Taking On Change


Taking On Change

by Neal Lemery

The pandemic is a time of postponement, not taking care of business. Life now has a lot of waiting around, and my frustration and impatience show up in high numbers on my emotional dashboard. The personal “to do” list seems to keep growing and has few check offs.

In normal times, my life’s challenges usually get resolved with me realizing it is a time to change. And that work to refresh is always so productive and satisfying. In these times, much of what we are facing seems out of my grasp to change. Most things get booted down the road. Like the virus, procrastination is becoming the new normal.

I often escape into my music. I pick up my guitar and find some solace, literally tuning out the world. Even there, there is a need for change. In guitar speak, it is realizing it is time to restring my faithful six string acoustic.

There’s a lifespan for good steel guitar strings. All my chord making, strumming and picking literally wears out the wires, as well as providing proof of my labors with bigger callouses on my fingertips. In that playing, oil and dirt from my fingers are rubbed into the strings. My picking and the vibrations becomes tiresome to the guitar (and probably the rest of my household).

I play my guitar for its mellowness, harmonizing tones and its predictability in terms of the sounds that are emitted, consistent with one’s repetition of chord patterns, strumming, and finger picking. One gets to mix it up, of course, by using different sizes and materials for strings, and the qualities that are unique for each guitar.

Other variables are at play: the type and age of the wood, the thicknesses of materials, the design, humidity, and how precise you are in tuning each string. You add other variables, too: the methods and styles of finger picking, flat picking and slides, plus little touches like pull offs, hammer ons, and chiming; not to omit the likely dozens of other techniques and styles I’ve yet to hear about, let alone begin to attempt. Guitars become “sweeter” with age, the wood conditioned by time and playing to evolve into an even more expressive instrument. It is a metaphor that I appreciate more the older I get.

Yet, it all goes back to having strings in good shape. It really is the simple things that make a big difference in how my guitar sounds in a day. Aside from all the complexities and sophistication of the accomplished musician, it is the act of restringing and putting on a set of new strings that makes my guitar come alive again. Sometimes, you just need to get rid of the rust and dirt and the “worn out” aspects of life.

I procrastinate, doubting myself that it really might be time to change the strings. I’m good at the kind of self-talk that talks me out of making a needed change. I’ll bargain with myself, offering excuses like time, or effort, or thinking it really hasn’t been that long since I put on the strings that are there now. I ignore the principle of guitar strings that age and wear out are a function of how much you play, versus what the calendar might say.

It’s not like I have to run down to the music store for a set, or that the cost will break my budget. For all their magic, guitar strings are a bargain. I almost always have on hand good to high quality strings, engineered for a long and vigorous life, with promises of crispness and high-quality tones. And, I have all the little tools, wood cleaners, and the other gizmos of the specialized world of guitar string replacement. I learn by trial and error in my music. My string changing regimen is a product of years of redoing and reliving most every mistake you can make, plus having some exciting adventures along the way.

Today, for instance, was the reliving of the occasional crisis of having a wooden peg pop out and plummet into the depths of the guitar box. These little pegs, which I want to think are insignificant, are really essential. They secure the little “ball” end of the string snug in the hole in the body of the guitar. They grasp one end of the string, so you can then tighten it, eventually giving enough tension on the string that it will vibrate and produce a note.

When pegs run wild, I feel helpless and inept, adding salty language to the experience. The peg then plays hide and seek, rattling around the inside, and getting caught in nearly every crevice of the various wooden bracings inside. I do the dance, holding and shaking the upside-down guitar in every angle and configuration, hoping to maneuver it to come out of its cave and rejoin its companions on the face of the guitar. There is the added chance of having the peg flying through the air and lodging under the nearest piece of furniture, prolonging the chase. More excitement comes when the cat decides to help.

This game is sometimes played with a guitar pick. My personal record for chasing the reluctant and shy guitar pick inside the guitar is a (now) laughable three weeks. At best, the usual plastic pick is worth, maybe fifty cents, but still, it’s the principle of the matter and a personal challenge. Man vs guitar pick. I WILL prevail.

The string changing ritual offers other challenges, such as squinting sufficiently in order to thread the thin wires through the holes in the tuner pegs at the other end of the guitar, so you can then wrap the wires around the pegs and begin to tighten them. The shiny wires blend in well with the chrome tuner pegs. In this stage, it is easy to qualify for a Purple Heart for Guitarists, by giving yourself a substantial poke in the finger. My guitar is frequently sanctified by my sacrificial efforts, accompanied by that now well used salty language.

You have to put the strings on in the right order, of course. Each string has a different diameter, with lower notes produced by thicker strings. That seems simple and logical. But, we’re talking me and mechanical tasks. Disasters can occur, with a brand-new string in the wrong place that’s tightened too much, accompanied by the unexpected loud twang of a broken string. Then there’s that deep feeling of ineptitude. Another box of strings is now on the table, adding to the potential confusion. I’ve learned to practice rituals of how I lay out the paper string packets and the manage the order of installation, much like a priest officiating at a high mass.

It is even more fun with a 12 string guitar. String changes on a 12 string increase the challenge by several magnitudes of difficulty, where the rubric requires the lowest four pairs (courses) to be tuned in octaves, but the top two courses are tuned in unison on the same note. Doubling the number of strings and the number of pegs that can go wild more than doubles the fun.

As one hits the home stretch, with all six new strings in place, you get a sense of impending success. When you finish up the tuning ritual with the electronic tuner and the seemingly never ending turning of the pegs on the tuner machines, the transformed guitar begins to sing its songs with a fresh, much improved voice. I’m always struck by the sweetness of the new strings.

“Wow, I should have changed these long ago. The new ones sound great,” I usually proclaim to the household, causing my wife to mutter that I always say that when I put on new strings. Still, it is continually a fresh and delightful discovery, each and every time. I am, perhaps, a slow learner.

I coil up the old strings, and attempt to put them in the garbage can, along with the handful of snipped off string ends, from both the old and new sets. This tangle of wires always resists me, usually breaking free and uncoiling onto the kitchen floor, attempting to evade my thick-fingered efforts to corral them and restuff them into the can. After all our quality time together, they just don’t seem to want to leave. It can be another perilous time for exposed fingers and toes, another opportunity to earn a Purple Heart for Guitarists. Now, though, I can see them in all their dirt and grime, the finish worn off and dull, any new effort to bring forth any decent sound doomed to failure. Tired and worn out, they are ready for a rest.

The rules and the pleasures of guitar string changes applies to other parts of my life, as well. I learn a lot from this occasional task. Familiar jeans well past their prime and faded, torn t-shirts and flannel shirts, with ripped sleeves, deserve similar replacements. Shoes, however, are the worst. I can easily wear out a pair of my favorite hiking shoes, my daily attire, until every last aspect of padding and support are long gone. A new pair tells me immediately that the old shoes were at least several months past their lifespan, and that familiar phrase again crosses my lips, “I should have changed these a long time ago.”.

These discoveries can be applied to other aspects of my life: toothbrushes, cracked glassware, chipped plates, bent forks, even one’s favorite chair. I can apply these lessons to my community life, as well: overly familiar places to hang out and tiresome, sometimes toxic people who refuse to grow in their thinking and experiences.

My guitar teaches me a lot about life: perseverance, consistent practicing, having a regular time to focus on some quality “me time”. And, change.

We can wake up in the morning, engage the world, and remark to everyone within ear shot, “I should have changed this a long time ago.”

9/30/2020

A Time for Commitment


By Neal Lemery

Today, wildfire smoke fills the sky, forest fires are fiercely rampaging my state and county, and the Covid virus remains unchecked. Businesses, students, and teachers are having to learn new ways, and our world often seems upside down. This time has its challenges, yet we are called to take charge and forge ahead. We have the gift of opportunity.
Our world is changing, but it always has. Obstacles and adaptations are part of our history and a part of daily living.
The only constant in life is change. That phrase is a cliché, but it speaks great truth now and is our call to action.
These times are really no different than any other era in humanity’s existence on the planet. We have survived much worse crises and disasters than what the current times have presented to us.
We humans are survivors, adaptors to life-threatening and life-altering circumstances. Natural forces of every kind, plagues, famines, wars, and tribal conflicts have always been in our lives.
Often, we don’t do well at coping and our selfishness and emotional outrages result in misery and devastation. We can truly be our worst enemy. Most changes seem out of our hands. We can think this state of being out of control makes us helpless.
We can adapt, we change, and we move forward. We can be instruments of change today. We are, after all, in charge of our attitudes, our intentions, and our actions. How and what we think, what we plan and the steps we take, even the direction, lie within us. We can be determined and focused. We can become educated. We are able to do our research, and inventory and manage our resources. We can plot our way forward.
That work is the heritage we’ve gained from our ancestors, who were masters at adversity and adaptation. If they weren’t successful at that work, we wouldn’t be here, and our DNA wouldn’t have the “software” that empowers us to successfully solve problems. We wouldn’t have all the asserts and the benefits of a strong and vibrant civilization.
This year has its own seemingly insurmountable list of challenges. At times, there seems no end to new problems and often bizarre situations. Yet, such challenges are our history. How humankind has dealt with and often overcome these challenges is truly our heritage. We have literally built our culture and our civilization upon the ashes of daunting challenges.
Such work can also be our own legacy. Certainly what we can do today, this moment, are our marching orders, our map out of the wilderness of seemingly insurmountable problems.
This is our moment, our opportunity to rise to the challenges we face.
Make your list. Label the challenges, our collective to-do list. This list can be daunting, but the work is nothing new in the eyes of our ancestors and the lessons of history.
A journey begins with one step, and continues forward, one step at a time. Our history shows us that the work of just a few leads to significant life-altering results.
Your patience, your experience, knowledge, talent, and intestinal fortitude can be a significant contribution to some fundamental work and progress. One person can advance civilization and inspire others to accomplish great deeds. Our collaboration, our energy, our passion to live our values and take action are what is needed now.
Let’s get to work, together, united, and committed to moving ahead.

9/11/2020

Finding My Way


 

 

by Neal Lemery

Podcast

“What should I be doing with my life?” a friend asked me the other day.  I echoed the cliché about following your passion and left it at that.  But that’s not much of an answer.  It was incomplete, and not respectful of a sincere question, one I still come across in my own life.

I recently read an essay about a young person’s path of self discovery from an elementary school teacher, to musician, and now, reformed, changed up to a teacher of song writing and music.

“I don’t recall any defining moment of decision to focus primarily on teaching music over performing it.  I think it revealed itself in small steps, one choice at a time. It reminded me of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1903): ‘I want to beg you, as much as I can … to be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves … Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

“I don’t make a living from songwriting, but writing songs is critical to living my life.” Her songwriting “brings me closest to myself. By allowing myself deeper self-knowledge, I found I was able to follow the breadcrumbs from there.  And I still am —songwriting continues to allow me to stay centered and take whatever next step feels right.”

“That said, I must admit, I squirm when anyone says: ‘Follow your passion and you can make a living doing anything.’ Clearly these folks underestimate the sheer amount of effort and dumb luck required to make this a true statement.

“Whatever your passion, go ahead. Follow it. By that I mean: be aware of what grounds you most, start there, and be flexible.

“What is the meaningful work in your life? What grounds you? Where do you feel most recognizable to yourself?’ ‘Live the questions,’ as Rilke says, to which I add the path lies in asking them, not answering them.” (Avery Hill, What Does It Mean to Follow Your Passion? Local Lore newsletter, Portland Folkmusic Society (Sept/Oct 2020)

 

My own roadmap through life is a series of questions and slogans, ones I come back to and reflect on in a quiet moment. I crave those small slivers of life I’ve tried to find for myself during the day, the ritual part of some of the disciplines and practices I’ve sought to establish for myself.  Perhaps I, too, am trying to live the questions and not worry too much about having the right answers.

Part of my brain likes to see the world in terms of “either/or”, a process of sorting out options in convenient, systemically ordered piles.  What brings me joy? What doesn’t bring me joy? Those questions, that approach to looking at life, can eliminate the boring, soul-killing tasks and obligations that don’t advance what I value as good uses of my limited time on Earth.

I’ve been trying to be around my chosen family, who aren’t usually the biological relatives. I want to avoid toxic people, their poisons often putting me down, diminishing me, which is often a slow chipping away of my goodness, my purposeful direction.  Knowing that I can choose my family and friends liberates me and expands my potential.  I strive to be a better manager of “family time” and take nourishment from those who enrich me and challenge me to excellence.

I’m an advocate for finding purpose and meaning in life through service to others.  I try to reach out and practice small acts of kindness and charity.  I work on my empathy and my self-actualization through kindness, volunteerism, and my creativity.  Even a few minutes of gardening, picking up a piece of trash, or saying a few kind words to someone at the coffee shop or the store are forms of service and community building.  You change experiences and attitudes, and bring the proverbial ray of sunshine into an encounter.  Your attitude can be contagious and transformative.

Another dichotomy in my life is to decide to act either out of fear or out of love.  I can cringe through life, my sword in hand, obsessed with seeing the world as a disaster waiting to happen, my role in it as the continual failure, fulfilling my expectations as one who is inadequate and “no good”.  Or, I can flip that, seeing the world and my experiences as acts of love, as possibility to do good, and to advance the values and ethics that I cherish, and build a better world.  That work always starts in my little corner, with my own two hands and my own heart and voice.  Words and small acts of kindness do make a difference, and become the tools of my trade, a builder of a better world.

When I have a clear intention, good actions follow from that.

I strive to be my own best friend, being kind to myself, helping myself across a busy street, or sitting with myself in a challenging situation, offering myself comfort and solace.  I can be an advocate for myself, a calming presence, a voice of reason and support, and offer myself a big hug and a shoulder to cry on.  I can pull out the handkerchief and lovingly wipe away the tears. Those are transferable skills to be present with others, but I often benefit from practicing that good work on myself.

I practice self-care.  I’m my own best nurse.  I can plump up my pillow, put on the extra blanket, make myself some comfort food and find my teddy bear at the end of a hard day.  The idea of “holding space” for others, by simply being present and attentive, also applies to me.  The rest of the world’s insanity can be swirling around me, which is a reminder for me to hold some space for myself and be self-caring, to be the caretaker.

I do best at problem solving when I can see the Truth.  Truth is often elusive, and others who seem to want to do harm to me, or use me, take my time and money, will manipulate the truth, bending and distorting it to their own advantage. I’m prone to be a people pleaser, and default to thinking that others are always genuinely caring and kindly with me.  But, that action by others is often manipulation and deceit.  It really is my task to know what is the truth, and to recognize deception and truth bending for what it is, a means of lying and fraud.  In that truth seeking, I need to hold my own self to the fire, to be self-critical, evaluative, assessing.  I need to be aware of my own self-talk, my own ways I sabotage myself.  It is a question of self-actualization, self-esteem, honoring and valuing my own friendship with myself.  It becomes self-advocacy and self-assessment, self-love.

I need to see myself as unique, special, one of a kind.  I do best when I deeply discount other people’s opinions about me.  What others think of me really has nothing to do with me.  They are caught up in their world, and their thoughts about me only help them explain their own perceptions of themselves, their own belief system.  They don’t really know me anyway, especially the part of me that is the precious, unique parts of my soul that are God’s special gifts to me.  The judgments of others are simply opinions, and really are uninformed opinions, not based upon Truth.  My own value, my own place in this world really is none of their business.

I try to declutter my life.  That can start with things, but that work becomes especially effective in managing my relationships and encounters with the world.  It goes back to the “does it bring me joy” question.

There’s also the “three gates” approach for managing what comes out of one’s mouth: is it true, it is necessary, is it kind?

I’m a verbal guy, opinionated and outspoken.  I share my opinions, probably too freely. I’ve been trying to apply the “three gates” practice in my interactions with others.  I’m trying to tamp down the judgmental aspects of what I say, and apply these “filters”.  In that, I am working on being a better listener, and actually welcoming the times of quiet, of being present, and holding space for others.                                8/29/2020

A New Start


 

by Neal Lemery

 

Organizing

Straightening, thinking through

Planning ahead

Pushing away the detritus, the distractions

Taking out the trash

Visioning the vision

Seeing the possibilities

Options for change, renewal

The essence of what could be

What could become, could evolve into.

 

New thoughts, new values, goals

Aspirations

Looking over the clouds

Tomorrow’s sunrise

Next year’s promise, potential

Twenty years from now

A hundred years later

Could start today

Now, this minute

A step in a new direction, on a new path

With one footprint in a different, unexpected place.

 

A slight alteration, deviation

Far from the norm, the usual

The predicted, the expected

The status quo—

An opportunity, today.

 

I just have to make that first step

Now.

 

8/5/2020

Citizenship and Conversation in a Disjointed Time


 

By Neal Lemery

(Podcast)

In this pandemic year, our craving for “normal” pushes back against the new rules of social interaction. What lies ahead of us grows even murkier.  Uncertainty is the new mantra of who we are as a society, and where we are going with our own out of sorts lives.  Simple acts of normalcy such as going to school, shopping for groceries, dinner with friends, and a weekend getaway take on all the traits of unpredictability.

 

Nothing seems routine anymore. The old patterns of life now can be simply “paused”, the calendar becoming a mess of cross outs, erasures, and question marks.

 

Sound medical advice, scientific wisdom and evidence-based practices run the risk of being politicized in loud, partisan fashion. Wearing a mask at the grocery store now can be a political statement. Nuances and logical development of analysis are discarded if favor of “right vs wrong” and “us vs them” viewpoints. We don’t seem to be able to even agree to disagree or admit we need more information.

 

Serious discussions about racism and discrimination, the role of police, and how we look at history are now mixed into the swirl of our pandemic responses and thinking.  Political rhetoric grows more heated and polarized.   “Them” and “us”, “right” and “wrong”, “liberal” and “conservative” are becoming the short slogans that can fit on a baseball cap.  Efforts to simplify and quickly label perspectives and opinions are pushing out the deep discussions on public policy and the rich stew of community discourse and public debate that are at the heart of a healthy democracy.

 

Instead, we are experiencing a “shoot from the hip” attitude, with no room for civilized conversation and thought.  Being persuasive and convincing in one’s opinions and views is replaced by an angrily shouted slogan and no room for disagreement, however polite or thoughtful.

 

We are all hopefully looking for a sense of civility, order and normalcy in our lives. I find myself weighed down by all the “pausing” of social life, and the angry, strident rhetoric of public opinion.  Sarcasm and rage, and downright nastiness and vitriol now seem to occupy center stage in public forums.  That approach to our collective life is toxic and exhausting.

 

I should remember that, perhaps, I might be wrong in my views, or that the situation is more complex and requires more information than I have been willing to admit.  Like any effective theologian, scientist, or teacher, I just might not have all the facts, and might not be considering other ways to look at an issue.  I might not have all the answers.  And, I might even be wrong.

 

Many turn to social media to air their own views or the rant of their favorite commentator of the day. In their role as a publisher and editor in the public forum, a significant number of Americans ignore their responsibility to be factual, to educate, and to add to thoughtful debate that will improve our society. Be a builder, not a destroyer.  If you are going to be a journalist of sorts on the public stage, then act like a professional.  It is a public trust.

 

 

 

We have “paused” the democratic ideal of thoughtfully listening to others.  We aren’t doing a good job weighing the viewpoints of others, and striving to achieve a collective, informed response and thoughtful viewpoints. Instead, the quick opinion, shot from the hip, seasoned with sarcasm and hostility, dominates. Public conversations have turned into shouting matches.  Snarky slogans and nasty put downs of others fill our screens and public interactions.  We often forget that “conversation” means a respectful interplay and heartfelt communication.

 

Our freedoms of speech and expression are precious and should be cherished.  And with freedom comes responsibility.

 

 

7/17/2020

Moving Away From Rigidity


 

 

 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

I can be a very rigid thinker, following the rules, the expectations others have for me, and the expectations and boundaries I set for myself.  If I am, instead, open and not following pre-set boundaries, I actually do better in life. By being independent, willing to look at different paths, different and unexpected approaches to problems and thinking, I find new possibilities.

Not that I don’t think that structure and framework are important for a purposeful, successful life.  Being organized and focused is very often essential in getting the work done that needs to be done. In me, that need for structure and “rules of engagement” can often come before that additional element of doing the work, that of being spontaneous and open to the Muse and the creative process.

Others have weighed in on this dichotomy of rule-driven motivation and discipline, and spontaneous creativity.

“Men like us often had a lifestyle guided by either/or logic. We think we must either conquer the challenge we see before us or we will be failures. We think loved ones must either meet our needs or they do not love us. We think we must either be perfect, or we are unacceptable.

“Let us now step back from the rigidity of such unhealthy logic. Most of human experience and many answers to our problems don’t come in neatly tied packages. As we learn to think and feel in more flexible ways, we find life gets better. Using our intuition at times, rather than always following rigid rules for life, improves the recipe. The arrogance of our thought processes has sometimes told us we had the answer, but it closed us to growth which only comes by trusting our feelings. If we make mistakes, we can learn from them and go on. Many of the most ingenious inventions came not by rigidly following rules but by following an inner feeling.”

Touchstones: Daily Mediations for Men, May 28

In getting out of my ruts, my “tried and true” ways of approaching a problem or a situation, I learn more about myself, and I find myself opening up, becoming the artist I want to be.

I’ve been working on a painting, trying to be spontaneous and fresh. Yet, my rules and set formulas weighed heavily on my process and my work felt heavy and cumbersome. I struggled against myself and my old patterns, trying to break away and be bold and fresh.

I decided to act “outside of the box” and try new methods. I started the painting with acrylic paint, and then, the next day, “overpainting” with oil, thinning down the colors with additional oil, and moving my brush across the canvas boldly, spontaneously mixing colors and oil with abandon, playing with the light.

The carefree voice said “Oh, give it a try.”

“What if I screw up?” the critic in my head kept saying.

I might, and I probably am.  I can fix my “mistake” with a paper towel, or a dry brush, removing some paint, or rearranging what I had just painted.  Besides, I thought, maybe my “mistake” is the gift of creativity and spontaneity I had been looking for in this work. Let me be bold and innovative here.

I heard a poet say the other day, as they were struggling with their poem, “Let the poem form emerge and lead you.”

Ah, let the work lead you and reveal itself to you.  The creative work will find its form and will express itself.  I need to give myself permission to let go and let the creation find itself and become itself – unique and a creation in and of itself. It is OK to be gentle with myself and my creative spirit.

Creating art is always a lesson in letting go, of not being in control, letting things flow and come into themselves.  I can be both an observer and an instrument of the creative process, and not the final authority on what is being made here. I can give up being in control. Creating art is a meditative practice of cutting ties, going beyond boundaries and letting myself and what I am creating be unfettered by my preconceived and “absolute” limits.

When I am in that “zone” and shut down the voices of limits and rules and earlier expectations, then I really become free and move toward the artist, the whole healthy person that I am seeking to become.

These acts of creation often become powerful metaphors for me in the rest of daily life.  In these acts of creation, I am learning not only about the world and the creative work that is emerging, but more important, I am learning about myself.  I am learning not to be afraid of letting go and more towards becoming.

 

 

5/30/2020

Quarantined


 

 

Regeneration, rejuvenation, restoration—

Yet nature unaffected —

Late afternoon quiet

One car on the highway, far away

The one dog barks twice, then joins the status quo

Birds cavorting, swirling, scouting for nesting sites

Snubbing social distancing and travel bans

Spring arriving on time, by its own clock.

 

Quarantine gives me time

Daily routines upended, reset,

Important, pressing tasks now abandoned.

Daily rhythms recalibrated, the away, the alone

Now what is needed.  Time away is our new cure, our new

Mantra: stay home, stay well.

 

Plague now more than unstudied history, the world today

Together in lock down, isolation, yet as one, all against this

Invisible silent, invader, the master of stealth, its

Irrationality in who it sickens, who it takes.

 

Against it, I plant my garden, pulling weeds, watering seeds,

Taking out the trash, organizing, taking on countless little tasks

Left undone for so long.  The virus

Random, lethal, drives my chore list, the home labors;

Idleness, yet urgent, awaiting Death’s irregularity, its unpredictability

Not knowing if it will come, or not.  Life is, after all,

Uncertain.

 

I plan for flowers, summer tomatoes, harvests I will can and dry, and freeze,

Savored on the deck, a meal needing friends to drink to that next season in our lives,

If it comes at all. The virus, unmentioned, ever present, in my mind,

Persistent, obnoxious, pending,

Unplanned.

 

My life, on hold,

Nothing guaranteed, nothing to really write on the calendar,

Now just white space, some crossed out events,

Uncertainty reigns on the refrigerator door of my life.

 

 

Community life regroups, reconvening, after a sort,

New technology, new words, ways to find our way back to familiarity–

Now faces we saw in one room, so human, expected, so normal

Become boxes on screens, familiar yet distant, removed,

Voices, thoughts, and agendas, some old familiarity, yet

Transformed over electronic space, not quite

Human, not quite

Real, like our lives these days, everything

Not just quite, with no real end in

Sight.

 

The daily death count, new cases, slips into my inbox, a regular part now of

Cocktail hour, an old custom, reinstated by statistical, medical, psychological necessity.

The drink of the day needed, somehow, to deal with the numbers, today’s

Place on the curve we are trying to flatten, we becoming

Amateur epidemiologists, public health analysts—

Dr. Fauci the Mister Rogers of our time.

We are, after all, now in his neighborhood, the new norm of this surreality, the

New normal we are trying to understand, his calmness in the eye of the storm

Soothing.

 

My mask at the grocery store, the bleach-soaked towel, keeping social distance

Somehow doing my part to flatten the curve, do my part, be the patriotic warrior

On the world’s latest battlefront, six feet apart,

Home for the duration, we to be changed,

Quarantine veterans in the making, changed in ways we do not yet fathom.

 

I am left with this—-

A social recession, a need to

Make people, again, the center of our lives.

Racism is America’s pre-existing condition.

Wanting that decisions, not situations, determine our future.

Be the communitarian.

—Neal Lemery

4/18/2020

 

 

 

A Time for Patience


 

 

 

 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

 

 

There is a time for everything, and everything has its time.  Life is like that. There is a rhythm, a pattern in life, where things that are to be done have their own time for being expressed, for getting done.

 

There are many metaphors for me in sorting all this out, and figuring out time in my life, and the “right time” and the “best time”. One is the rhythm of music.  Music is the learning of patterns, of repetitions, of putting things in order, and of honoring the rhythms that the expression should take, so that it becomes an act of beauty and pleasing form. Music teaches patience and a “right time for everything”.

 

Old Testament poets talked about time and patience with these familiar words:

 

 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

“ A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

“ A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

“ A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

“ A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

“ A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

“ A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3)

 

I like this scripture in Ecclesiastes in the King James version because it is poetic; it has a cadence and a rhythm that is pleasing to my ear and to my heart.  I am a poet, and the work of the poet is often to find the beat, the cadence, the rhyme in the ideas that I want to express.  And, doing that work and finding the right words in the right order takes time and patience.  Often, my poetry first finds its expression in scraps of paper and scribbled words and phrases. The work often sits on a tablet of paper for a while, letting time age it, season it.  One day, the work becomes rewritten, reorganized, and re-formed, reshaped, re-spoken.  It is a work in progress.

 

Such is my life, always being reshaped, reformed, reworked.  I am different today than I was yesterday, and so my work today will be different today, because the me of today is the work of a man who is different today than yesterday.

 

Like any work, it is often transformed and reworked by the passage of time.  Relationships with others change over time, partly because I change, I am reworked, and I look at the world with different eyes, and with a longer, hopefully richer and more insightful perspective.

 

Thus, I try to be gentle with myself in difficult times, and in working difficult problems and being in difficult situations.  They say that Time Heals. Healing is one aspect of this perspective, and I want to recognize that time is an ally, a friend, something to be seen as a tool, a process that helps me be a better student of my life, and to increase my ability to learn.

 

I am finishing reading a book on the history of calculus (which is intellectually exciting and certainly challenging). The lesson in the book for me is that all the great minds that wrestled with calculus and its development for humanity utilized time, that much of the work was spent in contemplation, and deep thought, over time.

 

There’s a saying that Rome wasn’t built in a day.  A great city, a great work of humanity needs some space over time to come into its own.  The pouring of concrete, the mixing of mortar and the setting of stone needs time in which to age, to strengthen, to come into its own as its own identity and its own form.  Cement is liquid, then sets, then ages into strength and final form.

 

I learn those lessons not just on my guitar and my banjo, but in my garden, and certainly throughout my life. In each day, I become a different man, a product of growth and also of weeding and pruning, of adding the necessary fertilizer, the length of the sunshine in the day, and the temperature and moisture in the soil.

 

An aspect of appreciating time in my life is the virtue of patience.  Yet, life is finite, and there is no pre-established limit to the length of my life.  Life is a gift with an uncertain span of time, and I think I should see it as a gift, an opportunity, something precious, and fragile. The current pandemic is teaching me a lesson on the fragility and preciousness of life. What will I make of it? Who am I becoming?

 

Who indeed am I becoming? I am the master of all that. I am the captain of my ship, and I am the one who plots the course, who charts the path of my ship.  Yes, there are storms and tides, and often I am pushed and blown into treacherous and uncharted waters, yet the hand on the tiller of my ship is mine, and I am the one who trims the sails.

 

I look at life from the eyes of the poet, the musician, the gardener, looking for patterns, looking for putting my house in order, and making sense of the path I am on.  So it goes with anything difficult that we take on, and try to work through, to manage, and to bring to fruition.

 

Respecting time and practicing patience are vital tools in this life and in these times. These are the gifts we have now to use wisely and bring about the changes we want to see in this world. I speak not only of relationships between people, but also within myself. Learning to love and honor ourselves is the most challenging work in life.  Honoring myself, nurturing, tending to and caring about who I am and how I am equipped to deal with life is my most important work. Part of that work is to be easy with myself, to not beat myself up, to be kind and respectful to myself, to honor myself.  I do good work.  I really do.

 

Time gives me the chance to see that in myself, and to enjoy the fruits of my labor, to find the rhythm of my life and all of the poems, the songs, and the flowers that are within me.

 

4/9/2020

Connecting and Creating


 

 

This time of quarantine, social distancing, staying home is a new order in society. Our social connections can become frayed, even severed.  The many events of daily life have changed, our calendars cleared.  Routines are disrupted, and we find ourselves adrift.

Staying home and apart from others is the new social expectation, a necessity to reduce the impact of this pandemic, “flattening the curve”. Staying home is seen as a medical necessity essential to health and wellbeing, a fundamental obligation to our society.

Instead of isolating, these times are times of great connectivity. Our technological lives now grow connections. We message each other more frequently, communicate more deeply, and find new ways to meet and interact. We access more books, movies, and “off-site” encounters and conversations.  Our now rare trips to the grocery store and running other essential errands take on a new heightened satisfaction of interacting with others. We are important to each other, something we may have overlooked in the busyness of the pre-pandemic world.

I connect deeper with myself and my world. Tending to my garden and the young seedlings in the greenhouse takes on new importance as I witness the miracles of sprouting and growing, of new life as we move into spring.  Filling up my birdfeeder gives me time to celebrate the migrations of birds and to notice their lives in this quieter, more meditative and spiritually reflective time.

The morning cup of tea takes on new meaning, giving me a welcome ritual and a time of contemplation. I am finding time to breathe and connect with my soul.

This is also a time of great creativity. Times of plagues and quarantine, while socially threatening, have led to great creations.  Shakespeare wrote several of his most famous plays while in quarantine.  Newton developed his theories of gravity and motion, and invented calculus.

Now the world is taking a retreat from normal routines. We have time to pause, to re-energize our creative juices, and find our quiet space to express ourselves. This is a time of renewal and re-creation of so much of what is truly human and soul-nourishing.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”  — Stephen Jobs

This is that time to connect.  Go and create.

Neal Lemery 3/31/2020

Hunkering Down


 

 

The morning drizzle finds me inside, sorting and organizing, rediscovering my writing space.  Long neglected filing cabinets and piles of papers are now getting sorted.  I have a number of bags of burn pile starting paper, waiting for a sunny day and a match.

 

The second week of “Stay Home, Stay Well” in this pandemic finds me with a deeper layer of projects on the “to do” list. The yard is already manicured, seeds are sprouting in the greenhouse, the vegetable beds weeded and waiting.  Even all the laundry is washed, folded, and put away.

 

Old treasures are found and filed away, fodder for a poetry collection and other writing projects.  Mellow guitar on the dusted off CD player soothes my soul in this time of global uncertainty.  My paper sorting provides me with comfort, familiarity and accomplishment. Here there is order of a minimal sort, in a world now chaotic, unknowing, scary, now comfortably distant from the reality of my day here, hunkered down.

 

We are learning again how interconnected we all are, dependent upon each other to be staying well and safe. Microscopic disease runs rampant, reminding us how vulnerable, how fragile life can be; how something so small can change our world, and threaten our very lives. What are the lessons I need to learn? How will we change?

 

My bean soup simmers downstairs, soon to be flavored with a little bacon grease, chopped onions, and a little wine.  Two for the pot, one for the cook, I can hear my aunt say.  After this paper stack, it will be time for a break, to check the soup, put the kettle on.

 

I head to the kitchen for the mid morning cuppa. The water boils, poured into the hefty mug that will heat both hands. I sweeten the tea with a dollop of honey, just like Grandma in her old farm kitchen, after we gathered the eggs and picked some lettuce for dinner, throwing a few leaves to the hens.

 

She survived the Spanish Flu, the Depression, and World War II, keeping the farm going, steadily moving ahead in life, making do, and building a family.  All we are called to do is stay home and be healthy. She’d laugh today, at what we think we have to endure, how inconvenienced we think we are. She’d wipe her hands on the apron she made from a flour sack in 1934, and sit down to tell me a story, over our tea.

 

The tea, slowly cooling, soothes and comforts, like it always has on cold days, and demanding times. Quiet, thoughtful memories of good times, old traditions are revived.

 

I survey the bird feeder, taking time to notice new birds, on their way to Alaska, this corner of the yard alive in late March drizzle. Others, settling in for the summer, scout for nesting sites, raiding an old nest we’d found last fall and set on the porch with the pumpkins. Ancient rhythms are noticed again, rebirth and regrowth, endless, and comforting.

 

Life as we knew it, is on pause now. Slowing down feels good to my heart, this time creating a place to savor and rejoice in. I go slowly through the day, finding a new kind of work, a new order of the day, building a time that promises many lessons for us all.

 

—Neal Lemery 3/28/2020