Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Thoughtful Perspective


Writer, consultant and analyst

A Straight Couple at a Gay Wedding: The Political Gets Personal
Posted: 11/21/2012 3:36 pm

Setting out for our nephew's wedding, my wife and I weren't quite sure what to expect. Since the two grooms had met at the memorably named Cincinnati Queer Guerilla Bar, our excitement contained an undeniable undercurrent of uneasiness.
Gay marriage is once again a high-profile public issue. When Maine, Maryland and Washington legalized same-sex nuptials and Minnesota defeated a constitutional amendment to ban them, it marked the first ballot box victory after a long string of defeats. Less than a month earlier, a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was ruled illegal by a second federal appeals court, and that law seems headed for a final showdown at the Supreme Court.
Yet entwined though it may be in legislation and lawsuits, gay marriage, like its heterosexual counterpart, is primarily a personal issue. The union of our nephew, Benjamin, and his beloved, Jacob, in a Reform Jewish ceremony in Cincinnati satisfied only religious law, not Ohio's. But on a personal level, the ceremony and the whole weekend showcased precisely the kind of values all of us who believe in stable, monogamous relationships should want to defend.
Which, I admit, isn't how I always felt.
As a religiously serious Jew, I'm well aware of the explicit biblical condemnation of homosexual sex acts. Still, loyalty to Leviticus wasn't the only reason for my initial opposition to gay marriage. Like many others, I believed that marriage in a legal and religious context was inextricably linked to procreation. As the Bipartisan Legal Action Group (BLAG) put it in a brief supporting DOMA (after the Obama administration refused to continue defending it): "Only a man and a woman can beget a child together."
Well, sort of. Not only don't we ban infertile couples from marrying or cast out those who don't want to have children, we have also as a society accepted surrogate birth, single parenthood and a host of other technological and social arrangements that have nothing to do with "togetherness" by the biological father and mother. When you think about it, what remains illegal for homosexuals is not parenthood, but the obligations and protections for them and their children that accompany a legally binding commitment.
That, and the ability to have the state recognize a commitment to the whole panoply of family values we as a society claim to uphold. The celebration of those values by Benjamin and Jacob is what shone though the entire weekend. Both grooms come from middle-class homes tested by turmoil and tragedy. Both saw their parents divorce and their fathers die unexpectedly young. But had smart, strong moms to keep them on track, with Ben ending up at a prestigious culinary school and Jacob pursuing a graduate degree in biomedical engineering.
Importantly, both also had families where "coming out" did not corrode family connections. At the pre-wedding dinner, both moms spoke of their happiness that the love between their sons could openly speak its name. That love, and the desire to build a family around it, is what motivated Ben, 29, and Jacob, 25, to get formally married rather than live together as do so many of their gay and straight peers. And they deliberately did so in a religious ceremony in the city where they both had roots.
Writer and gay activist Dan Savage, founder of the It Gets Better Campaign, has predicted that gays will eventually evolve their own wedding rituals. This wedding, though, was the same kind of contemporary-traditional-egalitarian affair you'd find with many a straight couple, albeit with creative replacements for references to "the bride and groom." On the other hand, when it came time to smash a glass at ceremony's end, each groom did get his own glass to crush.
A recent Pew poll shows a majority of Latinos now support gay marriage. Other polls show majority support for the first time in swing-states Florida and Ohio, which just eight years ago approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between a man and woman.
Mitt Romney lost three-quarters of the Hispanic vote and a similar percentage of self-identified gays, lesbians and transgender individuals in his crushing Electoral College defeat. A group called Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry has long been trying to mobilize Republicans to support marriage equality. Post-election, it's not Log Cabin Repbulicans who are joining in. A growing number of conservatives have begun re-evaluating gay marriage as an area where the government shouldn't meddle.
It's nice to believe that traditional nuclear families like the one my wife and I were raised in and in which we raised our kids are the best possible arrangement. But whether you pull out your Bible, pop on your TV or peer around the dining room table, it's impossible to escape the reality that any kind of family arrangement can be terrific or toxic. (Cain and Abel, anyone?) Gay or straight, religious or secular, some people are mensches and some are not.
It turns out my wife and I didn't go to a "gay wedding"; we went to a wedding. It was filled with "voices of joy and gladness," in the traditional Jewish phrase, "the voice of the groom and the voice of..." well, the other groom. We hope that Ben and Jacob's union will soon be legally recognized, but what we want most is what we wish for all newlyweds among friends and family. We hope they continue to reflect the values of their upbringing yet surpass in every way their parents' generation. By doing so, they'll make all of us, including their kids, very proud.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Peace Making

Peace Making

It is a lofty goal.  Religions preach it. Politicians speechify it.  Song writers laud it.  We all like to say we are peaceful, loving people.  

And, it’s really the other guy who can’t get along, who pushes us into the argument, the fight, the war.  

“They started it,” we say, justifying our own escalation of the argument, as we stiffen our backs, and pick up the nastier word, the bigger stick.  

Our wars are longer now.  This country’s ten year war in Afghanistan barely makes the main section of the daily newspaper, and rarely hits the front page.  Our “victory” in Iraq really isn’t seen as a victory of democracy over tyranny, but rather a bad nightmare we should really rather forget.  

The latest Israeli-Palestinian rocket war is seen as inevitable and unsolvable.  And, folks quickly blame one side or the other for the terror and destruction, the deaths of families, and the unbending, inflexible positions of the major players.

Not many people see the irony in both sides justifying their geographical arguments on scriptures and theologies that also preach unconditional love and peacefulness being the true direction to humanity from an all loving God.  

And, at home,  war is being waged.  We have the highest rate of jailing our fellow citizens of any country in the world.  And, we criminalize and jail drug addicts.  Our economy continues to impoverish millions of families.  Our politics of late turn into high paid deceptive and vicious advertising and name calling, rather than looking towards solutions to difficult problems, and an expression of compassion and helping others achieve the American Dream.  

Aside from all the noise, a quiet revolution is going on.  Without fanfare, without a lot of chest thumping and back slapping, change is afoot.  

Volunteers, neighbors, students, good people from all walks of life are making a difference.  Soup kitchens and warming centers are springing up in the basements of churches.  Food banks, community gardens, and community centers enjoy quiet and energetic support.  Twelve step programs are strong and are attracting healthy members.  Prison outreach programs, local music jams, potlucks, and community thrift stores are thriving.  

We baby boomers are retiring now, in record numbers, and we are volunteering, helping out, talking with people.  We are engaged in our communities, our neighborhoods, and in our homes.   People are tending their gardens, taking up crafts, and working with others.  We teach each other new skills, and we are reaching out to others, on every level.
The grass roots in this country are healthy and strong.  Social media has expanded the front porch and the neighborhood coffee shop into a bigger, national neighborhood of old friends, old classmates, and long lost relatives.  New connections are made, and our common humanity, our common passion for connecting with others, for caring for each other, are re-weaving the social fabric.

As a country, and as a community, we are re-creating our social conversations, and deciding what topics we will take on.  Newspapers and the major television networks, and other corporate media are finding their audiences shrinking.  New books are now self-published, and marketed by word of mouth and on Facebook and blogs.  We are taking charge of what we talk about and what we learn.  

The richness of our own wisdom, our heritage, our values, and our work is now easily shared, and easily explored.  What I think and what I want to say to others now can be quickly “aired” to not just my household, not just to my buddies at the coffee shop, but to the world.  With a few keystrokes, my morning rant about one thing or another can be put out to all my friends, and, literally, to the world.  

Someone thousands of miles away can read what I think, and can find my thoughts, on their computer and their cell phone.  “Google it” is the motto of this decade, and the back fence conversations start up with a smart phone text or a reply to a Facebook posting.  We’ve become master weavers of the social fabric.  

We’ve rediscovered the value of those rich one on one conversations, the power of reaching out and simply saying, “I care about you.”  Yes, we do that electronically, but we also do that face to face, neighbor to neighbor.  This is our reality; we are rejecting the mass media view of the world, and being told what to think and what is truly important.

This morning, the cashier at Denny’s and I had a rich conversation about the real meaning of Thanksgiving and thankfulness, and the crass commercialization of Christmas.  She’s rejecting that commercial hoopla and instead, she’s gathering and distributing underwear and toys for foster kids. Her mom is mentoring those kids, filling a need in her community, changing lives.   

I’m spending time with young men at the youth prison in my town, playing guitar, being friends, hopefully showing them a more fulfilling way to live. Me buying them coffee at the canteen, just being there, and listening, is opening hearts, and changing all of us.

Yes, small steps, but in the right direction.  Together, we are an army, working for change.

Perhaps this country’s “Arab Spring” starts with those conversations at Denny’s, or engaging your neighbor in an idea to revitalize your town. It starts with each one of us, one step, and then another.

We’ve rediscovered the power of taking the initiative, of finding our voice in our community.  When I post something on Facebook, or write a rant about something on my blog, or “share” a particular article I’ve found on line, I’m really joining my neighbors on the front porch, or at the coffee shop.  

I don’t have to depend on the corporate media to set the agenda, or tell me what the real “news” is, or what to believe.  I’m my own news editor now, and I produce my own news show.  My friends and neighbors do that, too.  Our conversations, in person and on line, are abuzz with new ideas, rich discussions, and the rebuilding of our collective social consciousness.

In all that buzz, we are rediscovering the power of that one on one conversation, about caring for each other, and getting involved with each other.  That is the practice of love, love of self, love of family, love of our fellow humankind. Isn’t that the true meaning of the holidays, our true spiritual calling?

We are getting off the couch and thinking for ourselves again, and rebuilding our community, making peace.

--Neal Lemery 11/22/2012

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Learning Gratitude

Learning Gratitude

I always seem to learn my lessons in the most unexpected places.

This week, I was with a number of young men who are prisoners in my town.  They have long sentences, locked up for crimes they committed when they were anywhere from twelve to seventeen years old.  Their home lives were chaos, riddled with the violence, drugs, and sexual behavior that is the seed bed for most of our society’s woes, and the root of our country’s high rate of putting people in prison.  

Much of what we might think of as “normal” just not existing in their youth, before they came here.  And, many become abandoned by their families; no one comes to visit them.  So, a few of us come, to listen, to just show up in their lives.  

Rather than really dealing with those issues, society locks these boys up, without much regard for who they really are, the prison terms computed by a chart of numbers, devoid of any sense of compassion, or rationality.  

At least we can boast that we are “tough on crime”.  And, tough on souls.  

We are, after all, the leading country in the world as far as locking up our population.  Yes, more than Russia, more than China, and other places we think are oppressive, undemocratic countries.  The prison industry is growing, and is a significant chunk of our economy, eating up more tax dollars than what we spend on schools.

The subject of gratitude came up, as we talked about the real meaning of Thanksgiving, and how that holiday came to be part of our heritage and one of our biggest holidays, full of food, family time, and, yes, expressing gratitude.  

One by one, these young men spoke humbly of the things in life they were grateful for.  The list was long, and ran deep.  People who cared about them, support for their treatment for their sexually inappropriate behavior, their attitudes about drugs, violence, manipulation of others, degrading their own self worth, their work on getting an education, and improving their lives, and their relationships with their family.  

They also spoke of being thankful for getting in contact with their heritage, and finding a place in a culture that supported their sobriety, their healthy thinking, and their hunger for healthy, balanced, and emotionally satisfying lives, lives filled with purpose and decency.  They were finding their souls, moving into manhood whole and complete, their wounds healing.  

As I sat there, I recalled listening to the radio on my drive over to the prison, the “news” filled with the latest political sex scandal, and the latest celebrity drug and alcohol crazed dysfunctional public spectacle.  I’d come from the grocery store, where piles of cases of beer are arranged in recognition of this weekend’s big college football game, just before aisles of cheap Christmas decorations and gifts.

A billboard along the highway invited me to come gamble and drink on New Year’s Eve, and the usual gaggle of misfits stood outside of the local dive bar, smoking cigarettes and dealing a little weed and heroin.  

Yet, inside this prison, these young men calmly talked about how grateful they were for their lives, their sobriety, their hard work in dealing with their pasts, and the strengths and wisdom they now had in their lives.  They were strong men, preparing themselves for going back “outside”, into our crazy, addiction tempting society.

The midday boozers and smokers outside of the bar weren’t talking much about what they were grateful for, and gratitude wasn’t the focus of the talk show radio show that came on after the “news”.   

And, apparently, Thanksgiving doesn’t do much for the retail stores.  Gratitude and thanks and personal achievement aren’t something you can wrap up in paper, next to all the glitz and sparkle.  

I listened, listened hard to those young men, realizing that I really was in class, that I was the student and they were the teachers that day.  I go there to be a giver, an offerer; my role being a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a person of wisdom.  Yet, now they were the mentors, the teachers, the wise men imparting their truth, and their knowledge, their experience.  

Wisdom and gratitude were spoken, and I was grateful I took the time to open my heart and hear the truth tellers in my life.

--Neal Lemery 11/17/2012

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Reaching Into My Heart

                Reaching Into My Heart

I sometimes wander through life oblivious to the impact I have on others, and the impact they have on me.  I get caught up in my routines, and work and chores fill up my days.  I lose focus on what I am really all about and what I am here to do and to be.

A few weeks ago, I received a gift of love and thanks from a young man I’ve been spending time with.  

He’s not had it easy, and often feels his life is on hold, that he is stuck for a while, not able to move ahead.  But, the work he is doing, real soul work, is shaping and honing him into a beautiful person, filled with compassion and love.  In that, he is successful and brilliant, and wise.  

He is a student, and becoming the teacher.  I should thank him for being an inspiration to me, to being my friend, to allow me to come share time with him, and watch him grow.  He has taught me much, and he has given me much joy and satisfaction.  He’s let me sit in the front row, when he walks out on the stage of life and pours out his heart.

He’s written a song, a bit about me and what we are together, but it goes so much deeper, and wider. 

When he sings me his song, and puts to music and words, and, yes, into love, his feelings and emotions and gratitude, I am moved.  I feel loved.  I feel appreciated, recognized, validated.  But, most of all, I feel loved.

Love. That word is hard for him. It is also hard for me.  When I was a kid, I didn’t hear that word much, and I floundered around with what it meant to me, and how important it was in my life, or not.  This inner turmoil festered in me for many years.  I rejoice that the dragons and monsters my young friend has called out, named, and wrestled with.  In his journey, he is farther down that trail than most of us.  

When I hear him struggle, I hear my own struggle, my own uncertainty, my own grief for not knowing love, for questioning what life is all about, and what I here to do.  We grieve over death, and loss.  Yet, for me, the hardest grief is not knowing love.  

Being able to express love, and to fully accept the power and the satisfaction there is in life when unconditional love is a practiced value, is much of the story of my life. 

My friends’s song says you love yourself and you love me.  It brings all that love-not-spoken dark dialogue back up, again and again.  The song felt good, soothing some long time aches and pains, and holes.  When he sings, some old, musty dark holes in me get filled up, and I feel warm, complete.

I’ve had a lot of hungry young people in my life, and they all struggle with that love word.  We all do, and the search for that feeling of completeness and acceptance often takes a lifetime of tears, yearning, and struggle.  

There’s a lot of running away, in life, from love, being loved, and loving others.  We run to self medication, self deprecation, self loathing.  We push others down or away from our own needy hearts, just so we don’t have to accept love from ourselves and love from others.  

If we are loved, then we must be worthy of love.  And, that is really hard, to feel worthy of love, when those we respect and admire have told us we really aren’t worthy of love.  

I get all of that.  I understand that, and I’ve lived around that and in that.  That dilemma, that agony, that need, all of that also is in my life, and my world.

I’ve learned that love has many meanings and many dimensions.  Love is like the sparkle of a diamond, and each sparkle in the light has a different nuance, even a different meaning entirely.  

I don’t need to hear the “love” word to know that there is love.  I am old and wise enough now to just know that love is there, without calling its name.  

His song is all of that.  His song is from his heart.  And, that is the gold and the diamonds in my life, and in his life, too.  

He knows all this, and he knows it in his heart.  And, when he sings it to me, I cry, and in seeing my tears, he knows he has told me what he wants me to know.  

My friend reminds me I need to go deep inside, and call out the dragons and the monsters in my basement, to rummage around the dark forces in my life, and find my own emotions and strengths. In that tough work, I rediscover the treasures of unconditional love.

I hope he realizes that his words, his music, his expression, and his acceptance and his savoring of what he does in all that, is not only a gift, but it is a treasure that he already knows that he has.  In that, he is blessed.  

When you can accept love and when you can give love, when you can share your real loving self, in all its facets, you are truly blessed. 

--- Neal Lemery 11/10/2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Candlelight: A Story Teller Visits the Youth Prison

Candlelight: A Story Teller Visits the Youth Prison

We gather in a circle, to hear from the story teller who has quietly appeared among us.  His quiet presence is greeted with respect; admiration for his time with us six months ago, his quiet message of hope, and healing, and his wisdom.

We share an opening prayer, a sense of being at peace with the universe, and with our souls.  And, a sense of coming together.

Each of us is invited to tell our names, where we had come from, and a bit about our own journeys.  All of our experiences, all of who we were, and are, and are becoming, are welcomed into this circle.   The chaos of our lives, our pain, our joys, are all welcomed and accepted, without limits.

In this prison, there are many stories of tragedy and pain, loss and suffering.  Some of those experiences are given voice today, in this circle, and are accepted and acknowledged.  There is no blame, no judgement today; only acceptance and compassion.  And, in the telling, there is healing, perhaps a sense of understanding and forgiveness.  

In my community, there are many prisons.  But, when I come here, I can see the physical fences, and the locked doors.  At least when I come here, the walls and the barriers to freedom are obvious.   For so many away from here, their walls and locks take other forms, and may not even be known to those who are locked away by the prisons in their lives.  

Some of the young men offer a hint of the pain in their lives, the violence, the drugs, the abandonment and anger; the absence of community.   Others nod in agreement; such pain is so common in this place of acknowledgement and healing.  They are here to change.  And in that work, they find direction and hope.  They do this together, united for a common purpose.  In this place, being aware of the possibility for change, for unconditional love, is part of the air they breathe.  

The storyteller’s visit is part of that change, that opening of doors to understanding, to acceptance, to personal salvation and love.  

Several young men offer their gifts of song, opening their hearts, and touching our lives with the beauty of the moment and their own journeys.

Others offer a wooden staff to the leader of the drumming circles here. She comes here and leads us in prayer and song, giving the young men, and me, her unconditional love and guidance through troubled seas.  The staff, adorned with beads, and feathers, and other symbols of hope and love, is a gift back to her of what she has given here. Their decorations and gifts and blessing of the staff fills the room with that sense of community.  We pass the staff around the circle, each of us offering a blessing, a wish, an acknowledgement of the power of others to change our lives.  The power of that sharing and healing fills all of our hearts with love.

The story teller told us of his life, and his sister’s recent death.  He spoke of the tragedies in her life, and how, through all the pain and loss, she still loved people unconditionally.  His loss and his pain are mirrored in the faces of the young men gathered in the circle.  A sense of knowing that pain, and compassion for others grows in the room.  This place is safe now, a sacred place for being in that pain, and having our own sparks of humanity accepted.  
Unconditional love is his message today.  In his native stories and tales, in his words about his own life, the message is repeated.  

In our lives, and our experiences, and in our pain and sufferings, we are preparing ourselves for the work ahead.  There will be times when our presence, and our unconditional love for others, will change lives.  What we are going through now is merely preparation for the gift giving we will do in the future.

One young man offers a song in memory of the storyteller’s sister, filling us all with sadness and hope and a bit of that unconditional love.  

Others give voice to their struggles, their anger, their work to become healthy men.  

The storyteller leads us in a dance around the circle, holding hands, all moving to a drum beat, singing an ancient, timeless song.  In movement, we become one; there are no leaders and no followers.  We became community, accepting and united.  

Stories are told, letting us nod and laugh together, hearing his tales, and joining together in the acknowledgment of his story.   His work brings us together, to a feeling of being one, of each of us having value, of being accepted for who we are, right now.  And, again, judgement is suspended. Unconditional love lights up the room.

Telling our stories is what we need to do in our lives.  In our stories, and in the stories of others, we find acceptance, and we find community.  As we drum together, sing together, and listen to our stories, we come together.  We are one.  

In my heart, I touch my own pain, my own losses, my own doubts and fears.  The storyteller’s songs of love and acceptance, and of his own pain and his own journey through life brings me renewal.   That spark of humanity, of the power and force of love as a healer, as a single candle that can light the entire room, is fed by his quiet presence in our lives.  

In all of our eyes today, I see acceptance, reconciliation, forgiveness, and unity in all of what we experience in our humanity.  We become a stronger community, telling our stories, finding acceptance and hope.

--Neal Lemery 11/4/2012