Ranked Choice Voting: Is It In Our Future?


                                    

                                                by Neal Lemery

(published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 7/24/2022

            Ranked choice voting (RCV) is the new popular trend in American politics these days.  In August, Washington State primary voters will choose their candidates in their primary using this method.  It is also now the method used statewide in Alaska and Maine.  In November, Portland voters will decide if they want RCV to choose their city commissioners and mayor.  

            RCV eliminates the need for runoff elections, and also sometimes allows two candidates from the same party to move ahead to the general election. The process is based on the idea that the top candidates of all the voters should prevail. 

            As they mark their ballots, voters literally cast several votes for an office, marking their first and second choices, and sometimes up to five “rankings”. 

“A ranked-choice voting system (RCV) is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.” https://ballotpedia.org/Ranked-choice_voting_(RCV)

This process is already in place or will be in the next year in ten states, in some federal, state, and local elections. This idea, and its many variations, are being widely discussed. 

In Oregon, Benton County has adopted this for elections involving at least three candidates for county officers. (The Sheriff is exempt from this, per state law.) One of your choices can be a write-in candidate. The voters adopted this idea and amended the county home rule charter.  Tillamook County is a “statutory” county and not a home rule county, and it is unclear whether the voters here could adopt such a system without the blessing of the Legislature. 

In New York City, you can have five choices, in rank order. 

In Alaska, this reform has eliminated partisan primary elections, and voters can choose among all the candidates.  That state used the new system a few months ago for a special Congressional election with over fifty candidates, and election officials handled the new process with apparent ease. At least three states use this for presidential candidates.

RCV is also used by a number of universities and organizations for their election processes. 

The arguments in favor include: 

  • Determines the candidate with the strongest support
  • Encourages civil campaigning
  • Reduces wasted votes
  • Eliminates the need for multiple elections

And the arguments against it include: 

  • It’s too complicated
  • The person with the most votes can lose
  • Your vote might not count if it’s “exhausted”
  • It violates “one person, one vote”

7/20/22

Taking Time to Grieve


                                    

                                                by Neal Lemery

(published in the Tillamook County Pioneer 7/13/2022)

            Life has a way of reminding us to take care of ourselves and to do what is important in our lives.

            July seems to be a month of special events and celebrations.  The reverberations of June graduations, and a catching up on birthdays, weddings and funerals has filled my calendar.  Covid had slowed down and often stopped those familiar rituals and life events that really are essential to our community life and our emotional wellbeing. Now, we have social calendars again and I find myself busy with those special events, events I used to take for granted, or thought that they were old-fashioned, and could be forgotten. 

            This week, I went to a funeral of a good friend and colleague from work.  Her funeral was delayed for a year, as she wanted people to gather to celebrate her life, and not to be overcome by mourning.  Then, the pandemic delayed that event for another two years.  

            Part of me was thinking that having a funeral now was unnecessary.  Enough time had gone by that we didn’t really need a funeral or even a gathering.  We were “past all that” and had moved on.  If my thinking was likened to a baseball game, I’d be batting a complete strikeout.  

            It was a serious and meaningful event, a military funeral at a national cemetery, complete with an honor guard, the firing of rifles, and the playing of “Taps”.  The folding and presentation of the national flag to her daughter “on behalf of the President” and in recognition of her military service might seem a little dramatic, almost a cliche.  But tears rolled down my cheeks. We each had one of her favorite roses, and we shared stories of her life and her many contributions and devotion to her family, friends, and community.  

            Grief poured out of me and tears fell, and I joined everyone else in the laughter and crying over wonderful stories, rich memories of a life well lived.  No, it wasn’t “too late” to have a funeral, it wasn’t too late to gather to remember a good person and good times.  We all cried, and we all healed.  We continued our story telling over a late breakfast, her favorite meal, at one of her favorite restaurants.  Good memories came to life and when I left, I knew that I’d been able to celebrate her life and to grieve her death, and do that essential work of the soul along with many friends and her family. 

            A number of years ago, I was asked to be part of a memorial for a friend who had passed nearly ten years earlier.  Family and friends had struggled with this friend’s death, and many issues and emotions had become stuck, with no ceremony or gathering to release the complex array of feelings.

            It has been said that grief is what happens when there’s no place for the love to go.  I understand that wisdom a lot more these days, as I am learning that I need to take the time for self-care, for community care, and to fully and wholeheartedly allow myself to mourn, to grieve, and to release some of the challenging feelings and emotions that come when a loved one dies.  In any relationship, there are thoughts unsaid, feelings unexpressed when someone dies, and what is left does need to go somewhere, needs to be said. 

            Often, I’m not sure what that is, what words there are to describe what lies deep in my heart.  Time helps me understand what is buried deep inside, so that what needs to eventually come out and be spoken and released can find its way through the complicated jumble of emotions that are tied into the knots of grief and loss.  Anger is certainly involved.  There are other things, too, needing to be expressed by words we find difficult to find, let alone emerge from our throats in the midst of tears.  

            I do know that when I cry, that when I can allow myself to find release, and to say what is on my heart, then peace is close by. I become unstuck, able to find some liberation and comfort in the work of grieving well. Some would call that detoxifying yourself, a cleansing. 

            After that long delayed memorial service many years ago, a number of people were able to heal, able to move on and find some understanding, some reconciliation.  I found I had some unresolved grief inside of me, too, and it was past time to let that go. The memory of the departed one became more inspiring, more comforting, and people became more accepting of her work in the community as a healer, a reconciler, and a person who could inspire fundamental change in people’s lives.  There were many good stories told at that memorial, stories that had been locked up in grieving hearts, love that had no place to go for a while. There was a lot less self-judgment and self-blaming.  Grieving well does that for each of us, and for the community. 

            Now, when I feel a need to go to a funeral, or to write some kind words of comfort to those experiencing loss and grief, I listen to that voice inside of me, knowing that taking that kind of affirmative action and work not only helps others and helps the community, but it helps me be a more caring and decent person, less burdened with love that has no place to go. 

7/12/2022

The Bramblebush: A Look at the Law on Abortion


                       

                                    by Neal Lemery

(Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 6/27/2022

            In law school, there’s a famous, now century old, book about the study of legal reasoning and the study of law.  The Bramblebush is a must read for law students, and digs into the why and how of how lawyers think and how to study and understand the law.  

            Law students learn the law and learn how to be lawyers by reading appellate court decisions.  The professors don’t tell you what the law is, so you read all those cases and teach yourself what the legal principles are, and how to understand legal reasoning.  In class, you are called upon to analyze the case and defend your own viewpoints of what the law is, and what it should be.  The work of a law student, and lawyers, is to dig into the craft of asking questions and rationalizing your own viewpoints. 

            One of the basic principles of law is that courts should follow precedent, the wisdom of prior cases.  Stare decisis says courts should be predictable and make decisions based upon the rules and decisions that have been made earlier.  Don’t re-invent the wheel. Be consistent. And, if you think a different rule should be made, only do that when society has changed, and we have been better informed by the past.  

            “Hard cases make bad law” is a famous legal proverb, which says that tough, politically charged public policymaking isn’t very well suited for the courtroom, and legal analysis.  Those decisions are often best left with politicians who are skilled at political give and take, compromise, deal making, and vote counting. 

            The basic guidance in the law is found in the federal and state constitutions, the various statutes that Congress and the state legislatures enact after often spirited debates, and the views of presidents, governors, and the bureaucrats they hire to administer all that public policy.  Often, the rules and policies are in conflict. The disputes between differing policies and interpretations,       and the contradictions, end up in the courts, so that judges can be the referees and make decisions when no one else wants the job. 

            The dynamics of abortion law is a reflection of how we can’t come to a collective consensus on an issue that is swirling with each of our moral, ethical, spiritual, medical, and other values and beliefs, as well as the life experiences of ourselves, family, and friends.  When Roe v Wade was decided in 1973, the principal author took a deep dive into the complexities of both medical and legal precedents as well as society’s practices and beliefs at that time. His thoughts were also shaped by his prior experience of being the chief legal counsel for the Mayo Clinic.  

            Almost all hotly contested and emotionally charged Supreme Court decisions are the product of competing social values and legal principles.  The legally and socially charged problems that no one else seems to have figured out arrive at the Supreme Court, and have the benefit of several years of hard-fought litigation and the refined arguments of highly skilled and experienced lawyers, experts in the workings of legal bramblebushes.   

            Often, the issues could be resolved if Congress or a state legislature took the bull by the horns and enacted clearly defined and decisive legislation.  But, they often drop the ball, or write a law that contradicts itself, and is subject to a variety of interpretations.  The result may “kick the can down the road”, but it doesn’t resolve the issue, and instead fuels more litigation, and passes the ball to the courts.  Perhaps that is good politics, but it makes for scattered and often unsatisfactory appellate court decisions.

            When I practiced law, and also sat on the bench, I often thought of the law as looking for certainty, a search for clarity.  I wanted to “buy insurance” for my clients, seeking a guaranteed outcome.  Good lawyers want to find certainty and clarity in the law, and to not get your client into the “bramblebush” of a complicated lawsuit that won’t necessarily give you an answer, but will guarantee you a lot of legal headaches and confusion.

            The new abortion decision calls for lawyers and judges to now look at the Gordian Knot of abortion, privacy, personal choice, and society’s morality of human reproduction with new rules, and a new bramblebush of what is our public policy. And, how the law should write the rules on what is often framed as a personal medical decision founded upon a person’s rights to privacy.  In the early years of our country, such questions weren’t matters for the government or the courts, but were in the hands of women.  The government wasn’t involved. Times have changed, and we are now engaged in the continuation of debates on the roles of mothers, fathers, courts, doctors, legislatures, and others on this emotionally charged complexity of issues.

            We are in the midst of the bramblebush, with an array of emotionally charged and complicated topics, issues, questions, and enigmas.  There seems to be little spirit for compromise or even interest in appreciating a difference of opinion.  Rather that providing an orderly framework for making societal decisions on this “hot topic”, the Supreme Court has stirred the pot, upset the apple cart, and seems to not be concerned about taking away an accepted matrix of finding solutions, boldly shunning the stare decisis principle. This new precedent, and its new matrixes of analysis, will come back to haunt the court, and stir up even more complicated lawsuits. Hard cases indeed make bad law. 

Congress, which could provide some answers in enacting some national legislation, hides out and ducks the issues. Instead, we have new rules, new procedures, and new framework for judicial decision making on a complex, likely unsolvable public policy and moral dilemma. This issue just got even messier. 

 “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

  6/27/2022

Learning From My Tomatoes


                                   

                                                by Neal Lemery

(Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 6/19/2022)

            I’m always learning from my garden, even when I think I “know it all”, and expect that things will always go as planned, and that I’m old and wise, and there’s nothing left to learn.  

            Well, I’m old, but wisdom is often elusive, and there are always lessons to be learned.  And, if I don’t think I need to learn, life comes along and ensures that I do my homework and pay attention to the lessons that I need to learn, and the simple lessons are often the most profound.

            The recent cold and wet weather has taken its toll on me.  It’s mid June and my flowers and vegetables are struggling to settle in and put on their usual burst of growth and productivity. Everything seems about a month behind, and I’m wondering if I’ll have any apples this year. I slog around the yard in my garden boots, listening to the squishiness of my footsteps. I watch the grass and weeds grow higher and higher, my efforts on the occasional dry hour not able to keep up with what a friend calls “lush growth”. 

            I’ve had some extra tomato plants occupying a corner of the greenhouse, with me not really having space for them in the still chilly and soggy garden, and not being willing to toss a perfectly good plant.  They haven’t been looking good lately, pot bound, not being cared for regularly, and stuck in a rather dark corner.  The shade cloth on the greenhouse was designed for sunnier days, and its presence has brought more doom and gloom to these poor plants, adding more darkness in addition to the gray clouds.  

            A friend recently expressed interest in needing more tomatoes, so I had some renewed focus in tomato growing.  I repotted them, added fertilizer, and adjusted the shade cloth so more of the gray light of this odd June could help them revive.  I even turned the greenhouse heater back on, and plugged in a heating mat, to drive away the chill of the weather.  

            Perhaps it is my imagination, but even a day of renewed warmth and light has revived them, and given them some hope.

            I’ve applied that gardening lesson to myself, too.  Yesterday, the sun came out for an afternoon.  I decided I needed some repotting, sunshine, and fertilizer, too.  I took myself to the beach.  I began to notice the beauty of a summer day, my eyes squinting in the bright light, looking at flowers, trees, waterfalls, and the sparkly brightness of the ocean and the beach.  Others were out too, exploring the beach, going fishing, or just walking around in the sunshine, like me.  The air was fresh and warm and I got the blood circulating and the leg muscles stretched and worked out. I realized I was surrounded by beauty and serenity, and the miracles of what Nature can offer us.  

            Like the tomatoes, I felt my roots grow and my leaves reaching up for the warm sunshine of a summer’s day.  The doldrums of yet another day of cool showers and gray skies was pushed away by that feel that we live in a beautiful place, and need to get out and soak up all the goodness and light of where we live.  

6/17/22

My Ten Minute Rule


                        

                                                by Neal Lemery

(published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 5/27/2022

            I try to live an organized, purposeful life, with some guiding principles and an action plan. My “to do” list should be close at hand, current and relevant. If I don’t keep myself organized and on track, at the end of the day, I feel lost and useless, adrift on my own sea of inaction and idleness. 

            We can easily get overwhelmed with too much information and too many demands on our time and energy.  Distractions are everywhere, and I can find myself in “response mode” with depression and anxiety closing in rather than “take action and get something done”.  

            I strive to be an instrument of change. If I get caught up into the “news” and become mesmerized with the crisis of the hour, I become merely reactive, and I don’t get anything meaningful done. I can’t change the news, but I can change how I respond to it. I can change my world, my culture. I can make a real difference. 

            Today’s Seth’s Blog offers some insight in how each of us can be an instrument, an advocate for true cultural changes and shifts.  While there are many good things about our society, the “news” tries to focus me on what isn’t working, what is “bad”, what agitates and stirs me up to feel impotent and angry.  I want to reject that attitude and instead focus on what positive actions I can take to move ahead in this world and help move the world a better place and me a better citizen and human being.

“The people in the news and at the podium get all the attention, but they’re a symptom, not usually a cause. Everyday people aren’t the bottom, they are the roots, the foundation, the source of culture itself. We are the culture, and we change it or are changed by it.”

“From peer to peer

“Change happens horizontally. What do we expect from others? What do we talk about? Who do we emulate or follow or support? What becomes the regular kind?

“…

“But the people who are consistently and actively changing the culture are not easily distracted. One more small action, one more conversation, one more standard established.

“The internet would like us to focus on what happened five minutes ago. The culture understands that what happens in five years is what matters.

“Focused, persistent community action is how systems change. And systems concretize and enforce cultural norms.

“If you care, keep talking. Keep acting. Stay focused.” https://seths.blog

            This week, I focused on self-care, and took myself to the “Mexican Modernists” exhibit at the Portland Art Museum.  I’ve long been a fan of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their art, and their passion for social change and activism.  Their art was a strong and effective voice for the working class, and for social change during and after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), which heralded economic and political reform. Those times offer us a striking parallel to current events.

These artists gave voice to revolutionary social and economic ideas, and sparked a cultural reformation that engaged a generation of reform and rich conversations about the future of Mexican culture. Their influence spilled over to the USA, with Rivera’s public murals in our cities instigating controversy and debate about the power of the elite, the attributes of American culture, and indigenous people. 

            Their art, their advocacy, and their willingness to speak out on issues is a mirror to our society’s issues today, and gives us some effective roadmaps on what we can do to examine and reform the current culture and political climate of our own times.  Yes, artists not only give voice to our culture, but also direction on what we can do as individuals to make the needed changes and to increase our own awareness of what we need.  

            For myself, I have my “ten minute rule”.  I can do most anything for ten minutes in the day.  Why not take that little snippet of time, a mere ten minutes, and do something that supports change and growth.  It may be some moments of personal reflection and writing, or music making.  It may be a rich conversation with a friend, or writing a supportive note on a card and dropping it in the mail.  It may be doing some gardening or art making.  It may be showing up in the community and doing some volunteer task that makes life better for others.  It doesn’t have to be splashy or exotic, but over time, every day, that work, that attention adds up and starts to make a significant difference in our world. Just ten minutes. 

My only criteria is that the task needs to attend to a long term impact on something that’s important in our culture.  “Just show up” is the guiding rule for this work. Every day, like the Chinese proverb about how a steady, seemingly insignificant drop of water erodes the boulder, over time. 

            I sometimes call this work my “guerrilla social activist” work, doing something behind the scenes, and making a difference, instigating change.   (5/27/2022)

                       

                                         

      

The Power of Collective Silence


                                    

                                                by Neal Lemery

(Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 5/24/22)

            I found myself at a local café, having a late breakfast, with about a dozen other community members who had the same idea.  At a nearby table, a family was enjoying themselves, highlighted by the smiles and laughter of their sweet six-month-old baby.

            As babies are wont to do, laughter turned into cries and wails, filling the busy café with sounds of distress. Mom quickly responded by picking up the baby and cuddling it, as good parents do.

            The man at the counter turned towards the family, a look of disgust and anger on his face.

            “You need to take him outside and give him something to cry about.  He needs a good spanking for acting that way,” he said, his booming voice reverberating throughout the room.

            In an instant, the room fell into a deep and pregnant silence.  Every eye turned towards the angry man, every face stony and silent.  Nothing was said, the only sound now the quiet murmurs of the now-again content baby.  

            My mind whirled, part of me wanting to stand up and give the man a piece of my mind, the idiocy of violence, the long-lasting impact of what we euphemistically call “corporal punishment,” and the rudeness of strangers interjecting their values on a young family who were simply out for a good time with their child. 

            Slapping, spanking, the mentality of “giving you something to cry about”, pushed a lot of my emotional buttons, bringing back bad memories in my own life, both personal and professional.  I well knew the impact of that kind of thinking on family members and friends, and how those traumatic experiences often profoundly impact us for the rest of our lives.  

            No one said a word, even the cook stopping her work at the stove, as we all glared at the man, until he finally turned back in his seat and took a sip of his coffee.  A long minute passed, until the baby laughed a little and we all resumed our lives, until we all realized something important was being said in the silence.  

            It was a good minute, a minute of both rebuke for a really bad idea and a time to reflect on how we should deal with kids, what they need from the rest of us. 

It gave me pause to reflect on whether I should have launched into my lecture to the man about the evils of violence and the messages that sends to kids.  The silence gave me time to again realize that my well-rehearsed rant on using violence and anger to raise a child would have likely fallen on deaf ears, that the man wouldn’t be changing his thinking because of what I was going to tell him. I was reminded of the power of collective silence, and I felt that power reverberate through the café. 

            If he was going to change his thinking, that would come at a different time, in a different place, when he was ready to really hear what he had said, and how he looks at the world, and how he learns about his community’s values. 

            Instead, the community at that café spoke a bigger message, in that big, beautiful collective silence of disapproval and disgust.  Mere words wouldn’t have been nearly as effective as our group effort to turn our heads towards the man, and simply be silent.  

            Conversations resumed, and the man kept being ignored.  The waitress didn’t refill his coffee, and slapped down his check beside his empty cup.  He left his money and slipped out the door, not daring to utter another word.  

            I often overestimate the value of a well-turned phrase, or what I might think is a polished, professional writing on a particular issue.  Sometimes, it is in the silence that we truly hear the words of wisdom, the message we want to send, the message we need to hear.

5/24/22  

Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home, by Lauren Kessler. A Book Review


Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home, by Lauren Kessler

                        Reviewed by Neal Lemery, author of Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains

            “We want those to have done harm to us to suffer, to pay for what they did. But in making them suffer, we create the kind of human beings we do not want back in our communities.”

            This engaging book takes makes us uncomfortable and asks us deep and provocative questions about America’s criminal justice system, and how we look at justice and rehabilitation, revenge and compassion.  Kessler takes a deep dive into the lives of prison inmates and their efforts to emerge from prison life with a sense of purpose and hope, and be able to move on with their lives, and become productive members of society.

            As a teacher in prison writing groups, she engages in deep conversations of the lives of some of America’s prison population, pointing out that 95% of all prisoners regain their freedom and attempt to reintegrate into mainstream American society.  America has one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration, with 2.3 million Americans in prison or on parole. With 5% of the world’s population, we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. Our incarceration rate has increased 225% since the 1970s, far exceeding any changes in the crime rate. 

            The failure rate of parole is complex, with many parole violations being technical in nature, rather than the commission of new crimes. “Many failed not because they continued to live a life of crime, but rather because the road to reentry was – is – steep and rocky, full of potholes, a winding path with unmarked detours.”

            This engaging, and well-written and often disturbing book tells the stories of some of her writers’ lives, their own devastating and traumatic childhoods, upbringings, adolescence and young adult lives.  Each chapter takes us deeper into their lives, their struggles, and the institutional barriers and disrespect for their own needs and efforts to grow, recover, and move on into productive lives.  The reader is challenged with uncomfortable and tragic stories, yet inspired by the bravery of those who share their stories with Kessler. The stories are told with a mixture of hope and the bitter truth of the failure of our criminal justice system to offer meaningful rehabilitation and reformation of lives shattered by abuse, addiction, neglect, and violence.  

            As a volunteer mentor for prisoners, I have heard these stories, and gotten to know and appreciate the tragic histories and the struggle to change lives and move on, as well as the indifference and ineffectiveness of the system.  For those of us who work for change in the System, this is a work that has long been needed, as it gives voice to those who have not been heard. This book not only compiles the grim realities of a broken system, it offers insight into what works and what needs to change, giving the reader a comprehensive perspective. The stories are also full of hope, personal achievements, and the efforts of effective programs and dedicated volunteers who are making a difference and offer effective progressive ideas that are making a positive difference. 

            Free is a groundbreaking, well-crafted work, offering solid information and analysis and also personal stories of courage, determination, and personal insight into some of America’s most challenging social and political issues.  It is a call to action, and a beacon of hope for true understanding and action for much of what needs to change in American society.  

            It is both an uncomfortable yet affirming read, written by a skilled author whose talented storytelling both informs and motivates the reader to deeply understand the system and the lives of the often forgotten.  Kessler not only tells important stories, she shows us the way to truly make the changes that are needed, work that will truly make all of us free of the fear and brokenness of the criminal justice system.

Planting Seeds


                                                by Neal Lemery

            “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you may reap, but by the seeds that you plant.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

            Spring can be such a time of miracles. New growth, blossoms, warm sun, time outdoors just being in the presence of all the new, experiencing the changes happening all around us.

            I often don’t take the time to just be in the midst of it all — witnessing, being in the moment, simply being present.

            Today, I plant seeds in the dirt, expecting new life to emerge into the light. My expectations may not be fulfilled, yet I am preparing for the miracle of life to occur, on its own terms, its own way, its own destiny. 

            I can bring the seed, the soil, the water, the warmth together. And then I wait patiently, allowing the sunlight and all the other forces in and around the seeds to bring about new life. My task is done — I’ve put the elements together, but I am no longer the agent, the catalyst, or the director.  I’m just the audience, and I just wait.

            “We might think we are nurturing our garden, but of course it’s our garden that is nurturing us.” — Jenny Uglow

            Planting seeds is an act of optimism, of believing that the miracles of life are ongoing, renewing.  Gardening is an act of courage and believing in change and renewal.

            Gardening is stewardship and caretaking, an expression that one person can make a difference, and be a force to better the world.

            And, in doing that, the garden gives back to me, its renewal and growth filling me up with the wonderment of nature, of patience and diligence, of generosity reciprocated, invigorating me and the world we live in.

            I become recharged, the goodness inside of me renewed, re-enforced. In this, I can give more, receive more. The seed, and me, we both grow, moving towards our collective potential to better the world.

4/19/2022

Revising an Old Family Story


                                                published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 4/17/2022

                                                                        by Neal Lemery

            “We are collections of stories, we are vast houses in which stories come and go, and if we don’t listen for them, and savor them, and carry them in our pockets, and share them, then we have nothing, for stories are compasses and lodestars… stories are how we live.”

                        –Brian Doyle

            I’m a collector of stories, stories from family, from friends, from my own adventures and experiences in life.  Every day, I experience a story, and probably a lot of stories, if I pause to think about the day, and what has occurred, what I’ve seen and heard and felt.  Stories are all around me.

            Sometimes, I’m aware enough to realize that I am, indeed, experiencing something special.  I need to capture that, before it moves on, and leave me wondering what I experienced, and if it was worth remembering. I often leave the good stories, the gems of the day, on the side of the road of life, thinking that it wasn’t worthy of my time. But if I think about it, those are often the gold in the day, stories that need to be told. They have value in being remembered and shared.  

            Stories sometimes are incomplete and need to be added to in order to reveal their true mystery, their complete wholeness. In that new retelling, with new details and plots, the story truly shines and becomes even richer in our lives.

            When I was a kid, my family would tell the story of my great uncle, who was a dory fisherman on the Oregon coast.  In 1913, he drowned, and his body was never found.  It was a tragic tale that my grandmother would retell every Memorial Day, when we went to the old family cemetery to tidy up the graves and lay some flowers from her garden. 

            She would tell the story as we picnicked at the cemetery, after our work was done.  She’s point to Uncle Guy’s gravestone, and tell us he was a handsome man, a good man, a teller of jokes, and that they never found his body.  His parents put up the headstone, giving him a place among the family members who had died.  That act of placing the headstone gave them some peace, and a place to come to and mourn.  He was only 26.  

            It was a sad story, but also a story of love and family, a story that gave some meaning and peace at our Memorial Day tradition.  

            A month ago, the story took on an added dimension.  Out of the blue, my e-mail box had a message from someone in Indiana, inquiring whether I was the son of my mother, and that the writer had discovered some family letters I might be interested in.  

            We began a vigorous correspondence, and I learned that great uncle Guy did not die alone, but was with his friend from Indiana, and another fisherman, and that the friend had drowned alongside my uncle, that neither body was found.  The survivor made it to shore, reporting that a sneaker wave had capsized them on an otherwise calm February day, near Haystack Rock, by Pacific City, Oregon. The survivor did all he could to save the other two, but they all grew cold and weak, and he had to swim to shore to save himself.

            The letters were written by my great grandfather, telling the Indiana family of my uncle’s friend of his death, of not finding the bodies.  There was mention of his steamer trunk, and that my grandfather was going to send it back to Indiana, so the family could have some solace, some tangible memory of their beloved.  The man had left his wife and children and had traveled to Oregon, and much of the last part of his life had remained a mystery to the family.  

            They were curious about the deaths and the tragedies, and so I told them the stories of my grandmother, and the stories I knew about the perils of being a dory fisherman, the unpredictability of being out in the winter ocean in an open boat, powered only by oars, and not wearing life jackets.

            I found newspaper articles that told the story, briefly mentioning the inconsolable grief of my family.   My new friends in Indiana had scanned the letters of my great grandfather. I recognized his handwriting, from my childhood times of looking at old family books and cards.  I could see how his hand trembled from grief over his son, as he told the stories of how they searched the beaches for weeks on end, how the oars had floated onto the beach, and how they yearned to find the bodies, to no avail. 

            Other family conversations now made sense to me, including my grandmother’s and mother’s avid admonitions to wear life jackets when we went boating.  No one had made it clear to me the connection of Uncle Guy’s drowning and not wearing a life jacket, and the family mandate about boating safety and precautions.   

            In Indiana, that family had talked about their son and husband, the substantial amount of money my grandfather had arranged to send them from Uncle Guy’s friend’s bank account in Oregon, and the arrival of the steamer trunk my grandfather had sent.  The trunk is still in the family, and was a safekeeping for my grandfather’s letters and the studio photo taken of the two men a few weeks before the ill-fated fishing trip. 

            A copy of that photo was on my grandmother’s dresser all the years I knew her. I realize now that her copy was edited, omitting the friend, and only showing the stern face of my great uncle. As was appropriate for the times, he was formally dressed in a vested suit and tie, and not in the canvas pants, wool shirt, and rubber boots of a fisherman. 

            Now, I have more questions for my grandmother, but she passed on many years ago.  Like so many stories, the telling raises more questions to be asked. Many may never be answered, that silence adding to the mystery of life and the need to be the methodical storyteller. 

            Both families now have better stories to tell, with more details, more complete about the loss that devastated so many back in 1913.  I think I know my great uncle a little better, the stories of my grandmother now fleshed out. The family story is richer now, more complete. 

I now have my own copy of that photo, the complete one, of two good friends who were going to go fishing on the ocean in February.  I look at their faces, part of me yearning to sit down with them after their day of fishing, and tell me the stories of their lives.

4/17/2022

The Unexpected Conversation


                        by Neal Lemery

(published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 3/10/2022

One of the often uncelebrated benefits of living in a small town are the seemingly random and unplanned conversations that occur at the grocery store or the post office. 

A recent encounter at the post office turned into a deep and motivating conversation about how we help others by offering words of motivation and guidance. We shared the thought that just plain “paying attention” talk with someone who is struggling is sometimes life changing. 

“It is just as simple as a few kind words, and some gentle expectation that someone can better themselves,” my friend said. 

Small town life allows us to have these deep conversations, often with people we haven’t been connected to. That post office sidewalk conversation allowed both of us to share commonalities, to be better friends.

“I don’t have time for this?” I can say to myself. But, isn’t a small contribution to some social peace, to a person’s wellbeing worth a few minutes of my time? Checking off my “to do” list really isn’t all that important. Maybe the list needs a line item for “care for others today”. 

What is our true work? Isn’t it nurturing the connections, weaving the fabric of community, the offering of support and comfort? I’m often overwhelmed by the rips and tears in the social cloth, the diseases of loneliness, despair, indifference, and depression. We often see the symptoms, yet often don’t focus on working on the cures. The remedies, the prescriptions for civil betterment are all around us, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to access those and apply them to the maladies that are right in front of our faces.

Time, concern, relationship, and empathy are all in our first aid kits. We can be listeners and cheerleaders. Our life experiences have given us the knowledge and the tools to help others. We often forget what we know and what we can do to bind up the wounds of others, and to bring them into the heart of the community.

I can make time for these side conversations, the casual encounters. Those moments are often the treasures of the day, the gold in my life. If I don’t make the time to stop and chat, I’m cheating myself. I’m missing out on what could be a life changing encounter, or experiencing the germination of profound ideas. Isn’t that worth ten minutes of my time? 

It is a two way street. Often, that casual encounter, that deepening of connection, boosts me, becoming part of my self-care plan for the day, opening up a door to help me move ahead on a problem, to grow as a person. Looking back on life, I often see the beginning of the needed change, the fresh insight, started with a few words on the street corner or the grocery store aisle. 

Someone cared about me and stopped to talk, changing my life.

I’m a believer that encounters and good conversations are usually not random, but an essential piece of the work of the Universe to bring us together, in a place where the sparks can fly and fresh ideas can take off. At the post office, I mailed a letter, picked up my mail, and deepened a relationship with a friend. My task today is to pay attention, and to give space to allow that to happen, to be willing to grow. And, to be a force for change and healing, both for myself and the community.

3/9/2022