wife in the morning, or the first daffodil of spring, or finding something really healthy and tasty to add to the menu.
We’ve done things this year that we’ve been thinking of putting off, but time is precious now. Life can be short, and life is to be enjoyed, each moment savored.

At the grocery store, I took a shortcut the other day and ended up in an unfamiliar aisle. Everything on the shelves was fat and sugar. I realized I hadn’t shopped in that aisle for over a year, and hadn’t missed it in the least. I shop around the edges of the store now, excited about finding great produce, or some nonfat yogurt, or some tasty new cereal.

I check out the vegetarian items on the menu at restaurants, and I’m not afraid to ask for substitutes for the fried, salty and sugary stuff that is the usual fare for meals.

And, I see other folks doing the same, and I’m finding more healthy stuff in the stores and in the restaurants. And, when the Y is crowded after work, part of me is happy that there’s actually a wait for the treadmills, or the leg press machine.

I spend a lot of time with friends now, taking in the chance meetings at the grocery store or on the sidewalk. I make it a point to connect with them, and share their joy in their creativity, their work, their passions.

Idle chitchat has become insufferable, and I rarely turn on the TV, finding instead that the evening is much better spent with my guitar, my writing, or enjoying a good book with a cat on my lap, and a mug of tea.

I’ve started mentoring a young man in prison, my Sunday afternoons well spent in his company, as he struggles to find his place in the world, and to learn how to socialize with a father figure who hasn’t beaten him, verbally abused him, or left him lost and frustrated with life’s possibilities. He’s teaching me a lot about courage and determination, and the excitement of learning that anything is possible in this life, if only we have the guts to take a step forward.

Gratitude. My gratitude is everywhere in my life. Every experience, every sunrise, every glass of wine shared with my wife in the kitchen as we talk about our days, every amazing experience that comes into my life is a precious gift. I take nothing for granted, and I am so very thankful.
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