Seeking An Intelligent Inquiry and Conversation


How does one navigate community political discourse in this age of apparent propaganda, half truths, and dogmatic black and white thinking?

A government clerk engaged me this week on my thoughts about Michael Wolff’s runaway best seller on Washington dystopia. When I opined that the book presented a significant amount of information that was critical, that there appeared to be substantial dysfunction and lack of moral compasses in the current administration, centered at the top, he seemed to agree, then caught himself.

He then abruptly sidestepped the conversation, to praise the recent federal tax code changes, expressing delight that Apple would now bring back billions of dollars into the American economy.

While that statement would warrant some serious fact checking and deep analysis of public tax policy, international macroeconomics and trade policies, my conversational partner quickly nodded off my obvious skepticism of his statement, and turned to his next customer.

I was left hanging, with an unresolved conversation, and yet another encounter of bold statements unsupported by intelligent discourse and informed debate. Such is our current level of community conversation and social dialogue. Conversation by ambush, and don’t go too deep.

Such encounters run counter to our duty as citizen to be of a curious mind and to demand that a point of view stand on its own, based upon truth and reason, and at least a mostly well informed factual foundation.

We need to be on guard against false logic, propaganda, deceptive thinking and hidden agendas.

Instead, I am a seeker of Truth and leading a purpose-driven, meaningful life aimed at bettering humankind, and being congruent with thoughtful, goal-oriented moral values. That conversational topic can actually challenge all of us to assess our own views, and perhaps grow our minds, even alter our opinions.

In my questions and along the path of my search for truth and moral focus, I aim to strive to focus on thoughtful logic, challenging questions and science-based methodology.

In applying these principles and processes to current events and publicly expressed and popular viewpoints, I notice a general lack of the application of researched facts, moral principles and thoughtful, persuasive reasoning.

Instead, the rhetoric is dogmatic, emotional (primarily fear-based), and beset with half-truths, falsehoods, and unsupported conclusions.

It often appears that the goal of the one who makes the declaration of a certain political view is often not seeking a lively debate, truth or intellectual development. Instead, there is an attempt to persuade by false logic, even outright lies, and changing the argument in mid-course, a mixing of two distinct trains of thought and reasoning, hoping, apparently, that the listener would simply agree with both conclusions and points of view. And, all the while ignoring the concept that perhaps many issues and social questions are inherently complex, and that reasonable people may reach different conclusions and viewpoints.

Life, however, and its complexities, rarely allow that luxury of simultaneously accepting two viewpoints on two vaguely related topics. It is an unsatisfying mix of apples and oranges.

I simply want to engage in informed and interactive conversation. Perhaps in that, we will each grow in our thoughts, and be better informed citizens in our community.

Gratitude and Aspirations: My Intentions for the New Year


 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

 

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
― Epicurus

 

At the beginning of a new year on the calendar, I am reminded of the many things that I am grateful for in my life. I celebrate all of that, and seek to be mindful of those treasures: friends, experiences, opportunities, and being present in a beautiful place on this Earth.

 

Gratitude is being thankful. And, being patient for what has come into my life and what awaits me in the future. By living in the moment, I can fully appreciate and be grateful for what life has brought to me and who I am becoming. I am a work in progress. Perhaps I need to wear a “construction zone” sign around my neck to remind me of that.

 

Being present with my intentions, and focusing my intentions on what is to come is my goal for this coming year.

 

In this coming year, I intend to:

 

  • Be fully present when I am with others. I need to listen with an open heart and an open mind, and be tolerant of our differences and the wisdom and experiences of others. In doing that, I will learn and grow. Remind myself that I have one mouth and two ears for a reason, and that I am only learning when I am listening, and not speaking.
  • Work out of my comfort zone. Try something new, something challenging, and strive to have new experiences and opportunities. I will only grow when I am challenged. I only learn when I am uneasy with whom and where I am at. Allow others to be my teachers and guides. Be open to new ideas, new viewpoints.
  • Be a lifelong learner. Embrace new experiences, listen to different and challenging ideas, read books I disagree with, and be open to other ideas. Be tolerant and mindful. Wisdom comes from unanticipated sources. Remind myself that I may be wrong, that I can change my mind, that I am not all knowing.
  • Embrace creativity. See the art in everything in my life, and seek out the creative energies of others. Tend to the artist within me, and celebrate the messages of my Muse, pay attention, and allow the Muse to work through me as I create. Tend that fire, and allow the heat of the moment to fill my heart. Grow that creative energy by sharing it with others. In that, I grow community.
  • Build community in everything that I do, everything I say. Do that in big ways and in small, ordinary ways. Have the intention of building community without fanfare or ego, but instead because I am a child of the Earth and it is my moral and ethical duty to improve and grow community.
  • Be fully mindful of others. Heed the saying that one should walk a mile in the shoes of another. Every person has their own wisdom, their own Truth. Be a good example of what I value.
  • Live life according to my morals, my ethics, my beliefs in the goodness of others, and the unity of humankind. Small kindnesses can open hearts.
  • Speak out against intolerance, fear and hatred. While silence has its place in changing the world, let me be aware that there are also times to speak my peace, share my thoughts, and take action for the good of all.
  • Act according to my beliefs and my purpose in life. A good life is not all talk and no action. Be congruent with my thoughts and beliefs and act accordingly.
  • Social change comes from being a example of what I want to see in the world. Life is not “do as I say and not as I do”.
  • Avoid judgment. I strive to avoid assumptions, or jump to conclusions. I cannot assume the roads traveled by others. I seek to be compassionate.
  • Act with humility. Recognize that I don’t know everything. Life still has lessons to teach me. Be open to new ideas and new experiences.

 

12/31/2017

The Real Presents Under the Tree


 

 

Christmas Eve, 2017

 

I’m sitting by the fire, with a mug of coffee, watching the cold rain fall outside, almost turning to snow.

The presents are wrapped and under the tree, brightening up the living room. Soon, dinner will be in the oven, and the merriment of Christmas will begin.

The real joy of the season, and the real presents to be enjoyed, won’t be found under the tree. The true gifts of Christmas have already been given, and our hearts are already filled with the joy of the season.

That joy, that “reason for the season” is found in relationships.

It has been a year of reaching out, reconnecting, and opening our hearts to one another. Friends and family have shared their fears, their uncertainties, their doubts. Many have had their lives turned upside down, and have been left fearful of their future, and their own abilities to captain their ships through storm-tossed seas.

This year, I’ve made it a point to reach out and share time with many people. Being a good listener, offering comfort and solace. Realizing that each of us is an instrument of change. One person can make a difference. It’s a simple truth.

Often, simply showing up and being there for someone has warmed our hearts and provided a safe harbor during the storm.

Last week, I visited two young men in prison. Both of them were filled with doubt and uncertainty, feeling lost and unsupported in their journeys. We talked, we laughed, we shared our stories of our struggles and doubts during this year.

We each took comfort in the other’s big hearts and willingness to extend hands of friendship.

Behind cold walls topped with razor wire, I found the light of personal commitment to a better world. Young men, with great courage and great wisdom, speaking from their hearts gave me hope for the future.

We are not alone. None of us are fully confident in our ability to weather the storms of life. Yet, we have each other, and we believe in each other. In our community, by coming together and sharing our hearts and our talents, we will change the world.

This year, I celebrate the gift of friendship, the gift of unconditional love.

What really is important this year is not found in politics, and is rarely talked about on the pages of newspapers, social media posts, or on TV. Yet, I hear it from friends and family, over coffee, and in new books that come my way.

The real treasure we have, and the true power that we hold in our own hands and in our hearts, is the ability to care about each other, to support each other, and to act with compassion and respect.

The answers to the world’s problems won’t be found in the marble halls of Washington, but they will be found in our hearts and in the strength of hands holding hands, people walking alongside other people, and working towards our common goals and implementing our common values in the work that we do.

This is a time of rebuilding, and restarting the relationships and the social institutions that have served us so well in the past. In our commonality, our common goodness, there is hope and there is our future.

–Neal Lemery

Gunking Out


 

 

Today was the day for those disgusting November outdoor chores that I keep putting off. I am glad that it is raining, giving me the excuse to put it off. Yet, the cascading waterfall over the eaves trough that isn’t draining, making a lake out of the flowerbed, and the leaves molding on the deck, keep nagging at me for attention. No one else is claiming this fun chore.

This afternoon, the clouds cleared for an entire hour and the sun showed its face. It was time. I donned the warm coat, but didn’t bother with sunscreen.

I eased into the experience, first hosing off the deck’s collection of half rotted leaves accumulated from the last three storms. Now that the trees are bare, there is no excuse to wait.

The still dripping eaves trough, and the pool of rainwater flooding the flowerbed called my name. Dark clouds were moving in, signaling the return of the November monsoons. Time was running out.

I wrestled with the ladder, wondering if it will teeter a little too far and send me flying.

“Death by downspout” — will that be my obituary headline?

With one hand on the ladder, and one hand dipping into the great ice cold black water and whatever has morphed into existence here, I plunged in.

I gunked out the eaves trough and the top of the downspout, liberating the thick wad of matted conglomeration of leaves, moss clumps, shingle grit, and whatever else lurks in the eaves troughs.

Webster’s doesn’t think “gunked” is a word, and refers me to “muck”, which can be a verb. I like “gunked” better. It sounds more like the near gagging I experience as my hand pulls out a wad of something, be it gunk or muck. And, that special feeling of black ooze dripping down my arm.

My mind envisions the swamp monster in that old Fifties horror movie, “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. Will it grab me and haul me into the depths of the morass?

I thought of wearing gloves, but, really, nothing gets the job done better than bare fingers fully immersed in icy rainwater and gunk. Dealing with sodden gloves would only compound the experience. You try to fling the evil smelling mess out onto the lawn, but of course, some of the liquid runs down your arm, and splashes on your face and clothes.

The downspout, finally liberated, gurgles to life, releasing a torrent of black gunk and water.

To anticipate a tweet, “the swamp has been drained”.

I climb down from my precarious perch, and find the hose to rinse off my fingers and arm, and everywhere else the mess had landed.

One last wrestle with the hose coils and the ladder, and I am done, ready for a warm house, some serious hand washing and something hot to drink, as the first splatter of the new rain cloud strikes my face.

 

–Neal Lemery 11/28/17

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