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