My Ticket To Prison


 

 

It was my ticket to prison. Following the guard’s direction from the loudspeaker, I pushed the ticket machine button. “128” was printed on what looked like a raffle ticket for a drawing.

“Drive to the top of the parking lot, park and then wait with the others until your number is called,” the faceless stern voice commanded.

I soon found myself with the other visitors. We huddled together in the early morning icy wind. After the two-hour drive, it felt good to stand up, but the wind made me yearn for the shelter of the gatehouse down the hill. It was surrounded by coils of ribbon wire, overshadowed by the guard tower with the black, one way glass.

One lady kindly asked me if this was my first time here.

She told me the routine, what to expect, adding that it was a cold, heartless place to visit.

She and her mother had been coming to see her son for several years now, and it was always a hard thing to do.

“We’re his only connection to the world, to family,” she said.

“It’s the only thing we can do for him, coming here every week,” she said.

Her voice dropped and she looked away. I could see a tear in her eye.

“Numbers 120 to 130,” the voice crackled over the loudspeaker.

We moved hurriedly down the hill into the gatehouse. Paper money was changed into dollar coins for the vending machines, and people took off their jewelry, shoes and belts, and handed their driver’s licenses to the guards.

When my turn came, I identified who I was seeing and then set off the metal detector.

“Glasses, too.”

As directed, I moved, blindly, sideways through the metal detector, satisfying the stern faced guard glaring at me.

We all had the back of our right hand stamped, with invisible ink. When we left, a guard shined an ultraviolet light on our hands, making sure we weren’t inmates, that we hadn’t switched places and were organizing a great escape.

I reassembled myself and sat on a wooden bench with some of my cohorts, waiting for our turn to walk in small groups through another steel door and across the yard to the visitors’ building.

Once inside, I was directed to several rows of plastic chairs and low tables, more appropriate for a fourth grade classroom than a prison visiting room. There were a few vending machines on one wall, offering chips, sodas, and coffee.

The room was dimly lit with a few florescent bulbs and small barred windows near the ceiling. The dark cement floor sucked up what little light came through the windows.

A large modern painting of a tree leaned against a gray wall, near a large chair on a platform, where a guard sat, staring out over the assemblage of visitors.

There was nothing else in the room that resembled life on the outside, and I wondered if the painting hadn’t been hung yet, simply because it was so out of place here.

We were grandmothers and aunts, a few girlfriends, two guys who might be brothers of inmates, and a lawyer.   He looked out of place, in his three piece suit and large three ring binder. He paced and looked at his watch, anxious to get on with the rest of his day and finish up his business with his client.

The rest of us had our prison visit clothes on. The rules said no blue jeans, no blue shirts or jackets. Blue is the color of inmates here, and the prison wanted a clear distinction.

We waited, and waited some more.

A few inmates came in, embracing their loved ones and then sitting on the opposite side of the small tables.

We waited some more, and I saw the kindly mother and grandmother look at their watches and the big clock on the wall.

I caught their eye and shrugged. They nodded and shrugged back.

Finally, my young friend came out of the side door. He and all the other inmates were clad in blue jeans and blue shirts, with blue lanyards and their prison ID cards around their necks.

We hugged and took our seats.

I hadn’t seen my buddy for four months, since he got sent upstate to adult prison, after serving all the time he could at the youth prison where I go every week. He’s got seven more years to go, and had to move to adult prison when he turned twenty four.

What got him here was something that happened when he was thirteen, when life was crazy, chaotic, without guidance and direction. He was arrested at seventeen, and treated like an adult in court.

The system pounded on him, maxing him out, making sure he got the presumptive sentences reserved for the worst of people.

But he’s not. He was a kid himself when he came to prison, never been in school, never really parented and raised to be a healthy young man.

The youth prison was good for him. He finished school, and let his curiosity lead him to becoming an expert gardener, craftsman, and artist. He taught others, taking on leadership, gaining the skills and confidence of a healthy, productive young man. He’s everything you’d want a young man to be in this world.

We talked for the next hour and a half, two friends catching up on our lives, and the news from the youth prison.

His dad died last month, a heart attack ending a troubled life, leaving the relationship with the son in prison still unresolved, still unhealed. The anger and bitterness now mixed up with grief, with the emptiness of not being able to go to his father’s funeral, to take care of his widowed mother, and the rage and violent life of the younger brother.

We tested out the vending machines’ offerings of soda and coffee. Starbucks has no worries about the competition here.

My friend has a good job, managing the kitchen garden. He’s ramped up the composting, and is planning new crops for the summer.   His eyes twinkle as he tells me of his plans and the new watering system he’s designing.

He’s saving his money for a guitar. Prison rules wouldn’t let him bring his old guitar with him, but he’s scribbled out some new songs, and another guy has let him borrow his guitar once in a while.

I can’t send him a guitar. He has to buy it from the prison canteen.

“They worry that you’d send in drugs with the guitar, you know.”

We laughed. He’s too serious of a musician to think about smuggling in drugs or being a criminal.

“There’s ‘yard night’ in the summer,” he tells me. “I’ll have my new guitar by then.”

You can bring your guitar with you, and guys play and sing, and tell stories. They even barbeque and turn the prison yard into a house party, at least for two hours on a hot summer night.

I don’t ask him much about life here. I can tell he’s not wanting to share, not wanting to explain the emptiness, the boredom.

He grins when he talks about the botany book I sent him. College level stuff, and good for his mind. He reads it every night, soaking up the science, the methodology. He redraws the illustrations, creating new works of art in his cell.

Last year, he petitioned the Governor for clemency. About twenty people added letters of endorsement, from the youth prison’s school principal to most of the volunteers. The prison staff weren’t allowed to endorse the petition, but loaded up their letters with assessments and evaluations of what he’d accomplished.

We attached his portfolio of botany illustrations, and photos of his wood carvings and wood burnings, and the multi-layered wooden bowl that won a special blue ribbon at the county fair. We sent copies to legislators, and we wrote to the Governor.

Nothing has happened with that, and now he’s in this prison of 800 men, medium security for the next seven years. Or, until the Governor might decide that he needs to be out, needs to be working on his bachelor’s degree in botany at Oregon State University, and creating fine works of art for the world to enjoy.

We didn’t talk about all that. The silence from the Governor’s office lies like a stone in my heart. It’s too painful for him, too. Seven years more is a long, long time.

The guard in the chair boomed out, “Visiting is over. Inmates to the rear. Visitors to the front.”

We stood, and I picked up our empty coffee cups. Awkwardly, we moved to the end of the table, and hugged one last time.

“I’ll come again soon,” I said.

“Oh, you’re busy. I’m doing fine,” he said.

He doesn’t lie well, and looked down at his shoes.

“I’m not too busy for you, son,” I said.

“I’ll be back,” I said. “You’re an important guy to me, you know.”

For the second time that day, I saw a tear form in someone’s eye.

And when I got back to my pickup, there was more than just a tear.

 

—Neal Lemery 2/5/2017

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

Defining Family


“What IS family, then?” The young man asked.
He’s getting out in less than a year, and we were talking about his plans for when he is “out” and life no longer has the physical limits of being “locked up”.
Going home is not the most attractive of his choices. There, old ways, old relationships, and old expectations for how he is to live and move ahead in life are all in play. He’s no longer a young teen, struggling with addictions and bad choices, and the labels that comes with the mistake he made at a tender age, the mistake that cost him his freedom. He’s earned a fresh start, and be able to move ahead without the baggage of prejudgment and assumptions. He’s not who he was, and he’s rightfully proud of that accomplishment.
Yes, being “inside” has given him many opportunities, and he had taken advantage of them, growing into a smart, sensitive, and thoughtful young man. A young man I’d be proud to call a son and live with me, become part of my family.
He’s looking ahead, and looking for options, possibilities for a new life, moving ahead with his life and seeking his dreams. At the core of that is being part of family.
So what IS family? Yes, the first, quick answer is the biological answer: the family I was born into. Yet, family can be and probably should be so much more.
Being a part of a family is a choice, a conscious, deliberate choice. We can do that in many ways.
When we marry, we intentionally create a new family, blended or mixed from both spouses biological families, or the families each partner is currently a part. We mix it up, sometimes adding kids and also adding in-laws, and close friends from both sides of the marriage. New rules and new expectations emerge, along with new dynamics.
New territory and new challenges await us as we navigate these fresh and often turbulent waters.
What is it that this young man needs, what I need, in a family?
We made a list: love, respect, a place in which to belong, be accepted, nurtured, cherished. A place to grow as well as a place that you come home to after a day out in the world, being challenged and jostled. A place that takes you for who you are. A place where there’s a chair and a table setting just for you at dinner.
“We each need to make our own family,” I said. “And the definition needs to fit what we need, creating a place where we grow to our full potential.”
My young friend has figured it out. He knows what a family is, the family he needs and wants, a place where he will flourish. Like all of us, he just needs permission to seek that out, and be good to himself, to find his very own family, creating his own happiness.
And, yes, its OK to want that, and its OK to make sure that having that good family is part of our lives, helping every one of us at achieve our dreams and live a productive, love filled life.

— Neal Lemery 9/30/2016

On the Path of Life


On the Path of Life

It was an ordinary path: pavers on top of coarse sand, a nice basket weave pattern, edged by other, longer stones. The gray stones mirrored the sky, on this cold day, hardly noticeable to most everyone using it on the breaks between classes.

He’d wanted to do something special, and bring some beauty into this utilitarian place, adding his own special touch.

We found some thyme plants in an herb bed. They’d done well this past year, and the little rooted new plants in that tangle of pungent leaves and stems came out of the dirt easily. Today, his idea was happening; it was time to start.

He told me what he wanted, a little plant in each sandy triangle, where the pavers came to the edge of the path.

“Don’t we need more dirt?” he asked.

I didn’t think so. Thyme grew well in harsh conditions, and the roots still had soil attached, the sand along the path wasn’t’ very deep, and was laid on top of the dirt of the old lawn, before it became a path.

“It’s tough stuff, grown from hardy plants which can survive summer heat, drought, and getting stepped on,” I said. “Just like you.”

He grinned and nodded.

We had talked about his life, the chaos before he came here, how he endured fists and drunken rages, his soul battered by neglect and abuse, how he learned to hurt others, and ended up here.

“I’m doing great here,” he told me. “Best place I’ve ever been.”

This is prison, I thought. There’s a tall fence, with barbed wire, not a hundred feet away. Guards roam and surveillance cameras look down on our path, where we’re setting in our little thyme plants, giving them and the young men here a fresh start in what looks like a tough place to grow.

He nodded at me, looking deep into my eyes.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Me saying prison is the best place I’ve lived.”

“But, you know, this is the first place I’ve felt safe, where I’ve been able to go to school every day, and get some good help on growing up, becoming a man,” he said.

There had been a neighbor, and a kind teacher in his life, people who’d taken an interest in him, feeding him dinner and giving him a couch to spend the night on when things at home got crazier than usual.

“They gave me hope,” he said. “A sense of feeling that I was worth something, that I could change my life, if I wanted to.”

He’d never forgotten them, and the idea that he was, deep down, a good guy, someone who could move ahead and be someone who was decent and kind.

We kept planting the little plants, each of us taking an edge of the path, working our way down to the other end, side by side.

The late winter sun took the chill out of the air, and we paused to take off our sweatshirts. A few drops of sweat ran down our faces, and we laughed about working up a sweat on this February day.

“It feels good to laugh,” he said.

I agreed, telling him I was admiring his project, that we were making the pathway a refuge from the daily routine.

“The rest of the guys, they’ll enjoy the path more,” I said. “They’ll notice the plants and smell the thyme, and they’ll have a moment of beauty in their lives as they walk along here.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’d thought about that, when I came up with this idea, and ran it by the garden teacher. She thought it was a great idea.”

“Even if the guys don’t say something about the path, it will still be part of their lives, part of their experience here,” he said.

This path, and the beauty he’s creating here, will also be part of his life, I told him. He was making a difference, changing lives, and teaching people about love.

We’d come to the end of the path, and paused, letting our muscles stretch and the sweat on our faces dry. We stood up, looking back, taking in all the new plants, and how the path looked different now, with its new design of green among the pavers, the faint smell of thyme fresh in my nose.

“You are a creator, making this corner of the world just a little better place to live and grow in,” I said.

“Thanks for doing this, for being an artist and brightening up this path for everyone,” I said.

“Thanks for helping out,” he said. “And for being a friend.”
He got quiet, looking down at the path, and the work we’d done this morning.

“It’s everything I’d hoped for,” he said.

—Neal Lemery 2/23/2016

The New Year Comes


“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

The new year is almost here. I’m ready for a change, to go with the new calendar on the wall. Soon, there will be a new month, a new year, and the rest of winter. But, I’ve been adrift, not quite able to put words to this feeling, this restlessness for looking at life in a new way, with new words.

A new friend and I meet, sipping coffee milkshakes, as he tells me of his life and his hopes for the future. He is full of optimism, and hope for a new beginning. His life is changing, much for the better, as he distances himself from chaos and anger, to curiosity and new vocabulary.

He thinks I’m wise, and I can teach him much. Truth be known, he is my teacher, my spiritual guru today. Like him, I need to free myself from old patterns, old demons, and look ahead. I need a new vocabulary, and fresh eyes to see the world unfolding before me.

“I want to explore so much,” my friend says.

I could easily define him as a failure, a cast off, for something he did several years ago. His family has rejected him, and society has sent him to prison.

He’s a prisoner, I thought, but really, he’s free now. He’s been released, and can now truly live his life. One person’s idea of prison is another’s university of life.

A paradox. Yet, he feels free now, for the first time, to be who he wants to be, to stretch himself and move ahead in his life.

For the first time, he is with people his own age, making friends, going to school, and learning to write. He’s waking up every morning in a place where he is not beaten, screamed at, or kept away from the world. He’s escaped from the darkness of his family’s chamber of horrors, and has come into the light, joining the world as a real person.

He searches for words to express himself, and the words for his waves of emotion, all new to him. This coming year is a new beginning for him, a gift to be opened and cherished, with words and emotions he has never known before.

We discover we are both gardeners, in every nuance of the word. Like me, he’s browsing the seed catalogs, and placing his order, dreaming of the coming springtime, where one plants and brings forth new life. He yearns to nurture the garden of his own soul.

“Who am I?” he asks.

“Anything you want to be,” I reply. “You can choose now. The world is yours to explore.”

And, not just for him, I realize. It is my choice, too. I, too, am in this world, and I also can make those choices and have those opportunities. We are both gardeners and poets, thinking of spring.

And we are both prisoners, of our thoughts, our old perceptions of the world and how we fit into the mold of what others expect of us, how they think we should act and think.

Like my buddy, I too can be free, and move on towards the coming newness and freedom of the new year, and be who I really want to be.

12/28/2015
Neal Lemery

Turning 21 and Going Out for a Beer


Turning 21 is a big deal. It is the traditional “coming of age” birthday, the day you really become an adult, and everyone knows it.

It’s the day you can go out for a beer with your buddies, and walk into a bar, legal for the first time.

It’s a rite of passage, one we all look forward to, one we all celebrate.

Back in the day, it was truly the day you became an adult. You got to vote, you could own property, you had all the legal rights of adulthood. Now, we’ve pushed all the legalities back to 18, or even earlier.

Still, turning 21 is still a big deal, a moving into adulthood, no questions asked.
When you’re in prison, the day is just another day. No going out to the neighborhood bar for a beer, no big party. No bartender checking your ID and giving you a thumbs up, as you order your first legal drink.

My young friend called me the other night, on his 21st birthday. It was about his bedtime, and the prison dorm was settling down. He didn’t have a party, and no one made a fuss over his big day. I’d sent him a card, the only one he got. Some of his friends were having a get together, but they couldn’t invite him. He doesn’t live in their “unit”, and he couldn’t be a part of their party of some snacks and a movie.

I couldn’t take him out for a beer, either, but that’s what he needs. He’s been in prison for five years, and has four more long years to go. I’m one of the few on his visitor’s list, one of the few normal ones who show up. Sometimes, his family comes, but that’s a tough day for my friend. Too much insanity, too much manipulation, too much of the old dysfunction. Like a lot of guys there tell me, he thinks prison is the best place he’s ever lived.

It’s a long, long time, his prison time, especially for something that happened when he was supposed to be in middle school, but his parents hadn’t bothered to make sure he went., The relationship he had with a girl was encouraged by all of the parents. Family dysfunction was the theme of his youth, and they kept him away from school and friends. What we like to think of as a normal life, and normal values was foreign to him, until he got to prison. It’s a too familiar story, dysfunction junction.

Not that he’s wasting his time now, though. He’s finished high school, earned an associates degree, and just now is starting on his second degree. He’s taking advantage of all of the on line education the system is offering him, and has a respectable 3.9 GPA.

He’s teaching a lot of the other young men in prison, as well. He’s a leader, and a tutor, and makes sure they are working hard and moving ahead. He’s the junior counselor, the mentor, the older brother a lot of the guys need.

We get together every couple of weeks, to talk about books we’ve read. We’re our own writing group, exchanging essays and poems we’ve written, offering each other some valuable critiques. He reads serious books, and I’ve been sending him some of the classics in philosophy, science, and history. He absorbs all of them, and is eager to have a discussion with me about what he thinks, and what the authors were trying to say.

If we were college roommates, he’d be the guy who lived at the library, and went on to grad school, just because it was fun to study, read books, and challenge the professors with his take on the tough subjects.

He’d still be the guy I’d like to go out and have a beer with, on Friday afternoon, after the last class of the week. He is serious about his guitar, and writes some thoughtful songs, lyrics with several layers of meanings, and chord progressions that please the ear. He laughs and jokes about life, and the dramas and politics in his life.

Yet, when he called that night, the night of his birthday, he was all alone. He reached out to me, making small talk about our writing, good books we’re reading, a bit of music. It was almost everything we wanted, in that phone call, talking as good friends, kindred spirits. All that was missing was the beer.

Defining Success


On Christmas, my wife and I visited one of our young men in prison. Of all my friends, he’s the one who enjoys Christmas the most, especially the anticipation, the expectation, and the promise of a happy time, a brighter tomorrow.

After five and a half years in prison, his spirit is brighter now that it’s ever been. He’s grown in so many ways, and achieved many of his goals. In prison, he’s actually had goals and found ways to achieve them. Before that, life was just survival, slogging through chaos and drugs, of being treated indifferently, without love, and not knowing who he was or where he was headed.

Now, he’s found purpose and meaning. He’s making peace with the demons in his life, and has found the strength and courage to look deep inside of himself, and to finally love himself, and all the possibilities he has in his life.

He wanted socks for Christmas, making sure everyone knew it, too. Now, he’s a wealthy man, Mr. Big in the world of socks. He’s the happy recipient of forty pairs of socks, socks of nearly every size and color. He has socks everywhere now, new socks to try on every day for over a month.

Yes, he had a successful Christmas, all the socks he could ever want. In the telling of his story, his laugh and his big smile light up his face; he knows now that he is loved and respected by so many people. He’s figured out the magic of Christmas, the reason for the season.

He’s successful in so many other ways this year. He’s taken charge of his life, looking deep inside of himself, and taking charge of who he is, and where he is going. He’s embraced his new maturity. He’s taken on his self confidence and is moving ahead. He’s found his courage and is nourishing and loving his soul.

He’s the person Robert Louis Stevenson was writing about when he said,
“That man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men and the love of children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had.”  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

This year, many people I know have taken stock of their lives, summoned their courage, and moved ahead. Their accomplishments are many, and I’ve been applauding their journeys, and marveling at their determination and sacred intentions in their lives. It has been a year of transformation and a year of dramatic and momentous growth. Old demons have been called out of the basement, new directions has been set, and the tough, sweaty and hard work has been done. And, in that work, our communities are stronger, more vibrant, richer in so many ways.

Some people look to Washington politicians to make the big changes they want to see in the world and in their lives. Yet, the real change and the real work is done right here, inside my friends and neighbors, the farmer, the waitress, the young man in prison. The real change makers are right here, and the work is getting done. People are becoming transformed, people making a real difference.

Like my young friend in prison, people are taking inventory of who they are inside, and grasping the power they have to change. And, then, they are stepping out, and doing the hard, gut level work, and moving ahead.

They see the richness in their lives, not by the number of socks they got for Christmas, but in the way they love and are loved.