The Young Prisoner’s Rage


The Young Prisoner’s Rage

 

 

 

It boils out of me, this rage against you, this struggle I have on how to feel about me being the son, and you the father. The bruised knuckles from hitting the wall, again, with the full force of the rage, aching, yet all I want is to be numb, and not feel the ache in my heart.

I stuff it down, push it deep, wanting to turn my heart into stone.

Betrayed. Abandoned. Neglected. I just want to be numb, and not feel all that.

I’m trying to grow up, to be healthy, mature, manly. But without a father, a healthy, good father, I am empty, hollow.

My soul is hungry for connection, yet the absence of my dad, the silence, even worse, the indifference, tells me I am unworthy, I have failed.

I’m here in prison, doing time, labeled, categorized, marked. Wanting to be a healthy man, yet I have stumbled, fallen, and became a criminal.

I hear my dad’s voice saying, again, of course you’re worthless, you are trash, you are a criminal, and not worthy of my love, or even my name. You are not my son. I denounce you. I reject you, my heir, my seed, my son. You are not of my image, my spawn, my child.

Be my dad, I had said, I had begged. Love me, embrace me, take me by the hand and show me. Show me how to be the son, the man-child, a good man.

But, no. Rejection. Shame, guilty, abandonment. I am the throw away son.

Of course I am worthless. I am the criminal, the felon, the prisoner. Like you expected of me, I have proven how worthless I am. I guess you were right when you said I was worthless. You told me I was trash and so here I am, a sack of garbage, the criminal unworthy of you even acknowledging me.

I am not your son. I am trash. You have no son.

But, father, did you just try to love me, to guide me, to hold me close, to be the parent, the father I needed?

I didn’t need much, just for you to love me, to accept me, just to be your son.

I got lost, but you didn’t come find me, didn’t guide me, didn’t hug me, didn’t parent me. You threw me away, and I just want to go numb, and slam my fist into the wall, and not feel it.

You loved the bottle, the pipe, the pill, the denial of my existence much more than what I needed from you.

Undeserving, of no value, that’s the message you gave me, again and again, until it sounded like the truth. Repeated, and repeated, so it must be true.

What else can I do, but rage. I scream into the night, punch my fist into the wall, look into the mirror and see only a worthless soul, unworthy of love, unable to forgive, to honor myself, to see any good in myself.

I rage, so therefore I am worthless, trash. A tight circle, self-fulfilling prophesy of emptiness, garbage.

Is it too much to ask, that I can hear I am valued, that I have purpose, that I am a man, a good man, capable of and deserving of love?

Is it too much to ask that I hear you are proud of me?

You reject me, over and over again. I get it. I am nothing in your eyes. I can never be the man I dare to dream of being; I can never be the son worthy of your name, your love.

No, I am trash, garbage, a worthless sack of s**t. My destiny must be to sit in my prison cell and mean nothing to anyone else, is that what you think? Is that what you want? Is that what you desire your son to be?

Slam, goes the fist into the wall, the pain somehow justified, earned, because of who you think I am, how worthless I must really be. If only I could be loved, to hear you say that word, to hold me tight and let me feel your love for me.

But, no. Rejection, shame, abandonment. Is that what you want for me? Is that why you brought me into the world, to throw me away?

All I want is to be loved, to be seen as a son, as a soul seeking his dream, wanting to have value, to be a beloved child of God.

Yet, I am rejected, unloved, unworthy, undeserving of the name of son, of being beloved and embraced.

And when I have a son, how will I treat him, what will I say to him? What will I show him how I have learned to treat a son?

And, so I rage.

And , so I rage.

 

 

—-Neal Lemery 3/20/2017

My Ticket To Prison


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Glasses, too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We waited, and waited some more.

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

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

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

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

We hugged and took our seats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll come again soon,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Neal Lemery 2/5/2017

A Nice Review


A nice review of my book, Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains.

“Neal Lemery has a very big heart, big enough to understand how all of the grief and stress which the young men he encountered in court in his position as a judge was connected to their acting out against the law. Rather than pass harsh judgment, instead, over and over, he found ways to reach out to those young men, to empower them to understand what they were really feeling and to feel that someone truly cared about them. As such, over and over he’s been a kind of miracle worker. He has also become a mentor to incarcerated young men, visiting them faithfully while they served time, and sometimes even becoming a kind of adoptive parent to them. He tells their stories and the stories of his connections to them in an easy conversational style and helps us all understand how powerful compassion can really be and how to express it. Must reading.”

—Carol Imani

Simply Listening


 

 

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

            Leo Buscaglia

 

It is the simple things in life that are often the most meaningful.

 

A young man and I were working on his math. He’s been working hard and now the formulas and methodology of his algebra was making sense to him. My tutoring today consisted of listening to him explain his processes, and watch him work his problem, applying his knowledge, and seeing him find the answers.

 

“I think I understand this now,” he said.

 

Pride filled his voice, and he gave me a seldom seen smile.

 

“What else do you need to work on?” I said. “You’ve clearly got your math under control.

 

He looked down at his shoes, then out the window. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, as he pondered my question. A minute, then another passed without an answer.

 

He cleared his throat, finally cluing me in. His therapist needed him to make a list, a list of challenging events in his life, times when he was abused, and was abusive to others.

 

This would be the last barrier to complete therapy and move on with his life, to becoming free of what has burdened him, held him down.

 

He looked away, tears filling his eyes.

 

“It’s so hard,” he said. “I can’t seem to get started. I can’t write it down.”

 

“Hard because?” I asked.

 

He fell silent, still looking down. A tear ran down his cheek.

 

“It’s…. it’s overwhelming. There’s just so much,” he said.

 

We sat there, letting the heavy words fill the air. It was hard for me to breathe, the air now thick with his emotions and the weight of this task.

 

“Take a breath,” I said. “This is a safe place. We’ll take this on together, and work on it just like we do with math.”

 

“In math, one of the first steps is to write down the problem, give names to what you’re working on,” I said. “One step at a time.”

 

He looked at me, and I nodded. Another tear ran down his cheek. He took a deep breath, then another, re-inspecting his shoes. A few more minutes passed. He gave me a slight nod.

 

“I can be the writer today” I said. “I’ll be your secretary.”

 

He looked away, over my shoulder, and started to speak, beginning his story with the last time he was in a difficult situation, a time of chaos and pain.

 

I picked up my pencil and began to write on the tablet we’d used for our math, starting a fresh page.

 

He spoke almost in a whisper. I leaned closer, barely able to hear his words. The room was silent except for the scratchings of my pencil against the paper, and his soft words, his voice cracking and choking over them.

 

I gulped, feeling my own sense of revulsion, panic, horror, and angst build up in my gut, as he told one story, then another, and another.

 

Working backwards in his life, he moved quickly from one incident to the one before it, giving me two or three sentences, names, ages, what happened, how he reacted, how he felt. At first, it seemed jumbled, but I began to see the order, how he’d been preparing his story, rehearsing and editing it in his mind, probably for months.

 

He spoke fast enough that each story was only a line on my tablet, often just fragments of sentences, a first name. I wrote quickly, finding myself near the bottom of page two before he took another breath and looked down at his shoes.

 

Once, I had to prod, a few words of encouragement. His look told me he thought I’d be a harsh judge for this story, condemning and berating him.

 

“It’s OK,” I whispered. “It happened, so it needs to be on the list. No judging today.”

 

He took a big breath and let it out. Another long minute of silence.

 

The first time, I can’t remember much,” he said.

 

“I can’t remember,” he finally said. “I was two years old, and there was something, something with a friend of my dad’s.”

 

“I don’t know, but there’s something,” he said.

 

“It’s OK,” I said. “When you’re two, you probably don’t remember a lot, at least consciously.”

 

We talked about the conscious brain and the subconscious, and how different parts of the brain have different tasks, and work differently. And how we deal with trauma, and don’t deal with it very well. But, our body remembers, in ways that aren’t always clear to us.

 

He nodded, relating all of this to what he’d learned in therapy and his psychology classes, and in all the thinking he’d been doing.

 

He looked at the list, shaking his head.

 

“Wow, that’s a long list,” he said.

 

“A good list, “ I said. “You’ve done good work today,”

 

Our time was coming to an end, and I needed to leave.

 

I tore off the pages I’d written, and handed them to him.

 

“Here’s your list,” I said. “We’ve written it down, so you don’t have to keep it in your head any more. But, you’ll have it if you need it.”

 

He looked at me, penetrating deep into my eyes.

 

“Oh,” he said. “You mean I don’t have to keep all that inside of me, thinking about it all the time?”

 

“No,” I said. “You have your list, on that paper. Kind of like a grocery list, or a list of chores for the day.”

 

“It’s a reference, I said. “You can put it in a safe place, and refer to it if you need to.”

 

“And, once you’ve put words to all that, then you’ve named the problem, you’ve identified it, and you don’t have to keep thinking about it,” I said.

 

He nodded, and let out a big whoosh of air.

 

“So, the problem,” he said. “Kind of like a math problem then?   Write it out, apply the formulas and work the solution, huh?”

 

I nodded, and he chuckled.

 

“Just like a math problem,” he said. “One step at a time.”

 

“Uh, huh,” I said. “Just like a math problem. And, you can solve it, right?”

 

“Yes, I can,” he said.

 

“Yes, I can.”

 

—Neal Lemery 12/19/2016

Defining Family


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

— Neal Lemery 9/30/2016

Be The Change You Want To See


Do you want to make a difference in the world? Do you want to see some real change in the way the world is, and how your community functions?

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

“Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect the nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience and just plain loving each other.” (Erma Bombeck)

Do you want to live in a better neighborhood, a better community? Do you think the world could be a better place? Are you tired of hearing about the troubles of the world and all the negative political rhetoric? Are you frustrated that things are getting worse, and there’s nothing you can do that would make a difference?

Then, get involved and volunteer. Connect with a person, help them out, and make a difference. Take a few minutes, an hour, maybe a day, and offer your talent. Pay attention to someone, work together on a project, or simply have a conversation and offer a kind ear, a helping hand.

Find a group where you can get involved. Or do something on your own.

It can start with just a simple conversation at the grocery store or with a neighbor, a few kind words, and maybe a helping hand.
Volunteers are at the center of our community life.

Our schools, churches, community festivals and gatherings, museums and parks are staffed by volunteers. Much of what happens around here would quickly fade away without dedicated volunteers.

On a more personal level, our volunteers are helping an elderly neighbor with their yard work, or bringing them a meal. Others tutor a child, or help out at school or church. The possibilities are endless.

Our community calendar in the local paper is filled with activities run by volunteers, working to make this community a better place to live.

I see the impact of volunteerism everywhere. Without them, our welcome mat wouldn’t be as inviting, and as enjoyable for our visitors. Our youth and our seniors wouldn’t be as integrated into our social fabric. Our community wouldn’t be nearly as vibrant and supportive.

Look around you. Volunteers make a difference, and they change lives.

I volunteer. I find a project, I connect with a person, and pay attention to them, and put action into my caring for their wellbeing. I make a difference and my heart is filled with a sense of purpose, a sense of accomplishment. My volunteer work at the local youth prison and with master gardeners gives me a sense of purpose, and helps change people’s lives for the better.

In volunteering, I become an instrument of change. I am part of the solution to a small part of the world’s problems, rather than a person who just sits back and complains. I have a purpose, and become a voice for doing good.

The payback for me is amazing. What I give I receive back tenfold. I feel better about myself, I contribute, I connect, and I become a better member of my community.

Volunteerism is all about health, my health, the community’s, my state, my nation, and the world.

I can even stand to watch the evening news, and know that I don’t need to just listen to the litany of the world’s problems and get caught up in all that drama. I’m not the passive listener, who can easily say the world is a miserable, hopeless place. Instead, I am part of the answer, an agent of positive change.

—Neal Lemery, July 26, 2016

Witnessing Truth


“Truth is beautiful and divine no matter how humble its origin.” –Michael Pupin.

He spoke, his voice barely audible above the noise of the visiting room at the prison. We’d played a few hands of cards and munched on some cookies. We’ve only been visiting regularly for a few weeks, chatting about school and his family, and what he wanted to do when he got paroled.

I’d seen it in his eyes, a dark inner story pent up inside, needing to be told.

Tonight, it was time for truth, raw, unvarnished, naked and real.

Sweat beaded up on his forehead, his eyes locking into me.

He laid the cards down, leaned towards me, and began to tell his story, about how he ended up here, making some bad choices, wrestling with the many demons that had stalked his childhood, sending him down his dark road.

His thirteenth year was the worst, the culmination of so much darkness.

His eyes glistened, and he wiped a tear away, as he kept telling his story, filling me in on where he’d been in his young life, and where he wanted to go.

We were doing his homework tonight, working on an assignment that was past due, a requirement for his real graduation, getting out on parole and moving on with his life. This was his duty, to get real with me and tell his story, with all its darkness and shame. In the telling, he held the keys to the door. Being open with me was his path out, his road to freedom.

“I’m scared,” he said. “I just want to be a kid, to have a childhood I never had. Out there terrifies me.”

“I doubt that I’m ready,” he said.

I nodded, telling him we all find the world scary, challenging even in the best of times. We all have our demons and our doubts, I told him.

“You’ll do fine,” I said. “You have your act together. You’re a good man. You’ve got your support team.”

“I’m here to listen to you,” I said.

He wiped his eyes again, and told me more about his life, unloading his shipload of guilt, shame, and remorse.

“I’ve written this all out, and shared it with my family,” he said. “But, I’ve never said all of this out loud before. It was too hard to say the words.”

He’d brought paper and a pencil, but after he wrote out the names and ages of his victims, he laid the pencil down.

“I’ve got to just say this,” he said. “I’ve got to tell you face to face.”

He paused, looking me, a look of expecting something horrible.

“And man to man,” I said. “I’m here for you now.”

It all came out, one slow sentence at a time. He’d look at me, half expecting me to throw a punch, curse at him and walk out on him. His eyes told me that his sins were beyond horrible, unforgiveable, nearly unspeakable.

But, I didn’t move or bat an eye. I stayed there, glued to my seat, ears open wide, my heart aching as his river of pain flowed across the table and flooded the cold cement floor of the visiting room. I was an audience of one, my mission to listen, not pass judgment, to be here as a vessel of unconditional love.

Truth was being told here, his truth, with an occasional tear falling on his hand of cards for the abandoned game, and the rest of the cookies, now forgotten in the telling of this tale.

I leaned forward, eye to eye, and heart to heart. One man to another. Two survivors, two men on our own journeys in life.

“I hear you,” I said. “I hear your truth.”

His shoulders lowered a bit, and his hand waving the half eaten cookie stopped shaking.

I waited, letting him have his space, room to find one painful word after another. They came out slowly, one story and then another, the autobiography of a strong young man.

Finally, there were no more words. I felt at ease. My brave soldier breathed deep and let it all out.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thanks for being brave. And honest. For telling your truth.”

He nodded, the cloud of shame and guilt clearing, the atmosphere in the room easing up.

“Do you want to finish our game?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “You’ve done great work here, and you’re tired. I’ll go so you can get some rest.”

“Being brave and telling the truth is hard work,” I said. “I’m honored to have heard your story tonight.”

He nodded again, a faint smile lighting up his face. We hugged, and I told him I was proud of him, proud of who he was becoming.

We’ll do this again next week, and he’ll tell me more. Not that I want or need the details. I am merely his witness. He needs to tell his story, and speak his truth to the world. He needs to be free of so much.

–Neal Lemery June 2, 2016

Taking A Moment To Be Still


It was unusual for me, just sitting there in my garden, being still and looking around.

I’d had a long session with the trowel, the weed eater, and my hand pruners, attacking the weeds, setting out some plants, and generally tidying up my shade garden. Sweaty, dirty and tired, I found a chair and a bottle of water and decided to catch my breath.

At first, I looked at what I’d done, and what I needed to do, mentally composing additions to my “to do” list.

This is becoming a job, I thought. Gardening is a lot of work, and I’m tired.

Maybe I should just take a moment and enjoy all of this, my own quiet corner of the world. I could let the sweat dry, thinking its OK that I just take a break.

Lately, when I’ve been reading about gardening, I’m nose deep into the science and the methodologies about how to grow the best of whatever is involved in my latest garden project.

In the midst of research on an interesting new plant, I’d come across a quote about gardening and my soul.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
― Ray Bradbury

Take a moment, take a breath, and enjoy the garden for what it is, I reminded myself. Too often, my time here becomes an obligation, a project. Hurry up, get it done, and move on to the next task.

But, I am a gardener, not a laborer. Gardening really is nurturing, and being IN the garden. It is a time to nurture this place and my soul, to find peace, to let my mind be still and just BE. After all, I am a human being, not a human doing.

And, so I became still, and sat there. A swallow was building a nest in the new birdhouse, a hummingbird was enjoying the honeysuckle in bloom, sunlight played on the rhododendron bursting out in full glory. I breathed in the fresh air, and all the smells of spring.

In the distance, a neighbor was mowing her lawn, and a farmer was tilling his field. Off in the forest, a logger’s chainsaw provided the bass line for the house finch’s serenade in the snowball bush.

The real beauty in the garden, I realized, was not all the work I’d done, though I certainly had provided some tidying up and structure to this little piece of paradise. But, I realized, the real joy in this place is all the creatures and plants that make this their home.

I’m only the host, and I only add a few of the finishing touches.

And, I realized, the most important part of my job here, as a gardener, is to sit in a chair, and just be here, finding my own peace, and be part of this magnificent paradise, to simply be in this moment.
5/16/16

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

Pursuing Your Education — Some Thoughts


Letter to a Young Man Who Is Wondering If He Should Pursue His Education

Ah, grad school. Of course, the answer is YES.

Education is one of the few things in life that is truly yours, that stays with you throughout your life. No one gets to steal it from you or tell you that you can’t have it, use it, and treasure it.

Developing your mind is one of the great opportunities a person has to truly grow and become what you potentially can be in life.

It is a lifelong journey, this education of one’s self. I’m a lifelong learner, and have a burning curiosity about the world and everything that is in it. And, part of that is learning about me, how I learn, how I think, how I see myself in this world. And, who I am, who I have been, how I have been conditioned and trained to live.

Sometimes, what I learn about myself isn’t all chocolate and roses, either. I am flawed, imperfect, not who I think I am capable of being. Well, good to know, so now I am challenged to improve myself, to change, and to become better, more of the person I can be. More importantly, I can become the person I should be.

So, you haven’t done this before. This challenge is new and different, and you have your doubts, your uncertainties.

Good, because that has also been true for you (and for me and for other thinking people) for every stage in our lives. And, it will continue. That doubting, uncertainty, is part of the growing process, part of the fuel that gets us out of bed in the morning, and ready to keep learning and growing.

Yesterday, C*** was talking about the chicks that are starting to hatch. Hatching is an enormous struggle. They have to do it on their own. If they get help, then they likely die. They have to turn themselves in the egg, positioning themselves in one end of the egg, by tucking their heads under their right wing, and making the move. Then, they have to peck a hole in the shell, to take their first breath of air. Slowly, they peck around a circle, so they have an opening to push themselves out of the shell and into the world.

It is hard work. They are exhausted. But, now they can grow and achieve their destiny.

We are like chicks. We have to struggle, and the struggle often takes a long time. We develop, we breathe, and we gain our strength. Much of the work is done on our own.

In that work, we find that we really do have the stamina, the resiliency, the determination to accomplish something. We own it. It is ours, this work, this moving ahead in our lives.

Others think that you can do this work, that you are worthy of it. You need to hear their voices and to realize that you are being supported and encouraged. We all need that.

So much of this world is about relationship. Yesterday, several of us in the garden had the opportunity to have a lesson on “please and thank you”. One youth didn’t think it was important, that he could just ask for something, and he’d get that, without those “unnecessary words”. Yet, those words are part of the relationship, the social contract we need to have in society to get things done and to interrelate with other people.

Grad school and the whole college experience is part of that process. Working together, and finding the role for you that helps get things done, that brings out your own unique strengths and tools, which also need to fit with others’ strengths and tools. The collective effort, the collective process.

“College” means a collaboration, a collective process.

You can have all the brains in the world, but if you can’t work with others, and communicate and interrelate, and collectively move forward with shared ideas and direction, then you are lost, and not very effective in life.

I think it’s important to have those college experiences where you interact and interrelate, where you collaborate. So much of life is based on those skills and those experiences.

Your guitar lessons are more than music theory and getting better at a particular song or chord pattern or strumming pattern. It is interaction, listening, responding, contributing, and collaborating.

One of the primary functions I serve when I come to OYA (the youth prison where I mentor youth) is to be a teacher of social skills. It is how to have coffee with someone, how to play cards, or talk. It is how to repot a plant together, or analyze a plant pest. Something more than the outwardly mundane task is going on.

I’m working as a judge again, part time, for a few months. So much of that work is about diagnosing and healing relationships, and getting people to interact with each other in an efficient, healthy way. The law is a tool for that, but the real work is the human interaction, where people can communicate in a productive, positive way. In many ways, judging is trying to heal society and social interactions.

And, so is the work of the educated person, working in relationship, and being effective in that work. Bringing people and ideas together, and developing solutions that are effective and meaningful. There’s a lot of education going on.

When I finished law school and the bar exam, I thought, well, my education is over with. Ha! That work had only just begun. I continue to teach myself, to have others teach me, and for me to teach others.

Grad school is about honing those skills, sharpening your mind so that you are even a better teacher.

I don’t want you to finish grad school when you are still at OYA. There’s the whole collaborative, collegial interaction process that you need to experience. I want you to explore the swamp with your fellow students, and muck around together, collaborating, interacting, and learning about each other.

Yeah, you are great at learning theory and the technical stuff on line and in books. But, I also want you to roll up your sleeves and interact with people like yourself, and really get to know each other, and have to work together, to collaborate. Yes, to be “collegial”.

You worry about what you would do if you don’t get into grad school while you are at OYA, and “have a year and a half with nothing to do”.

Grad school can wait. You are young. If you don’t find the “perfect fit” for you now, then there are reasons for that, and there are more opportunities in the future. And, your education isn’t miraculously done when you turn 25 either. It is a lifelong journey.

In that year and a half, you can create other options, other opportunities. You have a unique perspective, and you can teach others what you have learned, you can create new experiences for youth, and you can become a better researcher and writer.

You are also not limited in how many degrees you can get in your life, or skills that you develop and improve.

I took a year and a half off between college and law school. That time gave me great experiences, and I became a better, more purposeful person. That time made me a better lawyer, father and husband. It was not “wasted” time. I had a great job, which taught me so much about the world, and about myself.

We all have choices. We all have barriers. We can all sabotage our own efforts and our own opportunities, because we think we are “not good enough”. Yet, we have choices. We can choose to see life as a barrier, or as an opportunity.

My brief time with your Aunt *** allowed me to hear her very clearly impart to you some great wisdom, including looking at this time in your life as a great opportunity, a time to really see your own potential and your own skills, and do something with all that.

You heard her say that, from her heart, and you took that message deep into your own heart. Choose that message as your family legacy, and build something with it.

You are not wasting your time. You are, in fact, doing great things to improve yourself and to expand your potential. I hope you see that, and treasure all that for what it is—an enormous personal asset.

You know how to learn. You know how to move ahead. You know many of your skills and talents, and you know how to gain more skills and talents. Most people don’t know that, and the challenge of teaching others is to light that candle of passion and self curiosity, so that people can really see what potential they have.

So many of your peers haven’t lit that bonfire for themselves. They see the water glass of their lives as half empty, maybe even dry, rather than half full and having the potential of being a great flowing spring of water that will abundantly nourish their lives.

You’ve told me that one of your dreams is to make or raise a lot of money, so that others in prison can fully realize their dreams. You are learning how to do that for yourself right now, so you really are researching how to implement your dream. That is good work. Be proud of that work, and that dream.

This is a good time in life for you, and you are in a good process and experience. Enjoy it. Enjoy the doubts, the barriers, the struggles. There is no “bad outcome” in all of this. It is part of the journey.

Respectfully,

Neal Lemery