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.

S’morefest


S’morefest

It didn’t seem like a big deal. Go to the store and bring the fixings for s’mores, enough for the guys at the prison camp, a couple of staff members, and me.

I was going to bring my guitar and sing some campfire songs, but time got away from me, the day turned hectic and I didn’t have time to go back home and get my guitar and songbook.

I shouldn’t have worried. The evening wasn’t about campfire songs and providing some entertainment. It was all about just getting together and doing something fun, about trying something new, and hanging out, just to hang out.

There were some nice coals and a bit of a flame going in the half barrel barbecue outside by the picnic table. Several young men laughingly grabbed my grocery bags out of my hands and began ripping open the bags of marshmallows, shoving them onto the willow roasting sticks.

My buddy, the staff member, was there, tending the fire, and teaching S’mores Making 101. He was the organizer of this festival, wanting to show these young men a bit about relaxing and having a good time, how to just hang out and be themselves.

Soon, a dozen sticks were thrust over the coals and the flames, and young faces focused on the miracle of marshmallows turning from white to toasty brown, and, sometimes, into small torches of sugary crunchy blackness.

Gooey marshmallows soon melted chocolate onto graham crackers, and were stuffed into eager young mouths. There was more laughter, young men slipping back into boyhood, with big smiles and eyes bright with the excitement of s’mores making. Some boys looked around, not quite sure what to do, how they should act.

After all, this wasn’t organized, like lining up for chow, or going to school, or even going out on the work crew, or off to wood shop or the garden. There weren’t any rules here, any protocol or prison regimen. The only expectation was to just hang out, have a good time, and roast a marshmallow on a willow stick.

“How do you do this?”

“I’ve never made s’mores before.”

“What do we do?” a young man asked, looking lost, unsettled.

I handed him a willow stick, and asked him to stick a fresh marshmallow on it.

“Here. Now hold it over the coals, and let it slowly turn brown.”

He looked at me, a bit puzzled.

“Really?”

“Yeah, then when it gets brown, we’ll take a graham cracker, and smash it all together, with a piece of chocolate. The marshmallow will melt the chocolate, and it will turn into a sweet, gooey mess. You’ll love it,” I said.

“I’ve never done this before,” he said.

“So, how’s your day been?” I asked, drawing him into some small talk. We were supposed to just hang out, after all, and just have a good time.

The tension in the group eased off a bit when the first s’mores were made, and popped into questioning, suspicious mouths.

“Oh, man. That’s good!” the guy first in line at the fire said, his words muffled by his first bite into his sweet chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker sandwich.

“Yeah, told you so,” a staff member said, chuckling at the sight of the first of the Doubting Thomases at the s’mores roast.

Some guys still hung out at the edge, not sure what to do, not sure of what was expected of them at this new event in their lives.

“What do we do now?” one guy asked me, a look of worry crossing his face, a bit of melted chocolate daubed on his chin.

“Just hang out, have a good time,” I said. “Just have fun.”

“Oh. Uh, OK,” he answered, hesitant, still a bit antsy about this new activity in his life.

“So, what are you working on in the wood shop?” I asked.

He eased up, and began describing his project, and how he’d figured out the design, and found the right kind of wood, how the teacher showed him a new way of joining the pieces together, so that his box would be stronger, and complement his design.

Other conversations filled the air, as the guys mingled with each other, and went back for seconds and thirds on their desserts. One guy talked about a camping trip he’d had when he was a kid. A few guys just shook their heads.

“Never did that,” one guys said. “But, I will. Some day.”

Other guys talked about the deer they saw the other day back behind the tree farm, and the eagles that would soar overhead some days, high above them as they worked in the trees, or mowed the lawn.

The last of the graham crackers and marshmallows soon disappeared, and the chocolate was ancient history. A few guys were browning up the remnants of marshmallows off of the willow sticks, playing in the last of the coals. They picked up the last of the night’s gooey mess from the sticks with sticky fingers, murmuring their contentment with tonight’s dessert.

The evening light began to fade a bit, and the young men began to wander back inside, getting ready for their showers and bed time. It was time for me to go, too, my mission accomplished.

“That was a blast,” one young man said to me, as he helped me clean up the wrappings and stack the willow sticks by the barbecue.

“I never knew what s’mores were,” he said. “And just hanging out, having a good time around the fire. That was really fun.”

“Can we do this again?”

8/17/2014

Travels With Joseph


by Neal Lemery

Freedom Day came early for me. It always does. I arrive at Camp Tillamook just before six a.m., coffee thermos in hand, ready for my buddy’s first day of freedom.

He could walk out the gate for the last time at 6 a.m. sharp. But, like all the others guys I’ve had this day with, he lingers, not quite ready, not finished with his good byes and his last minute errands. There’s a lot of hesitancy in the air, this first day of freedom after six years. This prison has been his home for all that time, the first time he’s had some stability, and a sense of belonging and purpose. All of his friends are here, and all of the staff who’ve helped him through some tough stuff, all the normal teenaged angst, and all the reforming that a convicted sex offender does in this place. This is family, and it’s hard to say good bye.

This is where he’s finished high school, and where he’s earned his associates degree, and done all of the responsible jobs he’s had in his life. Over there is the phone he’s used to call his seven year old son every week, the son he last saw when he was sixteen, and the boy was only seven weeks old. There’s more than a few tears in the room, voices catching with emotion as they say their good byes.

At last, his release papers in hand, he moves towards the door. His buddies pick up his boxed up belongings, he grabs his knapsack and duffel bag, and we head out towards the gate, towards his new life.

His face changes from a weak smile to almost a scowl. Every emotion is running through him now, and he doesn’t know what to do. The summer rain squall cuts short all of the last hugs as my car fills up with his life, and we finally move out.

“Wow, first time going somewhere without shackles,” he says quietly, as we drive away. I honk the horn in celebration, giving all of his going away group a final wave. They were quiet, too, those last minutes. Happy and sad, the enormity of the moment finally catching up with everyone.
Freedom Day. A new life. The end of prison. But, now what?

We know we are going to Bend, and the first stop is the parole office. But, we don’t know where Joseph is going to sleep tonight. It may be under a bridge, for all we know. If all else falls through, I know he’ll stay with me in my motel room. I’m not leaving him to live under a bridge. That’s my mantra for the day.

In four hours, we need to be in Salem, to have breakfast with his good friend, a guy who did this Freedom Day ride with me fifteen months ago. He’s done well, got himself into a university, working hard on his bachelor’s degree. Three weeks ago, my wife and I sat next to him, seeing him inducted into the national honor society, the university honoring him for his 4.0 GPA in business. That young man had led the way for a lot of the other guys here at Camp T. If he can do that, well, maybe they can, too.

Joseph and I drive down the road, coming to the stop sign. Left to town, maybe a bit of breakfast, or some Starbucks; left to the beach, and, after a bit, the road to Salem and Bend. Or, right, go to Portland, maybe. Whatever he wants.

It’s his choice. We’d talked about that, these last several weeks, but he didn’t have any answers, except, “Whatever you want to do. You’re the driver.”

I always take these boys to the beach on Freedom Day. They haven’t seen the beach in six or seven years, and its something they need to do, before they leave town, before they get on with the rest of their life.

Besides, the beach is a place to talk to God, to be away from people, and be immersed in the energy and the cleanness of the ocean. They need to feel the salt on their faces, and hear the waves crashing on the sand, maybe see some seagulls fly by, and be alone with the enormity of the world, wild and clean.

“Where to?” I ask, and I get his standard response.

“I want to take you to the beach,” I say, quietly. “It’s pretty there, and there’s no fence.”

My little joke gets a chuckle from him, and so I know he really needs to go there, and have a bit of time to think through what we’re doing, that we’ve run away from the only home he’s had for the last six years, the only friends he has in this world.

I take the back road, so he can see some cows and green pastures, and drive along a quiet river, so we can see some herons and ducks, maybe an eagle. We drive through the forest, and then by a bay, until we get to Oceanside, so he can see the Three Arch Rocks, and the quiet, deserted beach.

We get out of the car, and I can see a bit of bounce in his step. Yeah, he needs to be here.
I nudge him down the path, telling him he’s on his own, he needs to be by himself now, and just be on the beach by himself. He nods, silently thanking me for just letting him be, to take some quiet time just for himself, and to be with God.

I stand by the car, the salty air fresh with the incoming tide, mist filtering the early morning light, and watch him out on the fresh sand, gazing out to sea. He walks, and then stops, picking up a stick, or maybe a shell, and then looks out into the infinity of the morning.

He’s twenty two, and he’s headed back home today, and he’s finally free.

Joseph’s not one of the guys I’ve come to see these last four and a half years. He’s been around, and I’ve seen him, and chatted a bit with him. But, he’s kept to himself, and not asked me to come visit him, like a lot of the other guys.

A few months ago, I did a workshop with him at Camp T, about what you needed to do to get ready for Freedom Day. He had a lot of questions and soaked up what I had to say, clutching my checklist for the big day.

About two weeks ago, he came up to me, asking me if I could help him out, if I could drive him to Bend when he got out. He needed some help, but he almost choked on the words, hesitant to ask for help, and apologizing for being a bother.

It was a huge step for him, asking for help. He’s Mr. Independent, doing what needs to be done, just by himself.

When these guys leave, they don’t have a wallet, they don’t have a day pack, and they don’t have a duffel bag for some of their clothes. But the big thing they don’t have is a family to come get them, and make them feel at home. There is no home to go to, and there is no one to give them a ride.

When Joseph asked me for help, we talked about his plan, what he wanted to do, where he’d be living. He didn’t have any answers. And, no one else did, either. We’d be calling the parole office in Bend the week before he left, and find out then. The uncertainty, the not knowing, hung in the air, his face blank, emotionless.

Joseph is a guy who plans ahead. He maps out his school work, his degree program, anything that he’s involved in. His treatment work and his academic work are all neatly arranged in labeled binders. He was the guy around Camp T who organized work crews, and made sure everyone is prepared for and is working on what needs to be done, to get something accomplished. He’s co-facilitated treatment groups, been a teacher’s aide and taught classes, led the kitchen crew, and let the groundskeeping and tree farm crews. He likes to design macros for Excel spreadsheets.

He’d mastered the computer network at the camp, and built and reprogrammed computers, and helped start the new computer repair vocational program. Everyone looked to Joseph to get something important around there accomplished.

Yet, when he wants to move on with him life, and plan the next step, there aren’t any answers, there aren’t any programs to organize and complete, there’s simply no information for the questions he has. Those real questions of Freedom Day, such as where he’s going to live tonight, how he’s going to have food tomorrow, where he is getting emotional support for the life he’s wants. He won’t have that institutional support underneath him, for the first time in more than a quarter of his life.

When we first talked, I found out about his passion for computer technology and programming. I mentioned that Oregon State University has a campus in Bend now, that OSU is a great engineering and computer technology college, that he could get his bachelor’s degree in Bend in something he loves to do. I saw light go on in his eyes, and I thought the seed I had planted might sprout.

A few days later, I talked with Joseph again, trying to flesh out some of the details on what we need to do when Freedom Day comes. He handed me another binder, labeled OSU Computer Engineering.

“Oh, yeah, I did some research,” he said softly.

I flipped open the binder, finding his college application, his financial aid application, his transcript request paperwork, and pages of detailed degree programs, course descriptions, and class schedules for fall term. There’s also a list of textbooks for fall term.

“Yeah, it looks really interesting. I’m going to start fall term there, and get my degree,” he said, his voice edging with some pride and excitement. “I’ve mapped out the six terms of schooling I’ll need to get my Bachelor’s.”

A week later, I come in for our phone call with the Bend parole officer and we get him on the phone, along with a couple of Camp T staff and the prison authority transition specialist. Everyone in our room wants some answers and wants to get a real plan in the works. Freedom Day is in a week, and we need to know what’s going on for this young man when he gets to Bend.

“Not sure,” the voice on the phone keeps saying. Housing, what restrictions Joseph will have, job opportunities, treatment, everything is a “not sure” sort of response.

“I’ll know more next week and call you back,” he says, but he never does. It’s not what all of us in Tillamook want to hear, and its not what Joseph, Mr. Organizer, needs to hear as he’s trying to plan for the rest of his life.

Joseph has another option, another Plan B. He’s done the Interstate Compact work to try to go live with his family in Las Vegas. In the last six years, his family hasn’t come to see him. And, they aren’t much help to him with the Interstate Compact. After a couple of months with the Interstate Compact application in the works, the family’s only housing plan for him is that he can stay three weeks with a grandma. Mom hasn’t committed to even buying the plane trip to Vegas. We all know Plan B is going nowhere.

On Freedom Day, I learn more about Joseph’s family. He never really went to middle school, and when the truancy officer and the juvenile court said he needed to go to high school, he dropped out after a couple of weeks. He found a girlfriend, and then she got pregnant. But, he didn’t live with her, and chose to camp in the woods, because she started using meth and he didn’t want to be around that. His family had gone back to Las Vegas, leaving him behind.

On Freedom Day, when we were eating breakfast with his good friend in Salem, they talked about the money he’d earned at Camp T, mostly earning fifty cents an hour, and how he’d sent about $700 back to his mom and his grandma, to repay them for some money he’d borrowed when he was sixteen. He’d been hoping they’d send the money back to him, and maybe send him some more, now that he was getting out and needed to get settled in Bend.

“They kept it,” he told his friend. “I was kind of hoping they’d help me out now, but they didn’t.”

Joseph comes back from the beach, a real smile on his face. “That was good,” he said. “I needed that.”

“Now what?” I ask, and he doesn’t know. Except, he’s excited about breakfast with his friend in Salem. I’ve promised lots of food and great coffee, and a good visit with a good friend.

We head south, along another bay, spotting a couple of herons. I talk about the oyster farm, and logging and some good hiking trails.

We stop in Pacific City, at a great little espresso place, and get some coffee. I get a cinnamon roll, and talk him into getting one, too. He’s loosening up a little on having me buy things for him, and being nice to him. He struggles with that, Mr. Independent that he is.

The waitress brings us our lattes and our rolls, along with a metal fork. It’s his first metal fork in six years, and he plays with it with his tongue, telling me how it feels strange, the metal clanking and hitting his teeth and his lips. But, the cinnamon roll disappears fast, so I think he’s getting the hang of yet another new experience on Freedom Day.

We head down the road another thirty miles and my cell phone rings. It’s one of his buddies, knowing I’m the driver, and wanting to wish him well.

“Here. Answer it,” I say, giving him my iPhone and the pass code to get it to work.

Joseph and his buddy have a good talk, sharing the story of the beach and the fork and the cinnamon roll, and the upcoming breakfast in Salem.

After the call, he starts looking at some of the apps on the phone, checking it out. It chirps, telling us our breakfast buddy just sent a text.

“Well, answer it,” I say. Mr. Technology fumbles a bit, maybe 20 seconds, before he starts texting back, chuckling to himself about all this newness, how easy and quick it is.

I don’t need to worry about the rest of the trip to breakfast. The phone is his new world, and he’s busy connecting with three other buddies from Camp T, others who have moved out and on their way in the world.

Breakfast is fun and chatty. I don’t get a word in edgewise, as the two college students and good friends reconnect, and the advice and counsel flow rich to this young man. We laugh again as Joseph picks up a real knife, and eats real bacon, and the best biscuits and gravy in the state.

Off we head east, down the road, Joseph cracking a joke as we drive by the state penitentiary. We laugh, our bellies filled with good food and coffee, and our hearts filled with the love of our good friend, Mr. College.

As we head up the North Santiam River into the Cascade Mountains, I ask Joseph if he remembers this road, and he says no. He’s lived in Eugene, and Drain, but that was so long ago. He can’t remember. He says he can’t remember much about his life as a kid; it was chaotic, and he was left alone a lot, or left to babysit his younger sisters. He quiets down when he mentions his family, and so I move on, talking about the river, and fishing, and how salmon can’t get past the Detroit Dam.

He stares at the dam, asking a lot of questions, and wonders about the lake, too, and boats and fishing, and logging. After Detroit, we follow the river for a long time, his eyes soaking up the light, the rapids, and the beauty of this misty June day in the Cascades. All that green, and no fences.

It is, after all, Freedom Day, a day when everything he sees is new and fresh and clean. The world of Camp T is a world behind a fence, and now, that fence and that world are far behind.

I let him know he needs to tell me if he has to pee and if he wants to stop somewhere. We don’t have the rule about asking permission to do anything, we just mention it and what he wants to do is what we will do. Yet another new thing to learn. Something else to add to the list of new things in his world.

We get close to the summit, and we see all the snags and devastation from a big forest fire. It’s a good metaphor, devastation, replanting, renewal, a new season for something new and beautiful. I talk around all that, not wanting to lecture, but I sense he gets it, that he’s replanting his own forest, devastated by his own fire, and let the quiet of the changing scenery do my teaching.

Over the summit, and we are back in his home country. The trees change, the showers and misty air end, and we head downhill, Black Butte, a forested volcanic cinder cone, now in the distance.

I stop at one of my favorite viewpoints, looking over the forest towards Mt. Washington. The mountain is hiding in the clouds today, but we need to stretch our legs, and I want him to smell some real mountain air and take a moment to let his soul catch up with him, for him to feel he’s coming back home.

He takes a deep breath and then another, as we look out over the forest below, and the base of Mt. Washington, and the swirling clouds surrounding the mountain.

“I smell roses,” he says, and soon he is face first into a wild rose bush, inhaling loudly, and sighing. “Ah, ah.”

I smell, too, and then grab a branch of a cottonwood, and then a pine, and then a tamarack.

“These smell good, too,” I say, and Joseph follows suit, breathing deep.

It is quiet here, our faces feeling a bit of midday mountain sunshine, smelling the rose and the pine and the clean air, a bit crisp, smelling the mountains of June and all that energy. The only sound is a breeze in the trees, and a hawk calling out in the distance.

Tears roll down his face, as we look out to all that wildness. There are no fences, no locked gates or doors, no more sleeping dorm with the stinky feet and gas of twenty five men, the stale air of prison.

I put my arm around his shoulders, drawing him to a hug, both of us crying now, both knowing what freedom means. I get a big hug back, in silence. Neither of us needing words to say how we feel. Oh, Freedom Day.

In silence, we drive down the road, down into Central Oregon, his old and his new home, his future awaiting us.

Along the way, we’ve talked a lot, about who I am and who he is and what we are doing with our lives, and what it means to have a good life. He’s seen me around the camp long enough to know what I’m about, I think. I’ve become a dad to some of the guys there. He’s been wanting that, too. A week ago, I went to his going away party, a barbecue he and another guy getting out were putting on. He wanted me there, and his close friends of the last six years. His only friends. Oh, he wanted me to bring the steaks and the side dishes, but I think he wanted family there, too.

And, he’s soaking up that dad stuff today. I keep saying how smart he is, and how I’ve seen the goodness about him over the years, about his ability to do the right thing, make the right decisions, about his leadership, and his drive to improve himself.

He’d mentioned something about how his dad wasn’t much of a father to him, and how he abandoned him and the rest of the family. There’s an edge in his voice in telling that, and I don’t ask any questions. I sense a lot of pain in all that, and a lot of deep anger, even rage.

I’ll be a dad today, giving a ride, and being the cheerleader and the leader in our expedition. I have a lot of opinions about how he’s been raised and how he’s been treated, and how a lot of people have failed him. He already knows that, though, and he doesn’t need me to point that out to him. I’m here to be the sounding board, the supporter, the chauffeur. I’m the Morgan Freeman in this movie, driving Miss Daisy along the road.

I’m getting him a bike when we get to Bend. It’s something he’s wanted for a long time. When he was living in the woods, becoming a father, about to go to jail, his bike was all he had to his name. And, he’s made another bike for himself at Camp T, finding some parts, scrounging a bike frame from the junk pile. It worked, but it didn’t have any foot pedals. And, we didn’t have room on my car to haul a bike to Bend.

So, last week, I told him I’d buy him a bike, a good bike, one that would serve him well in getting to work and getting to college.

He said, “No, don’t get me anything, don’t be nice to me, I don’t deserve it.”

But, it was what I wanted to do, to help him get started. It wasn’t the money, either. A decent new bike doesn’t cost much, and if having a bike got a bright young engineer to go to college, well, then, the bike is just part of helping a guy get an education.

I reach into the console, grabbing an envelope.

“Here,” I say, “Take this. It’s the money for your bike.”

Joseph gulps and looks away, down, giving me that bad puppy after it peed on the carpet and chewed up my shoe look.

“I want to do this,” I say. “You don’t have to pay me back. But, you can pay it forward someday, to someone else, if you think you owe me.”

He takes the envelope, counting out the money a couple of times, before folding it into his wallet. He gets quiet, and I look away when I see another tear slide down his face.

I get quiet, too. I get quiet when I get angry. And, I’m angry, angry about a father and a family who didn’t show up to help their son get out of prison, angry about how they hadn’t come to see him in the last six years, angry about how they weren’t doing a thing to help him move on, not helping him to get started in college. Angry, too, about not raising him right, not getting him into school, abandoning him to live in the woods, to find love and comfort, and accidental fatherhood with a woman child who was slipping into meth.

At breakfast, we talked about good coffee, and Joseph saying how he really wants to go to Dutch Brothers, a well known drive through coffee chain. As we drove through Sisters, I pull off the road, slipping behind another car.

“Dutch Brothers,” I cheer. “Time for coffee.”

I get a laugh, finally, out of Joseph, and he’s remembering a long time ago treat.

“I wonder if they still make my favorite drink,” he says.

“Well, you order, then,” I say. “They’ll make what you want.”

A cute, blonde barista slides open the drive through window, cheerfully asking us what we wanted. I nod to Joseph, who actually has to talk to a beautiful young woman, and tell her what we want.
It is a a serious conversation, two aficionados of coffee discussing the nuances of the concoction. He laughs, and she flirts, and he laughs again.

As we drive away, he takes a long sip and pronounces it perfect, just as he remembered, six long years ago.

“She thought you were cute,” I say, chuckling.

“Oh, she’s just paid to do that,” he replies, but the look in his eyes tells me something else.

As we came towards Bend, we realize we didn’t have an address for the parole office. I hand Joseph my phone again, telling him to use the map function. He chuckles and sighs with pleasure, as he quickly discovers yet another technological wonder. Yet, the app didn’t give us a good answer, and I pull into the Sheriff’s office, next to the jail, to get directions.

As we walk in, he stops suddenly, taking a big gulp of air, and looking away.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“This is the spot where I was arrested. I put my bike right over there. I never saw it again. I was in county jail for almost a year, and then the intake prison, and then Tillamook. Oh, I remember everything that happened here. Like it was yesterday.”

I can’t make this better. I can’t leave fast enough.

In a few minutes, we find the parole office, and Joseph starts filling out an eight page questionnaire. He fumbles with the pencil, and mutters to himself when the form keeps asking about his residence, phone number, and job searches.

“I don’t know. I don’t know any of this stuff.”

“It’s alright. You’ve only been out seven hours. We just got here. It’s OK,” I say, trying to be calm, trying to put normal on a process that was only going to get crazier.
In few minutes, he’s called back by his PO, who is wearing blue latex gloves. I wonder if they’d strip search him, especially after the PO gives me the evil eye.

“Who are you?” his eyes question me, as he motions Joseph back, through the door marked “Private”.

I sit there, a full hour, until Joseph emerges, his face expressionless, his emotions stuffed deep inside.

“Do you have a place to live?” I ask, as we walk out the door.

“Yeah, here are the directions” he says, handing me a scrap of paper with a crude sketch of three streets and the landmark of a Sonics drive-in.

We have no housing voucher or other paperwork, just that sketch of a map.

We have no box of emergency food for the weekend, as Joseph does not yet have his food stamp card. It’s four o’clock on Friday afternoon, too late to go to the Department of Human Services. He’s done the application process on line, but he didn’t have a home address, not until now. No address, so no card, and no food.

There is no other information or paperwork, no services directory, no meal vouchers, no bus pass, no nothing.

Welcome to Bend, your new home, your future.

Five minutes later, we find the place, the Tom Tom Motel.

When I was a kid, my family would come to Bend once in a while, on our way to go camping, for a week of fishing, or maybe deer hunting in the fall, with my dad. Even then, before the Vietnam War, the Tom Tom was the run down motel of last resort in Bend. Built in the 40s, it had seen its better days just about the time I was born, sixty one years ago.

The Tom Tom was built in a half circle, in the motor court style of the 1940s. Today, the courtyard is overgrown in scraggly sagebrush, a dead juniper tree in the center. Old, mismatched kitchen chairs, some without backs, are scattered around the courtyard and against the outside walls of the ten units that are left. Cigarette butts stick out of old rusty coffee cans on the ground.

Four ancient men, dressed in a variety of torn sweat pants and pajama bottoms, and faded T shirts, sit in the rickety chairs, staring either at us or vacantly into the distance from eyes sunken in colorless, stubbled faces. Their teeth are half missing, and the remnants are snags, poking out through ash colored lips and jaws.

Joseph has been told that the motel had a no alcohol clause. I’d say that would be because all these guys had already exceeded their lifetime allotments of booze, and probably, meth.

A rusty metal storage container, closed with a rusty padlock, lies in the sagebrush at the end of the row of rooms. We later learn that this is the laundry facility and that one may cook with a hot plate there.

A few rusty cars and trucks without engines or tires complete the landscaping.

There doesn’t appear to be an office, and we finally approach one man, saying that we would like to check in. He mumbles something and wanders off, bringing back another hunched over, snaggle toothed man, the manager, the Norman Bates of this establishment.

We are taken to Unit 9, and he nudges the door open. A wooden window flower box adorns the window, filled with powder dry dirt and the remnants of flowers last planted in the Bush administration.

“Here,” he says.

“The key is under the mat. You need to leave it there all the time.”

We later learn that, well, Joseph could have a key, but then, he’d have to pay $585 a month in rent, and then you’d get a key. But, if you’re here because Community Corrections is paying the rent, then he’d get a key. Apparently, the thinking is that you’ll be going back to jail anyway, and they wouldn’t have a key then. So, better to just leave the key under the mat.

Joseph would usually have a roommate, but he got arrested the day before. He may not be back until next week.

We each take a deep breath and then go inside. Surprisingly, the room appears clean, with a Pergo floor, two not obviously stained mattresses, an apartment-sized refrigerator, TV, and microwave. There’s a small bathroom with a shower, and a small table.

We are beyond words.

Joseph mentions something about living under the bridge would be better, and I’m thinking that would be a good thing.

He doesn’t have a choice. He’s been directed to live here.

Mr. Methodical, Mr. Organized, Mr. Plan Ahead and Go to College is beside himself. In my car is the new computer he bought with his work crew money. It is his future, his passion, his career.

He can’t leave that here, and he can’t leave his new suit, his nice clothes, his DVD player, his books. He’s got his life savings in his wallet.

I’m wondering if he could even be safe here, not being able to lock the door, living with the burned out old men sitting inert in the courtyard.

We take another look around, and get ready to leave. We need to come back, but its not yet five o’clock and Joseph wants to get his sex offender registration done at the State Police. He’s been dreading that all day, and wants to just get that done, too.

We head off, and I make Joseph laugh as I scream “F***”. He screams too, and we both laugh, not knowing how to process what we’ve just seen.

I take some deep breaths and we arrive at the Oregon State Police office to get this boy registered.

I’ve done this routine with about a half dozen other guys, and it’s not a big deal. The receptionist is always nice, and very matter of fact. It takes ten minutes, and then it’s over. The Youth Authority has already got them in the system, so its just a matter of updating information, with their new address.

Yes, what is the address of the Tom Tom, I wonder. Well, there was no nice street side sign with that information, and as we never formally checked in or registered, or even have a motel key… Amazingly, Google knows the Tom Tom and so we find a street address to make the OSP lady happy.
As we walk into the state police office, Joseph gets behind me.

“You ask her. I can’t do this,” he says.

So, I ask the lady to help us register and we get the process done in a few minutes. Joseph is angry from the Tom Tom Motel experience, and now he has to deal with yet another process that tells him he’s a failure, a sex offender, worthless.

He needs time to process, and doesn’t have a plan. He’s a guy who always needs a plan, some direction.

“Give it time,” I say. “We will come up with a plan, but we need some time to work on that.”

I head to the college campus, thinking that I need to show him something good in his life, and then take him to dinner.

We’d been planning a celebratory drink, a beer, maybe a Scotch. He’s never had a drink, and missed out on celebrating his twenty first birthday with a drink. And, Freedom Day is worthy of celebration, as well.

“I can’t even have that drink with you tonight,” he says, his voice edgy. “My PO says no alcohol. I don’t have a problem with alcohol.”

I try to calm him down, saying that we will still celebrate, that someday we will have that drink together. All in good time. I’m testing out my Pollyanna voice and attitude, but even I know I’m not pulling it off.

I find the campus, and we spend fifteen minutes driving around all the new buildings, the new technology center, the commons, the gym, the bookstore. Its five o’clock on Friday in late June, so we have the place to ourselves. But, Joseph starts talking about college and courses, and how he could get to campus. We talk about me coming back and going to talk to his advisor in a few weeks.

Joseph starts talking about his plan. I keep his computer, his good clothes, his books. He keeps his DVD player in his day pack. He’ll look for another place tomorrow. He might even tell his PO he’ll live under the bridge. He’s looking at some options.

He’s got sheets and a blanket, stuff he’d brought. I’m amazed. I wouldn’t have thought of that. I guess I’ve never had to think about being homeless.

He can microwave TV dinners. He has his French press coffee maker. He brought a movie to watch tonight. He can make this work.

I’m still mentally back at the Tom Tom, still angry, still seething. All this is not what Mr. Engineering Student needs on Freedom Day. But, then, Freedom Day always has more than its share of disrespectfulness, cold bureaucracy, and emotional disaster.

We head to dinner. He’d like to drive through downtown. Dinner at the Old Mill District along the river would be OK. Good. Let’s do something nice. Let’s celebrate the good things in Freedom Day.
The nice hostess takes us to our table, overlooking the river. There’s linen napkins, and a table cloth. We get fresh bread and salads, and a nice dinner. The waiter is attentive and polite, and calls Joseph “sir.”

We take a breath, we regroup, we plan tomorrow, getting the bike, groceries, the bank. Yes, I’ll stay as long as it takes. I’m not leaving Bend until you are settled.

I’m having breakfast with my old college roommate. I’ve already invited Joseph to that. He still wants to do that. My old roommate works at Goodwill, can be a link for housing, jobs, settling in. He can be a support system.

“Yes. Yes, I’d like to meet him. Yes, this is doable.”

“Are you OK alone tonight?” I ask. “Yes.”

Mr. Get It Done is back in charge.

After dinner, we head to Fred Meyer, Bend’s version of the big box variety store. It’s cell phone time. We had to wait until the PO approved it. He’s limited to a Trac phone. No internet connection. Joseph will put up with anything, anything to make his PO happy, anything so he can move on with his life.

It’s his first time in a real store for the last six years. He’s taken aback, and I can see the shock in his face as he realizes a lot of the folks in the store are kids, and they walk past him, and are around him when he is standing there.

I tell him to breathe, that this is normal, that this is fine and safe.

We head to the bathroom and he is fine. Fine until a boy walks in as we are washing up.
“It’s fine,” I say. “This is normal. Follow me.”

Joseph picks out a phone. We look at bikes, and he finds one he likes. We talk about food to buy for tomorrow, and some other stuff. When we get back to the car, I start a grocery list. Ah, a list. Joseph likes lists. There is order, calmness, purpose in lists.

Back at the Tom Tom, we get Joseph settled in. He makes his bed. charges his phone, finds his movie, and his toothbrush and towel. I give him a hug, saying I’ll be back at eight and we’ll go have breakfast, then get his bike. He’s OK.

I’m not. I leave the Tom Tom, the old men still hanging around the courtyard, the same vacant stares. I guess they won’t rob Joseph tonight. I’m not sure they have enough energy to get out of the chairs and go to bed when it gets dark. Maybe they are already zombies, and will just turn into dust at sunrise.

I check in at my motel. I get a key. I sign a registration form. I have a place to park, and the room is nice, clean, and has a dead bolt. I use the dead bolt and the chain, just because I can. There are no zombies in the parking lot, no dead plants in the flower boxes.

The next morning, Joseph flies out the door as I drive up, ready for breakfast. He’s fleshed out his plans for the day, for finding a new place to live. He mentions other options he has for this place, the Tom Tom. He thinks he could pay $585 a month to live here. It might work.

I am dad again. I say “No. No son of mine should live here. You need to find another place.”

He nods. “I know. You’re right. I was just trying to make the best of it.”

We join my old college roommate for breakfast. It is old home week, and my buddy and I have a great time.

True to form, my college roommate engages Joseph in our conversation, asking about our adventures, his plans, his education, his interest in work.

My buddy brings Joseph out of his shell, and the old Joseph, the old get it done, be organized, be purposeful personae comes out. I see him talk about homes and dreams and possibilities.

My buddy gives Joseph his phone number.

“Call me. If I hear of something, I’ll call you.”

Joseph gets connected with the Goodwill guy who is the employment expert. He’ll see him first thing Monday morning. They need folks with computer skills.

My buddy refers Joseph to a bank, a bank that is open on Saturday. We stop in and soon, Joseph has a bank account, a debit card, and a sense of acceptance, being normal. The bank lady was nice, accommodating, not batting an eye as Joseph hands her his inmate ID card as a form of identification. She waives fees and gets him a free account. She gives him the form so he can complete his student loan application and have his money be direct deposited. She wishes him well, and gives him a lead on some low income apartments.

We head to Fred’s and get his food, an alarm clock, a room deodorizer, a setting of silverware, a glass, coffee, even some dish soap.

Back at the Tom Tom, we unload his groceries, spilling the sack of TV dinners and the coffee on the ground, so that the toothless men in the old chairs can see.

On the way back to Fred’s, to get the bike, and to say my good byes, we mention that.

“Now that they see you have food and coffee, you’ll have to invite them over. A housewarming party,” I joke, making Joseph laugh.

“I’ll never have a life without a purpose,” he says.

Before we left the Tom Tom, he asks me to take a picture of him, using his new phone. He sends the photo to his mom in Las Vegas. A few minutes later, the phone beeps, giving him her reply.

“Shave the beard.”

Joseph sighs, his voice telling me he’d like a little different kind of response. “Mom”, he groans.

Where’s the “Good luck, son. You look so handsome. I miss you,” response, I wonder.

“Well, I like your goatee,” I grin, stroking my own beard, and Joseph laughs.

“You would.”

At Fred’s, he finds his bike again, happy now, no longer having that bad puppy look, accepting a gift from me. He finds a bike lock, one with a key.

He’s changing, right before my eyes.

“I need a lanyard,” he says, as he’s wheeling the bike through the store, one hand filled with his lock and a Camelback drinking water bag for his day pack. I’ve learned his nickname at camp was Mickey, and we’ve been hauling a Mickey Mouse doll in the back for the last day. At the lanyard rack, there are not a lot of choices, but there are Mickey Mouse lanyards and there are Oregon State University lanyards.

He holds up both to me, asking for my opinion. I’m thinking Mickey, the guy he’s been for the last six years.

“I’ll go for Oregon State,” he says. “I’m a Beaver now.”

In my last few minutes with him I try to impart a bit more fatherly advice. I don’t want to let him go. I’m being protective, fearful of what is out there in the world for him to deal with. Yet, as we drove to get his bike, he pointed out restaurants he’s worked at before, places he’ll go to check out job openings. Monday morning, he’ll see my friend at Goodwill, get his food stamps, go to the employment office, and do the other things on his already growing list.

“In two weeks, I’ll get my life in order,” he says, reading my mind, knowing I’m worried, knowing that I care.

The day after I get back home, he texts me, checking in. Its Sunday morning and I’m still reading the paper, sipping the last of my coffee, being lazy.

“Job interview on Tuesday. I’m setting up a college orientation, too.”

I guess I won’t need to worry, at least not so much.
——— 7/7/2014

Restringing


Together, we tear open the packages of new strings, gingerly remove the old strings, and replace them with new ones, all shiny and bright. The new strings don’t come with directions, and folks who buy violin strings are probably presumed to know what they are doing. Trial and error become reliable teachers, and our first experience in restringing a violin soon brings results.

He tightens each string, checking the tuning, a smile creeping over his face as he realizes his violin now has a clearer, brand new tone. Yes, he can do this. He can restring his violin, a new task is learned, and a big accomplishment is made.

The violin has been a good teacher these last few months, offering challenges, and stretching his fingers and his fascination with making music with a bow, strings, and a centuries old design. My friend, “Jim”, is finding his voice with this violin, a place to put his emotions, and his fears. He’s getting out of prison in eight months, and there’s a lot of fear in him now, about how to live, and how to be a man on the “outside”, for the first time in his young life. Six years is a long time behind bars, especially when you are twenty three.

His grandfather’s gift of the violin has brought him some genuine excitement, and a place for his emotions, his love for creating something beautiful. He is finding a voice for his soul to spread its wings and soar.

We work quietly, offering each other suggestions, each contributing a finger to hold a string, or add a bit of tension, only a word here and there to solve a problem of a reluctant tip of a wire string, or finding the correct direction to turn a tuning peg, the right groove for that particular string.

He retunes and retightens, again and again, as the new strings stretch, now becoming part of the violin, part of the whole of what he tenderly holds in his arms and under his chin, his bow finding its place, creating new notes, clean and bright.

We were supposed to work on our weekly task, reading comprehension and vocabulary for his college entrance tests. He kept failing the tests on the computer, and was getting frustrated. He’d seen me helping other young men here with their studies, and had finally screwed up his courage enough to ask me for some help.

In the past two months, we’d been faithful to our task, making progress, but today was different. As soon as I walked into the multi-purpose room for the prison camp, and its eclectic chaos of books, videos, craft supplies, a few beat up guitars, and “Jim”’s violin, he talked excitedly about everything but our work. He was a tea kettle getting ready to boil.

Our stringing task complete, I’m thinking we could get our studying done. But, the water’s still hot and “Jim” is ready to unload on something else. We move on to a new topic, and soon he is showing me photos of his family, and telling me their stories, and the stories of his young life, stories he’s never shared with me.

There’s the grandfather who sent him the violin, smiling, picking his guitar.

“He’s real proud of me, for working so hard on the violin,” he says. “I got to talk to him on the phone the other day, first time in a year.”

As he flips through the album, he lets me deeper into his life, sharing some more sad stories, some of his pain, his worries about people he loves, and who he really might be, inside.

And, finally, the last page of the album, the real reason he’s emotional today. He lets me inside of his heart, and shares a deep, sad story, so intense and personal that the details, the intimacy, aren’t to be shared with anyone else. Yet, he trusts me to listen, to hear his story, and why he is so sad, and on edge today.

I want to find a corner and cry my eyes out, the pain in “Jim”’s voice filling me with sorrow. But, I have to keep listening, No one else is.

It’s a matter of fact tale, just part of his young life, just what he has had to experience. I lean in, and listen hard, my few questions telling him I’m really listening, really paying attention to him, and his Divine Comedy, taking me deeper and colder than Dante’s version of the deepest part of Hell.

We’ve gone so far today, from mentor and prisoner, to tutor and student, to amateur violin restringer and tuner, to spiritual surgeons, working on a broken heart. My job now becomes the listener, the friend, the other human being in the room who gives a damn about this young man and his pain.

He tells his story, letting me hear his pain, and his deep love for what he had in his arms, and then lost, and how he has gained from all of that, and become a loving, good man, at peace with God, and content in his life. Oh, there is still some bitterness and some righteous anger, but instead of poisoning his soul, he uses all that to feed his soul, and nurture his gentle, peaceful spirit, and give himself guidance and purpose in his life.

There are angels in this room now, surrounding us, and filling this space with love and a sense of serenity and comfort. I think “Jim” senses them, too, and his shoulders drop, and he is, at last, becoming at peace with his story he has just shared. In the telling, he has found some acceptance, and compassion, some support in his journey. He is not alone, now, in that story, that part of his life that nearly pulled his heart out of his chest.

I grab him and hold him close, and he holds me tight, and sobs, at last. Together, we grieve, the soothing words we both need now not spoken, but filling the room, and healing his heart, resounding loudly in our souls. What I try to give to him now comes not from me, as much as it comes from the angels in our midst, the air heavy with the unconditional love of the universe.

Our time is up, now, and I have to go. We’ve worked on our vocabulary, the words that really matter today, and we’ve restrung a violin, giving both “Jim” and his violin a new, brighter voice. We’ve put in some new heart strings, too, giving me a chance to love this young man a little harder, a little deeper today, giving him some space to play his songs, and be loved.

—Neal Lemery
4/10/2014

Being Thankful


“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”  ~Theodore Roosevelt

Yes, the Thanksgiving dinner table will “groan” with an abundance of food, and a delightful gathering of family and friends, and rich conversation will mark the feast. We will pause to hear each of us express what we are thankful for in the past year, one of our favorite traditions.

And, in that telling of thanks, there will be a few tears, and a few laughs, and my heart will be filled with gratitude of what I have in my life. People new to our Thanksgiving table will remark about the goodness of speaking about what we are thankful for, and sharing that with others.

Yet, I try to express my thanks in more than words. As Theodore Roosevelt said, truly giving thanks is putting our gratitude into action, into our deeds.

This week, I sat with two of my young men in prison, each of them at a crossroads in their lives, each of them struggling to move ahead, to grow, and to steady themselves on their paths. Their particular challenges were different, but each of them steeled themselves, dug deep inside of their souls, drawing on their resilience and their growing self esteem, and moved ahead.

I marveled at their strength, and at their insight into their challenges and dilemmas. In the short time I’ve been privileged to be in their lives, I have seen them grow into healthy, strong men, gaining confidence and perspective on how far they’ve come, and what potentials they have to make it in the world.

I found myself giving thanks for the privilege of simply being present, as they worked on their problems, seeking solutions, weighing alternatives, and doing the gut work they each needed to do in order to move on. What each of them were working on, and what each of them accomplished was bloody, gut wrenching, soul challenging work.

There was old ugliness and pain, stuff all of us would probably want to find easier to ignore, and keep buried deep inside. Yet, they plunged in, dealing with the ugly past, the old patterns of thinking, and simply did the work. They tried out their new tools, and embraced the light they want to have in their lives, leaving behind the dark, sad past.

Their challenges, and their deep, thoughtful, soul changing work, brought tears to my eyes. Their stories of their childhoods, and their heart wounds, and search for love and acceptance in this world, tore at my heart. Yet, they accepted who they had been, and embraced who they are becoming. They are moving forward, with courage and with love for themselves, at last.

Being a witness, and a cheerleader at times, I was humbled by their perseverance, their determination to move forward. They faced change, and moved on. They faced uncertainty, and complex choices, yet each of them knew where he wanted to go, and what they wanted to accomplish for themselves.

I learn from them all of the time. They inspire me, they mentor me, in how to live a healthy, productive life. They teach me that one’s past is not necessarily the predictor of one’s future, that one can change and move away from disaster and bitterness, and into a life of sanity and unconditional love.

Outside the prison walls, our society faces challenging problems, and dilemmas that seem to defy solutions. And, soon enough, these young men will be leaving prison, and living their lives as free men. I am excited that they will soon be free, and will soon take an active part in our country’s life and culture. They are strong, capable, and determined men, men with brains and a healthy way of looking at life, and who they want to be. They will be rich, productive assets for the rest of us. They have much to teach each one of us.

I am thankful for them, for being able to be a small part of their lives, and, in a small way, help them move on and be strong, loving, and amazing young men.

—-Neal Lemery, 11/27/2013

The Hunger I Feed


People wonder why I go there, to the prison in our town, and visit them.  “Them”, the criminals, the sex offenders.

“They need to be locked up, and never see the light of day ever again,” someone told me the other day, scolding me for wasting my time with them.

I shook my head, stunned by this critic’s hatred, their anger.  Where do I begin to explain my young friends’ humanity, their own victimization, their own desire to be well, to be productive, to be healthy, young men, full of love and compassion.  Just like everyone else.  They want to get on with their lives, and move ahead.  Just like everyone else.

“We are all potential criminals, and those who we have put into prison are no worse, deep down, than any one of us. They have succumbed to ignorance, desire, and anger, ailments that we all suffer from but to different degrees. Our duty is to help them.”

– His Holiness, The Dalai Lama

When I visit these young men, and hear their stories, and play games, sip coffee, and be a small part of their lives, I keep hearing the same theme, time and again, young man after young man.

Where were their fathers?  And, where are they now?

Some dads were never there for them, when there was pain and loneliness, and deep questions rising in their souls about life, about purpose, about love and finding a place in the world.

Other dads climbed in their bottles, or their dope pipes, or lashed out with their fists and their angry voices, unable to turn fists and screams into hugs and quiet words of encouragement and acceptance.

Men being violent, abusive, teaching addiction and molestation, violating their sons, in every imaginable way, and ways I cannot begin to comprehend.

One man tells me the story of his childhood by what he has drawn and painted on a board, and showing me the scars on his body.  Scars from his dad’s beatings, his mom’s abuse, her prostituting him for her drugs, his girlfriend cutting on him, while she invited him to cut on her.  When he gets out of prison, he wants to cover the scars with tattoos of sacred symbols, giving himself peace and sacred honor, and resolution for his angry, troubled soul.

What Father Involvement Means

  • More than 1/4 of American children — 17 million — don’t live with their fathers.
  • In 1996, 42% of female-headed households with children were poor, compared to 8% of  families headed by married parents.
  • Parents who don’t live with their children but stay involved with them are more likely to pay child support.  74% of non-custodial parents with joint custody or visitation agreements make support payments, compared to 35% of parents without such arrangements.
  • Girls without fathers in their lives are 2.5 times more likely to get pregnant and 53% are more likely to commit suicide.
  • Boys without fathers in their lives are 63% more likely to run away and 35% more likely to use drugs.
  • Boys and girls without father involvement are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to go to jail, and nearly four times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems.

—US Dept. of Health and Human Services; Morehouse Report; National Center for Children in Poverty; US Census Bureau

They do well here, in this prison, this sanctuary from the craziness of their earlier nightmare of a world.  Involved in treatment, learning about their sexuality, their anger, their humanity.  They are deep in their quest for manhood.   They go to school, they study, they read, they discuss, they write.  They do all that, again and again.

They run, play ball, draw, they sing, they lose themselves in art, recreating themselves and finding themselves as creators of beauty and peace.

They work, learning skills and the ability to earn their way in the world.  They work in teams, raising and cooking their food, growing trees, restoring stream banks, improving habitat for salmon.  Their work makes our community a better place, a more beautiful place.  In their work, they make themselves stronger, more sure of who they are, and who they want to become.

They pray, they find God on many paths, and they look inward, and see their manliness begin to bloom.  They begin to laugh, they begin to smile.  They begin to move ahead, one sure step after another.  They see themselves being successful, moving into the world confident and strong.  They are becoming men, good men.  They begin to see themselves in all their goodness.

And, in every step of their journey, they take from me and they take from the prison staff.   They want reassurance, acceptance, guidance, direction, support.  They soak it up from me every time I go there.  They drain me, taking my acceptance of them, my support from them, my flame of fathering, my own sense of my own manhood.   Hungry, they circle my essence, gnawing and grabbing all that I can give them.

When I smile, or shake their hand, or ask them how they are, or play a game, talk about their lives, and my life, they soak it all up, thirsty sponges wanting love and acceptance, wanting to be good men.

I walk away, my visit over.  The click of the closed cyclone fence gate, with the barbed wire on top, reminds me that I am drained, exhausted, sucked nearly dry of my own flame of manhood, my own feelings of being the son and the father and the mentor-teacher-elder.  The soup kettle of love and acceptance and compassion for their journey that I brought through the gate today is drained now, devoured by hungry young men needing to fill their bellies with soul food, feasting on whatever I could bring in today.

The sun shines bright on my face, the fresh air fills my lungs, my heart full now of purpose, of meaning in my life.

Today, I could feed someone, and offered them hope.

—Neal Lemery, January 1, 2013

The Gift


What must it be like, to get a gift, for the first time in four years?

 

Four years in prison, after a childhood of hell, of being beaten and abused, and drunk and high, and then doing what someone did to you, to others, and then told by the cops that what you’d been taught was wrong, and you were going to prison.

 

And, then, for four years, no one in your family comes to see you, or write to you.  You are in classes to learn about what you did, and who you are, and how you might want to deal with all of that, and actually be healthy and strong, and become a real man.

 

Manhood, what a confusing thought.  

 

And, deep inside, you are a kind and sensitive soul, and spend your time being an artist, and creating some beauty in your world.  All that is new, to be good to yourself, and to be an artist, to create.  

 

How strange is that, after so many people have told you that you are a beast, and a pervert, and need to be locked up, and punished, for all the bad things you have done.

 

Yet, someone new in your life gives you a gift of a book, a book that honors art and creativity.  And the giver of the book writes you a letter inviting you to explore your creativity, your gifts of beauty, and reminds you that you are a good person, an artist, and a creator of wonderful and beautiful things in this world.  

 

No wonder you are confused.  No wonder you find it hard to make sense of this world, and who you are, and what is expected of you.