Befriending


 

 

Kindness

Comes in so many forms, so many ways

A smile, a cup of tea,

Reaching out, giving a hand

Listening

Accepting.

 

Together

We honor ourselves and each other

Gifts to share, building community

Bonds, interactions, communion

Union, reciprocity

Strengthening, a weaving together

The whole greater than the parts.

 

Compassion

Understanding the Other, each other

By opening our own hearts

Being open, exchanging, offering

Receiving

Accepting

Enhancing

Uniting.

 

–Neal Lemery

11/29/2018

Just Listen


 

 

I almost didn’t pick up the phone. We’ve had a lot of robo-calls lately, and I’ve gotten into the habit of just letting the phone ring. If it is important, or someone I know, they’ll leave a message and I’ll call them back.

The number was familiar. It was the number that called several times in the last few days, the voice familiar, from the past when I volunteered as a mentor in a nearby youth prison. Two days ago, the voice left a distraught, heartfelt message, wanting to connect with me, and alluding that he was thinking of ending his life.

No name, no return phone number. But, my phone remembered the number and I called back, getting the receptionist at another youth prison.

I explained that the voice sounded desperate, sad, alluding to self harm.

“We have 250 youth here, and I can’t track down who may have called you,” the receptionist said. “But, I’ll transfer you to the treatment manager in our mental health cottage.”

But, without a name, I was stuck, hoping he’d call back.

This time, we connected. The voice at the other end was a staff person, telling me that “Joe” wanted to talk to me. He put me on hold, and it was a long wait.

I was hesitant to take the call. Maybe “Joe” was having second thoughts, too, now that I was on the line.

My brain was trying to remember who “Joe” was. The mists of time parted and I began to remember “Joe”. I saw him every week for about a year, until he moved on, getting released to a half way house.

The staff had asked me to see him, as he was falling behind in his school work, and didn’t seem to care. He’d act indifferent and pushed me away, not letting me get close to him. But, I stuck with it, trying to tutor him in the math class that he was failing.

It wasn’t the work, and it wasn’t the level of math. I soon realized he was brilliant, and had taken the road of not doing the work, and blowing the homework and the tests, because it was too simple, too easy. And, if he passed his math class, then he’d graduate from high school. The next step was college.

But, he was a failure, a no good, not worthy of success. I soon learned that his family had abandoned him, never visiting him in prison, or even writing a letter or talking with him on the phone.

“Worthless,” “scum”, those were the words he’d last heard from his family, the day he was arrested, probably a whole childhood of that kind of talk.

I walked around the math conundrum, trying to engage with him on a different level. I learned he loved music, playing and composing songs and rhythms. He’d taken over the keyboard in the rec room and the computer that was set up to record and put together different tracks of music the kids had recorded.

I kept asking me to show me what he’d done with the recording devices, but he kept putting me off.

“It’s not very good,” or “I’m not quite ready for you to hear what I’ve done.”

One day, he let me into that world, playing a very complex rhythm track, and a long electronic music piece that was beyond words in its complexity and beauty.

“It’s nothing,” he said, when I raved about his talent and ingenuity.

“Oh, and you tell me you’re not very good at math, when you can compose this elaborate rhythm and multi-track composition?” I said.

“Well,” he said. And just shrugged.

“It’s not a big deal.”

I wanted to get up on the table and dance!

As I was leaving, I told a staff member how talented Joe was, and so gifted in music.

“I know. He’s amazing,” the staff member said. “But he thinks it’s no big deal.”

At our next visit, he actually smiled.

“I passed my math class,” he said. “I actually got an A.”

 

Yeah, that “Joe”. How could I forget him?

What’s he doing back in prison, after all this time, I wondered.

The phone line clicked, and a soft, deep voice said hello.

“Is this Neal?” the voice asked. The hesitancy in his voice tugged at my heart.

He said he was amazed I remembered him, that I was willing to talk with him, that I was even listening to him, that he was worthy of my time.

“Joe” had taught me an important lesson. Sometimes, good things happen when you just wait, just enjoy the silence in a conversation, and let that quiet connectedness be the conversation. Just showing up, caring, and listening, can affect fundamental change in someone’s life.

Now, years later, I listened again. His story came tumbling out. There were successes, achievements. And there were disappointments, fears, times of perceived failures and disasters. There came a time when it was all too much, too much goodness going on, and so he pulled the plug, sabotaging himself, and choosing to run away.

The old family voices of being worthless and a scum echoed around his mind. There were prophecies to fulfill, and expectations to satisfy.

There was loneliness, too. He’d had no visitors, no one to call, no one to care.

“Except you,” he said. “Thanks for talking to me.”

I didn’t say much at first, just listened a lot to this sad story, feeling him open up on the phone and share his feelings.

I responded, offering words of encouragement, hope, and concern.

I told him he was smart, creative, a nice guy. I told him I cared about him, that he was like a son to me, that he was important to me, a good part of my life.

He got quiet, and I could detect a sniffle or two, and a few sobs.

I’d come to see him, if that’s what he wanted. Oh, he did. He’d talk to his counselor and see if we could set that up.

“I don’t know if they let people here have visitors,” he said. “It’s the mental ward, you see, and I don’t know if they’d let you come.”

I told him I thought they would, if it would help him out, help him move through this rough patch in his life, help him transition to a better place, and get on with his life.

We exchanged addresses, and I gave him my cell phone number.

I promised to write to him the next day, and he said he’d write to me. We’d get together, and work on a plan for him to move on. We’d stay in touch.”

“Three years was too long, you know,” he said.

I laughed. “Yeah, I know.”

He laughed too, then, and I heard him smile finally.

I remembered his smile, the one he gave me when he played his music for me, that one special afternoon years ago, just before he aced his math class.

“Well, I’ve got to go,” he said quietly. “My phone time is up.”

“OK,” I said. It was great to talk to you. I hope you feel better. I hope you want to live.”

“Yeah, I do,” he said. “I really do. Thanks for talking to me.”

“Call again soon.”

“I will.”

I looked at the clock. Twenty minutes had passed since I’d decided to answer the call. Twenty minutes of sad stories, and sniffling, and some words of encouragement. Twenty minutes of showing up in each other’s life again, and both of us finding the good in that, each filling our hearts with that connection once again.

We all have twenty minutes a day to give to someone, to listen, to hear their story, to make a connection. We all can care about someone for twenty minutes.

That might make a big difference. It might save a life.

 

–Neal Lemery 10/17/2017

Grieving


 

 

 

They come into my life and then, too early, they are gone. And I mourn and grieve, cry and moan. I am angry at my loss, my pain, the void in my life as their sudden absence is a bleeding, infected wound that never quite seems to heal.

Grief dances its macabre and bittersweet retinue of every emotion, taking fiendish joy in ambushing me when I least expect it, when I am least able to cope with the pain.

Yet, deep down, I still carry their light and their love, and sense their their soul, still resounding with me, still an integral part of my life.

Why? What was so special about that person that I am so profoundly affected by their passing? What was it about them that reached me, touched my heart, and brought them so close to me, such an essential part of my life, my own story? What is the lesson to be learned?

I just read that plants emit light frequencies in a part of the light spectrum that is invisible to our eyes, yet photography is now able to record those images, those vibrations, and reveal another dimension of the profound beauty and intricacies of these living beings.

Is it that much of a stretch in thinking that people also emit vibrations and frequencies of light that is invisible to our eyes, yet sensed in a much deeper level by us, on a different, yet intuitive, level.

“You are special. You bring something into my life that is beautiful, meaningful for me.”

Attraction.

The law of attraction teaches us that we attract to ourselves the emotions, the feelings, the vibrations that we need. And when we open ourselves to those feelings, the presence of what we crave, then we become more complete, and more able to live the life that we deeply desire. We come closer to fulfilling our true purpose in this life.

And when a special person leaves us, there is a void, an emptiness, a loss. Yet there is also the knowing, deep down, of what they have brought to us in our all too brief time together. That memory serves us well, teaching us what we had needed and desired, to be a better, more complete person.

In that loss, that death, there are lessons to be learned, lessons on what we have needed and taken in, and grown from. When the class is over, only then do we fully appreciate the lessons learned, the experience gained, the real benefit of being present for the lesson, the experience.

At the end of a particular journey, the end of that special time when a special friend has come into my life and walked with me, only then do I first realize what I have experienced, what we had set out to learn, and how I needed to grow. I look back, and only then see from where I have come, how far I have traveled, and the name of the road I am on.

These dear ones who have passed on, the ones whose light I have needed along my own journey, have taught me great lessons, and deeply impacted my life. I find that when they are gone, only then do I start to fully realize the gifts they have given me, the lessons they have taught me, and the special places they have held in my life. Only then do I fully appreciate them, and find some sense of completeness and understanding of their presence in my life.

Somehow, their teaching to me is not complete until they are gone. Only then do I learn all the lessons they have been teaching me.

Only then is the full spectrum of the light they have shared revealed to me.

Only then can grief lead me to the understanding I have been led to eventually discover.

 

 

–Neal Lemery 6/16/2017

Taking Care


 

 

“Take care.” It’s a popular thing to say, as friends part, or end a phone call.

There’s a great need now to take care in our culture. I’m seeing a lot of pain, a lot of anxiety, a lot of doubt and uncertainty as to who we are as a nation and a culture. There’s a lot of doubt, of losing a sense of purpose.

When I watch the evening news, or peruse the headlines in the paper, I find myself emotionally wringing my hands, or throwing them up in anger. I’m close to my boiling point.

“What can I do about it?” I wonder. How can I take care?

Not much, I’ve concluded. But I can make a difference where I live.

I can take care in my community. And, it is something I can do, rather than sit on the couch, tap my foot, and bemoan to my wife about how things could be different. Talking back to the TV doesn’t seem to do anything.

A few weeks ago, a friend suddenly lost his son. It was a great tragedy, but what could I do? I still don’t know what I can do, but I did reach out to him. I went to his house and just sat with him, letting him talk, letting us sit there in silence. He was not alone, and I just listened. I went with him to the funeral home, and prayed with him, holding him as he cried.

At the funeral, I spoke the words he wanted said. I welcomed people, listened to them, and held them close. We cried and we grieved, and my friend was not alone.

A friend should not grieve alone, and there was a community of grief, holding my friend close. And, maybe that’s all that we can do, grieving together, taking care of each other, in that awful journey of grief and shock and bewilderment.

“I don’t know how to do this,” my friend said.

“None of us do,” I replied. “But we take care of ourselves and each other.”

“That’s all we can do.”

Another friend had a heart attack, and I sent my prayers, a few words of comfort, a message of “take care”. And, he is, and I am.

Another friend needed to talk, to get a worry off their chest, and let it out. So, I listened, and loved them, and listened some more. As we parted, we said those words, “take care”, and we will and we did.

I cared for a public space this morning, a small garden in a parking lot, often busy with people on a mission, with business to take care of, the never ending errands of life. I pruned, weeded, planted new plants, and added some fertilizer just before the next spring shower poured down. Most visitors won’t notice it, but some will. And, this summer, as the plants grow and bloom, and the empty spaces fill in, there will be some beauty to be enjoyed, a quiet respite on a busy day. That garden will “take care” of someone in need of that quiet moment.

What I did wasn’t much and it won’t make the evening news, but in other ways it was a lot. I made a small difference in one corner of the world.

I “took care” and, in this crazy world, that makes a difference.

 

–Neal Lemery

4/14/2017

 

 

Finding the Holiday Spirit


The real meaning of Christmas was hard to find for me this year. It was not in the stores, amidst all of the glitter and stacks of merchandise. And, my Google searches failed to come up with just the right gift that would brighten our hearts.

There are a lot of “doings” this time of year. Social events filled my calendar. And while they were fun, and I chatted with a number of people, the real meaning of this time was missing.

As I keep relearning over the years, truly connecting with others and sharing the love and peace of the season is found in the quiet talks, the quiet interactions, far from the hustle and holiday rush.

I’ve been receiving such amazing, wonderful gifts.

I met a friend by chance the other day.   She had just lost a close relative to cancer, and needed to talk. We grieved, and celebrated a life that ended far too early. We hugged and cried, and remembered good times.

A young man wrote his first Christmas card ever, painstakingly writing out a simple, heartfelt greeting to me. His life has been so challenging, so bleak, that he’d never held a pencil or crayon in his hand until a year ago. Now, in a safe place, at seventeen, he’s developing the muscles in his fingers, and the hand-eye coordination necessary to write a simple sentence, able at last to express himself in writing.

Another young man told me of his song writing and his new ability to share his music with others. Family is far away, especially at this time of year. Learning to share his talents, let alone acknowledge that he has them, has been his achievement this year.

And still another young man tells me of his success in his treatment, finally able to love himself for who he is, to see himself as a young man, able to love and smile.

It seemed a simple thing to do, to go visit him. He’d called and asked me to come. It didn’t seem like much, at first, to spend some time and listen to what he had to say. And in the telling and the sharing, I could see him grow even more, able to find the words to describe himself as a worthwhile, decent man.

These times of simply being there, listening, caring teaches me so much. One again, I am astonished how just showing up and being present can make all the difference in the world.

Hope, dignity, acceptance, community – simple words, and simple ideals. Yet, when we open our eyes, our arms and our hearts to simply be with others, miracles happen and our hearts are filled.

And, the real meaning of the season is revealed.

 

Neal Lemery 12/23/2016

Simply Listening


 

 

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

            Leo Buscaglia

 

It is the simple things in life that are often the most meaningful.

 

A young man and I were working on his math. He’s been working hard and now the formulas and methodology of his algebra was making sense to him. My tutoring today consisted of listening to him explain his processes, and watch him work his problem, applying his knowledge, and seeing him find the answers.

 

“I think I understand this now,” he said.

 

Pride filled his voice, and he gave me a seldom seen smile.

 

“What else do you need to work on?” I said. “You’ve clearly got your math under control.

 

He looked down at his shoes, then out the window. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, as he pondered my question. A minute, then another passed without an answer.

 

He cleared his throat, finally cluing me in. His therapist needed him to make a list, a list of challenging events in his life, times when he was abused, and was abusive to others.

 

This would be the last barrier to complete therapy and move on with his life, to becoming free of what has burdened him, held him down.

 

He looked away, tears filling his eyes.

 

“It’s so hard,” he said. “I can’t seem to get started. I can’t write it down.”

 

“Hard because?” I asked.

 

He fell silent, still looking down. A tear ran down his cheek.

 

“It’s…. it’s overwhelming. There’s just so much,” he said.

 

We sat there, letting the heavy words fill the air. It was hard for me to breathe, the air now thick with his emotions and the weight of this task.

 

“Take a breath,” I said. “This is a safe place. We’ll take this on together, and work on it just like we do with math.”

 

“In math, one of the first steps is to write down the problem, give names to what you’re working on,” I said. “One step at a time.”

 

He looked at me, and I nodded. Another tear ran down his cheek. He took a deep breath, then another, re-inspecting his shoes. A few more minutes passed. He gave me a slight nod.

 

“I can be the writer today” I said. “I’ll be your secretary.”

 

He looked away, over my shoulder, and started to speak, beginning his story with the last time he was in a difficult situation, a time of chaos and pain.

 

I picked up my pencil and began to write on the tablet we’d used for our math, starting a fresh page.

 

He spoke almost in a whisper. I leaned closer, barely able to hear his words. The room was silent except for the scratchings of my pencil against the paper, and his soft words, his voice cracking and choking over them.

 

I gulped, feeling my own sense of revulsion, panic, horror, and angst build up in my gut, as he told one story, then another, and another.

 

Working backwards in his life, he moved quickly from one incident to the one before it, giving me two or three sentences, names, ages, what happened, how he reacted, how he felt. At first, it seemed jumbled, but I began to see the order, how he’d been preparing his story, rehearsing and editing it in his mind, probably for months.

 

He spoke fast enough that each story was only a line on my tablet, often just fragments of sentences, a first name. I wrote quickly, finding myself near the bottom of page two before he took another breath and looked down at his shoes.

 

Once, I had to prod, a few words of encouragement. His look told me he thought I’d be a harsh judge for this story, condemning and berating him.

 

“It’s OK,” I whispered. “It happened, so it needs to be on the list. No judging today.”

 

He took a big breath and let it out. Another long minute of silence.

 

The first time, I can’t remember much,” he said.

 

“I can’t remember,” he finally said. “I was two years old, and there was something, something with a friend of my dad’s.”

 

“I don’t know, but there’s something,” he said.

 

“It’s OK,” I said. “When you’re two, you probably don’t remember a lot, at least consciously.”

 

We talked about the conscious brain and the subconscious, and how different parts of the brain have different tasks, and work differently. And how we deal with trauma, and don’t deal with it very well. But, our body remembers, in ways that aren’t always clear to us.

 

He nodded, relating all of this to what he’d learned in therapy and his psychology classes, and in all the thinking he’d been doing.

 

He looked at the list, shaking his head.

 

“Wow, that’s a long list,” he said.

 

“A good list, “ I said. “You’ve done good work today,”

 

Our time was coming to an end, and I needed to leave.

 

I tore off the pages I’d written, and handed them to him.

 

“Here’s your list,” I said. “We’ve written it down, so you don’t have to keep it in your head any more. But, you’ll have it if you need it.”

 

He looked at me, penetrating deep into my eyes.

 

“Oh,” he said. “You mean I don’t have to keep all that inside of me, thinking about it all the time?”

 

“No,” I said. “You have your list, on that paper. Kind of like a grocery list, or a list of chores for the day.”

 

“It’s a reference, I said. “You can put it in a safe place, and refer to it if you need to.”

 

“And, once you’ve put words to all that, then you’ve named the problem, you’ve identified it, and you don’t have to keep thinking about it,” I said.

 

He nodded, and let out a big whoosh of air.

 

“So, the problem,” he said. “Kind of like a math problem then?   Write it out, apply the formulas and work the solution, huh?”

 

I nodded, and he chuckled.

 

“Just like a math problem,” he said. “One step at a time.”

 

“Uh, huh,” I said. “Just like a math problem. And, you can solve it, right?”

 

“Yes, I can,” he said.

 

“Yes, I can.”

 

—Neal Lemery 12/19/2016

Restringing Guitars and Young Men


 

 

Fridays are my day at the local youth correctional facility. In the morning, I work in their garden, helping young gardeners tend to their chickens, vegetable plots and herb gardens.

 

We plant, weed, water, and harvest, and then preserve and dry the results. Most every week, we cook, enjoying the bounty of our work, and treating the young men to fresh, nutritious produce and the concept of healthy nutrition and living.

 

The real gardening comes in our conversations, the camaraderie of young and older gardeners, working and learning together, truly being in community.

 

They are learning where food really comes from, and how to be invested in that process, being self sufficient and healthy. The metaphor of the garden is not lost on them, as they work to become strong, healthy, productive farmers of their lives.

 

I also work with some of the young men individually, being the “surrogate parent” and being the visitor they need and wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m the “family” who shows up with some baked goods or candy, and just visits for an hour. Sometimes, we play games, but mainly, I just listen, offering the compassionate ear of the uncle or dad who is missing in their lives.

 

I’m tender and kind to them, being the encouraging voice, the cheerleader, the supportive dad they wouldn’t otherwise have.

 

Today, one of my young men and I restrung one of the guitars there. It is a “state” guitar, which means it’s the guitar that gets played by those who don’t have their own instrument. The guitar is played a lot, and replacing the strings has become a regular task for me.

 

The guitar gets loved to death, played hard by lonely, frustrated fingers pouring out the emotions of the neglected and abandoned, the incarcerated, the young men who have no other way of expressing themselves. I’m like that guitar, a place where the emotions of these young men can have their voice, a willing ear, an appreciative audience for what they need to say.

 

My guy has had a rough year. He’s one of the lucky ones, not serving a mandatory sentence, a guy who can walk out the door if he’s done all his treatment, completed high school and shown he can be a responsible young man.

 

He literally has the keys to the front gate, but the old voices keep telling him he’s worthless, and should be abandoned and left out for the trash man.

 

Like so many of the young men here, being responsible and healthy is a new experience, and the fear of going back into the world, and being around the family and friends who were a big part of the bad times that brought him here, is one huge scary nightmare of parole.

 

The thought of being successful in life is a new idea. For most of their life, they’ve been told they are worthless, failures. My job is to be a spark of encouragement, the mirror of their successes and self worth, to be the dad who believes in them and is proud of who they are becoming.

 

My job and the job of the guitar are a lot alike.

 

My buddy has derailed himself a number of times here, despite all his good work. The old ways, the old voices still show up, beating him down with the whips of shame and guilt, the indifference to the beauty of their young souls.

 

Today, though, he moved ahead. He took the initiative and restrung the guitar, without much help from me. With confidence, he completed the task, grinning as the new strings sang out their song in his confident fingers. His eyes twinkled with pride as he showed others the work he had done.

 

We did more than restring an old, well-used guitar. We restrung a young man and gave voice to the new, self-confident man now playing his songs, happy with what he’s done and who he’s becoming.

 

–Neal Lemery, 12/9/2016