Three Cups of Joy


“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
― Rumi

Three amazing experiences and celebrations in the last few days have blessed my life and filled my heart with joy. Each has reaffirmed the power and the gifts that love brings to my life.

I was honored to attend the wedding of a dear, long time friend, and to celebrate not only her marriage to her beloved, but also a welcome change in the law in my state, a law that now holds that marriage is a relationship, and a commitment that any two adults can share. Love, I realized again, is such an amazing force. Love in marriage, and the ability to share that love in this world, is the essence of our humanity.

Love filled their house, and we feasted on the sweetness of commitment, dedication, and respect to who they are, their marriage. We celebrated that love is the amazing and healing light in a person’s life, the basic reason we are here on this planet.

“Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go. You have made my life complete, and I love you so,” were the words Karen sang to our friends, my guitar adding more sweet notes to the occasion.

The second cup of joy was listening to a speech given by one of the young men I mentor in prison. He spoke before a large audience of fellow inmates and their families, gathered for the annual family day celebration. He spoke of courage and determination, and the super heroes in his life.

His speech was a month in the making, the words coming hard to him, as he focused on who he is becoming, and where he wants to go in his life. He’d practiced, and rewrote, until the words on the pages held by his trembling hands in front of the crowded room were just right, just what he wanted to celebrate.

We marveled at how he has grown, and the wisdom in his words. His road in life has not been easy, yet he is seeing the fruits of his hard work, his decision to make real changes in his life, and to move ahead. Now, he truly loves himself, and believes that the good things in life come about through the power of love and self respect.

His confidence, and his powerful message of self actualization rang across the crowd, inspiring all of us to love ourselves just a little bit more, and believe in our dreams.

The third cup of joy was watching a young man be recognized for all the hard work he has been doing in his first year at a university. A little over a year ago, he moved ahead in his life, taking big steps, working hard to attend a respected university. Now, he’s studying to earn his bachelor’s degree. He is Mr. Determination, and diligently works to balance a full life of school, a job, and family.

He dove into academic life, studying hard, asking questions, being active in study groups and class projects, going out of his comfort zone to succeed in college. In that new world, he achieved, and he grew, and he’s heading in some great directions in his life. He’s achieved a 4.0 GPA and was tapped to join the university’s honor society.

We sat next to him this weekend, joining all the other honorees and their families, listening to the presentations and all the congratulations. These students are the best and the brightest, and he fit right in. Looking into his eyes, I knew that he knew that, that he really was one of the best and the brightest, that he was living his dream, and he was achieving his goals.

He beamed with pride, and satisfaction, proudly showing off the plaque bearing his name and the title of University Honor Society Member. I could sense the light in his heart, that flame of passion and self confidence that, a couple of years ago, was only a flicker. Now, nourished by his hard work and his determination, and the recognition of his professors and fellow college students that he was smart, capable, and especially talented, that flame burns bright and clean. That flame is hot with passion, and lights up his world.

We, and a number of other folks, helped him keep alive that flicker of passion and desire for a better life, back when he was facing some tough challenges. Some of his past was telling him he couldn’t do it. We all slowly added some fuel and blew on the embers when there were times we thought the flame might go out. And, now, his determination and his ambitions in life keeps that flame ablaze on its own, with our quiet words of encouragement, our belief that he can do anything he puts his heart and mind to. He knows that his future is what he wants it to be, and there is no stopping him, in pursuing his dreams.

Three events, three times of sitting there, letting tears of joy flow down my face, three times of feeling the power of love in the room, knowing that love is what changes the world, overflowing my heart with hope and joy.

—Neal Lemery 6/2/2014

The Power of Listening


The Power of Listening

“Concern for others is the best form of self interest.”

—Desmond Tutu

I talk a lot. I’m pretty opinionated, and I usually have something to say.

Yet, this week, I learned, once again, the magic of being quiet, of listening to others, and just being there, so that they could say what was on their mind. In doing that, I learned a lot, about them, and also about myself.

I had lunch with a man I’ve known for quite a while. I don’t think we were friends, but now we are. He needed some help in his life, some advice, some direction. He needed a bit of my time.

We talked, or rather, he talked, and I asked a few questions along the way. He had quite the story to tell, and needed some direction. Not many people had been listening to him lately, and life had gotten out of hand. He was living in chaos and things that needed attention weren’t getting his focus. He was overwhelmed.

The more I listened, the more I realized he really needed some medical care. That wasn’t on his pretty long list of the crises and dilemmas in his life, but, the more I heard him talk, the more I realized that the solutions were to be found in him getting some medical help.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), he’d just been accepted into the Oregon Health Plan. For the first time in about fifteen years, he had health insurance, and didn’t need to rely on the emergency room as his only source of health care.

Up until this year, he hadn’t been able to afford to go to the emergency room, and so, when his thumb got cut pretty deep, he sewed it up himself. He showed me his thumb, and the decent job he did. I winced at the thought of his pain, and his determination, to take care of himself, no matter what he suffered.

He wanted me to wave my magic legal wand and solve his legal problems. Yet, the real issues were rooted in his health. If he could become healthy, and address his medical issues, then he could manage and resolve the things he said were troubling him. Soon, he’ll need a lawyer, but today, he needed a doctor.

I drove him to the health clinic and made an appointment. A few days later, we met there, again, and we filled out the long questionnaire about his medical history, and a survey on depression. Bingo, he self scored a 100% on the depression survey. I admired his honesty in answering all the questions with an open heart. It’s tough for anyone to be brutally honest with themselves when it comes to your health, and that challenge is doubled or tripled when it comes to looking in the mirror and saying the word “depression”.

We met with two amazing, compassionate staff members of the clinic. In a few minutes, they were doing tests, asking more questions, and engaging my friend in a frank and respectful conversation about his health. He could see the entire picture, and the collision in his life of genetics, diet, exercise, addictions, and the stress of his life.

We talked about remedies, and new choices to be made. More tests were scheduled, and a follow up visit was set, to check on how he’s doing on his depression medication, and to begin work on some of his other long term problems. They offered him hope and professional competence. More importantly, they offered him respect.

It was a hard day for him, hard to show up for the appointment, hard to have a real conversation about the realities of his life, and hard for him to accept the help he’s needed. Everyone in the room was concerned about him, him as a person, as a human being. There wasn’t a word of judgment, a word of criticism of his choices and the way he’s chosen to self medicate.

At last, he could get the medical care he needed, and to gain the tools he needs to move on with his life, and regain his health.

Our country is having a big discussion about medical insurance and health care. A lot of folks grump about the costs of medical care, and the pros and cons of subsidized health insurance for people in poverty, and the working poor. I’m overwhelmed with all the statistics, plans, and arguments on all sides of the discussion.

All that quickly gets intellectually confusing, with lots of rhetoric and politics, and, I suspect, a lot of propaganda. There’s money to be made, and lots of self interest, and self serving posturing going on.

Yet, for all that talk, I sat with my friend, seeing him get first class health care, seeing him get the services he’s needed, and to be able to work on restoring his health. Soon, he’ll be able to work, he’ll be able to get out of bed and feel good about himself, and to be the kind of father he needs to be to his kids, and be an active, healthy member of the community. If there’s a price for that, I think we’d all think that would be a pretty good investment, especially if you could see the tears of relief and validation that flowed down his cheek, as we sat in that exam room, and he realized he’s on the road to getting well, and he had hope for his life.

The next day, I visited a young man in prison. He’s asked that I come visit him, to mentor him a bit, and have some conversation. I’ve admired his art work, and some of my other buddies out at the prison thought it would be a good idea if I came to see him.

I brought some coffee and doughnuts, not sure what he would like to enjoy, as we got to know each other.

“You could have brought anything,” he said. “I haven’t had a visit in a year and a half, so, …anything’s fine with me.”

He gets out next year, and is working hard on the work crew, earning a bit of money so he’ll be able to find a place to live, and get settled into adult life. After seven years, it will be a big change, and he’s ready to make a fresh start in life.

He had a lot to say, once I asked him a few questions. I shut my mouth, and gave him the space to talk. His family only came once a year to visit, and now that they’ve got some serious health problems, they haven’t been able to see him for a year and a half.

He sees his younger brother going down the wrong path, and wants to be there for him, to help him turn the corner, and live a decent life. My buddy knows the drug and alcohol road, and the road of anger and not having a healthy father as a role model in his life. He’s done his work behind those walls, and is walking on the straight and narrow path now. And, he’s not afraid to share his wisdom.

I heard him tell the sad tales of his life, the struggles of his mom, raising kids on not much money but a whole lot of love. I heard him speak about his anger about his stepdad, and the hunger he’s had for some good role models, and some direction in his life. I heard him speak about the fights he’s started, and how being a gang member addressed his hunger in his life, until he realized that punching someone out and being angry at the world wasn’t doing much for himself. He wasn’t being the person he wanted to be, and he needed to change.

He showed me the violin his grandfather sent, and he grinned as he told me how he’s learning to play it, and how it gives him a voice for all that he feels in his heart, about who he was and who he is now, and where he wants to go.

He wanted to hear a little bit about me, who I am, what my life is like. And, sometime soon, we’ll have that conversation. But, yesterday was his turn, his opportunity to speak his mind, and tell his story. He needed someone to just listen, to take the time for him, to let him be the focus of a conversation for once.

His story is a sad story, but also a story about courage, and determination, and the power of a person to reach down deep inside of themselves, and realize that they need to make a change. It was a story of reaching out, of finding some resources, of seeing hope when you are at the very bottom of your life, and of deciding to climb out of that hole, and to move on, to seek the destiny of your precious, wonderful life.

These two men, these two encounters this week, are teaching me a lot about courage, and determination. They are teaching me that there is hope in this country for men deciding to summon their courage from deep inside of themselves, to face what they need to face, and then to step out, to move on, and change their lives.

—Neal Lemery, March 9, 2014

Taking Flight


Taking Flight

Young eagle in flight,
soaring on the last of the storm winds,
the end of the hurricane that shook his soul,
that darkness testing his manhood to his sweet core.

Today’s sun rises bright, fresh with promise,
of all his possibilities, all of his hopes;
challenges push and pull,
testing his heart, his young wings.

He looks deep into his heart, finding his direction,
and faces life head-on, confident in
direction, rich in determination,
rich in possibilities and well-chosen dreams.

He takes the best from the past,
and plots his course with care;
moves ahead, heart filled with love,
focused, loved, and whole.

Neal Lemery 1/29/2014

A New Start


A new, strong day, being with a young man’s first day of freedom, after seven years of prison. He, bravely stepping out, moving on, as he sees the ocean for the first time in a third of his life.

We stop to pray in the forest, me blessing him, asking God to let him move ahead, now free and clean of past teenaged mistakes, to move on, being healed, forgiven, loved. We find no words to speak, only hugs tell our feelings, the winter quiet catching my tears.

We journey five hours, back in time, but also new possibilities, back to his roots, him ready for a new start, new beginnings. We marvel at geese overhead, sunlight on the beach, possibilities of work, new friends, life without walls, anything being the dreams he has.

Hope, love, forgiveness now real words, real potential of his tomorrow. He steps away from me, one last hug telling me he is ready, now, to really fly, my young eagle.

I leave him, all his possessions at his feet, in the new rain, halfway house a big first stop on this, his first day of freedom.

Young eagle, wings outspread, flaps slowly forward, leaving me, wet cheeked, driving away, now alone, me, a witness today, to courage.

Being Thankful


“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”  ~Theodore Roosevelt

Yes, the Thanksgiving dinner table will “groan” with an abundance of food, and a delightful gathering of family and friends, and rich conversation will mark the feast. We will pause to hear each of us express what we are thankful for in the past year, one of our favorite traditions.

And, in that telling of thanks, there will be a few tears, and a few laughs, and my heart will be filled with gratitude of what I have in my life. People new to our Thanksgiving table will remark about the goodness of speaking about what we are thankful for, and sharing that with others.

Yet, I try to express my thanks in more than words. As Theodore Roosevelt said, truly giving thanks is putting our gratitude into action, into our deeds.

This week, I sat with two of my young men in prison, each of them at a crossroads in their lives, each of them struggling to move ahead, to grow, and to steady themselves on their paths. Their particular challenges were different, but each of them steeled themselves, dug deep inside of their souls, drawing on their resilience and their growing self esteem, and moved ahead.

I marveled at their strength, and at their insight into their challenges and dilemmas. In the short time I’ve been privileged to be in their lives, I have seen them grow into healthy, strong men, gaining confidence and perspective on how far they’ve come, and what potentials they have to make it in the world.

I found myself giving thanks for the privilege of simply being present, as they worked on their problems, seeking solutions, weighing alternatives, and doing the gut work they each needed to do in order to move on. What each of them were working on, and what each of them accomplished was bloody, gut wrenching, soul challenging work.

There was old ugliness and pain, stuff all of us would probably want to find easier to ignore, and keep buried deep inside. Yet, they plunged in, dealing with the ugly past, the old patterns of thinking, and simply did the work. They tried out their new tools, and embraced the light they want to have in their lives, leaving behind the dark, sad past.

Their challenges, and their deep, thoughtful, soul changing work, brought tears to my eyes. Their stories of their childhoods, and their heart wounds, and search for love and acceptance in this world, tore at my heart. Yet, they accepted who they had been, and embraced who they are becoming. They are moving forward, with courage and with love for themselves, at last.

Being a witness, and a cheerleader at times, I was humbled by their perseverance, their determination to move forward. They faced change, and moved on. They faced uncertainty, and complex choices, yet each of them knew where he wanted to go, and what they wanted to accomplish for themselves.

I learn from them all of the time. They inspire me, they mentor me, in how to live a healthy, productive life. They teach me that one’s past is not necessarily the predictor of one’s future, that one can change and move away from disaster and bitterness, and into a life of sanity and unconditional love.

Outside the prison walls, our society faces challenging problems, and dilemmas that seem to defy solutions. And, soon enough, these young men will be leaving prison, and living their lives as free men. I am excited that they will soon be free, and will soon take an active part in our country’s life and culture. They are strong, capable, and determined men, men with brains and a healthy way of looking at life, and who they want to be. They will be rich, productive assets for the rest of us. They have much to teach each one of us.

I am thankful for them, for being able to be a small part of their lives, and, in a small way, help them move on and be strong, loving, and amazing young men.

—-Neal Lemery, 11/27/2013

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

Living In the Midst of Courage


I live in the midst of courageous people. Oh, I laugh at the funny things about my little home town, the log trucks and milk trucks rumbling through downtown, taking up a lane and a half, the cow manure fountains spurting their stink, attracting seagulls and puzzling some of the tourists.

“What’s that green fountain in the field?” they ask, until they get too close.

Our high school teams are the Cheesemakers, and our big tourist attraction is the cheese factory, where people line up for ice cream cones, and carry out big bags of “squeaky cheese”, what my grandmother used to call cheese curds, and fed them to the hogs. At $5 a bag, I bet today she wouldn’t be thinking hog food.

Our biggest celebration is the June Dairy Month Parade, led by our dairy princesses, and finished up with big hay trucks and the town’s biggest fire truck. At the county fair, the most popular events are the “Pig ‘N Ford” races (Model Ts and greased pigs), and the Saturday night demolition derby.

Yet, serious things go on here, people taking on serious, tough issues and moving ahead in their lives.

This week, the local paper features the lives of young women, rebuilding their troubled, addicted lives in a women’s rehabilitation house, finding a healthy routine, and real normalcy. The paper printed their pictures and their names, at the top of the front page, along with their stories of drugs, violence, child neglect, and jail. They are stepping forward, claiming their sobriety and their changes, and proud of their journey.

A mentally troubled lady buttonholes me in the library, venting her political views, and urging me to gather food for the coming apocalypse.. The librarian and I later compare notes, on how we both look after her, in our own ways, knowing that the resources for helping the mentally ill are stretched thin, and the best thing we can do is keep an eye out, and sometimes offer a kind ear for the demons in her head.

I chat with a contractor outside of a cafe. He’s up to speed on how our jails are our mental health clinics, that most folks in jail are addicts, and that this country has the highest per capita rate of prisoners. And, how that doesn’t work. He tells me how he hires guys getting out of jail, knowing that they need the work, and more than a little guidance and fathering from him. He says he’s changed some lives, and that he makes a difference.

“I take a chance on people, but folks need a break, a chance to be successful,” he grins. “Been there, myself, you know.”

A young man here in prison talks to me about his release in a few months, how he’s going to move back to his small town, back to where people know him for his crime and probably aren’t in a forgiving mood. He takes a deep breath and calls his journey “stepping out” into his future. He’s not looking back, and will find new friends, and negotiate a new way of living with his family.

He talks frankly with me about his sexual crime, and how that affected the victim. And, he talks about how he was abused, and beaten and how he was going down the dark road when he was a teen. Prison changed him, he says, and the treatment there was the best thing he’s doing for himself and for his future.

A grocery clerk takes a break outside, looking up at the sky. Her daughter’s back in jail—drugs, again. It’s a tough cycle, and there’s a tear in her eye that slides down her cheek, as she thinks about her daughter, and the granddaughter now back in her care, and what lies ahead. Yet, she’s here, working, and taking it on, again.

Courage. Courage to move ahead, the past be damned.

The local AA groups proudly fix up their meeting house, putting up a sign announcing their presence, and their mission in this town, where the bars nearly outnumber the churches.

“We are here, and we are working our plan, one step at a time.” Not that long ago, there was a whole lot of shame and denial in addiction and recovery, and the biggest voice about it was just a whisper. Now, that work is something people are proud of, even letting the local paper put their names and pictures on the front page, talking about their recovery, and the work they’re doing to stay clean and sober.

We can talk about domestic violence now, too. The local group that offers counseling, shelter, and a lot of support is out in the community, accepted as an important service and a vital presence in our lives.

Not that we are putting an end to domestic violence. It still rears its ugly head in so many ways. But, a lot of discussion goes on about domestic violence now, and we aren’t so afraid to talk about it, and the impact it has on people’s lives, and how complicated it is to help someone who is dealing with it in their lives. There’s some turning points, and people’s thinking is changing. And, people who are dealing with it are being admired, admired for being courageous.

I take an evening class at the community college, During my break, I saw a woman writing on a tablet in the student commons. She writes slowly, thoughtfully, her pen poised above the paper, as she carefully chooses her words. She opens a book, a text on communications, and reads a paragraph, her brow furrowed in concentration, and picks up her pen, and starts to write again. She’s still wearing her uniform from work, and her face tells me it’s been a long day. But she’s here, working away, making progress in her life, getting an education.

My teacher is working hard, too, spending time with each of his students, making sure everyone is challenged, and everyone is learning something useful, something to make them better guitar players, better musicians, and, most of all, better people.

He’s building a house, from the ground up, learning as he goes. Today, he put in a window, something he’s never done before. Not that that would stop him. He loves a challenge, he loves building his future, one board, one sheet of plywood, one window at a time.

At night, the college parking lot is full. Every classroom is busy, people listening, talking, working hard on learning, on moving ahead in their lives.

People moving ahead, working on what needs to be taken care of, people living their courage.

Neal Lemery 10/30/2013