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.