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.

 

A Visit From the Muse


 

 

1.

One thing that always motivates me is a deadline. Having a calendar of coming events, coming obligations, is a not so gentle reminder that I need to take action. Time moves on, and me doing other things or not paying attention of the business at hand, gets me into trouble.

I’ve wanted to do something different at the monthly community open mic that I’ve helped get started. I do a lot of promotion for it and I always have something to read there.

Being the essayist, the book writer, the poet is a comfortable role. And, reading off the printed page is not threatening. I’m not totally drenched in nervous sweat when I read at a public event.

Many of my friends come, and the event is developing into a nice cultural event for this small town. One of my friends is now the regular emcee, and he does a fine job. Lately, he’s been “suggesting” I do something with my guitar. I play in a community country rock band; we’ve done public performances. And, I played my guitar while my wife sang at a friend’s wedding last year. So, I’ve dipped my toe into the public waters.

This past two weeks, I’ve flipped through several song books, and listened to some of my new favorite CDs, hoping to find that perfect “cover” song to play. If Willie or George or Pete can sing and play something in public, well maybe I can copy that.

I even found one of my first favorite songs, from when I was literally just a babe. “This Old House” was the number one song when I was one year old, and I annoyed my mother to no end playing it again and again on my little kid’s record player.

This week, I learned that Rosemary Clooney sang it in the key of Eb and it now is seen as a Gospel song. But, after a few hours, I realized it just wasn’t working for me. At least not with a deadline of tonight.

The last few days, I’ve felt that the song to be done is a blues song, and I found the rhythm and key that fits. All I needed were lyrics.

An article I read said that songs that work are about things you experience and have feelings about. I kept thinking about it, even when I was stuck in traffic. My home town is going through construction madness this summer. All the tourists plus construction of a new highway intersection, a town plaza and new sidewalks has often brought traffic to a halt.

I went home and sat down with my guitar and a quiet hour on the deck. Just me, my guitar, a pad of paper, and, hopefully, my new song.

I played my chords, got my rhythm, and wrote down a few thoughts about the traffic. Then a few more words, and more guitar strumming. I gave it space, and let the Muse settle in for a visit. More words. I put down the pencil, and found a pen. The pen somehow made it easier to write what came to mind.

Yeah, a lot of words and phrases came to mind, got written down, then crossed out, or new words and phrases stuffed in.

I looked up, taking in the coming sunset, took a break, got a glass of water, and wrote some more. And, edited, rearranged, mulling it all over.

I went to bed, feeling that this thing, this “song” was about there, and had been, well, created.

Overnight, my brain mulled it over again. At 2 a.m., I woke with the first verse fully in my head, and it was good. At 6, I sprung out of bed and wrote another verse, and revised several others, all before coffee. The Muse can be demanding.

Later, out of respect for my wife’s ears after only one cup of coffee and the morning hour, I waited until she went outside to the garden before my song rehearsal. The pen made a few more word changes, and then even editor’s remorse, and some editing was undone.

I relaxed, guitar pick in hand.

“Let the words guide the music,” the Muse whispered. “And relax.”

“Just let it flow.”

I like it. It’s a song. It’s good entertainment, too. Fun. Whimsical. And, a new side of me that I haven’t let too many people see. I haven’t let me see it very often, either. Playing that tonight will be fun, and my friends will be surprised.

Me, too.

2.

The Muse stayed with me, as I brought my guitar into the yogurt shop. I took it out the case, tuned it, and set it up near the microphone. I brought my music stand and put the printed words out there.

Nerves set in, as I waited for folks to gather, and we finished setting up the space. I sucked down a whole bottle of water, my mouth parched by the warm day, or was it nerves? My buddy started us off, and others played their music, read their poems.

It was a comfortable night for everyone, or so I thought. Old friends, reading new works, sharing deep emotions. Just like me.

Soon, it was my turn. And instead of having an essay or poem in my hand, it was my old familiar guitar. I strummed a few chords and off I went.

The song went as planned, and it came out the way I thought it should go. And, I got a nice round of applause at the end.

One friend admired the fact that I’d done something different tonight. We’re both poets, so he asked how writing a song was different.

“Still a poem,” I said, “but one with more dimensions.”

I’ve tried something hard, but it felt good, felt right. For what I wanted to say tonight, it was the way to go, a blues song about my little town, and what was going on affected me, changed me. That’s what a good poem, a good essay, or even a book chapter does, too.

Life is like that, offering challenges, new ways of saying things, getting things out.

 

–Neal Lemery, 7/23/2017

Great Books on Writing and My Writing Principles


Neal Lemery’s List of Suggested Books on Writing Craft and Guiding Principles

 

 

Stephen King, On Writing

 

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

 

Lisa Cron, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentenc

 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

 

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

 

 

 

 

My Guiding Principles

 

  • Write what you know
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Write often, even if it’s the grocery list
  • Carve out a time and space to write and do it regularly. (Make an appointment with yourself.)
  • Carry some paper and a pen everywhere. The Muse strikes unexpectedly.
  • Give words to someone’s story. Give them a voice.
  • If the story is too close, too painful, write it as fiction, or in third person.
  • Writing folders on your computer, on the desktop. Yearly Journal. Subjects. Don’t trash anything. Every writing work is a seed.
  • Read great writing.
  • Do a blog. (self imposed obligation to write, and gets you “out there”)
    • com
    • com
    • (My blog turned into two books)
    • group blog
    • guest blog (post someone else’s writing on your blog)
    • Link to your Facebook page, or blog directly on Facebook
    • Photo blog/Instagram
    • Link to Twitter

 

 

http://neallemery.com