An Anchor in a Storm


 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

We are often called to stand by a friend, offering a hand and being their anchor.

A friend was recently in the middle of a storm in his life, a challenge that required his full concentration and talents.  I knew he was up for the challenge, and had been preparing for it for some time, with a great deal of thought and energy.  He was focused, zeroing in on what needed to be done, what was critical for success.

Yet, the task was daunting, overwhelming at times.

“I’ve never done this before,” he confided in me. He voiced doubt, insecurity, talking of the old demons that walked through his life, and so many lives of people I know, including my own.

I’m good at doubting myself, finding pessimism and self-criticism in abundance. There’s a lot of things I haven’t done before either.  Walking into new territory is perilous. I’ve failed, too, and have those recurring thoughts of worthlessness and inadequacy. The journey opens me up to be vulnerable and to risk failure and criticism.  The worst critic is often me, and I can readily rattle off a long list of why I will fail at something.  Others tell me I’m not alone in having that self judgement and self-sabotage. Friends can joke with me that such talents can be turned around, becoming our greatest strengths.

Sometimes, I’m the storm-tossed boat and sometimes I am the anchor for someone else. Life is like that, taking turns with others, being on each other’s journeys, a hand reaching out to another hand.

With my friend, I sensed a need to step forward and be an anchor. I invited myself along in his task, volunteering to be the listener to a long litany of doubt and fear, the one who waits while he took on his challenging task.  It took almost everything he had to meet his challenge, and he had to do it alone.

I held space for him, being nearby, prepared to give both comfort and encouragement.  The nature of the challenge didn’t allow us to communicate, but in important ways, we did. He knew I was there, being supportive, being present, being the vessel of his hopes and dreams, fears and doubts. I accepted all of that, absorbing the bad, reflecting the good of who he was and what he was experiencing.

When the Hurculean task was done, I was the giver of hugs, the cheerleader, the repository of his relief and his doubts that they had done a good job.  I encouraged, I empathized.  I was the listener in chief.

Afterwards, I took him to dinner and a well-earned beer. He could barely get in the truck and buckle his seatbelt, his sentences just fragments, a serious case of being “brain dead”.

I made sure that he could look out into nature as he ate and began to process the day’s experience, unwinding and coming into the normal world, able to breathe in the beauty of this day.

I recalled other “anchoring” duties, many of them in the arena of hospitals and bedsides; the stark and cold visiting areas in jails and outside courtrooms; the midnight talks when there seemed to be no hope, no direction into the future. There was the time I sat in a darkened room, the pistol cocked and loaded in my buddy’s lap, clenched in his fist, as he cried out the tragedy of his life. The time my aunt was my anchor, inviting me over to tea but really calling me to task, taking me into a profound conversation about life and my future.

Anchoring changes lives and saves lives. There’s magic, because one often doesn’t know what really works to help give that essential support and love.

When duty calls, you show up and you become the anchor, the rock, and hopefully the healer. The work is a gift from the heart. When your own storm is raging, you remember you need your own anchor, and you reach out to someone who cares. Then, you truly realize the power of this gift.

We are called, as humans, to hold space for others, to be their anchor in the storms that buffet their lives.  We need to be a witness, a presence in their lives, so that they are not alone, they can know that they matter to others, that their struggles are honored, their journeys worthwhile.

 

 

8/1/19

Struggling With Loneliness


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

I see a lot of loneliness in our society.  Ironically, it is everywhere, and often found in the busiest places of our communities.  With all of our personal technology, and seemingly effortless tools to “keep in touch”, we struggle with an epidemic of isolation. Loneliness is often invisible, seldom talked about, and not an easy topic of conversation. There’s a social taboo on vocalizing our emotional states, anyway, and falling silent and withdrawing is one of the traits of the lonely and isolated.

Three quarters of Americans have experienced moderate to acute loneliness. And, a quarter of us are at the high end of that emotional range.

Loneliness is most prevalent in ages under 25 and over 65. US News and World Report.

I recently came upon a friend, sitting by himself, head in his hands, in the middle of the busiest part of a big store.

Instead of tending to my shopping list and a busy day, I sat with him, and honored the silence between us.  He looked up, barely acknowledging me, and then resumed staring at his hands and the floor. He’s normally talkative with me, telling stories of his kids, his work, and his art. Now, just silence, and a lot of pain. I felt his loneliness in the air we breathed, and from the bench where we sat.

My friend isn’t usually like this, brooding and silent. There’s something deep going on, I thought, and I best take the time to just be here with my friend.

The silence deepened, but it felt comfortable. I could tell that my presence was welcome, and that I should stay.

People whirled around us, the noise of shopping carts and kids, lots of conversations filling up the space.  My friend’s silence became even more noteworthy in all the chaos and tumult. Intuitively, I decided to stay, my friend needing someone to just be with.  Just being present is a valuable, and often greatly appreciated act of friendship.

My friend took a deep breath and sighed, and then began to talk, his voice barely above a whisper.  He told a tale of anxiety and despair, how life has been a struggle, and that no one cared about him.

“I care,” I said.

“I know,” he replied.  He talked more, the emotional dam letting loose, dark thoughts and pent up feelings spilling out, filling up the comfortable silence that we had. He looked me in the eye, and told a funny story on himself.

We laughed and he said he felt better, just being able to talk about life with someone.

“I’m better now,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about me now.  I’ll be alright.”

“And thanks,” he said. “Thanks for sitting with me and being my friend.”

A few years ago, I took an empowering training on being sensitive to depression and suicidal ideation. QPR Training. That experience gave me the confidence to tune up my intuition and my compassion, and be able to be of some help to those in need of help in dark times. I asked a few questions, and said I knew of some resources if he needed them. He said he wasn’t at risk, but he appreciated my concern and the offer.

He thanked me for being a friend, and for taking the time to care.

Isn’t that task in the job description of being a human being and living in society? We all need to be aware and to take the time to help a fellow human being.

The rest of the day, I was more aware of the loneliness around me, and in my community.  I made it a point to talk to people in the store, and say “hi”, how are you doing?”, and really meaning it.

The checkout clerk and I had a good conversation, and I realized that even though she was inundated with customers throughout her shift, the work can be lonely and isolating.

“There’s a misperception that loneliness means social isolation,” Dr. Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California at San Diego, said. “Loneliness is subjective. It is what you feel. The definition of loneliness is distress because of a discrepancy between actual social relationships and desired social relationships. There’s a discrepancy between what I want and what I have.”

Like most of us, I experience loneliness and depression.  Those emotions are part of my humanity, and likely are at least partly influenced by the turmoil and pressures of our society, which corrode my efforts to take care of myself and be healthy.  I’ve tried to build into my self-care regimen some tools to be less lonely, more connected with others. Among those tools are exercise, nutrition, taking time to be in nature, creativity, and engaging with others.

Volunteerism is suggested by Dr. Kasley Killam, in her article, A Solution for Loneliness, in  the May, 2019 edition of Psychology Today. She urges us to volunteer at least two hours a week, which can reduce our sense of loss of meaning, and reverse cognitive decline.  2/3 of volunteers reported they now felt less isolated, which addresses the fact that a fourth to half of all Americans feel lonely a lot of the time.  Loneliness makes many of us more prone to developing a wide range of physical and mental illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and depression.

Self care, and community care.  They go hand in hand and make a better world for all of us.

 

6/24/19

Fathers’ Day — A Mixed Bag of Emotions


 

–by Neal Lemery

 

 

 

Fathers’ Day is a challenging holiday, and I’m relieved it has come and gone. The event is idealized in our culture, presented as a day of barbeques, family time, and lots of smiles about idyllic childhoods and loving, kindly fathers who have inspired us, who have taught us all about love, family, and healthy parenting. It comes across as cuddly and warm, yet for many, the message is one of conflict and contradiction.

 

On Sunday, I had good communications with many of the men I am proud to call “son”, and good friends, guys I can talk with, heart to heart. I’m relieved that they are doing well in their emotional lives, and able to freely express their feelings with me about fathering and growing up.  We’re at a stage, finally, where “I love you” is more easily spoken or written.

 

Yet, I have others I’ve mentored and parented who choke on saying the word “love”. I know they are struggling, challenged by how to find themselves and make sense of the confusion and chaos in their lives. Depression, addiction, broken relationships, and even jail time challenge them, as they keep searching for the tools and the paths to heal themselves and be able to move on in their lives. Guys don’t easily pick up the phone or text that they’re suicidal, high, or behind bars.  There aren’t any texting emojis that say that they aren’t good enough, that they’re failures and can’t get their lives together.

 

I love them anyway, and try to communicate that, but often it is a one way street. Some of my letters addressed to a prison don’t get a reply, but I write anyway. I’m a gardener and planting seeds and adding water and fertilizer on what appears to be infertile ground is part of that work of faith.

 

Like other holidays, what we are supposed to be honoring and acknowledging conflicts with our own reality and our emotional journeys through life. None of us have lived the idyllic life, being parented with the ideal, perfect father, and living our own life free from emotional baggage left over from our childhood. We experience our own roles as men, fathers, and the complex task of helping to raise kids and navigate our own turbulent emotional waters of adulthood. The road is often bumpy.

 

It is a day of conflicting emotions and fake messages, including this Instagram posted on this Fathers’ Day from Bill Cosby, once television’s ideal dad, and now an imprisoned, convicted sexual predator:

 

“Hey, Hey, Hey…It’s America’s Dad… I know it’s late, but to all of the Dads… It’s an honor to be called a Father, so let’s make today a renewed oath to fulfilling our purpose – strengthening our families and communities.”

 

Emotional predators, especially those who have projected a wholesome image through the media, and hold themselves out as a role model of virtue and integrity, have no credibility coming across as the ideal dad. No, Mr. Cosby, you are not “America’s Dad” anymore, and I reject what you are trying to project upon us.  Your social media posting is a mockery of what Fathers’ Day needs to be.

 

I’m not alone in thinking about the challenges of being both the child and the father, and dealing with sons and daughters who are conflicted about dealing with the idealization of parenting, how to emerge whole, or at least not emotionally ravaged from childhood.

 

I Googled “father anger” and saw there were 185 million hits. It is a rich topic for writers, and all of us who are trying to make sense of masculine anger.

 

“It’s not being a man that makes men prone to anger, but being socialized to be “masculine,” which studies suggest is hard to separate from a propensity for angry emotions. Societal expectations about how to be a boy are evolving, but many men are still taught that anger is one of few acceptable emotions for them to express. When toughness and independence are highly valued in men, this inevitably leads to outbursts.”

–Virginia Pelley

https://www.fatherly.com/love-money/relationships/good-dads-anger-problems/

 

The greeting card section at the grocery store doesn’t have Fathers’ Day cards about anger, about emotional abuse, and the challenges of having a real deep conversation with dad about growing up, and how to navigate those troubled waters.

 

Talking about emotions and childhood trauma are still taboo topics for many men at social gatherings, as well as one on one.  I’ve also seen adult children who are called at a funeral to eulogize their parent struggle to put into words stories about their parents’ lives, trying to balance truth telling with unresolved emotions about the tough times with mom or dad.  A funeral isn’t expected to be very healing for anger and rage.

 

However, the subtleties in the stories that have been edited to be spoken at a funeral can convey a willingness to be real, to connect with family on what has often been stuffed away in the family closet of secrets. There remains the deep need to tell the truth, and to heal.

 

Being open and honest about such experiences has been seeing the light of day in recent years.  Popular figures have been telling their stories, and numerous books dig into the challenges of familial rage and dysfunction.  The “Me Too” movement and other acts of cultural courage over the past few decades have modeled the benefits of being open and having the courage to start to heal.

 

In the last few years, work on addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences(ACEs) has been a breath of fresh air and provided opportunities for understanding and healing, much to the benefit of our society. Educators are now becoming informed and are implementing innovative approaches to helping kids.

 

Many of the men I’ve mentored have had the benefit of good counselors and therapists, friends, and lovers who have helped in removing the thorns of abuse, self-debasement, and emotional sabotage.  For many people, the vicious cycle of generational emotional paralysis and impotent rage has been exposed to the light of understanding, and been broken, or at least interrupted.  For all that work, I am heartened, and I can see society moving and changing, Bill Cosby’s recent comment notwithstanding.

 

I try to convey to my sons and the other men in my life that we are all entitled to our anger and our rage, that the wounds we have experienced should be acknowledged, and that healing is possible.  Dealing with the mixed emotions of Fathers’ Day is part of that work. It is a reminder of how far we have come, and how far we need to go in our journeys.

 

6/17/2019

Edge of Awe — a review


 

Edge of Awe,

Experiences of the Malheur-Steens Country. Edited by Alan Contreras, illustrations by Ursula LeGuin. Published by Oregon State University Press, 2019.

What a treat! This is a wonderful and engaging anthology of essays, poems, illustrations, and reflections on the country known formally as the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of Burns, Oregon. The area is one of my favorites to visit, not only for birding and photography, but for spiritual renewal and reflection. It is also a place to come with my watercolors and oils, and fresh canvas and paper.

The writing is fresh, soulful, and personal. I sipped this book gently, lingering and savoring. Yet, wanting to cancel the rest of the day, so I could escape to the refuge and feast on this book.

 

My Recent Favorite Books


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

June is busting out all over, and I’m getting caught up on my yard work somewhat, so it is time for some precious hours for some reading.   Here’s my list of great books I’ve read in the last year that I highly recommend, in no particular order:

  • The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, by Melinda Gates. Well written, thought provoking, and inspiring.
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. An anthropological-psychological book of who we are, where we came from, and where we might be going.
  • The Second Mountain, by David Brooks. I like the first two thirds of this book, which fired me up about building community and reminding me that we are here to love one another and help each other live meaningful lives.
  • The Path Made Clear: Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose, by Oprah Winfrey. Inspiring, motivating, and stimulating.
  • Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. A look at four American presidents, their challenges and how they achieved greatness and led the nation through challenging times. There is much in these lessons for today.
  • The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells. Lots of information, and some very challenging predictions with hope.
  • The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, by David Treuer. New historical information and analysis for me, teaching much about where our country goes from here.
  • Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, by Mary Robinson. A thoughtful look at a compelling issue and challenge.
  • Artemis, by Andy Weir, the author of Mars. Science fiction that offers a thoughtful look at who we are, and where we are going as a species and culture.
  • Becoming, by Michelle Obama. A very thoughtful and insightful book about a courageous and talented woman who has much to offer our country. No matter what your politics may be, there are wise lessons to be found in her story.
  • Art Matters, by Neil Gaiman. One of our best fiction writers takes a hard look at the role of art in our culture, and how it changes lives.
  • Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants,by Robin Wall Kimmerer. A native healer, botanist and professor, the author has feet in several worlds as she educates us on the role of plants in our lives, culture, and medicine.
  • Educated, by Tara Westover. A compelling and inspiring memoir of growing up and pulling herself up by her own bootstraps.
  • The Tide: The Science and Stories Behind the Greatest Force on Earth, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams. A British scientist delves into a surprisingly little studied phenomenon.
  • Exit West, by Hamid Mohsin. A fantasy dealing with immigration, refugees, and cultural awareness.  Not one of my usual genres, but I found this engaging and thought provoking; a new way to look at a challenging issue.
  • No god but God: The Ongoing Evolution and Future of Islam, by Reza Aslan. Very thoughtful and informative, and a delightful read.
  • The River of Consciousness, by Oliver Sacks. His last book, offering insights and new ideas, written in his usual compelling way.
  • Edge of Awe: Experiences of the Malheur-Steens Country, edited by Alan L. Contreras. An engaging anthology about one of my favorite places to experience nature and solitude. I’ve just started this, but it is a sensory delight and promises to be a delightful read.  Profits benefit the Friends of Malheur Wildlife Refuge. And, poetry and illustrations by Ursula LeGuin.

Holding Space


 

 

 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

These are not gentle times. And, having a mean streak seems almost a requirement these days, as we navigate social media and the cultural and political climate.

Our culture, and so many commentators and “leaders”, are so quick to make judgement, to express opinions, and eagerly offer criticism and condemnation of others’ points of view.  Political, social, and artistic criticism now is so often unkind, harsh, even vicious to the point of hostility and intolerance.

It is an easy train to climb aboard, and my snarky and off-handed comments are often a computer click away from getting out into the world, showing up on the social media “news feeds” that have become the path by which most of us engage with others. Be quick, spontaneous, “get it out there”, and move on to something else.  The popular term, “click bait” comes to mind as having a meaning larger than how we define the term. Is being polite too time consuming, too unfashionable? It seems easier just to fire off a salvo, and “let it fly”.

We’ve come a long way from the days when social commentary and personal expression in public came after laboring over a sheet of linen paper with a quill pen, and a pot of ink.  A letter to the editor not only took time to compose and hand write, but also required an envelope, a stamp, and a trip to the post office. Public expression took time and effort, and hopefully a lot of thought in the process.

I am realizing I’ve been conditioned to be the Pavlovian dog, to respond to stimuli in an expected, routine “in a New York minute” way, simply becoming a product of this age of advertising, manipulation, and conditioning.

But what if I was, instead, calm, supportive, caring, and expressed unconditional compassion and love? Perhaps just being present, in a kind way, should be my response to others in conflict and crisis. Can I just suspend judgement and criticism? Maybe not feeding my ego with my unappreciated and intrusive opinions when simply being there for someone, and exuding gentle support and kindness would be much more appreciated and needed in the situation.

            “You walk along with them without judgment, sharing their journey to an unknown destination. Yet you’re completely willing to end up wherever they need to go. You give your heart, let go of control, and offer unconditional support.”

    —Lynn Hauka  —Coach

In life, we have numerous job titles and duties, and often, those are multiple roles, calling upon our experiences and our ability to navigate the complexities and subtleties of modern life. Being the son, the father, the uncle, the spouse, the friend, the mentor, the teacher, the confidante is a role more appropriate by just quietly being there for someone.  Unwanted and often uninformed advice often taints the situation, and shame, guilt, and a sense of failure soon follows.

Holding space “…means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

—Heather Plett

 

What the situation really often calls for is compassion and unconditional love, a holding of sacred space to just “let it be”. That may not be what our culture seems to expect, yet it is a revolutionary and culture-changing response.

For me, I need to take a breath, and let it out slowly, taking my time to plan my response, and to put myself in the most effective position of the supporting, compassionate friend and listening post that the person in need is really needing to have around when the crisis is at hand.

We don’t have to rush in, armed with our snap judgements and fire hose responses, issuing our breathless bulletins on social media, or even feeding the local gossip mill.  Time is on our side, and is an ally for the managers of crisis and personal angst. Time will tell if I need to voice an opinion, or give some wise counsel, and if I do, then the wait will be worthwhile, and the Universe will give me that guidance.  And, I can frame the most appropriate, the most effective action.

Or, I can simply be there, offering support quietly, by my presence, exuding kindness and love and understanding, and offering the balm of friendship and compassion.

Silence, often, becomes the best tool, the most effective fix to the matter at hand. One kind, thoughtful, compassionate soul become an ally, rather than an unwelcome new factor, the volatile instigator of an even larger conflagration.

Simply by holding space, by being the calm in the storm, you can make a better world.

 

5/28/2019

 

Immersed in the Richness of Community Life


 

 

by Neal Lemery

 

 

I found myself in the heart of the richness of my community’s life the other day. Tillamook High School charity drive students were handing out checks to a wide variety of community organizations, funding grants for over twenty community projects and activities.

The money comes from a ten day frenzy of fund raising in February that engaged the entire community.  High school students, along with parents and other community volunteers, pitched in to raise money.  Car washes, dinners, garage sales, a scrap metal drive, donkey basketball, silent auctions, and other events made sure that you have no reason to cook dinner that week, or stay at home on a rainy evening. The high school classes competed with each other, and organized the various events so that every day was filled with tempting meal choices and other activities.

It was also a week of socializing with the rest of the community, reconnecting with old friends, and strengthening our community ties.

“It’s all about relationships,” I heard on numerous occasions.

The fund raising capabilities of these kids is phenomenal, usually raising over $200,000 during the week, astonishing in a rural area of maybe 8,000 people.  Half of the funds are given to the Doernbecher children’s hospital, and half stays in the community. This is an annual affair, and has been going on since the 1950s, when it started as part of the March of Dimes campaign against polio.

The student committee invited community groups to apply for grants, and again, the community reaps the benefits of our hard-working, community-minded youth.

This year, $56,000 was given to local non-profits to support their own charitable activities in the community.  Applicants have to justify how the funds will improve community life.

I gathered with people from other organizations, as students began handing out the checks. We shared our stories with each other, eagerly chatting about where the money would go, how people’s lives were touched.  We are so rich in the ways that we help others, and make a real difference.

I happily received one of the checks, destined to help one of my organizations improve its capacity to serve the community, and to give youth another activity to enrich their lives.  There were smiles all around, as the students connected with us, as we shared the joy of giving back to the community, and building better lives.

“Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place…”. (David Treuer, The Heart Beat of Wounded Knee)

As we all gathered in front of the high school, we stood united.  In this small town, I didn’t see an unfamiliar face. We had all played a part in the charity drive, and now, we had come together, to share the rewards, to invest back into the community, and build again in service to the common good.

That sense of satisfaction, of common community purpose continued on, as I stood in line at the bank a few minutes later with some of the others who had received checks.

“A special day,” one of them remarked. “A day of giving back to the community, and making a difference.”

This celebration was in sharp contrast to what I’d just seen on the national news, filled with stories of disasters, political discord, and crime. How nice is it, I thought, to be part of building community, rather than hearing of social discontent and chaos.

As the passive observer and a consumer of the national political and cultural scene, I keep wondering what is my role in all of that.  I tire of being the passive witness, the feeling of impotence and paralysis.

Can I be an instrument of change?  Rather than just hear about a problem, I could step up and be a force for making a difference. Yet, most of the organizations that operate nationally, seem to be only wanting my check, or me to sign an electronic petition, rather than invite me to roll up my sleeves and take on a problem, fully engaged, hands on, giving a little of my talent, a little of my sweat and time. I yearn for that sense of connection, and relationship.

That opportunity is right here in front of me, I realized. Here and now is the place where change can and does happen.

Locally, there are ready made roles for all of us.  Our neighbors, our friends, and family are deeply involved in local life, in activities that are changing how we live, providing opportunities and resources for others in our community.  Almost literally outside of my front door, I can be involved, and I can help make a difference in other people’s lives and the health and wellbeing of my community.

I saw that in the smiles of the high school students the other day, their joy a reflection of their own hard work, their own commitment to the community, their satisfaction in applying their own talent, time and sweat into making a real difference, in building better lives and a better place to live for their neighbors.

 

 

5/1/2019