Just Listen


 

 

I almost didn’t pick up the phone. We’ve had a lot of robo-calls lately, and I’ve gotten into the habit of just letting the phone ring. If it is important, or someone I know, they’ll leave a message and I’ll call them back.

The number was familiar. It was the number that called several times in the last few days, the voice familiar, from the past when I volunteered as a mentor in a nearby youth prison. Two days ago, the voice left a distraught, heartfelt message, wanting to connect with me, and alluding that he was thinking of ending his life.

No name, no return phone number. But, my phone remembered the number and I called back, getting the receptionist at another youth prison.

I explained that the voice sounded desperate, sad, alluding to self harm.

“We have 250 youth here, and I can’t track down who may have called you,” the receptionist said. “But, I’ll transfer you to the treatment manager in our mental health cottage.”

But, without a name, I was stuck, hoping he’d call back.

This time, we connected. The voice at the other end was a staff person, telling me that “Joe” wanted to talk to me. He put me on hold, and it was a long wait.

I was hesitant to take the call. Maybe “Joe” was having second thoughts, too, now that I was on the line.

My brain was trying to remember who “Joe” was. The mists of time parted and I began to remember “Joe”. I saw him every week for about a year, until he moved on, getting released to a half way house.

The staff had asked me to see him, as he was falling behind in his school work, and didn’t seem to care. He’d act indifferent and pushed me away, not letting me get close to him. But, I stuck with it, trying to tutor him in the math class that he was failing.

It wasn’t the work, and it wasn’t the level of math. I soon realized he was brilliant, and had taken the road of not doing the work, and blowing the homework and the tests, because it was too simple, too easy. And, if he passed his math class, then he’d graduate from high school. The next step was college.

But, he was a failure, a no good, not worthy of success. I soon learned that his family had abandoned him, never visiting him in prison, or even writing a letter or talking with him on the phone.

“Worthless,” “scum”, those were the words he’d last heard from his family, the day he was arrested, probably a whole childhood of that kind of talk.

I walked around the math conundrum, trying to engage with him on a different level. I learned he loved music, playing and composing songs and rhythms. He’d taken over the keyboard in the rec room and the computer that was set up to record and put together different tracks of music the kids had recorded.

I kept asking me to show me what he’d done with the recording devices, but he kept putting me off.

“It’s not very good,” or “I’m not quite ready for you to hear what I’ve done.”

One day, he let me into that world, playing a very complex rhythm track, and a long electronic music piece that was beyond words in its complexity and beauty.

“It’s nothing,” he said, when I raved about his talent and ingenuity.

“Oh, and you tell me you’re not very good at math, when you can compose this elaborate rhythm and multi-track composition?” I said.

“Well,” he said. And just shrugged.

“It’s not a big deal.”

I wanted to get up on the table and dance!

As I was leaving, I told a staff member how talented Joe was, and so gifted in music.

“I know. He’s amazing,” the staff member said. “But he thinks it’s no big deal.”

At our next visit, he actually smiled.

“I passed my math class,” he said. “I actually got an A.”

 

Yeah, that “Joe”. How could I forget him?

What’s he doing back in prison, after all this time, I wondered.

The phone line clicked, and a soft, deep voice said hello.

“Is this Neal?” the voice asked. The hesitancy in his voice tugged at my heart.

He said he was amazed I remembered him, that I was willing to talk with him, that I was even listening to him, that he was worthy of my time.

“Joe” had taught me an important lesson. Sometimes, good things happen when you just wait, just enjoy the silence in a conversation, and let that quiet connectedness be the conversation. Just showing up, caring, and listening, can affect fundamental change in someone’s life.

Now, years later, I listened again. His story came tumbling out. There were successes, achievements. And there were disappointments, fears, times of perceived failures and disasters. There came a time when it was all too much, too much goodness going on, and so he pulled the plug, sabotaging himself, and choosing to run away.

The old family voices of being worthless and a scum echoed around his mind. There were prophecies to fulfill, and expectations to satisfy.

There was loneliness, too. He’d had no visitors, no one to call, no one to care.

“Except you,” he said. “Thanks for talking to me.”

I didn’t say much at first, just listened a lot to this sad story, feeling him open up on the phone and share his feelings.

I responded, offering words of encouragement, hope, and concern.

I told him he was smart, creative, a nice guy. I told him I cared about him, that he was like a son to me, that he was important to me, a good part of my life.

He got quiet, and I could detect a sniffle or two, and a few sobs.

I’d come to see him, if that’s what he wanted. Oh, he did. He’d talk to his counselor and see if we could set that up.

“I don’t know if they let people here have visitors,” he said. “It’s the mental ward, you see, and I don’t know if they’d let you come.”

I told him I thought they would, if it would help him out, help him move through this rough patch in his life, help him transition to a better place, and get on with his life.

We exchanged addresses, and I gave him my cell phone number.

I promised to write to him the next day, and he said he’d write to me. We’d get together, and work on a plan for him to move on. We’d stay in touch.”

“Three years was too long, you know,” he said.

I laughed. “Yeah, I know.”

He laughed too, then, and I heard him smile finally.

I remembered his smile, the one he gave me when he played his music for me, that one special afternoon years ago, just before he aced his math class.

“Well, I’ve got to go,” he said quietly. “My phone time is up.”

“OK,” I said. It was great to talk to you. I hope you feel better. I hope you want to live.”

“Yeah, I do,” he said. “I really do. Thanks for talking to me.”

“Call again soon.”

“I will.”

I looked at the clock. Twenty minutes had passed since I’d decided to answer the call. Twenty minutes of sad stories, and sniffling, and some words of encouragement. Twenty minutes of showing up in each other’s life again, and both of us finding the good in that, each filling our hearts with that connection once again.

We all have twenty minutes a day to give to someone, to listen, to hear their story, to make a connection. We all can care about someone for twenty minutes.

That might make a big difference. It might save a life.

 

–Neal Lemery 10/17/2017

The Power of Silence


 

 

 

I can be pretty verbal. Thirty plus years as a lawyer gives me a well practiced arsenal of words and Socratic debate skills that let me hold my own in the political discussions that surge around my family, friends, and community. I seem to thrive when faced with a point of view that begs for a counter argument, a voice in opposition.

Often, I speak without first asking myself if I should even speak, should I take up the cause. Not every conversation is a call to a debate, or a heated argument worthy of a case before the Supreme Court.

I learn more when I listen, and the proverb that observes we have two ears, but only one mouth, is always worthy of a revisit.

Am I speaking to change someone’s opinion, or am I just arguing for the sake of being a dissenter, knowing that, of course, I am right?

So I often try to practice the art of falling silent, of not engaging in debate. My silence isn’t saying that I agree, either. Let the other person’s words echo and be contemplated in unexpected quiet. Let the speaker’s words and their ideas linger, so that we may truly hear them, and take in what they are saying. Maybe the speaker, in that silence, will hear what they have said, and take the time to really hear themselves.

My silence certainly can’t be taken as agreement, or even acquiescence, in the hypothesis presented by the speaker.

I yield the floor to them, letting them give voice to their thoughts, letting the ideas flow around the room. Perhaps they have never been heard before; perhaps their ideas haven’t been aired.

My ego likes to believe that when the speaker finally stops to hear their own flawed ideas, they will abandon their line of thinking, and agree that I’ve been right all along.

If they are “loaded for bear” and ready for a heated argument, I don’t have to agree to wage battle.   That’s my choice. And, I often don’t learn much if I don my armor and throw my own spears in a heated argument.

There’s the old saying about not learning when your mouth is open.

Thus, I often try to fall silent. My lips don’t move, and I focus on disengaging the clutch between the argumentative brain and my mouth. I keep in eye contact, letting them know I’ve been listening, and I’m still present.

I’m just not engaging in debate. I’m not ramping up the temperature. I’m reacting, just not in the way we’ve been socialized to react.

I’m changing the rules. And, I’m certainly making a point, just not the point that the speaker is expecting.

The interchange gets even sweeter when the speaker asks if I have anything to say, and I don’t say anything. I’m making a point. I’m not invisible, and my silence is not agreement. I’m exercising my power in the conversation, and making a point.

The uncomfortable silence is my friend, a valuable energy in the conversation. I’m expressing myself, by not saying anything. It’s a paradox, one that is often a valuable teaching tool.

What I’m saying, in my silence, is that I hear the other person. But, I don’t have to respond, in the usual way. And, I give them something to think about. Even just letting their words echo back to them, giving them space to actually hear what they’ve been saying, can be a powerful reaction to their words. I’m giving them personal space.

I can think they are being an idiot. I just don’t have to say the words, and go into battle. Instead, I can let them wonder what I am thinking, if they even care about that.

I also don’t have to be the hypocrite, saying I agree even if I don’t, say something benign, or be a diplomat.

From my point of view, it’s a pleasant mystery.

I’m giving them the luxury of contemplation of their own spoken words. How often do we engage in thinking about what we have just said?

They aren’t hearing my approval, and they aren’t getting a verbal response. I’m not adding fuel to their argumentative fires. Instead, I’m letting their flames die down, dropping the temperature, letting things cool.

In that silence, I can grow my disagreement, my dissent. I can also grow the speaker’s own reflection of their own words, and let those words lie exposed to the clarifying sunlight of truth, logic, and social sensibilities.

And, the speaker is now really listening to me. I’m not mouthing words, but I am present, and I am hearing them. My silence is speaking volumes of words. And, what that means is now the puzzle the speaker is trying to solve. The silence is making my argument for me.

I’m not even marshaling my debate tactics and my own thoughts on the subject at hand, except in me being silent. Silent, yet engaged with them, respectfully listening to them, and being present.

 

“I answer her with my silence, understanding the full power of it for the first time. Words are weapons. Weapons are powerful. So are unsaid words. So are unused weapons.”
― Emily MurdochIf You Find Me

 

–Neal Lemery, 9/29/2017

 

Unsaid


 

 

You would be one hundred tomorrow,

and I would have made you a cake—

your mom’s white spice cake with what we kids used to call

cement frosting – sugar boiled to death, and slathered on

like plaster, with an old kitchen knife of Grandma’s.

 

I’d make you hot Lipton tea, even though it will be a scorcher of a day–

you with your sweater on, and me breaking a sweat.

We’d talk and laugh, but when I would ask about you growing up,

and what it was like in your younger days, you’d get quiet, and

change the subject to how my garden was doing.

 

I still think about you living with your aunt that year,

while Grandma went to Fort Worth.

I figured it out that year your

cousin’s kids came to live with us for the summer,

you adding chairs and another leaf to the table—

no explanation given.

 

Years later, when I brought our foster son to meet you,

you’d baked a pie and made your favorite dish,

put out your great grandma’s English china bowl

and just smiled and gave him a hug.

 

You’ve been gone a long time now, but I still

grow your favorite rose

and think of you when I plant my peas, using Grandpa’s hoe,

and set the table when guests are coming,

using your silverware, and folding the napkins just like you.

 

I’ll even make some Lipton tea on a stormy day, and read a book—

remembering you doing that, while a roast cooked in the oven,

filling the house with love, you saying “Hi” when I got back from school.

 

A few years ago, something great happened and I picked up the phone—

halfway through the number, I realized you wouldn’t answer the call,

and laugh when I told you the news—

I miss that, sometimes more than I think I can stand.

 

The other day, I drove by Great Grandma’s house,

where you were “born and raised” and learned to ride your uncle’s horse,

the old and “new” barns gone now, the road to the cemetery just grass,

a hundred years changed most everything, I think,

Except what really mattered, what was too often left

Unsaid.

 

 

—Neal Lemery

September 2017

 

The Day of the Moon


 

 

Everyone was calling it an eclipse, and this otherwise ordinary Monday turned into a holiday, where all we were expected to do was be present and enjoy looking at the drama in the morning sky above us.

 

Monday — this Middle English word literally means Day of the Moon. So it was indeed Moon’s Day, a perfect day for an eclipse.

 

Through the morning clouds, thinning in the strong summer light, the sun and the moon moved closer, and kissed. They danced to some heavenly song unknown to we Earthlings, and held each other closer. Unseen forces were at play, and the primitive, uncivilized within me grew afraid. The sun was being eaten alive.

 

I’m sure my ancestors thought that heavenly sorcery was afoot, when they stared up at the sky on rare, unpredicted long ago days and watched the gods making love, or eating one another, while the Earth grew oddly cold and dark in the middle of the day, eclipsing.

 

There’s that funny word: Eclipse. In ancient Greek, the word means abandonment. I’m sure the birds in my yard felt abandoned, as they took to the trees at what seemed the untimely end of the day. I felt abandoned, too, maybe even getting a sense of the Apocalypse.

 

Astronomers and the more technical among us would call it an occultation and a syzygy.

 

Syzygy – a word even more fun to say than occultation. It means the alignment of three heavenly bodies.

 

Eclipse. Syzygy.   Neither one fit well into a poem, not even a haiku, or an iambic pentameter rhyme.

 

And, eclipse, what rhymes with that? Like its ancient meaning, I soon abandoned the thought of writing a poem with the word on this Day of the Moon, the day the moon ate the sun for brunch.

 

I looked on, as the clouds thinned, the August sky its traditional blue, the ground warming in a summer’s day. Soon, the dance dimmed the morning light, until it was nearly dark, and an evening chill came up on us. Birds quieted and found their nightfall perch, and the summer breeze died to an almost deathly silence. My watch spoke its usual sun time speak, but then, not following the rules of this Moon Day occultation, this Syzygenarian time.

 

Everything was out of order. The usual reliability of the sun’s methodical walk across the summer sky, a thing I scarcely pay attention to, was seriously out of whack.

 

Indeed, I was truly eclipsed — abandoned.

 

Others in my tribe wanted to gather, to come to this heavenly party with lawn chairs and cold beers, and noisy laughter. I, instead, craved the solitude, the eerie silence, as I peered into the sky, watching this periodic, yet rarely experienced, silent meeting.

 

This time and place, was only reserved for Earthlings, on our little planet, third rock from the sun. We were being eclipsed, finding ourselves in heavenly occultation.

 

It was Syzygy day, an alignment, yet also we were abandoned. World order, even the order of the solar system, was crumbling before my very eyes.

 

High above, the lovers embraced, the moon hiding nearly all of the sun’s light from us, as a false night grew darker. Only the summer’s blue midday sky above, and the sliver of sun told us this was not night, but a rare heavenly embrace. Or was it murder?

 

Light reflected in a bucket of water turned into diamonds, and I snapped a photo. Later on, I looked at the photo, noticing the diamonds on the water were really a cluster of tiny black and white crescents, images of the heavenly dance above.

 

More sorcery, more midmorning magic, this Moon’s Day. Like the neighbor’s dogs, I wanted to bark and howl, hoping that would bring back the sun.

 

On it went, until the moon moved away, inch by celestial inch, until once again, the two orbs moved further apart, teaching us the celestial geometry of spheres, the amazement of heavenly bodies in motion, perspective, and proportion, our dependence on the sun’s seemingly eternal warmth and light.

 

Birds flew, and the ground warmed, summer’s light again appearing, as if this was just a usual day.

 

Humility, insignificance, timelessness, the lessons for this day, the sense of wonderment of things and doings not human. The universe teaching me again, how it can dance.

 

–Neal Lemery 8/26/17

Water Fills The Space It Finds Itself In


Water fills the space it finds itself in.

 

When I recently found myself in an uncomfortable situation where I felt attacked, I was, at first, drawn into anger, in many of the dimensions of that old and familiar emotion. Anger seems the first place I go, when a situation spins out of order and sense. My “buttons” get pushed and I am dragged off in the direction of my reptilian, crisis oriented brain.

The dark clouds of raw, untamed, uncivilized emotions and untempered responses obscure my usual cheery, gentile approach to the daily challenges of life. It is a quick journey to the Dark Side.

I want to just throw my thunderbolts, and shoot endless rounds of arrows into my foe, throwing my weight around and relentlessly wage my own private war.

Old fears show up, ghosts of anxieties past, spurred on by familiar inadequacies, the voices of old and powerful critics, and the scars of self doubts.

My rational, more civilized mind, just sits there, paralyzed by all the sabre rattling, until I can take some deep breaths. I’ll need to allow myself to listen to my frontal lobes, home of reason, logic, and good memories of my prior successes in peace making and problem solving.

Slowly, thoughts of how I am a good problem solver come to mind. I can entertain the idea that challenges in my life don’t need me inputting launch codes into my own arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

I am capable, I remind myself. And, my many talents at peace making and problem solving can be applied to the problem at hand.

I realize I haven’t faced this particular problem in the past, but I have worked through things and lived to tell the tale.

I just need to apply those hard-earned skills into this new challenge.

Filling the challenge with my own unique abilities is what is needed. I need to be adaptable, flexible, and, yes, methodical. The reptilian reaction of anger, rage, and war-making won’t work, and will only lay waste to relationships and problem solving.

Change and crisis, and that initial response of anger, spiced with overpowering feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, failure, rejection, jealousy, and revenge, all stirred up, makes for a toxic cocktail.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m addicted to that gut-wrenching response, and those stress chemicals are my own kind of heroin. Or, am I just a human being, hardwired to be the cranky alligator awakened from his nap.

Yet, when I can pull myself away from all that, and let my gut unclench, I can see the forest for the trees, and I can adapt my problem solving skills, and get to work.

I pour myself into the shape of the problem, like water in an ice filled glass, and fill in the spaces with my skills. Once I take this approach, and take off my armor and lay down my sword, and pick up my peacemaker tools, the solutions show up, and I can move ahead.

“Let it go,” I tell myself, pushing away the hot coals of rage and anger. “Give it time and this will play itself out.”

When I slow down the war talk, and take my time in walking through the battleground, I do better, and I start even liking myself. I begin to believe that this too shall pass, and I don’t need to start World War III. Later, that seems a simple truth. But, in my first response, I just don’t see it. I’m only the ‘gator in the swamp.

Life does that, giving us opportunities to revisit a lesson, and dust off some old tools. Again, I relearn the lesson and realize that not every affront and perceived insult calls for my reptilian warrior mode.

“It’s just life,” I remind myself. “I’ll get through it, and move on.”

I can deal with this, and do that work well.

I come to that, eventually, after I remind myself that I am like water, able to fill the space I find myself in.

 

–Neal Lemery, August 8, 2017

 

Valuing Art


Valuing Art

 

(First published at Art Accelerated’s Blog, July 30, 2017)

 

By Neal Lemery

 

What is the value of art in our lives? Does it have an impact?

 

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” (Pablo Picasso)

 

Art is a way of finding and expressing the truth in our lives. It allows us to explore and find things within ourselves we may not have realized are there. Art allows us to discover who we are.

 

“Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world,” said Dana Gioia, chair, National Endowment for the Arts. “There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images. Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions.” (Commencement address, Stanford University, 2007)

 

Working in high school art classes, researchers Hetland and Winner found that arts programs teach a specific set of thinking skills rarely addressed elsewhere in the school curriculum—what they call “studio habits of mind.” One key habit was “learning to engage and persist,” meaning that the arts teach students how to learn from mistakes and press ahead, how to commit and follow through. “Students need to find problems of interest and work with them deeply over sustained periods of time,” write Hetland and Winner.

They found that “the arts help students learn to ‘envision’—that is, how to think about that which they can’t see. That’s a skill that offers payoffs in other subjects, they note. The ability to envision can help a student generate a hypothesis in science, for instance, or imagine past events in history class. Hetland and Winner, Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Art Education (2007).” Karin Evans, Arts and Smarts, Greater Good Magazine, UC Berkeley, (December 2008)

 

“Along with the perks of enjoying and experiencing art, there are real-world benefits to making the art with your own two hands. According to a 2014 study, producing visual art improved psychological resilience and increased brain activity for the participants by the end of the experiment.” Gabe Bergado, Mic.com (December 15, 2014)

 

“Art allows children to express emotions that can be difficult to discuss with others.

 

“According to research conducted by the Childcare Education Institute, ‘art offers children an important outlet for emotional expression and the assurance that their feelings are valuable,’ which is particularly critical for disadvantaged children whose feelings might have never been validated. Expressing emotions such as anger or fear through artistic expression such as dance or writing allows children cope with aspects of living in a healthy, safe space. It also enables them to release difficult emotions instead of repressing them.” K. Nola Mokeyane, Information on How Art Helps the Behavior of Disadvantaged Children, (oureverydaylife.com)

 

Does art have value? I would argue yes.

 

“When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply asked,’then what are we fighting for?’ ” (Kazuo Ishiguro)

 

In my own life, art has had a tremendous impact. By allowing myself to be creative, and to have space in my life where I can explore and play, I have greatly expanded my view of who I really am.

 

I’ve always been a photographer, exploring light, composition, and “seeing” the world in a different way. That creativity helped balance my life in college and law school. I played in school bands, and loved music.

 

My interest in art, and my hunger for a creative outlet brought me to look at my love for gardening as a way of expression. Years later, I took art classes at my local community college. In that work and discipline, I found a sense of freedom and self expression.

 

Over time, I’ve learned to give myself permission to experiment, to “let go”, and be uninhibited with my art. In many ways, it is a return to the spontaneity of childhood play. Now, I play my guitar, and pick up my paintbrushes with a sense of excitement and limitless possibility.

 

And, in my art, I have found a self I never really honored before, and am getting acquainted with my soul, a person I really enjoy.