Soul Killing and Redemption


Soul Killing and Redemption

When you see your mom yelled at and beaten up by the man she loves, when you’re four years old, what do you do?

When you realize that your dad was never, ever around for you, and isn’t in your life, what do you do? Now, at 22, you hear he wants to see you, but in your heart, you figure he hasn’t been around for your whole life, so why start now? The care and the love just hasn’t been there, not when you’ve needed it. Why make the effort?

When you are standing in the yard when you’re five, and you see a guy with a knife, chased by a cop, and you watch them fight, and you see the knife, and then the gun, and then the blood, what do you do?

When your sister dies when you are four, and no one can tell you why, what do you do?

When your mom’s boyfriend yells at you and beats you up, and throws you out of the house when you’re’ seven, and then you start setting fires around town, what do you do?

When the people at school think you are a bad boy and don’t fit in and therefore stupid, you must need to be in a special needs program. Just because you already know all the answers in class and are bored to death, and you don’t like to sit still and you yell when you get angry, because that is how your family does it, and you don’t think anyone cares about you, because of everything you are inside, what do you do?

When you are fourteen, and the best thing to do is to hitchhike a thousand miles and come back in a few weeks, and people decide you need to go to detention and sit in a cell for a month, what do you do? Is “runaway” such a bad thing to be, after all that?

When the only man in the family is a drunk and has been in prison, and there’s no other guy around who even talks to you, what do you do?

When childhood and adolescence is a long list of institutions and court appearances and a long road of counselors and programs and treatments, and that is just what life is, now, what do you do?

When you’re nineteen, and you beat up a prison guard, and you find yourself in a ten foot cell in the penitentiary for six months, what do you do?

When the rage and the anger burn deep inside of you, and then someone calls you a dumb Indian, AGAIN, what do you do?

When all the “bad” labels someone can try to pin on you have all been slapped on you, your whole life, and you’ve had about all you can take, what do you do? And, then, you also know that you’ve been treated like all your family and your people have been treated for the last two hundred and fifty years, and not much has gotten any better, what do you do?

And, when you read a book by Sherman Alexie and the story of the boy on the Rez is also your story, and the rage and anger and love and beauty of that boy is also your story and your life, and that you are not alone in all of this, what do you do?

When you can take a few scraps of leather, and make it into a beautiful work of art, or when you write and then sing a beautiful song, deep from within your own precious, sweet soul, and you know you really are a wondrous child of God, what do you do, inside these walls?

When all this churns and simmers inside of you, and so many voices keep telling you that you’re stupid, and poor, and a criminal and won’t ever amount to anything, that no one comes right out and says that they love you, and the world keeps locking you up, in so many ways, and all you want to do is run through the woods, and feel the sun on your face, and be one with God, what do you do?

When you are close to getting paroled and you get accepted into a halfway house that you actually think is a good place, and then the date you get out keeps getting moved around, and now you don’t know for sure if you get out this week, or next month, or maybe in a few months, or ???, and no one seems to care enough to answer your questions about that, what do you do?

And, we wonder why some guys don’t do very well once they get out of prison, why they can’t seem to adjust very well to life “on the outside”, and follow all the rules, and don’t use drugs and alcohol and don’t get into fights. And, then, when they become husbands and fathers, we wonder why there might be some “issues” at home about life and relationships and parenting and being good citizens.

But, we should be “tough on crime” and “put away the bad guys”, and then we will have a peaceful and safe society, just because we put a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other country in the world. Is that what defines this country?

As Dr. Phil might ask, “How’s that working for you?”

And we spend all this money, and time, and people’s care and concern for young people in prison, and give lip service to “rehabilitation” and “crime prevention”, when maybe we should look back a bit in time, to when kids first come into this world. And we know they are looking to have a mom and a dad, and live in a quiet and safe and “normal” home, and love to go to school, have good friends, and do wonderful, loving things in their lives.

And, when none of this happens, and instead life is filled with rage and the distractions of a crazy and lonely society, self medication and self deprecation, and not having a place in this world to grow and put down your roots and feel cherished, and then, if you don’t fit in, we lock you up and institutionalize you, and reinforce criminal thinking, we wonder why you don’t do better?

We know what works. We know, now, how the brain grows and learns about relationships and how love, the right kind of love, waters and nourishes young souls, and how the wrong kind of relationship is a poison, not just for the community, but for every precious soul in this life.

We know that all this good work takes time, it takes love, and it takes compassion.

And, not that our schools and prisons aren’t staffed with kind and committed people, who toil in these fields day after day, dealing with the toughest and most challenging situations and personalities. And, not everyone can be “saved”. Yet, they don’t give up.

We can’t give up. We can take the time, and we can make the commitment, maybe just with one person. Have that conversation, make that connection, get a bit involved in their life. Listen, and then listen again. Listen with your heart, with your humanity, and not with the expectations, and biases, and the vantage point of someone who hasn’t lived how they have lived.

Transform a life. You may think that young person you listen to will learn from you, and, by listening and caring about them, their lives will change. And, perhaps that is true. What will really change, though, is your life. You will see things differently, and you will understand who you are, and what you are all about, and how to change the world.

Put an end to the soul killing. It kills all of us, slowly and surely.

–Neal Lemery April 29, 2013

Learning Gratitude


Learning Gratitude

I always seem to learn my lessons in the most unexpected places.

This week, I was with a number of young men who are prisoners in my town. They have long sentences, locked up for crimes they committed when they were anywhere from twelve to seventeen years old. Their home lives were chaos, riddled with the violence, drugs, and sexual behavior that is the seed bed for most of our society’s woes, and the root of our country’s high rate of putting people in prison.

Much of what we might think of as “normal” just not existing in their youth, before they came here. And, many become abandoned by their families; no one comes to visit them. So, a few of us come, to listen, to just show up in their lives.

Rather than really dealing with those issues, society locks these boys up, without much regard for who they really are, the prison terms computed by a chart of numbers, devoid of any sense of compassion, or rationality.

At least we can boast that we are “tough on crime”. And, tough on souls.

We are, after all, the leading country in the world as far as locking up our population. Yes, more than Russia, more than China, and other places we think are oppressive, undemocratic countries. The prison industry is growing, and is a significant chunk of our economy, eating up more tax dollars than what we spend on schools.

The subject of gratitude came up, as we talked about the real meaning of Thanksgiving, and how that holiday came to be part of our heritage and one of our biggest holidays, full of food, family time, and, yes, expressing gratitude.

One by one, these young men spoke humbly of the things in life they were grateful for. The list was long, and ran deep. People who cared about them, support for their treatment for their sexually inappropriate behavior, their attitudes about drugs, violence, manipulation of others, degrading their own self worth, their work on getting an education, and improving their lives, and their relationships with their family.

They also spoke of being thankful for getting in contact with their heritage, and finding a place in a culture that supported their sobriety, their healthy thinking, and their hunger for healthy, balanced, and emotionally satisfying lives, lives filled with purpose and decency. They were finding their souls, moving into manhood whole and complete, their wounds healing.

As I sat there, I recalled listening to the radio on my drive over to the prison, the “news” filled with the latest political sex scandal, and the latest celebrity drug and alcohol crazed dysfunctional public spectacle. I’d come from the grocery store, where piles of cases of beer are arranged in recognition of this weekend’s big college football game, just before aisles of cheap Christmas decorations and gifts.

A billboard along the highway invited me to come gamble and drink on New Year’s Eve, and the usual gaggle of misfits stood outside of the local dive bar, smoking cigarettes and dealing a little weed and heroin.

Yet, inside this prison, these young men calmly talked about how grateful they were for their lives, their sobriety, their hard work in dealing with their pasts, and the strengths and wisdom they now had in their lives. They were strong men, preparing themselves for going back “outside”, into our crazy, addiction tempting society.

The midday boozers and smokers outside of the bar weren’t talking much about what they were grateful for, and gratitude wasn’t the focus of the talk show radio show that came on after the “news”.

And, apparently, Thanksgiving doesn’t do much for the retail stores. Gratitude and thanks and personal achievement aren’t something you can wrap up in paper, next to all the glitz and sparkle.

I listened, listened hard to those young men, realizing that I really was in class, that I was the student and they were the teachers that day. I go there to be a giver, an offerer; my role being a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a person of wisdom. Yet, now they were the mentors, the teachers, the wise men imparting their truth, and their knowledge, their experience.

Wisdom and gratitude were spoken, and I was grateful I took the time to open my heart and hear the truth tellers in my life.

–Neal Lemery 11/17/2012

Candlelight: A Story Teller Visits the Youth Prison


Candlelight: A Story Teller Visits the Youth Prison

We gather in a circle, to hear from the story teller who has quietly appeared among us. His quiet presence is greeted with respect; admiration for his time with us six months ago, his quiet message of hope, and healing, and his wisdom.

We share an opening prayer, a sense of being at peace with the universe, and with our souls. And, a sense of coming together.

Each of us is invited to tell our names, where we had come from, and a bit about our own journeys. All of our experiences, all of who we were, and are, and are becoming, are welcomed into this circle. The chaos of our lives, our pain, our joys, are all welcomed and accepted, without limits.

In this prison, there are many stories of tragedy and pain, loss and suffering. Some of those experiences are given voice today, in this circle, and are accepted and acknowledged. There is no blame, no judgement today; only acceptance and compassion. And, in the telling, there is healing, perhaps a sense of understanding and forgiveness.

In my community, there are many prisons. But, when I come here, I can see the physical fences, and the locked doors. At least when I come here, the walls and the barriers to freedom are obvious. For so many away from here, their walls and locks take other forms, and may not even be known to those who are locked away by the prisons in their lives.

Some of the young men offer a hint of the pain in their lives, the violence, the drugs, the abandonment and anger; the absence of community. Others nod in agreement; such pain is so common in this place of acknowledgement and healing. They are here to change. And in that work, they find direction and hope. They do this together, united for a common purpose. In this place, being aware of the possibility for change, for unconditional love, is part of the air they breathe.

The storyteller’s visit is part of that change, that opening of doors to understanding, to acceptance, to personal salvation and love.

Several young men offer their gifts of song, opening their hearts, and touching our lives with the beauty of the moment and their own journeys.

Others offer a wooden staff to the leader of the drumming circles here. She comes here and leads us in prayer and song, giving the young men, and me, her unconditional love and guidance through troubled seas. The staff, adorned with beads, and feathers, and other symbols of hope and love, is a gift back to her of what she has given here. Their decorations and gifts and blessing of the staff fills the room with that sense of community. We pass the staff around the circle, each of us offering a blessing, a wish, an acknowledgement of the power of others to change our lives. The power of that sharing and healing fills all of our hearts with love.

The story teller told us of his life, and his sister’s recent death. He spoke of the tragedies in her life, and how, through all the pain and loss, she still loved people unconditionally. His loss and his pain are mirrored in the faces of the young men gathered in the circle. A sense of knowing that pain, and compassion for others grows in the room. This place is safe now, a sacred place for being in that pain, and having our own sparks of humanity accepted.

Unconditional love is his message today. In his native stories and tales, in his words about his own life, the message is repeated.

In our lives, and our experiences, and in our pain and sufferings, we are preparing ourselves for the work ahead. There will be times when our presence, and our unconditional love for others, will change lives. What we are going through now is merely preparation for the gift giving we will do in the future.

One young man offers a song in memory of the storyteller’s sister, filling us all with sadness and hope and a bit of that unconditional love.

Others give voice to their struggles, their anger, their work to become healthy men.

The storyteller leads us in a dance around the circle, holding hands, all moving to a drum beat, singing an ancient, timeless song. In movement, we become one; there are no leaders and no followers. We became community, accepting and united.

Stories are told, letting us nod and laugh together, hearing his tales, and joining together in the acknowledgment of his story. His work brings us together, to a feeling of being one, of each of us having value, of being accepted for who we are, right now. And, again, judgement is suspended. Unconditional love lights up the room.

Telling our stories is what we need to do in our lives. In our stories, and in the stories of others, we find acceptance, and we find community. As we drum together, sing together, and listen to our stories, we come together. We are one.

In my heart, I touch my own pain, my own losses, my own doubts and fears. The storyteller’s songs of love and acceptance, and of his own pain and his own journey through life brings me renewal. That spark of humanity, of the power and force of love as a healer, as a single candle that can light the entire room, is fed by his quiet presence in our lives.

In all of our eyes today, I see acceptance, reconciliation, forgiveness, and unity in all of what we experience in our humanity. We become a stronger community, telling our stories, finding acceptance and hope.

–Neal Lemery 11/4/2012

A Letter to My Young Friend in Prison


A Letter to My Young Friend in Prison

Dear ____________:

It was good to go deep with you today.

As always, I found you working on several difficult issues, and moving forward with all of them. You have healthy goals, and you have worthy dreams. You always do.

Young men worry about who they are, and what they want to accomplish, and what is their destiny. And, actually, we all worry about that. At least, I do.

I don’t always count my blessings, and I can worry about things that I have no control over, or things that turn out to be pretty insignificant. I struggle with feelings and emotions, and I get myself tied up in knots about things. Another young man I know calls that “catastrophizing”. A good term for that “tie my stomach in knots” feeling.

So, when you struggle, and doubt, and worry, you are not alone. And, when you see some people and situations in your life that need some fixing, and things aren’t getting fixed, that is normal.

Each of us can only fix ourselves. We aren’t the mechanics for other people. We don’t lead their lives. And, we aren’t the boss. Well, we are the boss of ourselves. We do have the ability to direct our own lives, and to manage our own affairs. And, what other people do and what other people might think of us — well, not much we can do about that.

You are a normal guy. You have normal worries, and normal doubts and normal insecurities. You get frustrated when relationships and other things don’t get “fixed”. That’s normal.

I see you accomplishing a whole lot. Certainly more than most 21 year old men I have known. OK, you are in prison and you don’t have a lot of “freedom”. Yet, you have done a great deal of hard work in getting your own house in order, and healing yourself. You have educated yourself a great deal about who you are, where you come from, and who you want to be.

Most young men haven’t done that. Most young men haven’t laid out the high moral standards and ethics you have set for yourself. The work you have done has been very valuable, and very important. I think you see that, sometimes. In a few years, you will see this time as a very rich, and a very valuable experience.

As you do your heart work, know that I support you, and I believe in you. I am grateful you have this opportunity, to know yourself better, and to gain information which will lead to even more self discovery, and to more healing of whatever wounds you discover.

Part of that healing work involves forgiveness.

I hope that you are doing some forgiveness of yourself in all this. Forgiveness is a very good gift to give to yourself. It is part of that struggle you have with accepting a gift.

You want to “pay off your restitution”. “Restitution” means “to restore, to put back”. Part of restitution is forgiving yourself. That will be harder to do than sending money off to the State. But, more rewarding, and more freeing.

You are doing all of this work for the right reasons: self understanding.

Most every time I leave prison after a visit with you, I say to myself “Wow. I don’t know if I could deal with that.”

A lot of the stuff you talk about that you have experienced, well, I think I might just want to find a dark corner and pull a blanket over my head, and slip away into a bit of self imposed craziness.

But, you don’t take that cheap route. You dig in and work through the crap that you have to deal with sometimes, and you get it on. You sort through it, and you do what is needed to be healthy, and sane, and whole.

You may think you don’t get much support from other folks on what you are going through and what you are doing. But, you do. Your Team is out there, cheering you on.

I try to be a good cheerleader, a good support person for you. I don’t always do a great job, and I often don’t have the tools and the pompoms and the special cheerleader cheers that work for you. But, I still show up and I still cheer you on.

I believe in you and I believe in your journey.

And, you teach me more about courage and decency and character than anything else in my life.

I thank you for that, from deep in my heart.

Sincerely,

Neal C. Lemery

His First Guitar


His First Guitar

He’s said something about a guitar, a couple of visits earlier. We’d talked about his singing, his passion for music, his ability to hear a song, and then sing it back, note for note, and word for word.

It was easy for him, he said. He was born with it, something he just did. It wasn’t a big deal. His mom sang, and it was just part of his life.

I had first heard him sing at the prison talent show, his voice filling the half court gym that was also the room where every other public event happened. The room grew still when he sang, everyone following his voice as he hit every note of the song. And when everyone applauded at the end, I first saw his big smile, happy with himself and happy with the joy that he brought everyone else. His joy came alive then, with what he did with his talents.

The guitar would be new to him, and he thought he might want to learn. I knew he loved to learn. He’d graduated from high school a year ago, and was now taking a full load of on line classes at a community college. He’d struggled a bit with writing, and my wife gladly tutored him a bit on writing papers. Their discussion at one of our first visits quickly intensified, as he focused on how he could improve his work, and be a serious student.

I’d given another one of the young men I’ve been mentoring a guitar for Christmas. He was happy at the gift, but he’d struggled with the guitar, finally realizing it wasn’t his passion, and wasn’t something he enjoyed. He’d talked with me about his frustration and we left the discussion with him giving it back to me. He’s a guy who looks out after others, and sensed the guitar needed a new owner.

Now, there was the young man who needed a guitar and I had a guitar to give.

The next visit, I brought him the guitar, and a gig bag, a tuner, a capo, and some picks; all the mechanics you need to start. I put it in his hands, watching a grin brighten his face. He didn’t need me to show him how to hold it, he just picked it up and held it close to him, almost clutching it tightly to his body.

The right hand strummed, hesitating, playing with the strings. I showed him the G chord, his fingers quickly figuring out where the finger tips went, between the frets. The chord rang out from the guitar, close to being correct.

He frowned, not happy with the sound, and he tried again, and again. I reached over and moved a finger closer to the fret, changing his left hand a bit. Again, and it was better. And, again, and it was spot on. The frown was now a smile.

In a few minutes, I showed him another chord, and again, I moved a finger here and there, and then, his second chord was strummed, producing yet another smile. He was figuring it out, and moving back and forth between the two chords, and then a third.

“You can play Amazing Grace now,” I said.

He looked at me, his jaw dropping a bit, and shook his head.

“Yeah, its easy,” I said, taking the guitar from him.

I played the three chords he knew, and sang the words of the first verse, moving from chord to chord and then back home, strumming a rhythm, putting guitar notes into chords and rhythms, and adding the poem.

“Here. You try it,” I said, handing his guitar back to him.

He sang then, strumming and moving from chord to chord, making a passable version of the old familiar song.

“Really,” he announced, looking up at me, a much bigger grin now lighting up his face.

“Yeah, really,” I replied. “You can sing and play the guitar now.”

Before I left, he’d learned two more chords from me, and was talking about a song he’d been singing, and wanted to play it on the guitar.

“Homework”, I laughed. “Something to play for me the next time I show up.”

His laughter filled my heart, his eyes focused on his hands as he moved from one chord to another and back.

“There’s an E minor in it. Can you show me that one?” he asked, his hands trembling a bit on the frets.

“Sure,” I said, moving two fingers on his left hand into the E minor fingering. “It’s easy.”

And, it was for him, amazingly easy.

The next visit, he played several songs for me, including the one he had wanted to learn. He had good rhythm, good strumming, and was sliding his chord hand around to play the four chords in his song.

He stumbled a bit, but we all do when we are first learning a song. I told him everyone does that, at first. But, he still moaned a bit with frustration, expecting himself to be perfect.

The next couple of visits, I taught him some more, things I’d been working pretty hard on the last four years to learn and push myself up to higher levels of playing. My learning curve was a lot longer than his, and he quickly soaked up everything I offered to him.

My wife played a bit, too, with the guitar and her mandolin. He soaked up what she was showing him, too, at lightning speed.

Several times in the next few weeks, a staff person would come by, and show him a song. He’d watch, intently, and then played a duet with them, mimicking every movement, every note. Goosebumps showed up on my arms when I played with him, my jaw agape as I watched him learn so quickly, mastering small things here and there, bringing his own joy to a song he loved.

One day, I brought new strings, and showed him how to restring the guitar. He chuckled at the new, bright sound, as I wound up the old strings, strings he’d worn out, playing a couple of hours a day.

We’ve brought our guitar and mandolin teacher in now, to see if he can keep up with him. And, its a struggle, we hear, our teacher feeling challenged at what the young man can soak up in just a little bit of time.

And, every time I visit, we play together, sharing what we know and what we love, our voices filling the room and bringing more smiles to his face.

He’ll outgrow this guitar soon, if he already hasn’t done that. He’ll finish his associates degree in December and be paroled in February. Then, he’s off to a real college campus, and start his junior year, being a normal college student living a normal life. There’s a new guitar in all that, too. And, I can’t wait to take him guitar shopping and see him light up the store with his big grin.

9/12

Restringing


Restringing

 

Unwinding the string from the tuning peg, and popping out the peg by the bridge, the old string flayed around a bit, before I coil it up and set it aside.  It had lived a good life, part of the first strings on my buddy’s first guitar.

 

He’d worn it out, as he tried out his first few tentative chords and strumming patterns, toughening his finger tips and the side of his thumb.  He’s a finger picker, first and foremost, quickly finding his groove as he brings the songs in his mind to life on the guitar.  He’ll do a lot with this guitar; he’s one of those natural musicians, playing the chords and the beat not too long after he first hears a song.

 

He’s watched everything I’ve done with my guitar, when we get together and play.  And when someone else comes by and picks out a tune, he’s all eyes and ears.  What he soaks up is soon flowing out of his fingers, bringing out another song on his new musical pal.

 

We clean off the fretboard with a rag and something called guitar honey.  The frets and the wood of the fretboard soon sparkle, along with the brand new strings.  He’s realizing all of his hours of picking, and learning new skills, has actually worn out the tough metal strings.  There’s been some progress here, with his new hobby, his passion that’s burst into flame in the last six weeks.

 

With each one, we push the ends through the tuning peg, wrapping it around, and then slowly tightening it, bringing it up to the proper pitch, playing an odd melody of increasing frequency; boing, boingg, BOING!

 

He’s mystified, at first, at the process of changing strings.  It is another lesson in guitarmanship, this craft of creating music from this oddly shaped wooden box, a board, and six wires strung over a hole in the box.  Some call it a Tennessee flat top box, but we who spend our time with it would think a more spiritual name would be a better fit.

 

Soon, the guitar is back in his hands, and he’s fine tuning each string.  The smile on his face telling me he’s hearing a sharper, clearer voice from his friend.

 

The new strings, like his life now with the guitar, sharper, more defined, and more in tune.

 

7/2012