Rehearsing the Interview


I never know what to expect when I visit one of my young men at the Youth Authority camp. They have busy lives, and have a lot on their mind. What I might plan to do isn’t what is going to happen. It’s my job just to listen and just show up. What we do with our time together is their choice.

“Jack” usually wants to talk about his work outside, sorting and delivering shrubs for the estuary and streambank restoration work they do for the state department of forestry and other agencies. These young men help run the largest native plant nursery on the Oregon coast, and their efforts have helped restore salmon habitat for hundreds of miles of streams. We all benefit from their hard work, but they seldom receive any credit.

Today, though, he sits down at our table, looking neat and professional in his dress shirt and fancy tie. His pressed black pants complete his new look.

“I’m doing a job interview today,” he grins. “Part of our class on getting ready to enter the work force.”

He’s fidgeting with his tie, not knowing what to do with his hands.
“I’ve always bombed a job interview,” he said.

I get him talking about the class, and what he’s interviewing for. His passion is the medical field, and he often tells me about his dreams about working as a first responder, or a nurse in the emergency room, maybe even a doctor. I’ve wondered where that came from, but he’s never talked about it.

“It’s a medical job, at a hospital,” he said.

“Oh, then, let’s practice,” I said. “Get you warmed up, at least.”

He smiles, and leans forward, giving me the nod.

“Good morning, Dr. Jackson,” I said. “I’m glad to meet you. I’ve been looking forward to this interview for our position here at the hospital for a pediatric physician.”

He nods again, and gulps. This is the real deal, and his serious game face is in place. He runs through his resume, and his experience in working with sick and injured people, and how he’s enjoyed having his first aid and CPR card.

“How did you become interested in medicine, and being a care provider?” I ask, in my best hospital CEO voice.

His eyes look deep into mine, and his voice lowers, telling me the story of a family member’s tragedy, how he was the first person at her side, how he administered first aid, summoned the ambulance, and stayed with her until the emergency room doctor sewed her up.

His telling of the events was by the book, meticulous, and calmly professional. A family member was close to dying, but he was the professional, the guy in charge.

“The doctor told me I’d saved her life,” he said. “And, I guess I did. But, ever since, I’ve always wanted to know more about medicine, and how to save people.”

Tears flooded my eyes, as this young man opened up his heart to me, letting me inside of his young soul, sharing a seldom-told story. Six months of visiting him, and I’d never imagined the intensity of his desire to help others, to literally save lives.

Our mock interview before a mock interview continued, but nothing was pretend with us, as the reality of his feelings and of his desires to work as a medical professional filled the space between us.

A few minutes later, we wrapped up the interview, and I shook his hand.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Jackson.”

We both took a breath, letting out deep sighs.

“That was great,” he said. “I think I nailed it. First interview I’ve had that went really well.”

His grin told the story. We both knew he was ready for the “real” interview in fifteen minutes.

I don’t know if we’ll ever talk again about his story with his family, and how he saved a dear one’s life. And, perhaps we don’t need to. We’ll just leave it there on the table, in the interview room where I first met Dr. Jackson.

5/18/16 – Neal Lemery

Becoming Worthy of Himself: Reflections on the Master Gardeners’ Class at OYA.


“Tim” is fully engaged. His hand flies up; he’s ready with the answer. This newest Master Gardener apprentice shares his observations, his conclusions, and where we should go next with our work. He’s read and re-read the text, and answered the homework questions with confidence.

Today’s topic in our Master Gardeners’ class is soils. Our teacher gets into it quickly, leading us through the various dimensions, the biology, the chemistry, the geology, and the mystery of it all. And Tim is in the middle of it, soaking it up, loving the complexity, and engaging in the thinking our teacher is calling us to do. His mental wheels are turning fast.

I’m Tim’s mentor, and today, a tutor, a teacher’s aide. My work is easy, a few words of encouragement, an occasional observation. I sit back and just enjoy him for who he has become.

A few years ago, he was lost. He’d done his required work in the youth prison, even finishing high school and then helping others. But, nothing fired up his passion, and life here was becoming just a matter of serving out the rest of his sentence.

Then, he discovered the garden, and the mystery of cultivating that is the joy and the passion of gardening. Wonderful things happened here, and he could be a part of that. He could be the magician and the scientist, the expert on various bugs and herbs, growing into a nurturer and a teacher. Tim was becoming the plant, sending out roots, spreading his leaves, and thriving in this newly discovered soil in his life.

Knowledge and the ability to be a part of the wonders of nurturing life, and exploring the unlimited world of plants and bugs touched his heart. He belonged in this work, and it fed his soul.

Now, the Master Gardeners class is his focus, and he has embraced it with everything in his being. He is in the midst of this class of questioners, deep thinkers in the ever expanding world of common, every day dirt.

I help him work through the math formulas and problems for the fertilizer questions. I watch him realize that the dull, abstract work in his math classes is nothing like the excitement of learning how best to fertilize his garden, and make his plants grow.

“This is fun,” he says.

He laughs then, shaking his head.

“I never thought I’d say that math problems are fun.”

We look at the slides of plants with various deficiencies from their soil, and talk about how to correct that, improving the plants by improving the soil and the nutrients, applying our newly found knowledge and thinking. He is becoming the botanist, the chemist, the scientist, the better lover of life itself.

He smiles, he scribbles notes, he’s totally absorbed in what we are doing, and where this class is taking him.

Tomorrow, he’ll be out in the garden, working his magic, growing his roots, growing into a healthy, complete man.

“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” –E E Cummings.

–Neal Lemery 4/19/2016

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

A Few Hands of Rummy


The week before Christmas is always hectic. So much to get ready for, so many little errands, the to do list that doesn’t seem to stop. And, part of me struggles with the short days and the long dark and cold nights. There’s a big part of me that just wants to eat comfort food, ingest lots of sugar, and snuggle under a blanket with a mug of tea.

I recently stopped by the nearby youth prison for my weekly visit with a guy. No one has come to see him in the last four years, so I’ve been asked to come and say hi, be his friend, so he can gain some people skills. Soon, he’ll be out in the world, and will need to be able to interact with the world. Spending some time with me is a start in all that.

Once a week, we play cards. He’s teaching me rummy. I’m not sure of the rules, andI think we have our own version of the game going on. He’s the teacher, a new role for him, and he’s starting to enjoy teaching this old man a few things.

The conversation is a little one sided. He’s not used to company and making small talk. He’s struggling with math at school, so keeping score in the game of rummy is good for him. He’s making something in wood shop. He’s keeping it mysterious, so I think its my Christmas present.

I’m getting him a blanket for Christmas, one that features his favorite football team. He mentioned he’d like that a few weeks ago. But, now he’s claiming he can’t remember what he asked me for Christmas. I wouldn’t tell him today. It’s a surprise, a part of the excitement of the season.

Except for what he’s getting from the prison, and a local fraternal organization, no one else is getting him a present.
He said he liked the Christmas card I sent him this week. He mentioned it several times, but not finding the words he wanted to say.

He showed me the card he was making for his grandma. It was sweet, with a little Christmas tree and the ornaments, Charlie Brown style, made from a sheet of copy paper, colored with crayons, and hand blocked letters. He’s sixteen now, but the card had the look of something from an art class a long time ago. Yet, it was something from his sweet heart. I’m hoping I get one, too. It would go on the frig, and I’d show it off to my friends and family.

“My gin rummy buddy gave that to me,” I’d say. “He’s quite a guy.”

We play a few hands, and discover we have an extra Queen of Clubs. He doesn’t know what to do, so we change the rules and play 53 card, five queen rummy. It really is our own game now. We’re just making it up as we go along.

The hour flies by. We’re busy shuffling, dealing, laying down some runs, and adding up our points. He’s beating me, big time. We don’t talk about much. But, we don’t need to. We’re just hanging out, two guys having a good time, playing some cards.

“Are you having a good time?” I ask.

“Oh, this is great,” he says. “Yeah.”

“I’m really glad you come to see me,” he says. “Otherwise, I’d be all alone.”

The other guys here are busy, and the room where we play can get pretty noisy. But, my buddy is zeroed in on our card game, intent on adding up his points, and beating me.

“I’ll see you at the Christmas party next week,” he says. “And, don’t forget my gift.”

I’ll get one from him, too. But, he’s already given me the best present, the simple gift of an hour, a little conversation, and some hands of cards, and his face breaking out into a little smile.

And, maybe that’s the best gift I could ever have for Christmas.

12/23/2015
–Neal Lemery

The Makings of Soup


Start with an empty kettle, preferably on a cold, rainy day, next to a garden in a prison. Surround yourself with a number of young inmates, serving long sentences, isolated, estranged from their families. Make sure they are close to you, hungry for lunch and hungry for the simple joy of simply being together and wanting to accomplish something important today.

Add an aching heart or more, maybe a dozen, mixed with feelings of loneliness and disconnection, even a little abandonment. Throw in a handful of indifference, and a pound of neglect.

Take a gallon of tomatoes, grown by these men in this garden. Grown from seeds, where their sprouting was a miracle of life witnessed by those who had never been placed in fertile soil, watered, and kissed by sunlight and love. Tomatoes potted up in rich soil, then transplanted out in the spring sunshine, to grow, and bloom, producing wonderful red, ripening tomatoes, and harvested by young, eager hands. Don’t forget to stir in the pride that comes with using OUR tomatoes.

Simmer the tomatoes, adding heat from the stove, and the heat of a young man’s heart, eager to learn and show that he can do this.

Slice some onions, preferably sliced by a young man who had never held an onion, never knew how to peel and slice it. Add the spirit of his curiosity and excitement, of being a cook, making something to eat, with his own hands. Take all that and simmer it in your heart, and feel the warmth of that nurture your own soul.

Find a frying pan, and heat it on the stove. Add olive oil, making sure your assistant chef gets a drop or two of the oil on his finger, so he can taste the sweet richness of olives ripening in Californian or Italian sun, asking him to describe a taste he has never had before on his tongue. Add the warmth of his smile to the soup, and stir gently.

Teach your young friend to peel a few cloves of garlic, by smashing them with the flat of a knife, watching him lean down to smell the pungent garlic, freshly peeled and minced. See him smile, when he realizes he has learned something new.

Find some peppers nearby, the ones the young men grew in the greenhouse this summer, the ones that are now just ripening. Ask him to select the peppers himself, asking him to trust his own judgment as to whether they are ripe. Gently stir in the newly discovered sense of trust and respect into your soup.

Put a wooden spoon in your young friend’s hand, letting him stir the onions, garlic and peppers together, as they begin to sizzle in the heat of the olive oil. Put some salt and black pepper, and a little brown sugar in his hand, letting him judge how much to add, when to stir, deciding when the mixture is cooked just right. Fold in the sense of accomplishment and the pride of making his own soup into the mixture, and remark about how wonderful it all smells.

Let him discover what happens when you mix the wonderful medley of onions, peppers, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and olive oil, and his accomplishments and emotions, into the warmth of the tomatoes, the transformation into soup.

Stir gently, letting the flavors blend, letting him slip into the ownership of his creation. Hand him a small spoon, urging him to taste, and evaluate, to enjoy his work, his creativity. Watch his face, overcome with pleasure and art, as he seriously evaluates and decides what to add.

Stand back, and let him take control, adding basil and a little more salt. See the glimmer in his eye, as he finds a secret ingredient to add. Enjoy his boldness, as he adds a pinch of his secret ingredient, and add that sense of power and confidence to the soup.

Gently whisper that it is time to add the milk, that the soup should be ready soon, for all the other men to enjoy. Ask him to taste it again, and sense all of its wonderfulness. With tenderness, tell him that this is an amazing soup, that everyone will love it, that it will be the best thing to experience on this cold, rainy day in the garden.

Watch him hold himself up strong, shoulders back, as he ladles out the soup, handing a bowl to all of the other men, his friends, his compatriots.

“I made this,” he says, to each of the men. Each one of them takes their bowl from him, with a slight motion of deference, respect, and thanksgiving.

“Thank you. Thank you,” they tell him.

And, a few moments later, see him smile as the room fills with the chatter of hungry men filling their bellies with warm soup on a cold rainy day.

“This is delicious. This is the best soup I’ve ever had. Amazing. Fabulous. Ah, so wonderful.”

See him nod, understanding what this is all about, what we have accomplished today, the making of the soup, the growing of the man.

–Neal Lemery 11/16/15

Gathering At The Tree Stump


 

He knelt down by the fresh stump, his finger counting the rings.

“Thirty seven,” he said.

The group of young men talked about the tree that had stood in the small grove of pine trees in the prison yard. I asked them to look at the tree stump, and the story it told about the life of the tree, planted when this youth correctional camp first began, the tree a witness for all the young lives that had been transformed here.

They were astonished that tree trunks had rings, that the rings could tell the story of the tree, of winters and summers, good years, and lean, of the fertility of the soil, the amount of rain.  Other young men reached out, too, touching the rough wood cut by the chainsaw, feeling the sawdust, the ooze of the pine pitch.

“Smell it, taste it if you want,” I said.  “You can taste the freshness of pine.”

Only one man was brave enough to take me up on my offer, touching his finger to the fresh gob of pine pitch, his eyes widening when his tongue confirmed my opinion.

“This is where turpentine comes from,” I said.

His puzzled look told me he had no idea what I was talking about.

“Turpentine.  Paint thinner.  It comes from pine trees.”

He nodded, taking in the new concept, gaining a new appreciation of the trees.  Until now they just offered shade, where young men could gather for a conversation, maybe a visit with family on a sunny day.  Three times a day, on the way to chow, they passed by these trees.

These trees were just familiar things, ordinary pine trees, until we stopped to count the rings and stick fingers into pine tar.

We talked about the pine tree’s story, how it had thrived its first five years. Then, the other trees started to shade it and compete for nutrients.  We looked, seeing how the growth slowed, the rings tight in its final years.  History was being told in a new way.

We had spent the morning talking about plants and gardening, how to think about designing a place of beauty in the world, a place of quiet and growth, places of new beginnings.  Their questions of their teachers showed their eagerness to learn new ways of nurturing a garden, to make something more beautiful through their work.

In the greenhouse, they had repotted young seedlings, making way for tender young roots to grow bigger, helping the coming summer’s vegetable garden prosper by their early spring work on the  potting bench.

With cut down cardboard boxes and potting soil, and bits of plants cut from the teacher’s garden, they fashioned their visions of what their own gardens and yards would be.  Pebbles and colored stones became rock walls and paths, and tiny paper cups were ponds and pools. Their dreams came to life. Proudly, they showed the rest of us how they wanted their homes would be, how they would bring beauty and nature into their lives.

While we made labels for seedlings, and chose the plants that needed repotting, several young men and I talked about our own lives and why we were gardeners, how that job fit into our lives, of pruning and weeding, and choosing the right soil and fertilizer for our journeys.

Looking at the stumps and the remaining trees, we talked about the planters of the trees, what they envisioned, how they planted the trees, what they wanted to accomplish.  We talked about why we plant trees, and how we care for them.

When someone mentioned nurturing young lives, the young men silently nodded.

As rain moved in, we left the pine tree stump, and the rest of the pines, having new answers for how the trees came to be there in the prison yard, and how the remaining trees were going to grow.  One man turned back, looking at the stump, his hand rising to his mouth for one more taste of the pine.

He smiled, and stood just a little taller.

4/4/15

Apples and Young Men


I was there to teach, to demonstrate how to care for apple trees, getting them ready for a season of growth, of new fruit. The young men gathered around me, curious about the sprayer I had brought, my long plastic gloves, my eye goggles.
Usually when I come to the youth prison, I bring coffee and food, and visit with one of two young men, listening to their stories, giving them a bit of direction and encouragement, trying to help them move on with their lives. Sometimes, I bring my guitar or a book. Sometimes, I bring my drum and listen to their worries and hope in a drumming circle, connecting with them in a deep, intimate way, the drum beats opening all of us up to our spiritual paths.

Today, though, I am the gardener, and so are they. They gather around a big work table in their greenhouse, all the shelves and plant tables filled to the brim with trays of their seedlings and cuttings. Eagerly, they show me what they’ve done, what they’ve planted, techniques they’ve learned to bring forth new life.

The chickens they’ve raised from eggs are now about to lay their own eggs. They tell me the stories of each of the hens, and how they’ve grown. The chickens are now a big part of their garden, eating scraps of lettuce, decimating slugs, and adding their nutrients back into the garden soil.

The circle of life is vibrant here, everyone involved in the daily routine of new life, hands on experiences with dirt, manure, sunlight, new plants, harvest, decay, renewal.

Their lives, too, nourished, weeded, fertilized, pruned and guided into healthy new growth, strengthened by the sunlight they are now letting into their lives, becoming strong, healthy men. I see smiles and bright eyes, as they tell me about their plants, their chickens, this place in the world they have made their own, a place of beauty and growth, of new life.

I talk about apples, how humans have tended them for thousands of years, continually improving them, new varieties, new techniques. There are stories of grafting, pruning, thinning, making living things thrive because of a person taking a little time to care.

I talk about disease and blight, of the need to prune out the parts of the plant that were harming the health of the rest of the tree, of adding lime to the soil, to help the tree thrive, to yield juicier fruit, growing stronger. Today, I’m attacking fungus and bugs, things that are hard to see, but still harm the tree. There were nods of understanding when I weave the care of apple trees into our lives and our dreams.

Eagerly, they watch me spray their trees, explaining each step, why I’m doing what I’m doing, helping to grow healthy trees, bring forth a bigger harvest, make this part of the world just a bit better.

Their questions are thoughtful, to the point, raising issues I hadn’t thought about. Together, we explore new questions, new solutions. We are all students here.

They’re orchardists of their own lives, and the concepts of opening something up to more sunshine and fresh air. Thinning out disease and refocusing energy are familiar ideas.

These men are gardeners of their own lives. Their questions and our discussions about apples teach me about the real agriculture that is going on here, behind the fence that surrounds their home.

“I learned to take care of a garden. Now I can take care of my life,” a young man said not long ago to one of the teachers there.

That wisdom helped him in the weeding and pruning of his life.

His story, told while we are snacking on some of the vegetables they had grown, brings nods of understanding from the young men there, gathered around the table. It is a lesson they know well, a way of thinking that is part of the routine, part of what they do every day when they water and tend their plants, feed their chickens, and make plans for how their garden would grow in the coming summer, and the summer of their own precious lives.