Taking On Change


Taking On Change

by Neal Lemery

The pandemic is a time of postponement, not taking care of business. Life now has a lot of waiting around, and my frustration and impatience show up in high numbers on my emotional dashboard. The personal “to do” list seems to keep growing and has few check offs.

In normal times, my life’s challenges usually get resolved with me realizing it is a time to change. And that work to refresh is always so productive and satisfying. In these times, much of what we are facing seems out of my grasp to change. Most things get booted down the road. Like the virus, procrastination is becoming the new normal.

I often escape into my music. I pick up my guitar and find some solace, literally tuning out the world. Even there, there is a need for change. In guitar speak, it is realizing it is time to restring my faithful six string acoustic.

There’s a lifespan for good steel guitar strings. All my chord making, strumming and picking literally wears out the wires, as well as providing proof of my labors with bigger callouses on my fingertips. In that playing, oil and dirt from my fingers are rubbed into the strings. My picking and the vibrations becomes tiresome to the guitar (and probably the rest of my household).

I play my guitar for its mellowness, harmonizing tones and its predictability in terms of the sounds that are emitted, consistent with one’s repetition of chord patterns, strumming, and finger picking. One gets to mix it up, of course, by using different sizes and materials for strings, and the qualities that are unique for each guitar.

Other variables are at play: the type and age of the wood, the thicknesses of materials, the design, humidity, and how precise you are in tuning each string. You add other variables, too: the methods and styles of finger picking, flat picking and slides, plus little touches like pull offs, hammer ons, and chiming; not to omit the likely dozens of other techniques and styles I’ve yet to hear about, let alone begin to attempt. Guitars become “sweeter” with age, the wood conditioned by time and playing to evolve into an even more expressive instrument. It is a metaphor that I appreciate more the older I get.

Yet, it all goes back to having strings in good shape. It really is the simple things that make a big difference in how my guitar sounds in a day. Aside from all the complexities and sophistication of the accomplished musician, it is the act of restringing and putting on a set of new strings that makes my guitar come alive again. Sometimes, you just need to get rid of the rust and dirt and the “worn out” aspects of life.

I procrastinate, doubting myself that it really might be time to change the strings. I’m good at the kind of self-talk that talks me out of making a needed change. I’ll bargain with myself, offering excuses like time, or effort, or thinking it really hasn’t been that long since I put on the strings that are there now. I ignore the principle of guitar strings that age and wear out are a function of how much you play, versus what the calendar might say.

It’s not like I have to run down to the music store for a set, or that the cost will break my budget. For all their magic, guitar strings are a bargain. I almost always have on hand good to high quality strings, engineered for a long and vigorous life, with promises of crispness and high-quality tones. And, I have all the little tools, wood cleaners, and the other gizmos of the specialized world of guitar string replacement. I learn by trial and error in my music. My string changing regimen is a product of years of redoing and reliving most every mistake you can make, plus having some exciting adventures along the way.

Today, for instance, was the reliving of the occasional crisis of having a wooden peg pop out and plummet into the depths of the guitar box. These little pegs, which I want to think are insignificant, are really essential. They secure the little “ball” end of the string snug in the hole in the body of the guitar. They grasp one end of the string, so you can then tighten it, eventually giving enough tension on the string that it will vibrate and produce a note.

When pegs run wild, I feel helpless and inept, adding salty language to the experience. The peg then plays hide and seek, rattling around the inside, and getting caught in nearly every crevice of the various wooden bracings inside. I do the dance, holding and shaking the upside-down guitar in every angle and configuration, hoping to maneuver it to come out of its cave and rejoin its companions on the face of the guitar. There is the added chance of having the peg flying through the air and lodging under the nearest piece of furniture, prolonging the chase. More excitement comes when the cat decides to help.

This game is sometimes played with a guitar pick. My personal record for chasing the reluctant and shy guitar pick inside the guitar is a (now) laughable three weeks. At best, the usual plastic pick is worth, maybe fifty cents, but still, it’s the principle of the matter and a personal challenge. Man vs guitar pick. I WILL prevail.

The string changing ritual offers other challenges, such as squinting sufficiently in order to thread the thin wires through the holes in the tuner pegs at the other end of the guitar, so you can then wrap the wires around the pegs and begin to tighten them. The shiny wires blend in well with the chrome tuner pegs. In this stage, it is easy to qualify for a Purple Heart for Guitarists, by giving yourself a substantial poke in the finger. My guitar is frequently sanctified by my sacrificial efforts, accompanied by that now well used salty language.

You have to put the strings on in the right order, of course. Each string has a different diameter, with lower notes produced by thicker strings. That seems simple and logical. But, we’re talking me and mechanical tasks. Disasters can occur, with a brand-new string in the wrong place that’s tightened too much, accompanied by the unexpected loud twang of a broken string. Then there’s that deep feeling of ineptitude. Another box of strings is now on the table, adding to the potential confusion. I’ve learned to practice rituals of how I lay out the paper string packets and the manage the order of installation, much like a priest officiating at a high mass.

It is even more fun with a 12 string guitar. String changes on a 12 string increase the challenge by several magnitudes of difficulty, where the rubric requires the lowest four pairs (courses) to be tuned in octaves, but the top two courses are tuned in unison on the same note. Doubling the number of strings and the number of pegs that can go wild more than doubles the fun.

As one hits the home stretch, with all six new strings in place, you get a sense of impending success. When you finish up the tuning ritual with the electronic tuner and the seemingly never ending turning of the pegs on the tuner machines, the transformed guitar begins to sing its songs with a fresh, much improved voice. I’m always struck by the sweetness of the new strings.

“Wow, I should have changed these long ago. The new ones sound great,” I usually proclaim to the household, causing my wife to mutter that I always say that when I put on new strings. Still, it is continually a fresh and delightful discovery, each and every time. I am, perhaps, a slow learner.

I coil up the old strings, and attempt to put them in the garbage can, along with the handful of snipped off string ends, from both the old and new sets. This tangle of wires always resists me, usually breaking free and uncoiling onto the kitchen floor, attempting to evade my thick-fingered efforts to corral them and restuff them into the can. After all our quality time together, they just don’t seem to want to leave. It can be another perilous time for exposed fingers and toes, another opportunity to earn a Purple Heart for Guitarists. Now, though, I can see them in all their dirt and grime, the finish worn off and dull, any new effort to bring forth any decent sound doomed to failure. Tired and worn out, they are ready for a rest.

The rules and the pleasures of guitar string changes applies to other parts of my life, as well. I learn a lot from this occasional task. Familiar jeans well past their prime and faded, torn t-shirts and flannel shirts, with ripped sleeves, deserve similar replacements. Shoes, however, are the worst. I can easily wear out a pair of my favorite hiking shoes, my daily attire, until every last aspect of padding and support are long gone. A new pair tells me immediately that the old shoes were at least several months past their lifespan, and that familiar phrase again crosses my lips, “I should have changed these a long time ago.”.

These discoveries can be applied to other aspects of my life: toothbrushes, cracked glassware, chipped plates, bent forks, even one’s favorite chair. I can apply these lessons to my community life, as well: overly familiar places to hang out and tiresome, sometimes toxic people who refuse to grow in their thinking and experiences.

My guitar teaches me a lot about life: perseverance, consistent practicing, having a regular time to focus on some quality “me time”. And, change.

We can wake up in the morning, engage the world, and remark to everyone within ear shot, “I should have changed this a long time ago.”

9/30/2020

A New Start


 

by Neal Lemery

 

Organizing

Straightening, thinking through

Planning ahead

Pushing away the detritus, the distractions

Taking out the trash

Visioning the vision

Seeing the possibilities

Options for change, renewal

The essence of what could be

What could become, could evolve into.

 

New thoughts, new values, goals

Aspirations

Looking over the clouds

Tomorrow’s sunrise

Next year’s promise, potential

Twenty years from now

A hundred years later

Could start today

Now, this minute

A step in a new direction, on a new path

With one footprint in a different, unexpected place.

 

A slight alteration, deviation

Far from the norm, the usual

The predicted, the expected

The status quo—

An opportunity, today.

 

I just have to make that first step

Now.

 

8/5/2020

Wanting Change: How Does That Happen?


By Neal Lemery

 

Often, I react to the news with despair, anger and frustration.  I remind myself that the “news” is often sensationalized, that the news business is a business, and that almost all the “good news” is not included in a news program.  Yet, what much of what is “news” stirs me up to wanting change, a different approach to old problems.

If I want change, I have to act.

If I am passive, then others will make changes, or not.  And those actions or inactions will likely not be what I want to see happen.  I will not have a voice.  My silence, my inaction diminishes my soul and my purpose in life.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world,” Mahatma Gandhi famously said.

Yet, to borrow a phrase from Al Gore, it is an inconvenient truth.

If I don’t like what I read in the news, then either I am an instrument to change the world, or I do nothing.  My inaction assures that I lose my right to express my disagreement with what is going on. After all, actions speak louder than words.

I am in charge of how I react, respond, how I am an instrument of change, putting action into my beliefs, and thus creating change, building a better world.

If I don’t like what I see in my community, my neighborhood, my family, then I need to step up and get involved, and become an instrument of change.

A healthier community starts with me. Put up or shut up.  It’s all on me.

The simple acts are the easiest and the most effective.  They have the greatest impact long term.

Here’s a list of actions for me, and, hopefully, you:

  • Invite a friend to coffee.
  • Play music, and teach someone else, sharing music with others, creating joy and community.
  • Start a conversation with a stranger.
  • Send an inspirational note or story to a friend.
  • Reach out to a prisoner, someone who is going through a hard patch, someone in pain.
  • Acknowledge someone’s loss, or a challenge, and offer them a compliment, a few words of cheer and encouragement. They are not alone.
  • Practice patience and understanding.
  • Don’t expect a reward or recognition. Acting anonymously can be very sweet.
  • Practice forgiveness and compassion, even if another’s words or acts seem hurtful.
  • Imagine walking in the shoes of another.
  • Remember the Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they shall never sit in.”
  • Slow to judge, quicker to forgive.
  • Intend to follow the Golden Rule.
  • Examine your own biases and prejudices. Do some personal housekeeping. I’ve found this to be very humbling and enlightening.
  • Suspend judgement.
  • Don’t assume.

 

My ego gets in the way in this work, but if I am honest, I learn more about myself and the world, and I move forward to be a better human being.

 

And, the world changes, just a little.

 

9/21/2019

Changing My Attitude


 

–by Neal Lemery

 

A friend recently asked me how can we change, how can we transform ourselves from who we are, into something that is less of what we don’t like about ourselves. What will be our legacy? How will we be remembered? How can we become our best?

 

“When you die, only three things will remain of you, since you will abandon all material things on the threshold of the Otherworld: what you have taught to others, what you have created with your hands, and how much love you have spread. So learn more and more in order to teach wise, long-lasting values.  Work more and more to leave to the world things of great beauty. And love, love, love people around you for the light of love heals everything.”

— Francois Bourillon

 

Our creativity is a force, not only to fuel the light in our hearts, but to give light to others, to express thoughts that perhaps are inadequately expressed by words.  Rather, we communicate with the light in our souls. Our own creativity, our own ways of expressing love, are unique to ourselves, and we are in control of that process, that message that we choose to share.

 

“But should you continue to be a respectful and helpful neighbor to her? Yes you should.  Your behavior should reflect who you are, not who she is.”

–Advice columnist Ask Amy

 

“We have to change our thinking.

 

“…how to move forward into the future in such a way as to not leave the past behind, to once and forever destroy the idea that to live one kind of life meant shedding the other; and to find some productive balance between growth and violence, between destruction and regeneration.”

–Bobby Matthews, quoted in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, (2019) by David Treuer

 

Each of our journeys is unique, wholly owned by ourselves, and what we learn from this, and how we choose to express our knowledge and our wisdom is ours alone to communicate and share.

 

Today, I am a different person from who I was yesterday.  And, tomorrow, I will again be different, changed, transformed by today, and tomorrow, and also all that is in my past, my origins, the society in which I have lived my life.

 

The past is part of me, yet I can choose how I let it be a part of me, how it may be the cause of who I am, and who I am becoming.  The past is a teacher, and, at times, a guide, but it is not my god, it is not directing me, nor does it command me to follow a certain path.  There are many paths to wisdom and knowledge, and I am able to choose the paths that will best shape and enlighten my own journey.

 

I choose to build community, to find strength, determination, purpose, and resiliency.  In seeking others to be my compatriots and fellow journeyers, the question of where we each have come from seems to matter less and less to me.  More important is the direction that we are going.

 

“Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place.”

David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.

 

3/4/1019

My 2019 New Year’s Affirmations


“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. “

–Neil Gaiman

 

  • I will love myself. I will remind myself that I am worthy of love, and the most important person in my life who should love me is me. This affirmation allows me to set aside the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” negative self-talk, the “I’m not good enough” thinking that often can stop me in my tracks, push me off the rails, and cloud my mind with dark thoughts leading me to believe I am a failure, so why even try.
  • I will be grateful every day, for the day, the opportunities, the possibilities of each and every day. I am able to do so many things, and I need to remind myself of that truth.
  • I will not take good health for granted, and will try to view health as a gift, and an opportunity.
  • I will honor my friendships and my commitments to others. I will be kind, I will speak truth, I will not gossip. I will remind myself that I do not walk in the shoes of others, and do not truly know their journey, their pain, their worries.  I will be the change I want to see in the world.
  • I will strive to recognize the value of empathy in my life and my relationships. I will strive to “walk a mile in their moccasins”.
  • I will ask for help when I need it.
  • I will be an instrument of change, of goodness, and peace. I recognize I am capable of doing the opposite, but I have a choice, and I choose goodness.
  • I will practice self care. I will eat wisely, exercise, be in nature, and take time to find myself in a place (physically, mentally, spiritually) where I can find calm, serenity, tranquility, and balance.  The most important medical care provider for me is me.
  • Food is medicine. So is nature, and time with myself.
  • I will reduce the drama in my life, and seek to avoid those who are toxic and try to overwhelm me with their drama and chaos.I recognize that toxic people exhaust me, sap my creative spirit, deny me from achieving my destiny, and distract me from the joys in my life. I will seek to not be dramatic and toxic.
  • I will read thoughtful, challenging books, and engage in meaningful, purposeful conversations with others, and surround myself with intelligence and compassion. I will welcome new ideas and perspectives. I will be open to being better informed, and to change my opinions accordingly.
  • I will nurture my creativity, by intentionally surrounding myself with creativity, art, music, and the positive energy and spirit of others. I will be deliberate with my time, and intentionally take time to nurture myself and my creativity.
  • I will reach out to the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned, the addicted, and be compassionate. I will listen more than talk. (I have one mouth, and two ears.) I will try not to judge, nor condemn.  I will remind myself that I need to seek understanding of their journey.
  • I recognize that I can be a builder in my community, and how this community lives and grows is, in part, my responsibility.I can be a destroyer or a nurturer. I get to choose, and I will strive to choose wisely.
  • I am a human being, not necessarily a human doing. Being busy isn’t necessarily better.
  • I will not be an instrument for communicating and perpetuating lies, mistruths, half truths, and propaganda. I will strive not to be manipulated. I will exercise self-care when exposed to any of that “information”. I will do so with caution, reserve, and skepticism.  I will be a critical thinker. When I communicate with others, I will recognize that I am a guardian of truth and will strive to be accurate, thoughtful, and exercise sound judgement.  I will be aware of my biases and prejudices and will so inform my audience.
  • I will strive to apply the “five year rule” to the situation at hand, and my actions, my words, and my relationships. “Will this really matter five years from now?” And, if the answer is no, then I can let it be, and move on.  The topic at hand may not be all that important, and I need to find comfort and peace in understanding that.  Breathe out and let it go. I am in charge of how I feel and I how I react.

 

 

—-Neal Lemery, 12/28/2018

I Choose To Build


 

I can choose to do nothing, to embrace the status quo, and not examine my own thinking, my own, old ways of doing things. Or, I can be the wrecking ball, the sour voice of discontent when new ideas and new ways come my way.

 

Or, I can be the builder, using the solid, time tested materials and ways that have worked in the past, and incorporate the new energies, the new ideas, and make things better.

 

My choice.

 

“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” — attributed to Eldridge Cleaver.

 

My community is going through a lot of change now. Our downtown traffic pattern is being completely revamped, and the streets and sidewalks are torn up. The usual routines and paths are disrupted, and our city bird is the construction crane. Construction worker orange and raincoats is the new fashion statement.

 

I can curse the detours, the mud, the mess, or I can look through that and see the beginnings of the new town plaza, the spots for new street trees, and the better traffic flow that will come from this.

 

I choose to build, to make stronger, to help others on their own path, so that they can achieve their dreams, and to find their path a little easier.

 

And, I can join the voices embracing the new energies, the vitality of a prosperous, active downtown area. I can be part of that, and be a builder.

 

I’ve done my share of whining about what is lacking in my home town. But, I am choosing to be a builder, not a destroyer, a part of the solutions and not part of the problems.

 

To that end, I’ve helped organize and host a monthly open mic downtown on Saturday nights, providing a performance space for writers, musicians, and other artists. Part of that work is joining others to bring gallery space for artists downtown, and promote the creative arts.

 

I’m a master gardener and have helped educate myself and others on sustainable gardening and educating the community about being better stewards of the land. I’ve nurtured and planted community garden space.

 

I’m working on a foundation to help fund improvements to local parks and recreation spaces.

 

And, I’ve spoken out in favor of our community library, and worked on the campaign to renew its local funding.

 

I’m not alone. This community is on the move, and change is on the wind. New ideas, new projects are everywhere. Nearly seventy of my neighbors just returned from a ten day trip to China, having new experiences, learning about another part of the world, and coming home with new ideas and a new international perspective.

 

Today is Poem In Your Pocket Day, which encourages us to share an inspirational poem. Here’s my choice:

 

The Bridge Builder

 

BY WILL ALLEN DROMGOOLE (1860-1934)

 

An old man going a lone highway,

Came, at the evening cold and gray,

To a chasm vast and deep and wide.

Through which was flowing a sullen tide

The old man crossed in the twilight dim,

The sullen stream had no fear for him;

But he turned when safe on the other side

And built a bridge to span the tide.

 

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,

“You are wasting your strength with building here;

Your journey will end with the ending day,

You never again will pass this way;

You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,

Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

 

The builder lifted his old gray head;

“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,

“There followed after me to-day

A youth whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm that has been as naught to me

To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;

He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;

Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

 

Anthology of Verse, 1931

 

Change is all around me. I could choose to be the stick in the mud, struggling against the tide, holding fast to the old, the familiar. Or, I could be part of the change, going with the flow, being one with the river; and embracing the change.

 

The old ways can be comforting, certainly familiar. Yet, will they be successful, meaningful as the world, as my community changes?

 

“The civilization that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral and spiritual environment in which is finds itself.” (Leon Megginson, 1963. quoted by Thomas Friedman, Thank You For Being Late, 2016, p. 298)

 

I can be the bridge builder, the advocate for a better community, or I can be the stick in the mud, and let the tide move against me, leaving me rotting in the muck of the past, as the world passes by.

 

—Neal Lemery, 4/27/2017

One Last Time


 

 

The potatoes he helped grow are slow to cook

Over the hot fire, as if reluctant

To have this final meal with him.

This gardener came here four years ago, wounded

By a life of chaos, bad dreams pushing him down.

This fenced place was sanctuary, the garden

Growing his soul, lighting his passions, teaching him to

Love the earth, his new life, then himself.

 

I stir the stew, blaming the smoke for my tears, realizing

He will fly soon into the world, towards his dreams.

The wounded boy now a man ,blossoming with promise,

New days bright and welcoming.

 

Waiting around the fire, we talk of this place, how his feet became

Grounded in new love for bugs and dirt, new seedlings of

Peace, growing into a teacher of tender young men.

He, healing souls, leading the way out of the garden —

So many saplings ready to be planted in fertile soil.

 

We eat slowly, savoring the stew, and the special dish he made

Just for us, his final act of kindness here.

Telling more stories, we warm our souls around the fire.

 

–Neal Lemery, October 18, 2016

Three Ideas


Three Ideas

 

I came away from a recent workshop with three basic, interrelated ideas: core thoughts that I should be applying to everything in my life.

  • Increasing diversity improves a system
  • Respect and trust the natural system of life
  • Support rather than control

 

My viewpoints, my opinions aren’t on the list. My particular slant on how the world should work isn’t what is important. What is important is that everyone, including me, has the intention that we are here to be helpers.

 

Our own experiences, backgrounds, and dreams are simply tools, a small part of the whole, to be used to support others and work to improve the world. Each of us is a contributor, and a force for change.

 

We are here to support others, and to be a healthy part of the world. Our contributions should focus on being a healthy component of the whole, an enhancement rather than a hinderance.

 

“If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.” (Eldridge Cleaver)

 

–Neal Lemery 10/17/2016

Saying Goodbye


October is a month of goodbyes. Summer has left, the calendar turns to another school year, leaves are turning, and people are getting back to their normal lives after the vacations and activities of another season. The warm sun has left and the rains have returned, with shorter days and colder nights, reminding me of the wheel of life.

This year, there are other goodbyes. Two of my young men I’ve been mentoring these past five, six years are packing up and moving on with their lives. One is going back to his home town, eager to find a job and begin the next chapter of his life. The other is soon off to adult prison, to serve four more years.

Today was our last day in the garden and greenhouse together. Their leaving was the elephant in the living room, and we were all beyond saying goodbye and making speeches around the fire. I was close to tears, and I sensed we were all just beyond words.

Our five years or six years together is a long time, especially in the lives of these young men. I’ve seen them mature, and gain insight and wisdom. They’ve become much better gardeners, and grown into healthy, productive young men.

They look at me and the other adults working in the garden as teachers, but they have both taught me so much about life and about courage and determination. We are friends and have been since almost the beginning of our time together.

Once again, I have learned the lesson of enjoying each precious moment with a good friend, and not assuming that good times together will just keep happening. Time has a way of cutting things short, reminding me that each day is a gift, something that is precious and cherished.

I’m often the doting parent, fussing over my kids. I worry that they are not yet ready to leave the nest and move on. But, they must. My task is to teach them how to fly and then let them go. I have done what I have needed to do, and now they must fly.

I say goodbye, and I will watch them flap their wings and soar into the sky and the next chapter in their young lives. I will cry, too, and I will miss their smiles and curiosity the next time I come to the garden, knowing that they are now strong young gardeners, able to tend their own gardens and keep growing strong and true.