Beginning


                                                

First sip comes long after

Hot water boils

Combined, brewed, steeped

A change to start the day

Only when it is ready to change into the new.

Needing time, I wait

The water

The brew

The first sips

The gathering of the pieces

That will become the creation. 

I, not the creator, but the gatherer, the stirrer, the mixer, 

In communion to the gods of patience and art, my ritual of the

Consecration of their blood and body of the universal creator.

Mostly mental, overcoming the barriers —

Procrastination, the inertia of idleness,

The thoughts of impossibility, 

Reticence, the hesitancy to act,

To move the pencil, to give voice

To the idea, the thoughts, the spirit

Of what needs to be said, expressed, 

Brought into the Light,

To come into Form,

To be shaped, given birth, to come

Alive.

Time comes, flows, moves

Changes all of it, on its own
,

When it is ready and

Not before

Its time. 

2/13/22

The Old Hay Fork


By Neal Lemery

(published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 2/6/2022) 

It was always in the barn, by the loose hay that Grandpa had tossed down from the hay mow, the bales breaking open, one by one, on the old wood floor. Grandpa forked the loose hay into each cow’s feeding trough. The hay dust smelled sweet, filled with the warmth of the summer days when we brought the hay up from the fields. 

I knew there was a story about the hay fork, but the telling of that tale was a long time coming. 

Back then, before milking parlors, each cow had its own stanchion, where they came in the mornings and the afternoons, getting their hay, a scoop of grain, and a small dollop of molasses. He took turns with the cows, putting on his two electric milking machines, with the milk then cooled by an elaborate milk cooler using water from the spring. The milk ended up in a number of steel milk cans, destined for the creamery a few miles down the road. 

Grandpa made sure every cow had some hay, using the fork to move through the barn. He checked on every cow, calling them by name, rubbing their ears as he fed them the hay. 

We loaded up the cans in the morning, after the milking, and a big breakfast back at the house, and headed off to the creamery. Grandpa didn’t talk much, but he held his own at the creamery, greeting all the other farmers, catching up on their news, talk about the weather and the price of milk. Everyone there were good friends, and there was no shortage of chatter and a few jokes. 

The cows, the way that he milked and ran the farm, even the barn is gone now, after all these years. Not long after I headed off the college, they sold the farm and moved into town. Old age had crept up on him, and he wasn’t able to take care of his cows. The old ways of farming weren’t paying the bills anymore. A young man bought the farm, grateful for Grandpa’s advice and being able to take over managing the herd, changing the farm with the times.

Grandma and Grandpa moved into town, settling into a little apartment. We all helped them move, but the apartment only could hold a few items of furniture, including Grandma’s antique writing desk and glass-fronted case for all the family treasures. Grandma made sure that the desk was the first thing that was moved. All of Grandpa’s tools stayed behind.

On the last trip, Grandpa showed up at the pickup I was driving. The old hay fork was in his hands.

“I want you to have this,” he said. “Remember the farm, the good times we had, the cows.”

A tear rolled down his cheek, and I couldn’t find any words to say thanks. I gave him a big hug, and he got in the passenger seat. On the drive into town, we didn’t say much. 

We normally didn’t. He wasn’t a man of words, and what can you say when a man is leaving his lifelong career, his whole way of life. 

I asked him about the hay fork, how long he’d had it, how did he get it. He looked away, seeming to check out the farms along the way, looking at their cows, and the state of the pastures. 

Finally, he started to tell me about a good friend of his, an old Swiss farmer. He had made the fork from the small forge and iron shop he had on his farm. He’d had a good piece of oak that he had pared down, to make the perfect handle, and the right snug fit of the handle of the iron, joining the oak to the iron, inserting a small rivet through the iron handle, into the wood. Everything about the fork was sturdy, functional, precise.

The farmer had given Grandpa the fork, refusing to take money for it, telling Grandpa it was a gift, a thank you for his friendship and advice over the years. 

It was the perfect hay fork, just three tines, and somewhat small. Just the right size to grab the right amount of hay for each cow as they came into the barn for milking. 

Once a year, Grandpa put a coating of linseed oil on the handle, letting it soak in. He’d oil the fork, too, making sure it wouldn’t get rusty. He always took good care of his tools, spending some time every week checking his equipment, making sure everything was in top condition. 

It seemed he was always teaching me whenever I’d go to the farm for a visit, and a day or two of helping out. I’m not sure how much help I was, but he always had some chores for me. There was always a lesson. Good times, that old farmer and me. 

He’d been in the war. It was the war three wars before the war that was going on when I was growing up. No one talked much about Grandpa’s war, especially Grandpa. I’d wondered about that, but no one in the family seemed to know. 

He’d shown up after that war was over, looking for work, and Grandma’s dad hired him on to help out. He and Grandma fell in love, and they came to take over the farm after Great-granddad died. 

I was the youngest grandson, so he and I had the farm all to ourselves when I showed up to visit. I was a curious sort, so one day I asked him about the war, and how he came to be here, so far from his childhood home, and his family’s farm. To my surprise, he started to talk, just one story that first time. But, as I kept showing up, he’d talk more, but only when we were alone, working in the barn, or out in the pasture, mending fence or driving the cows in for milking, or when we’d drive into town to deliver the milk. 

The stories were sad, and brave, stories that never were told at school or in the history books I’d read. I thought he was a hero, one of the bravest men I knew, but he didn’t think so. It was just his life, just the way things were. Those times were in the past, happened a long time ago, and no one would be interested in them. 

I’d wondered why he was always so nice to the neighbors, and the young farmers just getting started, sometimes lending them a tool, or taking his tractor over to their place, and working their land for a day; all without getting paid. He’d get upset if someone offered to pay him for the work, or the use of a tool, or his tractor. He’d just respond that he was a neighbor, and that’s what neighbors do. 

I didn’t write down his stories, and I didn’t share them with the rest of the family. I knew Grandpa was a private, humble person, who didn’t want to brag, or even let on what he’d experienced, and what he knew about people, and wars, and the evils of being selfish and prideful. 

I still have that fork. It stands in a place of honor with my other garden tools. I’m not a farmer, and I don’t have any hay to feed to any cows, but I still use my fork. I have enough land to care for that I have a burn pile, brush and prunings that pile up that need to get burned once in a while. I bring out my fork, and use it to stack the brush and rearrange all the debris once the fire gets started.

Grandpa did that too, using the fork on his burn piles, putting things in order, taking care, keeping his farm neat and tidy. 

Every year, I still find a rag and some linseed oil, and take care of my tools, making sure Grandpa’s fork is first in line. I feel him next to me at those times, looking after me, checking my work, ready to offer me a hand on my shoulder, or a laugh at a shared joke. His gentle, neighborly ways seem part of my life now, lessons taught well and learned deeply. His gifts go deep with me, far-reaching, lifelong. This week, I started a fire on my burn pile. I picked up his fork, tending my fire, taking care of the land, being the grandson. I remembered him and all that he taught me about kindness, neighbors, and life. I’ve tried to carry all that on, to the next generation, to teach others what Grandpa taught me on his farm. 

1/30/2022

Pruning Time


Pruning Time

By Neal Lemery

(Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 1/26/2022

The recent sunny weather gave me good reasons to get outside and start my early spring pruning chores. That work includes a lot of social and personal pruning, as well as the work in the garden. 

I have a long list, starting with eliminating some of the clutter and debris in my life, how the community can be improved, as well as taking a long look at the grapes that I had neglected to fully prune last year. 

I’m motivated to sharpen my garden clippers, both literally and figuratively, because I’m seeing a lot of community pruning of our lives, our social institutions, and our daily work in these times of the pandemic. We are challenged by quarantines, other public health concerns and responding to economic challenges. Giving these community challenges a critical eye is a healthy step forward to improving our lives, and having a positive response to these challenging times. 

“Here we are, and what are we going to do about it?”, a friend recently asked me.

The results of that pruning, that reorganization and revitalization are already apparent. Stagnant institutions are being revived, people are becoming more engaged, and new ideas are finding fertile ground. And, practices and attitudes that aren’t helping to improve our lives are being pruned away, to the betterment of all of us. Community life is on a rebound. 

As a gardener, I know that pruning away the dead, the diseased and the overlapping branches of plants improves their health, and stimulates them to be more vibrant, more productive plants. Pruning opens up a plant for more exposure to the sun, and is a proven way to invigorate older plants. I’ve recently learned that when I’m planting a shrub or tree, I should be also pruning the roots, which stimulates the plant and ensures its success in its new surroundings. 

Such practices should be applied to our work in the community. 

“In nature, every plant eventually is pruned in some manner. It may be a simple matter of low branches being shaded by higher ones resulting in the formation of a collar around the base of the branch restricting the flow of moisture and nutrients. Eventually the leaves wither and die and the branch then drops off in a high wind or storm. Often, tender new branches of small plants are broken off by wild animals in their quest for food. In the long run, a plant growing naturally assumes the shape that allows it to make the best use of light in a given location and climate. All one needs to do to appreciate a plant’s ability to adapt itself to a location is to walk into a wilderness and see the beauty of natural growing plants.” (Douglas Welch) 

I’m trying to apply those gardening principles to my own life by exploring new ideas, cleaning out some old time-wasting and stale activities and projects in my life, and finding new ways to improve our community life. Like any pruning job, my personal and community pruning involves taking a hard look at the structure, having a plan of what things should look like when I’m done, and getting tough on eliminating disease and the superfluous, the stuff that gets in the way of vigorous and fertile growth. 

The thoughtful gardener takes the long view of where one’s garden needs to be . By having a long term vision, and taking some bold steps with one’s clippers, as well as the occasional saw, transformation occurs. The needed change will soon produce obvious benefits, with the plant (and our community relationships) becoming healthier, more vibrant.

I struggle with change, and healthy pruning is one of the key tools we have to bring about needed growth in our relationships and our community. Recent stories in the Pioneer and other media tell of how people are instigating change and revitalizing our community. We are taking on new ways of how we work, go to school, raise our kids, and care for each other. These changes are the subjects of deep and sometimes hard conversations. Yet, changes are coming. Indeed, many of them are already here. 

I look around, and see that I’m not the only one out in the yard with my clippers, pruning away the dead, the misshapen, the cluttered shrubs in the yard, and the parts of our social fabric that need revitalized. We gardeners are a persistent bunch, and recognize that pruning is an ever-present task on our to-do lists. We can have sometimes heated discussions on how we should tend our community gardens, our institutions, and how we interact with each other. Our commitment to positive change, to effective pruning, is one of our great strengths, an aspect of our lives that we should celebrate with enthusiasm.

In those conversations, we can all grow and change, and become better gardeners of our community and our lives. 

Small Things


                                                

                                                            by Neal Lemery

                                    published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 1/19/2022

            We live in a complicated and interconnected world, a world where a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific creates sound we can hear, alters our air pressure, and sends tsunami waves up our beaches and rivers.  Natural and political forces from other places affect our lives, requiring us to respond and alter our lives. We can search data bases and communicate effortlessly with people all over the world. The enormity of all of that is often overwhelming. It is easy to feel insignificant, ineffective, the problems of our lives too big to handle.

            Yet, it is the small things in our lives that are often the most important and the most transformative. 

I’m joining others this week in donating blood.  Being part of the Red Cross blood drive in my town has been something new for me, part of my efforts during the pandemic to do something meaningful for others in need.  I’ve learned it is good for me, too, helping me to feel part of something bigger, making a difference, even saving lives.  I feel involved and I feel I’m acting for the common good. 

Recently, I couldn’t help but overhear part of a conversation between good friends who were digging deep into sobriety and personal accountability.  There was a sharing of experiences and the giving of heartfelt advice and encouragement.  I tried to give them their privacy, yet I felt the energy of their friendship, their mutual respect for each other and their friendship, and their passion for improving lives and building a community based on knowledge and mutual positive regard. Those golden conversations occur a lot, I think, the sharing of experience and wisdom, the love for a friend, building up rather than condemnation and rejoicing in the misfortunes of others.  

That experience reminded me of the deep conversations on addiction I had with a son, one on one, digging in deep to the heart of the dilemmas and questions we both had. We loved each other, we trusted each other, and we both wanted to move on with our lives and deal with the elephant in the living room: addiction. We were both tired of feeling angry and not finding resolution, both wanting to be loved and to give love. I cherished those hard conversations with him.  

When he invited me to his AA meeting, proudly introducing me to the group, I experienced the trust everyone there had with each other, and their passion for changing their lives. I felt my relationship with my son change then, and I grew.  Part of that growth was painful, and included recognizing some uncomfortable, hard truths about me.  That recognition, I have come to realize, is part of my own growing and changing.  

            Such work may seem like small talk, small work that doesn’t make much of a difference in the world.  Yet it does. Such conversations, such truth telling and empowering changes lives.  A changed life changes other lives and changes our communities.  Hope and faith find their voices and people find the strength to change.

            The storms in our lives often give us renewed faith and strength to endure and to change. Dolly Parton reminds us “storms make trees take deeper roots.”  By believing in ourselves and our own and collective goodness, we gain strength, we become the healthier giant trees in the forest that is our community.  

            We live now in the midst of many storms, the pandemic, drug addictions, violence and thievery, houselessness, depression, and other situations that often seem to defy solutions and relief.  Yet, we endure, we cope, and we often move into solutions and remedies that we may not have previously imagined.  The pandemic is teaching us that there is much work to be done to realize our dreams and to heal the wounds that now need our attention.

            The work that needs to be done is often silent.  Confucius reminds us, “a seed grows with no sound, but a tree falls with huge noise. Destruction has noise but creation is quiet. This is the power of silence … grow silently.” 

            We are a resourceful community, and our successes in coping and managing often go uncelebrated.  Yet, like the quiet conversations one has chanced to overhear, that work goes on and changes lives.       

1/19/2022

Reaching Out — One to One


                                                Reaching Out — One to One

                                                            by Neal Lemery

                                    (published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 1/8/2022

            I like the quiet of January.  All the holiday activity ends, the decorations are put away, and the social calendar slows to almost nothing.  There is clean, empty space, not only at home but in my life.  It is time to breathe.

            It is a time to be quiet, to connect with a friend, to have time for those serious and deep conversations that live deep in our hearts, to say what needs to be said and to put life in perspective.

            The last few weeks have been marked by those quiet, almost sacred moments with someone close, to give some thinking time to a recent experience, or just getting to know myself better.

            A friend who’d moved away a year ago unexpectedly showed up at a coffee shop where I catching up with another friend. He crashed my time with my other friend, yet he clearly needed to talk. Moving and retiring from a long, demanding career had been hard for him, giving him a much-needed space to rest and to find himself.  No longer identified by his job and his responsibilities, he was reconnecting with his wife and finding that he was enjoying life and putting together a new way of living.  He was discovering he liked himself, that he enjoyed his friends, and he had a new purpose.

            I listened, giving him space and time, being a friend. He needed to vent, to simply be heard. My time was a good present to offer him.

            A while ago, I picked up a young man getting out of prison.  He was making that life-changing drive from a prison cell to a half-way house.  Two years “inside” had nearly snuffed out his soul. It was a long drive through beautiful, wide-open country with no bars or walls. 

            We talked of many things, me trying to be quiet, to listen to someone who hadn’t had many people listen to him throughout his life. 

            We spotted a cormorant on a riverbank, drying its wings in the sunshine. He’d never seen a cormorant before and didn’t know about their lives. We talked about freedom then, the freedom to fly, to fish on the river.  Comfortable silences filled the rest of our trip, both of us finding our friendship quiet and easy. I thought of the healing power of solitude and nature, and the simple joy of sharing an experience with a friend.  

            I recently reconnected with a good friend, who reached out to me after one of her dear friends died by suicide. She had deep pain, and I was the ear she had sought. I listened; we cried. I gave the gift of listening, of not judging her friend, not advising her how to grieve, of not assuming or condemning. I held space for her, and acknowledged her pain.

            We reconnected after the funeral, she wanting to talk about death and life and the hereafter, the messy mystery of what she was feeling and not easily understanding. I gave her time and permission to feel.

            These quiet one on one conversations go both ways. Often, I need to be the talker and a friend be the listener. And, sometimes, it’s looking at the stars or the waves on the beach, or picking my guitar all by myself, but knowing I’m not really alone.

            I’m hoping I always have the time to reach out, or be the friend with the ready and willing ear and simply be there.

1/8/2022

Filling Up the New Calendar


                                    

                                                By Neal Lemery

(published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 12/28/21

            The new calendar on the wall is fresh and clean. So far, there are only a few events are there. It is a fresh start to a new year. 

            The normal daily routine will return after all the winter holiday events come to an end.  Life will soon begin filling up all that empty space.  I’ll miss the blissfully quiet winter evenings of the week between Christmas and New Year’s, with shoes off, wrapped in a cozy blanket, with a good book and a cup of holiday tea. With the “to do” pre-holiday list mostly crossed off, I’m free to do what I darn well please, without a pressing agenda. It is a rare week of few expectations.

            January and a new year are always filled with great promise and opportunity.  I make a few resolutions, knowing that real change is possible, if I truly want to change and grow. I’m the one who gets to write on the calendar.  Traditions and agendas are mine to follow, or change.  It’s my call.

            I can grump and whine about the world and what our lives are like now. Or, I can do something about it. It starts with my attitude and where I decide to put my energy. That’s intention, and I’m in charge of that. I have to want to intend to change what I don’t like, and put myself into action.

            When I point a finger at something, three of my fingers point back at me. I have more than a little responsibility for how the next year unfolds for me. When I demand accountability from others, I need to be looking in the mirror, to look at where most of the fingers point.

“Be the change you want to see,” one of my inspiring role models, Mahatma Gandhi, said. I may not be able to change the world, but I can change who I am and how I live. I do have an impact on my little corner of the world. And in that, bigger changes can come. The work starts with me. That thought seems to be a universal truth.

            What do I really want to see in 2022? I need to figure that out, before I start to whine and mope about the world’s state of affairs. First, change my attitude, find my intention, then develop my plan for achieving my goals, and fill up the calendar with all of my good, positive actions.

            We live in community. Real change, real accomplishment only happens when there is a group that is engaged in that good work. Then there is engagement, ownership, and collective, community-focused achievement. Success comes from a collective effort, and is a community project, the energy coming from each of our individual intentions and acts, doing the work together.  

            One of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s favorite Zulu proverbs was Ubuntu. “One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu — the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness … We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

            I need to put more of his wisdom and determination to better society, and that spirit of Ubuntu, into my life and the life of our community.

            The nearly empty calendar stares back at me, offering a challenge. I see opportunity and a challenge to move ahead in my life, and thereby change myself, my community, and the world, making it a more beautiful and creative place. There’s work to be done.

            What’s on your calendar? 

Unexpected Gifts: Giving From the Heart


                        Unexpected Gifts:  Giving From the Heart

                                                by Neal Lemery

            Putting aside the hubbub, the seemingly endless demands on us to be “in the holiday mode”, I find my purpose and comfort in the quiet of the winter, as I contemplate what are the best gifts to exchange.

            The birds quietly chatter their thanks as I fill their feeder. The rest of the yard sleeps, as a few leaves, still dressed in their fall colors, cling to the branches. These moments are gifts to my spirit, and are given freely, without expectation. 

            The chance encounters in life can offer the best experiences, the most rewarding gift giving of the season. 

            While on a welcome road trip last week, I stopped for lunch. While pouring my coffee, the waitress mentioned her struggle with her trembling hand.  I took the time to listen. I recently came across an article that talked about that condition and a new non-invasive and pain free treatment. In a few minutes, our phones connected and she had the link to the article and the contact for the competent, state of the art clinic that could ease her condition.

            “I didn’t know about this. And I so badly want to be able to paint and draw again,” she said. 

            She gave me a big smile as I left, her relief at finding a solution showing in her eyes, her gift to me.

            I’ve lost touch with a fellow guitar player.  While playing one of his favorite songs the other day, I decided he needed a gift. I’ve come across some unusual picks that suit my continuing journey to be a better guitar player.  I have a few extra picks, so I mailed them to him, with a note thanking him for his friendship over the years.

I’m sure the postal clerk wondered why I had a big smile as I mailed that package.

            Often, the best gifts to give are the gifts of listening and appreciation. There are so many opportunities to simply be present with someone, to listen with an open heart, and to suspend judgment and commentary. Most of us aren’t asking for advice; we simply want to be heard.

            “To be by their side,” a counselor friend told me the other day.  “It truly is the gift we can all give. All it takes is our time and being present with someone in need of a good ear.”

            We all have our story, but all too often, our story doesn’t get heard. That’s all too often the gift we need to receive, as well as to give.

            When we prepare for the holidays and wrap our presents, perhaps we should write a kind note to a friend, inviting them for a cup of coffee or a walk in a beautiful place.  Let us suspend our culture’s pressure to give material things. Instead, we can give the gift of ourselves and our open, loving hearts.

published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 12/16/2021

Simple Gifts


                        (published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 11/29/21

                                                by Neal Lemery

            The holidays are upon us, with the usual seasonal barrage of promotions, sales, Black Friday, and an e-mail inbox overflowing with all of those special deals.  Bargains galore! A good part of me recoils and rebels from such marketing and promotion.  In reality, I really have quite enough “stuff”. And the real pleasures come from time with friends and some peaceful contemplation in the company of some candlelight.

            We recently visited a big box store, needing to replace a laptop that had finally died.  The aisles were overflowing with at least several hundred flat screen TVs that had somehow managed to get through the supply chain bottlenecks, so they could now effectively clutter up the aisles at the giant store.  

Surely there aren’t that many people who have that item at the top of their holiday wish list.  I wondered out loud if Americans really need even more flat screen TVs.  Can’t you only watch one at a time, and, by now, there have been enough TVs sold so people can have one in every room?  Not that I think that there’s all that much being broadcast or streamed that is all that worthy of my time and attention.  

            I’m reminded of the old hymn, Simple Gifts, its lyrics clearly calling us back to reflect on the “reason for the season”.  The song isn’t in the Christmas song books, but maybe it should be.  

“’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we will not be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.”

            This year, I’ve shortened my own “wish list”, realizing after all of our pandemic time of reducing the frenzy of modern life, that the simple things are really the best.  Quiet, reflective time, time over coffee with a good friend, a walk in the sunshine, or listening to the murmurs of rain on a walk in a peaceful place.  

            I’ve sorted through some of the stuff that often clutters up my life. I’m giving a cherished family heirloom to my niece, so she and her kids can retell the story of how the ancestors brought the chair over the Oregon Trail, tying it to the back of the covered wagon, and how it occupied my grandmother’s living room, in a place of honor and storytelling. I’ve retold that story enough now and it’s time for a new generation to have that pleasure. And I think Grandma would be happy with that.

            The added bonus with that gift giving is a road trip and family time, as well as the passing on of some memories to people who will appreciate it. 

            I’ll still write my Christmas cards and send out a newsy, perhaps hokey, letter to friends and family I connect with only a few times a year. I could substitute those sentiments via an e-mail or blog post, but don’t we enjoy holding a letter from a friend while enjoying a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon? And, I like the ritual of addressing the envelopes and sticking on the Santa stamps. I’ll probably stir up some Christmas fudge and a batch of cookies, savoring the memories of doing that with family who have long since departed this world, walking down memory lane with some time-worn recipes.  

            But I don’t need much more than that.  A few walks under the downtown Christmas lights, and a cheery concert or two of holiday classics will gladden my heart, without the need for dealing with the mobs on Black Friday. 

            It is a simple time, celebrating simple things, simple gifts like friendship, caring for others, and just enjoying the simple pleasures of the holidays.         

11/28/21

The Verdict in Kenosha


                                    By Neal Lemery

                                    —published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 11/20/2021

The recent trial and verdict in Wisconsin have brought about renewed discussion and argument on a number of hot topics in our country.  

            This widely publicized trial and media event has stirred up conversations about racism, classism, police violence, the role of guns, law and order, economic disparity, privilege, and the fairness of the criminal justice system. Like many, I feel a range of unsettling emotions and conflict. 

            On their own, these issues are challenging and call for looking at our checkered and often uncomfortable history. Stirred together and heated with our current distrust of respecting and discussing with others our viewpoints have led us to this uncomfortable time.

            Americans often assign our most difficult and challenging questions to our legal system, with the hope that judges and juries will sort it all out and provide us with justice.  Yet justice is a word we often argue about. Its definition is elusive. 

            Jury verdicts have been turning points in how we are governed.  They have helped us redefine and reform the law, and identified principles we should honor to better our society. We’ve always had deep and revealing discussions about the role of juries and the issues they try to resolve. 

            Oregon is the last state that allowed divided, non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases. Today, we still wrestle with how to reconcile the relatively new national requirement that verdicts in criminal cases be unanimous with the ugly fact that defendants in those trials remain in prison.  Our state constitution was amended in the 1920s to allow for split verdicts, a law that is now seen as both racist and anti-Semitic. We can badmouth Wisconsin, but we have our own racism and bigotry to deal with. 

            Jurors are sworn to follow the law.  Experts in Wisconsin’s self-defense and gun laws opine that the Rittenhouse verdict was correct, given the complicated facts and the peculiarities of that state’s laws. https://www.npr.org/2021/11/19/1057422329/why-legal-experts-were-not-surprised-by-the-rittenhouse-jurys-decision-to-acquit

            I’m a former criminal law attorney and judge, so people have asked me what I would have decided. It would be equivalent to a wild guess for me to pass judgement on Mr. Rittenhouse’s conduct.  I didn’t hear every bit of the testimony, nor did I sit face to face with the witnesses. Isn’t that “eyeball test” a big factor in determining if someone is telling the truth? I didn’t hear the judge’s instructions on the law. And, I didn’t have the benefit of the discussion and wisdom of all of the jurors, who took four days to talk through their decision.  

            Jurors are a cornerstone of our democratic republic. We believe that ordinary common people, supplied with evidence that has been subjected to legal analysis for admissibility and to cross examination and argument, can collectively arrive at a just decision.

            We’ve also required the government to meet a very high burden of proof, beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty, in trying to convict a person of a crime. Jurors are the checks and balances to prosecutors and provide a “real life” perspective to difficult decisions. 

            We expect a lot from juries, and it is popular to second guess them. We also tend to make up our own minds relying upon short bursts of information and commentary from various media. We come up short in delving into long term, complex issues. 

            I’ve been involved in a lot of jury trials and I sometimes have disagreed with the decision. Yet, I’ve found jurors to be good citizens who take their job seriously and to err on the side of doing the right thing. I respect their hard and devoted work.

            Sometimes, my response to a verdict was to ask the Legislature to change the law. And, sometimes I voiced support for social change and educational reform. If I remained silent, I became part of the problem. 

            Part of any reform of our criminal justice system is having an educated pool of jurors who are critical thinkers and knowledgeable about America’s government and our often uncomfortable history of privilege and discrimination. Perhaps our response to the Rittenhouse verdict is to more fully understand all of the uncomfortable reasons that brought the shooter and his victims to those few awful and life-changing moments on the streets of Kenosha. 

Examining Our Strengths and Weaknesses


                                   

                                                            by Neal Lemery

“Whenever we come together to share strengths it breeds competition; whenever we come together sharing our weaknesses, it breeds community.” — Anonymous[1]

            We live in divisive times.  If one spends much time “catching up” on news or social media, or talking about politics and social trends with one’s friends, the common theme seems to focus on our divisions, our differences, and winning some argument or political event. We like to boast about our strengths and hide our weaknesses. 

But life isn’t about winning or losing, or “us vs them”. Our sporting events, which we support because we want something fun and wholesome for ourselves and our kids, often is analyzed in terms of win/lose. We like to measure strength and power. We keep score, and often that seems to be the primary reason for the activity and our attention we pay to it.  Even the supposedly non-partisan, individually focused “pure sport” Olympic Games are reported complete with scorecards of national medal awards. 

            Discussions and viewpoints on political and social issues are often laced with mean comments and foul language, often thinly disguised with code words.  We are encouraged to laugh with comedians who can make the most acidic standup routines, which we still refer to as comedy. 

Informed and well-reasoned political conversation and a willingness to look at another point of view often is not on most of our social agendas for the day. Some politicians seem to want to advance their careers by acting with meanness and spite. They act as destroyers, not leaders of social advancement.  

            If everyone is now keeping score and arguing only for the sake of arguing, rather that persuading or informing, what is the grand prize?  What are we attempting to gain? Is there a national championship for the loudest, most shrill argument?  Are there extra points to be gained for sheer meanness? Does the winner get invited to the White House and be able to scream their point of view to a national audience? Or have I missed the news of a parade down Broadway, with a tickertape parade of nasty vitriolic social media posts?  

            Such tactics don’t change anyone’s opinion, and, I suggest, not much learning occurs, nor do we advance the common welfare.  

            The gentle, collaborative model of social life is more fruitful. I do see a new feeling of cooperation, of coming together to advance both individual and social goodness.  I see volunteers everywhere, building up people, providing educational opportunities. There are small flickers of great and unselfish actions.  

My neighborhood now has several “educational pods” where parents and friends are providing private schooling for kids of all ages. There is laughter and enthusiasm, and the occasional gaggle of kids out for a jog between classes, satisfying their P.E. requirements for the day. Families are deeply involved in their kids’ education, with small classes and individual attention, coupled with virtual learning, allowing kids to benefit from a variety of learning styles and curriculum.  

            Small businesses are experimenting with a wide range of business models, and many workers are working from home, either part or full time, allowing them to be productive and have quality time with family, without the expense and exhaustion of a long commute to work. There is serious discussion about the role of our traditional routines of work and career models. 

            Virtual learning isn’t for all situations, but it has found a place in my life, allowing me to participate in and dabble in a variety of activities and experiences.  I’ve been able to benefit from a rich selection of broadcasted art performances and educational presentations. We still need the in person connections and the “juice” of one on one conversations and socializing, but there are some welcome advantages to this post-pandemic world.  

            The world now has amazing tools for communication and improving our lives. Miraculous innovations and discoveries are commonplace. We can accomplish so many tasks. Yet, humanity’s hunger for power, wealth, and status slows our efforts to improve the lives of all. Why we allow that to occur is an urgent question for all of us.

            I suggest this paradox between what we can accomplish and what is done is essentially an ethical and spiritual challenge. What is humankind’s purpose? What are we alive to do?

            In that quest, that work to answer these deep questions challenges our approaches to achieving a meaningful future. Coming together to take on our weaknesses builds our community. 

11/11/2021


[1]  anonymous, quoted by Dave Barnes, interview with Dave Hollis https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V49YuvWN79Y

published in the Tillamook County Pioneer