A Day of Kindness


 

–by Neal Lemery

 

I had a big dose of soul medicine and human kindness last week.  The experience restored my faith in humanity and the power of unconditional love. I saw my community at its best.

A friend invited me to Homeless Connect, a community effort to provide basic needs to those among us who find themselves without shelter and other necessities.

The weather was bitter. Cold winds blew and temperatures were in the 20s at night. It wasn’t so rough that the local warming shelter would be open, but it was still promising to be a miserable night.

My task was to be the greeter and the poll taker as folks left.

“Did you get what you needed?” and “What could we do better?”

I met a steady stream of people, people of all ages and circumstances.  I didn’t know their stories, and that kind of personal information was thankfully unwanted.   We simply welcomed everyone who showed up and took care of basic needs. The red tape of bureaucracy was nowhere to be found. We did keep track of how many people came, as those without shelter are nearly invisible in our culture.

I saw a lot of smiles. Their pets were cared for, vaccinated, and fed. They had a hot meal and haircuts, were tended by health care providers, and connected with services by nearly every social service agency in town. They could pick up clean, warm clothes, blankets, sleeping bags, shoes, coats, tarps, and tents.

They made connections, not just with people and agencies who could offer a helping hand, but also with each other.

I saw connections made and strengthened with friends, family, an abundance of job prospects and housing tips. There was a spirit of fellowship and camaraderie filling the church gym where we had all gathered.

People were helping people, giving a helping hand, a ride, ideas and where to get help for a particular problem, connecting with others who cared.  There was dignity and love.

It was an afternoon of suspended judgement and the absence of loudly voiced opinions and political rhetoric, blaming and stereotyping.  Instead, it was a time of getting the right size of winter coat, a sleeping bag, a bag of food for someone’s dog, a haircut, a hot meal, and a tip on a decent, safe place to pitch a tent.

Everyone helped everyone else.  No one left without something to help them take better care of themselves, make their lives a little easier, and a feeling that they were an important part of the community.

Community.  That was the unpublished message of the day.  People had generously donated the food, clothing, bedding, pet care, medical care, and an afternoon of services to reach out to and help their fellow community members.

There were great conversations, interactions on problem solving and connecting people to each other, sharing resources and knowledge, being human and acting with kindness and compassion.  There was respect.

The sun moved lower and the cold wind off the mountains pushed deeper through my coat, reminding me that night was coming.  The people I was talking with were slowly drifting away, off to spend this night sleeping on the ground, with maybe only a tarp, a tent, and a sleeping bag to ward off the frosty air, and the loneliness of yet another night without permanent shelter.

I struggled to relate, to comprehend their lives.

I knew that I had a warm home to return to when my volunteer shift came to an end. There would be family to greet me, a hot meal on the stove, a comfortable chair, a good book, a warm, clean bed, and a bathroom with hot water and clean towels. I would not have to move on when the sun came up, putting all of my possessions into a plastic garbage bag, and maybe a backpack, and wondering where my next meal was coming from.

Also at home would be my assumptions about life, about meeting a person’s basic needs and how people live in our community.

I assume a lot, yet I’m complacent, ignorant about how so many people in our community live, what they don’t have, and what they can expect in the days to come. I find myself too often acting blind to the dilemma of such need in a society where some are wealthy, and there is an abundance of necessities, yet out of reach of so many.

For that afternoon at least, there was compassion, service, charity, and a common fellowship of people helping each other, of making lives more comfortable, more bearable. Another cold winter’s night was coming, and dedicated community members had made a small effort to help ease people’s circumstances, maybe helping them step forward into better times.

I learned, again, that in our humanity, it is not difficult to act with kindness and compassion. If I suspend judgement and comparison, if I try to walk a mile in another’s shoes, then I can look at the world with greater understanding.

And, I can renew myself, and again be connected to the true purpose of our lives.

 

2/4/2019

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

Rehearsing the Interview


I never know what to expect when I visit one of my young men at the Youth Authority camp. They have busy lives, and have a lot on their mind. What I might plan to do isn’t what is going to happen. It’s my job just to listen and just show up. What we do with our time together is their choice.

“Jack” usually wants to talk about his work outside, sorting and delivering shrubs for the estuary and streambank restoration work they do for the state department of forestry and other agencies. These young men help run the largest native plant nursery on the Oregon coast, and their efforts have helped restore salmon habitat for hundreds of miles of streams. We all benefit from their hard work, but they seldom receive any credit.

Today, though, he sits down at our table, looking neat and professional in his dress shirt and fancy tie. His pressed black pants complete his new look.

“I’m doing a job interview today,” he grins. “Part of our class on getting ready to enter the work force.”

He’s fidgeting with his tie, not knowing what to do with his hands.
“I’ve always bombed a job interview,” he said.

I get him talking about the class, and what he’s interviewing for. His passion is the medical field, and he often tells me about his dreams about working as a first responder, or a nurse in the emergency room, maybe even a doctor. I’ve wondered where that came from, but he’s never talked about it.

“It’s a medical job, at a hospital,” he said.

“Oh, then, let’s practice,” I said. “Get you warmed up, at least.”

He smiles, and leans forward, giving me the nod.

“Good morning, Dr. Jackson,” I said. “I’m glad to meet you. I’ve been looking forward to this interview for our position here at the hospital for a pediatric physician.”

He nods again, and gulps. This is the real deal, and his serious game face is in place. He runs through his resume, and his experience in working with sick and injured people, and how he’s enjoyed having his first aid and CPR card.

“How did you become interested in medicine, and being a care provider?” I ask, in my best hospital CEO voice.

His eyes look deep into mine, and his voice lowers, telling me the story of a family member’s tragedy, how he was the first person at her side, how he administered first aid, summoned the ambulance, and stayed with her until the emergency room doctor sewed her up.

His telling of the events was by the book, meticulous, and calmly professional. A family member was close to dying, but he was the professional, the guy in charge.

“The doctor told me I’d saved her life,” he said. “And, I guess I did. But, ever since, I’ve always wanted to know more about medicine, and how to save people.”

Tears flooded my eyes, as this young man opened up his heart to me, letting me inside of his young soul, sharing a seldom-told story. Six months of visiting him, and I’d never imagined the intensity of his desire to help others, to literally save lives.

Our mock interview before a mock interview continued, but nothing was pretend with us, as the reality of his feelings and of his desires to work as a medical professional filled the space between us.

A few minutes later, we wrapped up the interview, and I shook his hand.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Jackson.”

We both took a breath, letting out deep sighs.

“That was great,” he said. “I think I nailed it. First interview I’ve had that went really well.”

His grin told the story. We both knew he was ready for the “real” interview in fifteen minutes.

I don’t know if we’ll ever talk again about his story with his family, and how he saved a dear one’s life. And, perhaps we don’t need to. We’ll just leave it there on the table, in the interview room where I first met Dr. Jackson.

5/18/16 – Neal Lemery

Really Listening


I listen to the quiet between the words. In that interval between the sounds of us talking, the true, deep meaning is to be found, if only I am gentle with myself, and the speaker, moving into the space of the depth of true understanding.

If I listen to myself and to you, truly listen, then I will hear your true voice, and mine. I will hear the message that I need to listen, deeply, intentionally, and with love and understanding. In that lies my intention. I will connect with the heart of our true conversation.

Yes, the words have meaning, and stories are told from the words, and then some. More. I listen to the sentences, the rhythm of the speaker, inflections, the rising and falling of the cadence of the words. I am led gently down the path of the storyteller, and shown the meaning of the words.

What is really being told here, I wonder. There is more, there is always more. My task is that of the explorer, the miner digging for the gold in the midst of the rubble, the ordinary chit-chat that often passes for conversation. Herein lies something even greater. So, truly listen.

Go deeper, I am sensing. There is more to this than just what I am hearing, what is being said.

Underneath this, there is more. I can feel it deep within me.
There are many layers to this tale, and I listen harder, taking in the silence, strewn among the spoken words, wanting everything that is revealed. I am seeking the message of the silence, exploring its vocabulary, its nuances. What are you really saying here? And, what am I being called to really hear?

We feel the silence now; the spoken words uttered. There is tension, the tension of the anticipated, the expected, the comforting patter of more words, more sounds.

I am on edge; we both are. This space between these words is new, irritating, literally dis-quieting. I find myself yearning for a word, a phrase, to keep the banter going. Part of me is reticent, to not really listen. Do I prefer banality? Being on the surface, and not going deep. Can’t I stay here, gliding on the mere surface of our conversation? Then, I won’t have to ponder the silences, and hear in my heart the real meaning of what your heart is saying.

Now I hear your breath, and mine. There are other sounds, too. Clothes, papers rustling, air moving, the ordinary background noises of whatever kind of place we are in, the place of normal, everyday conversations, the detritus of our daily lives.

Yet, when I go deeper, beyond this ordinary sound clutter, my mind literally opens up, expands, so that I can take in all that you are expressing to me, the stuff beyond conversation, beyond the plain words of everyday conversation.

My senses broaden — feeling, seeing, hearing, touching, and yes, even smelling all that you are offering me, in this near vacuum of experience between us. Yet, it is rich and full, and not vacuous, a contradiction. Or is it? This is rich territory, and, so often, new to me.

If I would only truly sense what you are offering me, I would understand so much more. You have so much information, so many ideas to express to me, if only I would be open to you, truly open. If I do this right, my senses, my intuition, the entirety of my entire array of sensory neurons would be on fire, overloaded with all that you are telling me.

You share with me in so many ways, ways that we both would agree would be of such enormity that neither of us would be deemed to be competent to assess, even measure.

Henri Nouwen wrote: “Somewhere, we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening, speaking no longer heals; that without distance, closeness cannot cure.

He calls us to visit that “somewhere”, which is beyond our daily, mundane experience, and open ourselves as far as we believe we can go, into new territory of our existence, our humanity.

He calls us to embrace the silence, and truly listen, to stake out that space between us, and let us be able to reach out to each other within that emptiness, and finally grow.

Now, I can’t reach any further out and listen harder, for the harder I work at this, the more difficult it becomes. Another conundrum. But isn’t that life?

The more I try, the less I succeed. No, I need to be now, just be, in all my humanity. I must listen more gently, easier, more fully with all of my senses, with all of my feelings, on the edges of my soul, my very being. On the rim of my existence, I must stretch further, letting the experience become in and of itself, beyond mere thought.

In that, I will truly listen to what you are telling me, and I will, at last, hear you, in all of your wonderful mystery and beauty.
–Neal Lemery
11/11/15