An Unexpected Christmas Delight


I finally figured out why I picked up the guitar many years ago and have put a bunch of time and energy into playing. I’ve certainly had other rewards and joys. But, tonight, I experienced a new form of joy.

Tonight was my weekly band practice. Last Saturday, we had a lovely gig at the library, playing Christmas music for an appreciative audience, and we had a great time. We found our “groove” and played well. But, now our gig calendar is empty.

Tonight, our leader said he’d gotten us a sudden invitation to play tonight at a nearby long term care facility for dementia patients. Pop up guitar concert time! We are a flexible group of guitar addicts!

Twenty minutes later, we are setting up in the main living room, in front of the tree and the fireplace, and we start playing our Christmas song list. The audience are there in their wheelchairs and lap robes. Soon, they are tapping their toes, nodding their heads, and smiling. We play for about an hour, and are having ourselves a good time, as well.

After our last song, a number of the residents profusely thank us for playing. I’m putting my guitar back in its case, and one lady rolls up to me in her wheelchair and offers me a piece of candy from her private stash.

“Thanks,” she says. “Merry Christmas.”

Another lady, who I know, is there, too. She’s been eyeing me, and finally says, “I know you.” We talk, and she remembers me, and tells me thanks for coming. And, “Merry Christmas.”

Tears come as I’m driving home, and I forget the cold night and the piercing east wind, and remember the warmth of the evening, and the blessings of music.

Befriending


 

 

Kindness

Comes in so many forms, so many ways

A smile, a cup of tea,

Reaching out, giving a hand

Listening

Accepting.

 

Together

We honor ourselves and each other

Gifts to share, building community

Bonds, interactions, communion

Union, reciprocity

Strengthening, a weaving together

The whole greater than the parts.

 

Compassion

Understanding the Other, each other

By opening our own hearts

Being open, exchanging, offering

Receiving

Accepting

Enhancing

Uniting.

 

–Neal Lemery

11/29/2018

Smoke Break


 

–by Neal Lemery

 

His hands shook as he rummaged through a plastic grocery sack, pulling out a plastic pre-roll tube. It still had its faded label from the marijuana store down the street.  The shakings nearly caused him to drop the tube, but he managed to snap open the plastic lid. He tapped a little something into his mouth and swallowed.

He’d laid his lit cigarette on the black metal patio table, and set down the plastic tube, pushing the lid shut with yellowed fingertips.  The rest of the sack’s contents were soon strewn across the table: another pre-roll tube, three cigarette lighters, a half empty pack of rolling papers, an open pack of cigarettes, and a pocket knife with an open, half broken off blade.

A worn cardboard box sign with crude letters spelling out “Hungry” also decorated the table.  He had been holding it up on a street corner a mile away not an hour ago, looking gaunt, wet, and needy.  The hood of his coat had shadowed his face from passersby and the drivers waiting at the light.

His body twitched occasionally, his head bouncing back and forth, as he muttered to himself and occasionally spoke loudly in an indecipherable squawk, into the wind.

The sign was catching some of the raindrops  blowing in from the approaching storm, and he scooted the table and himself further under the eaves, until the chair banged against the window.

His friend showed up a few minutes later, also dressed in a black, heavy cotton raincoat and jeans, with equally sunken eyes and a week’s worth of beard across his face. His fist was curled around a crisp new paper sack, its shape formed by the scrunching of the sack against a bottle recently purchased at the nearby liquor store two blocks away.  He grinned as he arrived, raising the bag and his fist in triumph. He mumbled a few words to the first guy, who took another taste of whatever was in the tube, and handed it to the second guy.

It was their only conversation here on the street.

The second guy took a long drag on his cigarette, white smoke briefly covering his face, before the wind cleared the smoke away.  He set the half-smoked cigarette on the table. A fresh breath of wind rolled it off and down to the sidewalk, where it was promptly snuffed out by the wet. Grabbing the tube, he opened it with an experienced flick of a thumb, and tapped some of the contents onto his tongue.

The sidewalk and side street were otherwise deserted, as rain began to fall in bursts. The wind gusted, picking up speed, scattering fallen leaves this last part of November. An empty, sodden Starbucks cup rolled towards the adjoining street, soon to meet its fate in the steady stream of log trucks and pickups, and tires splashing in the gutters.

They each took a couple more hits from the pre-roll tube, until the contents were depleted.  The second man cursed as he discovered his sodden cigarette on the ground, and quickly lit another one from the open pack on the table, flicking a flame out of one of the three lighters on the table.

The first man, staring at his shoes, pulled heavily on the last of his cigarette, everything in jagged motion as yet another twitch overtook him. Taking in the last of the smoke the cigarette had to offer, he breathed out a sigh of pleasure.

The wind gusted stronger, moving the rain at a lower slant, now streaking the window under the café eave.  The two men were starting to get wet.  They wordlessly fought with the plastic grocery sack and the wind, finally getting all their items back into the sack, and stuffed it into the first man’s knapsack. They headed off towards the street. The second man clutched his sack full of liquor, his steps uncertain in the wind and rain.

The first man paused, wracked again by yet another twitch and shaking all over, his hands convulsing for a few more seconds.  Again, sounds came from his lips, harsh, angry, incoherent.

The other man looked back at his friend, his eyes gaunt, staring, unfocused. He silently turned and moved ahead, as the first man finally regained his balance and started moving again, trailing the other guy.

In a minute, the sidewalk was empty, the rain moving in for good, drenching the pavement and washing away the last traces of their visit to the table by the café.

Back and forth, give and take, getting a little high before the storm hit for good, before they opened the booze somewhere out of the storm.

******

 

I watched from my booth at the café, this snippet of their young lives playing out before my disbelieving eyes, leaving me to ignore my coffee cup and the poem I was trying to rewrite.

The waiter came to refill my cup, and looked out into the wet, windswept street, commenting about the coming storm.  No mention of the two men, the ingesting of the contents of the tube, the full bottle of booze in the brown sack, the occasional twitchings and outbursts, as if this episode of these young men’s world wasn’t really playing out by the front door of his café.

Invisible, or just part of the downtown scenery, I wasn’t sure which.  Maybe the scene was just too ordinary, too commonplace to merit comment.

 

The poem I was going to work on lay unattended, and my coffee had grown cold. Instead, I had become a part of their cigarette break, their moment on the street.  I had been held silenced, unnoticed on the other side of the glass, and the ritual with the contents of the plastic tube, as they passed it back and forth, emptying the contents into their mouths.  There were the manipulations of the smokers and their cigarettes, and the occasional twitches and tremors, the incoherencies of the man with the “Hungry” sign.

“Hungry”.  Still hungry, as the two men started their journey to the next place.  A place where, perhaps, the bottle would give them warmth and conversation, a way to pass the time until the storm blew through.

And, perhaps the stuff from the tube, the liquor, the smokes would somehow fill the bellies of their souls with what they needed in their lives, the stuff that couldn’t be found on the table by the café.

I went back to my coffee, and a bowl of soup, and my unfinished poem, behind the glass of that café window that was my own private window into their world, sheltered by the storm and the wind that blew through their lives.

11/29/2018

 

 

 

 

The Extra Chair


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

(also published today in the Tillamook County Pioneer)

One year at Thanksgiving, Mom told me to set an extra place setting.  We’d counted up all the relatives who would be coming, and I was curious as to who she was adding. By my count, we hadn’t forgotten anyone and the place settings matched the numbers of who was coming.

“Oh, it’s nice to have an extra setting, just in case,” she said.  “You never know who might come.”

I was very curious, but she wouldn’t answer my persistent questions.

Thanksgiving morning came and we were all put to work on preparations for the meal. My dad had to go into work for an hour, and not long after he left, the phone rang. It was my dad.

“That’s fine,” she said.  “Of course. No problem.  The table’s already set and there’s an extra chair.”

She turned to us after she hung up the phone.

“We’ll be having another guest for dinner,” she said. She smiled then, and started humming a tune, as she turned back to the stove.

Sure enough, my dad arrived home with our mystery guest.  She was a co-worker, and had no other place to go for Thanksgiving. Her smile said it all, how grateful she was to be included.

Every year after that, we always set an extra place for Thanksgiving.  One year there was a flood and some neighbors couldn’t make it to their family dinner, so we set up another table and had another half dozen dinner guests.

One year, it was one of my friends in high school, needing a refuge from a tough time on the home front.

As always, my folks asked no questions, and passed no judgement.  The unexpected guest was welcomed with open arms and the first serving of turkey.

My wife and I continued the tradition, welcoming friends, making sure there was a place at the table.

The first Thanksgiving we had our foster son, we made sure he felt welcome, as family gathered to enjoy the holiday.

And, as if on cue, the phone rang, and I heard myself saying, “Sure, of course there’s room.  We’d love to have him.”

I made a special trip while the turkey was cooking, and brought his brother home for the weekend. We made sure to make him feel welcome, a part of the family. He responded with a tear running down his cheek, as he sat down in the extra chair.

Years later, after my folks had passed away, and our kids were starting their own families and had moved away, it was just my wife and I who would be home for dinner.

“Let’s set another place,” my wife said.  “You never know.”

A few days before, she called first one and then another friend, friends who were single, and who, it turned out, would be alone for Thanksgiving.

“Of course, you’re invited.  We’ll expect you at 1,” I heard her say.

We set two extra plates that year, and the Thanksgiving celebration became even more special, as two lonely people found a warm home and bountiful table to share, and our friendship grew. Thanksgiving took on a new, richer meaning that year.

One of our traditions, just as we sit down for the meal, is for everyone to share their gratitudes with the rest of us. There is so much to be grateful in our lives, and we so often tend to skip over giving thanks on Thanksgiving. Instead, we slide into talk about a lot of other subjects, forgetting what the day is really about.

Thanksgiving truly is a day to celebrate our gratitudes and to give thanks. And, often what I am most grateful for is that extra chair, that extra place setting.  I’m grateful for the company of someone who would otherwise be alone on the day we gather and give thanks for all that we have.  And that list begins with being thankful for each other.

 

Remembering Grandpa Henry


 

 

 

November 11, 2018

 

World War I, the “Great War”, the “War to End All Wars”, ended one hundred years ago today.

That day, my grandfather was a prisoner of war in a Russian prison camp. He was drafted into the German Army and sent to the eastern front, a foot soldier in a war where nerve gas, machine guns, and tanks dominated the battlefields, causing horrific casualties.

Word of the end of the war likely reached the prison camp a week, maybe three weeks later, at the beginning of the harsh winter in what is now eastern Poland. The Russian guards just opened the gates and walked away, forcing the emaciated, sick German prisoners of war to fend for themselves.

My grandfather spoke little of that experience, and only a few times told of taking boots off of dead soldiers, stuffing moss and newspapers into them, and making his way west, back to his home in northern Germany.  There was no food on the journey, except for frozen potatoes he could find in snow-covered fields.

I never knew how long that journey took him, or how many of his companions on that journey survived.  But, cold weather bothered him. He always made sure he had warm boots and thick socks on when he went to the barn and milked his cows on winter mornings.

Being a curious child, I would ask him a few questions about the war, but he would only say it was “bad, bad times”, and grow silent. He was a quiet, contemplative man anyway, and would rarely share his feelings.

I’d ask my mom about Grandpa and the war, and she would say that he never talked about the war. She had never heard his story about the boots and the frozen potatoes.

We all called him Grandpa Henry, but one day, as we were working alone in the barn, he told me that his first name was really Ausmus.  His middle name was Heinrich, the German version of Henry.   He was the thirteenth child of dairy farmers, and when he returned from the war, hard times had come to Germany, and there was no work for him on the farm.  There was no work anywhere.

He decided to emigrate to America.  Somehow, he ended up working on my grandmother’s farm as a hired hand. Once, he told me about being on a ship crossing the Atlantic and he got very seasick, and it was a very long trip.  But, again, no details, just a long period of silence after his few, soft words.

I was learning not to pry or ask questions, and I noticed he would tear up when he would tell me his stories.

He was my grandma’s second husband, and took on the role of stepfather for my mom when she was nine.  He was the only grandfather I knew.

Years later, I did some research and found his naturalization papers on file. He got his citizenship in the mid 1930s, so he must have had his green card or the 1920s version of that, for at least fifteen years.  My grandmother and my mom sponsored him for citizenship.

One time, I asked my mom if Grandpa had any photos or papers about his life in Germany and his family there.

“No,” she said.  “Not anymore.”

There was a lot of anti-German sentiment in the US during World War I, and afterwards, too.  People stopped using the common names for cottage cheese, and even sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”, as German culture was in such disfavor. Even street names and the names of towns were changed, to put an end to German influence.

That is probably the reason Grandpa wasn’t called “Ausmus” or even “Heinrich”, but the Americanized “Henry”.

Grandma was afraid of Grandpa’s German roots and feared people would hate him and our family because of his heritage.  So, she burned all of his photos and papers, hoping to put an end to that connection.

At holidays dinners, my mom would put on a feast, and she always made something special for Grandpa, something German.  He’d have a big smile on his face when she put the dish on the table, and say how grateful he was for her kindness and thoughtfulness.

When I was a teenager, an Indonesian family moved onto a farm a few farms away from my grandparents.  They were the first non-European farmers in the entire community, and their presence fired up a lot of racist sentiment. The racists around were the grandchildren of immigrants, yet no one seemed to see the irony in their behavior.

Grandpa was the first to welcome them to the community, helping them set up their barn, and even giving them five or six heifers to supplement their herd. He’d take his tractor down the road to help them out, and he made sure they had enough hay to get them through the first winter.

He even took the farmer down to the creamery and got him signed up to deliver their milk, and get on the roles of the creamery to get a monthly milk check. It was a complicated process, but Grandpa made sure that everything was set up so his friend could sell his milk at the best price.

He never talked about that, or expected any thanks or appreciation.  It was just something he did, quietly. It was just something he’d do, for anyone deserving of some help and friendship.

The family became close friends of my grandparents and prosperous farmers in their own right, citizens, and respected members of the community.

My times with Grandpa in the barn and helping him at haying time were special times, passing all too quickly.  I was eager to grow up, and move away to college, and I took those quiet times with him for granted.

In the last years of his life, I’d look in on him, taking care of him at times, running errands, and making sure he was comfortable. I’d take care of his feet, cutting his nails, and putting on lotion.  He had arthritis, and his feet bothered him a lot.

When I worked on his feet, I could tell that his pain wasn’t just from arthritis or old age, but that, many years earlier, some bones had been broken and hadn’t healed right.

When I asked him about it, he told me, “It was the war, the Russians.”

He didn’t say anything more, and I didn’t pry. The look in his eyes told me so much.

Now that he’s gone, I’d wished that we had talked a lot more. His life as a soldier was quite an amazing story, yet none of us will really know that tale.

I learned so much from him, in those long times of silence, in the tears welling up, but not usually shed.

Soldiers don’t share much of what they experienced on the battlefield, or in how they had to deal with the insanity, bloodshed and death.  In their silence lies the tales that we should never forget.

 

–Neal Lemery

Fearing Commitment


Fearing Commitment

 

“The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating – in work, in play, in love.  The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation.  To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.” –Anne Morriss

 

I’m afraid of commitment, of taking that decisive step and telling myself I can do this.  With commitment comes responsibility, and the toughest of any responsibility is that I’m obligated to follow through, and what happens is on all me.  I own it.

 

Yet, as Anne Morriss points out, there is that freedom you gain.  Other tasks and activities can fall by the wayside, and I don’t have to do things that I’m really not invested in, and that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of life, the frivolous things, trivial, inconsequential.

 

If I am going to do something really well, with all my energy and creative talent, then I need to be completely committed, and engage my heart and my soul into the task at hand, my eye firmly focused on the goals I have set for myself.

 

And allow myself to be relaxed in that emotional space, to take it easy and let it flow.  That’s when I’m at my best.  So why not give myself permission to go to that place within me, where my creativity and spontaneity can be let loose, and thrive?

 

There’s that old fear, that I’m not good enough, not able enough, not competent. But, all that is on me, what I think, and what I believe about myself, my capabilities; my commitment.

 

I need to own it. And, when I own it, and pour my energy into it, I find myself in that state of being where my task and I become one, that what I am doing is really the essence of me, and my creative spirit.

 

Lately, I’ve been trying to focus on my music and my art.  And, I’ve found again, and am relearning again, that when I am engaged in that work, I do best, and find the greatest satisfaction, when I am completely in the moment, completely engaged, and committed. Not only on the conscious level, but deeper, on a soulful level, subconscious, intensely internal.

 

I try not to listen to those old voices, the naysayers, the doom and gloomers. Instead, I need to embrace my commitment, and rejoice in that liberation.

 

–Neal Lemery, 11/4/2018

Living In A Strong Community


Living in a Strong Community

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”
― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth

 

I’ve been taking a look at my community, and wondering how we measure up, in these challenging times, when some are wondering if our society is in decline.

 

Here’s a checklist of seven attributes of a healthy community:

  1. Good governance
  2. Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
  3. Parks and gardens
  4. Partnerships
  5. Programming
  6. Neighborhood-responsive schools
  7. Tree culture

–Scott Doyon

 

Being in community is vital to my own mental health and emotional well-being.  Given the continual national stream of tragic events fueled by racism, prejudice, bigotry, and selfishness, I often feel the weight of despair and hopelessness. I am increasingly more sensitive to reaching my limit of how much of that “news cycle” and horror I can be exposed to.

Much of that angst is relieved when I immerse myself in building up my community, and being present with others who are caring, selfless people engaged in taking care of themselves and each other in these turbulent, emotionally exhausting times.

In my town, we are doing it right. I think we get high marks on Scott Doyon’s list of a healthy, engaged community.

In the past three years, the state highway department has funded a major revamping of the traffic pattern (our previously confusing junction of two major highways), narrow downtown streets, and a dilapidated, underused waterfront.

This week, we are celebrating the completion of that project, as well as other efforts by the city and the business community to rejuvenate and invigorate the downtown, making it a welcoming and prosperous town.

Now, we have new sidewalks, a smoother flowing traffic pattern, a town pedestrian plaza, bike paths, a food truck cart center, bike racks, a fresh look in two waterfront parks, and a walkway encouraging people to walk to other parks and attractions.  New bridges span the slough at the north edge of the downtown. New landscaping adds a fresh, inviting look.  The local restaurant scene is vigorous and inviting. Open mics, featuring local musicians and writers, are now the norm.

Downtown merchants have also gotten on board, with renovations, fresh paint, and interesting shops.  We have a number of new downtown events, including a monthly Art Walk, a thriving community art gallery, and a museum which not only showcases local artists, but a continuing schedule of regionally renown speakers and presenters.

 

Community organizations are thriving, and numerous activities are filling up the community calendar with a wide variety of events for every interest. New ideas are being discussed, and plans are underway for even more activities and ways to build a healthier community. We have a “can do” attitude now.

 

Our “Year of Wellness”, a public health collaborative to focus on ways to improve individual and community health, has brought together the entire spectrum of health service agencies, government, and individuals to collaborate on improving public health and a sense of community spirit. We are challenging ourselves to live healthier, more informed lives, and doing it from the ground up.  Grass roots activism at its finest! We’ve decided a year wasn’t long enough for the tasks we identified, and now the work is seen as long term, with increasingly challenging and meaningful goals. Community wellness is now part of our collective experience.

 

The library is spearheading the building of a new downtown park, and library programs are enjoying wide popularity, engaging the community on a variety of experiences and informative activities for all ages.  Public use of the library is setting records.

 

Teachers are developing state of the art educational experiences for students, and we are becoming increasingly well informed about the impact of childhood trauma, domestic violence, hunger, and addiction recovery.

 

The best part of all this is that we have a sense of belonging here.  Each of us is important, and each of us is a valued contributor to the common good, the whole community.  An individual has something unique to offer, and is a valued, unique player in the common effort.  I feel I belong here, and so do all my neighbors.

 

In this town, one person makes the difference, and others listen to their voice, and value their experience, their perspective, and their talents.  And, we have the will power and the courage to take on the difficult, ugly issues that our community, and the nation, has.  Much of the work is hard, and the tasks are daunting at times.  We don’t always achieve 100% success, but we are trying and we see a lot of progress in what we are trying to accomplish. And, that feels really good.

 

In this town, there is hope, and there is a sense of collective purpose. We are committed to be winners, and the changers that create a better world.  Now, we are a town of optimism and determination.

 

Community partnerships are everywhere, knitting together our community fabric in a fresh spirit of resolve and collaboration.  There’s an attitude of “get it done” and pitching in to just do it.

 

As my friends say around town, “Onward!”