Monday, August 29, 2011

The Old Tree

As the tree grew, the new leaves in spring brought us hope. Its leafy branches in summer brought us its cool shade, a place to talk in the heat of the afternoon, as we sipped ice tea and lazed in the hot days. In the fall, its colorful leaves reminded us of the cycle of life and brought more beauty to our lives. When winter came, the bare limbs provided rough bark support for the flakes of sparkling snow on crisp days.

Over the years, the tree grew big and strong, and we took its presence in the yard for granted. Kids played noisily under its branches, and brought their friends. All too soon, they grew up and moved away. As the years passed, they’d come back, spouses and kids in tow, and children’s laughter was again heard under its spreading limbs.

As with us all, the tree grew old, losing a bit of its strength. One bitter day, a big storm cracked its trunk clear to the ground, and it was time to cut it down. Suddenly, that space in the yard no longer was filled with summer shade, or the maze of limbs sprinkled with the spring green of new leaves, or the orange and red fire of autumn.

Its thick trunk and fat limbs soon turned into a big pile of firewood, that warmed me as I split and stacked the seasoned hard wood. We were warmed again as the stove crackled and popped, during the depths of many a winter gale and early mornings, when my breath would turn white as I stood near the snowy flat top of the stump, my eye still seeing its tall, proud form.

I sat by the stump of the old tree one spring day, a new sapling in my hand, ready to plant. We needed a new tree there, in that corner of the yard, for the summer shade, and the colorful leaves in the fall, a place where kids could play and laugh. The yard seemed empty without a tree, in all its growing, in its presence in our lives.

Like many things in life, we didn’t really see the tree until it was gone, its silent place in our lives now missed, like the sound of children’s laughter after they’re grown.

I noticed the rings in the wood of the old tree stump. In counting the rings, I could tell its age, and remembered the events of our lives. And, in the counting, I saw that the big growth in the tree was in the spring and summer, when sun and warmth and water were plentiful. The thin, hard wood of the tree, its real strength, had come in the seeming deadness of the winter, when the storms and snows and freezing nights raged, when all seemed silent and lost.

As with new saplings and old wood, strength comes both in the flexibility of new growth, and the storm tested wood added in the height of a dark, cold winter.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Friendship Bracelet

“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.”
--- Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

Every time I visit my young man in prison, he teaches me something new.

Last week, he brought out several strands of yarn, which he had already braided into the beginnings of a friendship bracelet. He explained that he had chosen the red, white, and blue yarn for me, because he knew I was patriotic.

Carefully, he measured my wrist with the yarn, and set off to resume his braiding and tying. As we talked about his week, and his struggles with his family, and conflict with another guy in his unit, his fingers deftly braided and knotted.

He’d been thinking about our relationship, and how he had struggled with accepting a good male role model in his life, and being able to talk about his feelings and emotions with someone who’s supporting him in all that struggle. He’s figured out he can let his guard down around me, and with himself, as he names his feelings and thoughts, and now has the tools to sort through the garbage in his basement, and find some order and contentment.

He’s been wrestling with his anger, and how it has come to the surface at unexpected moments, in unexpected ways. A few days ago, he cried and wept most of the day, his emotions raw and fiery. He couldn’t shut and lock up the door to his basement, and life was messy, with conflicting emotions, feelings, and doubts.

“Who am I?” he wondered, in the midst of his tears and heartache.

The day led him into a walkabout, and the question changed to “what am I?”

The tears washed away some of the grime, and a lot of the feelings of shame and guilt, and he could see, finally, how he had grown, how he had gained the tools to sort through the garbage in the basement, and start filling up the dumpster. He gained some perspective, and could see how he’d changed.

His frenzy of braiding and knotting picked up, as he told me of his journey, his walkabout, and what he had been learning.

A staff member came by, and sat with us for a while. He’d been there for my pal, the day he cried a lot, and had helped him find his way, and sort through all the conflicting flotsam and jetsam that had cluttered up his thinking.

“We only offer tools for your toolbox here,” he said. “It is up to you to pick the right tool, and build your own house.”

My buddy nodded, a tear rolling down his cheek. He took a deep breath and let it out, his shoulders easing a bit, as a smile lit up his face.

Yes, he can see that, the wisdom of the man’s two sentences.

“Yes, my tool box has some nice tools now. And, I know how to use them.”

He didn’t speak, but we could see those words in his face, his fingers still moving in the rhythm of the braiding and knot tying. He was growing up, and he was taking care of business.

He finished my bracelet in silence. The minutes passed, and we both sat there, just taking in what had been said, and taking time to recognize where he’d been and how far he’d come, in these last eight months.

We don’t often have much silence in our visits. Twenty years of not being listened to, not being respected, and not being valued had built up a giant reservoir of experiences, and feelings, and comments. And, the eight months of sitting at this table was all about listening to him find the space where he could grow, finally, and speak his mind.

Oh, and anger. It was the elephant in the room today, and he had been able to see that, and call the elephant what it really was. Being able to speak its name was a big step for him, and he’d been able to do just that, and start becoming free.

The bracelet was finished now, and he tied it around my wrist.

“There, I finally gave you something back, for all that you’ve given me,” he said, a big grin splashed across his face.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Giving It A Name

“If you don’t have a word for it, you can’t talk about it.”

The sentence struck deep into my soul, as I munched my sandwich, listening to the meeting’s keynote speaker.

She was talking about sexual violence, how even the professionals in the field can’t seem to always communicate well with each other. She had a point, and gave us some good examples. The woman next to me, the director of a women’s shelter in Portland, agreed. She, too, found the sentence an eye opener.

My sister in law had written about the idea, trying to wrap her head around the experience she had with a young couple. She manages a cemetery and they wanted to find a plot for their young son. My sister in law asked them for the name of the funeral home and said she needed a copy of the death certificate.

When the couple tearfully told her they had suffered a miscarriage, and they just wanted a quiet place for their son, so they could come visit him, she broke down and cried with them, discovering that we need a word for some feelings, some experiences. Our world leaves some pretty important life changing experiences unnamed.

I visit a young man in prison. He’s there for seven years and he’s half way through. He’s been labeled as a sex offender, but he’s so much more than that. His upbringing, or, more accurately, the lack of it, and his life has cut him off from healthy emotions. He’s working hard to figure out his place in the world, and how to be a man. In the last six months, he’s learned a lot of new vocabulary. Using words to describe emotions is new to him, and he’s moving into a new world.

He cries more now, when we talk, digging deep inside of himself, and talking about the past, and how he’s feeling inside today. This is scary stuff, and he’s discovering new words to help him say what is really going on inside of himself these days. The new words in his vocabulary are letting him do some healthy pruning in his life, and looking at his past with some new tools. The new growth in his soul fits him well, and he’s starting to use his big smile.

I’m thinking of my prison buddy, and my sister in law, as the speaker brings me back into the room, asking us if our culture has a word for the woman who miscarries. Is she “mother”? How does she see herself now, a woman who was pregnant but now is not, and has no baby in her arms to share with the world?

The lady next to me at the meeting ponders out loud, “What about a woman who’s had an abortion? Do we have a word for that experience?”

The room of a hundred people, people caring enough about sexual violence, rape, and exploitation of people in intimate relationships, people who have traveled hundreds of miles on a beautiful August day, to sit in a room and wrestle with this topic, is abuzz. The speaker has stirred us up, challenging us to think about the words we use, and the words we don’t have, as we go about this important work.

If we, the professionals, the movers and shakers in this movement, can’t find the words, and if we struggle to find the words just to communicate with each other, perhaps we need to take a look at how we listen to our clients, and all the other people we deal with as we go about our work?

When I get home that night, I open my fat Oxford dictionary, the only book in the house that takes up an entire shelf, and look for the word “mother”. Yeah, she’s right, the scholarly description doesn’t really cover the experience of a miscarriage. Or, the scared young woman who ponders an abortion. My mental list of wordless experiences grows.

How can I describe something in my life, the experience, the angst, the doubt, the pain, if we don’t have words for what it is?

If we name it, we can describe it, we can call it out of the shadows of our nightmares, and give it recognition, give it identity. Yes, that is what this feeling is. Yes, that is what this experience is.

And, now that it has a name, we can deal with it. We have to deal with it.

It has a name.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stage Fright

I was nervous, of course, getting on stage and playing my song, singing and two hands on strings, and doing it all in front of Others. So out of my comfort zone. But, this was guitar camp, where you were expected to walk on the edge, try something new and daring, and grow.

The stage performance class was living up to its promise of stretching my talents and dealing with my fears. It was definitely a new day in the life of the nascent guitar player and balladeer.

I was fourth on today’s list of performers and had watched my fellow performers all go through their particular walk through their own anxiety, dealing with their own dragons. This was dragon slaying day.

I did pretty good, even delivering my little introduction with some flare, as I simultaneously adjusted the mic, arranged my little cheat sheet of chords and words, and nearly dropped my dark guitar pick into the pit of the black hole of the rest of the room.

The world didn’t end when I fumble and successfully drop my pick, and spontaneously rearrange my song by adding a few new chord forms.

I plunge ahead, just like our teacher had said, remembering the lady before me, who got on stage and immediately wrapped her guitar strap around one arm, her guitar sagging down towards the floor. She recovered and survived that experience, and so I play through, the loud applause telling me I could breathe again.

I slip back into the safety of my seat in the second row, next to the lady who had gotten wrapped up in her guitar strap. She was breathing again and even shakes my hand. I realize I’d just pitted out my shirt, and it was only 11 in the morning.

A few other people did their own acts, and I could smile and laugh again, the sweat under my arms drying out.

Then, it was Rebecca’s turn. She hadn’t been in our class this week, but this was guitar camp, where the only rule is you can jump into something with courage, and no one gets to say anything rude.

Rebecca sat down and calmly adjusted her mic, and got her guitar all situated. She got our attention when she said she wasn’t going to be able to hear what she was going to play. She’d been born nearly deaf and had struggled with hearing aids all of her life, all through college and grad school, earning a master’s in music.

Music is her life; that is all over her face.

She’d had cochlear implants a few months ago, and now had electronics in her middle and inner ears, and now was able to hear a whole lot better. But, she added, her brain now doesn’t hear music the same. Her brain has to relearn what music is, and it’s taking a long, long time.

We all hear the frustration in her speech, a voice still sounding like the slightly disjointed voice of a deaf person, who has grown up not having that feedback between voice and ear.

The piece she is going to play for us was the last piece she learned before the implant surgery. It was such a beautiful song, she said. Now, the only way she can hear its beauty is to remember the sound with her fingers when play it on the guitar.

What she hears now with her new ears, when she plays her guitar or listens to music on the radio, is horrible, discordant noise. Her brain is hard at work, but it hasn’t yet caught up with her new hardware.

She reaches around her ears, touches a few tiny buttons, and begins to play. And, her fingers dance up and down the fretboard, fingerpicking a Beethoven cantata. The heavy silence in the room deepens when Beethoven enters the room.

Her skill brings the joy and craftsmanship of the classical giant to life, and I’m following her fingers along the same river of sensuality created by the deaf master.

As the notes fill the room, more than a few tears fall, and no one is breathing.

An hour later, she left camp, the pain of not hearing her beloved music as music being too much for her. Today, most of the class will get up on this same stage, many making their debut of playing in public, showing their courage. And, Rebecca will be with them, and will be with all of us as the notes begin to play.

--Neal Lemery 8/3/2011