Friday, July 29, 2011

Blind

Words of old ideas,
building walls, defending against
introspection, self imposed fear
poisoning fertile ground.

Fear raised as a shield against the unknown
thinking it’s “there”, but it’s really
“here”
in all its glory, its promise
of a new beginning, new
wisdom.

Old ideas
being left behind--
others moving into the sunshine
of the new day.

Neal Lemery, 7/29/2011

Friday, July 22, 2011

Restringing

I’ve been in kind of a funk lately about my guitar playing. Things haven’t sounded just right, and, lately, one of my guitars has sounded downright awful. And, I’ve been struggling with playing some familiar chords and making songs sound decent. My teacher has been patient with me, pushing me forward, pointing out how I’ve progressed. Still, I felt I’d reached a plateau and I wasn’t going anywhere.

Guitar strings wear out and, as I live in a rain forest along the ocean, the metal gets corroded. Sure, I replace my strings once in a while. And, I use the fancy strings, with the special polymer coating, which makes them last longer and they don’t corrode as quickly in the damp salt air.

Guitar camp is only a week away, and my order for new strings came in the mail the other day. I’ve been planning to restring my guitars in order to get ready for seven days of playing frenzy. I should be on cloud nine, thinking about soon spending a week in music heaven. Still, I wasn’t in the mood -- my bad playing and the one guitar just sounding awful left me uninspired, and a little depressed about it all.

But, this afternoon, I decided it was time, and I geared up to restring one guitar. I took all my string changing tools and the boxes of new strings out on the deck. I thought I’d take advantage of a warm summer evening and all the flowers blooming on a day when the weather had apparently decided it was finally summer. The guitar had been sounding all right, but with the new, fresh strings, the change was amazing. Crisp, clear chords, and the “bad chords” I’d been struggling with now were easy and sounded good, the way I knew I could play them.

I was on a roll, and soon, the second guitar was getting its new strings. I’d even brought out the special guitar wood oil and a soft rag, and was cleaning up the fretboard and the saddle (the place in the middle of the guitar where the strings are connected, next to the sound hole). A bit of spring cleaning, I guess, and the rag was getting pretty gunky with about six months of dust and oil from my fingers and hands. No wonder the tone of my playing was off, with all that rust and grime.

The old strings were stiff in my hands, and I could see they’d gotten old and rusty from just living in the rain forest and putting up with the wettest spring we’ve had in living memory. Like everything else around here, the guitars needed some spring cleaning and a fresh new attitude.

I tuned up the strings and voila, a new guitar! It sounded crisp and sharp, and now I had two guitars that sounded decent. Playing the guitar was fun again, and I rolled through about a half dozen songs, playing up to speed.



I could see my neighbor working with his new mule. The farrier showed up, and soon, the new mule was getting some new shoes. Another neighbor was out with her dog, teaching the growing puppy a few lessons, her voice filled with encouragement. A little more restringing going on around the neighborhood.

It was a day for that, I guess. I’d finished up my work at the office and the usual hectic pace had slowed to a crawl. My co-worker suggested I take advantage of the onset of summer sunshine and leave work early. To her and my surprise, I did, stashing my work ethic in the file cabinet. In short order, I found myself taking a long walk on the beach, and having a long, leisurely lunch with myself at a great little restaurant, with fabulous, never ending coffee. I found time to work on an upcoming photography show, going through all my photos on my computer, and honoring my creative muse. When was the last time I’d done that?

Having treated myself with good things and a long walk in the sunshine on the beach, I had come home renewed. I was on a roll, and indulged myself with a nap. This taking care of the basics in life was getting to be fun.

I guess it was a day for restringing. Time to clear away the rusted junk and bring on the bright, shiny new tools to live life to the fullest. And, the mule is pretty happy, too. He’s racing around his pasture, kicking up his heels, happy with his new shoes.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reunion

All ages, all sizes and shapes. Most of us all have the same name, or are with someone with that name. Some of us have been around here for ages, some a lot more than others. One guy is in a wheelchair and one little guy is only a month old.

Being an in-law, I get a different perspective. I don’t have the genes, but I do have my thirty year pin, and I know most of the faces and most of the stories.

It is the cycle of life here, in all of its glory, in all its wrinkles, and challenges, and all its stories. The ancestors are here, too, their old black and white photos reminding us of the the power of genetics, and the hard work they did that led to us all being here today.

Some of the cousins and a great aunt take off their shoes, comparing their feet, all with the same tiny little tucked in fifth toe. It makes a good picture. We’re all related, the feet say.

We visit, we eat, we sing, and we laugh. We do the things that families have done forever, when they get together and have a good time. The little babies of yesterday are the parents today, and those of us who’ve been the parents now get to see the grandkids and even the great grandkids coming along. And, the folks who were the work horses, who did the heavy lifting in family life, they’re easing back now, with maybe a cane in their gnarled hand and a lot more wrinkles and gray hair.

We pose and take the usual photos, just like the black and white photos in the albums on the tables. Fifty years from now, what we did today will be in the books, and only a few of the family will actually remember knowing us first hand. But, the folks then will say what we said today, about how so and so looks so much like that guy on the left, or that woman on her wedding day.

And, one or two us us probably won’t be here the next time, and we’ll have a few new ones to be in the pictures. That’s probably all right, as time does move on. It always has. Some folks get born, some get married, some change their jobs or move into a different house. Some folks get divorced, or have a good friend die. Life has that way about it, of being a bit of a tumble.

My own family doesn’t do reunions anymore. I guess we’ve had too many deaths, and I know there are some hard feelings. But, after some time passes, those differences don’t seem very important to me. We didn’t get together too much when I was a kid, either, and I miss the stories that I never did get to hear, and to really get to know a lot of the people who have the same ears and the same feet as me.

So, I like this reunion. After all, these folks are my family now, and I have my share of stories to contribute. We all need a family to belong to. This group even puts up with my attempts at carrying a tune during the karaoke fest. To be in this family, you have to let out your musical self, and, above all, have a good time.

Its what we do right here and now that really matters. Getting together and having some fun. And making some pictures for all the old photo albums at the reunions yet to come.
Nothing ever is the same, but then again, the change is good for us, keeps us moving along in the cycle of life.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Thanks, Betty

It was a tough time in our country when I first heard her speak her mind. It was the Nixon years, Vietnam and Watergate. We found out our President had lied, and was going to be indicted for being a criminal. And, the long, stupid war was still a big wound in our collective spirit.

We all took a liking to the new vice president, who took over after Nixon’s vice president was indicted for influence peddling and resigned in disgrace. And, then, not too long after that, Nixon resigned and this nice guy from Michigan became our President. President Ford, it sounded good. Better than Tricky Dick. He cooked his own breakfast the first day on the job and we liked what we saw. Oh, he was a klutz, but we laughed with him when he tripped getting off the airplane, and when he beaned a reporter with a golf ball. We admired his courage when he pardoned Nixon for all his lying and cheating, saying we needed to stop the national bloodletting over Watergate and get on with the business of the country.

But, Betty was even more of a breath of fresh air. She spoke her mind, being blunt and open about pre marital sex, marijuana, and how it felt to suddenly find yourself living in the White House. She also spoke out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yeah, back in the 70s, there was a serious effort to amend the Constitution, to say that women have equal rights with men. It was astonishingly controversial, and eventually, the effort failed. After all these years, the arguments against it seem even sillier than they did then. And, we had no doubt about how Betty felt about it. She had come from a poor family and worked hard most of her life, and she wasn’t afraid to tell us how women got treated in the work place.

Then, Betty got breast cancer. This was back in the day when cancer was a taboo subject and no one talked about it much. We kept the topic in the closet. Well, Betty had breast cancer and she let the whole country know about it, and how to get checked up for it, and how to treat it. Good God, woman, its not only pot and equal rights for women, now its cancer and breasts. Is there no limit to your candor?

Bam, right out in the open, and let’s talk about that difficult subject. And, we did. Millions of women flooded clinics for check ups and breast cancer detection and treatment became a normal, everyday topic. Can we even imagine how many lives have been saved, because of Betty breaking that big taboo?

After she left the White House, she floored us again, coming out with her heartfelt revelation that she was an alcoholic and prescription drug addict. And, suddenly, the country was talking about addiction, and twelve step programs, and rehab, and the signs and symptoms of addiction. Yes, even famous and powerful people can be alcoholics and drug addicts. She paved the way for millions of folks to seek out help and get clean.

She co-founded the Betty Ford Clinic, and going into rehab became something good people did for themselves. She crashed us all through yet another social taboo, and kept our attention on things that mattered.

I think she lives deep in my heart, and calls me out to speak up on tough subjects. And, one of those tough ones is domestic violence.

In my work, and in my life, I’ve seen a lot of domestic violence, and, in my professional role, I’ve been pretty vocal about it. It is another type of cancer that runs rampant in our community, and we have a habit of turning our backs on it and pretending it doesn’t really happen here, and it sure doesn’t happen in “good families”. After all, we are a good community, and bad things like that don’t go on here.

So, twice in two days lately, I got up on my high horse and went off, being direct and opinionated, not mincing any words, not hiding behind any legal jargon. I was about as blunt as I’ve ever been. And, it felt really good.

I was headed out the door, off to a lunch meeting about domestic violence. About half way down the stairs, I heard someone call out my name. I feigned deafness, my empty stomach and my Germanic devotion to the holy schedule of the day taking charge, temporarily. But, the second time he called my name, I succumbed to courtesy and turned around.

“Could I talk to you for a few minutes? I have some questions. It’s about my brother.”

It is a long, sordid, and, sadly, often told tale. A lot of cop blaming, and criminal justice system blaming here. He’s a good man, a loving, kind man. Well, and a criminal, as he harassed his wife and was aggressive, controlling, and scary. Scary enough that a cop was called and he went to jail. And, now there’s a no contact order with his wife.

The brother wants to help, but, as we dig deeper into this pit of family muck, more stories come out, a few episodes of being out of control, of depression, of frustration. All is really not well in what was originally painted as the ideal, God fearing, and loving home. There’s a lot more smoke in the air, more signs that the fires of domestic violence really are burning on the home front.

I’m usually a gentle guy, not real blunt, more the diplomat. But, today, and perhaps being on the way to the meeting on domestic violence prevention, I shed the diplomacy and get right to the meat of the conversation.

“Your brother needs to deal with this, and the first step is to recognize he’s aggressive, violent, and inappropriate. He needs to deal with his behavior,” I say, realizing my voice is filling the stairway of the courthouse, my directness echoing off the walls, in this place now almost deserted over the lunch hour.

A county commissioner, and then the DA, come by, nodding at me for what I am saying, the DA giving me the wink.

“Preach it, judge,” I sense he is saying to me.

And, I do. I sense an opening, a chink of the armor of family idyllic life that the brother has been painting for me. I talk about domestic violence being the leading cause of murder in the county, that domestic violence is the leading cause of death for most age groups of women, the ravages of domestic violence in the lives of children, and how they repeat the behavior when they become adults, lovers, parents.

And I launch into my spiel about batterer’s treatment groups, and counseling, and the work that men need to be doing to get their act together, to be better husbands, better fathers, to find some peace within their souls.

“It’s also a spiritual problem, and there’s a spiritual solution,” I say, taking a big breath to recharge my lungs.

The momentum is building here, and I’ve stolen the floor, gearing up in my sermon on the stairway.

“None of us can tolerate domestic violence, in all its forms. We all need to speak out. Society needs to have a zero tolerance for this poison,” I rant.

And, the brother nods, finally getting it. He’s a religious man, and is looking to his God to gain some understanding here.

“Jesus talked about love in marriage, and love in relationship,” I add. “He calls us to truly find what love really is in marriage, to go deeper, and to love each other without condition, without violence, without power and domination.”

And, the brother gets it. I’ve ventured into his territory, his emotional turf, and he’s getting it. It is all making sense. And, he knows his brother’s outlook on life and marriage and family needs some midcourse corrections. His brother needs to change.

I invite the brother to bring his brother back here, to talk with me. I’m willing to repeat my sermon, to have a serious, man to man talk with the brother. The brother nods, expressing his thanks, saying this has cleared the air for him, he’s getting the message. His brother needs the message, too.

I slip out of the building, forty minutes late for my meeting. The others at the meeting nod with approval, accepting my apology for being late, amazed at my telling of the story of how I went off on the guy in the stairway, cutting through the walls and defenses, and saying it like it is. They are more understanding of my bluntness than me. Perhaps they know me better than I know myself.

The next day, I show up at work, ready for another day. The defendant brother meets me at the stop of the stairs, the stairway where I had cornered his brother the day before.

“I need to talk to you. My brother sent me. He said I need to really listen to what you have to say,” he says.

We find a place to sit in the courtroom. This encore needs a comfortable seat, because I’m still feeling wound up on the topic, and I’m sensing I’ve probably been rehearsing my spiel all night in my dreams. The subconscious mind has been at work, framing my arguments, refining my message.

And, the brother is good, good at raising all the usual defenses, of polishing his own religious belief in good fathering and being the loving husband, and that he isn’t a bad guy.

Well, heck, no one is really bad. I’ve yet to meet a man who actually had horns and a forked tail, and breathes brimstone and evil.

But, I cut through his story, his gilding of the lily of what really happened. He grabbed her, preventing her from getting away from him. She was scared, and froze. OK, some insight, some recognition of the real issue here. I kept the pressure on, challenging him to really look at his behavior, his attitude, his real relationship with his wife. What really was going on with him? How was he really acting?

I like to think of my work as like a surgeon, deftly wielding the scalpel of the law to achieve justice. Yet, my blunt and direct approach here was more like a miner using a pick axe, or a small bulldozer, smashing into the rock wall of denial.

He kept up with me, sparring and telling me, and himself, more about who he really was, how he really acted. There was some guilt, and some shame, coming out now. Yes, she had struck him sometimes, too. There was more than one time that violence was present in what he had been telling me was the ideal, loving marriage.

He still didn’t want to think of himself as the criminal, the wife beater. He didn’t want me to think of him as evil incarnate. And, I didn’t. I told him that. He has a lot of good qualities, he is willing to look at himself honestly, and there were some hot sparks of being willing to change, as we wrestled with all of this in the quiet of the deserted courtroom.

I led him into his spirituality, calling on his spirit to embrace this challenge, not as a battle with the legal system, but with a call to examine his life from a spiritual perspective, as a way to commune with God and take an inventory of what wasn’t going well, and to make some deep, committed changes to how he was living his life.

His walls were crashing down. He was listening to what I was saying, and he was willing to make some changes. Now that the cat was out of the bag and he had said the words that he had been violent, that his marriage has been violent and abusive, there was a new agenda now out on the table. I hadn’t yelled at him, and called him vile and disgusting. He still had his dignity, his integrity.

I appealed to his role as an educator, teacher, role model for his kids and his students. It is time, I said, for him to plunge into this new graduate school class that he needed to take, to study himself and to embrace the syllabus of this summer school class. It was time for him to master this subject, and to dig into himself and take a good hard look at who he was, how he behaved, and to change.

He told me a bit more of his life, his family, the remodeling project on their home that had given them the reason to take a long vacation this summer. They were getting a new kitchen, a new room added on. When I suggested that God was calling him to also do another remodeling project this summer, he finally understood.

His shoulders dropped, and the anxious look in his face faded away. He was figuring this out, and wanting to get on with the program here, of facing his pain and his behavior, and to restructure his marriage, and his attitudes, and do some heavy work.

Gone in his voice was the anger at the System, at the cop, the DA, and the thought of not being the perfect husband and man. He had made mistakes. He needed to grow. The journey, now, was admirable, was worthy of his time and energy. He was refocused, seeing the need to figure all of this out.

We said our goodbyes, and I gave him a big hug. He cried a bit, then, and I said a prayer with him, trying to give him some hope, to nourish his spirit for the hard work that lay ahead. I wrote down the name and phone number of the guy to call for the batterers’ intervention group, and slipped it into his pocket.

There were other people in that empty courtroom that morning, I think. My mom was there, me still hearing her story on her deathbed, telling me how her step dad beat her mom and how she still remembered listening to that, seventy five years later. And, Betty. Betty Ford was there, too, I think.

Betty taught me to face problems. Don’t hide from them. Don’t ignore them. They won’t go away. We need to face up to what is going on, and deal with it. We need to talk about the solution. And then we need to act. Don’t be silent. Speak up. Do something. That was amazing stuff in the 1970s. And, that’s still amazing stuff in 2011.

I’ll miss you, Betty. But, you’re in my heart forever, and we all need to just say thanks for what you’ve done.



----Neal Lemery, July 9, 2011

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Each One

Wedding guests and bride and groom---
each of us, our own thoughts, our own history
as joy and commitment is celebrated,
each of us invested, each of us moved
by the vows, the celebration,
families and friends growing in love.

Plants in the garden, each in its own place
changing this place, adding beauty,
adding purpose, growing a sense of place.

Each string on the guitar, its own voice,
its own vibration, its own depth,
its own potential, allowed to breathe.

Each bird song in the morning mist,
each voice adding to the whole,
each doing its part to make the day
complete.

Each is important
Each in its own way, its own voice, its own place
as part of the greater whole.

Neal Lemery, July 2011

Blessings to Doug and Tiffany on Their Wedding Day

To Doug and Tiffany, on your wedding day:

When Jesus came to Cana to celebrate the wedding of His friends, he took a back row seat. He showed up, He was present, and He was available as a conduit for the blessings of the Spirit.

When the wine ran low, He blessed jugs of ordinary water, and turned them into fine wine.

We are reminded in this story of simply being aware of and being present for ordinary things. And, when the Spirit is added, ordinary things are transformed into greatness, and ordinary events become sacred.

When the two of you are fully present with each other, what was ordinary is no longer just the ordinary. When the Spirit is added, the greatness hidden within each of you is unlocked and allowed to bloom, and the ordinary becomes beautiful, special, and Sacred.

Within each of us lies so much. We often think of our lives and our potential as only ordinary. We take it for granted that we show up, and we are simply present for what life offers. Yet, when the Spirit is added, the potential of all that is allowed to flourish, and the gifts inside of each of us grow into extraordinary beauty.

Blessings to you both on this Sacred and Blessed Day and the Holiness that is your love.
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