Friday, December 30, 2011

Keep It Simple

Ah, another year.  One ends, another begins.   And, the tradition is to make resolutions, to strive to improve, do something different and harder than what I did this last year.  To strive to be “better”, “new and improved”.  Oh, so American. 
What has worked for me this past year is not “better” or “harder”, more complicated, more difficult.  Instead, what really has worked are the simple things. This past year, the simple things have been the juiciest, the most abundant, rich and momentous events. 
The walk on the beach, the sip of iced tea in the garden with my wife on a warm summer day, the picking of apples from the tree. Those simple things are the best.
As I put together my photo calendar for the year, I pick out the best pictures for my friends.  And, this year, the best pictures were the simplest, the ones of ordinary events and ordinary places.  What was the best was the flowing of water, the setting of the sun, a bird on the water, a herd of elk in a field, the smile of a baby.
This year, I’ve sat with several young men, men in prison, and listened to their loneliness, their pain, and their search for manhood in trying times, and in trying places.  We’ve had serious conversations, but the richest of those has been of simple words, simple and ordinary events.  
I ate ice cream with a young man, to celebrate his accomplishment of dealing with and writing about horrific events in his life.  I thought we were dealing with those challenges, but in reality, we were simply enjoying his first time ever simply having ice cream with someone who cared about him enough to spend a few bucks on an ice cream cone.  In his life, that was a major event, ice cream with a friend who cared.
I ate birthday cake and ice cream with several young men, honoring one of their birthdays.  The young man we honored had never had a birthday party before, so eating cake and ice cream, wearing birthday hats, horsing around with paper noisemakers, and singing “Happy Birthday” reminded me of how beautiful and meaningful are the simple things in life we take for granted.
My Thanksgiving dinner this year was in a nursing home.  We shared the meal with my father in law, who would die in a few weeks.  He was nearly blind and deaf, yet he rolled up to the table in his wheelchair and shared the meal with us.  We found pleasure in the meal, the companionship.  There were other patients in the room whose lives were even more bleak and desolate than his, tables without conversation, or even awareness of the event.  And, I was grateful for the simple pleasure of having a meal with family, and being able to give thanks.  
I savored the simple things in life this year, the purring cat falling asleep on my lap, a good book to read, a walk down the lane in the winter, taking in the stars and the stray meteor, the sliver of light in the east reminding me of the possibilities of the coming day, the promise of a  cup of coffee brewing as I finish my walk in silence.
As I work out in the gym, and feel a bead of sweat drip down my face, I’m thankful for my health, and the time I have in my life to take care of my body, to get my heart rate up, and burn off some calories.  Just being alive is a gift, and each day offers so many possibilities.  
Each time I play my guitar, I’m grateful to be able to spend time improving my skills, and bringing the pleasure of music making into my life.  The ability to learn and grow, and nourish my talent is a gift I no longer take for granted.
There is simple beauty and pleasure in just being in someone else’s presence.  I don’t take my coffee times with friends for granted.  Our conversations offer me wisdom, and reflection, and time to simply “be” with someone, to experience love and companionship.  We are, after all, human “beings”, not human “doings”.  
This year, I’ve found myself less mesmerized, less caught up in the complexities and dramas of politics and social dramas.   What I read on the front page of the newspaper is less important in my life now than what I find talking about in quiet conversations, and in gently steering another person along the road of life.  The quiet, creative moment has become much more important than the headline of the day, or the latest international cause celebre. The faces on the supermarket tabloids now are strangers to me, the national political figures fading in importance in my lives.  (I am searching for the “mute” button for the 2012 election!) And in that realization, I feel richer.
Who really matters in life are the young man I bought a few groceries for today, sitting with him as he wolfed down a sandwich, telling me about his job search; the guys I shared birthday cake and ice cream with in prison, hearing a young man turning 21 in prison talk about his dreams; and the phone call with my brother, fresh out of heart surgery, telling me he’ll be coming home soon.  
I want more of that in the coming year, more of the little things, the simple things in life.
--Neal Lemery 12/30/11

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Sweet Time

A Sweet Time
“Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.
Help someone's soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.”
As my friend, Gary Seelig would say, a sweet time.  
Yesterday, Christmas Day, was a magical day for Karen and me, filled with spirit and joy.
We went to the OYA youth prison, and visited with the young men I’ve been mentoring and visiting.  They were filled with the experience of receiving gifts and a communal Christmas dinner served to them in the half basketball court that also serves so many other functions in their young lives.  
We’d given a T shirt to several of the guys I’d been talking with over the last few months, and they wore them proudly, big smiles on their faces.  One guy hasn’t had a family visit for three years.  I make it a point to say hi and give him a hug.
“D”, who is becoming my chess partner, had never had a visit here from a sober person.  I’m the first guy he’s had a conversation with, except for OYA staff, for the last five years.  He liked my book on wolves and the poetry book.  He writes some great poetry, and is a leader at their monthly sweat lodge and in treatment classes.  
His essay on Measure 11, the mandatory sentencing scheme he’s enduring, is so well written and compelling, that I plan on sending it off to the Governor, the Oregonian, and the sentencing reform commission.  He’s taking four college classes on line and plans on earning his associates degree before he gets out in 2013.  Then, he wants to go to OSU and become a CPA.  
We watched another young man, a guy who hasn’t heard from family for four or five years, the guy I had bought a soda and candy bar for about eight months ago, on Family Day, and watched him burst into tears at the thought.  He was sitting with his new mentor and a local youth minister, laughing and telling them a story, a big grin across his face.  
And, then there’s “T”, the guy I’ve been mentoring every week.  It’s our one year anniversary of sitting down and having coffee, talking, and learning about each other.  I’ve learned more than he has, but he’s also grown three inches in height and about five years in soul wisdom this last year.  He’s not quite sure how to deal with the new guitar that Santa brought him, or his new self.  He’s never had anything new for Christmas or family to celebrate Christmas with, without breaking out into a fight or a drug induced haze.  He struggles with sorting out the new emotions in his life this year.
“D” comes over to sing us “Silent Night” and “Noel”, and we tear up at his beautiful voice and his tender rendition of the carols.  We soon join in and families at other tables in the basketball court, now family room, join us, our voices echoing off the cement walls festooned with a few garlands of glitter.  
On the way home, my brother called, from the cardiac care unit in a Seattle hospital.  He’s been there nearly two weeks, and survived a five artery bypass on Wednesday.  The afibrial rhythm irregularities of his heart were also addressed during his five hours of open heart surgery.  He sounds weak, but determined.  I could hear his smile as he told me he’s coming home Monday (today).  He’s got some serious exercise and conditioning work ahead of him, but now his damaged heart is working with every artery at full capacity.  I’m on that road, too, a few miles ahead of him, and I am hoping the power of spirit and the challenges and opportunities of post-heart surgery depression will guide him to peace and health.  
Yet, the best of Christmas was ahead of us.   The day before, a guy I’d been meeting with at OYA, and then the county jail, and had picked up at jail on his release date, had called.  Everyone else at the transitional housing he’s at was gone for Christmas and he was all alone.  I knew that the Salvation Army box of food we’d picked up that first day was long gone, and his food stamps were probably running out.  The loneliness in his voice echoed deep into my soul.
At the end of that sad phone call, I’d invited him over to share Christmas dinner with Karen and me.  We hadn’t planned anything very extravagant, just a simple dinner with some Christmas music playing on the stereo.  With a guest coming, we ramped it up a few notches, and decided to put on the dog a bit.  What the heck, it’s Christmas.
The young man didn’t quite know what to expect when I pulled up at his house, my Santa hat on my head, and drove back home.  He had on his best shirt and pants, but I could tell he was pretty nervous.  He’d never met Karen or been to my house, and he didn’t know what to expect, his first Christmas out of prison in four years.
I knew he loved to play the guitar, so I sat him down and put a guitar in his hand, as we finished the last minute preparations for dinner.  But, soon he was hanging around in the kitchen, a crystal goblet filled with soda in his hand, chatting up a storm.  
I steered him to the Christmas tree and put his Christmas present in his hand.  A boyish grin shined across his face, his eyes glistening as he unwrapped the little helicopter that could fly.  
We feasted at the dining room table, complete with table cloth, real napkins, and china.  I had him light the candles and we put him at the head of the table, and watched him fill his plate.  
He told us many stories of his childhood, and the chaos that he’s just taken for granted.  As the stories continued, we learned this was the first Christmas dinner sitting around a table he’d had since he was 12.  Other stories came flying out, my wife  exchanging glances of disbelief and astonishment at the hellfire he’s endured, and the strength he must have to endure his life.  His big heart filled with love and sweetness lit up the room.
When asked if he wanted seconds, our Oliver Twist said yes, and cleaned up his plate again.
At dessert time, he’d lost the rest of his shyness and asked for two desserts, the huckleberry pie and the ice cream with strawberries.  
We moved into the living room, at the tail end of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert that had regaled us in the background during dinner, and picked up our guitars.  The three of us stumbled through a number of carols, Karen and I singing, and our guest silent, but soaking up every tune.   
He grinned his thanks to us, eagerly grabbing onto the plates of more food and more dessert Karen had wrapped for him to take home, and we headed back to his room in town.   For once, he was quiet, and we didn’t talk much, yet I heard his humming, of all the Christmas carols we had sang.
Just before we got to his house, he asked me about marriage and family, and how that all worked for me.  He wanted that for himself, someday, and someday soon, he thought.  And, he wanted it to work for him.  
I left him there, his first stop in life after prison and jail, his arms filled with tomorrow’s dinner, and another big hug from me.  But the biggest hug was from him, the young man we’d asked to come for dinner.  
Arriving home, I walked through the door, my heart still overflowing with the emotion I had experienced that day.  My wife was at the sink, finishing the mound of dishes we had created for the young man who’d come for Christmas dinner.  I asked her how she was feeling.
“Joyful,” she whispered, a tear running down her cheek.
--Neal Lemery 12/2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Line at the Village Post Office

One last package.  There’s always one, one that doesn’t make it on the list I’d been keeping, or the gift getting sidetracked on the floor next to the pile of wrapping paper, labels and bows on the dining room table.  The room had taken on its annual pre-Christmas chaos.  Christmas music was playing on the stereo as I finally got the present wrapped and in a box.  I was in the height of my pre-Christmas frenzy.
I rushed into town, my “town list” of errands in hand.  The parking lot at the post office is well-filled with cars and trucks, and the line inside doesn’t disappoint my expectations of the last minute rush.  I just wanted to get my errands finished in town and get home, to yet more errands.  Not very Christmasy, but the week had been filled with work and errands and the project list that never seemed to end.  
“Ho, ho, ho, and merry Christmas,” wasn’t what I was saying as I darted through the traffic and into the post office scene.
On my way to the door, a man stopped to wish me a Merry Christmas and tell me about the joys of being a grandparent.  I stopped to enjoy the tale, and the big smile on his face.  His big smile made me remember my family, and the memories of Christmases gone by.
I stuffed the last of my outgoing Christmas cards in the mail slot and rushed to take my place at the end of the line.  
“Drat,” I said to myself, seeing that the line of customers was long and there was only one clerk.  “I’ll be here forever.”
Impatiently, I settled in for the long wait, and noticed a guy I hadn’t seen for a while.  He was a good friend, and we caught up on our news, and his daughter’s adventures.  
A mom with two toddlers was trying to mail a package overseas, and had to keep coming back to the counter with the customs declaration, not quite completed according to government requirements.  The mom and the clerk kept talking, and we soon learned the package was for her grandma, clothing and food, and a last minute Christmas present the kids had made.  The toddlers were patient, but starting to fuss a bit.  Finally, the clerk stamped the package and the paperwork, and gave each kid a Santa’s Helper stamp to wear on their coats.  Their gleeful shrieks brought chuckles and laughter to the line of now patient and happy customers.  
The lady ahead of me talked about thinking she was done with packages and mailing, then found the bowl of cookie dough in the fridge she had mixed up the day before.  The package in her hands were the results of that discovery, home baked cookies for her son and grandchildren in Seattle.  
The man behind me tapped me on the shoulder.  
“Long time, no see,” he said, his face unfamiliar to me, until he said his name.  We were high school classmates and hadn’t seen each other for forty years.
He was living here now, taking care of his aging mother, moving back from New York City.  We laughed about our gray hair and looking just a bit different that we had our senior year in high school.  We’re going to meet for lunch in a few weeks, and catch up with our lives.
The man behind him had been my mother’s neighbor, and another man had been the family grocer for many years.   Old memories were shared and smiles broadened on faces at the talk of good times and seeing old friends. Soon, the room was abuzz with handshakes and laughter and warm conversations.
The long line seemed shorter now, now that everyone was visiting and talking about what they were mailing and what their plans were for Christmas.  
When it was finally my turn with the harried clerk, she greeted me warmly by name, and flashed her smile.  Her sister was coming tonight, and she was eager to get home.  Overwhelmed by the long line, she took the time with every customer, tending to their needs, and wishing each a merry Christmas.  A Christmas angel, I thought.  And, an angel I had needed to see.
I almost hated to leave then, my business complete, the long list of “town errands” done.  I’d gotten a lot more out of my last chore on the list than I’d expected.  The line of folks waiting for the one clerk was still nearly out the door, but the room was filled with laughter and visiting, and the spirit of Christmas.
--Neal Lemery

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Being Present

I often underestimate the power of simply being present.
Showing up seems a minor thing in life. It’s not much of an accomplishment, simply to be there, to walk onto the stage of whatever play needs your attendance.  At least, that’s what I used to think.  But, I was wrong.  Showing up is everything.
Yesterday,  I showed up at my father in law’s funeral and wake.  I was simply present, I thought.  I was the supportive spouse, I was the most senior son in law.  I offered hugs and quiet consoling words.  I wept during the eulogy, and held my wife’s hand during the playing of “Taps” and the folding and presentment of the American flag to my mother in law, a recognition of my father in law’s courageous and bloody service to his country.  
Yet, during the day, I was blessed with numerous quiet conversations with family members, as we retold stories of my father in law’s life, a life of service, not just to his country and community, but to his family.  Many stories were told of him speaking quietly, and often bluntly, teaching lessons of honesty, work ethics, determination, and personal independence.  And, all the story tellers and all the story listeners had been impacted.  All of us were changed because of this quiet man, the mill wright, the farmer, the teller of stories and the singer of songs.
My father in law was often a man of few words when it came to dilemmas in our lives, and in the giving of advice.  He let everyone walk down their own path.  Yet, we all felt his strength in who he was, a man of self determination and a man of personal integrity.  He let us make our own mistakes, yet he was a model of how to get where a person wanted to go in life.  His toolbox was rich and plentiful, and he offered those tools freely.  All you had to do was accept his presence in your life, and accept his presents to you.
We often discount what we mean to other people, and the strength and courage that we simply provide to other people by our listening, our support, and the power of just being there, being present, for someone.  
“You can do it,” can be spoken softly, accompanied with a nod of the head, a twinkle in our eye, a hug.  
What that means to another person can make all the difference.  
My nephew and his wife suffered a miscarriage this week.  There are really no words that can take away that pain, that grief, that chaos that is tearing through their lives.   We hugged, we wept, and I held his hands, as he told me the story, told me of their dreams for their child, and how that death intertwined with the death of his beloved grandfather.  And, in all of that emotion this week, the fabric of his life is really not torn and ripped, but rewoven, and strengthened, becoming more beautiful.  
My father in law was present in my life.  Our deep, meaningful conversations were few in number, but contained the riches of his life.  His wisdom resonated deep in my soul, and I always felt his presence in my life.  
We were all present yesterday, as we celebrated his life, listened to his favorite music, and retold his favorite stories.  Photos and memories were shared, along with his trademark red bandanna.  His love and presence filled the funeral home chapel, and there were tears, and laughter, and smiles.  We came together, again, because of him, because of his presence in our lives.
---Neal Lemery  12/18/2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Being The Good Heart Patient

    Being the Good Heart Patient
Here’s what I’ve learned about being the good heart patient:
  1. Be involved in your care.  Ask questions. Understand your diagnosis.  Understand the medication strategy, the exercise strategy, the dynamics of the treatment.  Ask questions during your doctor’s visit.  Knowing “why” is essential, for the inquisitive, scientific, analytical mind.  You are the head nurse for your care.  No one else will supervise you.  (half of all patients who have had a heart attack DON’T take their meds!!!!)
  2. Be methodical and organized with your meds.  Get and use the appropriate pill dispenser.  Yes, you will otherwise skip some meds without this. You will forget.  I dispense and organize all my meds once a week.  Then, its done and I don’t have to remember or sort it out , and thus I am less anxious and stressed.  I am in charge.  This bit of organization greatly simplifies the process.
  3. Put a copy of your meds list (printed out by your doctor) on the inside door of the cabinet you keep all your pill bottles and your pill box.  This also eases the anxiety of the spouse as to whether or not you are being a good patient.  Also, start a file folder for this list and all the information that the pharmacist will give you.  You can take this to all your doctor visits.  They will always ask you to list your meds, even though its in your chart. I have an app on my iPhone for this.  
  4. Put the receipts for all your meds in your income tax file, as you will be deducting this expense off your taxes!  
  5. Understand your meds.  Knowing WHY you take a med is essential to engage your mental process into healing.  Some meds need to be taken with food.  Read all the info about your meds and the side effects.  You WILL have side effects from some of the meds.  Knowing that will ease your anxiety when you do experience the side effect.  Yes, you are the head nurse here.  
  6. Adopt the mind set that all of your food and all of your meds are medication for your body.  Is you ask yourself if what you are putting in your mouth at this very instant is nurturing your body, then you can eat it.  If it is not considered medicinal in the global sense, don’t eat it.  (This has been essential to me in cutting out the crap and junk, including the sugars/fats/processed food/chemically altered “food” that is out there.)  This mind set is essential when you eat out or want to snack.  “Is this medicine?” is the simple test.  (This increases consumption of veggies, whole grains, and other heart medicine.).  
  7. I love sweet, so I use honey.  Honey has tons of antioxydants and minerals.  It is medicine.  A mug of Tazo’s wild sweet orange tea in the evening, with a spoonful of honey, is dessert.  
  8. Most of my meds are vitamins (B-6, D, E).  So, I look for food that are also essentially vitamins.  I try to eat low on the food chain.  I am a caveman, a gatherer in the forest.
  9. Keep a log book.  I put in all my daily weigh ins, my blood pressure results, exercise, things I did in the day that are significant, etc.  Writing this down makes me aware and focused, and makes me pay attention to this project, which is healing and getting stronger.  It creates a self reward system.  This goes to the doctor visits, as well.  The involved, methodical patient.
  10. Exercise.   Be systematic.  Be aware of your body, and how far to push it for the day.  I find that having a “hard day” followed by a rest day is great for strength training, and for cardio (especially in the beginning).  Muscles strengthen by being used, then having a lighter day the next day.  Your body will tell you this.  Your body will tell you a lot.  
  11. Cravings.  Your body will tell you want you need to eat.  If the body is lacking in something, you will crave the food that has that.  Once in a while, I want a rib eye steak.  So, I eat steak.  Buffalo is lean, and very satisfying.  Mostly, chicken and fish.  But, now I have doctor’s orders so I can eat lots of salmon.  Life is good.  
  12. Have a support team.  You, your log book, your spouse.  Report periodically to a buddy on your progress.   Another guy in town had a heart attack about the same time I did.  We support each other.  
  13. Go somewhere to exercise.  I have a great exercise bike in the shop, but I can find a lot of excuses not to use it.  If I go to the Y, then I know I am going to exercise, and it becomes part of the weekly schedule and routine.  I make it an assigned destination for the day.  I know people who will recognize that I go to the Y and they will tell me that.  We start holding each other accountable for going there.  (The gym bag on the front seat of my car at the start of the day tells me that I need to go to the Y.  I go every other day, usually.  The gym bag nags me.  If I don’t show up at home at the end of the day in my gym shorts and stinky, my wife frowns.)
  14. Treat yourself to special exercise clothes.  I now have a medical reason to buy cozy sweatshirts, and I can wear sweat pants around the house.  Running errands in my sweatshirt is medically recommended!!  I buy tennis shoes often.  They wear out.  If you are really doing cardio, they wear out after three months.  This is a medical expense.  
  15. Reward yourself for exercising.  If I exercise during the day at the Y, I swing by Starbucks for coffee on the way back to work.  If I exercise at the end of the day, and come home for a nice hot shower, I then have a glass of wine.  
  16. Buy an iPod and some headphones.  My favorite music and exercise go hand in hand, as it alleviates the boredom and also gives me the excuse to enjoy my music.  I have an iPhone, so  the iPod is part of my phone.  You can put podcasts (radio programs) on your iPod, so you can also listen to lectures and other programs on topics you want to learn about.  I use Skullcandy headphones, which fit into my ear.  They are very light, and easy on the ears and are $8 at Fred Meyer.  Again, all this is a reward for exercising.  The time I exercise is Neal time, so I make the most of it.  (And, I avoid getting chatted up at the gym, or the obnoxious TV noise at the gym.  Fox News and stress reduction are incompatible!)
  17. Set some realistic goals, and then reward yourself for reaching them.  Improvement in cardio abilities comes in steps, so you will also plateau and not “improve” for two to four weeks at a time, and then you will suddenly improve.  It is the nature of athletic training.  Expect this, and remember that with any exercise, your heart is healing.  Rewards provide incentive.  
  18. Depression. You will experience sudden, intense spurts of deep depression, lasting up to several hours.  It is part of the recovery from trauma.  This will pass.  Work through it.  Exercise helps.  Let your spouse know this is a natural phenomenon and that you are aware of it.  
  19. Seize life.  Life is precious.  Do what you want to do.  Don’t put it off.  After my heart attack, I realized I wanted to go to California to see my foster son and his new house.  So, six weeks later, I went.  I was a little tired at the end of the day, but I had a great time.  A reward for doing my fitness and nutrition regimen.  A mental reward. 
  20. Intolerance.  I’ve found I’m a bit more blunt, and a lot more into doing things now and not “later”.  And, I am much less tolerant of the trash “projects” that seems to want to steal my time.  So, I don’t do stuff I really don’t care to do anymore.  Its liberating.  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Holiday Gifts

“What do you want for Christmas?”

The question gets asked a lot this time of year, and I’ve had my share of wish lists and wants for the holidays. Yet, what really keeps coming to the top of my “list” for Christmas, is time, showing up and just being present in someone’s life.

It’s time spent listening to someone’s story, someone’s life experiences, and finding joy. In the telling, there is magic, and there is that special bonding that makes your heart glad. No possession or holiday trinket or toy can even come close to measuring up to getting to hear someone’s story or being with them as they experience the joy of something simple.

One Christmas, I watched my grandnephew open a number of gifts on Christmas Eve. He was the youngest in the family and we all had gotten him presents. Two years old is a wonderful age to experience Christmas. Soon, he had toy trucks and balls, and mechanical toys and some electronics scattered all over the living room.

Yet, after a while, he was busy making a fort out of a big cardboard box, and his squeals of delight rose higher in the room, as the fort turned into a garage for trucks, or a house, or a spaceship -- whatever his imagination could conjure up. The magic of Christmas that year was not the amount of toys, or the variety, of all the noise and color of whatever we might have found for him. Instead, it was the magic brought on by the boxes and his imagination.

This year, I’m spending Christmas at the local prison for young inmates. I’ve been mentoring several of the young men, and they’ve been teaching me more about life and courage and determination than what I’ve been offering them. At least, I think its at least a two way street for everyone involved.

They don’t expect much for Christmas. The prison has a $25 budget for each of the young men there, where most of them don’t seem to get any visitors. I’ll bring a few gifts for the young men I’ve been spending my Sunday afternoons. Everyone will get a present or two, and there will be a special dinner. Still, it’s prison and most of the guys won’t have anyone to show up to visit with them.

For the two guys I see every week, we’ll get some coffee and a snack, and play some cards or a board game. But, mostly, we’ll just talk, me listening to the stories of their lives and what they’ve been doing. Often, it’s not exciting, world changing stuff, but rather the stories of young men exploring their world a bit, and finding out what they like about themselves and who they are.

They are learning how to talk to a guy, and get a sense of just how to have a conversation about life. It’s a new experience for them. In their past, many of the adults in their lives taught them how to be angry and how to feel stupid and unwanted. And, some of the men in their lives abused them. What I’d call “normal” is nothing they’ve experienced, and so we all grow in how we look at the world, and ourselves.

They struggle to figure me out and how to get along with me. I try to offer some “normal” in their lives, and sometimes, the tears in all that struggle roll down their young faces.

I won’t bring much for Christmas: a few gifts of clothes and some books. Maybe a few movies I can donate to the prison, so everyone gets to see a few good movies during the holidays. One guy’s getting a guitar, so he can express himself in more than his conversation with me once a week, or the occasional letter I get. He’s grown a lot in the past year, and I think he can grow a whole lot more. We’ll see where the guitar in his young hands will take him in the last three years of his prison sentence. I expect to be amazed.

But, most of what I bring is simply my ears. I listen a lot. I share their lives and their stories, and maybe offer a few stories of my own.

I’ll say hi to some of the other guys there, the men who work in the canteen. They don’t get visitors much, so they spend the visiting hours earning the minimum wage around here, 25 cents an hour. Sometimes, I buy them a soda, and I get some big smiles in return. I joke with them, and read their poetry or the occasional essay they’ve written in their English class. What they write is deep and thoughtful, and I’m moved by their sincerity and their pain.

One time, I paid $3 for a couple of photos of a guy, so he could have something to send to his son and to his mom. He’d spent all of his 25 cents an hour income on other guys, the guys who come into this place without any money, and need some toiletries and maybe a CD player, so they can have some music in their lives. He didn’t want me to pay, but I insisted.

He’s never forgotten that, and he makes sure to say hi to me every time I come in to buy our coffee and popcorn. I ask about his mom and his son. He gets a sad look on his face, saying he hasn’t had a response to him sending the photos out to his family. But, he’s happy he made the effort, and he likes to let me know that. He hasn’t had a visitor for four years, so the least I can do is to say hi, and ask how he’s doing.

When I see the ads on TV for all the toys and the latest consumer trends, I just laugh. That’s not Christmas. Buying and giving all that stuff really doesn’t mean much, and it never has. Christmas is all about spending time and letting someone know they are loved.

It’s the two year old boy playing with the cardboard box on Christmas Eve, and it’s the young man in prison smiling because someone came to talk to him, or bought him a soda, or even helped him send his photo to his family.

That’s what’s on my Christmas list and that is what Christmas is all about.

--Neal Lemery 11/27/2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


"Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all."  ~William Faulkner Gratitude is everywhere, if only I open my eyes. I choose to see either the dark, or the light. The gifts in life are abundant, but I need to choose to be aware of them. Yesterday, I was with a young man who was grateful for his own gifts to himself, the gifts of self actualization, of fortitude in moving forward, and in working to achieve a solid foundation for himself. He works hard on his education, and his healing. And, he is seeing himself for what he truly is, a loving, healthy, focused young man, heading into success full speed ahead. His “electricity of gratitude” is flowing, and the spark is catching. His work on self lit up the room, and also lit up the world. Neal Lemery 11/22/11

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Making A Difference

I always wonder if what I am doing makes a difference with someone. I talk with a lot of people, and work at being a problem solver, and, often, a mediator and decision maker.

My ears tend to focus on the negative reactions to our encounter, the anger, the frustration, the rage of the problem, their circumstances, maybe just life in general.

Yet, my spirit is drawn to listen with a deeper ear, listening for the connections we make, the compassion, the empathy, and the deep, heart to heart communication. My monkey brain, the continual analyzer and noise maker, tries to filter out this deeper conversation, this richer communication, and instead thrive on conflict and drama. Struggle and waging war with each other, and being loud and strident, those are the ideals of the monkey brain.

If I calm myself, and get in touch with my soul’s energies and voice, and go deeper into the experiences I am having with others, and with myself, then the real work, the real accomplishments are revealed. I become whole, and I am able to soar above the turmoil and conflict of the moment, and really see what is going on.

I hope that in much of our connections with each other, we want true understanding, true exchanges of information, viewpoints, emotions. In that work, something more than each of us is nourished, and that experience, that new wisdom and compassion and understanding begins to grow.

Last week, I had a good conversation with a young man striving to move ahead. The social and family obstacles he faces are enormous. His self esteem has been battered by the hurricanes that periodically sweep through his young life. Yet, from that conversation, he writes that he feels loved, he feels strong, and he believes in himself. He is ready to move ahead. He says I had a lot to do with how he now feels about himself.

Another young man tells me he is a failure, inept at whatever he sets out to do. Yet when I tell him he’s a good writer, an amazing artist, and, deep inside, a beautiful and loving man, he tears up. His eyes tell me he is really listening to me, in that deep, soul nourishing way that we all seem not to do very much. Our souls connect, and we both could feel that. When another person affirms my message, he nods in understanding. He left our encounter shoulders back, head held high, and the start of a smile spreading across his face.

I don’t know how my vineyard is growing. I sometimes till the soil, and plant a few new seedlings, or prune back a vine here and there. Sometimes I fertilize and water, but it’s pretty hit and miss. At least, my monkey mind analyzes it that way. Yet, the vines leaf out in the springtime, flowers do bloom, and the fruit on the vine often turns into sweetness in the sunshine of unconditional love.

I keep reminding myself that all things are possible, and I will never know all the fruits of my labors in the vineyard of life.

--Neal Lemery 11/13/2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Change Comes From Within

What is needed to change? To change the world, and, perhaps more fundamentally, change myself?

I am a practitioner of conflict resolution. I arbitrate, adjudicate, mediate, nourish, mentor, and heal. Yet, how can I do this work better, more effectively?

This past week, I attended the Oregon Mediation Association conference. We examined courageous questions and our own abilities and needs to find peace in ourselves, so that we could foster peace in others. I was led to challenge myself, my beliefs, my “state of mind”, and the true nature of my work with others in conflict.

“With mindful awareness, the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention, and we can both appreciate its contents and also come to regulate its flow in a new way.”
--Daniel Siegel

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
--Victor Frankl

If you want to change the system you are part of, all you have to do is change you.

I sometimes create my own demise.

Choosing what we do takes us out of our victim role.

“If you don’t know what you don’t know, how to you know what you want?”
-- Steve Jobs

If you don’t know what something will be in the future, how do you now know you don’t want it or don’t need it. So, build it, make it, and then it will be useful.

If I want to change the result, I really need to dig deep inside of me and examine my belief system.

My belief system triggers

my thoughts, which triggers

my emotions, which then triggers

my actions.

Real, fundamental change requires that I examine and change my belief system.

In all of this, I am in charge. Oh, I respond to my learned belief and behavioral systems, from childhood on up to today. But, I do get to decide how I believe, how I think, what emotions I am going to experience, and, ultimately, my actions. This isn’t easy work, but it is work I am capable of doing and work I can accomplish. I have to decide, fundamentally, if I want to do this work. But, I am in charge.

And, if I change myself, then I also change my environment, and thus I change my surroundings, the people I interact with.

If I come into my work filled with peace, I will have a different impact on others than if I come into my work filled with anxiety, or hatred, or other conflict-enhancing energy. Who I am, deep inside, has a direct and immediate impact on others, and on our relationships.

If change is needed, let it begin with me.

Neal Lemery, 11/6/2011

Friday, October 28, 2011

Raising Your Words, Raising a Man

Raise your words, not voice.
 It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.
-- Rumi

This week has been marked by angry voices, voices raised in frustration, and tinged with drug induced rage and anger. Perhaps it is the time of year, the onset of the fall rains of the Oregon Coast, the shorter days of sunlight, and the realization that winter and its wetness and grayness is coming.

Yet, in all that, there has been bits of gold.

A quick trip to the beach with a good friend, to share a bottle of rare wine, as we enjoy a sunny, almost warm afternoon, and the occasional whiff of a slash burn in the forest, and heart to heart conversation about life and this time in our lives. We work in the same building, yet it has been nearly two years since the last peaceful afternoon at the beach and sharing a bottle of good wine.

Today, I attended the retirement party of a good friend, and spent time with old friends, and celebrated a solid career, marked with decency, professionalism, and a celebration of treating others with respect and support.

And, I visited a new friend in jail, watching him glow with pride in becoming a trustee, and reducing his jail sentence, and starting to feel good about himself and who he is. More importantly, we talked about who he is becoming, and where he wants to go. We worked on our relationship, and finding out a bit about each other.

In that dance, I saw a young man begin to honor the flicker of hope and self respect that lies inside of him, and watched him start to feed that weak flame, savoring the heat and the light that comes from taking care of one’s soul, and nourishing one’s dreams.

All that is a start, a beginning. He’s twenty, but really fifteen, and ready to grow and become the man he wants to be.

In that conversation, the negativity and anger of the week fell away, and I found new hope for the future, new dreams, and the twinkle in his eyes gladdened my heart and gave me hope, and joy. There is work to be done, but we have started down his path, and the next steps will be easier than the ones he has struggled to make.

Good work was done this week, and, as always, that good work comes from simple things, and going back to the basics. Respect, patience, listening. Being present. And, taking the time to simply reach out to someone and telling them that you care.

In such simplicity, great change will come. I am simply the gardener, throwing out a few seeds on ground that is ready for what will surely come.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Letter to a Young Man in Prison

We had a good conversation last night. You demonstrated insight, and courage. And, you do that a lot.

We all need to understand our yesterdays. They are our history, our experience, and affect how we live our lives today.

We cannot change yesterday, but we can understand yesterday, and we can gain power over yesterday.

Yesterday has as much influence and power over us as we allow it. We are in charge of what yesterday means to us and how it impacts our lives today.

We live in today. We are masters of today. We control today. The things we do today are the things that can change our lives. We have our feelings, yet we can change how we feel and how we react to feelings. We are in charge of our thoughts and our thinking patterns.

The past is a teacher, but we are the students, and we get to choose what to learn and how to apply the lessons from the teachers in our lives. We are in charge of the direction of our lives and the choices we make today.

This is not only your task. It is also the task of all people. It is my task.

Every moment is a choice. And, we are each in charge of that moment. This moment is really all I have. I try to make the best of it.

I think it is important to understand my past. And, some events in my past still need to be called out and named for what they were. The secrets need to become known and given names. And, some events in the past need to be told that they no longer will run my life and will no longer have power. I can choose to understand those events, and to understand myself when I was in those situations. All that is good work.

Learning about myself is always productive work. But, I also need to choose to remember my lessons, and to give myself ownership of my feelings and ownership of my own power to choose my own path today.

I can choose to spend my energy on revenge and anger and rage. I could crawl into a hole, and pout and rant, and feel sorry for myself. I choose not to.

As those are feelings I have, I can respect those feelings and emotions. But, I do not have to let those feelings and emotions run my life today.

Instead, I get to choose how I feel, and how I act, and where I am going. I have that power. I have that right. I am a man and I have a right to be free, and healthy, and in control of my life. No one can make me a slave, unless I let them.

I need to understand victimization, and abuse, and slavery. And, with that knowledge, I gain power over those who have victimized me, abused me, and enslaved me. I can break those chains. I can be free, and I will be free. I am free. I have that choice, and I have that right.

I can change my life today. I am in control. I have the power. I have the right.

I can choose my friends and my attitude, and I can choose the subjects and skills I need to learn today. I can choose my direction. I am free to do that.

Yes, I have feelings of shame and guilt and being the victim and being abused and neglected and unloved. I honor those feelings, as those are my feelings. But, I get to choose how I respond to those, and where I go with that knowledge and that experience.

I am in charge. This is my life.

I can also respond to and seek out loving situations, and loving relationships, and healthy attitudes within myself. I can choose wellness and getting myself in healthy emotional shape.

I have a right to my righteous anger and my feelings. And, I also have the right to not muck around in that swamp, and to move on, and live a life of health, and goodness, and being productive. I have a right to be happy. Happiness is within me to grab onto and achieve.

You know all this. I hear all this from you, all the time. You have the key to your chains. You are in charge of your life. You are the man here. This is all good work. You know that. I’m just repeating to you what I hear from you. You are smarter than you give yourself credit for.

Oh, this is hard work. Lots of sweat, doubt, and sometimes, a bunch of gut wrenching emotional pain. But, as you know, the real accomplishments of life are the result of hard work and determination, and sometimes, sweat and pain.

You are worthy of this good, hard, sweaty work. And, I call you to that work. You have the job. You’re hired. You’re the most qualified for the job.

Everything in this letter is nothing new to you. And, it is not news to your Team. Your Team is behind you and along side of you.

We offer tools and support. And, there is no obligation we impose on you, except the expectation that you want to change and grow and get healthier.

You want to be a healthier man. So do I. And, I work at that job every day. We are all on this journey.

I don’t ask more of you than I ask of myself.

And, you are farther along than you give yourself credit for.

You are WAY ahead of other young men who need to do this work. I hope you see this and recognize this in you. You are being brave and courageous, and also loving and caring of yourself. Honor that. Respect that about you.

A lot of men don’t do this work. Their lives are painful and much poorer, emotionally. This work needs to be done. You know that. And, that is power.

I remain at your service, and I remain a member of your team.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Least Among Us

(Sermon, Tillamook United Methodist Church, October 9, 2011)

The relationships between spirituality and the law is an ever present intertwining relationship with me. Two seemingly separate worlds often collide, but more often unite into an amazing life changing force.

As a lawyer, and as a judge, and also as a man who has a continuing and deeply evolving relationship with God, I am continually in the trenches wrestling with the role of the rule of law and the ever present complexity of the Spirit.
Our republic values the Rule of Law, and the ideals of an equitable and compassionate judicial system is a cornerstone of the freedoms and responsibilities we all have as Americans. In the controversies of our age, we often forget how crucial the Rule of Law is to an orderly government. In the history of humankind, peaceful resolutions of disputes based on democratic principles is a fairly recent concept, and not always commonplace. With all of its flaws, our legal system remains protective of individual rights and has proven flexible in times of great social change.

So, let me share some of my own thoughts and observations about the work I do, and how that work might fit into one’s faith and spiritual life.

One may imagine that the role of a judge is primarily a task of learning the law and applying the law to the facts of a particular case. My work on the bench is sometimes that, and some of the questions I face and must decide can be quickly resolved with a reading of the statute books, or finding a particular case law precedent from an appellate court.

Yet, there is the letter of the law and there is the spirit of the law, and there is the everpresent demand to seek justice and to apply justice.

And, there are the lives and realities of the people standing before you in the courtroom. These are often different rows to hoe in the gardens and weed patches of our legal system.

Theologically, one may think of the role of a judge in the context of Solomon, deciding who will have custody of a baby, and who chose between two women both claiming to be the child’s mother. Solomon suggested cutting the child in two with his sword, until the true mother cried out that the other woman should have the child, rather than have her own baby put to death.
Yet, the point of that story is not to define justice in terms of killing a child, but the deep love of a mother for her child. She loved her child so much that she would give up her child to another, so that her child could live.

Perhaps it is a good example of judicial wisdom, but this story is more a story of altruism, and self-sacrifice.

When a lawsuit is coming to a head in court, those ideals and aspirations are usually pretty scarce. Greed, avarice, and revenge are more common among the parties, and often, neither party is after true justice.

In Luke 9:46-48, Christ tells us this story:

An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he is the least among you all – he is the greatest.”

And, the child standing besides Christ is the metaphor for the sadness, the misery, the poverty, the addictions, the violence, the greed, and the chaos of our society. When these agonies are too much for us to bear as individuals, or, often, as a community, these agonies find their ways to the jail and to the courts.

In my work, and in my own spiritual journey, I keep coming back to this passage. For me, Christ is speaking very directly, very plainly. The greatest one among us is not the greatest one, Instead, the greatest one is the least among us all.

Some theologians see the child in these words as a metaphor for those young in faith, and this passage as an example of Christ discouraging the very human debate among the Disciples of who is greater than the other in terms of religious politics.

To me, the Scripture is not so complex, not so politically sophisticated. To me, it is a plain, a direct message, right to my heart, here and now. And that message is this: we need to take care of those who are the least fortunate, the least able.

I’m a student of the Constitution, and of history. And, when I study what the Founding Fathers were trying to do, I know that they did their work mindful of these simple words of Christ. They lived in an imperfect, often unjust society. They were all white men, owners of land taken from Native Americans, and, often, slave owners. They lived in a time when the right to vote was limited to only a select few, those who owned land, and could afford to pay the poll tax on election day. No women, no people of color, no poor people could have a say in their government.

And, yet, the words they crafted, the principles they expressed, carry the spirit of those words of Christ.

In looking to find justice, and in looking to find the right thing to do, the right way to make the right thing happen, He tells us to look at the greatness within the least fortunate, the least loved, the least popular, the least able. And, in that person, there is the greatest goodness.

He calls upon us to put our perspective of things upside down, to look at our world from the opposite point of view.

When I take those principles, those teachings, those words, and hold them in my heart, only then do I find the embers of the fires of justice begin to rise, and when I begin to sense, I begin to know, what is the right result.

I see a lot of lost people. People who are adrift, wandering in the wilderness of our society. Not having a purpose, and not knowing where they are going. And, even worse, feeling that no one cares about them. And when people are in spiritual crisis, when they are starving for a spiritual meaning, they often self-medicate their pain, their emptiness with violence, with alcohol, and with drugs.

And, when that first dose of self-medication doesn’t work very well, they self-medicate again, and the cycle deepens and spirals downward. The hunger, the longing doesn’t go away.
One young man, I’ll call him John, came into my courtroom last winter. It was one of those especially nasty days, sleet and snow falling, the day raw and bleak. We dealt with his drug case and his long list of unpaid traffic tickets, and his suspended driver’s license.
We got to talking and I learned he had spent the night on a couch in a drug house. His car had been repossessed. John hadn’t had a real meal in four days.

I took him out to breakfast and, as he gulped down his meal, he told me the story of his life. His father left when he was six. His mother had been in and out of jail, and he’s spent a few weeks there recently himself. He dropped out of high school, and could only find an odd job here or there.

Yet, John was a talented mechanic, and dreamed of becoming a diesel mechanic. He was good at that work. It was his passion. And, he was wise enough to recognize his passion.

I put him in touch with the Job Corps, and a local trucking company I had heard was looking for a good apprentice, and dropped him off at the Salvation Army, so he could find a real place to stay and get some food.

To look at John, you would think he had been living on the streets for weeks, which was true. Yet, inside of him was a young man with a big heart, and a driving ambition to make something out of his life. What he lacked was having people around him who believed in him.

Two days later, he stopped by. He’d gotten that job at the trucking company, and had called the Job Corps. He was going to enlist in that program. He knew he wanted to be a success and he was excited.

We kept in touch, and I’d send him a note of encouragement once in a while. He’d send me his grades from each semester, and a great note from one of his teachers. He was in the top of his class.

And, a year later, John stopped by to show me his diploma. The Job Corps was good to him. Even his mom was proud of him now. But, he was finally proud of himself.

Another young man I’ve met, Bill, was usually on the jail list for court. He was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I’ve been dealing with his family for several decades, and he was certainly no stranger to domestic violence and family members in and out of jail, and in and out of treatment programs.

To look at Bill’s record, and how he lived, you might think he had no future. In not too many years, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that he’d been to prison, or died of alcoholism, or from an overdose.

Yet, Bill has a spark of decency and ambition in him. I could see it when you got to talking to him about his kids. He really loved his kids, and he wanted them to have a life much different than his own. Yet, you could see the pattern of his childhood start to repeat in their young lives.

One day, Bill and I finally had a heart to heart talk. He couldn’t figure out why I was so concerned about him and how he lived.

I told him about the spark in him that I saw, every time he talked about his kids.
“You’re one of my kids, Bill,” I told him. “I care about you as much as you care about your own kids. And, I know you can live a better life, Bill. But, you need to decide you are worthy of your own love, and the love of God.”

I’ve grown up knowing that I was loved --- loved by family, by friends, by the community, and by God. Love was always in my life, and, I often just assumed that so much love is just a given in life. Everyone is loved, right?

But, for Bill, this was a new idea. He’d somehow never knew that other people might love him, and that he was worthy of love.

And, that is Christ’s message to us in this Scripture.

“For he is the least among you – he is the greatest.”

It turns our popular, 21st Century, view of our society upside down. After all, we Americans are supposed to aim to be the richest, the most powerful, the most influential. All of that is supposed to be great. It is the American Way.

And, as we deal with this economic recession, the inherent fallacy of that thinking becomes so very obvious. That is not what we are about. And, we are now beginning again to explore, in our hearts, where we need to be going as a country. The issues confronting us are literally standing at the side of Christ. He is standing in the midst of these issues, and calls upon us to deal with them, with compassion, with love, and with the love of God.

That work, my friends, is real spiritual work. And Christ is calling us to come to grips with what he is saying. “ For he is the least among you – he is the greatest.”

It is a great privilege to be here among you this morning. I thank you for your time. May God bless each and every one of you.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Ice Cave of Long Ago

The deep blue, the light coming through the end of the tunnel, turning the years of compressed snow into solid ice, filled my head with its wonders.

We could hear the rumble of the glacier above us, as it inched its way down the steep mountain, torrents of milky glacial melt roaring across the ice and dirty snowpack. My tennis shoed feet were soaked, and my sweatshirt barely kept me warm, as we trudged up the rocky path and onto the hard packed snow and ice.

Soon, my dad hoisted me on his shoulders, so I could keep up with everyone else, and thaw out my feet, as we climbed the mountain a bit, above the lodge, headed for the ice caves. Bright sunlight reflected off the white snow and ice, making me squint. I shivered in the cold wind coming down the mountain, chilled by the mountain of ice and snow, and the thin air of this barren land above timberline.

We soon reached the entrance to the deep caves, icy water dripping and flowing down its solid walls, turned blue by the early summer sunlight, penetrating the clear ice, giving an eerie light to this opening into the glacier. Out of the wind, it was surprisingly warm, my ears filled with the dripping and gushing of freshly melted water. The rivulets of water under my dad’s feet were milky white with rock flour from the glacier’s slow scraping and grinding of the mountain rock.

When we were all inside, Dad lowered me down to the ground, and I put my hand into the icy glacier melt, and touched the blue ice of the cave walls. The deep blue light colored everything here, and I felt the smoothness of the pebbles, and the deep cold of the water flowing over my hands.

I remember our guide talking about glaciers and how the winter snows packed the snow crystals tighter and tighter, squeezing out the air and the space between the molecules, until the weight of years of winter snow created the walls of blue that surrounded us, inside the mountain. He talked about how the sunlight became bent as it entered the ice, filtering out some of the colors of the sunlight, and bending different frequencies of the light, until our eyes could only notice the blue.

And, he talked about how the sky does the same thing, so that our eyes think that the sky is blue, when it really is white, and has all the spectrum of all the wavelengths. It all made sense to me that day, how we see light, and how the weight of snow pushes out the air, and makes clear ice out of fluffy snow that had fallen ten, twenty, a hundred years before. And, how the mountain would spew out lava and ash, and then the snow would fall, and how the glaciers would gouge and erode the hard rock, turning it into milky sediment, flowing down to the rivers and forests below the mountain, all the way to the sea.

I was three years old, but I remember the guide talking about this and how I knew all that he was saying made so much sense, and how amazing the world was. This mountain of hot lava and ash, and then long dark winters of snow and ice making, and the melting of summer, and the seasons of the rivers, and the salmon that swam in them, and came up the rivers to spawn, in the same place that they started life, all made sense to me.

We came out of that cave, back into the bright sunlight of that June day, so many years ago, and sat down on the snow and slid back down to the mountain lodge, our butts getting soaking wet and frozen from the ice and the snow.

The guide had brought some squares of canvas, so we could sit on them and slide down the mountain. And, I laughed, thinking of how that sounded like so much fun, and it was funny that the adults would think so, too. I laughed when I saw my mom and my dad and my brother sit down on the canvas and slide, and watched them play, just like kids.

And, I laughed and laughed as we slid, enjoying the cold and the wet and the sunlight on the bright white of the snow, and watched the big logs and rough shingles of the lodge getting closer and closer to us, as we slid down the mountain, the guide holding me in front of him, as we slid down the mountain together, his deep voice laughing into the cold air.

That night, as I snuggled deep into my sleeping bag, after we had roasted some marshmallows around the campfire, I dreamed of that big blue cave, and the cycle of how the mountain came to be and how the snow and the ice were changing things, and how the salmon would find their way back home every year. And, it all made sense to me, and everything was in order.

Years later, I’d tell my mom and my dad and my brother about that day, and they all shook their heads.

“You were too young to remember,” they’d say.

But, I did remember, and I wasn’t too young. And, when I go back there and walk up the trails, some fifty plus years later, I can still see that guide and hear him tell his stories, as we walked up that big, cold mountain. I can still feel the cold and see the clearness of that glacial ice, and how the sunlight got bent a bit, turning blue.

And I am amazed at the wonder of the snow, and the salmon, and the ice and the light in that blue cave, and the wonders of the world, seen through the eyes of a three year old boy.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Two Bucks Worth

What can you get for two bucks these days?

Not much, I think. Well, I used to think that. The coffee I like is more than two bucks, except for the cup of Americano when I’m trying to cut back on calories, but not the taste and caffeine of a dark roast. And, two bucks for a tip for lunch is pretty much the norm. The Sunday paper is two bucks now, at the grocery store. But, even the two buck Chuck wine at Trader Joe’s is really a buck or two more now for a bottle of cheap red. The good stuff in life usually costs a lot more.

Today, I was visiting my buddy at the youth prison. He was telling me of one of the inmates, I’ll call him Joe. It seems Joe hasn’t gotten a visit from family for the last four years, and hasn’t seen his son for all that time. The son’s birthday is coming up and he wants to send his son a photo of himself. And, the son is old enough now that he probably is a little curious about who dad is. Joe wants to let his son know that he cares about him, and wants him to remember who he is. A photo is probably the least of what a dad can send his son on a birthday.

Pretty tame stuff, you’d think. Even though this is prison and every guy here is a sex offender, it seems like pretty common sense, decent stuff. People just trying to be people, and live decent lives.

And, Joe wanted to send his mom a photo, too, just to say hi, and let her know he cares about her, and is really a part of the family. Most moms I know are really proud to show off the photos of their kids, not to mention grandkids.

But, the photos cost two bucks in prison. I’ve spent that, a couple of times, so the guy I’m mentoring can have a picture of me and him together. And, I keep those photos around, too, on the mantel, with all the other family pictures. He’s part of the family now, and a photo on the mantel just is a nice way of saying that. When people see his picture, I brag about him, and let them know I’m proud of the guy. He does that, too, with his bunk mates in his unit. I’m part of the normal part of his life.

Joe doesn’t have any money, though. He makes a big 25 cents an hour working in the canteen at the prison, but he spends all of that to help new inmates when they first arrive, buying them a few necessities, and a few snacks, making them feel welcome. At the end of the month, he’s broke, and won’t ever save up any of his wages to buy something nice for himself. I’m sure there’s some pretty sad reasons for all of that.

I guess other inmates pick on him a bit, because he doesn’t quite fit in and keeps to himself. And, I can see some pretty deep pain in his eyes, even though we’ve never talked, beyond taking orders for snacks and coffee at the canteen.

My buddy asks me if I could spare two bucks for Joe today. It would be a nice thing. Yeah, and I think I could afford that, and spend money so a dad can send his son a picture of himself for the son’s birthday.

So, we go to the canteen, right at closing time, and I ask Joe what he needs to get the pictures taken.

“Oh, nothing. I’m fine, sir.”

Yeah, right. You’re not fine and I’m already digging out the two bucks from my wallet so Joe can get a few photos taken, and send them off to his son and his mom.

Joe looks down at the ground, still mumbling that he’s fine and doesn’t need anything, including a couple of bucks from a guy who shows up on visiting days for a couple of hours, and occasionally buys sodas for all of the canteen crew.

The rest of the room falls silent, his co workers and the guard obviously knowing the story about Joe and his money and him wanting to connect with his son.

I put my two bucks down on the counter, and the silence deepens. I glance at a big burly guy, a guy who looks like he ought to be a lineman on some college football team, and I see a tear roll down his cheek. Joe is looking down at the floor, and I don’t dare say anything more to him, as he’d probably burst into tears. And, if he started, the whole room would be crying.

My buddy and I slip out the door, not saying a word, and not daring to look at each other. We’ve done something good here today, and nothing we could say now would make it any better.

Joe will get his picture taken today, and will get something mailed off to his son and his mom this week. He’ll feel good about himself, for reaching out to his family and letting them know he cares.

And, I’ll keep knowing that I’ve spent the best two bucks I’ve spent in a long, long time. I know now what two bucks can buy these days.

Neal Lemery 9/25/2011