Monday, December 19, 2016

Simply Listening

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
            Leo Buscaglia

            It is the simple things in life that are often the most meaningful. 

            A young man and I were working on his math.  He’s been working hard and now the formulas and methodology of his algebra was making sense to him.  My tutoring today consisted of listening to him explain his processes, and watch him work his problem, applying his knowledge, and seeing him find the answers.

            “I think I understand this now,” he said. 

            Pride filled his voice, and he gave me a seldom seen smile. 
            “What else do you need to work on?” I said. “You’ve clearly got your math under control. 

            He looked down at his shoes, then out the window.  His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, as he pondered my question.  A minute, then another passed without an answer.

            He cleared his throat, finally cluing me in.  His therapist needed him to make a list, a list of challenging events in his life, times when he was abused, and was abusive to others. 

            This would be the last barrier to complete therapy and move on with his life, to becoming free of what has burdened him, held him down.

            He looked away, tears filling his eyes. 

            “It’s so hard,” he said. “I can’t seem to get started.  I can’t write it down.”

            “Hard because?” I asked. 

            He fell silent, still looking down.  A tear ran down his cheek. 

            “It’s…. it’s overwhelming.  There’s just so much,” he said.

            We sat there, letting the heavy words fill the air.  It was hard for me to breathe, the air now thick with his emotions and the weight of this task. 

            “Take a breath,” I said.  “This is a safe place.  We’ll take this on together, and work on it just like we do with math.”

            “In math, one of the first steps is to write down the problem, give names to what you’re working on,” I said.  “One step at a time.”

            He looked at me, and I nodded.  Another tear ran down his cheek.  He took a deep breath, then another, re-inspecting his shoes.  A few more minutes passed. He gave me a slight nod.

            “I can be the writer today” I said.  “I’ll be your secretary.” 

            He looked away, over my shoulder, and started to speak, beginning his story with the last time he was in a difficult situation, a time of chaos and pain. 

            I picked up my pencil and began to write on the tablet we’d used for our math, starting a fresh page.

            He spoke almost in a whisper. I leaned closer, barely able to hear his words.  The room was silent except for the scratchings of my pencil against the paper, and his soft words, his voice cracking and choking over them. 

            I gulped, feeling my own sense of revulsion, panic, horror, and angst build up in my gut, as he told one story, then another, and another. 

            Working backwards in his life, he moved quickly from one incident to the one before it, giving me two or three sentences, names, ages, what happened, how he reacted, how he felt.  At first, it seemed jumbled, but I began to see the order, how he’d been preparing his story, rehearsing and editing it in his mind, probably for months. 

            He spoke fast enough that each story was only a line on my tablet, often just fragments of sentences, a first name.  I wrote quickly, finding myself near the bottom of page two before he took another breath and looked down at his shoes.

            Once, I had to prod, a few words of encouragement.  His look told me he thought I’d be a harsh judge for this story, condemning and berating him. 

            “It’s OK,” I whispered.  “It happened, so it needs to be on the list. No judging today.” 

            He took a big breath and let it out.  Another long minute of silence.

            The first time, I can’t remember much,” he said.

            “I can’t remember,” he finally said.  “I was two years old, and there was something, something with a friend of my dad’s.” 

            “I don’t know, but there’s something,” he said. 

            “It’s OK,” I said.  “When you’re two, you probably don’t remember a lot, at least consciously.” 

            We talked about the conscious brain and the subconscious, and how different parts of the brain have different tasks, and work differently.  And how we deal with trauma, and don’t deal with it very well. But, our body remembers, in ways that aren’t always clear to us.

            He nodded, relating all of this to what he’d learned in therapy and his psychology classes, and in all the thinking he’d been doing. 

            He looked at the list, shaking his head.

            “Wow, that’s a long list,” he said. 

            “A good list, “ I said. “You’ve done good work today,”

            Our time was coming to an end, and I needed to leave. 

            I tore off the pages I’d written, and handed them to him.

            “Here’s your list,” I said.  “We’ve written it down, so you don’t have to keep it in your head any more.  But, you’ll have it if you need it.”

            He looked at me, penetrating deep into my eyes. 

            “Oh,” he said.  “You mean I don’t have to keep all that inside of me, thinking about it all the time?” 

            “No,” I said. “You have your list, on that paper. Kind of like a grocery list, or a list of chores for the day.”

            “It’s a reference, I said. “You can put it in a safe place, and refer to it if you need to.”

            “And, once you’ve put words to all that, then you’ve named the problem, you’ve identified it, and you don’t have to keep thinking about it,” I said.

            He nodded, and let out a big whoosh of air. 

            “So, the problem,” he said.  “Kind of like a math problem then?   Write it out, apply the formulas and work the solution, huh?”

            I nodded, and he chuckled.

            “Just like a math problem,” he said. “One step at a time.”

            “Uh, huh,” I said. “Just like a math problem.  And, you can solve it, right?”

            “Yes, I can,” he said. 

            “Yes, I can.”

---Neal Lemery 12/19/2016

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Restringing Guitars and Young Men

            Fridays are my day at the local youth correctional facility.  In the morning, I work in their garden, helping young gardeners tend to their chickens, vegetable plots and herb gardens. 

            We plant, weed, water, and harvest, and then preserve and dry the results.  Most every week, we cook, enjoying the bounty of our work, and treating the young men to fresh, nutritious produce and the concept of healthy nutrition and living.

            The real gardening comes in our conversations, the camaraderie of young and older gardeners, working and learning together, truly being in community.   

            They are learning where food really comes from, and how to be invested in that process, being self sufficient and healthy.  The metaphor of the garden is not lost on them, as they work to become strong, healthy, productive farmers of their lives. 

            I also work with some of the young men individually, being the “surrogate parent” and being the visitor they need and wouldn’t have otherwise.  I’m the “family” who shows up with some baked goods or candy, and just visits for an hour.  Sometimes, we play games, but mainly, I just listen, offering the compassionate ear of the uncle or dad who is missing in their lives.

            I’m tender and kind to them, being the encouraging voice, the cheerleader, the supportive dad they wouldn’t otherwise have. 

            Today, one of my young men and I restrung one of the guitars there.  It is a “state” guitar, which means it’s the guitar that gets played by those who don’t have their own instrument.  The guitar is played a lot, and replacing the strings has become a regular task for me. 

The guitar gets loved to death, played hard by lonely, frustrated fingers pouring out the emotions of the neglected and abandoned, the incarcerated, the young men who have no other way of expressing themselves.  I’m like that guitar, a place where the emotions of these young men can have their voice, a willing ear, an appreciative audience for what they need to say. 

            My guy has had a rough year.  He’s one of the lucky ones, not serving a mandatory sentence, a guy who can walk out the door if he’s done all his treatment, completed high school and shown he can be a responsible young man.   

            He literally has the keys to the front gate, but the old voices keep telling him he’s worthless, and should be abandoned and left out for the trash man. 

            Like so many of the young men here, being responsible and healthy is a new experience, and the fear of going back into the world, and being around the family and friends who were a big part of the bad times that brought him here, is one huge scary nightmare of parole. 

            The thought of being successful in life is a new idea.  For most of their life, they’ve been told they are worthless, failures.  My job is to be a spark of encouragement, the mirror of their successes and self worth, to be the dad who believes in them and is proud of who they are becoming. 

            My job and the job of the guitar are a lot alike.

            My buddy has derailed himself a number of times here, despite all his good work. The old ways, the old voices still show up, beating him down with the whips of shame  and guilt, the indifference to the beauty of their young souls. 

            Today, though, he moved ahead.  He took the initiative and restrung the guitar, without much help from me.  With confidence, he completed the task, grinning as the new strings sang out their song in his confident fingers.  His eyes twinkled with pride as he showed others the work he had done. 

            We did more than restring an old, well-used guitar.  We restrung a young man and gave voice to the new, self-confident man now playing his songs, happy with what he’s done and who he’s becoming. 

--Neal Lemery, 12/9/2016