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

 

 

Believing In Tomorrow


 

 

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
–plaque in a public botanical garden started by a nurseryman.

Recently, I’ve visited several gardens, taking in their winter beauty, the quiet, the restful time before Spring gets started.
One garden was the kitchen garden begun by a Jesuit missionary in the 1690s. Walking hundreds of miles through the desert to a dry, almost abandoned area, he brought a new religion and new crops to a community on the verge of starvation.
His first task was to build a church, but I’m sure near the top of his list, like any gardener, was laying out and planting the beginnings of his garden. An irrigation ditch soon brought essential and dependable water. Plants from his beloved Italy found new homes. In a few years, an orchard flourished, and grains and vegetables supplemented the local diet of roots, seeds, and other traditional local fare.
The herbs were planted in orderly beds, near the tomatoes, peppers and other plants that thrived in the hot, sunny climate. An ancient wrought iron hoe laid against a gnarled fruit tree, likely the third or even fifth generation of the first orchard planted here. I wondered how many generations of gardeners had held that hoe, steadily weeding and tending this fertile space next to the church.
A substantial adobe storage building wasn’t very far away, a symbol of the bounty of this land and the investment in sustainable agriculture, 1700s style. Inside, large terra cotta bowls stored next year’s seeds, and the winter supply of the year’s harvest.
The priest must have smiled, seeing his garden feed his parishioners, helping the community to thrive and grow. How many gardeners started here, gently nurtured by others, learning of the miracles of seeds, the tending of plants, the pleasures of harvest?
In good years, there was enough surplus resources so that the villagers could make more adobe bricks, hew more wood beams brought from the forests in the mountains. They slowly added on to the church, making it into a bigger symbol of their faith in God, a rising symbol of their success as a community.
Now, the ruins of the church dominates this place, bringing visitors, teaching us of old ways, the power of faith.
Yet, the real church, the real symbol of faith is here in this simple garden.
Over three hundred years later, the Jesuit’s garden still produces fruit, and the irrigation ditch still brings water to this thirsty garden. In a few months’ time, a new gardener will plant tomatoes and peppers, prune the orchard, trim the rosemary and deadhead the oregano. The new gardening year will start again.
That Jesuit priest left his mark here, his love of the land and his design still apparent to those who now visit his garden. If I began the spring work, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him looking over my shoulder, perhaps even discussing where to set out the tomatoes this year. We probably could talk for hours about this place, how to make it an even better garden for next year, for yet another year of tomorrow.

–Neal Lemery 1/11/2017

Another Nice Review of Homegrown Tomatoes


A garden has countless lessons to teach, and in his second collection of essays set in the garden at the Tillamook County Oregon Youth Authority, Homegrown Tomatoes: Essays and Musings from my Garden, former judge Neal Lemery reflects upon what he’s learned in his volunteer capacity, teaching and toiling with the youth. Also included are lessons learned involving members of his community and his friends. Each essay in this collection deals with one of the “big” issues in life we all encounter, young or old.

The garden for Mr. Lemery and the incarcerated youth is more than a garden—it’s a metaphor for life in a general sense, and a place for everyone to be nourished, with wisdom, honor, and respect; a place for listening and conversing, questioning and finding answers, all while completing mundane chores such as weeding and washing dishes.

Whether you are a young parent looking for helpful parenting tips, a mentor, a teacher, or a person looking to live an authentic, joyful life, this book is a treasure chest of heartwarming stories and ideas to help you along your way.

 

— by Youth Advocate

A Nice Review for Homegrown Tomatoes


5.0 out of 5 stars

A Homegrown Miracle of a Book—Rhonda Case

 

 

What to say about the miracle that is this little book? The author, Neal Lemery, has written a small masterpiece. This collection of short, powerful pieces moved this reader to tears again and again. “Homegrown Tomatoes” has the power to move all readers to new ways of speaking, listening and taking action in our own backyards and communities, as healers and peacemakers.

Something of a soul brother to the philosopher/writer and mystic gardener, Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf school movement and of “biodynamic” gardening) Neal Lemery believes in the inherent goodness and limitless potential of each human he meets. He believes in the power of education and sees that Nature can be our wisest, most gentle teacher and healer.

Lemery’s essays, like the parables of Jesus, are grounded in the most “ordinary” of human experiences: observations of plants and of birds, moments of kindness offered to those who have been marginalized in society, zen-like questions about what we truly value and where we show up with compassion for others.

The most powerful essays are those where Judge Lemery lets us enter his “secret garden” at the OYA. We are privileged to be there with him as he meets the young men incarcerated for juvenile offenses, some of them serving long years in prison.

We’re there as Neal cooks, listens, plays cards, gardens, laughs and cries with these young men. What obstacles they have overcome despite their failures! We are allowed to share his sorrow at how much betrayal and suffering too many children endure. We are privileged to witness how seeds of Hope are still present even in the dark, cold winter soil of these lives that have known too much pain — just waiting for the warmth of kindness and rays of compassion to bring the spirit back to life.

Lemery’s essays inspire us to believe that we too can be transformed if we “tend our garden.” His poetry and prose reminds us that we can allow Life and Beauty to grow around and through our own hands, provided we sharpen and value our “garden tools” (our unique gifts) and this book has reminded me that the time to get started is always NOW.

Highly recommended for teens, teachers, counselors, parents, social workers, gardeners, poets and judges! Would make a great Christmas gift or selection for your Book Group for Spring 2017.

Homegrown Tomatoes…information about my book…


Here’s some information about my new book, available at Amazon

 

Growing young men is much like tending a garden. Retired judge Neal Lemery does both, working as a volunteer mentor in a youth prison. The author of Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains, he continues his musings and observations about building community and enriching the lives of young men, by being present in their lives, and offering them support and emotional strength. He offers us hope in troubled times, and helps answer the question: “What can I do to make a better world?”

Just Washing the Dishes


 

 

It was a busy day in the prison garden on a hot day. We took on a few weedy flower beds and set to work, creating several wheelbarrow loads of weeds, and unburied dozens of flowers and herbs from the lush growth of summertime weeds. They had gotten a head start on us with stretches of warm weather and summer showers.

Our work was made lighter by the telling of stories and knowing that fresh shortbread and warm rhubarb and strawberry sauce with ice cream awaited us at the end of the class time. The teacher always has a way of motivating the crew.

At the end of the first hour, we stored our tools, dumped our weeds and washed up for our next activity: flower arranging.

I saw looks of skepticism on the faces of our young gardeners as one of the other volunteers brought out the floral arranging bases and foam blocks. Soon, their hesitant looks turned serious, as they began to plan their individual works of art. Once again, the gardening class offered something new and exciting, challenging them to use their talents and grow their skills.

The young gardeners were busied themselves fashioning their own arrangements from the piles of shrubs, herbs, and mid summer flowers.   They put their individual touches to their work, and soon, there was a lovely selection of beautiful flower arrangements in the center of the table.

Even the most hesitant young florist immersed himself into the project. Conversations and questions about texture, color wheels and flower selections filled the air as they set to work.

The hoop house, our schoolroom, filled with many of their propagated works, became a florist shop, and our focus could turn to our mid morning snack. The just baked shortbread and freshly simmered strawberry-rhubarb sauce filled our noses with delight, and we quickly formed a line to create our own culinary delight. The promise of ice cream in the morning also enticed us.

Our plates filled, we gathered around the fire circle, and fell into relaxed conversations. I caught up with their challenges and successes, both in the garden and in their lives. Proudly, they showed me their vegetables and flowers, their chickens, their compost, and the new additions to their garden.

Our time grew short and I gathered up the plates and forks, and the glasses that had been drained of the special iced mochas that quenched our thirst this August day.

I started washing the dishes and was soon joined by a young man who offered to help. He didn’t want me to take on the task, saying that it was a boring, mundane thing for me to do.

“Oh, I rather like it,” I said. “Washing dishes gives me time to do some thinking, organizing my day and planning ahead.

“I get necessary work done, and I also get some ‘me’ time,” I said.

“I enjoyed the weeding this morning for the same reason,” I added.

He nodded, his ears taking in a new idea on what he had said was a minor task, not worthy of my time.

“It’s not a minor thing,” I said, “Cleaning up helps everyone, and builds community. Every job is important.”

He nodded.

“I guess so,” he said. “I never thought of it that way.”

“I see what you mean,” he said. “Even though it doesn’t seem like an important job, it really is.”

Our time was up. Class was over and he needed to go.

“I’ll finish this up,” I said. “I promise not to have too much fun.”

He laughed.

“Do some thinking for me, then,” he said.

 

We grinned at each other, building another bridge between the old guy gardening guy who comes here once a week, and the young man, whose garden of his soul grows well in the springtime of his life.

 

 

8/13/2016

Taking A Moment To Be Still


It was unusual for me, just sitting there in my garden, being still and looking around.

I’d had a long session with the trowel, the weed eater, and my hand pruners, attacking the weeds, setting out some plants, and generally tidying up my shade garden. Sweaty, dirty and tired, I found a chair and a bottle of water and decided to catch my breath.

At first, I looked at what I’d done, and what I needed to do, mentally composing additions to my “to do” list.

This is becoming a job, I thought. Gardening is a lot of work, and I’m tired.

Maybe I should just take a moment and enjoy all of this, my own quiet corner of the world. I could let the sweat dry, thinking its OK that I just take a break.

Lately, when I’ve been reading about gardening, I’m nose deep into the science and the methodologies about how to grow the best of whatever is involved in my latest garden project.

In the midst of research on an interesting new plant, I’d come across a quote about gardening and my soul.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
― Ray Bradbury

Take a moment, take a breath, and enjoy the garden for what it is, I reminded myself. Too often, my time here becomes an obligation, a project. Hurry up, get it done, and move on to the next task.

But, I am a gardener, not a laborer. Gardening really is nurturing, and being IN the garden. It is a time to nurture this place and my soul, to find peace, to let my mind be still and just BE. After all, I am a human being, not a human doing.

And, so I became still, and sat there. A swallow was building a nest in the new birdhouse, a hummingbird was enjoying the honeysuckle in bloom, sunlight played on the rhododendron bursting out in full glory. I breathed in the fresh air, and all the smells of spring.

In the distance, a neighbor was mowing her lawn, and a farmer was tilling his field. Off in the forest, a logger’s chainsaw provided the bass line for the house finch’s serenade in the snowball bush.

The real beauty in the garden, I realized, was not all the work I’d done, though I certainly had provided some tidying up and structure to this little piece of paradise. But, I realized, the real joy in this place is all the creatures and plants that make this their home.

I’m only the host, and I only add a few of the finishing touches.

And, I realized, the most important part of my job here, as a gardener, is to sit in a chair, and just be here, finding my own peace, and be part of this magnificent paradise, to simply be in this moment.
5/16/16

Becoming Worthy of Himself: Reflections on the Master Gardeners’ Class at OYA.


“Tim” is fully engaged. His hand flies up; he’s ready with the answer. This newest Master Gardener apprentice shares his observations, his conclusions, and where we should go next with our work. He’s read and re-read the text, and answered the homework questions with confidence.

Today’s topic in our Master Gardeners’ class is soils. Our teacher gets into it quickly, leading us through the various dimensions, the biology, the chemistry, the geology, and the mystery of it all. And Tim is in the middle of it, soaking it up, loving the complexity, and engaging in the thinking our teacher is calling us to do. His mental wheels are turning fast.

I’m Tim’s mentor, and today, a tutor, a teacher’s aide. My work is easy, a few words of encouragement, an occasional observation. I sit back and just enjoy him for who he has become.

A few years ago, he was lost. He’d done his required work in the youth prison, even finishing high school and then helping others. But, nothing fired up his passion, and life here was becoming just a matter of serving out the rest of his sentence.

Then, he discovered the garden, and the mystery of cultivating that is the joy and the passion of gardening. Wonderful things happened here, and he could be a part of that. He could be the magician and the scientist, the expert on various bugs and herbs, growing into a nurturer and a teacher. Tim was becoming the plant, sending out roots, spreading his leaves, and thriving in this newly discovered soil in his life.

Knowledge and the ability to be a part of the wonders of nurturing life, and exploring the unlimited world of plants and bugs touched his heart. He belonged in this work, and it fed his soul.

Now, the Master Gardeners class is his focus, and he has embraced it with everything in his being. He is in the midst of this class of questioners, deep thinkers in the ever expanding world of common, every day dirt.

I help him work through the math formulas and problems for the fertilizer questions. I watch him realize that the dull, abstract work in his math classes is nothing like the excitement of learning how best to fertilize his garden, and make his plants grow.

“This is fun,” he says.

He laughs then, shaking his head.

“I never thought I’d say that math problems are fun.”

We look at the slides of plants with various deficiencies from their soil, and talk about how to correct that, improving the plants by improving the soil and the nutrients, applying our newly found knowledge and thinking. He is becoming the botanist, the chemist, the scientist, the better lover of life itself.

He smiles, he scribbles notes, he’s totally absorbed in what we are doing, and where this class is taking him.

Tomorrow, he’ll be out in the garden, working his magic, growing his roots, growing into a healthy, complete man.

“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” –E E Cummings.

–Neal Lemery 4/19/2016

Sharpening Our Tools


There’s always a lesson for me in the garden, especially when I’m the teacher.

The young men gathered around the table, looking at me, leery about the day’s agenda. The pile of our trusty and well-used pruning shears, weeding forks, and trowels, and my odd assortment of files, oil cans, rags and steel wool was raising some puzzled looks.

“We’re going to sharpen our tools,” I said. “And that will make us better gardeners.”

I talked about dirt and grit, and how dull, rusty tools slow us down, and make our work harder. I talked about rain and damp, and getting rid of rust with a bit of oil wiped on a newly cleaned surface.

“If you take care of your tools, they will last a lifetime,” I said. “It’s a great gift to yourself.”

I talked about how pruners work, whether anvil or bypass, and why the blades are different. I picked up a file, showing them how to hone a blade, bringing out the edge. Doing a good job was all in how you finished it, by gently taking off the burrs on the edge, bringing out the best of the blade, and ourselves.

The metaphors were not lost on these young men, struggling to remake their lives, and move on to managing their lives in a decent, productive way.

I showed them how to do the work, and then urged them to pick a tool, and do their magic.

“The right tool for the right job,” I said, echoing my grandfather’s wisdom I’d heard when I was a young man.

Curious, eager minds asked dozens of questions, and, again, I showed them how to hone the blades, taking their eager hands into mine, helping them grip the file and set to work.

They found their way, getting a sense of that feel, of file meeting blade, steel against steel, until the newly bright edges met their standards of completion and excellence. Rust and dirt were buffed away, and a new coat of oil made hinges and springs smooth and silent. Grime and dirt were banished, the young hands feeling how they brought back the life and beauty of the tools they’d used this past year.

One young man kept doing it differently, missing what I was trying to teach. I was gentle with him, explaining everything again and again. I felt my patient grandfather in me, as I took his hand and the file, and began the lesson again.

Uncertain frowns gave way to smiles and shared accomplishments, the pleasure of making something as good as new. I saw young men restoring something to its original good purpose, gaining pride in who they were, and knowing what they could do.

We sharpened all of our tools today, and we sharpened some lives, too. I sensed my grandfather’s arm around me, holding me tight, whispering how proud he was of how I sharpened my tools.

–Neal Lemery 1/23/2016

Growing Our Garden


 

 

On Fridays, I garden. I drive down the road to a community garden, ready for a morning of planting, weeding and, often, harvesting.

I join a group of young men, and we set to work. Together, we tackle our list of chores and get the jobs done. I work up a good sweat, my muscles get tired, and we add a few smudges of dirt to our faces. We laugh, sharing the simple joys of a day in the garden.

We take a break and look at what we’ve accomplished. Every week brings new projects, and fresh results.

We surround ourselves with all the elements of a healthy garden.   We make sure we use substantial and complex soil, rich fertilizer, fresh air, sunshine, water, and tender care. Each plant gets its own place in the garden, and is encouraged to flourish. If there is a need for water or fertilizer or a little pruning, we are quick to respond, doing our work in nurturing and care taking.

The plants look great, but we’ve really been growing healthy young men.

And these young men flourish. They get the attention and care they need. They find their place in our work, and are encouraged to send their roots down into the soil. They open themselves to the warmth and sunshine we all share. They are hungry for this work, and eagerly take on their roles in raising chickens, planting seeds, in the designing and building of raised beds, compost bins, and trellises. They learn to plan their projects, to plant and harvest. Over the fire, they cook a meal from the vegetables they have grown, tasting and savoring what their hands have grown in the dirt, nourishing themselves with what they have grown.

They become connected to the earth, and the food that they eat. The garden sunshine brightens their lives and feeds their souls. They build community in their work and by their conversations around the campfire.

For many of them, this is their first experience at growing things, and in being caretakers. They become gardeners, not just of their community garden, but of their own lives. In their work, they make the connection between this work and the work they are doing to rebuild their lives, growing into healthy young men.

We do this work behind a prison fence, yet there are freedoms here these young men have never had. They grow here, encouraged to find themselves, and to see themselves as more than men scarred by the traumas and poisons of troubled, directionless childhoods. This is a place of new beginnings, new opportunities. Old wounds are healed and they can move ahead, becoming healthy men.

I treasure the simple moments, the quiet, one-on-one time with a young man, as we plant a flower box, or weed the potatoes, slice some tomatoes, or pick and shell some beans. Just a couple of gardeners, but so much more goes on here, more than the eye can see.

Sometimes, we sit around the campfire, cooking some food, toasting a marshmallow or roasting a hot dog, or just reflecting on what we’ve done in the garden. Soon, stories are being told, experiences shared, observations made. Guys being their true selves, deepening their friendships, and talking about their growing strengths and talents. They are farmers talking about their crops, and how they are making some improvements, tending their crops, growing their lives.

I’m the old man in this crowd, the guy with the gray hair, who just shows up and offers a helping hand, maybe a word or two of advice. I like to be quiet, taking it all in, letting them take the lead in whatever we are working on, watching them ask their questions and talk out the solutions, finding answers.

They need to be in charge here, the gardeners of their own garden. Part of our harvest is growing strong leaders, people who can take charge of their own lives, and make their own way in life.

They come up to me, wanting me to notice their work. They ask me questions, seeking my advice, and not just about gardening.

They are hungry young men, hungry for attention, for someone to affirm them, and recognize them for the goodness they hold inside of themselves. I show up, say good morning, and ask them how they are doing. We work together, as farmers and as life long learners of how to live a good, productive life. The other adults at the garden do that too, and the young men respond with smiles, their eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.

We take time to measure our harvest, counting and weighing our produce, admiring the beauty and abundance of what the boys have grown.

Yet, there is more to the harvest than all the tomatoes and corn, chicken eggs and dried herbs. I count the smiles and the looks of pride and confidence I see in their faces. These young men have grown this summer in so many ways than what we see in their vegetables and flowers.

Their strength and their resilience shine in their faces today, and their newfound abilities to grow their own lives is the real essence of the harvest of our garden.

 

 

–Neal Lemery 9/14/2015