The Extra Chair


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

(also published today in the Tillamook County Pioneer)

One year at Thanksgiving, Mom told me to set an extra place setting.  We’d counted up all the relatives who would be coming, and I was curious as to who she was adding. By my count, we hadn’t forgotten anyone and the place settings matched the numbers of who was coming.

“Oh, it’s nice to have an extra setting, just in case,” she said.  “You never know who might come.”

I was very curious, but she wouldn’t answer my persistent questions.

Thanksgiving morning came and we were all put to work on preparations for the meal. My dad had to go into work for an hour, and not long after he left, the phone rang. It was my dad.

“That’s fine,” she said.  “Of course. No problem.  The table’s already set and there’s an extra chair.”

She turned to us after she hung up the phone.

“We’ll be having another guest for dinner,” she said. She smiled then, and started humming a tune, as she turned back to the stove.

Sure enough, my dad arrived home with our mystery guest.  She was a co-worker, and had no other place to go for Thanksgiving. Her smile said it all, how grateful she was to be included.

Every year after that, we always set an extra place for Thanksgiving.  One year there was a flood and some neighbors couldn’t make it to their family dinner, so we set up another table and had another half dozen dinner guests.

One year, it was one of my friends in high school, needing a refuge from a tough time on the home front.

As always, my folks asked no questions, and passed no judgement.  The unexpected guest was welcomed with open arms and the first serving of turkey.

My wife and I continued the tradition, welcoming friends, making sure there was a place at the table.

The first Thanksgiving we had our foster son, we made sure he felt welcome, as family gathered to enjoy the holiday.

And, as if on cue, the phone rang, and I heard myself saying, “Sure, of course there’s room.  We’d love to have him.”

I made a special trip while the turkey was cooking, and brought his brother home for the weekend. We made sure to make him feel welcome, a part of the family. He responded with a tear running down his cheek, as he sat down in the extra chair.

Years later, after my folks had passed away, and our kids were starting their own families and had moved away, it was just my wife and I who would be home for dinner.

“Let’s set another place,” my wife said.  “You never know.”

A few days before, she called first one and then another friend, friends who were single, and who, it turned out, would be alone for Thanksgiving.

“Of course, you’re invited.  We’ll expect you at 1,” I heard her say.

We set two extra plates that year, and the Thanksgiving celebration became even more special, as two lonely people found a warm home and bountiful table to share, and our friendship grew. Thanksgiving took on a new, richer meaning that year.

One of our traditions, just as we sit down for the meal, is for everyone to share their gratitudes with the rest of us. There is so much to be grateful in our lives, and we so often tend to skip over giving thanks on Thanksgiving. Instead, we slide into talk about a lot of other subjects, forgetting what the day is really about.

Thanksgiving truly is a day to celebrate our gratitudes and to give thanks. And, often what I am most grateful for is that extra chair, that extra place setting.  I’m grateful for the company of someone who would otherwise be alone on the day we gather and give thanks for all that we have.  And that list begins with being thankful for each other.

 

The Real Presents Under the Tree


 

 

Christmas Eve, 2017

 

I’m sitting by the fire, with a mug of coffee, watching the cold rain fall outside, almost turning to snow.

The presents are wrapped and under the tree, brightening up the living room. Soon, dinner will be in the oven, and the merriment of Christmas will begin.

The real joy of the season, and the real presents to be enjoyed, won’t be found under the tree. The true gifts of Christmas have already been given, and our hearts are already filled with the joy of the season.

That joy, that “reason for the season” is found in relationships.

It has been a year of reaching out, reconnecting, and opening our hearts to one another. Friends and family have shared their fears, their uncertainties, their doubts. Many have had their lives turned upside down, and have been left fearful of their future, and their own abilities to captain their ships through storm-tossed seas.

This year, I’ve made it a point to reach out and share time with many people. Being a good listener, offering comfort and solace. Realizing that each of us is an instrument of change. One person can make a difference. It’s a simple truth.

Often, simply showing up and being there for someone has warmed our hearts and provided a safe harbor during the storm.

Last week, I visited two young men in prison. Both of them were filled with doubt and uncertainty, feeling lost and unsupported in their journeys. We talked, we laughed, we shared our stories of our struggles and doubts during this year.

We each took comfort in the other’s big hearts and willingness to extend hands of friendship.

Behind cold walls topped with razor wire, I found the light of personal commitment to a better world. Young men, with great courage and great wisdom, speaking from their hearts gave me hope for the future.

We are not alone. None of us are fully confident in our ability to weather the storms of life. Yet, we have each other, and we believe in each other. In our community, by coming together and sharing our hearts and our talents, we will change the world.

This year, I celebrate the gift of friendship, the gift of unconditional love.

What really is important this year is not found in politics, and is rarely talked about on the pages of newspapers, social media posts, or on TV. Yet, I hear it from friends and family, over coffee, and in new books that come my way.

The real treasure we have, and the true power that we hold in our own hands and in our hearts, is the ability to care about each other, to support each other, and to act with compassion and respect.

The answers to the world’s problems won’t be found in the marble halls of Washington, but they will be found in our hearts and in the strength of hands holding hands, people walking alongside other people, and working towards our common goals and implementing our common values in the work that we do.

This is a time of rebuilding, and restarting the relationships and the social institutions that have served us so well in the past. In our commonality, our common goodness, there is hope and there is our future.

–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

Friendship


Friendship is a wonderful gift. Being present, listening, truly listening to another person, is part of that gift. I focus on my intention to suspend judgment, and just accept my friend for who they are, where they are at, and where they are headed.

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” –Albert Camus.
I try to just be present with my friends. Show up, and connect. Nothing more is required of me, and I don’t ask anything more of my friends.

The rules of friendship aren’t complicated. Having a real friend is one of the simple joys of life, and I don’t take it for granted. We may not have each other for long, so every moment is precious, a treasure.

When I am with a friend, my task is to connect, to open my heart, hear what they are saying, and also speak my truth, and share what is troubling me. Oh, we talk about our joys, but we also talk about our sorrows. And, in the telling, we are able to see the beauty and wonder that life offers us, and celebrate our friendship and our lives.
–Neal Lemery, November 5, 2015

Taking Up Again, At Our Fortieth Reunion


 

It was that class we took together, both out of our element. A business class, way outside our academic path, but it was really about what we we both passionate about, human interaction.  The psychology major and the political science major, finding the “juice” of our college experience.

Our big assignment for the term was to get together every week, for a day, maybe a weekend, and spend time together, interacting, observing each other. And, most importantly, observing ourselves observing others and how we behaved, inwardly, within a group.  We had to write about it all, without any real direction on what the professor wanted, how we were going to be graded.

It was, we agreed, standing outside in the hot evening after our class reunion dinner, the best experience of our undergraduate years, studying how people related with each other, how that really was the gist of becoming a better person, how we used those skills, those observations, in growing our lives, in making a real difference in the world.

We took our experiences together, all those late night conversations, the four years of living on campus during the social upheaval of the Vietnam War years, and went our separate ways.  We kept in touch, sharing news of our careers, our marriages, our kids, and how our lives were enriched by what we learned at college, and in navigating our lives in the world.

The best things in our lives, we realized, weren’t the things we thought we’d do, once we graduated and moved on.  Life happens, and we used our skills and brains to do unexpected things, growing ourselves and learning even more about life, and who we are.

One of the reunion organizers asked us to ponder whether or not we had changed the world, like we’d all talked about in those late night gatherings, and if we’d made a difference in our lives.

“Yes, indeed,” we answered, but not in the ways we had thought, back in the days of Watergate, and the week we staged a sit-in in the college president’s office, angry at Nixon bombing Cambodia.

The conversations that night were about good relationships, connecting with people, making a difference about how people felt about themselves, how we could make their lives better, simply by being who we were. No one showed their bank statements, their stock portfolios, their photos of their real estate or talked about their job titles, or the cars we drove to get here that night. We didn’t wear any fancy clothes. We laughed at the photos of our days on campus, the wild hair, how much beer we could drink back then, and the times when Angela Davis and Anais Nin spoke on campus.

We talked about the people we had become, how that one class, that one professor made all the difference to us as we went on about our lives, how we became better people, how forty years gives you a perspective on life and the world that we may not have had back during our days as eager, curious college students.  And, who we are today is still about who we were then, curious, looking inward, and figuring out how we can connect with someone, and change their lives.

—Neal Lemery 6/27/15