Saturday, May 28, 2011

Family Day at the Youth Prison

Family Day at the Youth Prison

The young man I’ve been mentoring invited Karen and me to Family Day. Its a big deal and only happens once a year. Its also graduation day for the high school seniors there, and Thomas tries to lure us there with the promise of free food and playing catch outside after lunch.

We show up and stand in a growing line of parents, siblings and grandparents, overwhelming the staff who are checking us in. We need to sign a release of liability form, making me wonder what risky stuff we are going to get into today. The program doesn’t hint at any bungie jumping or hang gliding.

The half basketball court we usually have our visits in is filled with rows of chairs, and big comfy chairs in the front row. There’s a lectern and two stacks of diploma covers, and another stack of framed awards. Two graduation cakes fill up the rest of the table. The room fills up with inmates and staff members, including the prison superintendent, who is running around, acting nervous. The place is used to maybe a dozen visitors. There’s over a hundred here today.

A few minutes later, the head of the state youth prisons arrives, as well as our state representative, the local school superintendent, and two school board members. The usually blank walls of the institutional room are filled with art made by the inmates, and long paper chains, giving a feel of a festive event at the local high school.

The program has a poem, written by one of the graduates:


Even though I am locked up
I know one thing is true
It doesn’t matter where I am
I’ll still be loved by you.

You stand by me thick and thin
And help me when I’m down
You always know just what to say
To take away my frown.

In times of need you hold me close
To chase away my fears
And when I’m hurt or torn apart
You wipe away my tears.

In my dark times you stand by me
To guide me towards the light
You always know just what to say
To make me feel alright.

So with that said, I’ll say it loud
We’ll always be together
You’re my sister, brother, mother, father
Family is forever.

Dan White, May 17, 2011

The superintendent calls us to order, with some families still straggling in. Its standing room only. She calls for the graduating class to enter. Fifteen black gowned young men solemnly process into the room, having used one of the dorms to don their graduation gowns, mortarboards and tassels. The room erupts in applause and we stand to salute the graduating seniors. Big smiles brighten their faces, as they take their seats in the front row, settling into the cushy seats of honor. My first prison graduation. Theirs too.

They young men act nervous, not used to being in the public eye and receiving attention for doing something good. We listen to the superintendent, and then the head of the Youth Authority, and then our State Representative laud the graduates and extol the virtues of education. The head of the Youth Authority tells the story of how one man, who was an inmate many years ago, is receiving his masters degree at Portland State University next week.

Somehow, probably for lack of money, there wasn’t a graduation last year, so we witness the class of 2010 and the class of 2011 graduate, and I realize, again, how long some of their prison terms really must be.

The school principal, the school superintendent and the two school board members give out the diplomas, to cheers and applause, the young graduates beaming with pride. They stand as a group, and move their tassels to the right side, the graduating class now officially recognized and honored.

More awards are to be made, and our young man, Thomas, is surprised to receive one, to the loud applause of his peers and the staff. “Most improved peer relations”. He beams with pride, stunned to being recognized. There is a lot of that going around here today.

A few minutes later, his mother finally arrives, sending Thomas prancing over to her, glad to see her, but conflicted, as he’s been angry with her after she said she wouldn’t come. There’s been about a box of tissues soaked with tears over the relationship in the past few weeks, and my wife and I give them the space to reconnect and have their conversation. Our boy has had quite a bit of therapy getting himself ready for this, and his shoulders are tight with tension.

The room dissolves into handshakes and hugs, as the graduates accept their accolades, and a number of inmates and the staff change the room over to tables and chairs, and get the food ready for the big lunch.

We wander outside a bit, finding some fresh air as we cool off from the ceremony, stretching our legs and enjoying the peace and quiet. Soon, lunch is served and we stand in the long line, and finally get our burgers, hot dogs, pizza and salad, and the biggest cookies in the world.

Thomas finds us a seat at one of the round tables in his dorm, one of those institutional tables where the round seats are welded to the frame of the table, so you can’t pick up and throw the chair during a riot. Somehow I expect Paul Newman in his prison garb or some other prison movie character to sit down beside me. We munch our hamburgers with Thomas’ mother, and we all work through a safe conversation about the food, and the weather. I’ve heard a lot about mom, but we don’t go there. Thomas and I will save those thoughts for one of our quiet visits, one on one.

We get a tour of Thomas’ sleeping room, rows of steel bunk beds against the wall, with a few cots in the middle. Everyone has a few plastic drawers for clothes, and a plastic cubbyhole for some books. Each inmate gets some wall space for pictures.

Thomas proudly shows us his bunk. He’s been here long enough he’s about the senior man around here, so he gets a top bunk in the corner, with a tiny window looking out into the yard.

He’s got a big array of family pictures, but none of his dad. He struggles with his relationship with his dad, who died when he was fifteen. Yet, the little teddy bear on his pillow, that looks well worn and well squeezed, has a tag with his dad’s name on it. Thomas tells me the bear has his dad’s name, he talks to the bear every night, and feels close to his dad. Its deeper than a love-hate relationship. A few hours in the solitary cell beating on the wall last month is part of it, too.

I look around the room. Nearly every bunk has a teddy bear, or other stuffed animal on the pillow. Most of them are as worn and well used as Thomas’. I check out the pictures. Oh, there’s a lot of family pictures, and some of Jesus. One man has a long prayer to the Virgin Mary, and drawings of saints and crucifixes. But, about half the young men only have pictures and drawings of animals, or sunsets, or trees and mountains. No people.

I wonder what all the stuffed animals in the room say to each other, every morning after all the young men leave for their breakfasts, and their days at school, and in therapy. I bet a lot of them are soaked with tears, and got well squeezed in the darkness and silence of the night.

We go outside and walk around the track, and check out the high school building next door. The inmates helped build it last year, they’ve done the landscaping, and there’s a lot of pride here. Some good things happen here, and I suspect education is seen as a way to get ahead and make a new life.

The staff members are everywhere, showing us the place, and being happy with working here, and with changing some folks’ lives. They make a big difference here, and their work doesn’t go unnoticed by the inmates. Its safe to grow and change here, and to just be a kid and be normal, for once.

We get to see the sweat lodge, and the slide show in the main room the kids have produced gives us a hint for some of the spiritual work going on in this place. People are finding their identity here, and able to put some of their nightmares behind them.

I see one of the dads in one of the classrooms, and offer my hand to congratulate him on his son’s graduation today. He’s one of the regulars here, sitting at one of the tables in the basketball court every Wednesday night, quietly talking with his son. He tells me how his son is working on some college classes now, doing it by correspondence, and how he’s grown since he’s been here.

The dad tells me he used to be one of those lock ‘em up and throw away the key kind of guys, especially after his daughter was raped when she was 15. That is, until his son got arrested for a sexual assault, and got the mandatory seven year sentence, just like Thomas. Funny how when it happens in your own family, you see a different side of things. He’s proud of how his son has grown and what a difference the staff has made to how his son looks at life and is able to change.

We shake hands again, as members of the brotherhood of the Wednesday night visits, mentioning how few people come very often to visit these young men.

We wander back to the big room, and stop at the canteen, ordering some good coffee drinks, enjoying them with Thomas. His mom leaves, wanting to head back to Eugene, leaving Thomas holding the coffee drink she bought for him, and a soda. He’s too wound up after all that to just sit with us, so he heads outside, Mom’s parting drinks to him clutched in both hands. He needs to clear his head, settle down, and sort it all out.

When Thomas comes back, he’s short a drink, and tells us he gave it to a young man who had no family visiting today. The fresh air outside has settled him down a bit, his shoulders resting a little lower, his smile coming back.

We head back to the canteen, to get some family pictures taken. Thomas beams as we stand on either side of him, smiling for the photographer. As we wait for the pictures to be printed, Thomas comes up to me, and asks if I could buy a soda for another guy.

The other guy didn’t have family today, and no one has visited him for a couple of years. He’s got cerebral palsy, and Thomas thinks I should buy him a pop. Besides, the guy wants to meet me, he says. And, who could say no to this request.

A few minutes later, a man child comes up to me, clinging next to Thomas. Thomas introduces me to Nick, who grabs my hand, but looks down a bit, almost embarrassed to be here. I ask him if he wants a soda, and he shakes his head.

“My treat,” I say, and Thomas nods eagerly. Nick stammers, and tears cloud his eyes. We get in line for the cashier, and a minute later, we can make our order. It takes a bit, and Nick struggles with his stammer, but manages to say he wants a Mountain Dew.

Then, I ask him what kind of candy bar he wants, and he starts to cry. Its a new thought for him. He looks at me with disbelief, unable to speak. I look over to the cashier, who is this pretty rough and tough young man, pretty sure of himself. He graduated today, and was beaming all the way to get his diploma. Now, he stumbles over his own words, and finally gets Nick to say he wants a Snickers. I know Nick is melting his heart, too.

I pull the buck 75 out of my pocket, thinking this is the best money I’ve spent in a long, long time.

A minute later, we hand Nick his Mountain Dew and his Snickers, and he is so excited, he almost drops his soda. Thomas saves the day and helps Nick get a better grip on his treats, telling him that this is a gift and that Nick is a nice guy, and deserves to have something nice today. Nick stammers and cries again, thanking me and thanking Thomas and then running off because he can’t get any more words out of his mouth and can’t figure out how to act.

Neither can I.

I don’t dare look directly at the cashier. He’s about ready to bawl. And, I sure don’t look at my wife, or even at Thomas. The room seems to fall silent, as I start to realize what is going on, and what this means to our new buddy, Nick. Its an O’Henry story, the message exploding deep in my heart, of what we’re doing here today.

A bit later, we’re a mile down the road before it dawns on me that we’d forgotten the photos, back where we ordered the Mountain Dew and the Snickers bar. Back where we learned the real meaning of Family Day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Letter To My Neighbor On His High School Graduation

I was honored and delighted to receive your graduation announcement. I imagine it has been a long journey, but now you can celebrate an accomplishment in your life. And, the one who achieved it, and did the hard work was you.

This simply proves that you are capable of accomplishing something, if you are determined and set your mind to it. As you have learned in wrestling, it is your mental attitude that is the key. The body will follow, and the mind will follow, but once you set your course, then you can realize your dreams.

As you leave high school, and as you leave Tillamook to begin yet another adventure, I have a few things to say to this handsome, strong, ambitious neighbor of mine. It has been a joy to watch you grow and mature in the years we have been neighbors and friends.

I am proud of your accomplishments and I am proud of who you are. You are a good man. I hope you see that inside of yourself, and can give yourself that recognition.

President Obama gave a great high school graduation speech last week. I think his ideas and his observations are right on. Here are some of them:

Don’t be defined by where you come from, but by where you want to go.
You can create your own culture of caring and learning.
Success can happen anywhere. You can create success.
You will be what you intend to be, and that will be the result of education.
Education takes many forms, and education is always available. And, I’m not just talking about “school”. Every experience offers education.
Be a life long learner.
A formal education gives you options you don’t have without that education. Options are always good to have.
Learn how to learn.
Education teaches you the value of discipline.
The best rewards come from sustained effort and hard work, not instant gratification.
Learn to be a better human being.
Success comes from following the Golden Rule: Treat others how you want to be treated.
Qualities of a successful person:
the capacity to solve problems
the capacity to think critically

“These skills don’t just change how the world sees us, they change how we see ourselves. They allow each of us to seek out new horizons and new opportunities with confidence, with the knowledge we are ready, that we can face obstacles and challenges and unexpected setbacks. That’s the power of your education. That’s the power of the diploma you that you receive today.” (President Obama)

And, now its me talking.

Believe in yourself. I believe in you. Your parents believe in you. Your teachers believe in you. Your friends believe in you. Your community believes in you. But, if you don’t believe in yourself, you won’t grow, you won’t achieve, and you won’t be very happy in life.

Life will teach you lessons. If you don’t learn a lesson, life will make sure you repeat the lesson until you learn it. Mistakes are great teachers. Most mistakes can be avoided by being the good learner, and practicing patience and persistence.

Ask for advice and direction. We’ve all traveled down the path of life, and there is a lot of wisdom around. Take advantage of that. As the proverb says, pride goes before the fall. You are full of proudful machismo. Put that energy and that passion to good use, and not in flexing your biceps and roaring loudly.

When you look for a good partner in life, be patient and choose well. Be picky. Be honest. Look for someone who supports you and someone you will support in your journeys through life. You will keep growing, so look for the person who will help you grow well and to where you want to be going.

You now get to make your own rules. You now get to set your own course in life. So, be the good captain of the ship.

When you play, play well and play safe. Play in the way that refreshes your soul and provides you with meaning in your life. Allow yourself to be challenged. The strong tree grows best in the wind and allows the wind to bend its branches.


Neal C. Lemery

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Walk Into The Light

I tried to walk in his shoes today, the hour we sat together. He told me of his drug use, his life in chaos, and, finally, at 48, wanting to get a career, a real job. His past is a dark story, lonely and filled with monsters. Today, he was willing to name his monsters and throw them out of his closet, and lighten his load in life.

He took me into his world, and we went deeper than purgatory, farther than Dante was willing to go. He brought his whip out, and lashed out at himself for all the things in his life that he thought he’d done wrong at, and how he was living up to so many people’s expectations that he was a loser. Being homeless, having his family leave him, going to prison, and nearly dying from heroin a few weeks ago. It was an impressive list.

I took the whip out of his hands, and asked him to stop bleeding all over my floor. He was here, working on getting his life together, working his plan to get on his feet, and being clean and sober. He didn’t need to punch himself in the face or bring out the Japanese ritual suicide daggers to convince me he was sincere. There was enough pain in his eyes to last a lifetime, and then some.

Finally, he cried, and the blood flow eased off. He actually laughed, and slowly started listing some of his strengths, some of his good relationships, and his dreams for a better life.

We lit the candle of spirituality and of inherent goodness, and, finally, the concept of loving one’s self for the amazing talents and abilities that every person has. Some of the many years of accumulated self hatred lifted off his shoulders, and he mentioned some of the things he loves in life: his kids, his grandkids, his favorite place in the woods, where there is peace and tranquility, and where his soul can breathe in the fresh air.

The fragile flame of spiritual healing flickered, and then melted enough of the hard wax in his heart so that it could burn brighter, and start warming his soul a bit.

He knew his toolbox was pretty sparse, yet just in knowing that, I knew he’d soon find some more tools, and become the good carpenter in his life that he needed to be. He was ready to pour the foundation and get on with building a better life.

He left in a better mood, with purpose and determination. He left some of the poisons in his life on the floor, mixed with the blood of self doubt and shame and guilt. Some of the puss in his wounds had oozed out, and a little bit of healing was going on. Time was on his side, and I think he’ll be all right.

My new brother knows now what he is hungry for, and he knows where the nourishment and the healing salve and the ways of clean living are in his world. He knows there is a team of support for him, and energy he can draw from as he moves into the world of the clean and the sober and the healing. And, the heroin needle is retired now, and the meth pipe a thing of the past. And, the whip of self abuse and self hatred is about ready to be tossed in the trash.

For me, in the silence of the room where we sat, and where he had cried, I celebrated his transition and his moving forward. I celebrated his courage to change, and his willingness now, to ask for help, and to change his life. I think now that he does not believe he is alone in his walk, and that he needs to walk with others and find his way.

May, 2011

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Equal Protection : An Essential Ideal Under Our Law

By Neal C. Lemery, Tillamook County Justice of the Peace
Published in Tillamook Headlight Herald, May 11, 2011

This spring, our country is remembering the turmoil and sacrifice of our nation’s Civil War, which began 150 years ago. As our country buried the 900,000 Americans who gave their lives in that war, and reshaped our nation, several democratic ideas took root and became a part of our national fabric.

One of those ideas was that laws should be applied equally to all people, and our legal system should be open to everyone, on an equal footing.

Equal protection means that no person was above the law, and that all people were entitled to the protection and the benefits of our nation’s laws. Freedom and citizenship for African Americans was finally guaranteed in the Constitution. Under the law, former slaves were actually considered to be human beings and not property.

It was a radical change. Oregon was admitted as a state before the Civil War started. Our new state Constitution, approved by Oregon voters in 1857 in an election where only white male landowners could vote, and Congress (again, only white men!) banned slave auctions, but had allowed slaves to be brought into Oregon, and also banned free African Americans from living here.

That mixed message reflected the national confusion about slavery just before the Civil War. The Civil War ended that national agony, and brought to our federal Constitution the idea of “equal protection” and “due process of law” for everyone.

Oregon voters (white men only) later banned Chinese from becoming citizens or owning land. Women weren’t guaranteed the right to vote until the 1920s. Native Americans weren’t even considered citizens until 1927. Oregon banned church supported schools in the 1920s, but the Supreme Court tossed that law out, based on the Equal Protection Clause and the guarantee for freedom of religious expression. Some of the language about slavery wasn’t taken out of the state Constitution until the 1980s!

The first Oregon civil rights law was passed in 1957, and the equal voting laws and school desegregation efforts of the 1960s were controversial. Real estate deed restrictions against African Americans remained fairly common in Tillamook County until then, and the city of Tillamook required African Americans to leave town by sunset.

Today, the laws based on Equal Protection are certainly not considered radical or controversial. We take that basic principle of a free society for granted.

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War began, we accept the basic premise that civilized Americans don’t tolerate slavery, we want a society where women have equal opportunity, and racial discrimination is no longer the law. We take those ideas for granted. We don’t blink an eye over the existence of school sports programs for women, or not considering someone’s race when they are applying for a job or trying to rent an apartment.

We Americans believe in equality. After all, the Pledge of Allegiance calls us to support our nation “with liberty and justice for all.” Our society believes in applying the law equally to everyone. Yet, in 2011, we have our issues and our controversies. We Americans love our debates and our political battles. Religious expression, sexual orientation, racism, and immigration remain hotbeds of debate in our community and drive heated votes in, Congress, our Legislature and on the ballot.

Our ancestors went through tough times so that today, when we debate controversial issues, we all agree that each person is entitled to the Equal Protection of our laws.

As our community discusses our issues of the day, we should recall the changes our nation made to our Constitution 150 years ago, when we decided we believed in Due Process and the Equal Protection of the law.

NYTimes: Bad Bargains

The systems in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that created a Bin Laden are alive and well.

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Other Side of Mother's Day

Mother’s Day is not always flowers and cards and a warm, cozy family brunch.

It’s a day of conflict for a lot of people. And, there’s a lot of guys I know who don’t find Mother’s Day to be filled with memories of the wonderful, loving, wise mother, or the happy family brunch, the bouquet of flowers, or the cheerful phone call.

I’m mentoring a young man in prison, and when I was talking with him this week, I mentioned I’d be back on Sunday. It was Mother’s Day and the visiting room would be crowded. He doesn’t do crowds well, and likes to visit with me when its quiet. He started to cry, sobbing that he should send him mom something, but he was really glad she wasn’t going to be coming for a visit. The Hallmark moment meets reality.

Life with mom for my friend didn’t include the flowers, or the nice card, or even the pleasant phone call. For him, a call to mom usually finds her drunk or stoned, and yelling at him for causing his father to die, or complaining that she needs him to come home and work on her marijuana farm. He’s doing seven years for rape, and the emotional work he’s doing in treatment takes all his energy. Brother’s an addict, sister is in prison for assault and dying of AIDS, and mom can’t seem to find the time to visit him, or show up sober. I don’t think the Cosby Show or Leave It To Beaver would make any sense to him.

And, it goes deeper than that, the beatings, the neglect, the drug use, the times he’d come home from school and find she and her boyfriend having sex in the living room and saying he needed to watch, or maybe join in. I don’t wonder why he gained a hundred pounds and stuffed himself everyday at McDonalds, or ended up in prison for rape when he was seventeen.

“Mommie Dearest” was the sanitized, toned down Hollywood version of his childhood.

Dad’s drug and alcohol abuse and violent history didn’t provide him with much parental stability either, and the more I hear his story, the more I’m amazed he has any sanity left. Trying to get his high school diploma when he’s twenty and becoming a trustee are big accomplishments for him. And, being able to sit in a room and visit with me every week for an hour takes a lot out of him. Just being able to have an adult conversation with someone who is normal is a challenge. It is certainly a new concept for him.

Mother’s Day brings up a whole lot of garbage for a lot of people. Most drug addicts I know were shown how to roll the joint, swig down a short case, or beat up someone and not bring out any bruises. These lessons are just part of the daily curriculum in the home school. Not the subjects we want our kids to learn, but enough of them learn about violence and altering their minds that we keep our jails and hospitals and mental health counselors busy enough. And, yet we wonder why kids don’t do well in school or aren’t bursting with ambition to change the world. They need to get out of hell first.

And, those lessons are being taught on TV shows and video games, and how we see the rich and famous behave in the media. Being wacked out and violent and showing how bad of a parent you can be, with not many repercussions, is a normal night on the couch in front of the idiot box.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for honoring mothers, and fathers, too. Parenting is the most important job in the world. I work hard at being a father, and my wife and I have raised other parents‘ kids, too. I take time to talk to a lot of kids and give willingly of my time and energy to be fatherly, to be a “neighborhood dad”. It is amazing what can be accomplished with some respect and kindness, and encouragement.

I see other people doing that, too. And, doing it well.

But, not enough. The need for good parenting is an epidemic in our country. It is an every day news bulletin for me.

We need to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day a bit differently. Oh, the cards and flowers and the nice family brunch are nice. It’s always good to say thanks to a good parent.

We need to have a conversation on what good parenting really is. We need to reach out and do some good parenting with other people, people who don’t have a stable, caring parent to turn to when times get tough. Maybe we all need to step up to the plate and actually do some parenting. The world might just be a better place, and we might figure out how to do more on this day than send a card or go out to brunch.

Neal Lemery, May 8, 2011(C)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Falconers, Thalwegs, and Deck Pots

Falconers and thalwegs. Those are my special words for today. I checked the calendar and it said May, yet it is cool and rainy. In the night, the rain came down hard and I snuggled under my comforter and the blanket left over from winter, not feeling the warmth of May yet.

Sonny the cat, who likes to snuggle up next to me on cool nights, was taking advantage of his heat source, and didn’t want to venture out this morning, like he usually does. The rain was coming down a bit too hard even for our homestead’s mighty hunter and king of the jungle.

I fired up the coffee pot, and drove down to get the paper. Yeah, I usually walk, but yesterday, the neighbor’s dog decided to express his special brand of freedom after someone left the gate open to their yard. He wagged his tail, ventured out and nipped my on my arm. It was enough to bring some blood out, his teeth piercing my early morning sweatshirt. I chased him back into his yard and hightailed it home, to find the peroxide bottle, and motivate me to go visit my doctor’s office later in the morning.

At least, I accomplished getting an update on my tetanus, and also started a series of hepatitis shots. The nurse had fun poking holes in my arms, but at least I had updated my vaccinations. She gave me a passing grade on my first aid work and I didn’t have the fun of her cleaning up my canine pokes.

Still, I have an interesting crimson design on my forearm, sort of tattooish, but its not quite the design I’d like to keep for any amount of time. My wife doesn’t care at all for the design.

I meet some friends for breakfast, get some groceries and the mail, and come back home to watch the last few hours of the steady downpour. Sonny wanders out, but wants right back in, sick of the rain. We both think a nap is a good idea, just to rest up for lunch.

I catch up on my reading today, getting lost in a fly fishing magazine, and a discussion of locating the big trout. Seems there’s a lot of different parts of a creek, and the part in the middle, where the water moves the fastest, is a thalweg. That’s where the big trout like to hang out, even though the water is fast, because that’s where the big food is, floating down the stream. Good to know, if you are a big trout, or a fly fisherman.

Thalweg sound pretty medieval, even something Attila the Hun or the Vikings would say as they talked about creeks and rivers, and stream flow. They probably weren’t too obsessed about trout fishing, but then, you never know. Its hard to find any talk about fishing in a history book.

After lunch, we decided it was nice enough to go to the dump. Yes, that can be an exciting Saturday project around here, especially since the lawn mower engine is in the shop, its too wet to mow anyway, and I got the grocery shopping and my laundry done this morning. It didn’t take us too long to make a pickup load of treasures we could not live with, and so we headed down the road to the dump. Oh, its called a transfer station now. I’m just not very politically correct on Saturdays.

On the way to the dump, I looked at the river, and there was that thalweg, and another one. I thought about telling my wife, but she would really think I was nuts today, and I didn’t want to push my luck. Going to the dump together was enough of an adventure. Adding a new fishing word to the family vocabulary probably wouldn’t generate a cheer.

I’d heard from a friend that the transfer station folks have brought in a falcon to live there. No self respecting dump or transfer station would be complete without a raucous flock of seagulls, and ours is no exception. Except today, only two seagulls were in sight, and we saw a guy wandering around with binoculars and a hunk of meat or a chunk of wood on a long string. He started whirling the block around his head and looking up into the sky, blowing a whistle.

In a minute, the falcon showed up, circled the guy a couple of times and then grabbed the block and landing. The two seagulls took to the sky in terror, and another flock of seagulls flew around the place and then left. The guy hauled in his line and the block, and got up close to the falcon. The bird took off again and the guy wrapped up his line.

We’d dumped off our trash, and one of the guys in the shed grabbed on to the rusty portable barbeque I’d tossed, thinking it looked pretty good. I hope he has better luck with it than me, as the propane would leak and either I’d get a little explosion or the flame would go out. Not a good thing if you’re in charge of cooking the hamburgers for dinner and they won’t cook, or, they become part of my ineptness with fuel.

We ran an errand in town and headed home. It was getting dry enough that I thought I’d attempt my annual planting of flowers in the pots on the deck. I lugged my sack of potting soil and set out all my new plants, and cleaned up the old pots. I even filled up a bucket with bleach water and scrubbed off the winter’s collection of mold and moss.

After an hour, the project was done, and the deck was all ready for summer. New geraniums, fuchsias, thyme, verbenas, and something called a licorice plant will hopefully have their place in the sun this year. The deck furniture is out and the umbrella is standing there, today’s liquid sunshine dripping down onto the table where the pitcher of lemonade or iced tea should have been for today’s lunch on the deck. Instead, I munched on my sandwich inside, sipping a mug of hot tea, watching it rain.

So, there’s the promise of summer now out in the yard. We have a bunch of bedding plants in the ground now, and all the lawn ornaments out. Now, we just need some sun and some warm weather. I’d be up for that, now that everything is planted and all the summertime stuff is out of the garage. I may even be ready to put away my winter blanket.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thoughts on Father Ray Ferguson

Thoughts on Father Ray Ferguson

Wind Beneath My Wings Benefit Concert
Tillamook County Women’s Resource Center
St. Alban’s Church, Tillamook
May 1, 2011

---Neal C. Lemery

For so many years, when the community gathered to face an issue, to struggle with what to do, or where to go, or how to get us started down the path of solution rather than crisis, he was there.

Usually, it was in the small groups of people, doing the work of Sisyphus. He was there, daring to dream, daring to imagine what could be, not accepting the status quo. When our courage faltered, he would speak up, and quietly urge us forward. Sometimes, it was a story from Scripture. He was a priest, you know, and you would expect that. His reference to the Bible was never preachy, never dogmatic. Yet, it was always what we needed to hear.

More often, it was a story of one of his experiences, a story of hardship and determination. He
would challenge us to take the hard road, and to live our principles. Funny how he never asked more of us that we were able to do. He knew each of us that well.

When there was grief, he stood beside us. When there was hunger, he would find food and a firm, warm handshake. When there was confusion and anger, there were quiet, gentle words, filled with wisdom and support.

When there was loneliness or a turning point in our lives, there was his gentle voice and his laughter, which filled the room with hope.

Doing something about domestic violence was a passion for Father Ray. When h was a child, he had seen its ugliness, its ability to tear apart a family, and to paralyze good people.

I had the rare privilege of going hunting with Father Ray one fall, and we camped high up in the mountains in Eastern Oregon, enjoying the fire, a bit of firewater, and good stories. One night, I asked him why he had become a priest.

He fell silent, and looked deep into the campfire, choosing his words carefully.

He spoke then, of the poverty, the hunger, and the violence he had seen as a child, and as a young man growing up in a rough neighborhood of a working class factory town in Massachusetts.

He wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and he wanted to change how people treated each other.

When Father Ray came to Tillamook and took up his ministry in this church, there was no domestic violence hot line, there was no women’s resource center, there was no shelter where battered women and their children could find refuge. In the courts, most domestic violence cases weren’t investigated very well, and most trials ended up with an acquittal.

Father Ray decided to do something. He spoke up, he called meetings, he got other people fired up. And, he set his agenda. In a year or two, our community had a women’s resource center, and we had a domestic violence hot line. And, domestic violence was a topic of serious discussion.

In a few years, a local AA chapter found a home downstairs every Monday night. And, Father Ray started getting other services on board in our town.

And, a big chunk of Father Ray’s discretionary fund found its way in helping a victim get a motel room, a tank of gas, some food, medicine, and, most importantly, hope.
We all know Father Ray as being pretty outspoken when it came to the needs of those who are less fortunate.

Yet, he did some amazing work back behind you, in the quiet of his office. He never turned anyone away. He would listen, he would counsel, and he would find a way to help his neighbor out, and make a better life.

One raw winter morning, the air filled with rain turning to hail, I took a young man to him. The man had shown up in my court that morning, dirty, tired, and hungry. He had been sleeping in his car and hadn’t eaten for four days. I took him to breakfast and then to see Fr. Ray.

All of us have ended up in Fr. Ray’s office, when there was a great need. The young man dragged his feet, not wanting to deal with a priest or step inside a church. Yet, there was a big smile and a warm handshake, and kind words. And, twenty minutes later, the young man had hope and direction, and knew he would go to bed that night in a warm place with a full belly, and the prospects of a job. But, most important, he had a new friend.

One of the blessings of my life is being a friend of Fr. Ray. Not that he needed friends. Everyone in this community is a friend of Fr. Ray. And every time he saw me, there was always a big wave and a big smile, and his love for all people would fill the room.

The last time I saw him, he was at the Domestic Violence Summit. I had thought his cane and his electric wheel chair might slow him down, even just a little bit, but he took it all in, in his usual style. He added his voice at the critical times, to move us down the road a bit, and recommit ourselves to doing the good work he did every day, in his quiet, steady, and powerful way.

We found ourselves in the bathroom at the same time, and had one of those delightful one on one conversations that you always treasure after it’s over. We marveled at just being at a conference of over a hundred people in the brand new community college in our little town. And, we laughed at how things have changed.

Twenty years ago, when I was at one of those sparsely attended meetings, the ones where you are feeling discouraged about why you even showed up, he spoke about domestic violence and the need for a real community college building, and all the other things this community suffers, its needs, and its hopes and dreams. He was usually the lone voice willing to be heard when no one else dared speak, or when the topic wasn’t politically correct. He always spoke up, though. He broke the silence and reminded all of us what we are here to do in our lives.

As we washed our hands, he urged me to keep working. The journey wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. As I dried my hands and walked out the door, I was inspired again, renewed. He always had that way about him.

The next time I go to a community meeting about an issue we need to deal with in our town, his car won’t be in the parking lot, and his smile won’t light up the room. But, his big heart and his determined call for action will be there, right in the front row.