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

Story Telling


 

 

“The Holidays” seem to be the time of story telling. Old family stories, one’s adventures growing up, or work tales, all find their way to the dining room over a big meal, or at some other festive event.

 

We watch our favorite holiday movies, enjoying the retelling of familiar, heart warming tales. We laugh, we cry, and we find love.

 

These last few weeks, I’ve heard other stories, stories that we won’t find on the Hallmark channel, or something to share with friends at a party.

 

These stories are honest, deep, often horrific. Yet, they need to be told, so that we can keep our feet on the ground, and truly know our friends, neighbors, the people we walk with on our life’s journey. In that storytelling, we find our power and we change the world.

 

A good friend recently responded to a Facebook discussion on white privilege, and shared his childhood and young adult stories. His memories were horrific, chilling, and disturbing in the sense that a family could inflict that degree of pain on an innocent child. He’s one of the good guys, doing amazing service in the community. Seeing him loving others, you would not suspect the pain he’s endured. Yet, he is today because of what he endured.

 

Several of my buddies I visit at the nearby youth correctional facility shared some of their stories with me, too. They opened up to me, pouring out their pain, their anger, their loneliness, and, their continuing capacity to be loving and kind.

 

One young man told me of his younger brother’s sudden death last week, how he learned of it five days later, how it feels to not be able to go to his brother’s funeral and mourn with his family.

 

Another young man told me of being abused and neglected, and then when he told others, they did not listen to him. In listening, I gave him a place for his voice, a way out of his dark tunnel, maybe even lit a candle for him.

 

Yet another young man ate his first Twinkie as we played cards and talked. He’s seventeen and was locked in the basement for years. I nodded, I smiled. I dealt the cards as he thoughtfully described every aspect of eating the treat, in sweet, delicious detail.

 

He also talked about learning to write, and hold a pencil. For the first sixteen years of his life, he did not write; he never held a pencil or a crayon. Today, he struggles with his writing, as his fingers slowly are developing the fine motor skills of pencil holding.

 

I look at my own hands, and wonder, unable to imagine what his life has been like, and what it feels like to hold a pencil for the first time at sixteen, and eat your first Twinkie at seventeen. In between my tears, I listen.

 

I listen. It is the most important job I have, the listening. Listening with compassion, with all my heart. Not judging, not condemning, not demeaning or minimizing; just listening and opening my heart to their heart. Heart to heart, truly listening and caring. Don’t we need more of that in this world? Wouldn’t lives be empowered, enriched simply because someone listened and cared?

 

Stories. They are all around us. They are inside of us, each one of us.   In the hustle and bustle of the holidays, perhaps we need to just sit and listen to the storytellers.

 

And be filled with gratitude that we are able to take the time to listen and care. My holiday errands can wait. It is time to listen.

 

— Neal Lemery 11/25/2016

 

 

 

Taking Time To Listen


Taking Time To Listen

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
― Winston S. Churchill

Yes, I learn more when I listen than when I speak.

If I admit to myself that I don’t know it all, that I don’t have to dominate the conversation, to show others how much I know, then I can really learn. In listening, there is evaluation, analysis, and, gasp, thinking.

I might even change my views, and look at the world, or at least a small part of it, in a different way.

And, in the listening, I will learn, gaining new wisdom to meet the challenges of life.

–Neal Lemery 1/12/2016

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

Fathering Time


 

Fathering occurs unexpectedly, often in the richest, most productive ways.
Undefined, unlimited by the clock and the calendar, those moments of rich, intense interaction suddenly come into our lives, without us often being aware until it comes upon us. In the moment, space opens up between us, and the energy, the love, flows.
Wisdom comes out of our heart and, often unspoken, shared. Emotions pass between us, and the gifts of the moment are exchanged.

The refrigerator calendar announces that Fathers’ Day is coming, but the fathering moments don’t pay attention to that, nor do these heart to heart conversations need to have a Hallmark card or a boxed up tie to get the juices flowing, to say what is deep inside of us, as we reach out to someone we love, and just be a dad.

This work we do, being the dad, a small moment of reaching out, giving a compliment, a hug, sharing a few words of wisdom, comes at unexpected moments. The phone rings, there is a welcoming silence in the car, or time to put your arm around someone and give a squeeze, and then, the moment is gone.

Life gets busy, and the daily to do list is calling. But, I try to find those moments to do my real work, the important work, of just being there, listening and speaking with my heart, just being a dad.

—Neal Lemery 6/16/2015

Healing, Listening, a Morning’s Task


“As healers we have to receive the story of our fellow human beings with a compassionate heart, a heart that does not judge or condemn but recognizes how the stranger’s story connects with our own…. Our most important question as healers is not, “What to say or to do?” but, “How to develop enough inner space where the story can be received?”
—Henri J. M. Nouwen

A Morning’s Task

He overflows, and I try to empty my self, making space,
opening to the geyser of his soul,
him sharing, his story, his
lifetime of pain, terror, loneliness,
now becoming words spoken,
feelings finally heard, honored
through his voice, my listening.

Listening, without judgement, without my views,
my biases, my edits, just
listening, letting him share his story,
and all its agonies, twists, and turns.

Him, finding his voice, now, sorting it out,
making some sense to it, seeing himself
the hero in this tale,
the good soul he really is
becoming.

An hour, then another, and into the third,
and he speaks on, now finding the words,
and the order in the telling, seeing his life
as his own story, of survival, achievement,
yes, even success and good coming from all that chaos and pain.

I listen, hard not to judge, not to be the commentator,
just simply being there, ears and heart
open
accepting, present in his life.

And, in that, a gift to him,
in my humanity, my soul’s journey, Everyman’s
need for someone to listen, to hear
for the very first time—
this becoming my gift to him, his first time
being heard, hearing his
truth.

—Neal Lemery, July, 2014

Gift Suggestions for Father’s Day, Gifts That Make A Difference


Father’s Day is coming, but I’ve already received my presents. And, I’ve given some, too. There’s no place in my life for ties. I’m not a golfer, and I don’t need cigars or fine whiskey. I don’t have dads around anymore to celebrate Father’s Day with, but I do have sons. Sons need gifts, too, and they need to be part of celebrating fatherhood.

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.”
—Jim Valvano

“It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons.”

—Johann Friedrich von Schiller

There are a lot of sons in my life, young men I listen to, and talk with about their lives. My task is giving them what I hope are some good examples of how to live one’s life, and how to grow into healthy manhood.

I take time for them, listen to them, hear what is truly on their minds, their fears and their dreams.

My most important gift to them is a steady, sincere belief in all of their possibilities. If they sense my intention to completely and unconditionally support them in their struggles to be good sons, to be healthy, productive young men, then I have done my job as a friend and as a father in their lives.

I show up, and I am present in their lives. I listen, I try to understand, I am with them in a bit of their journey in life. Other men in their life, other fathers, aren’t around, and aren’t there for them, when their journey gets a bit tough, when they’re not sure of their way in the world.

I’m there. I fill up their mug of coffee, and I look into their eyes. I’m open to hear about their lives, and I care.

Sometimes, there’s awkward silence, and sometimes, there is a torrent of stories and emotions. Sometimes, we just sip coffee and play cards, or talk about the weather, or what they are doing in school. But, even then, we’re reaching out to each other, learning how to do this fathering dance, and opening up their hearts.

These sons need someone to believe in them, to give them that sense of importance they need to find their place in the world, to be confident in who they are and where they are going.

I give them my heart, and I listen to their stories. I cheer them on, and am the quiet, steady voice in their corner, urging them forward, letting them know they matter.

I receive a lot of gifts back from these young men, these sons who are going out in the world, and making a difference in their lives, and making a difference in the world.

They are taking on the tough issues, and working hard to change their lives, moving ahead, and taking on the tough jobs to reorder and reshape their lives. They are in school, working in demanding jobs, having meaningful relationships based on love, mutual respect, and self actualization.

They are reshaping their lives, and helping others change, and become the person they want to be.

They’ve learned to ask the tough questions, and to reform their attitudes and their ambitions, growing into healthy young men, and truly being productive.

They are believing in themselves, and seeing all of their possibilities. They take on their struggles, their self doubts, and they are learning to not listen to those voices in the past that told them they were failures, that they weren’t good enough. Instead, they are the believers and the preachers of love and compassion, the builders of a healthier family and a healthier community.

These are the gifts that matter. These are the gifts on my list for Fathers’ Day.

—Neal Lemery, June 10, 2014

Go Change the World Today


How do I make a difference? How do I change the world?

At my age, I’ve figured out it’s not by leading the white horse into battle, leading my armies into the fray and conquering Europe.

But, then again, it is. I just lead my troops and fight my battles in a different way.

I am an instrument of social change. I have a voice, and I have a presence, and I talk with other people all the time.

I make my changes one person, one conversation at a time. It may be in the line at the grocery store, or at the coffee shop, or visiting with one person for a while, just the two of us, talking about life, and talking about choices. It might be by giving a book, sending a poem, or a note of encouragement, showing someone they matter, that they are important, valued, and yes, even loved.

It is the power of listening, really listening. Listening with your judgment and your ego parked at the door, listening with your heart, and simply offering to love people for who they are, deep inside.

Labels don’t mean much to me, nor does the style of someone’s hair or the fashion of their clothes. I like to look deeper than that, deep into someone’s heart, and to hear what is really on their mind, what is really going on in their soul.

The town I live in isn’t rocked by a huge earthquake when I have those quiet little conversations, when I open my heart to someone and really listen, and really have a conversation about the things that matter to them, and matter to us all. Buildings still stand and volcanoes don’t spew lava and smoke when we talk, but lives change.

Real change comes from a change in attitude, having a sense that I can change myself, my thinking, and that what I do in this world, that how I treat myself and how I treat others really does matter.

What I decide to do today, and how I will approach the problems and issues of the day, really does matter. I am the one in charge, what I feel and what I value is truly important.

Oh, I know that there are millions of other people in the state where I live, and hundreds of millions more in my country, and about six billion people around the world. Those are numbers I can’t really comprehend, and its pretty darned hard to have coffee with each one of them.

But, I can have that deep one on one conversation with myself, and with someone else. That’s manageable, that fits in my calendar, my to do list for the day. I can take the time to open my heart and really listen to someone, really hear what they are saying, and to value them for who they are, to weigh their soul against all the gold and jewels in the world, to really say that I value them for who they are, and for who they are becoming.

It is all about my intention, what I seek in that conversation, in that time together, one person with one person.

“You can do it,” are the magic words. “I believe in you.”

“I care about you,” said with love, and often, said simply by your presence at the table with them, showing up and being part of their lives, listening with your whole, loving heart.

Does this win the Battle of Gettysburg, or turn the tide at Waterloo? Do I ride my white horse up the steps of the royal palace and claim victory for the people?

I don’t need to win those kinds of battles. But, I do need to empower myself to truly live my values, and to help others see the potential they have to live decent, meaningful lives, free of the demons and darkness that often clouds their souls.

“Yes, you can,” is my battle cry, my shout for leading the revolution and winning the war.

Restringing


Together, we tear open the packages of new strings, gingerly remove the old strings, and replace them with new ones, all shiny and bright. The new strings don’t come with directions, and folks who buy violin strings are probably presumed to know what they are doing. Trial and error become reliable teachers, and our first experience in restringing a violin soon brings results.

He tightens each string, checking the tuning, a smile creeping over his face as he realizes his violin now has a clearer, brand new tone. Yes, he can do this. He can restring his violin, a new task is learned, and a big accomplishment is made.

The violin has been a good teacher these last few months, offering challenges, and stretching his fingers and his fascination with making music with a bow, strings, and a centuries old design. My friend, “Jim”, is finding his voice with this violin, a place to put his emotions, and his fears. He’s getting out of prison in eight months, and there’s a lot of fear in him now, about how to live, and how to be a man on the “outside”, for the first time in his young life. Six years is a long time behind bars, especially when you are twenty three.

His grandfather’s gift of the violin has brought him some genuine excitement, and a place for his emotions, his love for creating something beautiful. He is finding a voice for his soul to spread its wings and soar.

We work quietly, offering each other suggestions, each contributing a finger to hold a string, or add a bit of tension, only a word here and there to solve a problem of a reluctant tip of a wire string, or finding the correct direction to turn a tuning peg, the right groove for that particular string.

He retunes and retightens, again and again, as the new strings stretch, now becoming part of the violin, part of the whole of what he tenderly holds in his arms and under his chin, his bow finding its place, creating new notes, clean and bright.

We were supposed to work on our weekly task, reading comprehension and vocabulary for his college entrance tests. He kept failing the tests on the computer, and was getting frustrated. He’d seen me helping other young men here with their studies, and had finally screwed up his courage enough to ask me for some help.

In the past two months, we’d been faithful to our task, making progress, but today was different. As soon as I walked into the multi-purpose room for the prison camp, and its eclectic chaos of books, videos, craft supplies, a few beat up guitars, and “Jim”’s violin, he talked excitedly about everything but our work. He was a tea kettle getting ready to boil.

Our stringing task complete, I’m thinking we could get our studying done. But, the water’s still hot and “Jim” is ready to unload on something else. We move on to a new topic, and soon he is showing me photos of his family, and telling me their stories, and the stories of his young life, stories he’s never shared with me.

There’s the grandfather who sent him the violin, smiling, picking his guitar.

“He’s real proud of me, for working so hard on the violin,” he says. “I got to talk to him on the phone the other day, first time in a year.”

As he flips through the album, he lets me deeper into his life, sharing some more sad stories, some of his pain, his worries about people he loves, and who he really might be, inside.

And, finally, the last page of the album, the real reason he’s emotional today. He lets me inside of his heart, and shares a deep, sad story, so intense and personal that the details, the intimacy, aren’t to be shared with anyone else. Yet, he trusts me to listen, to hear his story, and why he is so sad, and on edge today.

I want to find a corner and cry my eyes out, the pain in “Jim”’s voice filling me with sorrow. But, I have to keep listening, No one else is.

It’s a matter of fact tale, just part of his young life, just what he has had to experience. I lean in, and listen hard, my few questions telling him I’m really listening, really paying attention to him, and his Divine Comedy, taking me deeper and colder than Dante’s version of the deepest part of Hell.

We’ve gone so far today, from mentor and prisoner, to tutor and student, to amateur violin restringer and tuner, to spiritual surgeons, working on a broken heart. My job now becomes the listener, the friend, the other human being in the room who gives a damn about this young man and his pain.

He tells his story, letting me hear his pain, and his deep love for what he had in his arms, and then lost, and how he has gained from all of that, and become a loving, good man, at peace with God, and content in his life. Oh, there is still some bitterness and some righteous anger, but instead of poisoning his soul, he uses all that to feed his soul, and nurture his gentle, peaceful spirit, and give himself guidance and purpose in his life.

There are angels in this room now, surrounding us, and filling this space with love and a sense of serenity and comfort. I think “Jim” senses them, too, and his shoulders drop, and he is, at last, becoming at peace with his story he has just shared. In the telling, he has found some acceptance, and compassion, some support in his journey. He is not alone, now, in that story, that part of his life that nearly pulled his heart out of his chest.

I grab him and hold him close, and he holds me tight, and sobs, at last. Together, we grieve, the soothing words we both need now not spoken, but filling the room, and healing his heart, resounding loudly in our souls. What I try to give to him now comes not from me, as much as it comes from the angels in our midst, the air heavy with the unconditional love of the universe.

Our time is up, now, and I have to go. We’ve worked on our vocabulary, the words that really matter today, and we’ve restrung a violin, giving both “Jim” and his violin a new, brighter voice. We’ve put in some new heart strings, too, giving me a chance to love this young man a little harder, a little deeper today, giving him some space to play his songs, and be loved.

—Neal Lemery
4/10/2014