Thursday, December 26, 2013

Defining Success

On Christmas, my wife and I visited one of our young men in prison.  Of all my friends, he’s the one who enjoys Christmas the most, especially the anticipation, the expectation, and the promise of a happy time, a brighter tomorrow.

After five and a half years in prison, his spirit is brighter now that it’s ever been. He’s grown in so many ways, and achieved many of his goals.  In prison, he’s actually had goals and found ways to achieve them.  Before that, life was just survival, slogging through chaos and drugs, of being treated indifferently, without love, and not knowing who he was or where he was headed.

Now, he’s found purpose and meaning.  He’s making peace with the demons in his life, and has found the strength and courage to look deep inside of himself, and to finally love himself, and all the possibilities he has in his life.

He wanted socks for Christmas, making sure everyone knew it, too.  Now, he’s a wealthy man, Mr. Big in the world of socks.  He’s the happy recipient of forty pairs of socks, socks of nearly every size and color.  He has socks everywhere now, new socks to try on every day for over a month.  

Yes, he had a successful Christmas, all the socks he could ever want.  In the telling of his story, his laugh and his big smile light up his face; he knows now that he is loved and respected by so many people.  He’s figured out the magic of Christmas, the reason for the season.

He’s successful in so many other ways this year.  He’s taken charge of his life, looking deep inside of himself, and taking charge of who he is, and where he is going.  He’s embraced his new maturity.  He’s taken on his self confidence and is moving ahead.  He’s found his courage and is nourishing and loving his soul.

He’s the person Robert Louis Stevenson was writing about when he said,
“That man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men and the love of children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth's beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had.”  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

This year, many people I know have taken stock of their lives, summoned their courage, and moved ahead.  Their accomplishments are many, and I’ve been applauding their journeys, and marveling at their determination and sacred intentions in their lives.  It has been a year of transformation and a year of dramatic and momentous growth.  Old demons have been called out of the basement, new directions has been set, and the tough, sweaty and hard work has been done.  And, in that work, our communities are stronger, more vibrant, richer in so many ways. 

Some people look to Washington politicians to make the big changes they want to see in the world and in their lives.  Yet, the real change and the real work is done right here, inside my friends and neighbors, the farmer, the waitress, the young man in prison.  The real change makers are right here, and the work is getting done. People are becoming transformed, people making a real difference.
Like my young friend in prison, people are taking inventory of who they are inside, and grasping the power they have to change.  And, then, they are stepping out, and doing the hard, gut level work, and moving ahead.  

They see the richness in their lives, not by the number of socks they got for Christmas, but in the way they love and are loved.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dealing With Suicide and the Loss of A Friend

I don’t know what to say, or even think.  A friend of mine has gone, at a time and place and manner of his own choosing.  He left, not saying good bye, not asking for help with his pain, his choices.  But, then again, maybe he did, and we did not listen, or did not respond to what he asked.  At least, I did not hear him asking for a hand, or my ear, or even considering other choices.  Or, maybe I did.  And now, I do not know.  I am, at the least, confused and lost, and stumbling around in my grief, my impotence.  
Now, there is an emptiness, and a great unknowing.  The “what ifs” keep multiplying, and I am left with wonder, with sadness, and guilt.  “What if?”  “What if?”  
And, in the silence that follows my asking, there are no answers, only more questions.  
Friends of mine, closer to him that I was, are left empty, unknowing, wandering in the wilderness of uncertainty, of deeper questions which have no answers today.  My pain today is enough; I cannot imagine theirs.  
I search for answers that are not there.  I search for so much, for reasons, for explanations, for understandings, knowing that there is now only a cold wind blowing around my heart.  
Raw craziness, that is what is running amuck in my life now.  No answers, just more questions.  Not much solace, yet knowing that my friend was, at least for a second, at peace with himself and what he was doing.  
I was not on his road of life, and I did not know his journey.  In his departing, there is even more uncertainty in my mind as to what I might have known, might have done, might have loved him deeper, had he shared his pain, his questions, his journey.  But, he did not, and somehow I must accept that.  Yet, in that, I find myself angry, and unknowing, and uncertain.  I am confused, and enraged, yet what has been done was beyond what I could have done, and beyond what I am, and what I could have been to him.  
Old pains, and other suicides, and those still unanswered questions come back now, again reminding me of old wounds, unresolved enigmas, old doubts and tears.  I do not know.  I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know.  Old stuff, reopened, bleeding again, making new tears.  
Part of me wants answers, but I know that answers won’t ever come.  I move on, in life, yet I am left with wonderment, and enigma, and cold winds, ice in my heart that comes at unforeseen, strange times, dragging me back to old ghosts and old, unresolved times.  
The poet writes of what I feel, and points me towards forgiveness.  Yet, that word seems foreign to where I sit now, empty and alone, not knowing, not finding sanity in all of this.  The poet’s wisdom circles about me, aflame, trying to warm my cold, lonely heart.  
Perhaps, I should reach out, and accept that warmth, on this cold winter’s night.  

By Marion Waterston, January 31, 2005

I guess I'll never know
All I want to know
Or understand
What can't be understood
But I believe it's time to forgive

Time to forgive you for leaving me
So abruptly and so painfully
And time to forgive myself
For talks we didn't have
Laughs we didn't share
Songs we didn't sing
Foolishly I thought that time was on our side

Can it be that time now wishes to atone for this betrayal
For tears no longer flow like endless rivers
Anger seems a wasted emotion
And dreams those dreaded night-time visitors
Can come as friends

Once again I smile at the innocence of children
The unabashed warmth of lovers
The enthusiastic affection of dogs
And although I do not see you my precious love
You are with me

So I guess I'll never know
All I want to know
Or understand
What can't be understood
But here in this quiet moment
It's time and I'm ready

To forgive.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Taking Mandela's Life Into My Heart

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived.  It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela

Many words are being written about the life and the death of this great man.  He lived a life of courage, living his convictions, and, in spite of overwhelming pain and suffering and obstacles, he did what was right.  He focused on what was decent, and what was just, and moved others ahead, towards justice and compassion.  

Each one of us can do the same.  We may not be leaders of social movements, and we may not be able to speak to millions of people, become president of a country, or win the Nobel Prize.  Yet, each of us, in our own ways, can lead lives of value, integrity, and advance those values and morals that we each hold dear.  

I can do the right thing.  Each one of us can.  And, it starts with taking a step in that new, unfamiliar, often awkward direction.  
Often, doing the right thing is profound, and astonishing to others.  And, in that action, and in the act of others witnessing the doing of right, and the demonstration of living morally and righteously, changes their lives as well.  

Nelson Mandela was all about change.  And, he did that, one person at a time.  His speeches, his writings, his one on one encounters, profoundly changes others, one person at a time.  

His life was a way of giving all of us permission to encounter hatred and bigotry, and to be consciously active in not living with those values, and to work towards a higher good.  He gave an example for us to follow.  He let us see that we all have choices, and we can decide to live differently.  

Living this is hard work, but also simple.  Change your attitude, change your intention, and move in a different direction.  Embrace love, and not hatred.  Be intentional in what you do.  Live your values.  

The great people in history have done that, people who are able to show us simple truths, and to move the direction of their lives in accordance with those simple truths.  The examples are powerful, and stun us with their sheer simplicity and beauty.  

Yet, we make that choice hard, finding lots of excuses, and resisting moving out of our old habits, our old ways of thinking, and being seduced by the status quo, old ways of thinking, being caught up in the thought patterns of hatred, distrust, and fear.  

I see people all around me being brave and courageous, just as Nelson Mandela lived, people dealing with hatred, prejudice, ignorance; people dealing with addictions, injustice, and fear.  They face their challenges, they speak their values and morals out loud, and they move into action.  They take life head on, and forge ahead, against the headwinds of social pressure and old ways of thinking and living, rejecting hatred and fear. 

In the coming days, we will read and hear many wise words, and hear many stories about Nelson Mandela and his life.  We will see the famous and powerful gather at his funeral and offer heartfelt eulogies.  We will be inspired and we will honor his great contributions and how he helped bring change to his country, and how he provoked the world to follow his lead.  

Yet, if we really want to honor his life, and to give meaning and celebration for the life that he lived, and how he helped to transform a culture of racism, intolerance and fear, into a society taking on bigotry and hatred, then each of us has to take his message and his life into our hearts.  His message is about changing ourselves and our lives from within, to love ourselves and the world unconditionally.  

How am I going to make a difference? How am I going to move forward, embracing and living unconditional love?  How am I going to change myself and my community and move towards a healthy, peace-loving view of life?  How do I respond to the hatred, bigotry and fear that I find inside of myself?  Am I brave enough to move on and move away from what I don’t want to be?  

Nelson Mandela called each of us to action.  He wrote inspiring books, and gave motivating speeches.  He practiced forgiveness and reconciliation.  Yet, his intention was to call upon his readers and his listeners to look deep into their hearts, and to move into action, to live our values and our morals, to live lives filled with love and hope, with compassion and forgiveness.  

Today, I will look deep inside of myself, calling out my morals and my ethics, calling out my true intentions for my life, and for this world.  I will call out my fears and my biases, and put them out on the table for me, and the world, to see, in all that reality, warts and all.   I will dig deep and I will take a wobbly step or two, and move ahead, towards my true intentions and my higher purpose.  

—Neal Lemery, 12/6/2013

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cold Morning Walk

The essence now in that envelope
between night and dawn, 
the eastern sky silent through pure white spectrum,
everywhere crystalline frost, its task to bejewel 
fallen leaves and winter twigs,
and share itself with 

deep silence,
until my soul opens up and
sees the all that is here
just, and only, now.
I need only

Moving through the silence, only my
white breath moving, only my shoes
beating a faint cadence in this between time,
I become one with this world,
space where everything can be the future
if only I dream it, and move towards it.

—Neal Lemery 12/4/13

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Walking on Life's Path

I don’t know it all.  And, I never will.  

But, in this journey of curiosity, inquiry, the anticipation of what may be around the corner, and the meeting of what I haven’t figured out yet, lies the excitement.  

And, yes, I might even be wrong about what I think I know.  I’m not perfect.  I’m not a master of much of what goes on in the world, or what I think I know to figure out a problem.  And, the more I work on the stuff that I think I’m pretty good at, even a master of, I keep finding out that there is more for me to learn, and even more problems and questions that come up, as I go about my tasks.  

The learning curve still have a pretty good slope to it, keeping my journey as a healthy form of exercise, on all levels.  

Often, being able to ask the question is often more important than thinking I have the answer.  I usually don’t have the answer, at least the right answer. Even if the answer was right a while ago, it has a good chance of not being right now, anyway.  And, “right” and “correct” are relative, anyway.

But, I have a lot of questions, and more than enough enigmas, quandaries, and paradoxes to keep me moving forward, looking for the answers.  Somedays, I just discover I have more questions.  

Simply having the questions is becoming increasingly comfortable.  I’m full of questions.  I keep finding more questions, and revising, rewriting the questions.  Questions give me structure, and give me direction.  

I’ve always needed direction.  I’ve been around long enough that I can see the cycles, the patterns of life, and society, and being able to navigate through it al, with some sense of purpose and structure.  I can get easily lost if I don’t have focus, and a path to try to follow.  

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are headed.” —Lao Tzu.

When I figure out I’m going in the wrong direction, I summon my courage, dust off my list of questions, and take a new path.  I “work my hard” and change directions, heading on a new path.  And, when I look back, I can see where I’ve stumbled, and where I’ve danced, and I usually figure out that my choices were good ones.  

I’m loaded with questions, and I’m on my path, my meandering path.  My job is to keep track of where I’m headed, and to not get so caught up in myself that I start thinking I know it all, that I have all the answers.  If I’m curious and not afraid to look at the compass once in a while, life keeps on being an exciting, and rewarding adventure.  

—Neal Lemery, 11/23/2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November Storm

Quiet now,
so quiet I can almost imagine 
the sheets of rain beating on the roof,
running down the windows, while I make tea
and feel its heat in my hands, the rest of me
buried under my blanket in my chair,
drying mouse hunter snoring in my lap.

The house will shake with yet another gust, 
the roar and whistling of wind streaking by
not long from its marathon above the ocean
from the tropics or Alaska, or wherever this storm was born.

The lights will flicker with the bigger gusts and maybe go out,
leaving us with the lone candle on the coffee table,
before I light Grandma’s “coal oil lamp” 
and get out the cribbage board.

Perhaps then we will make sandwiches by candlelight,
sipping the soup I’d made before the storm began,
and deal another hand, laughing and talking—
the storm slamming against the house,
garbage can lid and the last of the leaves
sailing by,
in the deep black of the soaking wet

Later on, under the added blanket, 
I will wake to a long gust, whistling around the house
yet more rain coming sideways, only
the lightning showing me the neighbor’s house, 
thunder joining the wind in chorus of the night long song.

After dawn, air still, rain down to a drizzle, 
the rumble of the furnace, and the refrigerator,
means I can make the coffee,
the cribbage board there on the table, ready for the next deal.

—Neal Lemery, 11/18/13

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Courageous Dilemma

We often think heroes are the folks somewhere else, the people on the front page or on the TV news, people who have done something amazing.  They’re the people meeting the President, getting a medal.

But, we have heroes here, right in my town. And, sometimes, I get to be a witness to some amazing acts of courage and determination to just do the right thing.

A friend of mine is facing a serious dilemma.  Their work, and their values and morals, and what is truly in their best interest are now at loggerheads.  Life isn’t working out the way they want it, and there’s a lot of conflict, a lot of strife.  

And, it’s becoming clear that the right thing to do is make some big changes, and to move on.  That means giving up some things that are near and dear to their heart.  Yet, they aren’t able to fully live their morals and values the way things are now.  
They are at the crossroads, and the road is muddy, and there are a lot of questions, and not as many answers.  

My friend has wrestled with all of this, and keeps coming back to thinking they need to live their morals and values, and be true to themselves, to honor their core values.  And, when they’ve looked at their dilemma in that way, the choices become clear, and the path ahead opens up, and they can move forward.

They’re unstuck, now, and they’ve figured it out.  Do the right thing, be true to their values, and find the courage to move ahead, to embrace change.  Once they’ve come around to living life according to their beliefs, the choices are a lot easier, a lot clearer.

This conflict hasn’t been easy.  There’s been a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of conversation over coffee with friends, a lot of wandering in the desert of uncertainty and doubt.  And, in that darkness, they’ve found their stars again, and they’ve refocused on their beliefs and morals.  Their compass has found True North again, and they are ready to make their move.

I’ve helped, just a bit, in that journey.  I’ve listened, and put my judging and second guessing to the side.  My role as friend in all this has been to listen, and to repeat back to them what they are saying, so they can hear their own words, their own values, through another voice.

My friend has figured it out.  I don’t need to decide for them, and I don’t need to analyze the dilemma through my own values and beliefs.  I just need to let them hear what they are saying, and let they say and hear their own advice, their own solution to their dilemmas.

I’d want that for me, when it’s my turn in the box of paradox, dilemma, and conflict.  Someone to hold up that mirror, and let me see myself for what I am, and for what I believe in, and want to achieve. We all need that person in our lives to give us permission to get out the compass, and find our True North.

My friend is moving on, taking steps now in the direction they’ve chosen, and feeling pretty happy about it.  They aren’t expecting to get a medal from the President, but they deserve one, for being courageous and for doing the right thing.

Neal Lemery   11/5/2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Random Act of Kindness

 It’s Random Act of Kindness and Pay It Forward Day today!   I stopped at the DQ drive through, and the waitress sweetly told me my ice cream cone had been paid for by the guy ahead of me.  So, I handed my money over, to pay for the treats ordered by the folks behind me.  

   What a change in outlook for the day.  Much needed as I was coming back from the funeral of a good, charitable, and kindly friend, Mike Dooney.  His spirit lives on.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Lost and Found


                          By Neal Lemery

   I can be so lost and alone, in a crowd of people.

   I plug into my electronic devices, suddenly accessing the immediacy of "news", social commentary, so many thoughts of others.  Yet, I can be, at the same time, in a dark cave of despair, my isolation and sense of unworthiness becoming the ghosts in the dark.  

   Friends are searching for their own meaning in life, their purpose, their place in this hectic, yes frantic world of immediate deadlines and obligations.  

   We heed the call of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, "hurry, hurry."  

   But, we can be lost, easily pushed to the side of the freeway, as the world goes rushing on by.

  What we have sensed that we have lost is being connected with each other.  We used to tell stories around the fire at night, and during the day, work together, laughing and singing, always connected.    We shared the good and the bad. 

   We were close to the land, and the stars, the birds, and, through our hands, we were connected to the earth.  Our work was something we could see, touch, hold onto.  

   How we lived our day impacted our village. If we didn't hunt, or plant, or work together, we did not eat.  We truly connected with each other, and with the universe.  Spirituality was not abstract, it was real.  And, we had accountability around the fire at night, and around the shared meal.  

   Social media is popular, as we are back around the fire, telling stories, catching up, sharing our lives.  It has its drawbacks, and we can easily be alone in a crowd, ignoring the person next to us.  But, social media life is a form of village life, of community.

  Today, friends write about the  power of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Friends of Bill W. Why does that message, that simple act of gathering together and sharing, why does that work for so many people? Why does that change lives?  

  AA works because it is communal, it brings spirituality to the forefront of our lives, it has a belief that our  spirituality and our uniqueness as a person is truly valuable, and we benefit from the spiritual energy of others.  All religions, all prophets have the core message: be connected, love one another, find peace and meaning in being in communion with each other and with the universe.  Avoid separateness, don't be alone.  We are all one brotherhood and sisterhood.  The person next to us matters to us, simply because they are our brother, our sister.

  Yesterday, I reconnected.  The sun was out, it was a perfect day, almost hot, and still, with the colors of Autumn around me.  I had plants to plant in my yard, and it felt good to my soul to push a shovel into the rich, dark soil, and make a new home for shrubs, trees, and daffodils.  

  In sixty or seventy years, the trees I planted will reach their prime, and will send their seeds throughout the valley, and stand tall and proud, objects of beauty for those who come after me.  I will be long gone, but what my feet, back and hands did for those trees yesterday will be remembered by the trees, on the day they moved here and took up residence. 

   It felt good to feel the dirt under my feet, and between my fingers.  I held the plants, and their roots, tenderly settling them into the ground, settling the dirt next to their roots, and watering them in.  One tree needed staking, to hold it up in the coming winter storms.  Yet, all too soon, it will be growing tall and sturdy, its roots firmly reaching downward, connecting with and becoming part of this land.

  Being the tree planter connected me with the earth, and with the universe.  I am part of this place, as is the tree, and the hawk that circled above me, and the wind that blew in off the ocean, bringing the smell of last night's rain.  

  Today, I am far away, meeting one of my buddies, making more connections with him, as he is planting his own trees, and setting down his own roots.  He, too, will grow straight and tall, his soul firmly planted in good soil, taking in the water and sunlight of knowledge and stability, making his life rich and productive.

   I've been teaching him about tree planting, and farming his soul.  He's a good student, and what I've been saying about what we do in the village, how we are part of our tribe, is stuff he's taken into his heart.  

   "What are you doing today?" people ask. 

   Making connections, planting trees, tending my soul, taking care of the brothers and sisters in this world.  That's what I'm doing.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Giving Back

"Why are you still volunteering and helping out those kids?  You're retired now, and, they aren't your kids.  They shouldn't be your worry."

Someone asked me that the other day, their words strong, edgy with bitterness.  They were wondering why I was helping others out in the community, giving of my time, helping other make something of their life.  It wasn't my job, right?

I was taken aback.  After all, being involved in my community is something I've always done.

  As a kid, I'd help with chores, or run an errand or mow the neighbor's lawn when they were gone, or feed their pets.  I'd help out on my grandparents' farm, and get involved in some project.  At dinner, there'd sometimes be an extra kid, and a little more love flying around the kitchen table. When there was a need, you just did what was needed.  No questions asked.

That idea of helping in the community has always just been part of my life. It never occurred to me to me to wonder why, or think that being helpful wasn't just part of living in a small town, or even the world.

Other people helped me, without me asking, too.  It is just what we do.  When I was a kid, a lot of people gave me the support I needed to apply myself, set goals, and work hard.  And, when it is my turn to be the cheerleader, that voice of encouragement, I  speak up, and I take action.

This summer, I've spent some time helping a young man focus on getting ready to start his junior year at a university.  He's worked hard the last few years, taking on line classes, and doing well, making time to study and write his papers in between all the other demands of his busy life.

Now, he's able to actually be on campus, sit in a class and be involved in college life.  He's making that transition from the technology and isolation of a computer, to the excitement and interaction of a busy university campus.  And, I've made the time to be supportive, to sit down with him and his advisors, watch him plan his schedule, and attend to the countless details that are needed to be a successful college student.  It's tough doing that on your own, and when you're the first one in your family going to college, it's also lonely and scary.

He's not my kid, but then, again, he is, an important part of my family.  He's lived in my village, he's part of my community, and his brains and ambition are part of the real treasure we have in our young people.  He's everyone's kid. When he gets smarter, the village gets smarter, and we all benefit.
He's already a leader and a problem solver.  He's got the ambition and moxie to move ahead in his life, and to realize his dreams.  I want that energy building our village, and our country.  I want that kind of problem solving and leadership out in the world, taking on the tough problems, and thinking outside of the box.

The little I do, some words of encouragement, a trip to the campus, a visit to the bookstore, and a steady hand on his shoulder when the path gets a little rocky, is about the best investment I can make in the future.  And, not just his future.  His future successes and smart ideas, and focused leadership is also going to improve my life, and make my village a better place to live.

I've received, and I've given back.  I've come full circle in the helping one's neighbor view of the world.  I've seen the planting, and the harvest, season after season.  That kind of farm work, the raising up of others to achieve their dreams, and to reach for the stars, is what we are here for.

And, in the end of all that care and compassion for our fellow humankind, we might even end up with a better world for everyone.

Neal Lemery, 10/1/2013

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

To Forget

To Forget

The list of things to forget
brought me to remember what I’d lost
and not wanted to find ever again--
to pains and ashes and broken hearts
of long ago and yesterday,
all coming back.

To write it down becomes remembrance--
I try mourning again, like the obituary
falling out of the well fingered Bible,
old and tattered, its fluttering downward
bringing fresh tears.

In trying to forget, I remember again
the joys and smiles and songs well sung.
Those notes dull the pain of what
I came here to forget, but 
need to remember

  ---Neal Lemery, 9/2/2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sally Jo's story is now in paperback!

Karen Keltz' great book for middle school kids of all ages is now available in paperback, at Amazon.  Read all the great reviews at Amazon.

Sally Jo Survives Sixth Grade: A Journal by Karen Keltz
Sally Jo Survives Sixth Grade: A Journal 
by Karen Keltz 

Monday, August 26, 2013

We Still Need To Dream

I’ve been wondering how I could commemorate Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, on the fiftieth anniversary this week of that watershed event in American society.  I was ten years old, in 1963, and his words were part of that fire starting in my soul, the start of a passion for justice and possibility for every person.  That fire burns in me still.

And, within an hour yesterday, I was immersed in an intensive, hands on, exploration of racism and prejudice in my community, and the experiences tested that fire inside of me, and got it to blazing into a righteous bonfire. 

I’d gone into town for a haircut and a cup of coffee, maybe working out at the gym.  My regular barber wasn’t working, so I slipped into the chair of another hair stylist at the salon, telling her the few things I wanted in the haircut.

Another customer came in, interrupting us, insistent on getting her hair styled.  I felt my stylist tense up, her jaw tight.

“I’m not able to take you today,” my stylist said, a slight edge in her voice.  “Someone else will be here in fifteen minutes.  You can come back then.”

The customer left, and my stylist flew into an animated discussion with me and the other stylist in the shop, about how that customer had ranted and raved about the “wetbacks” and “lazy Mexicans” the last time she was here for an appointment.  

“Look, I’m Mexican,” the stylist said, her arms flailing, her scissors nearly flying out of her hand.  “My family works hard.  My husband is working two jobs, jobs most Americans won’t do.  We’re not on welfare, we don’t have food stamps.  We work hard for everything we have here.  

“How dare she says we should go back to where we came from.  Her ancestors were immigrants, too.  If we go ‘back’, then, she should, too,” she said, her rapid snips with her scissors shaping up my shaggy mane.  

“I’m not going to cut her hair.  I’m not putting up with people who are racists, people who judge people by the color of their skin, or where they came from.  I just don’t understand people like that.”

She cooled off a bit, then, and we had a rich conversation about prejudice, and bigotry, and people who lump a big group into some category, and have opinions that ignore the facts, ignoring how people work hard, and struggle, so that their kids can have good, productive lives. 

I left the salon with one of the quickest haircuts I’ve ever had, newly energized by her anger, and again saddened by the rudeness and bigotry that was still alive and thriving in my hometown.  My stylist wasn’t afraid about speaking her mind.  And, if she can speak up, maybe I can, too. Her power and her courage were at my back as I headed for my car.

Ten feet out the door, a young friend came up and spoke to me, inviting me to go have a cup of coffee.  We’d spent a day not long ago looking at universities, exploring options for him to study for his bachelor’s degree.  We’d both learned a lot that day, and it would be fun to debrief a little, and find out what he’d been thinking about, what he was planning for his future.

As I unlocked the car, my phone rang.  One of the guys I’ve been mentoring, a young man I now consider to be a son, was calling.

“I need some advice,” he said.  “People at work want to know about my past, but if I tell them everything, then I think they will judge me, they will just think I’m just a criminal, they won’t really look beyond that, and see me for who I really am.”

We had a rich conversation, about prejudice, and bigotry, and how we all need to not let bigots get close to us, and put us down, judging us without really knowing us.  About how we don’t need to let others manipulate us, and put us in pigeon holes, so that we don’t have to play the role of being less than someone else.  Each of us has value, we are children of God, we are beautiful people.  We are more than our skin color, or where our ancestors came from, we are more than one thing we might have done in the past.  

We talked about self care, and standing up for yourself, about living life with pride and direction, purpose.  We talked about appreciating people by their character, by their ethics and morals, and not by some preconceived, uninformed stereotype.  

I told him the story of my hair stylist, how she had drawn the line in the sand, refusing to work with a client who would stereotype her, and put her down, to degrade and prejudge her life and her family.  

He took that all in, and figured out a strategy on coping with people who would prejudge him and gossip about him, people who would easily put him into a category of “others”, people who wouldn’t appreciate him for the beautiful, creative, and loving person that he is inside.  

I drove down the road to the coffee shop, running a bit late after my deep conversation with my son.  My buddy was already sipping his coffee, his nose deep in a thick textbook, one that absorbed his curious mind about the science of his new job.  

We talked about what he’d been learning about all the colleges and programs he could apply for, and all the careers he could explore.  

And, we also talked about the conversation I had with the hair stylist, and her bigoted customer.

“I’m a wetback, too,” he said, with a bit of pride.  “I came here when I was eight, because my mom wanted me to get an education, and make something out of my life.”

He talked about his struggles to make it through high school, and then community college.  He talked about not being able to get a driver’s license, about working under the table at a farm, so he could help his family and find a few bucks for school clothes and books, and gas.

He talked about the farmer he used to work for, and how the farmer would rant and rave about all the wetbacks and illegal immigration, and how the government was wasting a lot of welfare money on the “dirty Mexicans”.  And, then the farmer would pay him under the table, and not take anything out of his pay for taxes and social security, and how the farmer didn’t see the disconnect in his thinking, and about how the farmer was breaking the law, and taking advantage of those “dirty Mexicans”,  the “dirty Mexicans” he happily underpaid to milk his cows and shovel manure and do all the other hard work that he couldn’t find anyone else around this town to do.

He talked about how tough it was to go through all the hoops and finally get an immigration card that lets him be here legally, as long as he’s going to school, and how it is still another ten years before he might become a citizen.  And, how his parents still drive to work without a valid license, and how they can never become citizens, even though they’ve lived here for the last twelve years, they have jobs, and they make sure their kids get to school, how they are good people, people this country should be proud to have as citizens.  

People just like my ancestors, my people who came over on the boat, who took the awful, low paying jobs, so that their kids could go to school, and their grandkids could be doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  

He talked about getting stopped by a cop late one night, just him and the cop on a lonely, dark country road; and how the cop yelled at him for breaking the law, for finding a way to get a driver’s license from another state, so my buddy could still get back and forth to work, and college, and take care of his family.   He talked about how the cop called him a “wetback” and how “you people” should go back where you came from.

  I have a dream, too, thanks in part to Martin Luther King’s work and beliefs that society can change, that we can accept others for who they are, and not to judge people by the color of their skin, but instead by the strength of their character.

If we really believe in the rule of law, if we really believe that each one of us is a child of God, that we are here to live lives of service, and compassion, and understanding, that every person is precious, and has endless possibilities to live a life of beauty and love and value.

That cop would hear that speech from me, again, and I think I’d be pretty impassioned about it, drawing on the passion my hair stylist had about dealing with racists and bigots.  

I was pretty worked up by the time I got home, inspired to read Dr. King’s speech again, to dig a bit deep inside of me, to explore my prejudices and my biases.  What I was wanting to say was on the stove, still warm, simmering, waiting for the muse to strike, to get my words down on the computer.

Then, last night, I’m taking a troll through Facebook.  I see a young friend has posted a video.  “Funny” he writes, so I take a look.

The video shows a white guy advertising a laundromat that only washes white clothes.  It’s the “white’s only” laundry.  The next scene is him again, saying that the first ad has riled up some people, so he’s changed the name to “no coloreds”, and offers Black people a side entrance to the laundry.  

As my blood begins to boil, I struggle to keep watching, dreading what the next scene might be.

The white man comes on again, saying that the “no colored’s” name bothered some people, so he was going to change the name again to “Uncle Tom’s Laundry”, but that there would still be “no coloreds” washed and dried there.

I sat there, stunned, not really knowing how to react.

After all, it has been more than fifty years that Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus, it has been fifty years since the March on Selma, and Dr. King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.  

It’s been a shorter period of time since my home town repealed the “sundown law” that said Blacks had to leave town at the end of the day.  It’s been a shorter period of time since some of the social clubs in town have allowed Blacks and women to sit in their bars and have a drink, and become members, even officers.  

And, it’s been less than a day since a young friend posts a video about “no coloreds” for all the community to see, and maybe even guffaw about.  

We have a black president, we have a black attorney general, we have black judges and members of Congress.  

Yet, 2013 also has the Trayvon Martin shooting trial, and an agonizing, disjointed national discussion about what that was and what that means. We have the US Attorney General, on national TV, talking about how he feels he needs to tell his son, a black teenager, about the dangers and risks of being young and black on the streets of our national capital late at night, about how to be leery of cops, about being judged because of the color of his skin.  

And, 2013, in my town, we have these conversations, and these racist, bigoted comments and attitudes, and videos posted in social media that are thought of as “funny”, but are as racist and bigoted as the cross burnings and Klan marches, and segregated busses and lunch counters and schools of the 1960s.

We aren’t there, yet, not by a long shot.  But, I can still dream.  And, I can still be angry, and intolerant of racism and prejudice, and putting people down because of where they came from, or the color of their skin, or the language they might speak.  

We have a ways to go.  We still need to dream.

Neal Lemery, 8/24/2013

Monday, August 12, 2013

Day's End

An Oregon Coast sunset, Tierra Del Mar beach, Tillamook County, August 10, 2013
(c)Neal Lemery, 2013

The Power of One

“It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there'll be any fruit. But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.” 
― Mahatma Gandhi

Can I really make a difference in the world?  Does what I do really matter?

The other day, I ran into a young man I’d worked with, having long talks about his future.   We became friends, and I was a cheerleader in his life.  I watched him refocus in high school, and graduating there.  I walked with him and held his hand as he thought about college, and enrolling.  

A few years later, I watched him receive his community college diploma, laughing with him as he posed for a family picture, diploma in hand.  His wife, and his sister, now both in college, stood proudly beside him.  

At the store, he shared a photo of his new baby, and his dream of a bright future, getting his bachelor’s degree, creating a bright future for him and his family.

“Thanks,” he said, quietly.  “Without you pushing me, encouraging me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

A few weeks ago, I took a young man to a university, walking with him into the registrar’s office to schedule his classes, and get him ready for fall term.  We’d worked together last spring, to get him admitted, and transferring all his credits he’d earned for his associates degree, ready to start his junior year.  He’s been aiming for a bachelor’s degree for a long time, and was finally able to make the move into a four year university, one that has an excellent program in his area of interest.  

He’d been dragging his feet, not making the phone call to schedule his class registration, and all the other paperwork that needed to get done before he was really ready to begin classes.  The plan was for me to drive him there, make a day of it, and to celebrate his achievements.  But, he was dropping the ball, ignoring my increasingly less than subtle hints to take that drive, and move on with his life.  

I nudged, I prodded, and I waited.  Procrastination and fear took over, even a bit of resentment towards me, for being the quiet voice urging him forward, encouraging him to go live his dream.

Time was running out, and I spoke up, becoming direct, calling out for him to confront the elephant in the living room, and get moving here, moving ahead with his life.  We met, finally, to have that hard conversation.  We argued, we struggled, we finally got to the heart of his struggle, we each teared up, our guts churning.   

We named the elephant, and we argued some more.  He asked me where he thought I’d be in a few years, if he didn’t go to college, if he didn’t make that short trip to the university’s registrar that week, and be ready for fall term.

I got blunt, and painted a realistic picture.  

“If you don’t live your dream, if you don’t work towards achieving your goals, life will be hard, and life will be disappointing.  You will end up being disappointed in yourself.  Is that what you want?”
He admitted he really did want to go to college, but the old voices, the voices of childhood that had always whispered that he wasn’t good enough, that he wasn’t deserving of success, those were the voices speaking loudly in his head lately.

We refocused.  We didn’t dwell on “failure” and “I’m not good enough”.  Instead, we moved on, living in today.  And, looking towards the future, planning for it, taking real time steps to get where he wanted to go.

I grabbed the car keys, and his cold, sweaty hand, and walked him to my car.  Amazingly, at least to him, within an hour, we were at the registrar’s office in the university, organizing his schedule, planning for his graduation in two years.  He registered for classes, accepted his healthy array of scholarships, and sent in his student loan application.  

On the way out the door, we picked up his student body card and scheduled a time for him to meet his department head and double check his class schedule, to make sure he was on the right track with his major.  

Along the way, every college staff person was courteous, informative, and dedicated to getting him enrolled and off to a good start.  Each one of them took the time to take an interest in him, focus on his needs, and help him achieve his goals for the day, and for the next two years of his life.  

Each one of them, taking the time, being interested, investing in him.  He saw that in how they treated him, how they were living their day. The caring about one other person, one at a time, with all of their focus, all of their energies, all of their wisdom.  

And, so it begins, the new student and the teachers, the first lesson, building on the past, and aiming at the future.  

One person at a time.  

Neal Lemery, August, 2013