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