Living In the Midst of Courage


I live in the midst of courageous people. Oh, I laugh at the funny things about my little home town, the log trucks and milk trucks rumbling through downtown, taking up a lane and a half, the cow manure fountains spurting their stink, attracting seagulls and puzzling some of the tourists.

“What’s that green fountain in the field?” they ask, until they get too close.

Our high school teams are the Cheesemakers, and our big tourist attraction is the cheese factory, where people line up for ice cream cones, and carry out big bags of “squeaky cheese”, what my grandmother used to call cheese curds, and fed them to the hogs. At $5 a bag, I bet today she wouldn’t be thinking hog food.

Our biggest celebration is the June Dairy Month Parade, led by our dairy princesses, and finished up with big hay trucks and the town’s biggest fire truck. At the county fair, the most popular events are the “Pig ‘N Ford” races (Model Ts and greased pigs), and the Saturday night demolition derby.

Yet, serious things go on here, people taking on serious, tough issues and moving ahead in their lives.

This week, the local paper features the lives of young women, rebuilding their troubled, addicted lives in a women’s rehabilitation house, finding a healthy routine, and real normalcy. The paper printed their pictures and their names, at the top of the front page, along with their stories of drugs, violence, child neglect, and jail. They are stepping forward, claiming their sobriety and their changes, and proud of their journey.

A mentally troubled lady buttonholes me in the library, venting her political views, and urging me to gather food for the coming apocalypse.. The librarian and I later compare notes, on how we both look after her, in our own ways, knowing that the resources for helping the mentally ill are stretched thin, and the best thing we can do is keep an eye out, and sometimes offer a kind ear for the demons in her head.

I chat with a contractor outside of a cafe. He’s up to speed on how our jails are our mental health clinics, that most folks in jail are addicts, and that this country has the highest per capita rate of prisoners. And, how that doesn’t work. He tells me how he hires guys getting out of jail, knowing that they need the work, and more than a little guidance and fathering from him. He says he’s changed some lives, and that he makes a difference.

“I take a chance on people, but folks need a break, a chance to be successful,” he grins. “Been there, myself, you know.”

A young man here in prison talks to me about his release in a few months, how he’s going to move back to his small town, back to where people know him for his crime and probably aren’t in a forgiving mood. He takes a deep breath and calls his journey “stepping out” into his future. He’s not looking back, and will find new friends, and negotiate a new way of living with his family.

He talks frankly with me about his sexual crime, and how that affected the victim. And, he talks about how he was abused, and beaten and how he was going down the dark road when he was a teen. Prison changed him, he says, and the treatment there was the best thing he’s doing for himself and for his future.

A grocery clerk takes a break outside, looking up at the sky. Her daughter’s back in jail—drugs, again. It’s a tough cycle, and there’s a tear in her eye that slides down her cheek, as she thinks about her daughter, and the granddaughter now back in her care, and what lies ahead. Yet, she’s here, working, and taking it on, again.

Courage. Courage to move ahead, the past be damned.

The local AA groups proudly fix up their meeting house, putting up a sign announcing their presence, and their mission in this town, where the bars nearly outnumber the churches.

“We are here, and we are working our plan, one step at a time.” Not that long ago, there was a whole lot of shame and denial in addiction and recovery, and the biggest voice about it was just a whisper. Now, that work is something people are proud of, even letting the local paper put their names and pictures on the front page, talking about their recovery, and the work they’re doing to stay clean and sober.

We can talk about domestic violence now, too. The local group that offers counseling, shelter, and a lot of support is out in the community, accepted as an important service and a vital presence in our lives.

Not that we are putting an end to domestic violence. It still rears its ugly head in so many ways. But, a lot of discussion goes on about domestic violence now, and we aren’t so afraid to talk about it, and the impact it has on people’s lives, and how complicated it is to help someone who is dealing with it in their lives. There’s some turning points, and people’s thinking is changing. And, people who are dealing with it are being admired, admired for being courageous.

I take an evening class at the community college, During my break, I saw a woman writing on a tablet in the student commons. She writes slowly, thoughtfully, her pen poised above the paper, as she carefully chooses her words. She opens a book, a text on communications, and reads a paragraph, her brow furrowed in concentration, and picks up her pen, and starts to write again. She’s still wearing her uniform from work, and her face tells me it’s been a long day. But she’s here, working away, making progress in her life, getting an education.

My teacher is working hard, too, spending time with each of his students, making sure everyone is challenged, and everyone is learning something useful, something to make them better guitar players, better musicians, and, most of all, better people.

He’s building a house, from the ground up, learning as he goes. Today, he put in a window, something he’s never done before. Not that that would stop him. He loves a challenge, he loves building his future, one board, one sheet of plywood, one window at a time.

At night, the college parking lot is full. Every classroom is busy, people listening, talking, working hard on learning, on moving ahead in their lives.

People moving ahead, working on what needs to be taken care of, people living their courage.

Neal Lemery 10/30/2013

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