Celebrating Fathers’ Day


 

 

Tomorrow is Fathers’ Day, and I know we are all expected to celebrate it. Fathers are special and should be honored on their special day.  It is supposed to be a day of wholesomeness, warm feelings, sentimentality, and unbounded familial love. That’s what all the Fathers’ Day cards say, anyway.

But, there’s a lot of mixed emotions, and turmoil under the surface of having the barbeque, giving a card, and a nice present.  Or, to be on the receiving end, and be thanked as a father in someone’s life.

There are so many strings attached, so many thoughts and memories that come to the surface, so many conflicting and unsettling experiences to sort through and try to make sense of. All the sentimentality and idealism can be a trap for the emotionally wounded, those of us who have other emotions and memories about fathers, the ones you can’t find in a Hallmark card.

And if Dad has passed away, or is otherwise absent in one’s life, there’s grief and the psychological jungle of things left unsaid, words that we regret, or words that we are desperate to hear or speak.  Those children have no place and no role to play in a day of a sentimental card, a barbeque, or a gift of golf balls.

We don’t talk about that emptiness, that pain, but we should.

What is a good father?  Even our cultural heroes and role models aren’t really what we had imagined, or thought of as solid, stable figures in our lives.  When my wife and I were raising my stepson, we watched Bill Cosby’s show, and I thought he was the good dad — sensitive, kind, compassionate, the kind of dad I wanted my son to emulate in his life.  Yet, that image of wholesomeness and stability has been dashed on the rocks of reality, and a conviction for predatory abuse and exploitation.

In my own life, I have seen stories and accepted history and experiences being altered by unsettling revelations, confessions, and recovered memories.  The charming and comfortable portrayals of healthy and good parents have shifted, from the fall of Dr. Huxtable as the all wise and kind father figure to the realization that real life isn’t always the story of Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best.

 

 

One thing that is absent in our society’s Fathers’ Day celebrations is a conversation about what is good fathering, and how we can strive to be better fathers, and better sons and daughters.  We need to look at new gifts to give on dad’s special day, other than a new tie, tools for the barbeque, or golf balls.

Good parenting is a skill, and we need a day to ponder that, and have a real conversation about being the great dad, and how we can build healthier families.

In reality, living in the world of truth really is better for me than fiction, the fantasized and idealized “perfect world” created by Hollywood and our society’s desire to sugarcoat our historical reality.

Though, part of me longs for the dream world of the idealized childhood, and the warm and fuzzy images of the ideal Fathers’ Day experience. Part of me wants the nice sweetness of Dr. Huxtable, Ward Cleaver, and Sheriff Andy Griffith to be part of my Fathers’ Day party.  But, those icons of healthy fathering aren’t in my reality, and I’ve hopefully learned how to separate the television fantasies from truth.

If fatherhood had a god, it would probably be Janus, looking both forward and back, showing us how those two perspectives can often be contradictory.  Life is messy.

My experiences as a father always involves looking back as my experience as the son, and realizing that much of my fathering work is shaped by how I saw my father parented me. I’ve had other men who parented me, too, sometimes in momentary blips of insight, compassion, and correction.  And, I’ve become increasingly grateful for those fathers who took it upon themselves to get my attention and offer some kindly, and often needed, direction and counsel.

Like Janus, I’ve looked back on that work and hopefully used that wisdom in my own work as a father.

I’ve mentored a number of young men who have needed some fathering and attention to the tough business of growing up in this world.  I’ve drawn upon my own experiences as a son, and as a father, and helped guide them through their own storms and battles.

The reward in that is to hopefully give them a better experience that I’ve had as a son, giving direction and guidance, without a lot of the harsh judgment and anger that can easily derail a young man in his journey.

I’m not the perfect father.  And, I certainly wasn’t the perfect son.  I’m content with that, but I also know that this work of fathering is really never completed, that there are always going to be opportunities to be fatherly, and to give to others what I have needed in my past.

If we are mindful of that work, and those challenges, perhaps that is what we should be thinking about on Fathers’ Day.

6/20/2018

Letter to a Graduate


May 22, 2018

 

It is almost that time, so Congratulations on Graduation!!!!

 

Earning a bachelor’s degree is a very big deal and a huge accomplishment.  There is a great deal of work involved, and persistence and determination.

 

I believe that you have truly applied yourself and gained much from this experience.  I hope that you have learned how to learn, and how to think analytically, and that you have been exposed to a great amount of ideas, viewpoints, and opinions, and have had to develop your own thinking and analysis to issues and situations.

 

I also hope that you are an avid “lifelong learner” and this is only a step in your continuing education and development.

 

In my experience, college and being devoted to learning and education and development of the mind is one of the most worthwhile activities in one’s life.

 

Which leads me to the topic of “patience”, and change making.  I have had a lifetime of struggle with being patient.  My mentors continually counseled me about being patient.  My grandmother and mother taught me a lot about gardening, with the ever present message of being patient.  Time can be on my side and can be an asset, very useful tool.

 

And, over time, one can observe and see patterns and trends that otherwise would not be observable or discernable.

 

I see the benefit of patience in my art and music, too.  Time is actually a very good teacher, and it takes the passage of time for the body and brain to fully learn and develop.  And, probably why I am attracted to Zen Buddhism, as a spiritual practice and source of wisdom, letting time move and being in the moment.

 

Yet, the tension for me is that I know I am often ready to move on, that I have learned my life lessons in a place and the experience, and enough is enough.  Let’s get it on! I’m really a “get it done, now, already” kind of guy.  I don’t suffer fools well, and when the lessons are learned, why wait around?

 

Yet, when I have to wait, I observe more, and I think more, and I probably learn the lessons of the experience better, and then able to teach those lessons better to others. And, to remember and “do” something with the experience in a better way.  My “product” is better because it has more time to ripen, to come into its true form.  And, I guess, to confirm my hypotheses and conclusions.  A period of testing, refining, perfecting.

 

Intellectually, I have come to peace about that waiting process.  I’m not sure if I have come to peace about that spiritually, though.  I’ve concluded that karma is real and comes about over time, sometimes a really long time.  But, if I can wait it out, then karma is sweet and is to be savored.  I try not to be a revengeful person, but there is a proverb that says that revenge is a dish best served cold.

 

Perhaps the better, more Zenlike approach, is to be the actor for positive action and change, going around the roadblock and the evil, and building a better road for others.  And, if good actions are stymied, then being satisfied with being the example, the exception that proves the rule, and thereby the force for change and new thinking.

 

There’s another saying about good people doing what others are saying can’t be done. I’ll look that up, because that is probably a good motto for my life.  Over time, I’ve noticed that what I thought has been revolutionary is seen by others new to the scene as an existing, functioning phenomenon that is accepted as “always being there”.  Truly a successful revolution.

 

Often, what I’ve found, is that real change occurs in seemingly random, spontaneous conversations. The grocery store, at a gathering, maybe lunch with a friend.  Those little conversations are really the gems, the gold to be mined, to engage and enliven people and give them permission to have the good, the deep conversations and searches.  Other tools, other works, such as writing and music and art, are more the examples, the stimulators of those conversations and experiences.  They provide the metaphors, so one can talk about scary things in a safe way.

 

Can I suggest that this time is gold for you?  You have climbed the mountaintop, and you see things now for what they really are.  And, in not too long of a time, you will leave the undergraduate world and not have the current struggle, the current experience. That impending end can be liberating in its own way.  You see the truth and know it.  Others may find the truth to be too scary, too real, and thus avoid it.

 

Thus, a teaching moment for you, space and time to plant some seeds of thought and ideas, and of encouragement to others in their work.

 

The revolution for you has already begun, and you are planting those seeds of change right now, where you are at.  Not flashy or noisy.   Education takes many forms. Others find that scary, something that needs to be limited, constrained, and yes, imprisoned.

 

It will be exciting to see how your journey unfolds.  I hope you are open to what will come your way, and that you will take risks, and opportunities, and plunge into the unknown and uncertain.  And, anything you attempt in good faith will not be a dead end or a “wasted” opportunity.  Gold is where you find it.

 

Respectfully,

 

 

Neal C. Lemery

 

Resilience


 

 

I live in resilient times.  Examples of being tough, flexible, and determined to move on with one’s life are all around me, and I am heartened by their courage, their stubbornness, and their ability to realize their dreams.

I’ve only known one man through a mutual friend, and we’ve exchanged letters for several years now, talking about books and sharing our writing, and our lives.  He’s been in prison for 21 years in another state, so we’ve never met face to face. Yet, we’ve connected and I’ve been a cheerleader for him, as he’s been preparing himself for a challenging parole hearing.

It was an uphill battle for him, and he’s had to work through feelings of worthlessness and lack of confidence in his talents and how he’s grown in prison, that he’s not the enraged, frustrated teenager living on city streets, acting out, in a drug induced haze.  Others have supported him, too, yet the real work was his to do.  Meeting the parole board, it came down to what he had to say for himself. It was about how he presented the work that he’s done to change his thinking and to demonstrate that he’s ready for life on the “outside”, ready to make some contributions to society.

And, at the end of the day, he was found “worthy of parole”.  After all that time, he can now move on, into a first-class drug rehab facility, where he will also learn the skills to be a drug and alcohol counselor.  He’s overcome his fears, or at least has been able to use that energy to fuel his rehabilitation and self-actualization of who he really is, inside. He’s open to learn more about himself and the demons that have shaped his life, and to build himself into an even healthier, balanced man.

He’s changed, and it’s not because of those who have supported him, but because of his own work, and his own determination and self-esteem.

Another friend gets out of prison this summer, nearly finishing his graduate degree on line.  He’s done his undergrad and grad school work on line from a cubicle in prison, diligently studying, writing, and even doing group projects with other students. Prison isn’t the ideal college campus, yet he has persisted. Already, the college has employed him to improve the program and help other students.

Even more astonishing, he has grown and matured into a well-adjusted socially delightful young man, who knows the importance of a well-rounded and balanced life with others.  His attitude and his intentions are the total opposite of his childhood life, and he has made the transition with a great deal of grit and determination.

Yet another man has navigated a tough childhood and several years of incarceration, to getting off parole and moving into the work force.  No job was beneath him, and he worked hard, always moving ahead, improving his skills and not being afraid of hard work, long hours, and changing himself into a healthy, cheerful young man with solid values and meaningful dreams.

Today, he’s transitioning into yet another job, with more responsibility, better pay, and stability.  He knows where he is going and knows who he is and wants to be.

Some of what I’ve gained in these friendships is to experience their honesty and forthrightness.  They are open to who they are, where they’ve come from, what they’ve experienced, and the mistakes they’ve made.  They freely share their lessons and their wisdom.  They have taught me that one’s intentions and one’s determination makes all the difference in the world.  And, with that drive in their gut, there is no stopping them in what they want to accomplish.

They’ve made mistakes, but then, haven’t we all? Regrets, even shame and guilt are there, but when one decides to learn from that experience, and to change what needs to be changed, and focus on where one needs to go, the past becomes a teacher, and not a label.

They remind me to examine my own life, the experiences I have had, the choices I’ve made, and the directions I have taken in my life.  They have taught me to accept the lessons to be taught, and to move forward, gathering my skills and my ambition, and to move ahead.  It is hard work, and challenging.  Yet, if one wants to change and to realize one’s dreams, you have to step forward and do the hard work.

In that process, you have to also love yourself, and to respect yourself for who you are, and who you are becoming.  Labels don’t really matter, and one’s past is simply that.  It doesn’t compel you to repeat poor choices, or to accept the situation you are in, and simply feel that you are doomed to a certain direction or destiny.

What others may think of you doesn’t really matter, unless you think it does.

These men are speakers of Truth, an increasingly scarce commodity in our society.  They don’t dance around the facts, the reality of life.  Instead, they focus themselves, grab onto their dreams and the direction they have decided to take, and then put their heart and soul into working towards their goals and dreams. They are honest, and don’t pull any punches when it comes to being real and direct.

They get real, and they keep me real, and focused on doing something meaningful and productive in my life.

Our conversations are deep and purposeful. And, I wish I had more friends like them, and more conversations with substance and depth.

Game playing, lying, manipulating others, and not dealing with the elephant in the living room aren’t who they are about.  They know what they want and they know how to get there.  They are brutally honest with themselves, and can spot the old “stinking thinking” a mile away.

They don’t suffer fools easily, and steer away from the naysayers and the idlers they come across in their lives.  Their BS meters are finely tuned and always powered up.  Their respect is not easily earned, yet they are fiercely loyal to their own dreams, and to those in their lives who have become their close friends and family.

Others in our lives can easily dance around the truth, and are prone to manipulate us with propaganda, half-truths, fake news, and false thinking. They waste my time and clutter up my thinking with their blather.  I find myself repulsed by their disrespect for the truth and for their own warped values. I resent how they waste my time, and detract all of us from improving our world and enriching lives.

The better society is being built by the likes of these men who are self-actualized truth seekers. They are constructing decent, purposeful lives, and are worthy role models for the rest of us.

I’d rather hang out with the likes of these men, who are straightforward and focused. I have much to learn from them, the resilient ones.

 

–Neal Lemery 5/9/2018

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

Grieving


 

 

 

They come into my life and then, too early, they are gone. And I mourn and grieve, cry and moan. I am angry at my loss, my pain, the void in my life as their sudden absence is a bleeding, infected wound that never quite seems to heal.

Grief dances its macabre and bittersweet retinue of every emotion, taking fiendish joy in ambushing me when I least expect it, when I am least able to cope with the pain.

Yet, deep down, I still carry their light and their love, and sense their their soul, still resounding with me, still an integral part of my life.

Why? What was so special about that person that I am so profoundly affected by their passing? What was it about them that reached me, touched my heart, and brought them so close to me, such an essential part of my life, my own story? What is the lesson to be learned?

I just read that plants emit light frequencies in a part of the light spectrum that is invisible to our eyes, yet photography is now able to record those images, those vibrations, and reveal another dimension of the profound beauty and intricacies of these living beings.

Is it that much of a stretch in thinking that people also emit vibrations and frequencies of light that is invisible to our eyes, yet sensed in a much deeper level by us, on a different, yet intuitive, level.

“You are special. You bring something into my life that is beautiful, meaningful for me.”

Attraction.

The law of attraction teaches us that we attract to ourselves the emotions, the feelings, the vibrations that we need. And when we open ourselves to those feelings, the presence of what we crave, then we become more complete, and more able to live the life that we deeply desire. We come closer to fulfilling our true purpose in this life.

And when a special person leaves us, there is a void, an emptiness, a loss. Yet there is also the knowing, deep down, of what they have brought to us in our all too brief time together. That memory serves us well, teaching us what we had needed and desired, to be a better, more complete person.

In that loss, that death, there are lessons to be learned, lessons on what we have needed and taken in, and grown from. When the class is over, only then do we fully appreciate the lessons learned, the experience gained, the real benefit of being present for the lesson, the experience.

At the end of a particular journey, the end of that special time when a special friend has come into my life and walked with me, only then do I first realize what I have experienced, what we had set out to learn, and how I needed to grow. I look back, and only then see from where I have come, how far I have traveled, and the name of the road I am on.

These dear ones who have passed on, the ones whose light I have needed along my own journey, have taught me great lessons, and deeply impacted my life. I find that when they are gone, only then do I start to fully realize the gifts they have given me, the lessons they have taught me, and the special places they have held in my life. Only then do I fully appreciate them, and find some sense of completeness and understanding of their presence in my life.

Somehow, their teaching to me is not complete until they are gone. Only then do I learn all the lessons they have been teaching me.

Only then is the full spectrum of the light they have shared revealed to me.

Only then can grief lead me to the understanding I have been led to eventually discover.

 

 

–Neal Lemery 6/16/2017

The Young Prisoner’s Rage


The Young Prisoner’s Rage

 

 

 

It boils out of me, this rage against you, this struggle I have on how to feel about me being the son, and you the father. The bruised knuckles from hitting the wall, again, with the full force of the rage, aching, yet all I want is to be numb, and not feel the ache in my heart.

I stuff it down, push it deep, wanting to turn my heart into stone.

Betrayed. Abandoned. Neglected. I just want to be numb, and not feel all that.

I’m trying to grow up, to be healthy, mature, manly. But without a father, a healthy, good father, I am empty, hollow.

My soul is hungry for connection, yet the absence of my dad, the silence, even worse, the indifference, tells me I am unworthy, I have failed.

I’m here in prison, doing time, labeled, categorized, marked. Wanting to be a healthy man, yet I have stumbled, fallen, and became a criminal.

I hear my dad’s voice saying, again, of course you’re worthless, you are trash, you are a criminal, and not worthy of my love, or even my name. You are not my son. I denounce you. I reject you, my heir, my seed, my son. You are not of my image, my spawn, my child.

Be my dad, I had said, I had begged. Love me, embrace me, take me by the hand and show me. Show me how to be the son, the man-child, a good man.

But, no. Rejection. Shame, guilty, abandonment. I am the throw away son.

Of course I am worthless. I am the criminal, the felon, the prisoner. Like you expected of me, I have proven how worthless I am. I guess you were right when you said I was worthless. You told me I was trash and so here I am, a sack of garbage, the criminal unworthy of you even acknowledging me.

I am not your son. I am trash. You have no son.

But, father, did you just try to love me, to guide me, to hold me close, to be the parent, the father I needed?

I didn’t need much, just for you to love me, to accept me, just to be your son.

I got lost, but you didn’t come find me, didn’t guide me, didn’t hug me, didn’t parent me. You threw me away, and I just want to go numb, and slam my fist into the wall, and not feel it.

You loved the bottle, the pipe, the pill, the denial of my existence much more than what I needed from you.

Undeserving, of no value, that’s the message you gave me, again and again, until it sounded like the truth. Repeated, and repeated, so it must be true.

What else can I do, but rage. I scream into the night, punch my fist into the wall, look into the mirror and see only a worthless soul, unworthy of love, unable to forgive, to honor myself, to see any good in myself.

I rage, so therefore I am worthless, trash. A tight circle, self-fulfilling prophesy of emptiness, garbage.

Is it too much to ask, that I can hear I am valued, that I have purpose, that I am a man, a good man, capable of and deserving of love?

Is it too much to ask that I hear you are proud of me?

You reject me, over and over again. I get it. I am nothing in your eyes. I can never be the man I dare to dream of being; I can never be the son worthy of your name, your love.

No, I am trash, garbage, a worthless sack of s**t. My destiny must be to sit in my prison cell and mean nothing to anyone else, is that what you think? Is that what you want? Is that what you desire your son to be?

Slam, goes the fist into the wall, the pain somehow justified, earned, because of who you think I am, how worthless I must really be. If only I could be loved, to hear you say that word, to hold me tight and let me feel your love for me.

But, no. Rejection, shame, abandonment. Is that what you want for me? Is that why you brought me into the world, to throw me away?

All I want is to be loved, to be seen as a son, as a soul seeking his dream, wanting to have value, to be a beloved child of God.

Yet, I am rejected, unloved, unworthy, undeserving of the name of son, of being beloved and embraced.

And when I have a son, how will I treat him, what will I say to him? What will I show him how I have learned to treat a son?

And, so I rage.

And , so I rage.

 

 

—-Neal Lemery 3/20/2017

Numbing Up


 

 

“I just want to feel numb,” he said.

The young man sitting across the table sipped his drink and munched on some chips, looking down.

The obscenity he had carved into his arm a few months ago had almost faded away. The pain I saw in his eyes hadn’t.

He pulled hard on the skin on the top of his left hand, and then he poked at it hard with his finger.

“See,” he said, “it doesn’t hurt. I can barely feel it.”

He bent his fingers back, the large knuckles cracking and popping. I winced, sympathetically feeling that pain in my own hand.

There was a story that came with it, about being angry and high; ramming his fist into a bridge pillar on a dark, hopeless night. The pain felt good, felt real, a release from his misery.

The pain made things clear, an atonement of his many sins.

I reached over and lightly touched the top of his hand.

“I can’t feel that,” he said. “Nothing.”

“Have you told anyone about this?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“If I tell people things that are wrong with me, then I’m weak. I don’t want to be vulnerable,” he said.

“Then, they’ll pick on me, kick me when I’m down.”

“Not that I don’t deserve that,” he said.

I didn’t have a good response. He’s vulnerable enough already, I thought.

“What are your plans now, about getting out?” I asked.

He shook his head, then looked down.

“I don’t have a home to go to. So, maybe some kind of half way house.”

He’s got some work ahead of him here, this correctional facility where the staff work with youth, working on their treatment, their education, building them up so that they can be self-supporting, self reliant.

There’s a few years of high school left for him. He came here without any high school credits, but he’s doing the work, and moving ahead in his classes. He’s surprised himself, getting good grades, moving ahead, grasping concepts, and being able to hold his own in class.

When we talk about his vocation, his trade he wants to learn, he brightens up. When we do our math and our writing, if I can make the task relate to that work, he gets it, and he learns.

He’s not the dumb ass his dad thinks he is; he’s no longer getting high on the street, and being the wanna be gang banger.

Still, there’s that desire to just be numb, to not feel, and sometimes, the desire to just end it all, to just curl up in the corner and die.

A few weeks ago, he seemed so down, I asked him the question, the ‘are you thinking of killing yourself’ question. The carving on the arm was fresh then, and the hole he was living in was dark, and getting deeper.

We had a heart to heart talk then, and things got better. He used the word “trust”, and liked having someone around he could talk to, someone to trust. He liked that I kept showing up, even if sometimes he didn’t think it was worth my time.

I kept showing up, kept proving him wrong about wasting my time.

I even saw a smile, then another one.

The medication seems to help some, and the latest pill hasn’t fully kicked in yet. There’s his basketball playing, working up a sweat and playing a good game with some of the other guys here. He’s pretty good at it, and the other guys want him on their team.

And, the weightlifting. Another guy is training him, gradually increasing the weights, building him up, finding that spark of confidence and trying to fan it into a real flame.

I show up, and sometimes we work on his math, sometimes his writing. Usually, we end up talking about what life was like on the streets, him looking to get high, getting into fights, being angry at his mom for getting high, and dad – not showing up, not being in his life.

One day, I met with him and his teachers, talking about his grades and his work. The conversation shifted, and we talked about his depression, his suicidal thoughts, his fear of getting out and not making it. There was a lot of compassion in the room, a lot of caring, a lot of concern.

We weren’t giving up on him, and I could see him taking all that in, feeding his soul.

Today, he’s back talking about just wanting to be numb. It’s familiar talk, and probably all that he’s known most of his life, a familiar way of dealing with the world.

He and I, we are trying to change that, to look at some positives, to work on some tasks and succeed, to change the theme in his life.

I’m seeing progress, at least a willingness to keep working on the good stuff.

Perhaps that’s enough, at least for today.

I’ll be back, and I’ll keep cheering him on, believing in him, seeing him as something more than someone who just wants to be numb.

 

–Neal Lemery 3/1/17