The Extra Chair


 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

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.

 

 

Being Present


 

 

 

is often the greatest gift, the

highest act of friendship.

No expectation of conversation,

yet the richest communication

(communing — action).

 

The most difficult, the most awkward

the most challenging

is simply to just be

be in the lives of another

suspending opinion, commentary,

judgement. Breathing in the quiet.

Saying it all, without voice.

 

In the quiet, much is conveyed

and what is hard becomes

eased, relaxed, now flowing

back and forth

communicated.

 

Silence is love in action

an opening, a sharing

relational, transformative

soul changing.

 

—Neal Lemery 9/13/2019

The Birthday Rose


We never celebrated Mom’s birthday on the actual day.  It always fell during the first week of school, and the following Sunday became the official celebration. We took turns replacing Mom as the chief planner, cook, and baker for family celebrations, and tried to make her a cake that was at least edible, though we could never achieve her skill and standards of perfection.

She would just be happy we thought of her and made the effort, and took the time to gather together to enjoy a meal and laughter.

Today, the Sunday after the first week of school,  would be the day we would celebrate her, though she passed many years ago.  One way I honor and remember her is my tending of her favorite rose in my garden. The bush hasn’t bloomed for about a month, the dry summer and warm days obviously not to its liking.

Yet, we’ve had two days of rain now, and the rose decided this morning that it was time to send forth a blossom. School had started, fall was coming, and it was time, once again, to celebrate.  She would have smiled at the gift.

 

Happy birthday, Mom.

An Anchor in a Storm


 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

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

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

Yet, the task was daunting, overwhelming at times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

8/1/19

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