Root Beer and Potato Chips


I see him every couple of weeks, our time spent playing a game and talking about his accomplishments. Tonight, he’s got on his best shirt and a pair of khakis.

“I dressed up for you,” he says, as we shake hands and sit down at the table.

He takes the games seriously, being focused, attentive, a big smile showing up when he wins, or when he makes a good play. He smiles when I win, too, just enjoying the company, and having a good time.

“I played with my dad, too,” he says. “We had a good time.”

I nod and talk a bit about having fun playing games when I was a kid. I make light of it, not wanting to linger. A few visits back, he talked about how his dad abandoned his mom and the kids when he was ten, and then died of a drug overdose.

Life went downhill for him, and he found himself in long term foster care, then an adoption. The family rejected him, and he was adopted again, and then that family rejected him, too. He ended up in some program for lost and abandoned teens, and then, he ended up here, in prison.

I make sure I show up when I say I will, and I’ll play any game with him he wants to play. I buy him a coffee drink from the prison canteen, and sometimes a cookie or a hamburger. I try to be one of the few who stick around for him, who show up, and are willing to spend time with him.

I’ve known him well enough now that we can talk about most anything. He’s growing a goatee now, and its starting to fill in, and look like a real beard. It’s growing in with two colors, patches of brown and then patches of tan, almost white. His hair grows that way, too.

I say something nice about his addition to his face, trying to send a compliment his way, to notice his new manliness.

“Interesting that there’s two different colors,” I said, suddenly realizing I might be coming off as rude or obnoxious, tripping over my tongue.

“Yeah, just like my hair,” he says.

“I was a failure to thrive baby,” he adds. “I was in the hospital for my first three months, and then my mom got special formula for me.”

“But, she sold that for drugs, and fed me root beer and potato chips for six months, before the case worker finally caught on.”

“That’s why my hair grows in patches; two different colors. Malnutrition.”

No big deal.

He goes back to the game, intent on studying the cards in his hand.

He lays down some cards, making a brilliant play in the game, racking up a bunch of points. He laughs, telling me he’s going to beat me on this hand.

Root beer and potato chips. I’m still back on that, still trying to wrap my head around a mom who would sell her baby’s formula for drug money.

And, it’s no big deal. Just a fact in his life, just part of the craziness he’s gone through, just his story. Another matter of fact anecdote to tell over a game of cards.

He’s finished up with high school, and he’s ready to graduate. He was going to go through the graduation ceremony, the one the high school has here every June, but he got sick and had to go to the hospital for three days, and missed the ceremony.

We’re planning a special ceremony for him, a day just for him to get his high school diploma, and get a round of applause. He thinks his mom is coming, in a couple of weeks, and his brother, too. He wants them here for his graduation, wants them to see him get his diploma.

She’s only been back in his life now for the last six months. They talk on the phone, and she’s come to see him a couple of times. He says it’s a good thing, and they are starting to have a real relationship.

“But, when she comes to visit, I don’t get any root beer or potato chips,” he said, breaking into a chuckle, and giving me a wink.

“We’re just moving ahead.”
8/30/14

Cleaning His Basement


The lock on the door is rusty, his key barely wanting to fit into the hole. An awful screech fills the air as he turned the key hard, his hand trembling, his heart pounding. For most of his life, no oil has seen its way into the lock or the dead bolt on the door, or the rusty old hinges. The door screeches its reluctance to his visit here today, a place he seldom visited. There are too many memories here, too many monsters to wrestle with.

A puff of stale, moldy air seeps out of the darkness below, filling his nose with the dark, fetid stench of a place he’d always been terrified to enter, let alone even acknowledge that it exists, deep below the rest of his life.

He’s lived here all of his life, and all of the other rooms, finally, are fixed up and remodeled, reflecting his idea of what a happy house should be. It has been a long journey, but, finally today, he’s ready to tackle the basement. Until today, he wasn’t ready to take this on. But, now, at last, he is.

Large windows, often open to the fresh outside air, and the bright sunlight of happy days, polished wood floors, and the fresh green of house plants fill the rest of the house with brightness and contentment. Cheery art work, and vases of fresh flowers brighten his living space, where he plays his music, read his books, and fixes meals for his friends and family. Books and pictures of family and beautiful places he’s visited crowd the bookshelves, and the shiny floors brighten his heart as he sips his afternoon tea, reads his books, and visits with his friends who drop by.

He’s worked hard to make a good life for himself, to bring the sunshine into this house, brightening the rooms and sweeping away the darkness and gloom of his childhood. He’s landscaped the yard, planting beautiful flowering shrubs and annuals, taking care to arrange secret little refuges under the trees, places where one can simply sit and enjoy the day, soaking up the quiet of the neighborhood, taking in the fresh air and birdsong.

Others come here, too, neighborhood kids and young lovers, looking for a place for some solitude and communion with all the plants and the birds and the squirrels, creatures calling this place their home, their place of safety from the chaos of the world. His friends and neighbors tell him he has a beautiful life, that he inspires them to be happy and fulfilled. Yet, the dark, scary basement is still here, underneath all of the beauty and peace.

It’s taken most of his life to re-order this place, this home of his, to truly make it his space, a place where he can relax, a place he can finally call his own
.
Every time the trash man came, he managed to fill up the trash can with the results of his remodeling, his sweeping of the trash, his emptying of closets and shelves, sometimes the remnants of entire rooms, as he cleared away the old, the mildew, the unpleasantness and the dirt of days past. He’s brought in new wood, new sheetrock, windows, and cans of bright, cheerful paint, covering the old and remaking this place into what he really wants, a home, filled with real love, a place where his soul can be, at last, at peace.

Yet, late at night, in the quiet of moonless nights, or when a storm moves in and rattles the windows, rain beating on the glass, he hears the old monsters, the old memories, the old ways, lurking in the darkness of the basement. In the dank of the sunless space, where cobwebs and the occasional rat lurk, the old thinking, the old way of childhood life, still linger.

“It’s always been this way,” they whisper, in the black hours before sunrise. “You’re not good enough,” is the response to the emptiness, the quiet. “You can’t change. You are a failure.”

Even before he could remember, even before he’d thought about arguing with those thoughts, those voices, those words of doubt, those thoughts of worthlessness, those horrid voices filled the house, finding a place in his soul. They ate away at his young heart, even when he was so wanting to find love and acceptance. Yet, that is what he heard, all that he heard, and so, he believed those voices, taking their messages deep into his soul, believing that such words were the truth in his life, the way it would always be.

Part of him knew the truth, yet, he could not escape, not then. And, when he failed in his efforts to leave, the dark voices laughed, reminding me once again that he was a failure, that his despair was just the way life would always be. Hoping for happiness was just ridiculous.

Yet, later on, when he found love, and there were people who came into his life who would love him for what he really was in this world, he began to hear other words, new messages. He began to learn new ways of thinking, new ways of feeling, learning that he wasn’t who he had been, not who he was expected to be as a child, a person who could only know shame, and guilt, and looking at what he wanted to be only as a failure.

Other people opened up the blinds, and washed the grime from the windows to his soul, bringing flowers and sunlight into his life, asking him to breathe the fresh air, and to drink from the pure waters of sacred springs, asking him to truly live.

At first, he hid from those loving people, knowing deep inside that he was a failure, that he wasn’t good enough, not worthy enough to sit in sunlight, and sip rich, sweet tea with others, to think new thoughts, and to actually know love. The old voices were strong, and they had always been there. And those who should have loved him told me that the old voices were right, that he wasn’t good enough to live any differently. It was just the way life was. He should just accept that, accept that he wasn’t worthy of anything else.

Slowly, ever so slowly, he opened the door to the people who came into his life, the people who loved him, and who talked about love, and acceptance. He finally heard them speak, as they told me the idea that life can be filled with joyfulness and with purpose, that we are here to love others, and to be loved, that we are truly children of God, and that the God we should know is a God of love, and acceptance.

He breathed in that fresh air, and soaked up the sunshine they offered, his soul craving the goodness that was offered to him, freely and with love.

His doubts and his wounds, always bleeding, and always painful, soon began to go away, and he began to heal. Life without pain and self loathing was still new, but he began to know what a minute, then an hour, and then a day could be without that darkness hanging over him that life could be more than breathing the fetid, dank air of despair and worthlessness.

And, he began to grow, and to hold his shoulders back, taking in the fresh air, finding strength in the act of loving others, and of being loved. The anxiety, the ever-present cloud of worthlessness began to leave him, then, and he saw life in a new way, in a way of hope and joy, and real purpose. He had something to offer the world, something more than being the sack of rotting garbage, getting in the way of others, no longer being the putrid, worthless trash that the rest of world simply had to tolerate, until he finally died of terminal worthlessness and self-pity.

Yet, the old ways were still there, still living in his basement, still whispering their hateful message to him in the darkest moments of the night.

Today, he opened the lock, pushing open the door, letting the rusty hinges creak and moan as the door swung open, the old spiderwebs and dust of those old years now lit up in the bright sunlight of his new life, his healthy, vibrant life, a life filled with purpose, and meaning, and the intention of doing good works, being a part of the real world.

His friends came behind him, their hands filled with brooms and mops, and fiery torches, following him down the steps into the darkness, into the basement of all of his fears and doubts, and the old voices that still called to him in the dark times in his life.

They set to work, sweeping and cleaning, and sacking up the filth and the grunge of the old times, the old voices. The dumpster outside was soon filled with old, stinking trash. They ordered another dumpster, and then, another, filling them up with all the old memories, and the old ways, and the old, poisonous litanies that had filled his childhood with all of its anger, and rage, and degradation and loathing that they could find.

As he and his friends worked, they sang, their voices filling the rapidly changing darkness with hope and love and community, songs of love and happiness filling their hearts with the satisfaction of getting a dirty job finished, of cleaning out the cesspools of one’s old ways, and bringing into his life a basement filled with purpose, with joy, and with the love that a good life has, a place of contentment and vibrancy, a place where good things are nurtured, and allowed to grow into their full potential.

Soon, the dark, moldy basement of his house, once filled with those old ways of looking at life, the nightmares of despair and hopelessness, was transformed into that last room in his house to know the sunlight, the music, and the warmth of love and satisfaction of a happy, productive life.

Their work done, they climbed the stairs, ready for their feast, their celebration of a great day of cleaning, of the purging of the old ideas, the old ways, the old voices of disapproval and bitterness.

Surrounded by his friends, his heart now filled with love and happiness, he said goodbye to all that, all that darkness and voices in the past.

“Begone,” he yelled. “You no longer run my life. You are released, and I now let you go.”

He took the old lock, rusty and seldom used, no longer needed, and threw it in the last of the dumpsters containing all of the trash, all of the bitterness of the old life, knowing he didn’t need to lock the basement anymore. All of the monsters, and all of that evil was gone. Instead, his basement now was truly part of his home, filled with all of the love in the world, and all of the happiness in his heart.

6/23/2014
Neal Lemery

Possibility


No limit, no dead end road
all things, one dreams, all ideas
could happen–
depending
on me, if I think I can
if I move beyond the limits
the old voices and me put in the way;
if I believe in all that I am
and all that I am
becoming.

Listening to that voice
deep inside, whispering at the dawn
what is possible, what could be—
if I move away from the limits,
the fences I thought were there—
if I move, instead, into my dreams,
into what my heart knows is
possible.

Yet, first, I must listen to that deepness inside,
I must
hear
and decide, in my soul,
to change

–Neal Lemery, 4/25/2014.

Defining Success


On Christmas, my wife and I visited one of our young men in prison. Of all my friends, he’s the one who enjoys Christmas the most, especially the anticipation, the expectation, and the promise of a happy time, a brighter tomorrow.

After five and a half years in prison, his spirit is brighter now that it’s ever been. He’s grown in so many ways, and achieved many of his goals. In prison, he’s actually had goals and found ways to achieve them. Before that, life was just survival, slogging through chaos and drugs, of being treated indifferently, without love, and not knowing who he was or where he was headed.

Now, he’s found purpose and meaning. He’s making peace with the demons in his life, and has found the strength and courage to look deep inside of himself, and to finally love himself, and all the possibilities he has in his life.

He wanted socks for Christmas, making sure everyone knew it, too. Now, he’s a wealthy man, Mr. Big in the world of socks. He’s the happy recipient of forty pairs of socks, socks of nearly every size and color. He has socks everywhere now, new socks to try on every day for over a month.

Yes, he had a successful Christmas, all the socks he could ever want. In the telling of his story, his laugh and his big smile light up his face; he knows now that he is loved and respected by so many people. He’s figured out the magic of Christmas, the reason for the season.

He’s successful in so many other ways this year. He’s taken charge of his life, looking deep inside of himself, and taking charge of who he is, and where he is going. He’s embraced his new maturity. He’s taken on his self confidence and is moving ahead. He’s found his courage and is nourishing and loving his soul.

He’s the person Robert Louis Stevenson was writing about when he said,
“That man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men and the love of children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had.”  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

This year, many people I know have taken stock of their lives, summoned their courage, and moved ahead. Their accomplishments are many, and I’ve been applauding their journeys, and marveling at their determination and sacred intentions in their lives. It has been a year of transformation and a year of dramatic and momentous growth. Old demons have been called out of the basement, new directions has been set, and the tough, sweaty and hard work has been done. And, in that work, our communities are stronger, more vibrant, richer in so many ways.

Some people look to Washington politicians to make the big changes they want to see in the world and in their lives. Yet, the real change and the real work is done right here, inside my friends and neighbors, the farmer, the waitress, the young man in prison. The real change makers are right here, and the work is getting done. People are becoming transformed, people making a real difference.

Like my young friend in prison, people are taking inventory of who they are inside, and grasping the power they have to change. And, then, they are stepping out, and doing the hard, gut level work, and moving ahead.

They see the richness in their lives, not by the number of socks they got for Christmas, but in the way they love and are loved.

Taking Mandela’s Life Into My Heart


“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela

Many words are being written about the life and the death of this great man. He lived a life of courage, living his convictions, and, in spite of overwhelming pain and suffering and obstacles, he did what was right. He focused on what was decent, and what was just, and moved others ahead, towards justice and compassion.

Each one of us can do the same. We may not be leaders of social movements, and we may not be able to speak to millions of people, become president of a country, or win the Nobel Prize. Yet, each of us, in our own ways, can lead lives of value, integrity, and advance those values and morals that we each hold dear.

I can do the right thing. Each one of us can. And, it starts with taking a step in that new, unfamiliar, often awkward direction.

Often, doing the right thing is profound, and astonishing to others. And, in that action, and in the act of others witnessing the doing of right, and the demonstration of living morally and righteously, changes their lives as well.

Nelson Mandela was all about change. And, he did that, one person at a time. His speeches, his writings, his one on one encounters, profoundly changed others, one person at a time.

His life was a way of giving all of us permission to encounter hatred and bigotry, and to be consciously active in not living with those values, and to work towards a higher good. He gave an example for us to follow. He let us see that we all have choices, and we can decide to live differently.

Living this is hard work, but also simple. Change your attitude, change your intention, and move in a different direction. Embrace love, and not hatred. Be intentional in what you do. Live your values.

The great people in history have done that, people who are able to show us simple truths, and to move the direction of their lives in accordance with those simple truths. The examples are powerful, and stun us with their sheer simplicity and beauty.

Yet, we make that choice hard, finding lots of excuses, and resisting moving out of our old habits, our old ways of thinking, and being seduced by the status quo, old ways of thinking, being caught up in the thought patterns of hatred, distrust, and fear.

I see people all around me being brave and courageous, just as Nelson Mandela lived, people dealing with hatred, prejudice, ignorance; people dealing with addictions, injustice, and fear. They face their challenges, they speak their values and morals out loud, and they move into action. They take life head on, and forge ahead, against the headwinds of social pressure and old ways of thinking and living, rejecting hatred and fear.

In the coming days, we will read and hear many wise words, and hear many stories about Nelson Mandela and his life. We will see the famous and powerful gather at his funeral and offer heartfelt eulogies. We will be inspired and we will honor his great contributions and how he helped bring change to his country, and how he provoked the world to follow his lead.

Yet, if we really want to honor his life, and to give meaning and celebration for the life that he lived, and how he helped to transform a culture of racism, intolerance and fear, into a society taking on bigotry and hatred, then each of us has to take his message and his life into our hearts. His message is about changing ourselves and our lives from within, to love ourselves and the world unconditionally.

How am I going to make a difference? How am I going to move forward, embracing and living unconditional love? How am I going to change myself and my community and move towards a healthy, peace-loving view of life? How do I respond to the hatred, bigotry and fear that I find inside of myself? Am I brave enough to move on and move away from what I don’t want to be?

Nelson Mandela called each of us to action. He wrote inspiring books, and gave motivating speeches. He practiced forgiveness and reconciliation. Yet, his intention was to call upon his readers and his listeners to look deep into their hearts, and to move into action, to live our values and our morals, to live lives filled with love and hope, with compassion and forgiveness.

Today, I will look deep inside of myself, calling out my morals and my ethics, calling out my true intentions for my life, and for this world. I will call out my fears and my biases, and put them out on the table for me, and the world, to see, in all that reality, warts and all. I will dig deep and I will take a wobbly step or two, and move ahead, towards my true intentions and my higher purpose.

—Neal Lemery, 12/6/2013

A Courageous Dilemma


We often think heroes are the folks somewhere else, the people on the front page or on the TV news, people who have done something amazing. They’re the people meeting the President, getting a medal.

But, we have heroes here, right in my town. And, sometimes, I get to be a witness to some amazing acts of courage and determination to just do the right thing.

A friend of mine is facing a serious dilemma. Their work, and their values and morals, and what is truly in their best interest are now at loggerheads. Life isn’t working out the way they want it, and there’s a lot of conflict, a lot of strife.

And, it’s becoming clear that the right thing to do is make some big changes, and to move on. That means giving up some things that are near and dear to their heart. Yet, they aren’t able to fully live their morals and values the way things are now.

They are at the crossroads, and the road is muddy, and there are a lot of questions, and not as many answers.

My friend has wrestled with all of this, and keeps coming back to thinking they need to live their morals and values, and be true to themselves, to honor their core values. And, when they’ve looked at their dilemma in that way, the choices become clear, and the path ahead opens up, and they can move forward.

They’re unstuck, now, and they’ve figured it out. Do the right thing, be true to their values, and find the courage to move ahead, to embrace change. Once they’ve come around to living life according to their beliefs, the choices are a lot easier, a lot clearer.

This conflict hasn’t been easy. There’s been a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of conversation over coffee with friends, a lot of wandering in the desert of uncertainty and doubt. And, in that darkness, they’ve found their stars again, and they’ve refocused on their beliefs and morals. Their compass has found True North again, and they are ready to make their move.

I’ve helped, just a bit, in that journey. I’ve listened, and put my judging and second guessing to the side. My role as friend in all this has been to listen, and to repeat back to them what they are saying, so they can hear their own words, their own values, through another voice.

My friend has figured it out. I don’t need to decide for them, and I don’t need to analyze the dilemma through my own values and beliefs. I just need to let them hear what they are saying, and let they say and hear their own advice, their own solution to their dilemmas.

I’d want that for me, when it’s my turn in the box of paradox, dilemma, and conflict. Someone to hold up that mirror, and let me see myself for what I am, and for what I believe in, and want to achieve. We all need that person in our lives to give us permission to get out the compass, and find our True North.

My friend is moving on, taking steps now in the direction they’ve chosen, and feeling pretty happy about it. They aren’t expecting to get a medal from the President, but they deserve one, for being courageous and for doing the right thing.

Neal Lemery 11/5/2013