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

 

Anticipation


 

 

The mid-day sun still low,

The sky’s blue subdued, mellow—

Fog and mist rise from the river

Swirling amongst the moss, the limbs, river rocks, and hills,

A winter’s day dance.

 

Background for the naked trees, gray and white bark

Camouflage in winter mode,

Against ever-green dark—

the metallic river soloing in the still,

Its aria loud after winter rains.

 

Winter’s chill not quite done,

Last year’s leaves still on the ground.

Weeks still to go, hoping for snow,

Long icicles, crunchy steps on icy mud,

Being dressed all in white.

 

I know hints of spring hang in the air,

Only because I’ve seen this play many times,

Each day’s sun only a minute longer,

My third eye beginning to notice–

Almost blooms of alder, witchhazel, cedar

Needing just a little more sun, some more

Sunny days to come.

 

–Neal Lemery, 1/12/2019

 

 

The Extra Chair


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

(also published today in the Tillamook County Pioneer)

One year at Thanksgiving, Mom told me to set an extra place setting.  We’d counted up all the relatives who would be coming, and I was curious as to who she was adding. By my count, we hadn’t forgotten anyone and the place settings matched the numbers of who was coming.

“Oh, it’s nice to have an extra setting, just in case,” she said.  “You never know who might come.”

I was very curious, but she wouldn’t answer my persistent questions.

Thanksgiving morning came and we were all put to work on preparations for the meal. My dad had to go into work for an hour, and not long after he left, the phone rang. It was my dad.

“That’s fine,” she said.  “Of course. No problem.  The table’s already set and there’s an extra chair.”

She turned to us after she hung up the phone.

“We’ll be having another guest for dinner,” she said. She smiled then, and started humming a tune, as she turned back to the stove.

Sure enough, my dad arrived home with our mystery guest.  She was a co-worker, and had no other place to go for Thanksgiving. Her smile said it all, how grateful she was to be included.

Every year after that, we always set an extra place for Thanksgiving.  One year there was a flood and some neighbors couldn’t make it to their family dinner, so we set up another table and had another half dozen dinner guests.

One year, it was one of my friends in high school, needing a refuge from a tough time on the home front.

As always, my folks asked no questions, and passed no judgement.  The unexpected guest was welcomed with open arms and the first serving of turkey.

My wife and I continued the tradition, welcoming friends, making sure there was a place at the table.

The first Thanksgiving we had our foster son, we made sure he felt welcome, as family gathered to enjoy the holiday.

And, as if on cue, the phone rang, and I heard myself saying, “Sure, of course there’s room.  We’d love to have him.”

I made a special trip while the turkey was cooking, and brought his brother home for the weekend. We made sure to make him feel welcome, a part of the family. He responded with a tear running down his cheek, as he sat down in the extra chair.

Years later, after my folks had passed away, and our kids were starting their own families and had moved away, it was just my wife and I who would be home for dinner.

“Let’s set another place,” my wife said.  “You never know.”

A few days before, she called first one and then another friend, friends who were single, and who, it turned out, would be alone for Thanksgiving.

“Of course, you’re invited.  We’ll expect you at 1,” I heard her say.

We set two extra plates that year, and the Thanksgiving celebration became even more special, as two lonely people found a warm home and bountiful table to share, and our friendship grew. Thanksgiving took on a new, richer meaning that year.

One of our traditions, just as we sit down for the meal, is for everyone to share their gratitudes with the rest of us. There is so much to be grateful in our lives, and we so often tend to skip over giving thanks on Thanksgiving. Instead, we slide into talk about a lot of other subjects, forgetting what the day is really about.

Thanksgiving truly is a day to celebrate our gratitudes and to give thanks. And, often what I am most grateful for is that extra chair, that extra place setting.  I’m grateful for the company of someone who would otherwise be alone on the day we gather and give thanks for all that we have.  And that list begins with being thankful for each other.

 

Remembering Grandpa Henry


 

 

 

November 11, 2018

 

World War I, the “Great War”, the “War to End All Wars”, ended one hundred years ago today.

That day, my grandfather was a prisoner of war in a Russian prison camp. He was drafted into the German Army and sent to the eastern front, a foot soldier in a war where nerve gas, machine guns, and tanks dominated the battlefields, causing horrific casualties.

Word of the end of the war likely reached the prison camp a week, maybe three weeks later, at the beginning of the harsh winter in what is now eastern Poland. The Russian guards just opened the gates and walked away, forcing the emaciated, sick German prisoners of war to fend for themselves.

My grandfather spoke little of that experience, and only a few times told of taking boots off of dead soldiers, stuffing moss and newspapers into them, and making his way west, back to his home in northern Germany.  There was no food on the journey, except for frozen potatoes he could find in snow-covered fields.

I never knew how long that journey took him, or how many of his companions on that journey survived.  But, cold weather bothered him. He always made sure he had warm boots and thick socks on when he went to the barn and milked his cows on winter mornings.

Being a curious child, I would ask him a few questions about the war, but he would only say it was “bad, bad times”, and grow silent. He was a quiet, contemplative man anyway, and would rarely share his feelings.

I’d ask my mom about Grandpa and the war, and she would say that he never talked about the war. She had never heard his story about the boots and the frozen potatoes.

We all called him Grandpa Henry, but one day, as we were working alone in the barn, he told me that his first name was really Ausmus.  His middle name was Heinrich, the German version of Henry.   He was the thirteenth child of dairy farmers, and when he returned from the war, hard times had come to Germany, and there was no work for him on the farm.  There was no work anywhere.

He decided to emigrate to America.  Somehow, he ended up working on my grandmother’s farm as a hired hand. Once, he told me about being on a ship crossing the Atlantic and he got very seasick, and it was a very long trip.  But, again, no details, just a long period of silence after his few, soft words.

I was learning not to pry or ask questions, and I noticed he would tear up when he would tell me his stories.

He was my grandma’s second husband, and took on the role of stepfather for my mom when she was nine.  He was the only grandfather I knew.

Years later, I did some research and found his naturalization papers on file. He got his citizenship in the mid 1930s, so he must have had his green card or the 1920s version of that, for at least fifteen years.  My grandmother and my mom sponsored him for citizenship.

One time, I asked my mom if Grandpa had any photos or papers about his life in Germany and his family there.

“No,” she said.  “Not anymore.”

There was a lot of anti-German sentiment in the US during World War I, and afterwards, too.  People stopped using the common names for cottage cheese, and even sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”, as German culture was in such disfavor. Even street names and the names of towns were changed, to put an end to German influence.

That is probably the reason Grandpa wasn’t called “Ausmus” or even “Heinrich”, but the Americanized “Henry”.

Grandma was afraid of Grandpa’s German roots and feared people would hate him and our family because of his heritage.  So, she burned all of his photos and papers, hoping to put an end to that connection.

At holidays dinners, my mom would put on a feast, and she always made something special for Grandpa, something German.  He’d have a big smile on his face when she put the dish on the table, and say how grateful he was for her kindness and thoughtfulness.

When I was a teenager, an Indonesian family moved onto a farm a few farms away from my grandparents.  They were the first non-European farmers in the entire community, and their presence fired up a lot of racist sentiment. The racists around were the grandchildren of immigrants, yet no one seemed to see the irony in their behavior.

Grandpa was the first to welcome them to the community, helping them set up their barn, and even giving them five or six heifers to supplement their herd. He’d take his tractor down the road to help them out, and he made sure they had enough hay to get them through the first winter.

He even took the farmer down to the creamery and got him signed up to deliver their milk, and get on the roles of the creamery to get a monthly milk check. It was a complicated process, but Grandpa made sure that everything was set up so his friend could sell his milk at the best price.

He never talked about that, or expected any thanks or appreciation.  It was just something he did, quietly. It was just something he’d do, for anyone deserving of some help and friendship.

The family became close friends of my grandparents and prosperous farmers in their own right, citizens, and respected members of the community.

My times with Grandpa in the barn and helping him at haying time were special times, passing all too quickly.  I was eager to grow up, and move away to college, and I took those quiet times with him for granted.

In the last years of his life, I’d look in on him, taking care of him at times, running errands, and making sure he was comfortable. I’d take care of his feet, cutting his nails, and putting on lotion.  He had arthritis, and his feet bothered him a lot.

When I worked on his feet, I could tell that his pain wasn’t just from arthritis or old age, but that, many years earlier, some bones had been broken and hadn’t healed right.

When I asked him about it, he told me, “It was the war, the Russians.”

He didn’t say anything more, and I didn’t pry. The look in his eyes told me so much.

Now that he’s gone, I’d wished that we had talked a lot more. His life as a soldier was quite an amazing story, yet none of us will really know that tale.

I learned so much from him, in those long times of silence, in the tears welling up, but not usually shed.

Soldiers don’t share much of what they experienced on the battlefield, or in how they had to deal with the insanity, bloodshed and death.  In their silence lies the tales that we should never forget.

 

–Neal Lemery

Smelling the Petrichor


 

That afternoon, I watched the clouds start to move in, like soldiers in a parade.  First the thin wisps, string like, faint white against the summer blue sky that was the hallmark of our warm and dry summer.

The grass crunched under my shoes as I made my way out to my favorite chair in the front yard, the place of lemonade sipping, book reading, and enjoying the bees, birds and summer afternoons.  Even where we had watered, the leaves of shrubs and flowers looked thirsty, wilting and brittle.

I tried reading my book, but I was soon lost in watching the weather change, thin white streaks, then horsetail clouds, looking more like breaking surf at the beach.  Popcorn clouds came next, all in a checkerboard, neatly separated by the blue border of sky.

Something deep inside of me, something primeval, told me to focus, and pay attention to this change, this moment in time.

White gave way to shades of gray, as the checkerboard thickened, and turned into ropey strands, making a basket weave pattern across the western sky.  The bright summer sun dimmed, turning to silver, and then a platinum blue, behind the new curtain of clouds.

The wind stilled, then freshened, and changed direction, as the afternoon parade marched by.  Faint odors of cut hay, newly harrowed dirt, and summer dried forest spiced up the air.  Even a bit of salt from the ocean ten miles away caught my nose, reminding me the weather was changing, and rain was on its way.

The wind shifted again, and more open blue sky appeared above me, and then more of the checkerboard and then the ripples of an ever thickening cloud cover.

My chair was a good place to practice my guitar, serenading the hummingbirds and late summer robins and sparrows, and sometimes the neighbor’s dog, who comes by often to visit, and bark when I play Johnny Cash. Today, though, the guitar strings were fussy, needing to be retuned again and again, as the air pressure changed, making all my notes go flat. My wooden barometer was falling, and I had to readjust.

After dinner, I returned to my chair, to enjoy my book again in the falling light of the evening, and to savor perhaps what was the last dry evening of summer. I wanted the rain, yet I didn’t want to let the summer slip out of my hands.

When it was finally too dark to read, I abandoned my post as the weather watcher of the yard, disappointed that I hadn’t felt that first drop of rain on my arm and my face, alive, almost electric.  The clouds had thickened, gray turning to black.

Just before bed, I checked again.  Still no rain.  The yard was silent in anticipation.

I awoke at two, stirred by a sound, something new. I felt called, a muted voice telling me to check it out.  Something had changed. It was time to pay attention.

As I opened the door, my nose came alive with the smell I’d been yearning for.  Alive, yet with some musk, something smelling dry but damp, both stale and fresh.

Petrichor.  The name of that smell.

“…the term was coined in 1964 by two Australian scientists studying the smells of wet weather — is derived from a pair of chemical reactions.

“Some plants secrete oils during dry periods, and when it rains, these oils are released into the air. The second reaction that creates petrichor occurs when chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria… are released. These aromatic compounds combine to create the pleasant petrichor scent when rain hits the ground.” (livescience.com, 2013)

 

The word petrichor is created from joining the Greek words for stone and the blood of the gods. It is a word that is conflicted, just like what it tries to describe.  Inert, yet alive. Solid, yet flowing.

 

Deep in the lower reaches of my brain, the place where my ancestors’ voices can be heard, where I think ancient memories reside, there arose a sense of familiarity and comfort. Petrichor.  My ancestors knew it well.

And it was raining and I was satisfied, relieved. The deck and the leaves of the roses were wet and shiny, even in the dim light of the night. Fresh and new, coming alive.

The arrival of the rains mark the new year for me. September is a time of great change. The cool, wet weather, the start of school, the approach of the fall Equinox, harvest time, historically the beginnings of war.

Now is the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana.  It literally means the head of the year. This is the beginning of the agricultural year in the Mideast.  The tradition has been traced to the earliest times in Egypt.

The garden is alive again, leaves are full of moisture, the grapes are fattening and ripening in new found wetness. I’m coming alive, too. My creative juices are flowing, and I’m creating new art. The late summer doldrums are giving way to new energies and ideas.

It is time to grasp the possibilities of the new year. Have a good and sweet year!

 

–Neal Lemery, 9/13/2018