A Nice Review


A nice review of my book, Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains.

“Neal Lemery has a very big heart, big enough to understand how all of the grief and stress which the young men he encountered in court in his position as a judge was connected to their acting out against the law. Rather than pass harsh judgment, instead, over and over, he found ways to reach out to those young men, to empower them to understand what they were really feeling and to feel that someone truly cared about them. As such, over and over he’s been a kind of miracle worker. He has also become a mentor to incarcerated young men, visiting them faithfully while they served time, and sometimes even becoming a kind of adoptive parent to them. He tells their stories and the stories of his connections to them in an easy conversational style and helps us all understand how powerful compassion can really be and how to express it. Must reading.”

—Carol Imani

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

Restringing Guitars and Young Men


 

 

Fridays are my day at the local youth correctional facility. In the morning, I work in their garden, helping young gardeners tend to their chickens, vegetable plots and herb gardens.

 

We plant, weed, water, and harvest, and then preserve and dry the results. Most every week, we cook, enjoying the bounty of our work, and treating the young men to fresh, nutritious produce and the concept of healthy nutrition and living.

 

The real gardening comes in our conversations, the camaraderie of young and older gardeners, working and learning together, truly being in community.

 

They are learning where food really comes from, and how to be invested in that process, being self sufficient and healthy. The metaphor of the garden is not lost on them, as they work to become strong, healthy, productive farmers of their lives.

 

I also work with some of the young men individually, being the “surrogate parent” and being the visitor they need and wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m the “family” who shows up with some baked goods or candy, and just visits for an hour. Sometimes, we play games, but mainly, I just listen, offering the compassionate ear of the uncle or dad who is missing in their lives.

 

I’m tender and kind to them, being the encouraging voice, the cheerleader, the supportive dad they wouldn’t otherwise have.

 

Today, one of my young men and I restrung one of the guitars there. It is a “state” guitar, which means it’s the guitar that gets played by those who don’t have their own instrument. The guitar is played a lot, and replacing the strings has become a regular task for me.

 

The guitar gets loved to death, played hard by lonely, frustrated fingers pouring out the emotions of the neglected and abandoned, the incarcerated, the young men who have no other way of expressing themselves. I’m like that guitar, a place where the emotions of these young men can have their voice, a willing ear, an appreciative audience for what they need to say.

 

My guy has had a rough year. He’s one of the lucky ones, not serving a mandatory sentence, a guy who can walk out the door if he’s done all his treatment, completed high school and shown he can be a responsible young man.

 

He literally has the keys to the front gate, but the old voices keep telling him he’s worthless, and should be abandoned and left out for the trash man.

 

Like so many of the young men here, being responsible and healthy is a new experience, and the fear of going back into the world, and being around the family and friends who were a big part of the bad times that brought him here, is one huge scary nightmare of parole.

 

The thought of being successful in life is a new idea. For most of their life, they’ve been told they are worthless, failures. My job is to be a spark of encouragement, the mirror of their successes and self worth, to be the dad who believes in them and is proud of who they are becoming.

 

My job and the job of the guitar are a lot alike.

 

My buddy has derailed himself a number of times here, despite all his good work. The old ways, the old voices still show up, beating him down with the whips of shame and guilt, the indifference to the beauty of their young souls.

 

Today, though, he moved ahead. He took the initiative and restrung the guitar, without much help from me. With confidence, he completed the task, grinning as the new strings sang out their song in his confident fingers. His eyes twinkled with pride as he showed others the work he had done.

 

We did more than restring an old, well-used guitar. We restrung a young man and gave voice to the new, self-confident man now playing his songs, happy with what he’s done and who he’s becoming.

 

–Neal Lemery, 12/9/2016

Winner in the John Duncan Writing Contest


I am pleased to announce I have won Second Place in Marc Gibson’s John Duncan Writing Contest for 2016.

 

You can read my story on Marc Gibson’s blog, WordSlush, https://wordslush.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/travels-with-joseph-2nd-place-winner-the-john-duncan-writing-contest/.

The judges’ comments:

“Fully fleshed out characters lovingly forged. Rich in sensory detail, without getting bogged down in any one scene or situation. Moves smoothly from one scene to the next, even when not chronologically linear. Simply elegant.” – Elizabeth

“Well-composed work from someone who knows his subject. Neal gives a powerful insight into the challenging experience of helping others integrate back into society from prison. Written with clarity, honesty, and care.” – Marc

“A delicate and nuanced story of redemption, strength, and growth. A candid and sensitive ‘slice of life’ story addressing the struggles involved in starting over. Truly touching.” – John B

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

 

 

 

Building Community — Ubuntu


How do I build community? How do I help make my community stronger, more resilient, more viable? How do we improve our ability to take care of each other, and become healthier, a better whole?

 

In South Africa, there is a concept of Ubuntu.

 

“I am what I am because of who we all are”

 

“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Desmond Tutu

 

 

“Ubuntu is a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual.” Stephen Lundin- Ubuntu!

 

The word ‘ubuntu’ originates from one of the Bantu dialects of Africa, and is pronounced as uu-Boon-too. It is a traditional African philosophy that offers us an understanding of ourselves in relation with the world. According to Ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities.

 

“Or as the Zulus would say, “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu”, which means that a person is a person through other persons. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others.

 

“The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu as:

‘It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.

 

They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.”

 

(https://motivationinspirationandlife.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/ubuntu-i-am-what-i-am-because-of-who-we-all-are/)

 

Who am I? A citizen, yes. Yet, I am a part of my community. In defining that, I am who I am because I am a part of the community.

 

My community defines me.

 

If I want to advance myself, and advance my community, I must, as a part of the community, also advance the community.

 

Ubuntu is unity, being a part of something bigger than myself. And, that “whole” also defines me.

 

In my work in the community, when I strengthen others, I strengthen the community and also myself.

 

When I mentor someone, help them with a school subject, take time to listen to them, work in a community garden with them, talk with them in the line at the grocery store or the post office, or just smile at someone on the street, I am building my community, and I am engaging in and being an aspect of Ubuntu.

 

And, when I am tearing down my community, not taking care of myself and others, when I am exploiting weakness and divisiveness, then I am working against Ubuntu. My negativity is destructive, of myself, of others, and of my community.

 

Racism, sexism, bigotry, ignorance, indifference — all work against the spirit of Ubuntu.

 

Today, I resolve to be a builder and a force for strength, wholeness and health. I strive to live within the spirit of Ubuntu.

 

–Neal Lemery, November 16, 2016

Another Nice Review of Homegrown Tomatoes


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

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

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

 

— by Youth Advocate

A Nice Review for Homegrown Tomatoes


5.0 out of 5 stars

A Homegrown Miracle of a Book—Rhonda Case

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Last Time


 

 

The potatoes he helped grow are slow to cook

Over the hot fire, as if reluctant

To have this final meal with him.

This gardener came here four years ago, wounded

By a life of chaos, bad dreams pushing him down.

This fenced place was sanctuary, the garden

Growing his soul, lighting his passions, teaching him to

Love the earth, his new life, then himself.

 

I stir the stew, blaming the smoke for my tears, realizing

He will fly soon into the world, towards his dreams.

The wounded boy now a man ,blossoming with promise,

New days bright and welcoming.

 

Waiting around the fire, we talk of this place, how his feet became

Grounded in new love for bugs and dirt, new seedlings of

Peace, growing into a teacher of tender young men.

He, healing souls, leading the way out of the garden —

So many saplings ready to be planted in fertile soil.

 

We eat slowly, savoring the stew, and the special dish he made

Just for us, his final act of kindness here.

Telling more stories, we warm our souls around the fire.

 

–Neal Lemery, October 18, 2016