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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planting Seeds


                                                by Neal Lemery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/19/2022

Revising an Old Family Story


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

                                                                        by Neal Lemery

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

                        –Brian Doyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/17/2022

The Unexpected Conversation


                        by Neal Lemery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/9/2022

Meth World — My Bitter Truth


                       

                                                by Neal Lemery

Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 3/6/2022

            It was about a minute into our conversation that it hit me, a realization I had in the back of my mind for the last several months.  He has been avoiding me, dropping off the face of the earth, or at least with me, not responding to texts or the letters I had put in the mail.

            He was high as a kite on the phone with me, his usual sharp and kindly mind in a fog. It was all going to be better, he kept saying.  He was going to get back on track. Most of what was happening to him was a conspiracy, people turning against him, hating him, making life almost impossible. What he thought people were doing to him was all a lie, the dope giving him his only relief, some form of false courage. 

            During our good times, we’d worked through a rough patch in his vocational math class, getting through some math concepts he had missed out on in the fourth grade, when the family was in upheaval. His patient teacher, and some worksheets we’d gone through on a video call, one step at a time, cleared the fog. He experienced a rich and satisfying epiphany, his confidence growing by leaps and bounds. He realized he had potential and could overcome failure. The future looked bright, filled with promise. 

            He dropped out of sight, neither seen nor heard for the next three months. Last week, though, there was a text, saying “hi’, that he wanted to talk.  We set a time and he didn’t answer the call. Then, another text, another suggested time. We talked for a minute, he saying that he would be a hard conversation and he needed more time to find his courage.

            There were a few more days of texts and scheduled times, until I finally connected with him.  I was kind, patient, trying to put him at ease, so he could spill his guts and get his obvious pain off his chest.  I’d been his ear for the last few years, and I knew we could have a good talk, maybe move forward. He could be quite the talker, insightful on where he was and what he needed to work on.  

            In my gut, though, I felt disaster loom. Relapse was on my mind, its ugliness and all its destructive ways.

            I knew he had potential. The possibilities were there, underneath his anger and his lifelong struggles with feeling worthy of love and self-respect. 

            I listened to his hoarse, gritty voice, picking up most of the signs of how a meth user relates to the world.

            I call it meth madness, the craziness of delusional thinking, that drug use was normal, expected. Getting high was where he was now, just who he was. Part of me wanted to argue, but he wasn’t listening.  Meth blocks rational, introspective thinking, taking away all sense of reality and sanity.  I knew all that, yet part of me wanted to be in my own denial, anting him to be the guy I knew who was sober, healthy, and focused on doing good in his life. 

            The call went downhill, as he slowly told the details of his life the last three months, the abandonment of his job, his affair with the meth addict, his own meth use, the vaping of some kind of drug he inhaled while driving, to the point he lost consciousness and crashed into a house.  He totaled his car, yet walked away unscathed.  Even the car purchase sounded sketchy, him mentioning that the license plate didn’t match the registration, and him being able to drive the car off the dealer’s lot even though his loan application was denied.

            He told of lying to the cops after the crash, how he tried to stiff the rental car company. He’d left the recovery house for a while, living in an addict’s garage in return for some day labor. I still wonder where he is living these days. 

            My old buddy talked about his drinking. “Not every day,” as if that would reassure me and himself. Then, suddenly, “she needs me,” referring to the girlfriend-meth addict who didn’t have a name. We are well into his roller coaster ride, me resorting to taking some notes, just to find some continuity and order in this tragic tale.

            His parole officer hadn’t violated his parole because “she believes in me, is willing to give me a chance.” “I’m going to see a counselor tomorrow, and start a job search class.” 

            Our one-sided conversation was like commentary at a ping-pong tournament, bouncing from one story, one lie to the next. Where was the kind, sweet young man I’d known the last few years, who dreamed of a good job in the woods, learning to play guitar, wanting to fall in love and start a happy family? As he rambled, sometimes slurring his words, I felt those dreams slipping away, lost in the clouds of addiction, denial and self-anger. Truth was rapidly fading away, if it had even been here at all. 

            Meth is a jealous mistress, stealing one’s youth, dreams, and hope, all in exchange for a few hours of being high, not caring. 

            His voice was raspy from his recent renewal of other addictions: cigarettes and beer. This was the guy who prided himself on working out at the gym, watching his diet, grateful for the vitamins I’d sent him. He had seen his future as a fitness trainer, a nutritionist, a practitioner of yoga and organic living. 

Or was all that a smokescreen, a distortion of who he really is? The guy on the phone was, I realized, a stranger now, so different from the young man I’d talked with and mentored the last few years, today transformed, poisoned by meth and poor choices. I careened from being angry, frustrated, disappointed, and powerless in suggesting change, advocating for sobriety and recovery. 

This guy only wanted to give me the list of all of his “bad boy” stories. Maybe he felt he needed to update me, impress me — somehow. I’m not sure he wanted my affirmation or my best wishes, or just hear his voice fill his own distorted reality. He rambled on, wrapped up in his own narrative, as if his recent criminal episodes were his achievements, and he just wanted me to know that. 

I wanted to blame the meth, how it could savage the heart and mind of a young man I had thought was getting himself together, ready to do well in the world, given the chance. Yet, it isn’t just the meth.  There was more at play here, and I’m still trying to figure that out, just like the rest of us when meth slithers into our lives.

Like most of us, I’ve seen most of the episodes of our society’s horrifying reality series, “Meth: The Reality of Our Lives”. And, I know I don’t have a magic wand to make things right. I haven’t written the episode that offers the perfect solution and a happy ending for all. I can listen and love and give some advice, if I am asked. Too often, I’m in the role of the frustrated bystander, left with my tears and hand wringing.

            It was time for me to go, to end this call with this stranger.  I’d had little to say, even less now that this monologue was over. He didn’t want my advice, my opinion. He was too high, too much in denial for that.

            We said our goodbyes fairly quickly, with neither one of us making any offers or promises of getting together or talking again. It is a tragedy worthy of my grief, as I watch his life in flames, turning to ashes.

            I put my phone down, wondering if I’d just been in an alternative universe, or living a really bad dream. Like all of us, I try to keep my exposure to Meth World to a bare minimum, and long to see the day when the ravages of addiction and unaddressed trauma and drug abuse are no longer plagues, and the destroyers of dreams and young lives.  

            Deep down, my buddy is a good man. I don’t see his flaws and susceptibilities to drugs and mental health crises as punishments for being a “bad guy”. There are successful answers to the burdens he shoulders, and good-hearted knowledgeable people are hard at work saving lives and helping others build solid foundations for their lives in recovery.

            Like most of us, I get thrown for a loop and punched in the gut when the hells of Meth World are right in front of me.  My journey is not my buddy’s journey, and I cannot walk his path for him.  Each of us has the responsibility for our own journeys. I have my own anger and rage about the cruelties of addiction, and the pain that being unloved and uncared for can bring to vulnerable souls. The addictions in this world affect all of us. No one seems immune. 

Knowing I’m not alone, that there is help available for those who are ready for it, I can remain hopeful and optimistic. I am often in awe of the courage of those who are able to move forward and are working to resolve their anguish.  I’m stubborn enough not to give up on the possibilities of redemption and recovery.  I can still believe in my buddy’s potential, his deep down goodness. That’s not to say, however, that I need time sometimes to lick my wounds and to mourn the crises, disasters and disappointments that come our way. 

3/4/2022

Our Differences and the Coming Change


Our Differences and the Coming Change

                  by Neal Lemery

         published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 2/26/2022

We are emerging into new times, new opportunities. How are we going to take advantage of all of the possibilities?

The end of the pandemic restrictions is not going to be a return to normal, “the way it was”. So much has changed, and we are challenged to adapt, to take the lessons learned, and to move ahead into our changed society.

No longer is education only going to be based on in person learning. Many of our work environments now embrace working from home. We are adapting to a variety of virtual learning, work, and participatory experiences, allowing us to be productive in so many ways. We are no longer constrained by geography, but rather by our ability to take advantage of the many ways we can interact, to learn, and to produce value in our lives.

We have rediscovered the importance of personal relationships, and the value of social interactions at every level. 

Children in my neighborhood joyfully interact in small groups, guided by parents and neighbors who have become experienced in the teaching arts. Educators are seen again as masters, gifted in the rearing of our kids. Students are able to access a variety of learning styles, and are discovering how they can better acquire and master the knowledge they need in this changing world.

Now, we cherish social interactions, and the benefit of collaboration and access to public health services. Health care has greatly advanced in the last several years, incorporating the principles of evidence-based research and the development of preventative measures, such as vaccines and universal access to new treatments and methodologies. We have been reminded of the benefits of access to quality health care.

We now plainly see the benefit of community-wide access to the internet, and how each child, each adult, benefits from both technology and one-on-one teaching. 

“If there is going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens.” — Howard Zinn.

We need to take advantage of all of these changes, and the challenges that have forced us to re-evaluate how we’ve managed in the past, and how we want to live in the future. It is up to us, from the grass roots up. My renewed interest, thanks to the pandemic, in gardening, baking, and in communicating one on one with friends and family on a deep level, has made me more connected, more involved, and more attentive to what really matters in my life, as well as the life of our community. I see technology as a tool to advance my humanity, and not the end result of my use of it. 

We’ve learned that the social institutions and customs that really work, that really improve lives, deserve our attention and require our energies so that they can thrive. And, the old ways and institutions that don’t serve their purposes anymore, need to be left behind, making room for what does work, what really makes a difference.

We’ve learned that the personal touch, going the extra mile with someone, in an intimate and sensitive approach, is profoundly effective. There’s a rise in entrepreneurship and ingenuity. Creativity is blossoming and is finding room in our changing economy. In that, our true core values are being honored and advanced. Individual talents are being nurtured and admired. Quality family time is seen as essential to a happy life and a productive society. 

We are now surrounded by lessons in collaboration. Our differing observations and opinions are really just different expressions of our many common values. Our vocal, often strident debates on what we think are fundamental differences, are really just conversations on how best to advance our common community values: the power of meaningful choices, the value of an individual’s contributions, that differing viewpoints can advance the common good, that a person’s individuality, their uniqueness, is a highly cherished asset to society.  

We have more in common than our divergent, often strident, views. We’re learning the lessons of being good listeners, and learning from a different point of view. From those conversations, we can move closer to finding the truth, and taking action steps that truly address the problems we all face. We need to keep asking “what is the common good?”

If we look at our differences as a process of education and personal growth, and to truly strive for finding the truth in a choppy sea of propaganda and misinformation, we all can work towards improving society, and having respectful, meaningful debates. Each of us needs to be less attached to the idea that only I know the truth, only I am the holder of the correct answer. Then we can truly be lifelong learners and be part of the solutions, be an agent of positive change. 

A healthy democracy requires that we take less ownership in what we think is the unbridled truth, and be willing to accept that there is more to learn, there is more to be discovered. And, perhaps, I can even admit that I don’t know all the answers, that the real truth is awaiting all of us in this journey. This awareness of the dangers of ego-based opinion holding is one of our big lessons from these challenging times. These are good lessons our kids need to learn from us. 

Technological advancement is now being seen as not the end result of our labor, the “end all and be all” but as a toolbox to further our human values, our relationships, and as a way to provide even more opportunities for learning and happy lives. We are learning that technology is not our master, but our servant. 

And the good change, the needed change, comes from each of us. We’ve all been in school these last two years, learning and relearning some of the basic lessons in life, and contemplating the wisdom of some of our beliefs and our institutions. If we act differently, then our lives can be changed, hopefully for the better.

We have learned that if we want things to be different now, we are the agents of change. We have to know where we want to go, what needs to be different. We need to do the work, and to make the changes that need to happen. It is up to us.

2/26/2022

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