The Power of Listening


The Power of Listening

“Concern for others is the best form of self interest.”

—Desmond Tutu

I talk a lot. I’m pretty opinionated, and I usually have something to say.

Yet, this week, I learned, once again, the magic of being quiet, of listening to others, and just being there, so that they could say what was on their mind. In doing that, I learned a lot, about them, and also about myself.

I had lunch with a man I’ve known for quite a while. I don’t think we were friends, but now we are. He needed some help in his life, some advice, some direction. He needed a bit of my time.

We talked, or rather, he talked, and I asked a few questions along the way. He had quite the story to tell, and needed some direction. Not many people had been listening to him lately, and life had gotten out of hand. He was living in chaos and things that needed attention weren’t getting his focus. He was overwhelmed.

The more I listened, the more I realized he really needed some medical care. That wasn’t on his pretty long list of the crises and dilemmas in his life, but, the more I heard him talk, the more I realized that the solutions were to be found in him getting some medical help.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), he’d just been accepted into the Oregon Health Plan. For the first time in about fifteen years, he had health insurance, and didn’t need to rely on the emergency room as his only source of health care.

Up until this year, he hadn’t been able to afford to go to the emergency room, and so, when his thumb got cut pretty deep, he sewed it up himself. He showed me his thumb, and the decent job he did. I winced at the thought of his pain, and his determination, to take care of himself, no matter what he suffered.

He wanted me to wave my magic legal wand and solve his legal problems. Yet, the real issues were rooted in his health. If he could become healthy, and address his medical issues, then he could manage and resolve the things he said were troubling him. Soon, he’ll need a lawyer, but today, he needed a doctor.

I drove him to the health clinic and made an appointment. A few days later, we met there, again, and we filled out the long questionnaire about his medical history, and a survey on depression. Bingo, he self scored a 100% on the depression survey. I admired his honesty in answering all the questions with an open heart. It’s tough for anyone to be brutally honest with themselves when it comes to your health, and that challenge is doubled or tripled when it comes to looking in the mirror and saying the word “depression”.

We met with two amazing, compassionate staff members of the clinic. In a few minutes, they were doing tests, asking more questions, and engaging my friend in a frank and respectful conversation about his health. He could see the entire picture, and the collision in his life of genetics, diet, exercise, addictions, and the stress of his life.

We talked about remedies, and new choices to be made. More tests were scheduled, and a follow up visit was set, to check on how he’s doing on his depression medication, and to begin work on some of his other long term problems. They offered him hope and professional competence. More importantly, they offered him respect.

It was a hard day for him, hard to show up for the appointment, hard to have a real conversation about the realities of his life, and hard for him to accept the help he’s needed. Everyone in the room was concerned about him, him as a person, as a human being. There wasn’t a word of judgment, a word of criticism of his choices and the way he’s chosen to self medicate.

At last, he could get the medical care he needed, and to gain the tools he needs to move on with his life, and regain his health.

Our country is having a big discussion about medical insurance and health care. A lot of folks grump about the costs of medical care, and the pros and cons of subsidized health insurance for people in poverty, and the working poor. I’m overwhelmed with all the statistics, plans, and arguments on all sides of the discussion.

All that quickly gets intellectually confusing, with lots of rhetoric and politics, and, I suspect, a lot of propaganda. There’s money to be made, and lots of self interest, and self serving posturing going on.

Yet, for all that talk, I sat with my friend, seeing him get first class health care, seeing him get the services he’s needed, and to be able to work on restoring his health. Soon, he’ll be able to work, he’ll be able to get out of bed and feel good about himself, and to be the kind of father he needs to be to his kids, and be an active, healthy member of the community. If there’s a price for that, I think we’d all think that would be a pretty good investment, especially if you could see the tears of relief and validation that flowed down his cheek, as we sat in that exam room, and he realized he’s on the road to getting well, and he had hope for his life.

The next day, I visited a young man in prison. He’s asked that I come visit him, to mentor him a bit, and have some conversation. I’ve admired his art work, and some of my other buddies out at the prison thought it would be a good idea if I came to see him.

I brought some coffee and doughnuts, not sure what he would like to enjoy, as we got to know each other.

“You could have brought anything,” he said. “I haven’t had a visit in a year and a half, so, …anything’s fine with me.”

He gets out next year, and is working hard on the work crew, earning a bit of money so he’ll be able to find a place to live, and get settled into adult life. After seven years, it will be a big change, and he’s ready to make a fresh start in life.

He had a lot to say, once I asked him a few questions. I shut my mouth, and gave him the space to talk. His family only came once a year to visit, and now that they’ve got some serious health problems, they haven’t been able to see him for a year and a half.

He sees his younger brother going down the wrong path, and wants to be there for him, to help him turn the corner, and live a decent life. My buddy knows the drug and alcohol road, and the road of anger and not having a healthy father as a role model in his life. He’s done his work behind those walls, and is walking on the straight and narrow path now. And, he’s not afraid to share his wisdom.

I heard him tell the sad tales of his life, the struggles of his mom, raising kids on not much money but a whole lot of love. I heard him speak about his anger about his stepdad, and the hunger he’s had for some good role models, and some direction in his life. I heard him speak about the fights he’s started, and how being a gang member addressed his hunger in his life, until he realized that punching someone out and being angry at the world wasn’t doing much for himself. He wasn’t being the person he wanted to be, and he needed to change.

He showed me the violin his grandfather sent, and he grinned as he told me how he’s learning to play it, and how it gives him a voice for all that he feels in his heart, about who he was and who he is now, and where he wants to go.

He wanted to hear a little bit about me, who I am, what my life is like. And, sometime soon, we’ll have that conversation. But, yesterday was his turn, his opportunity to speak his mind, and tell his story. He needed someone to just listen, to take the time for him, to let him be the focus of a conversation for once.

His story is a sad story, but also a story about courage, and determination, and the power of a person to reach down deep inside of themselves, and realize that they need to make a change. It was a story of reaching out, of finding some resources, of seeing hope when you are at the very bottom of your life, and of deciding to climb out of that hole, and to move on, to seek the destiny of your precious, wonderful life.

These two men, these two encounters this week, are teaching me a lot about courage, and determination. They are teaching me that there is hope in this country for men deciding to summon their courage from deep inside of themselves, to face what they need to face, and then to step out, to move on, and change their lives.

—Neal Lemery, March 9, 2014

Finding The Right Fathers’ Day Card


I walk past the large display of Fathers’ Day cards in the store, not even stopping to browse, to find the perfect card to send to a father. A twinge of sadness stings my gut, bringing back that old feeling, a mixture of grief, loss, and an emptiness that can’t be filled.

The greeting card companies and the TV ads tell me I’m supposed to make Fathers’ Day a special day for my dad.. But, they’re missing the point, and they sure don’t understand my life and how I think about Fathers’ Day.

Dad has been gone for most of my life. And even when he was around and I got him a card, he’d just nod, barely saying the “thank you” I’d been craving. My step dad has been gone a long time, too. I knew he liked my cards. He’d smile and give me a hearty handshake. We knew where we stood with each other.We just didn’t say them. Talking about love and fathering wasn’t part of our conversations. But, we knew. And, that was enough for me.

My father in law liked my cards, too. He’s chuckle and laugh, and there’d be a twinkle in his eye. He got a lot of attention on Fathers’ Day, and he knew he was loved. He gave it back, too. In spades.

This is the second year without him, and the emptiness inside of me as I look at all the choices on the card rack gets a bit deeper with me.

I’m on the other side of the coin now. I have a bunch of sons. My step son and I are close, even though he’s about six hundred miles away. We can share our love easily, with just a smile, a joke, or something funny we e-mail to each other. We still joke with each other, still playing pranks on each other with a silly plastic lobster. A few weeks ago, I found Mr. Lobster, again, and he starred in my movie, the one I made on my iPad, and sent to my 42 year old son.

A few hours later, my son sends me an e-mail. He’s in hysterics over my three minute movie, and invites me to share it with the rest of the family. I’m not sure he thought I would, but I did, showing him I, too, can make my way around You Tube, and make some jokes again, with Mr. Lobster.

One of my foster sons flies his paraglider way up in the air, sending me videos once in a while, looking down at the far away ground, or a jet liner flying under him. He knows I’m scared of heights, and I worry about him jumping off cliffs and flying high in the air, turning summersaults and making loops. I know he’s laughing every time he sends me his latest aerial adventures. It’s his way of saying he loves me, that he’s doing just fine.

I have other sons now, too, the young guys I mentor in prison, and some of the other guys there, too. The young man who makes the coffee drinks at the prison canteen on visiting days knows my usual order, and gets it started the moment I walk in the door. Other guys show me their art work, or tell me about doing well on a test, or moving ahead in their treatment. I get a lot of “Hi, Neal”s when I show up on their special days, or sit in on one of their activities, being a dad in their lives.

Their own dads don’t show up much, if at all. So, I like to give them a smile and a handshake, just to say hi, just to say that they are important.

I don’t find the “sons” section in the Fathers’ Day cards. There are the golfing joke ones, the religious ones, the silly ones, even the stepdad ones now. But, there aren’t any cards that say what I want to say, “Good job, son. Thanks for being the son. Without the son, there’d be no Fathers’ Day.”

“I’m proud of who you are, what you’ve become.”

That’s what this day is really about, sons and daughters. The dad takes on the job of helping to raise the child, to teach, to listen, to wipe snotty noses and change dirty diapers, and help them with their homework. And, to listen and counsel, and show them, by example, how it is to be a man, to move along in the world, being healthy, and wise.

I don’t have daughters, but I know they’re watching their dads, too.
“How are you at this man stuff? How do I live with you? What kind of man do I want in my life? And, while you are at it, teach me about trust.”

It is the biggest job I’ve ever had. A lot of teaching of respect, and capability, and a lot of unconditional love.

We’re supposed to show them what love is all about. And, respect. And, compassion and learning about this crazy world.

Being a dad is really learning how to be a good example, to be watched, and judged.

“How ARE you doing as a man?”

“Show me. But, I expect you to do it right.”

No pressure there!

And, by the way, the manual on all this stuff is out of print, and I can’t find an old copy on Amazon.

We’re the guys that wait by the door at night, making sure they get home safe from that party, or that big date. We’re there to listen, to nod, to simply be there, keeping the porch light burning, to be the guy who cares that they do have a home to come back to, after a day of being a teenager in a harsh, often indifferent, cruel world.

We give the hugs, wipe the tears, and look them in the eye, quietly telling them we believe in them. All things are possible. And, they are loved.

Such simple things we do. But, when that simple stuff gets neglected, or no guy is behind the front door when they do come home late at night, then all hell can break loose, and their fragile ships at sea too often crash onto the reefs and sink in the storms.

And, we’re the guys that haul the laundry sack to the laundry room, when they come home for the weekend. And, we fire up the barbecue, and cook their favorite foods, letting them hang out with their old friends. We often take a back seat then, letting them visit and laugh with their friends, as we flip the burgers, and get more potato salad out of the frig.

There will come the time when they’ll sit down with us on the couch, after the party, and after a long day at the beach with their friends. Then, they’ll talk, a bit shy at first, then going deep, talking about the serious questions of life that a young man has, once they get out in the world, and have to deal with all of life’s adult problems and worries.
Then, we listen, and we listen hard. Sometimes, they ask for advice, but mainly, they just want to talk, to show you they are doing OK, that they learned a lot from you about life, that they are doing pretty good at it.

And, we let them know, right back at them, that they’re doing a good job, and they we believe in them, and take pride in who they are becoming.
It’s pretty easy to sit there and listen, and to nod, to say a few words of encouragement.

You see, fatherhood is a whole bunch of just showing up, just being present in someone’s life.

You don’t need to give them your DNA, but you do need to give them your time, and your love. That’s fatherhood. That’s being a real man.
The good work comes in just answering the phone, or texting something sweet back, in the middle of the night, letting them know you are around, that you care.

I get my thanks, then, for being the dad. I get that when they don’t call for a couple of weeks at a time. I know they are fine, they are making their way, needing their independence, flexing their big boy muscles and making their way through life.

Someday, Hallmark might figure it out, and start selling “I love my kids” cards for Fathers’ Day. But, until they do, I’ll just keep on doing what I do best, loving all my kids with all my heart, and telling them, every chance I get, that I love them.

–Neal Lemery
June 11, 2013

In the Listening


I should never assume I’m in charge of the agenda.

The other day, I had a visit with one of my young friends at the local prison. I’ve been mentoring him, and he’d been teaching me, for quite a while. Visiting day was turning out to be the best day of the week for me, on a lot of different levels.

I had our time all planned out. I brought food, some of his favorites, and coffee. I brought my guitar, and planned to play a game. I even laid out, in my mind, what we’d talk about, as we ate, and played the game. Silly me, thinking I’d be in charge of our time.

Yet, when I arrived, he didn’t even open the bag from the restaurant. He barely sipped the special chocolate frappe I’d brought in. My guitar stayed in its case, and it was obvious he had a lot on his mind. His first words pushed me into the nearest chair and he took command of our time, his eyes sparkling with determination to speak his mind.

He talked, and told stories about his life, his family, and his fears. I heard about his grandma, and his most challenging wrestling meet, and how his coach believed in him. The coach was the first man who ever thought he could do anything in his life.

The restaurant food grew cold; there was a different hunger in the room today. It wouldn’t be satisfied by the burgers and fries.

I heard about his best friend shooting someone at school, and what it was like to watch that, and hear the gunshots in his high school hallway, what it was like to turn around and see his friend firing the gun and the other guy falling, and bleeding. And how he helped get the gun away, when the magazine was finally empty, and how it fell, clanging, on the hard linoleum floor, by the blood.

I had to remember to breathe, as his words quietly tumbled out, words without emotion, just relating the events, him being a reporter of what went on, as he watched a murder.

He took me there, his words painting a picture of his fear, and his empathy for his friend, and why his friend’s anger boiled over into gunfire. He didn’t cry, he just spoke, his voice firm, the sentences turning into page long paragraphs. I wondered if anyone had ever heard this story, even after the cops arrived a few minutes later, and took his friend to jail, leaving him in that long, cold hallway, next to the bullet riddled body, the empty magazine, and the blood.

His eyes told me it was not my time to ask, only to listen.

I could only nod, later occasionally offering a full sentence of empathy and understanding. His words tumbled out, keeping a steady pace, as the hand on the clock on the wall spun around, once, twice, and half again.

Finally, he took a deep breath.

“I guess our time’s up now. Can you come next week?” he said quietly, unfazed by his two and a half hour monologue, his story of murder, and loneliness, and losing a friend.

“Sure,” I said, nodding and giving him a hug. He hugged back, bear like, taking the sack of cold burgers with him.

“I’ll heat these up in the microwave. Thanks.”

When I got home, I took a walk, in the autumn afternoon sunshine, and looked at the colors of the leaves falling from the trees, and the last of the summer flowers, ones that had survived the first few nights of frost. The air was still, the rays of the setting sun still warm on my skin.

There were no birds, no insects, not even a breeze in the dying yellow leaves on the maple tree, as if the world knew I’d had enough listening for a while, and needed to let all that settle in, to find a place for what I’d heard that afternoon.

I heard his stories, again, in that silence, and let his tales sink deep into my soul. And, in all that, I realized I’d been given the gift of knowing him better, and in letting him finally be free to tell his stories and find his own way.

10/8/12

The Gift of Listening


There is power in having some space.

At the end of the day, that time of simply being outside, in the sun of midsummer, taking in the moment, the quiet, there is space. Space for thoughts, for sorting out the events, the emotions, the experiences of the day, and giving all of that jumble time to breathe. All of that becomes sorted out, thought through, and given some rest.

In being with a friend, hearing their story, giving them the space in this thing we call time, to be given the opportunity to find their voice, to share their words, to show what is on their heart, and in their mind, is a precious gift. By being ears for them, they are free to give expression, to not be judged, to not be lost in the cacophony of chatter.

That is a precious gift, a gift we seldom give, and we seldom receive in our world of endless tasks, deadlines, meetings, agendas, and projects. How often do we simply “be”, and allow the sense of completion, of satisfaction, resolution of a task to simply fill our souls? How often do we listen to that sweet silence of realizing that we have completed something, that a task has ended, an experience has been completed, and be simply in a state of recognition of that event?

And, that gift of listening, of space, is often best given to myself.

After a long and arduous meeting, on a beautiful summer’s day, I found myself in a quiet park by a bay, alone at a table. I’d brought a simple supper and my guitar, and took off my shirt to enjoy the feel of warm sun on my skin, and the bit of a breeze coming off of the ocean, rustling the pine trees and the wild flowers. There was a bit of salt in the air, and that warm, mellow summer smell of dry grass and sun warmed dirt.

The jumble of all of the discussions, the planning, the decision-making, the politics of the group still bounced around in my head. Trying to make sense of all of that, and what I was going to do with the day’s experience, filled my brain.

Then, in the peace of that moment, and that quiet space, the ideas, the emotions began to fall into place, to be put in order, and, finally, to be given perspective. The cold beer, the cheese, the crackers, and the breeze on my skin brought me back to earth, back to the moment of this beautiful day.

Slowly, I began to be aware of the bank of fog just offshore, the nearly full moon peaking over the mountain ridge, the group of hikers starting out on a trail, simply ready for adventure. I could taste the age of the sharp cheese, feel the crunch of cracker in my mouth, and savor of bitterness of the hops of the beer. My fingers became eager for the feel of guitar strings on calloused fingertips, repeating patterns and the joy of learning something new, by feel, by intuition.

The noisy chaos of the day’s work faded now, my soul pushing it away, restoring my sense of perspective, my sense of what is really sacred about the day.

In that simplicity, I picked up my guitar, tuning the strings, bringing order to the guitar, to my experience, to the moment. Soon, old, familiar chord patterns and strums, making melodies, making songs, filled my ears. The conflicts from the meeting, the politics and the pushing and pulling of the meetings all fell away. My ears, released from all of that, now were able to hear the sound of pine branches and grass in the breeze, the distant call of birds, the slow movement of the tide across the mudflats, the thud of a paddle against the hull of a kayak, and the vibrations of the guitar strings.

Wristwatch time faded away, only the movement of sunlight across the table, and the guitar, and its dance with the tree branches above me were left. I became inside of the music, inside of the place, meeting up again with my soul, simply being present, quiet, at ease.

And, space opened up, space for me to simply “be”, to breathe, to experience this life in all its glory.

Driving home, I felt alive, complete, re-oriented with the sacred, the holy. All of the noise of the meeting had been left on that picnic table by the bay, alone with itself, left to disappear with the setting sun.