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

Celebrating Fathers’ Day


 

 

Tomorrow is Fathers’ Day, and I know we are all expected to celebrate it. Fathers are special and should be honored on their special day.  It is supposed to be a day of wholesomeness, warm feelings, sentimentality, and unbounded familial love. That’s what all the Fathers’ Day cards say, anyway.

But, there’s a lot of mixed emotions, and turmoil under the surface of having the barbeque, giving a card, and a nice present.  Or, to be on the receiving end, and be thanked as a father in someone’s life.

There are so many strings attached, so many thoughts and memories that come to the surface, so many conflicting and unsettling experiences to sort through and try to make sense of. All the sentimentality and idealism can be a trap for the emotionally wounded, those of us who have other emotions and memories about fathers, the ones you can’t find in a Hallmark card.

And if Dad has passed away, or is otherwise absent in one’s life, there’s grief and the psychological jungle of things left unsaid, words that we regret, or words that we are desperate to hear or speak.  Those children have no place and no role to play in a day of a sentimental card, a barbeque, or a gift of golf balls.

We don’t talk about that emptiness, that pain, but we should.

What is a good father?  Even our cultural heroes and role models aren’t really what we had imagined, or thought of as solid, stable figures in our lives.  When my wife and I were raising my stepson, we watched Bill Cosby’s show, and I thought he was the good dad — sensitive, kind, compassionate, the kind of dad I wanted my son to emulate in his life.  Yet, that image of wholesomeness and stability has been dashed on the rocks of reality, and a conviction for predatory abuse and exploitation.

In my own life, I have seen stories and accepted history and experiences being altered by unsettling revelations, confessions, and recovered memories.  The charming and comfortable portrayals of healthy and good parents have shifted, from the fall of Dr. Huxtable as the all wise and kind father figure to the realization that real life isn’t always the story of Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best.

 

 

One thing that is absent in our society’s Fathers’ Day celebrations is a conversation about what is good fathering, and how we can strive to be better fathers, and better sons and daughters.  We need to look at new gifts to give on dad’s special day, other than a new tie, tools for the barbeque, or golf balls.

Good parenting is a skill, and we need a day to ponder that, and have a real conversation about being the great dad, and how we can build healthier families.

In reality, living in the world of truth really is better for me than fiction, the fantasized and idealized “perfect world” created by Hollywood and our society’s desire to sugarcoat our historical reality.

Though, part of me longs for the dream world of the idealized childhood, and the warm and fuzzy images of the ideal Fathers’ Day experience. Part of me wants the nice sweetness of Dr. Huxtable, Ward Cleaver, and Sheriff Andy Griffith to be part of my Fathers’ Day party.  But, those icons of healthy fathering aren’t in my reality, and I’ve hopefully learned how to separate the television fantasies from truth.

If fatherhood had a god, it would probably be Janus, looking both forward and back, showing us how those two perspectives can often be contradictory.  Life is messy.

My experiences as a father always involves looking back as my experience as the son, and realizing that much of my fathering work is shaped by how I saw my father parented me. I’ve had other men who parented me, too, sometimes in momentary blips of insight, compassion, and correction.  And, I’ve become increasingly grateful for those fathers who took it upon themselves to get my attention and offer some kindly, and often needed, direction and counsel.

Like Janus, I’ve looked back on that work and hopefully used that wisdom in my own work as a father.

I’ve mentored a number of young men who have needed some fathering and attention to the tough business of growing up in this world.  I’ve drawn upon my own experiences as a son, and as a father, and helped guide them through their own storms and battles.

The reward in that is to hopefully give them a better experience that I’ve had as a son, giving direction and guidance, without a lot of the harsh judgment and anger that can easily derail a young man in his journey.

I’m not the perfect father.  And, I certainly wasn’t the perfect son.  I’m content with that, but I also know that this work of fathering is really never completed, that there are always going to be opportunities to be fatherly, and to give to others what I have needed in my past.

If we are mindful of that work, and those challenges, perhaps that is what we should be thinking about on Fathers’ Day.

6/20/2018

Getting Distracted


 

 

Some of the best conversations I’ve had occur in the aisles of the local grocery store. There, in those spontaneous and seemingly random encounters, I find the greatest wisdom, coming from longtime friends who speak profound wisdom and solid Truth.

We nearly ran into each other, grocery lists in hand, and quickly caught up on the successes of a mutual friend.  Our similar political views led us to some hand wringing about one of the current scandals on what I’ve been calling our collective national news feed.

“But, it’s really all a distraction,” my friend says.  “Keeping us from talking about and taking action on the really important stuff.”

My friend is right. I am distracted, feeling like I’m jumping from one outrageous story to another, never having the time to be fully morally outraged about an event or a trend, when another absurd or unsettling story blips on my radar screen, stirring up my indignation, and leading me down another rabbit hole in the political and cultural scene.

Some of my angst comes from not feeling I’m taking action myself, righting some injustice through my own actions, or simply not speaking out at all, because I’m distracted.

I’ve been finding some direction and camaraderie with a wise person from the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Politics and culture in his time weren’t tranquil and serene, and, in his writing, he spoke out against injustice, hypocrisy, and what one of my social worker friends calls “stinking thinking”.

 

“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say,—’Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act.”  —Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 

I’ve been distracted from being purposeful, intentional, and acting against the intolerance and injustice of our times.

 

“The purpose of life is not to be happy.  It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived, and lived well.”

 

_Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Am I living well, am I living to be useful and compassionate, and making a difference? Like all of us, I suspect, I want to be living in the here and now, to be productive.

My grocery store conversation stirred me up, and I’m motivated to keep at it, keep doing my life work, and making a difference.

 

I’ve long believed that social ills and “stinking thinking” are best addressed by a good public airing, so people can truly see a thought or an attitude for what it really is.  One of my missions in life has been to seek the truth, and bring it to light.

My friends in the medical community often talk about the curative properties of sunlight and fresh air, and how infections often respond to a change in the environment, and the need for a thorough examination under a bright light, bringing in fresh air, and creating a place where healing can begin.

I’ve long enjoyed the idea of clearly identifying the elephant in the living room, so people can begin to talk about the real problem, take ownership and responsibility, and move towards finding solutions. Such clarity and directness gets us “down to brass tacks”, as my grandmother used to say.

Then, another news story, and a flurry of unreasoned opinions, rants, and personal attacks. Distractions, again.

Uncivil discourse, a sign of the times.

Blindsiding and personal attacks; not having meaningful, purposeful conversation about the issue at hand  — it all reminded me of what our national political conversations have turned into, a lot of noise taking away our need to focus on productive discussions and the elephant in the living room. We are being distracted from expressing and sharing, not having well thought out and articulated debates on issues vital to our national health and direction, and respecting people’s views, even if we might disagree with them.

My grocery store encounter with my good friend reminded me that distractions are simply that. They get in the way, and keep me from my purpose in life and in my community.  I need to keep focused on the task at hand, the issues we are facing, and carry on, “to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived, and lived well.”

 

–Neal Lemery, 6/1/2018

 

 

Letter to a Graduate


May 22, 2018

 

It is almost that time, so Congratulations on Graduation!!!!

 

Earning a bachelor’s degree is a very big deal and a huge accomplishment.  There is a great deal of work involved, and persistence and determination.

 

I believe that you have truly applied yourself and gained much from this experience.  I hope that you have learned how to learn, and how to think analytically, and that you have been exposed to a great amount of ideas, viewpoints, and opinions, and have had to develop your own thinking and analysis to issues and situations.

 

I also hope that you are an avid “lifelong learner” and this is only a step in your continuing education and development.

 

In my experience, college and being devoted to learning and education and development of the mind is one of the most worthwhile activities in one’s life.

 

Which leads me to the topic of “patience”, and change making.  I have had a lifetime of struggle with being patient.  My mentors continually counseled me about being patient.  My grandmother and mother taught me a lot about gardening, with the ever present message of being patient.  Time can be on my side and can be an asset, very useful tool.

 

And, over time, one can observe and see patterns and trends that otherwise would not be observable or discernable.

 

I see the benefit of patience in my art and music, too.  Time is actually a very good teacher, and it takes the passage of time for the body and brain to fully learn and develop.  And, probably why I am attracted to Zen Buddhism, as a spiritual practice and source of wisdom, letting time move and being in the moment.

 

Yet, the tension for me is that I know I am often ready to move on, that I have learned my life lessons in a place and the experience, and enough is enough.  Let’s get it on! I’m really a “get it done, now, already” kind of guy.  I don’t suffer fools well, and when the lessons are learned, why wait around?

 

Yet, when I have to wait, I observe more, and I think more, and I probably learn the lessons of the experience better, and then able to teach those lessons better to others. And, to remember and “do” something with the experience in a better way.  My “product” is better because it has more time to ripen, to come into its true form.  And, I guess, to confirm my hypotheses and conclusions.  A period of testing, refining, perfecting.

 

Intellectually, I have come to peace about that waiting process.  I’m not sure if I have come to peace about that spiritually, though.  I’ve concluded that karma is real and comes about over time, sometimes a really long time.  But, if I can wait it out, then karma is sweet and is to be savored.  I try not to be a revengeful person, but there is a proverb that says that revenge is a dish best served cold.

 

Perhaps the better, more Zenlike approach, is to be the actor for positive action and change, going around the roadblock and the evil, and building a better road for others.  And, if good actions are stymied, then being satisfied with being the example, the exception that proves the rule, and thereby the force for change and new thinking.

 

There’s another saying about good people doing what others are saying can’t be done. I’ll look that up, because that is probably a good motto for my life.  Over time, I’ve noticed that what I thought has been revolutionary is seen by others new to the scene as an existing, functioning phenomenon that is accepted as “always being there”.  Truly a successful revolution.

 

Often, what I’ve found, is that real change occurs in seemingly random, spontaneous conversations. The grocery store, at a gathering, maybe lunch with a friend.  Those little conversations are really the gems, the gold to be mined, to engage and enliven people and give them permission to have the good, the deep conversations and searches.  Other tools, other works, such as writing and music and art, are more the examples, the stimulators of those conversations and experiences.  They provide the metaphors, so one can talk about scary things in a safe way.

 

Can I suggest that this time is gold for you?  You have climbed the mountaintop, and you see things now for what they really are.  And, in not too long of a time, you will leave the undergraduate world and not have the current struggle, the current experience. That impending end can be liberating in its own way.  You see the truth and know it.  Others may find the truth to be too scary, too real, and thus avoid it.

 

Thus, a teaching moment for you, space and time to plant some seeds of thought and ideas, and of encouragement to others in their work.

 

The revolution for you has already begun, and you are planting those seeds of change right now, where you are at.  Not flashy or noisy.   Education takes many forms. Others find that scary, something that needs to be limited, constrained, and yes, imprisoned.

 

It will be exciting to see how your journey unfolds.  I hope you are open to what will come your way, and that you will take risks, and opportunities, and plunge into the unknown and uncertain.  And, anything you attempt in good faith will not be a dead end or a “wasted” opportunity.  Gold is where you find it.

 

Respectfully,

 

 

Neal C. Lemery