Saturday, May 24, 2014

Cheering With My Best Friend

May 20, 2014

He would have liked yesterday.  Yesterday, my state made history, ending a legal ban against letting people get married to the ones they loved, ending a time when our state constitution wouldn’t let people enjoy their right to be married, simply because because of their sexual preference.  

We would have one of our deep discussions in the car, listening to the radio and the reports of long lines of couples lining up at the county clerks offices across the state, getting their licenses, and getting married today.  We would have talked about all of the possibilities we have in our lives, and social change, and people being happy, raising kids, and moving ahead in their lives.

Best friends in high school, we always had those serious discussions, and challenged our teachers and our classmates about what they believed, and where we needed to go as a society.  We grew up during Vietnam and the March on Selma.  We skipped class that day that Robert Kennedy came to our small town, and spoke in the town square about our country being a land of opportunity, of freedom, how each of us had a voice, and a duty to move our country forward.  

We read Thoreau and Ginsburg and Malcolm X and listened to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.  We had deep discussions about war and poverty, racism, sexism, and how we could change our town, and our country.  

We headed to college, and our separate ways, and drifted apart, as friends do after high school.  Once in a while, we’d send each other an essay or a book review, offering more ideas to each other about making a difference in the world, how things needed to be changed.

Ten years after high school, he came back to town and we went out for coffee, taking up our conversations where they had left off, doing what good friends can do, the years apart really not changing our friendship, and how we challenged each other’s thinking.

He came out to me then, telling me that he knew he was gay, back in high school, but had been afraid to tell me, to tell himself, afraid to really be who he was, deep inside. He knew his dad would probably kill him if he came out to his family.  He was beaten up for a lot of lesser sins, and couldn’t wait until he could run off to college, and live his own life.  

He’d always struggled with love and relationships, and we lived in a time when being gay was looked at with more suspicion and hatred than it was for folks who were trying to live their lives by being black, or being against the current war our country was waging, or for the language they spoke. 

He cried when he told me of coming out to his family, how his dad had disowned him, of wanting him dead, of telling him he didn’t have a son now, that his son was dead.  And, how his mom had called him later, telling him that she loved him more now than ever, that she was proud of him and the man that he was becoming.  

Yesterday, I listened to the radio, and all the celebrations and stories of joy and love, and the happiness people were willing to share, being proud of being gay and in love, proud of the families they were nurturing, proud that they could now be married, and publicly love their partners.  We would have talked about how times have changed, so much, about how we’ve all moved ahead in our thinking, how we live our lives.

He would be proud, too, proud that he could marry his lover, and live in a state where his love and his family was respected, that he could be married, and respected for who he was, for who he had become.  Knowing him, he’d have been one of the parties in the lawsuit that brought us to this point.  He’d be leading the charge, speaking out, willing to take a stand, willing to publicly fight for civil rights, for bringing a bit more equality and liberty to our country.

We’d get together for coffee, to talk about his work, and his activism.  We’d talk about this week being the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education, when racial segregation in schools was finally seen as something that we didn’t think was right in this country.  We’d say that fifty years really wasn’t that long ago, that racial bigotry is still around, and we needed to keep working to change how people looked at each other, how we treated other human beings, about how we looked at opportunities for real change in our world.

He’s gone, long gone from this Earth, taken from us by AIDS, back in the 1980s, back when hatred and bigotry against gays was at its height.  Yet, he’ll always be a part of me, his courage always something I can tap into, when I need to take a stand, when I need to speak my mind, and make a difference in the world.

Yesterday, I felt the people in my state take a step forward, taking on a serious discussion about our lives, about equal opportunity, and civil rights, about families and happiness, about who we were becoming, we Oregonians.  We’re on uncharted ground here, pushed into this new world by some people willing to take a stand, willing to speak out and sue their state to bring about change.  We’ve got a federal judge willing to look at the law as a means to achieve justice, to think about equal protection and civil rights in a way that moves us forward.  We’ve got his words to think about now, to push us forward, to think about who we want to be. 

Yesterday was another Brown v Board of Education day, and fifty years from now, a lot of us will think that where we were the day before, when this kind of discrimination was legal, when it was part of our state Constitution, was so archaic, so old school thinking.  

Yesterday, I heard my friend again, his voice clear and strong, speaking about his commitment to be someone who was willing to work for change, someone who was willing to be comfortable with who he was, and who he wanted to be.  Yesterday,  I felt him close by as we Oregonians realized that our state had changed, and we had taken a step ahead in how we looked at ourselves, how we looked at families and relationships, how we looked at our laws, and how we really felt about equality and human dignity, how we felt about ourselves.  

I heard his voice, and felt his energy, deep in my soul, as I drove down the freeway, listening to the radio, adding my own voice to the cheers of the newlyweds walking out of the courthouse.  We cheered together, we Oregonians, cheering for freedom and liberty, cheering for each other.


Neal Lemery 5/20/2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Outside of My Prison's Walls


“Even though I’m out, I can’t seem to make my own decisions.  Six years of someone else telling me what to do, where to go, how to act, and now I can’t seem to move ahead in my life, and do what I need to do for myself.”

“It’s like I’m still in prison.  I’m still behind the walls,” my young friend told me, as we were deep in conversation about his life and where he was headed.

Yet, aren’t we all still behind the walls, the walls we make ourselves?  Don’t each of us have that fear of moving ahead, and taking on our hard issues, and that tough challenge of having our own walls to climb over?  

Life has a way of moving along, and we don’t often see ourselves in control of the directions we are taking, or our ability to find our own path.  Our jobs, our families, our friends all seem to be the movers and the guides in our life that are shaping our daily lives, and where we are headed.  

I like to think that I’m purposeful in what I do, and what my action plan is for the day, the week, maybe even the year.  But, my daily routine and my usual “to do” list means the day has a lot of routines, and I end up responding to other people’s agendas more than my own, long term, “what is good for me” list.  

And, often, other people’s expectations of me can soon turn into my own prison walls.  Just playing follow the leader and letting other people’s plans and needs fill my day becomes pretty easy, and pretty comforting.  I don’t have to think much, at least the thinking I should be doing about where I’m going in life, and who I want to become, and the dreams I want to realize and achieve.  

I let the walls get built up, and I get comfortable with that, instead of speaking up for myself, and finding that voice inside of me that talks about my dreams and my goals.  

Some philosophers would say that each one of us is living life in the prisons we’ve built ourselves, too afraid of taking charge, and finding the ladder to climb over the walls, or to search out the key to the lock to the gate.  

I think I’m free, free to go outside and smell the fresh air, and walk down the road, or meet a friend for lunch, or mull over an idea and speak my peace about a hot topic.  Yet, my daily routine and my well worn path in the road of life is pretty comfortable if I let others do the thinking and gently prodding me into going along with the plan for the day.  

After all, it is easier to just nod my head and grunt an “uh, huh” when someone pontificates an idea that my heart is telling me needs to be challenged, needs to be explored at some length.  That would take some work, and I might offend the other guy, and end up getting deep into a serious and thought provoking debate.  And, I might actually learn something and find some flaws in my own thinking.  I may even have to take some action, and get out of my routine.  

Or, not.  Just let their thought slide by, and I go along with the flow.  

“Don’t rock the boat,” my grandmother used to say.  

Yet, I recall she was pretty opinionated, and wasn’t shy about challenging some popular ideas and politics in her day.  She wasn’t a model prisoner inside the walls society had built in her day, and she was good at teaching me to think outside the box and not take the usual way out of a dilemma by simply going along with the flow, and not rocking the boat.

A few weeks ago, I listened to Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian social activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.  She was a young medical student when a civil war broke out in her country, devastating her family and community, and halting her promising medical career.  She wanted to break down the walls that kept her country from seeing an alternative to war, terror, and lack of opportunity for women and children.  

She didn’t have an army, and she didn’t have money or power.  “But, I had my voice,” she said.  ‘And I used it.  I spoke up, every chance I got.”

She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she wouldn’t let any walls, any thinking that social change was impossible, get in her way.  She told the stories of the women and children in her country, and she talked about non violence and civil disobedience.  She challenged and she provoked, and she taught and she argued.   

She used her voice and moved her country towards peace.  She made people think, and pushed people out of their ruts, helping them find the keys to their own prison gates, and to find their freedom and their true destiny.

Leymah Gbowee didn’t start down that road with the idea that she’d win the Nobel Peace Prize someday.  She simply wanted her country to be at peace, and for her family and neighbors to be done with war, and to live in peace.  She spoke up, using the only tool she had, her voice.

My young friend is finding his voice, and I see a lot of other people finding their voices, and finding the keys to their own prison gates.  Folks are moving out into freedom, out into the sunshine outside of their own prison walls.


Neal Lemery, May 14, 2014
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