Friday, April 25, 2014

Go Change the World Today



How do I make a difference? How do I change the world?

At my age, I've figured out it's not by leading the white horse into battle, leading my armies into the fray and conquering Europe.

But, then again, it is.  I just lead my troops and fight my battles in a different way.

I am an instrument of social change.  I have a voice, and I have a presence, and I talk with other people all the time.

I make my changes one person, one conversation at a time.  It may be in the line at the grocery store, or at the coffee shop, or visiting with one person for a while, just the two of us, talking about life, and talking about choices. It might be by giving a book, sending a poem, or a note of encouragement, showing someone they matter, that they are important, valued, and yes, even loved.

It is the power of listening, really listening.  Listening with your judgment and your ego parked at the door, listening with your heart, and simply offering to love people for who they are, deep inside.

Labels don't mean much to me, nor does the style of someone's hair or the fashion of their clothes.  I like to look deeper than that, deep into someone's heart, and to hear what is really on their mind, what is really going on in their soul.

The town I live in isn't rocked by a huge earthquake when I have those quiet little conversations, when I open my heart to someone and really listen, and really have a conversation about the things that matter to them, and matter to us all.  Buildings still stand and volcanoes don't spew lava and smoke when we talk, but lives change.

Real change comes from a change in attitude, having a sense that I can change myself, my thinking, and that what I do in this world, that how I treat myself and how I treat others really does matter.

What I decide to do today, and how I will approach the problems and issues of the day, really does matter.  I am the one in charge, what I feel and what I value is truly important.

Oh, I know that there are millions of other people in the state where I live, and hundreds of millions more in my country, and about six billion people around the world.  Those are numbers I can't really comprehend, and its pretty darned hard to have coffee with each one of them.

But, I can have that deep one on one conversation with myself, and with someone else.  That's manageable, that fits in my calendar, my to do list for the day.  I can take the time to open my heart and really listen to someone, really hear what they are saying, and to value them for who they are, to weigh their soul against all the gold and jewels in the world, to really say that I value them for who they are, and for who they are becoming.

It is all about my intention, what I seek in that conversation, in that time together, one person with one person.

"You can do it," are the magic words.  "I believe in you."

"I care about you," said with love, and often, said simply by your presence at the table with them, showing up and being part of their lives, listening with your whole, loving heart.

Does this win the Battle of Gettysburg, or turn the tide at Waterloo?  Do I ride my white horse up the steps of the royal palace and claim victory for the people?

I don't need to win those kinds of battles.  But, I do need to empower myself to truly live my values, and to help others see the potential they have to live decent, meaningful lives, free of the demons and darkness that often clouds their souls.

"Yes, you can," is my battle cry, my shout for leading the revolution and winning the war.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spare the Rod, Save the Child



Someone recently commented on how they felt children should be disciplined and raised, saying that a good swat on the butt was a good thing, and that "discipline" helped their child learn right from wrong.

"If you spare the rod, you spoil the child."  That's old thinking, and I've seen the harm and the failures in that view of parenting.

I spoke up, disagreeing, expressing my opinion that violence teaches violence, that physical punishment demeans a child and fuels their anger.  Instead of building up a child, violence in any form sends a message that they are worth less than others, and that the answer to a situation is pain, tears, and degrading another person.  Words are weapons and you are successful when you conquer your enemy on the battlefield.

Parenting is tough work, and requires a wide range of skills and approaches, especially when the child learns more from what you do than what you say. And, yet, the method we fall back on, the one that comes first to mind, is how I was raised, and how I was treated.

As a parent, I have always tried to be a good example, to be, as Gandhi said, the change you want to see in the world.

"How do I change behavior, how do I teach this child that there is another approach to how they are dealing with life?" I ask myself, when conflict arises, when a lesson needs to be taught, when change in behavior and thinking needs to occur.

If I spank, if I slap, if I use loud and demeaning words, then I only teach by bad example, and, later on, I will reap the harvest of shame, anger, and even rage.  The family will suffer, and, so will the community.  We will have another angry person, whose approach to problems and difficulties in life will be the path of violence, and being able to communicate only through a fist, or a string of mean, vicious words loaded with sarcasm and degradation.

Is that what kind of world we want for our kids, an atmosphere of put downs, power struggles, and pent up fury?  Is that what we want to be remembered for as parents, the one who instilled fear, a sense of powerlessness and frustration, the one who struck the match to the bonfire of self loathing and blind rage?

Or, do we want to teach compassion, unconditional love, and a pathway of exploring one's emotions, and celebrating our humanity?  Do we want to teach effective problem solving, self love, and peace making in this world?

That dialogue stirred up some strong feelings, and several voices talked about their own violent and frustrating childhoods, and how they've struggled with forging a new direction, a new approach to how they raise kids, and how they deal with their own angers and frustrations.

In my parenting, I've had a lot of time to reflect on my own childhood, and the parenting methods of my family.  And, I've hopefully learned a lot, and I've changed and grown.  I've learned that real parenting is teaching by example, by modeling, and by a great deal of listening and empathy.  I've learned to talk things through, to name the emotions that are flying around the room, and in the hearts of my kids.  I've tried to value emotions and the struggles we all have in dealing with difficult situations and conflicted hearts.

I've also learned to throw away the paddle, and to not inflict pain.  I've learned to curb my tongue, and not use the hurtful, warlike vocabulary that leads so quickly to tears, rage, and frustration, as well as a lifetime of self doubt, low self esteem, and a sense of being a failure as a human being.

I've learned to say I'm sorry, that I'm not perfect, and that I'm looking for a better way myself.  I've learned to get my emotions out on the table, so that I can take a good look at them, and see myself in all my glory and all of my foibles and deficits.  And then, when I've named all of that mess on the table, I can sort through it, and find my path towards the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of person I want my kids to be.

I want to change the world, and I know that happens one person at a time, beginning with me.

Neal Lemery, 4/22/2014

Friday, April 11, 2014

Restringing



Restringing

Together, we tear open the packages of new strings, gingerly remove the old strings, and replace them with new ones, all shiny and bright. The new strings don’t come with directions, and folks who buy violin strings are probably presumed to know what they are doing. Trial and error become reliable teachers, and our first experience in restringing a violin soon brings results. 

He tightens each string, checking the tuning, a smile creeping over his face as he realizes his violin now has a clearer, brand new tone. Yes, he can do this. He can restring his violin, a new task is learned, and a big accomplishment is made.

The violin has been a good teacher these last few months, offering challenges, and stretching his fingers and his fascination with making music with a bow, strings, and a centuries old design. My friend, "Jim", is finding his voice with this violin, a place to put his emotions, and his fears. He’s getting out of prison in eight months, and there’s a lot of fear in him now, about how to live, and how to be a man on the “outside”, for the first time in his young life. Six years is a long time behind bars, especially when you are twenty three.

His grandfather’s gift of the violin has brought him some genuine excitement, and a place for his emotions, his love for creating something beautiful. He is finding a voice for his soul to spread its wings and soar. 

We work quietly, offering each other suggestions, each contributing a finger to hold a string, or add a bit of tension, only a word here and there to solve a problem of a reluctant tip of a wire string, or finding the correct direction to turn a tuning peg, the right groove for that particular string. 

He retunes and retightens, again and again, as the new strings stretch, now becoming part of the violin, part of the whole of what he tenderly holds in his arms and under his chin, his bow finding its place, creating new notes, clean and bright.

We were supposed to work on our weekly task, reading comprehension and vocabulary for his college entrance tests. He kept failing the tests on the computer, and was getting frustrated. He’d seen me helping other young men here with their studies, and had finally screwed up his courage enough to ask me for some help.

In the past two months, we’d been faithful to our task, making progress, but today was different. As soon as I walked into the multi-purpose room for the prison camp, and its eclectic chaos of books, videos, craft supplies, a few beat up guitars, and "Jim"’s violin, he talked excitedly about everything but our work. He was a tea kettle getting ready to boil.

Our stringing task complete, I’m thinking we could get our studying done. But, the water’s still hot and "Jim" is ready to unload on something else. We move on to a new topic, and soon he is showing me photos of his family, and telling me their stories, and the stories of his young life, stories he’s never shared with me.

There’s the grandfather who sent him the violin, smiling, picking his guitar. 

“He’s real proud of me, for working so hard on the violin,” he says. “I got to talk to him on the phone the other day, first time in a year.”

As he flips through the album, he lets me deeper into his life, sharing some more sad stories, some of his pain, his worries about people he loves, and who he really might be, inside. 

And, finally, the last page of the album, the real reason he’s emotional today.  He lets me inside of his heart, and shares a deep, sad story, so intense and personal that the details, the intimacy, aren’t to be shared with anyone else.  Yet, he trusts me to listen, to hear his story, and why he is so sad, and on edge today.

I want to find a corner and cry my eyes out, the pain in "Jim"’s voice filling me with sorrow. But, I have to keep listening,  No one else is. 

It’s a matter of fact tale, just part of his young life, just what he has had to experience.  I lean in, and listen hard, my few questions telling him I’m really listening, really paying attention to him, and his Divine Comedy, taking me deeper and colder than Dante’s version of the deepest part of Hell.  

We’ve gone so far today, from mentor and prisoner, to tutor and student, to amateur violin restringer and tuner, to spiritual surgeons, working on a broken heart.   My job now becomes the listener, the friend, the other human being in the room who gives a damn about this young man and his pain.  

He tells his story, letting me hear his pain, and his deep love for what he had in his arms, and then lost, and how he has gained from all of that, and become a loving, good man, at peace with God, and content in his life.  Oh, there is still some bitterness and some righteous anger, but instead of poisoning his soul, he uses all that to feed his soul, and nurture his gentle, peaceful spirit, and give himself guidance and purpose in his life.

There are angels in this room now, surrounding us, and filling this space with love and a sense of serenity and comfort.  I think “Jim” senses them, too, and his shoulders drop, and he is, at last, becoming at peace with his story he has just shared.  In the telling, he has found some acceptance, and compassion, some support in his journey. He is not alone, now, in that story, that part of his life that nearly pulled his heart out of his chest.  

I grab him and hold him close, and he holds me tight, and sobs, at last. Together, we grieve, the soothing words we both need now not spoken, but filling the room, and healing his heart, resounding loudly in our souls.  What I try to give to him now comes not from me, as much as it comes from the angels in our midst, the air heavy with the unconditional love of the universe. 

Our time is up, now, and I have to go. We’ve worked on our vocabulary,  the words that really matter today, and we’ve restrung a violin, giving both "Jim" and his violin a new, brighter voice. We’ve put in some new heart strings, too, giving me a chance to love this young man a little harder, a little deeper today, giving him some space to play his songs, and be loved.


—Neal Lemery

4/10/2014
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