Thursday, April 27, 2017

I Choose To Build

            I can choose to do nothing, to embrace the status quo, and not examine my own thinking, my own, old ways of doing things.  Or, I can be the wrecking ball, the sour voice of discontent when new ideas and new ways come my way.

            Or, I can be the builder, using the solid, time tested materials and ways that have worked in the past, and incorporate the new energies, the new ideas, and make things better. 

            My choice. 

“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you're going to be part of the problem.”  -- attributed to Eldridge Cleaver.

            My community is going through a lot of change now.  Our downtown traffic pattern is being completely revamped, and the streets and sidewalks are torn up.  The usual routines and paths are disrupted, and our city bird is the construction crane. Construction worker orange and raincoats is the new fashion statement.

            I can curse the detours, the mud, the mess, or I can look through that and see the beginnings of the new town plaza, the spots for new street trees, and the better traffic flow that will come from this. 

            I choose to build, to make stronger, to help others on their own path, so that they can achieve their dreams, and to find their path a little easier.

            And, I can join the voices embracing the new energies, the vitality of a prosperous, active downtown area.  I can be part of that, and be a builder.

            I’ve done my share of whining about what is lacking in my home town. But, I am choosing to be a builder, not a destroyer, a part of the solutions and not part of the problems. 

            To that end, I’ve helped organize and host a monthly open mic downtown on Saturday nights, providing a performance space for writers, musicians, and other artists.  Part of that work is joining others to bring gallery space for artists downtown, and promote the creative arts.

            I’m a master gardener and have helped educate myself and others on sustainable gardening and educating the community about being better stewards of the land.  I’ve nurtured and planted community garden space.

            I’m working on a foundation to help fund improvements to local parks and recreation spaces.

            And, I’ve spoken out in favor of our community library, and worked on the campaign to renew its local funding.  

            I’m not alone.  This community is on the move, and change is on the wind.  New ideas, new projects are everywhere.  Nearly seventy of my neighbors just returned from a ten day trip to China, having new experiences, learning about another part of the world, and coming home with new ideas and a new international perspective. 

            Today is Poem In Your Pocket Day, which encourages us to share an inspirational poem.  Here’s my choice:

The Bridge Builder


An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

Anthology of Verse, 1931

            Change is all around me.  I could choose to be the stick in the mud, struggling against the tide, holding fast to the old, the familiar.  Or, I could be part of the change, going with the flow, being one with the river; and embracing the change.

            The old ways can be comforting, certainly familiar. Yet, will they be successful, meaningful as the world, as my community changes?   

“The civilization that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral and spiritual environment in which is finds itself.”  (Leon Megginson, 1963. quoted by Thomas Friedman, Thank You For Being Late, 2016, p. 298)

            I can be the bridge builder, the advocate for a better community, or I can be the stick in the mud, and let the tide move against me, leaving me rotting in the muck of the past, as the world passes by.

---Neal Lemery, 4/27/2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Young Prisoner's Rage



            It boils out of me, this rage against you, this struggle I have on how to feel about me being the son, and you the father.  The bruised knuckles from hitting the wall, again, with the full force of the rage, aching, yet all I want is to be numb, and not feel the ache in my heart.
            I stuff it down, push it deep, wanting to turn my heart into stone.
            Betrayed.  Abandoned.  Neglected. I just want to be numb, and not feel all that. 
I’m trying to grow up, to be healthy, mature, manly.  But without a father, a healthy, good father, I am empty, hollow. 
            My soul is hungry for connection, yet the absence of my dad, the silence, even worse, the indifference, tells me I am unworthy, I have failed.
            I’m here in prison, doing time, labeled, categorized, marked.  Wanting to be a healthy man, yet I have stumbled, fallen, and became a criminal. 
            I hear my dad’s voice saying, again, of course you’re worthless, you are trash, you are a criminal, and not worthy of my love, or even my name.  You are not my son.  I denounce you.  I reject you, my heir, my seed, my son. You are not of my image, my spawn, my child. 
            Be my dad, I had said, I had begged.  Love me, embrace me, take me by the hand and show me.  Show me how to be the son, the man-child, a good man.
            But, no.  Rejection.  Shame, guilty, abandonment.  I am the throw away son. 
            Of course I am worthless.  I am the criminal, the felon, the prisoner.  Like you expected of me, I have proven how worthless I am.  I guess you were right when you said I was worthless.  You told me I was trash and so here I am, a sack of garbage, the criminal unworthy of you even acknowledging me. 
I am not your son.  I am trash.  You have no son. 
            But, father, did you just try to love me, to guide me, to hold me close, to be the parent, the father I needed?
            I didn’t need much, just for you to love me, to accept me, just to be your son.
            I got lost, but you didn’t come find me, didn’t guide me, didn’t hug me, didn’t parent me.  You threw me away, and I just want to go numb, and slam my fist into the wall, and not feel it.
 You loved the bottle, the pipe, the pill, the denial of my existence much more than what I needed from you. 
            Undeserving, of no value, that’s the message you gave me, again and again, until it sounded like the truth. Repeated, and repeated, so it must be true.
            What else can I do, but rage.  I scream into the night, punch my fist into the wall, look into the mirror and see only a worthless soul, unworthy of love, unable to forgive, to honor myself, to see any good in myself. 
            I rage, so therefore I am worthless, trash.  A tight circle, self-fulfilling prophesy of emptiness, garbage. 
            Is it too much to ask, that I can hear I am valued, that I have purpose, that I am a man, a good man, capable of and deserving of love? 
            Is it too much to ask that I hear you are proud of me?
            You reject me, over and over again.  I get it.  I am nothing in your eyes. I can never be the man I dare to dream of being; I can never be the son worthy of your name, your love. 
            No, I am trash, garbage, a worthless sack of s**t.  My destiny must be to sit in my prison cell and mean nothing to anyone else, is that what you think? Is that what you want?  Is that what you desire your son to be? 
            Slam, goes the fist into the wall, the pain somehow justified, earned, because of who you think I am, how worthless I must really be.  If only I could be loved, to hear you say that word, to hold me tight and let me feel your love for me.
            But, no.  Rejection, shame, abandonment.  Is that what you want for me?  Is that why you brought me into the world, to throw me away? 
            All I want is to be loved, to be seen as a son, as a soul seeking his dream, wanting to have value, to be a beloved child of God.
            Yet, I am rejected, unloved, unworthy, undeserving of the name of son, of being beloved and embraced.
            And when I have a son, how will I treat him, what will I say to him? What will I show him how I have learned to treat a son?
            And, so I rage.
            And , so I rage. 

----Neal Lemery  3/20/2017

Sunday, February 5, 2017

My Ticket to Prison

                                                            My Ticket to Prison

            It was my ticket to prison.  Following the guard’s direction from the loudspeaker, I pushed the ticket machine button. “128” was printed on what looked like a raffle ticket for a drawing.    
            “Drive to the top of the parking lot, park and then wait with the others until your number is called,” the faceless stern voice commanded.
            I soon found myself with the other visitors.  We huddled together in the early morning icy wind.  After the two-hour drive, it felt good to stand up, but the wind made me yearn for the shelter of the gatehouse down the hill. It was surrounded by coils of ribbon wire, overshadowed by the guard tower with the black, one way glass. 
            One lady kindly asked me if this was my first time here.
            She told me the routine, what to expect, adding that it was a cold, heartless place to visit. 
            She and her mother had been coming to see her son for several years now, and it was always a hard thing to do.
            “We’re his only connection to the world, to family,” she said.  
            “It’s the only thing we can do for him, coming here every week,” she said.
            Her voice dropped and she looked away.  I could see a tear in her eye.
            “Numbers 120 to 130,” the voice crackled over the loudspeaker.
            We moved hurriedly down the hill into the gatehouse.  Paper money was changed into dollar coins for the vending machines, and people took off their jewelry, shoes and belts, and handed their driver’s licenses to the guards. 
            When my turn came, I identified who I was seeing and then set off the metal detector.
            “Glasses, too.”
            As directed, I moved, blindly, sideways through the metal detector, satisfying the stern faced guard glaring at me.
            We all had the back of our right hand stamped, with invisible ink.  When we left, a guard shined an ultraviolet light on our hands, making sure we weren’t inmates, that we hadn’t switched places and were organizing a great escape. 
            I reassembled myself and sat on a wooden bench with some of my cohorts, waiting for our turn to walk in small groups through another steel door and across the yard to the visitors’ building.
            Once inside, I was directed to several rows of plastic chairs and low tables, more appropriate for a fourth grade classroom than a prison visiting room.  There were a few vending machines on one wall, offering chips, sodas, and coffee. 
            The room was dimly lit with a few florescent bulbs and small barred windows near the ceiling.  The dark cement floor sucked up what little light came through the windows.
A large modern painting of a tree leaned against a gray wall, near a large chair on a platform, where a guard sat, staring out over the assemblage of visitors.
            There was nothing else in the room that resembled life on the outside, and I wondered if the painting hadn’t been hung yet, simply because it was so out of place here. 
            We were grandmothers and aunts, a few girlfriends, two guys who might be brothers of inmates, and a lawyer.   He looked out of place, in his three piece suit and large three ring binder.  He paced and looked at his watch, anxious to get on with the rest of his day and finish up his business with his client. 
            The rest of us had our prison visit clothes on.  The rules said no blue jeans, no blue shirts or jackets.  Blue is the color of inmates here, and the prison wanted a clear distinction.  
            We waited, and waited some more. 
            A few inmates came in, embracing their loved ones and then sitting on the opposite side of the small tables. 
            We waited some more, and I saw the kindly mother and grandmother look at their watches and the big clock on the wall.
            I caught their eye and shrugged.  They nodded and shrugged back. 
            Finally, my young friend came out of the side door.  He and all the other inmates were clad in blue jeans and blue shirts, with blue lanyards and their prison ID cards around their necks.
            We hugged and took our seats.
            I hadn’t seen my buddy for four months, since he got sent upstate to adult prison, after serving all the time he could at the youth prison where I go every week.  He’s got seven more years to go, and had to move to adult prison when he turned twenty four. 
            What got him here was something that happened when he was thirteen, when life was crazy, chaotic, without guidance and direction.  He was arrested at seventeen, and treated like an adult in court. 
            The system pounded on him, maxing him out, making sure he got the presumptive sentences reserved for the worst of people.
            But he’s not.  He was a kid himself when he came to prison, never been in school, never really parented and raised to be a healthy young man. 
            The youth prison was good for him.  He finished school, and let his curiosity lead him to becoming an expert gardener, craftsman, and artist.  He taught others, taking on leadership, gaining the skills and confidence of a healthy, productive young man.  He’s everything you’d want a young man to be in this world. 
            We talked for the next hour and a half, two friends catching up on our lives, and the news from the youth prison. 
            His dad died last month, a heart attack ending a troubled life, leaving the relationship with the son in prison still unresolved, still unhealed.  The anger and bitterness now mixed up with grief, with the emptiness of not being able to go to his father’s funeral, to take care of his widowed mother, and the rage and violent life of the younger brother. 
            We tested out the vending machines’ offerings of soda and coffee.  Starbucks has no worries about the competition here. 
            My friend has a good job, managing the kitchen garden.  He’s ramped up the composting, and is planning new crops for the summer.   His eyes twinkle as he tells me of his plans and the new watering system he’s designing.
            He’s saving his money for a guitar.  Prison rules wouldn’t let him bring his old guitar with him, but he’s scribbled out some new songs, and another guy has let him borrow his guitar once in a while. 
            I can’t send him a guitar.  He has to buy it from the prison canteen.
            “They worry that you’d send in drugs with the guitar, you know.”
            We laughed.  He’s too serious of a musician to think about smuggling in drugs or being a criminal.
            “There’s ‘yard night’ in the summer,” he tells me.  “I’ll have my new guitar by then.” 
            You can bring your guitar with you, and guys play and sing, and tell stories.  They even barbeque and turn the prison yard into a house party, at least for two hours on a hot summer night.   
            I don’t ask him much about life here.  I can tell he’s not wanting to share, not wanting to explain the emptiness, the boredom.
            He grins when he talks about the botany book I sent him.  College level stuff, and good for his mind.  He reads it every night, soaking up the science, the methodology.  He redraws the illustrations, creating new works of art in his cell. 
            Last year, he petitioned the Governor for clemency.  About twenty people added letters of endorsement, from the youth prison’s school principal to most of the volunteers.  The prison staff weren’t allowed to endorse the petition, but loaded up their letters with assessments and evaluations of what he’d accomplished. 
            We attached his portfolio of botany illustrations, and photos of his wood carvings and wood burnings, and the multi-layered wooden bowl that won a special blue ribbon at the county fair.  We sent copies to legislators, and we wrote to the Governor.
            Nothing has happened with that, and now he’s in this prison of 800 men, medium security for the next seven years.  Or, until the Governor might decide that he needs to be out, needs to be working on his bachelor’s degree in botany at Oregon State University, and creating fine works of art for the world to enjoy. 
            We didn’t talk about all that.  The silence from the Governor’s office lies like a stone in my heart.  It’s too painful for him, too.  Seven years more is a long, long time. 
            The guard in the chair boomed out, “Visiting is over.  Inmates to the rear.  Visitors to the front.”
            We stood, and I picked up our empty coffee cups.  Awkwardly, we moved to the end of the table, and hugged one last time.
            “I’ll come again soon,” I said. 
            “Oh, you’re busy.  I’m doing fine,” he said.
            He doesn’t lie well, and looked down at his shoes.
            “I’m not too busy for you, son,” I said.
            “I’ll be back,” I said. “You’re an important guy to me, you know.”
            For the second time that day, I saw a tear form in someone’s eye. 
            And when I got back to my pickup, there was more than just a tear. 

---Neal Lemery 2/5/2017
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