An Unexpected Christmas Delight


I finally figured out why I picked up the guitar many years ago and have put a bunch of time and energy into playing. I’ve certainly had other rewards and joys. But, tonight, I experienced a new form of joy.

Tonight was my weekly band practice. Last Saturday, we had a lovely gig at the library, playing Christmas music for an appreciative audience, and we had a great time. We found our “groove” and played well. But, now our gig calendar is empty.

Tonight, our leader said he’d gotten us a sudden invitation to play tonight at a nearby long term care facility for dementia patients. Pop up guitar concert time! We are a flexible group of guitar addicts!

Twenty minutes later, we are setting up in the main living room, in front of the tree and the fireplace, and we start playing our Christmas song list. The audience are there in their wheelchairs and lap robes. Soon, they are tapping their toes, nodding their heads, and smiling. We play for about an hour, and are having ourselves a good time, as well.

After our last song, a number of the residents profusely thank us for playing. I’m putting my guitar back in its case, and one lady rolls up to me in her wheelchair and offers me a piece of candy from her private stash.

“Thanks,” she says. “Merry Christmas.”

Another lady, who I know, is there, too. She’s been eyeing me, and finally says, “I know you.” We talk, and she remembers me, and tells me thanks for coming. And, “Merry Christmas.”

Tears come as I’m driving home, and I forget the cold night and the piercing east wind, and remember the warmth of the evening, and the blessings of music.

Befriending


 

 

Kindness

Comes in so many forms, so many ways

A smile, a cup of tea,

Reaching out, giving a hand

Listening

Accepting.

 

Together

We honor ourselves and each other

Gifts to share, building community

Bonds, interactions, communion

Union, reciprocity

Strengthening, a weaving together

The whole greater than the parts.

 

Compassion

Understanding the Other, each other

By opening our own hearts

Being open, exchanging, offering

Receiving

Accepting

Enhancing

Uniting.

 

–Neal Lemery

11/29/2018

Smoke Break


 

–by Neal Lemery

 

His hands shook as he rummaged through a plastic grocery sack, pulling out a plastic pre-roll tube. It still had its faded label from the marijuana store down the street.  The shakings nearly caused him to drop the tube, but he managed to snap open the plastic lid. He tapped a little something into his mouth and swallowed.

He’d laid his lit cigarette on the black metal patio table, and set down the plastic tube, pushing the lid shut with yellowed fingertips.  The rest of the sack’s contents were soon strewn across the table: another pre-roll tube, three cigarette lighters, a half empty pack of rolling papers, an open pack of cigarettes, and a pocket knife with an open, half broken off blade.

A worn cardboard box sign with crude letters spelling out “Hungry” also decorated the table.  He had been holding it up on a street corner a mile away not an hour ago, looking gaunt, wet, and needy.  The hood of his coat had shadowed his face from passersby and the drivers waiting at the light.

His body twitched occasionally, his head bouncing back and forth, as he muttered to himself and occasionally spoke loudly in an indecipherable squawk, into the wind.

The sign was catching some of the raindrops  blowing in from the approaching storm, and he scooted the table and himself further under the eaves, until the chair banged against the window.

His friend showed up a few minutes later, also dressed in a black, heavy cotton raincoat and jeans, with equally sunken eyes and a week’s worth of beard across his face. His fist was curled around a crisp new paper sack, its shape formed by the scrunching of the sack against a bottle recently purchased at the nearby liquor store two blocks away.  He grinned as he arrived, raising the bag and his fist in triumph. He mumbled a few words to the first guy, who took another taste of whatever was in the tube, and handed it to the second guy.

It was their only conversation here on the street.

The second guy took a long drag on his cigarette, white smoke briefly covering his face, before the wind cleared the smoke away.  He set the half-smoked cigarette on the table. A fresh breath of wind rolled it off and down to the sidewalk, where it was promptly snuffed out by the wet. Grabbing the tube, he opened it with an experienced flick of a thumb, and tapped some of the contents onto his tongue.

The sidewalk and side street were otherwise deserted, as rain began to fall in bursts. The wind gusted, picking up speed, scattering fallen leaves this last part of November. An empty, sodden Starbucks cup rolled towards the adjoining street, soon to meet its fate in the steady stream of log trucks and pickups, and tires splashing in the gutters.

They each took a couple more hits from the pre-roll tube, until the contents were depleted.  The second man cursed as he discovered his sodden cigarette on the ground, and quickly lit another one from the open pack on the table, flicking a flame out of one of the three lighters on the table.

The first man, staring at his shoes, pulled heavily on the last of his cigarette, everything in jagged motion as yet another twitch overtook him. Taking in the last of the smoke the cigarette had to offer, he breathed out a sigh of pleasure.

The wind gusted stronger, moving the rain at a lower slant, now streaking the window under the café eave.  The two men were starting to get wet.  They wordlessly fought with the plastic grocery sack and the wind, finally getting all their items back into the sack, and stuffed it into the first man’s knapsack. They headed off towards the street. The second man clutched his sack full of liquor, his steps uncertain in the wind and rain.

The first man paused, wracked again by yet another twitch and shaking all over, his hands convulsing for a few more seconds.  Again, sounds came from his lips, harsh, angry, incoherent.

The other man looked back at his friend, his eyes gaunt, staring, unfocused. He silently turned and moved ahead, as the first man finally regained his balance and started moving again, trailing the other guy.

In a minute, the sidewalk was empty, the rain moving in for good, drenching the pavement and washing away the last traces of their visit to the table by the café.

Back and forth, give and take, getting a little high before the storm hit for good, before they opened the booze somewhere out of the storm.

******

 

I watched from my booth at the café, this snippet of their young lives playing out before my disbelieving eyes, leaving me to ignore my coffee cup and the poem I was trying to rewrite.

The waiter came to refill my cup, and looked out into the wet, windswept street, commenting about the coming storm.  No mention of the two men, the ingesting of the contents of the tube, the full bottle of booze in the brown sack, the occasional twitchings and outbursts, as if this episode of these young men’s world wasn’t really playing out by the front door of his café.

Invisible, or just part of the downtown scenery, I wasn’t sure which.  Maybe the scene was just too ordinary, too commonplace to merit comment.

 

The poem I was going to work on lay unattended, and my coffee had grown cold. Instead, I had become a part of their cigarette break, their moment on the street.  I had been held silenced, unnoticed on the other side of the glass, and the ritual with the contents of the plastic tube, as they passed it back and forth, emptying the contents into their mouths.  There were the manipulations of the smokers and their cigarettes, and the occasional twitches and tremors, the incoherencies of the man with the “Hungry” sign.

“Hungry”.  Still hungry, as the two men started their journey to the next place.  A place where, perhaps, the bottle would give them warmth and conversation, a way to pass the time until the storm blew through.

And, perhaps the stuff from the tube, the liquor, the smokes would somehow fill the bellies of their souls with what they needed in their lives, the stuff that couldn’t be found on the table by the café.

I went back to my coffee, and a bowl of soup, and my unfinished poem, behind the glass of that café window that was my own private window into their world, sheltered by the storm and the wind that blew through their lives.

11/29/2018

 

 

 

 

Fearing Commitment


Fearing Commitment

 

“The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating – in work, in play, in love.  The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation.  To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.” –Anne Morriss

 

I’m afraid of commitment, of taking that decisive step and telling myself I can do this.  With commitment comes responsibility, and the toughest of any responsibility is that I’m obligated to follow through, and what happens is on all me.  I own it.

 

Yet, as Anne Morriss points out, there is that freedom you gain.  Other tasks and activities can fall by the wayside, and I don’t have to do things that I’m really not invested in, and that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of life, the frivolous things, trivial, inconsequential.

 

If I am going to do something really well, with all my energy and creative talent, then I need to be completely committed, and engage my heart and my soul into the task at hand, my eye firmly focused on the goals I have set for myself.

 

And allow myself to be relaxed in that emotional space, to take it easy and let it flow.  That’s when I’m at my best.  So why not give myself permission to go to that place within me, where my creativity and spontaneity can be let loose, and thrive?

 

There’s that old fear, that I’m not good enough, not able enough, not competent. But, all that is on me, what I think, and what I believe about myself, my capabilities; my commitment.

 

I need to own it. And, when I own it, and pour my energy into it, I find myself in that state of being where my task and I become one, that what I am doing is really the essence of me, and my creative spirit.

 

Lately, I’ve been trying to focus on my music and my art.  And, I’ve found again, and am relearning again, that when I am engaged in that work, I do best, and find the greatest satisfaction, when I am completely in the moment, completely engaged, and committed. Not only on the conscious level, but deeper, on a soulful level, subconscious, intensely internal.

 

I try not to listen to those old voices, the naysayers, the doom and gloomers. Instead, I need to embrace my commitment, and rejoice in that liberation.

 

–Neal Lemery, 11/4/2018

Living In A Strong Community


Living in a Strong Community

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”
― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth

 

I’ve been taking a look at my community, and wondering how we measure up, in these challenging times, when some are wondering if our society is in decline.

 

Here’s a checklist of seven attributes of a healthy community:

  1. Good governance
  2. Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
  3. Parks and gardens
  4. Partnerships
  5. Programming
  6. Neighborhood-responsive schools
  7. Tree culture

–Scott Doyon

 

Being in community is vital to my own mental health and emotional well-being.  Given the continual national stream of tragic events fueled by racism, prejudice, bigotry, and selfishness, I often feel the weight of despair and hopelessness. I am increasingly more sensitive to reaching my limit of how much of that “news cycle” and horror I can be exposed to.

Much of that angst is relieved when I immerse myself in building up my community, and being present with others who are caring, selfless people engaged in taking care of themselves and each other in these turbulent, emotionally exhausting times.

In my town, we are doing it right. I think we get high marks on Scott Doyon’s list of a healthy, engaged community.

In the past three years, the state highway department has funded a major revamping of the traffic pattern (our previously confusing junction of two major highways), narrow downtown streets, and a dilapidated, underused waterfront.

This week, we are celebrating the completion of that project, as well as other efforts by the city and the business community to rejuvenate and invigorate the downtown, making it a welcoming and prosperous town.

Now, we have new sidewalks, a smoother flowing traffic pattern, a town pedestrian plaza, bike paths, a food truck cart center, bike racks, a fresh look in two waterfront parks, and a walkway encouraging people to walk to other parks and attractions.  New bridges span the slough at the north edge of the downtown. New landscaping adds a fresh, inviting look.  The local restaurant scene is vigorous and inviting. Open mics, featuring local musicians and writers, are now the norm.

Downtown merchants have also gotten on board, with renovations, fresh paint, and interesting shops.  We have a number of new downtown events, including a monthly Art Walk, a thriving community art gallery, and a museum which not only showcases local artists, but a continuing schedule of regionally renown speakers and presenters.

 

Community organizations are thriving, and numerous activities are filling up the community calendar with a wide variety of events for every interest. New ideas are being discussed, and plans are underway for even more activities and ways to build a healthier community. We have a “can do” attitude now.

 

Our “Year of Wellness”, a public health collaborative to focus on ways to improve individual and community health, has brought together the entire spectrum of health service agencies, government, and individuals to collaborate on improving public health and a sense of community spirit. We are challenging ourselves to live healthier, more informed lives, and doing it from the ground up.  Grass roots activism at its finest! We’ve decided a year wasn’t long enough for the tasks we identified, and now the work is seen as long term, with increasingly challenging and meaningful goals. Community wellness is now part of our collective experience.

 

The library is spearheading the building of a new downtown park, and library programs are enjoying wide popularity, engaging the community on a variety of experiences and informative activities for all ages.  Public use of the library is setting records.

 

Teachers are developing state of the art educational experiences for students, and we are becoming increasingly well informed about the impact of childhood trauma, domestic violence, hunger, and addiction recovery.

 

The best part of all this is that we have a sense of belonging here.  Each of us is important, and each of us is a valued contributor to the common good, the whole community.  An individual has something unique to offer, and is a valued, unique player in the common effort.  I feel I belong here, and so do all my neighbors.

 

In this town, one person makes the difference, and others listen to their voice, and value their experience, their perspective, and their talents.  And, we have the will power and the courage to take on the difficult, ugly issues that our community, and the nation, has.  Much of the work is hard, and the tasks are daunting at times.  We don’t always achieve 100% success, but we are trying and we see a lot of progress in what we are trying to accomplish. And, that feels really good.

 

In this town, there is hope, and there is a sense of collective purpose. We are committed to be winners, and the changers that create a better world.  Now, we are a town of optimism and determination.

 

Community partnerships are everywhere, knitting together our community fabric in a fresh spirit of resolve and collaboration.  There’s an attitude of “get it done” and pitching in to just do it.

 

As my friends say around town, “Onward!”

 

Becoming


 

 

Change

Comes with each moment

Each wave on the beach

Changes

The beach

The observer

Itself

Transforming all there is

In different ways

Renewing, reforming, recreating—

Over time, the difference obvious

A new reality, a new experience

And from that, comes change, again.

 

Change is in our nature – it is what we do,

Who we are, beings in motion

Observing, experiencing, adapting—

Becoming something new, an evolving

Seeking our light, becoming who we are meant to be

Meant to becoming, again and again.

 

Our destiny is in the moment, in the changing, in the becoming—

I am

Ever renewing, ever changing

Ever becoming.

 

—Neal Lemery, 10/7/2018

Listening, With Respect


 

 

—Neal Lemery

 

I’ve listened to a lot of stories, especially stories of pain, trauma, embarrassment, and horror; people telling me the deeply personal, intimate, and heart-wrenching tales of their lives, unburdening themselves, or just sharing so that I could understand their lives better.

When I became a lawyer, the judge swearing in all the new lawyers reminded us that we new attorneys were also counselors at law, that we were healers of social ills and menders of the social fabric.

A friend of mine, a priest, kept reminding me that I, too, wore a collar and people came to me to make confession, and receive absolution and a sense of peace and healing.

“Forgiveness,” he would say, “is what we both offer the world.”

My professional life has involved a great deal of truth seeking and pursuing justice.  That work necessitates actively listening, involving more than wiling ears and a reasoning, analytical mind.  There is also heavy lifting for the soul, and one’s gut and heart.

One’s life experiences and one’s very essences of humanity are also in play.

And just when I think I am old enough, experienced enough, to have mastered my listening and my truth detection, life throws me a new curve ball, renewing my challenge to be the consummate and empathetic discerner of reality – the knower of Truth.

Everyone’s story, everyone’s reality and truth, is different.  Shaped by their experiences, their circumstances, their own truth is unique to them.  And whether I judge their story as subjective, relative truth, or objective, absolute truth, it is still their story and their reality.

And I filter their story through my own lenses, my own experiences and reality, both good and bad, often flawed and more self-serving that I am inclined to confess.  I’m a work in progress myself.

The wearing of the judge’s robe is too often only a symbol of the values of impartiality, truth seeking, and justice. Judging is, after all, an art and not a science.  Bias, prejudice, and intolerance aren’t left at the courtroom door.  Judges, after all, should see our own flaws.

Like the rest of America, I’ve been awash in the politics and story telling of seating our new justice of the Supreme Court.  That process should call upon our highest and most sacred ideals as citizens.  Lately, we’ve fallen far from that standard.

My senses have been flooded with profoundly emotional storytelling and speech making.

My own experiences, recollections and often buried memories of my own alcohol-infused youth have risen to the surface, adding intense anguish, empathy, and revulsion to what I am seeing on the TV news and reading in the media. The needed discussions and accountability work haven’t been at center stage.

The stories and the memories are disquieting, uncomfortable.  But they need to be told.  We as a society need to take on the traumas of sexual violence and over-indulgence of alcohol.  The issues and questions are vital social concerns that affect all our lives and the well-being of our society.

Like other personal and societal secrets and tragedies, these stories need to be shared and understood in the bright sunshine of thoughtful and compassionate conversations and meaningful discussions.

In their telling, and in the presence of empathetic listening, there can finally be a release and an understanding, even acceptance, of history that can empower us and begin to heal us, so we are able to move ahead. Their story can no longer be locked away and buried.

Hopefully, in the telling, and the sharing, the darkness fades and fresh bright light can offer some cleansing.  The festering wounds can drain and begin to heal.  We all deserve to heal.

We can offer each other the gift of catharsis, the purging of infection and disease, the enlightenment of confession and forgiveness.  The power of truth telling is an act of personal liberation, of empowerment.

Ending the silence is an act of disarming the abuser, a cutting of chains that have kept so much of our souls in captivity.  It is an art of taking back our power and our human spirit.

In that work, that telling and sharing, there is liberation, an act of self-affirmation.  When that work is being done, one gains a new sense of self-esteem and power over one’s life. It is a gift to yourself that does change your life.  It is an act of self-kindness and self-respect.

It seems easy for us to recognize the truth in another person’s story.  We are often quick to judge.  In recent years, that rush to judgement often is skewed by labeling, blaming, categorizing, and simply being mean and vindictive.  The polarizing, divisive lens of national politics artificially is shined on the story, encouraging us to quickly, and with little fact gathering or reason, qualify a tale as true or false.  We have polarized compassion and patriotism.

Such a twenty second sound bite approach ill suits the truth seeking that we would want others to apply as they listen to our own stories. Don’t we want the listener of our own tale to be compassionate, wise, and a healer of our fellow human beings?

I’ve learned, as a lawyer and a judge, to be not so quick to judge, and to not rapidly label or categorize.  Reality is complicated, and we can be inclined to edit and change our own stories. Each of our own viewpoints, our perspectives, are unique. Guilt, shame, self-protection, and ego all come into play so we can prepare to step out onto the stage and share our story, even if it will be told only to a trusted friend over a cup of coffee.

On the national political stage, where the stakes are higher, I think we often edit and rearrange and alter the story to attract a more receptive audience. We play the game of politics. Yet, the naked, raw truth can be brilliant and illuminated, shining through all the political and moral clutter. Bare truth can be frightening to the politicians, because of its purity and reality.  Real, pure truth is not playing the game according to the rules.

For some time, I mentored a young man, holding him close as a son.  He had a troubled, angry life, dealing with many problems and issues.  He felt worthless and unloved.  His soul pain bled all over his life.

One day, he and I took that pain on and explored his wound, looking for his truth. Years of shame, guilt and self-loathing stood in the way, but he persisted with profound courage and intestinal fortitude.  In all that muck, he found his truth and spoke it out loud, so we could better hear it. It was awful, horrific, heart-wrenching. But, his truth was his and he spoke it.

And, I listened and I believed him.  Believing someone’s story is so amazingly powerful and liberating.  Much of his pain and anguish began to be released. And the healing began for him.

I was reminded that day of the power of unconditional love.  And not the unconditional love of a listener, but that very special unconditional love he found that day for himself, that he really could speak and share his truth.

We have all hear true stories.  Honest, open heart surgery kinds of experiences, unadorned by excuse making, window dressing, and self-glorification.  We know it is true because our very being senses that.  Our soul knows it is truth.

“You will know the Truth, and it shall set you free.”  (John, 8:32)

I hope that we, as individuals, and as a country, can honor our respective truths, and in that recognition, find our common humanity.

 

–October 6, 2018