Teachings From the Pandemic


                                    

                                                            by Neal Lemery

            This last year and a half has been chock full of lessons and experiences, forcing us to adapt, often reluctantly, to changes in how we live, be with family, work, celebrate social life and participate in the experiences we are used to having. 

            I’m often reluctant to accept change, let alone welcome it with the sense that our lives will be better.  I like my routines, but the Pandemic has pushed me way out of my comfort zone.

            Now that the vaccines are here, and many of our cherished patterns and activities are returning to our lives, in altered forms, we are still not “back to normal”.  We now are adapting to new routines.

            “The New Normal” can be liberating.  Those activities and obligations we often didn’t enjoy much can be substituted with new approaches to living our lives.  Virtual meetings and classes can often be more convenient and efficient than in-person gatherings. In some ways, participating in government is simplified, by clicking on a link and interacting with legislators and other government agencies. 

Now, I realize it’s possible to talk with health care providers and other professionals without the need to travel. The experience may not be ideal, but most of our interactions are productive, and certainly time efficient.

 Conversations with family and friends are a more welcoming experience.  The last few months have allowed us to travel and again be physically present with others, teaching me that a big part of my social life is physical connection.  

            We have been learning that much of our society’s work can be handled remotely, that where we live has enormous value to our wellbeing and sense of purpose.  We look at the value of personal services and professional interactions really are essential, and that every job is important.  

            Each day is a new opportunity.  The ancient Greeks recognized that: 

            “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”   —- Heraclitus  

            An old song teaches that we can persevere and change is coming:

“…

“Oh, there been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able, to carry on

“It’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes it will.”

                                    “A Change is Gonna Come”. Sam Cooke

            Throughout the ages, change comes.  We grow and adapt, because we should. And if we don’t, we stagnate, we rust, and decay.  Life is like that, pushing us forward, into the new.  

            I’m often grateful for the changes and the resulting need for me to stretch and learn.  The old, tried and true ways can become stale, and I weaken if I am not challenged. There’s enough “unexpected” that happens in life that ensures that life doesn’t get old and boring. 

            We have opportunities now that didn’t exist before. Let’s discard what hasn’t worked and embrace what now does work, for the good of all of us.

6/15/2021 

To One Suddenly Departed


                                                

            I can take you for granted so easily. Often, you would be there in my life, a friend, one who listens, one who cares, full of life. Today, you are quickly gone, and we will talk and laugh together no more. I struggle to know what to do with all of this. Our lives together are gifts, more fragile than I want to see. 

And I grieve.

            You were steadfast, dependable, present for me and all the others in your life who have depended upon you to care, to comfort, to share with them the small moments in life. You were a bright light for so many.

            And I grieve.

            Such times together and such friendships seem ordinary, until they aren’t there anymore. Today, there is a void, an emptiness, a forever silence now that you are so quickly, so unexpectedly missing from us. Your dependability, your presence, your wisdom in my life has not been unnoticed, certainly not unappreciated, and now thoughts of you with us are painful, incomplete, confusing.

            And I grieve.

            Your laughter, your smile, your presence in our lives is now reduced to history, but has not gone unappreciated, nor unvalued. You are forever a part of me.

            And I grieve.

            I know now that you knew all that, and we were both brave enough to be honest with each other about friendship, how important that is, even when its value goes unspoken. Some truths do not need to be spoken to be recognized and honored, cherished.

            And I grieve.

            In this new emptiness, I hear only silence in the wind, and the echoes of all that I have cherished in our friendship.  In your absence, there are spaces in me that leave me less than whole. I remember you for all the good times. In that remembering, you live on in my grief.

Neal Lemery  6/3/2021

A Small Act of Kindness


                                                

                                                                        — Neal Lemery

            “Carry out a random act of kindness, with no expectation of reward, safe in the knowledge that one day, someone will do the same for you.”   — Princess Diana

            The day often offers so many opportunities to be kind, with only a few moments, a few kind words, a charitable act.  The occasion offers such potential to ease someone’s burdens, to be a messenger of joy and compassion, to be simply human with each other.

            I find myself getting caught up in my to do list, my errands.  I become caught up into the American behaviors of rushing through the day, being abrupt, and not engaging with others on a human level. Yes, I can check off my list, and feel a sense of accomplishment, but I often leave my humanity and the humanity of others often neglected, pushed aside by feeling obsessed with getting my work done.

            The other day, I was part of a simple business transaction, paying a craftsman for his labor.  He was meticulous, professional, and took pride in his work, which I realized was heartfelt and respectable.  I took time to thank him, and handed him a check, with a generous tip.  My wife asked him about his young son, asking to see a photo.  For the next few minutes, we all oohed and awed over the cuteness of the photos and a sweet video that expressed his contagious laugh, the two-year old being exuberant about life and the simple joys in life that a two-year old can so easily spontaneously express.  The interaction became a celebration of life and parenthood, and the joys that a small child can bring to the world.

            I was thankful that my wife and the craftsman were patient with me, and took the time to pause and celebrate the joys of parenthood.  I was again reminded that life is sweet and simply joys need to be shared and enjoyed.  

            The barista at the coffee shop drive-through always shares her kindness and cheer with me.  Her demeanor and courtesy may be a part of her job description, but her good works she shares with her customers are also part of her character, part of her work to enhance the community, and brighten the lives of her customers.  Each of us can do that work as we live our lives and interact with others. 

            The simple acts of kindness, seemingly insignificant at the time, are often the most cherished moments that others experience. The value of what we do in a spur of the moment, without much thought to taking a moment to be kind, can be enormous and widely influential. 

            Kindness is a two-way street. We often don’t realize that we need to experience a little kindness from others, as well as being the recipient.  Our burdens can be heavier than we realize, that we are sometimes lonelier or more needy than we know.  While it is “more blessed to give than receive”, and that mindset makes for a better community, we also need to replenish our own “well” of goodness, charity, and kindness.  And, in receiving the kindnesses of others, we allow them to find a place to share their love.  Allowing others to give to us is also a gift of love. In the sharing lies the fruit of kindnesses.  

5/31/2021

Renewal


                                    

In the midst of the rumbles of coffee shop conversations, I found

a few minutes of solitude, 

the to-do list on pause, suddenly unimportant — I let myself

escape, to run away from the ordinary 

day, to find myself, to search 

for my own meaning in my world, my life.

To take a breath, rest, renew, 

refresh, re-orient myself to my true 

intentions, my true purpose, my true 

nature

apart from everyone else.

I pause, stilling myself, listening to my 

heartbeat, my breath, grounding

myself in the momentary quiet of this

rainy day.

Absorbing these gifts, the countless

drops are clear and new upon the soil, full of

promise, expectation.

I become still, listen to the earth soaking up the wet, turning the 

grey, the shiny wet, into

green. 

5/24/2021. Neal Lemery

What I Am Learning From The Pandemic


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                                                                        by Neal Lemery

            The last year has taught me many lessons, and I hope I can fully absorb and retain the wisdom of these times. The lessons are often challenging and messy, and I struggle to make sense of these times.

  • We human beings are very vulnerable to disease. In this age of “miracle medicine”, technological wonders, and astonishing discoveries and advances in medicine, we can still contract a new disease. We find ourselves susceptible to random life-threatening illness. I am not in control. 
  • There are angels and miracle workers among us, serving as true caregivers. 
  • Humans are survivors.  We have survived other pandemics.  After the Black Death, Europe experienced the Renaissance. 
  • Many of us disregard lifesaving information and medical guidance. 
  • Society is easily prone to mistruths, falsehoods, and deliberate lies. We can be easily manipulated and frightened by deliberate propaganda and gaslighting.  Many of the proponents of falsehoods and distortions do not have the best interests of the community at heart. Instead, they are destroyers and terrorists.  
  • Finding truth is a necessary and sometimes lifesaving skill. Skepticism is useful. 
  • Relationships with others is an essential element of a healthy life and personal sanity. 
  • Human touch and social interaction are vital to my health and my daily life. I can be depressed and lonely.
  • Technology, with its access to information, virtual meetings, seminars, and other gatherings, can be very useful, giving us a sense of connection.  We can conduct our business and be engaged in learning from our homes.  Yet, those virtual connections lack the intimacy, the “spark” of in-person conversation and true interaction. There’s basic human chemistry in that. We are truly social beings, and need to be physically together to share the most essential aspects of our communication.
  • We can be amazing problem solvers and managers of new and challenging situations. We are resourceful and creative. When faced with a common challenge, we can pull together and take collective action. Yet, we often find fear in that success, doubting ourselves for being successful; the “not good enough” thinking. It often takes courage to declare that we can be good at managing the Pandemic. 
  • Life is precious. Relationships are precious. We need to gather together to both celebrate and to grieve. Not doing that is painful and often stifles our souls and fuels our fears and doubts. We can be saboteurs of our best intentions.
  • We can be argumentative, strident, and stubborn in our opinions.  Our personal pride and our egos can derail us from attending to our common desires for a better society. We often fail to realize that our anger and divisiveness are really expressions of our passions and our collective desire to be a society responsive to our needs and our goals for a better world. We struggle with the small stuff and often pass by our common aspirations. 
  • I have again discovered the value of quiet in my life, times to be contemplative, reflective, and simply present in the moment.  American culture focuses on being ever busy, always “doing”. In the newly discovered stillness, I can appreciate the value of rest and uninterrupted thought.

5/21/2021

Being Mothered


                                    

                                                By Neal Lemery

            Mother’s Day is a tough holiday, a maudlin remembrance of Mom, who has passed on, but still figures in my life.  With any family relationship, it is a mixed bag, an often-confusing mix of emotions, feelings, and memories. Popular culture tells us to be adoring, grateful, and praising offspring, yet other thoughts and patterns of grief keep the emotions in what I often envision as being a whirlpool as I navigate through life. 

            This year, I’m feeling the need for nurturance.  Perhaps it is my long-term response to the pandemic, and the range of lockdowns, quarantines, and the emotional rollercoaster of coping with this contagion that seems to be a never-ending disruptor. I’m emotionally drained. I find myself seeking emotional sustenance, comfort, and the gratifying tenderness of a mother’s love.

            Ever since I’ve had a car, I’ve carried a blanket with me.  It goes back to when I was five, traveling with my mom and grandma through the mountains. We ran into a freak snowstorm, and almost slid off the road. Waiting for the snowplow, my elders made sure we were warm, underneath the ever-present blanket in my mom’s car, sipping hot tea from my grandmother’s trusty and well-worn thermos.  The disaster turned into an adventure, comforted by the blanket, hot tea and family stories I’d never heard before.

            A few years before my mom passed, she gave me a new car blanket. The hand-me-down old Pendleton blanket of my grandmother’s had finally succumbed to several generations of picnics, beach trips, and the occasional unexpected adventure. The new blanket stays behind the driver’s seat in my pickup, ready to wrap around me on a chilly evening, or become a picnic tablecloth or a dry seat on a log at the beach. When I pull it out, I am reminded of my mom, and her continual work to care for the family and keeping us safe and warm. Mom being Mom.

            This week, as Mother’s Day looms with all of its swirls of emotions and expectations, and no address for me to send Mom a card, or a phone number to call, I found myself wrapping the blanket around me, feeling its softness and its warmth. That sensual comfort chases away the emptiness, the grief that often haunts these holidays that are hyped as overly joyous events, the Hallmark moments that can easily drag me into a canyon of treacherous emotion. 

Feeling the fuzzy blanket around my shoulders is almost as good as a hug from Mom, and I can feel her presence in the room as I share a meal with family, and we tell stories of life’s adventures.  

I’m missing those times with her, sharing a pot of tea, telling stories, and planning a fun event with family.  Her blanket wrapped around me is a poor substitute for that, but I’m getting through this weekend with some much-needed sustenance and comfort, taking time for some self care and quality blanket time.   

5/8/2021

Taking In A Different View


                        

                                                —by Neal Lemery

             Spring garden chores bring me into a contemplative mood.  I take a fresh look at the garden and the yard, mentally planning out how I want to plant this year.  I also get philosophical while I’m mowing the grass, feeling the energy of spring bursting out all over.  I am often stunned into silence at the wonder of it all. 

            I’m reminded of the renewing cycle of life that brings about change. In the garden, I am an instrument of change, and also a witness of ancient ways. Old patterns can be repeated, or altered and made better.  Often, the best action is to weed them out. 

I am an organizer, a weeder, a planter. Yet the real instruments of change are nature’s: the strengthening sunlight, the occasional rain, seeds sprouting, leaves emerging, flowers bursting into color and brilliance.  I do my best work when I take a long time just being the observer.

            The Irish poet and priest John O’Donohue writes:

“There is a beautiful complexity of growth within the human soul. In order to glimpse this, it is helpful to visualize the mind as a tower of windows. Sadly, many people remain trapped at the one window, looking out every day at the same scene in the same way. Real growth is experienced when you draw back from that one window, turn, and walk around the inner tower of the soul and see all the different windows that await your gaze. Through these different windows, you can see new vistas of possibility, presence, and creativity. Complacency, habit, and blindness often prevent you from feeling your life. So much depends on the frame of vision — the window through which you look.”

            I do better in life when I take advantage of that “other view” and look out into the world with a new vantage point.  It is humbling and also refreshing.  Old patterns, old thinking can be re-examined. Often, new ideas emerge, and I gain a different perspective. I might even dare to set aside my cherished and deeply-held convictions and opinions, and look at the world in a new way, much like how a contemplative gardener looks at their projects on a bright and sunny spring day.  Exploring the alternatives gives us so many more options. 

            Spring is a time of renewal, of growth, a time to think of the possibilities of the coming summer.  I do my best work when I take on the role of the observer, the contemplator, to be a tinkerer of the whole picture, looking on from all of the windows in my soul. 

4/29/2021

Calling For a Change


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                                                                        –by Neal Lemery

            2021 is a year of change, of awareness, and a time to reconcile ourselves with our attitudes and prejudices.  At the core of this work is confronting our own racism and the racism of our culture. A re-examination of our history and our culture is revealing our prejudices, our privilege, and a compelling drive to change how we think and how we act.  

            The verdict this week in Minneapolis has hopefully gotten our attention to these issues, and has put a bright spotlight on the issues of racism, law enforcement, and cultural expectations.  It is an ugly sore to open up and drain. The infection is deep.  Our attitudes and opinions are facing the light of day, of public scrutiny, and of thoughtful self-examination. 

            Sadly, this tragedy isn’t the latest, and stories of similar injustices and responses continue to occupy the headlines.  Recent attention to our country’s history shows a long and deep saga of similar outrages and, at times, calls for reform and change. The lessons of history are still there, as opportunities to learn and to cause change. 

            Those of us who aspire to be people of faith and advancing a spirituality based on compassion and good deeds are wrestling with being engaged in a society that too often does not aspire to those values.  It is often too easy to do nothing, and instead to merely pontificate our aspirations to be good and kindly people.   Denial seems easy, and the least stony path. Change is hard. 

“Walking away from something that we’re used to, even if it’s unjust or inefficient or ineffective–it usually takes far too long. Fear, momentum and the status quo combine to keep us stuck.

“And so it builds up. The cruft [junk work product] calcifies and it gets in our way, making our world smaller, our interactions less human. What used to be normal is rejected and obsolete. It turns out that the status quo is the status quo because it’s good at sticking around.”

                                    –Seth Godin, Seth’s Blog 4/21/2021

            We all want to think that we come from good families, that we had a decent childhood, and that we have grown up to be good hearted, loving people, who are working to build a better society and to do noble and important work.  Yet if I want to change society, I also need to change myself, and to examine myself so that I can truly become an agent of my good values and my talents to do the Godly and charitable work that I aspire to advocate. 

            To not do that self-examination is to be hypocritical and untrue to my highest goals and aspirations as a “good person”.  My own spiritual challenge is to understand that me acting as an instrument of change is one of my purposes as a human being on this earth. A friend calls that being an instrument of God. 

            As Gandhi urged us, we need to be the change we want to see in the world.  And, that starts with self-examination.  It is ugly, often dirty work.  Each of us had a seat in that courtroom in Minneapolis.  Part of what was on trial was a criminal justice system and a culture of how law enforcement officers respond to an encounter with a man, situations where a person’s race and very presence on the street were factors in how a police officer acted.  Our culture of prejudice, discrimination, and bias (even unconscious) was deeply interwoven in that incident and how a cop, and everyone else who was present, responded. The scope of responsibility and accountability for George Floyd’s death casts a wide net.  

            My great uncle was a member of the Klan, and proudly rode his horse in Klan parades in our family’s hometown.  I heard stories of racial and ethnic prejudice from family and friends, and witnessed bigotry and prejudice, often subtle and minimalized. Like all of us, I witnessed bigotry and prejudice, and felt the social pressure to sustain those attitudes. 

We all learned the “code words”, the vocabulary for this thinking. The disease was labeled something else, throughout my life, ever-present yet often cleverly disguised, or covered up.  After all, racism was something that occurred in the South, or the big cities, somewhere else.  Not here, not in my town, my neighborhood, my family.  

            That denial is also part of the disease, the “stinking thinking” that nurtures racism.

            Those experiences are also present-day.  Perhaps they are more subtle, even disguised, conveniently wrapped in the camouflage of politics and “free speech”.  And, pretending that cultural and personal prejudice and intolerance isn’t here and now is simply being a cultural ostrich, naively hoping that these tough issues will simply go away.  They won’t, until we do our tough work, and change. 

            We need to tell our stories.  We need to air out the ugly anecdotes, and look at our own attitudes and beliefs, looking deep within ourselves to learn why we believe and think what we do.  We need to embrace education and deep conversations with family and friends, no matter how uncomfortable those conversations can be.  We can change, and we can grow. That is what good citizens and spiritually-minded people do. 

            Tomorrow can be different.  

4/22/2021

Discovering


                                        

“Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well, he would never know, now.”

                                    –Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1936)

            Afraid to try; not good enough. There’s that fear of digging in deep, opening old wounds, leery of discovering what’s I’ve buried deep.  It is my lifetime work of denial, in all its many facets.

            What if there were really monsters under my bed as a kid, and I put them away, trying to ignore them, or burying them deep in my soul, so I wouldn’t have to confront them? I’m good at denying the existence of that question. 

            “Go away and leave me alone,” I say to myself. 

            In my writing work, there are topics and germs of ideas “out there” that should be explored, that remain on the “idea list”.  They are controversial, provocative, and daunting.  Some are political, most are sociological hot potatoes. Some of those are today’s monsters under the bed, the thoughts and fears I am now denying, at least not confronting. 

            I’m good at running away from confrontation, from the difficult stuff of life, the emotional chaos that literally begs for self-examination, self-reflection. It’s flight or fight, and denial.  Yet, when I dig into the tough stuff, scraping off the scabby outer coverings, and allowing the pus to seep out, so I can cleanse the psychological infections, a newly revealed truth emerges.  I begin to heal, and, more importantly, to understand.  

            All writing is a form of self-exploration, a teaching moment for the soul.  I work at trying not to realize that, which is part of my denial and my lifetime of procrastination in dealing with the tough subjects. 

            Hemingway’s character wasn’t ready to face his monsters and put pencil to paper to dig into those personal challenges.  He knew that, and knew he wasn’t ready to take it on, yet also knowing that he should take it on, because that is where the challenges are, and, ultimately, the reward of going deep and wrestling with the really tough stuff in life. 

            Writing challenges me, pushes me to go deeper inside of myself, to confront my night monsters, my fears, my doubts, and my unfinished thoughts.  There is work to be done when I write, so much more than moving the pencil across the paper, an act of growing myself, of discovery.

4/16/2021  Neal Lemery

On Writing


“Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well, he would never know, now.”

                                    –Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1936)