Saturday, June 22, 2013

Freedom Day

                      Freedom Day

                           By Neal Lemery

I call it Freedom Day.  One of my friends, who experienced it from the prisoner-getting-out viewpoint calls it the best day, but the hardest day of his life.

After six or seven years, being locked up since you were sixteen, you are free.  There's so much going on in your head, you can't even cry.  Oh, we shout, and I honk the horn as we drive away, but the young men fall quiet, and just look at the road ahead, the countryside, as we drive away.

Part of me wants the Mormon Tabernacle Choir here, singing the Hallelujah Chorus, as we march out to a parade of confetti and balloons.  But, usually, it is just a staff member or two, and a cartful of their worldly possessions, their parole papers clutched in their sweaty hands, their faces stony with a mixture of fear, joy, and anticipation.  

Everything they've known for the last seven years is back there, behind the fence, behind the locked door.  The trunk has a duffle bag, a day pack, and a few garbage sacks of all they have in this world.  

They even dawdle a bit, hugging buddies goodbye, everyone a bit teary, even though they are getting out, they are free now.  

They slip into the front seat, put on their seatbelt.  It's their first ride in a vehicle in seven years without wearing a jumpsuit, their hands cuffed, and chained to their ankles.  There's a deep silence now, as that bit of their new reality sets in.  No handcuffs.  Just going for a ride down the road.  Just like the rest of the world.  

Two of the guys I've driven away from their life behind bars have clutched their Bibles, hands sweaty as we turn onto the road, and head away.  One guy grabs the wood carving he's making, a Raven mask, symbol of his tribe, his heritage, and the long, courageous road he's already traveled in his young life.

I took a couple of them to the beach, a place they've been close to for a third of their lives, but have never walked on, never felt the bit of spray from the waves, or smelled the salty, fresh air in their lungs.  They both hesitated, as we got out of the car, the early morning salt air cold against their faces. 

"Aren't you coming?" they each asked.  

No.  This is your time.  Go.  Walk. Run.  Talk to God.  Yell.  Put your feet in the water, and feel it.  Experience it.  Be the wild boy you need to be. This is your day, this is your time.

You haven't been alone for all these years, except in your mind, on your bunk in a dorm of twenty five, late at night.  It is time to walk your beach, to be free, to be on your own. If anyone deserves to talk on their own, on the beach at dawn, it is you, my fledgling eagle.

Go fly a bit.  Stretch those wings.      

For two men, on their Freedom Day, they both looked back, to make sure I was still there, and then they moved forward, purposefully, manfully heading to the water.   The waves crashed, the breeze freshened a bit, and the gulls mewed, as these brave young men gaze out to sea, so many thoughts racing through their minds. I stood there, in silent witness, a tear of joy, of exultation running down my cheek.

I say a silent prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving, and guardianship, wanting them to be protected, wanting them to blossom into strong, healthy men, men who embrace and cherish freedom and living a good, loving life. May this be their last day ever in prison.  

Yes, I would wait for them, I would stand guard for them, these brave young men, taking flight, testing their wings and singing their songs, beginning a new life.

For one man, we celebrate Freedom Day and his birthday with a big breakfast. And candles, cake, and ice cream for dessert, on our best china, toasting to his freedom with sparkling cider and crystal goblets.  It's his second birthday cake in seven years, and the first time he's had candles on a cake since he was ten.  I broke out my mother's silver, and cloth napkins.  Time for a little spoiling, I think.  After all, it is Freedom Day.  

"More, please," our young Pippen asks, and I pass him the platter of his special ordered sausage, bacon and biscuits.  He fills his plate, mentioning that the knife and fork in his hand are metal.  He's only used plastic for six years.

"I guess I'll have to get used to this," he chuckles.  

We sing "Happy Birthday extra sweetly for this man-child today, our hearts finally feeling what this day means.  He blows out the candles, making a wish, as a tear slides down his face.

"Mom would never let us have cake for breakfast," he says.  "But, I guess we can break the rules today."

Oh, yeah.  We laugh when he asks for seconds on dessert.  

One man comes to my house to shower, after his run on the beach.  He's in the bathroom quite a while, and comes out wondering what to do with his towel.  He giggles a bit.

"First time I've had a shower all by myself in a bathroom in seven years.  I had to just enjoy it."

The rest of those  Freedom Days become whirls of activities, of challenges, and adventures.  We drive through the forest, far away from walls, and inmate counts, and lining up for a meal, or to go to a class, or any of the other institutional rituals in his day.  We stop when we need to pee, or have a meal, or when we spot a herd of elk beside the road.

The closer we get to their new home, and their new challenges, their new life, the meaning of it all hits hard.  They fall silent, their whirling minds even reaching me, tensing me up with their anxiety.

I've traveled these roads a lot, but on those Freedom Days, I, too, am feeling the freedom, sensing the beauty and peace of the forest, and fields, and little towns, the sun bright in a blue sky, unmarked by a fence, or a wall, or the numbing tedium of prison life.    The routine of this trip isn't ordinary today, and I start to appreciate the simple things, the ability to make some choices.  Near the end of the trip, I take another road, just because I can.  

We hit the variety store, picking up some necessities, getting a cell phone, one of today's essentials.  And, the mayhem, the crowds, the frenzies of others, normal to me, wash over my young men, overwhelming them with sensations.  All their treatment work, all their counseling work on how to live now, out in society, as normal, healthy men, hasn't prepared them for this, the chaos, the cacophony of our daily world.  All this isn't book learning, or "the future", now.  It's reality, and it's hard.  And, it doesn't stop.  This class doesn't end.   

One Freedom Day, we head to a family lunch, in a busy restaurant, and I get to see some of the old family dynamics unfold, my buddy trying to deal with that, and how to order food, and how to deal with the chaos and drama at the tables around us.  He finds words to say to his brother, a guy he hasn't talked to in seven years.  I see them ease up a little, sharing a joke.  

He asks me what to order.

"Anything you want," I grin.  

And, we laugh, on every level.

I catch his eye and grin, giving him a wink.  He lets out a chestful of air, and grins back.  Yes, this is your new reality.  You can do this.  We are doing this.  And, it will be all right.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Valedictorian's Speech from Prison

A graduation speech from a prison inmate that will knock your socks off....I'm sharing it with Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, the directors of the Oregon Youth Authority and Department of Corrections, and my state senator and state representative...

Graduation Speech
Trask River High School
Tillamook, Oregon
Stephen Kaplan, Valedictorian
June 8, 2013

Well, here we are.  Graduation.  It has always been bizarre to me why we make it such a big event. All we had to do was show up to class, turn in some homework and pass a few tests.  I actually felt that way until I was asked to write a speech on the subject.  It wasn’t until I sat down and thought about what really went into graduating that I realized that it is a big event.

Having worked so hard to pass those tests, attending those classes, at becoming the man that could stand in front of you and speak on such a subject, I found that it is a great occasion.  I found that, especially for these sixteen graduates who are up here today, three things make it memorable:
  • The opportunities that got us here.
  • The work we did to get here.
  • What it can tell us about our futures, ourselves, and our lives.
The opportunities that we were given were unlikely.  Most of us came from places that we would never have had the chance to accomplish such a thing.  Some from bad neighborhoods, others from dysfunctional families, wherever it was, school was not much of a priority.

Then we got locked up.  In a place equated with loss of our lives as we knew them, freedom, and most, a little sanity.

Though some doors may have been locked behind us, many have opened in front of us.  We were given the opportunities to be here today.

The biggest thing that makes this such an important occasion are the sixteen men in front of you.  They took such an unlikely opportunity and ran.  They saw that door and walked through it, each facing their own struggles in doing so.  And whether it was the alphabet in math, where the comma goes in writing, or for myself, two long terms in fiber arts, we all overcame them in order to be graduating today.

As for the future, well, it’s what we make it.  I feel that I can speak for all of us when I say that these opportunities were a second chance in showing ourselves and others that it’s not time to give up yet; that we still have things to accomplish no matter how small or great.  And more than anything it shows us that we all have the ability to achieve what seemed so unlikely.

I want to finish with a quote that really sums up the importance of this event and what it means to each of us.  By my fellow graduate, Kenneth J.  

He says, “A seed that wishes to thrive will blossom through concrete.”

And that is exactly what we did.  


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Finding That Special Fathers' Day Card

I walk past the large display of Fathers' Day cards in the store, not even stopping to browse, to find the perfect card to send to a father.  A twinge of sadness stings my gut, bringing back that old feeling, a mixture of grief, loss, and an emptiness that can't be filled.

The greeting card companies and the TV ads tell me I'm supposed to make Fathers' Day a special day for my dad..  But, they're missing the point, and they sure don't understand my life and how I think about Fathers' Day.

Dad has been gone for most of my life.  And even when he was around and I got him a card, he'd just nod, barely saying the "thank you" I'd been craving.  My step dad has been gone a long time, too.  I knew he liked my cards.  He'd smile and give me a hearty handshake.  We knew where we stood with each other.We just didn't say them.  Talking about love and fathering wasn't part of our conversations.  But, we knew.  And, that was enough for me.  

My father in law liked my cards, too.  He's chuckle and laugh, and there'd be a twinkle in his eye.  He got a lot of attention on Fathers' Day, and he knew he was loved.  He gave it back, too.  In spades.  

This is the second year without him, and the emptiness inside of me as I look at all the choices on the card rack gets a bit deeper with me.  

I'm on the other side of the coin now.  I have a bunch of sons.  My step son and I are close, even though he's about six hundred miles away.  We can share our love easily, with just a smile, a joke, or something funny we e-mail to each other.  We still joke with each other, still playing pranks on each other with a silly plastic lobster.  A few weeks ago, I found Mr. Lobster, again, and he starred in my movie, the one I made on my iPad, and sent to my 42 year old son.  

A few hours later, my son sends me an e-mail.  He's in hysterics over my three minute movie, and invites me to share it with the rest of the family.  I'm not sure he thought I would, but I did, showing him I, too, can make my way around You Tube, and make some jokes again, with Mr. Lobster.

One of my foster sons flies his paraglider way up in the air, sending me videos once in a while, looking down at the far away ground, or a jet liner flying under him.  He knows I'm scared of heights, and I worry about him jumping off cliffs and flying high in the air, turning summersaults and making loops.  I know he's laughing every time he sends me his latest aerial adventures.  It's his way of saying he loves me, that he's doing just fine.

I have other sons now, too, the young guys I mentor in prison, and some of the other guys there, too.  The young man who makes the coffee drinks at the prison canteen on visiting days knows my usual order, and gets it started the moment I walk in the door.  Other guys show me their art work, or tell me about doing well on a test, or moving ahead in their treatment.  I get a lot of "Hi, Neal"s when I show up on their special days, or sit in on one of their activities, being a dad in their lives.

Their own dads don't show up much, if at all.  So, I like to give them a smile and a handshake, just to say hi, just to say that they are important.  

I don't find the "sons" section in the Fathers' Day cards.  There are the golfing joke ones, the religious ones, the silly ones, even the stepdad ones now.  But, there aren't any cards that say what I want to say, "Good job, son.  Thanks for being the son.  Without the son, there'd be no Fathers' Day."  

"I'm proud of who you are, what you've become."

That's what this day is really about,  sons and daughters.  The dad takes on the job of helping to raise the child, to teach, to listen, to wipe snotty noses and change dirty diapers, and help them with their homework.  And, to listen and counsel, and show them, by example, how it is to be a man, to move along in the world, being healthy, and wise.  

I don't have daughters, but I know they're watching their dads, too.  

"How are you at this man stuff?  How do I live with you?  What kind of man do I want in my life?  And, while you are at it, teach me about trust."

It is the biggest job I've ever had.  A lot of teaching of respect, and capability, and a lot of unconditional love.  
We're supposed to show them what love is all about.  And, respect.  And,  compassion and learning about this crazy world.

Being a dad is really learning how to be a good example, to be watched, and judged.  

"How ARE you doing as a man?"

"Show me.  But, I expect you to do it right."

No pressure there!

And, by the way, the manual on all this stuff is out of print, and I can't find an old copy on Amazon.

We're the guys that wait by the door at night, making sure they get home safe from that party, or that big date.  We're there to listen, to nod, to simply be there, keeping the porch light burning, to be the guy who cares that they do have a home to come back to, after a day of being a teenager in a harsh, often indifferent, cruel world.

We give the hugs, wipe the tears, and look them in the eye, quietly telling them we believe in them.  All things are possible.  And, they are loved.

Such simple things we do.  But, when that simple stuff gets neglected, or no guy is behind the front door when they do come home late at night, then all hell can break loose, and their fragile ships at sea too often crash onto the reefs and sink in the storms.  

And, we're the guys that haul the laundry sack to the laundry room, when they come home for the weekend.  And, we fire up the barbecue, and cook their favorite foods, letting them hang out with their old friends.  We often take a back seat then, letting them visit and laugh with their friends, as we flip the burgers, and get more potato  salad out of the frig.  

There will come the time when they'll sit down with us on the couch, after the party, and after a long day at the beach with their friends.  Then, they'll talk, a bit shy at first, then going deep, talking about the serious questions of life that a young man has, once they get out in the world, and have to deal with all of life's adult problems and worries.

Then, we listen, and we listen hard.  Sometimes, they ask for advice, but mainly, they just want to talk, to show you they are doing OK, that they learned a lot from you about life, that they are doing pretty good at it.  

And, we let them know, right back at them, that they're doing a good job, and they we believe in them, and take pride in who they are becoming.  

It's pretty easy to sit there and listen, and to nod, to say a few words of encouragement.

You see, fatherhood is a whole bunch of just showing up, just being present in someone's life.  

You don't need to give them your DNA, but you do need to give them your time, and your love.  That's fatherhood.  That's being a real man.  

The good work comes in just answering the phone, or texting something sweet back, in the middle of the night, letting them know you are around, that you care.  

I get my thanks, then, for being the dad.  I get that when they don't call for a couple of weeks at a time.  I know they are fine, they are making their way, needing their independence, flexing their big boy muscles and making their way through life.  

Someday, Hallmark might figure it out, and start selling "I love my kids" cards for Fathers' Day.  But, until they do, I'll just keep on doing what I do best, loving all my kids with all my heart, and telling them, every chance I get, that I love them.

--Neal Lemery
June 11, 2013

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Graduation 2013, in Prison

Graduations are wonderful.  The best ones, however, are in prison, watching youth fill with intense pride and determination, grasping a diploma that was well out of their reach, until their lives turned around, until they felt a sense of hope and possibility in their lonely, desperate lives.  

Today, they succeeded, they grew, they came into their own.  Their valedictorian gave the best graduation speech any of us had ever heard, bringing us to tears, and cheers, earning a standing ovation from all.

“When the doors of this prison locked behind us, other doors opened ahead of us,” was his opening line.  
Later, he told me he was half way towards achieving his associates degree, and dreams of earning an MBA.  I have no doubt he will accomplish all of that, and more.  

Another young man played a captivating song, exhibiting great talent on the guitar, and with his voice.  The principal remarked that he had never played publicly before.  It was another moment of amazement and celebration.

I watched sixteen young men celebrate their amazing achievement, and move ahead, seizing opportunity, changing their lives, and making a better world for all of us. 

Congratulations, Trask River High School Class of 2013!