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

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

 

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

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

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

Restrung and Resurrected


The old acoustic guitar hung on the back of the guitar rack in the all-purpose room at the prison camp. It was a “state guitar” as the boys called it, looking every one of its years, the wood dull and nicked up by all the young hands that had held it over the years. It looked out of place next to the fancy shiny electric guitars that some of the boys had, their “personal” guitars.

I would pick it up and play a little accompaniment when one of the guys was showing me a riff he had learned, or was playing a song he’d written. And, sometimes, when I was waiting to meet with one of the guys, I’d take a few minutes and play it. But, it was usually out of tune, and often, one of the strings had broken. It wasn’t as banged up as Willie Nelson’s “Trigger”, but it was moving down that road.

In the last few weeks, I noticed it looked sadder, more neglected than ever. All of its strings were missing, along with four of the six bridge pins that held the strings in place. Of course, no one could play it anymore, and it was getting dusty, and moved over into the corner of the room.

I was afraid someone would toss in the garbage. It deserved more respect than that. It was, after all, the “senior guitar” here, and had a long history of providing some joy to the lives of the incarcerated youth who’ve come through this place, year after year.

The guitar was here when I first started coming, six or seven years ago, and it has been well used by perhaps more than several hundred young men who have held it in their hands, and picked out a tune or a chord or two or three. Young guitarists of every range of talent here have enjoyed its decent, respectable voice and have had it bring some joy into their lives. Perhaps it has saved some lives, as well.

I wasn’t going to give up on the old guitar, a “Johnson”, not a trendy or fancy name in musical instruments. It had earned my respect, though, for being its stubborn self and for bringing joy to many a young man. I wasn’t going to just let it slip by the wayside. I was determined to bring it back to life. “Mr. Johnson” deserved better.

I was in the city a few days ago and decided to stop at the guitar store, to see if they had some extra bridge pins. They did, for fifty cents a piece, and I invested in a good set of strings, too.

Today, I was back at the prison camp, and brought the strings, the pins, and my tools for changing strings and tuning up the guitar. A few of the young men gathered around as I went about my tasks, asking questions, and offering a hand as the strings and pins began to provide us with a guitar with actual strings and the beginnings of some notes.

“Mr. Johnson” was coming back to life, and he had attracted a growing fan club.

Our flash mob guitar string changing class attracted others, followed by a robust discussion of string replacement theory and whether each string was properly tuned.

At last, we reached consensus. I clipped off the ends of the strings, and handed Mr. Johnson to the first young man who had come to help. He hesitated, claiming he didn’t know how to play, and others soon were standing in line to test our work. But, he gave it a tender strum and grinned from ear to ear.

Smiles appeared, as the guitar made its way around the circle, and a few stories were told, of how they enjoyed playing it, the quality of its sound, and the good times that centered around the old guitar. They enjoyed hearing Mr. Johnson being resurrected, returning to their lives as tool for some personal joy and satisfaction.

I put away my tools, and headed off to my meeting with a young man, as the guitar was carefully taken outside, to be played by our flash mob guitar restringers.

Near the end of the day, I came back to the prison, meeting with some other young men in another part of the prison. Where I parked was close to the work camp and their outside recreation area. When I walked out to leave, I heard a guitar and young men singing, and saw them gathered around in the twilight, playing the old acoustic guitar.

Their voices filled the prison camp yard, a freshly written song being sung in earnest, filling my heart with joy. My eyes watered up, too. It must have been the dust in the air.

Yet another story was being created tonight, of young men and songs, and friendships being forged around the playing of that guitar, reborn and doing its work once again.

When I got into my truck, I came across the receipt from the guitar store. Six guitar pegs, $3, and a new set of good strings, $14. It was the best money I’d spent in a long time, small change for the price of some big smiles on the faces of those young men, and resurrecting Mr. Johnson.

–Neal Lemery, July 13, 2016