Befriending


 

 

Kindness

Comes in so many forms, so many ways

A smile, a cup of tea,

Reaching out, giving a hand

Listening

Accepting.

 

Together

We honor ourselves and each other

Gifts to share, building community

Bonds, interactions, communion

Union, reciprocity

Strengthening, a weaving together

The whole greater than the parts.

 

Compassion

Understanding the Other, each other

By opening our own hearts

Being open, exchanging, offering

Receiving

Accepting

Enhancing

Uniting.

 

–Neal Lemery

11/29/2018

Listening, With Respect


 

 

—Neal Lemery

 

I’ve listened to a lot of stories, especially stories of pain, trauma, embarrassment, and horror; people telling me the deeply personal, intimate, and heart-wrenching tales of their lives, unburdening themselves, or just sharing so that I could understand their lives better.

When I became a lawyer, the judge swearing in all the new lawyers reminded us that we new attorneys were also counselors at law, that we were healers of social ills and menders of the social fabric.

A friend of mine, a priest, kept reminding me that I, too, wore a collar and people came to me to make confession, and receive absolution and a sense of peace and healing.

“Forgiveness,” he would say, “is what we both offer the world.”

My professional life has involved a great deal of truth seeking and pursuing justice.  That work necessitates actively listening, involving more than wiling ears and a reasoning, analytical mind.  There is also heavy lifting for the soul, and one’s gut and heart.

One’s life experiences and one’s very essences of humanity are also in play.

And just when I think I am old enough, experienced enough, to have mastered my listening and my truth detection, life throws me a new curve ball, renewing my challenge to be the consummate and empathetic discerner of reality – the knower of Truth.

Everyone’s story, everyone’s reality and truth, is different.  Shaped by their experiences, their circumstances, their own truth is unique to them.  And whether I judge their story as subjective, relative truth, or objective, absolute truth, it is still their story and their reality.

And I filter their story through my own lenses, my own experiences and reality, both good and bad, often flawed and more self-serving that I am inclined to confess.  I’m a work in progress myself.

The wearing of the judge’s robe is too often only a symbol of the values of impartiality, truth seeking, and justice. Judging is, after all, an art and not a science.  Bias, prejudice, and intolerance aren’t left at the courtroom door.  Judges, after all, should see our own flaws.

Like the rest of America, I’ve been awash in the politics and story telling of seating our new justice of the Supreme Court.  That process should call upon our highest and most sacred ideals as citizens.  Lately, we’ve fallen far from that standard.

My senses have been flooded with profoundly emotional storytelling and speech making.

My own experiences, recollections and often buried memories of my own alcohol-infused youth have risen to the surface, adding intense anguish, empathy, and revulsion to what I am seeing on the TV news and reading in the media. The needed discussions and accountability work haven’t been at center stage.

The stories and the memories are disquieting, uncomfortable.  But they need to be told.  We as a society need to take on the traumas of sexual violence and over-indulgence of alcohol.  The issues and questions are vital social concerns that affect all our lives and the well-being of our society.

Like other personal and societal secrets and tragedies, these stories need to be shared and understood in the bright sunshine of thoughtful and compassionate conversations and meaningful discussions.

In their telling, and in the presence of empathetic listening, there can finally be a release and an understanding, even acceptance, of history that can empower us and begin to heal us, so we are able to move ahead. Their story can no longer be locked away and buried.

Hopefully, in the telling, and the sharing, the darkness fades and fresh bright light can offer some cleansing.  The festering wounds can drain and begin to heal.  We all deserve to heal.

We can offer each other the gift of catharsis, the purging of infection and disease, the enlightenment of confession and forgiveness.  The power of truth telling is an act of personal liberation, of empowerment.

Ending the silence is an act of disarming the abuser, a cutting of chains that have kept so much of our souls in captivity.  It is an art of taking back our power and our human spirit.

In that work, that telling and sharing, there is liberation, an act of self-affirmation.  When that work is being done, one gains a new sense of self-esteem and power over one’s life. It is a gift to yourself that does change your life.  It is an act of self-kindness and self-respect.

It seems easy for us to recognize the truth in another person’s story.  We are often quick to judge.  In recent years, that rush to judgement often is skewed by labeling, blaming, categorizing, and simply being mean and vindictive.  The polarizing, divisive lens of national politics artificially is shined on the story, encouraging us to quickly, and with little fact gathering or reason, qualify a tale as true or false.  We have polarized compassion and patriotism.

Such a twenty second sound bite approach ill suits the truth seeking that we would want others to apply as they listen to our own stories. Don’t we want the listener of our own tale to be compassionate, wise, and a healer of our fellow human beings?

I’ve learned, as a lawyer and a judge, to be not so quick to judge, and to not rapidly label or categorize.  Reality is complicated, and we can be inclined to edit and change our own stories. Each of our own viewpoints, our perspectives, are unique. Guilt, shame, self-protection, and ego all come into play so we can prepare to step out onto the stage and share our story, even if it will be told only to a trusted friend over a cup of coffee.

On the national political stage, where the stakes are higher, I think we often edit and rearrange and alter the story to attract a more receptive audience. We play the game of politics. Yet, the naked, raw truth can be brilliant and illuminated, shining through all the political and moral clutter. Bare truth can be frightening to the politicians, because of its purity and reality.  Real, pure truth is not playing the game according to the rules.

For some time, I mentored a young man, holding him close as a son.  He had a troubled, angry life, dealing with many problems and issues.  He felt worthless and unloved.  His soul pain bled all over his life.

One day, he and I took that pain on and explored his wound, looking for his truth. Years of shame, guilt and self-loathing stood in the way, but he persisted with profound courage and intestinal fortitude.  In all that muck, he found his truth and spoke it out loud, so we could better hear it. It was awful, horrific, heart-wrenching. But, his truth was his and he spoke it.

And, I listened and I believed him.  Believing someone’s story is so amazingly powerful and liberating.  Much of his pain and anguish began to be released. And the healing began for him.

I was reminded that day of the power of unconditional love.  And not the unconditional love of a listener, but that very special unconditional love he found that day for himself, that he really could speak and share his truth.

We have all hear true stories.  Honest, open heart surgery kinds of experiences, unadorned by excuse making, window dressing, and self-glorification.  We know it is true because our very being senses that.  Our soul knows it is truth.

“You will know the Truth, and it shall set you free.”  (John, 8:32)

I hope that we, as individuals, and as a country, can honor our respective truths, and in that recognition, find our common humanity.

 

–October 6, 2018

Just Listen


 

 

I almost didn’t pick up the phone. We’ve had a lot of robo-calls lately, and I’ve gotten into the habit of just letting the phone ring. If it is important, or someone I know, they’ll leave a message and I’ll call them back.

The number was familiar. It was the number that called several times in the last few days, the voice familiar, from the past when I volunteered as a mentor in a nearby youth prison. Two days ago, the voice left a distraught, heartfelt message, wanting to connect with me, and alluding that he was thinking of ending his life.

No name, no return phone number. But, my phone remembered the number and I called back, getting the receptionist at another youth prison.

I explained that the voice sounded desperate, sad, alluding to self harm.

“We have 250 youth here, and I can’t track down who may have called you,” the receptionist said. “But, I’ll transfer you to the treatment manager in our mental health cottage.”

But, without a name, I was stuck, hoping he’d call back.

This time, we connected. The voice at the other end was a staff person, telling me that “Joe” wanted to talk to me. He put me on hold, and it was a long wait.

I was hesitant to take the call. Maybe “Joe” was having second thoughts, too, now that I was on the line.

My brain was trying to remember who “Joe” was. The mists of time parted and I began to remember “Joe”. I saw him every week for about a year, until he moved on, getting released to a half way house.

The staff had asked me to see him, as he was falling behind in his school work, and didn’t seem to care. He’d act indifferent and pushed me away, not letting me get close to him. But, I stuck with it, trying to tutor him in the math class that he was failing.

It wasn’t the work, and it wasn’t the level of math. I soon realized he was brilliant, and had taken the road of not doing the work, and blowing the homework and the tests, because it was too simple, too easy. And, if he passed his math class, then he’d graduate from high school. The next step was college.

But, he was a failure, a no good, not worthy of success. I soon learned that his family had abandoned him, never visiting him in prison, or even writing a letter or talking with him on the phone.

“Worthless,” “scum”, those were the words he’d last heard from his family, the day he was arrested, probably a whole childhood of that kind of talk.

I walked around the math conundrum, trying to engage with him on a different level. I learned he loved music, playing and composing songs and rhythms. He’d taken over the keyboard in the rec room and the computer that was set up to record and put together different tracks of music the kids had recorded.

I kept asking me to show me what he’d done with the recording devices, but he kept putting me off.

“It’s not very good,” or “I’m not quite ready for you to hear what I’ve done.”

One day, he let me into that world, playing a very complex rhythm track, and a long electronic music piece that was beyond words in its complexity and beauty.

“It’s nothing,” he said, when I raved about his talent and ingenuity.

“Oh, and you tell me you’re not very good at math, when you can compose this elaborate rhythm and multi-track composition?” I said.

“Well,” he said. And just shrugged.

“It’s not a big deal.”

I wanted to get up on the table and dance!

As I was leaving, I told a staff member how talented Joe was, and so gifted in music.

“I know. He’s amazing,” the staff member said. “But he thinks it’s no big deal.”

At our next visit, he actually smiled.

“I passed my math class,” he said. “I actually got an A.”

 

Yeah, that “Joe”. How could I forget him?

What’s he doing back in prison, after all this time, I wondered.

The phone line clicked, and a soft, deep voice said hello.

“Is this Neal?” the voice asked. The hesitancy in his voice tugged at my heart.

He said he was amazed I remembered him, that I was willing to talk with him, that I was even listening to him, that he was worthy of my time.

“Joe” had taught me an important lesson. Sometimes, good things happen when you just wait, just enjoy the silence in a conversation, and let that quiet connectedness be the conversation. Just showing up, caring, and listening, can affect fundamental change in someone’s life.

Now, years later, I listened again. His story came tumbling out. There were successes, achievements. And there were disappointments, fears, times of perceived failures and disasters. There came a time when it was all too much, too much goodness going on, and so he pulled the plug, sabotaging himself, and choosing to run away.

The old family voices of being worthless and a scum echoed around his mind. There were prophecies to fulfill, and expectations to satisfy.

There was loneliness, too. He’d had no visitors, no one to call, no one to care.

“Except you,” he said. “Thanks for talking to me.”

I didn’t say much at first, just listened a lot to this sad story, feeling him open up on the phone and share his feelings.

I responded, offering words of encouragement, hope, and concern.

I told him he was smart, creative, a nice guy. I told him I cared about him, that he was like a son to me, that he was important to me, a good part of my life.

He got quiet, and I could detect a sniffle or two, and a few sobs.

I’d come to see him, if that’s what he wanted. Oh, he did. He’d talk to his counselor and see if we could set that up.

“I don’t know if they let people here have visitors,” he said. “It’s the mental ward, you see, and I don’t know if they’d let you come.”

I told him I thought they would, if it would help him out, help him move through this rough patch in his life, help him transition to a better place, and get on with his life.

We exchanged addresses, and I gave him my cell phone number.

I promised to write to him the next day, and he said he’d write to me. We’d get together, and work on a plan for him to move on. We’d stay in touch.”

“Three years was too long, you know,” he said.

I laughed. “Yeah, I know.”

He laughed too, then, and I heard him smile finally.

I remembered his smile, the one he gave me when he played his music for me, that one special afternoon years ago, just before he aced his math class.

“Well, I’ve got to go,” he said quietly. “My phone time is up.”

“OK,” I said. It was great to talk to you. I hope you feel better. I hope you want to live.”

“Yeah, I do,” he said. “I really do. Thanks for talking to me.”

“Call again soon.”

“I will.”

I looked at the clock. Twenty minutes had passed since I’d decided to answer the call. Twenty minutes of sad stories, and sniffling, and some words of encouragement. Twenty minutes of showing up in each other’s life again, and both of us finding the good in that, each filling our hearts with that connection once again.

We all have twenty minutes a day to give to someone, to listen, to hear their story, to make a connection. We all can care about someone for twenty minutes.

That might make a big difference. It might save a life.

 

–Neal Lemery 10/17/2017

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

Simply Listening


 

 

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

            Leo Buscaglia

 

It is the simple things in life that are often the most meaningful.

 

A young man and I were working on his math. He’s been working hard and now the formulas and methodology of his algebra was making sense to him. My tutoring today consisted of listening to him explain his processes, and watch him work his problem, applying his knowledge, and seeing him find the answers.

 

“I think I understand this now,” he said.

 

Pride filled his voice, and he gave me a seldom seen smile.

 

“What else do you need to work on?” I said. “You’ve clearly got your math under control.

 

He looked down at his shoes, then out the window. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, as he pondered my question. A minute, then another passed without an answer.

 

He cleared his throat, finally cluing me in. His therapist needed him to make a list, a list of challenging events in his life, times when he was abused, and was abusive to others.

 

This would be the last barrier to complete therapy and move on with his life, to becoming free of what has burdened him, held him down.

 

He looked away, tears filling his eyes.

 

“It’s so hard,” he said. “I can’t seem to get started. I can’t write it down.”

 

“Hard because?” I asked.

 

He fell silent, still looking down. A tear ran down his cheek.

 

“It’s…. it’s overwhelming. There’s just so much,” he said.

 

We sat there, letting the heavy words fill the air. It was hard for me to breathe, the air now thick with his emotions and the weight of this task.

 

“Take a breath,” I said. “This is a safe place. We’ll take this on together, and work on it just like we do with math.”

 

“In math, one of the first steps is to write down the problem, give names to what you’re working on,” I said. “One step at a time.”

 

He looked at me, and I nodded. Another tear ran down his cheek. He took a deep breath, then another, re-inspecting his shoes. A few more minutes passed. He gave me a slight nod.

 

“I can be the writer today” I said. “I’ll be your secretary.”

 

He looked away, over my shoulder, and started to speak, beginning his story with the last time he was in a difficult situation, a time of chaos and pain.

 

I picked up my pencil and began to write on the tablet we’d used for our math, starting a fresh page.

 

He spoke almost in a whisper. I leaned closer, barely able to hear his words. The room was silent except for the scratchings of my pencil against the paper, and his soft words, his voice cracking and choking over them.

 

I gulped, feeling my own sense of revulsion, panic, horror, and angst build up in my gut, as he told one story, then another, and another.

 

Working backwards in his life, he moved quickly from one incident to the one before it, giving me two or three sentences, names, ages, what happened, how he reacted, how he felt. At first, it seemed jumbled, but I began to see the order, how he’d been preparing his story, rehearsing and editing it in his mind, probably for months.

 

He spoke fast enough that each story was only a line on my tablet, often just fragments of sentences, a first name. I wrote quickly, finding myself near the bottom of page two before he took another breath and looked down at his shoes.

 

Once, I had to prod, a few words of encouragement. His look told me he thought I’d be a harsh judge for this story, condemning and berating him.

 

“It’s OK,” I whispered. “It happened, so it needs to be on the list. No judging today.”

 

He took a big breath and let it out. Another long minute of silence.

 

The first time, I can’t remember much,” he said.

 

“I can’t remember,” he finally said. “I was two years old, and there was something, something with a friend of my dad’s.”

 

“I don’t know, but there’s something,” he said.

 

“It’s OK,” I said. “When you’re two, you probably don’t remember a lot, at least consciously.”

 

We talked about the conscious brain and the subconscious, and how different parts of the brain have different tasks, and work differently. And how we deal with trauma, and don’t deal with it very well. But, our body remembers, in ways that aren’t always clear to us.

 

He nodded, relating all of this to what he’d learned in therapy and his psychology classes, and in all the thinking he’d been doing.

 

He looked at the list, shaking his head.

 

“Wow, that’s a long list,” he said.

 

“A good list, “ I said. “You’ve done good work today,”

 

Our time was coming to an end, and I needed to leave.

 

I tore off the pages I’d written, and handed them to him.

 

“Here’s your list,” I said. “We’ve written it down, so you don’t have to keep it in your head any more. But, you’ll have it if you need it.”

 

He looked at me, penetrating deep into my eyes.

 

“Oh,” he said. “You mean I don’t have to keep all that inside of me, thinking about it all the time?”

 

“No,” I said. “You have your list, on that paper. Kind of like a grocery list, or a list of chores for the day.”

 

“It’s a reference, I said. “You can put it in a safe place, and refer to it if you need to.”

 

“And, once you’ve put words to all that, then you’ve named the problem, you’ve identified it, and you don’t have to keep thinking about it,” I said.

 

He nodded, and let out a big whoosh of air.

 

“So, the problem,” he said. “Kind of like a math problem then?   Write it out, apply the formulas and work the solution, huh?”

 

I nodded, and he chuckled.

 

“Just like a math problem,” he said. “One step at a time.”

 

“Uh, huh,” I said. “Just like a math problem. And, you can solve it, right?”

 

“Yes, I can,” he said.

 

“Yes, I can.”

 

—Neal Lemery 12/19/2016

A Day of Giving


 

 

“This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”

  • Theodore Roosevelt

 

After Thanksgiving sales, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all the other sales promotions overflowing my e-mail inbox, now I’m reminded that today is the “Day of Giving”

Just today? And, the giving should be a check, or better yet, a credit card payment to some charitable organization far away.

“Give today! Make a difference! Click, click, and you’re done.”

“We make it easy for you.”

“If you send us money, then your charitable obligations of the season are done. Duty fulfilled. Then back to your holiday consumerism and frivolity.”

It’s like the paying of indulgences in the Middle Ages, to buy my way into Heaven. I’m hearing Martin Luther remind me that handing over my pieces of silver isn’t where we should be going as a country.

Isn’t every day the day of giving? And the need is right in front of me. On the way to the coffee shop, I drive past the homeless person, standing in the rain, needing a meal, a job, a dry place to spend the night, maybe just someone to say that they care, that this person matters and is part of our community.

There is a line in front of the community library, waiting for it to open. People who need a warm, dry place, maybe some computer time so they can apply for a job, or connect with family, maybe just to be with others, or a good book to read, or a conversation.

There are other needs in my town, and I don’t have to look too far.

This time of year, the loneliness of jail and prison weighs heavy on many of the young men there I know.

For one young man, this month is the anniversary of his dad’s overdose and his best friend’s suicide, and his reoccurring nightmare of the aiming of the gun, the pulling of the trigger, and his own screams. His family doesn’t come to see him, and the playing of Christmas carols makes him cry.

I can’t give him much, and I can’t bring him peace. But I can sit with him and hear his story. I can praise his hard work and his rebuilding of his life. I can honor his plans to be an EMT, and thereby make the world a better place.

I have the gift of time with that young man, and our time together brings me joy. And perhaps that can give him some peace.

Each of us has the gift of time, the gift of compassion, the ability to listen with an open heart.

The Day of Giving — shouldn’t that be every day? Shouldn’t we take the time to say hi to our neighbor, to speak to someone at the grocery store or the post office, to genuinely inquire as to their well being, their soul?

The real giving doesn’t show up on my credit card bill or my tax return. The real giving is that few minutes a day we can choose to really engage with someone, to put forth some real care and concern, to love our fellow humans.

Genuine giving is so much more than some artificial “Day of Giving”.

“What are we here for? What is the value of our lives?” Those are the questions of the season.

The real giving shows up right here, right where we live, every day of the year, every day of our lives.

 

—Neal Lemery 11/29/2016