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

On the Path of Life


On the Path of Life

It was an ordinary path: pavers on top of coarse sand, a nice basket weave pattern, edged by other, longer stones. The gray stones mirrored the sky, on this cold day, hardly noticeable to most everyone using it on the breaks between classes.

He’d wanted to do something special, and bring some beauty into this utilitarian place, adding his own special touch.

We found some thyme plants in an herb bed. They’d done well this past year, and the little rooted new plants in that tangle of pungent leaves and stems came out of the dirt easily. Today, his idea was happening; it was time to start.

He told me what he wanted, a little plant in each sandy triangle, where the pavers came to the edge of the path.

“Don’t we need more dirt?” he asked.

I didn’t think so. Thyme grew well in harsh conditions, and the roots still had soil attached, the sand along the path wasn’t’ very deep, and was laid on top of the dirt of the old lawn, before it became a path.

“It’s tough stuff, grown from hardy plants which can survive summer heat, drought, and getting stepped on,” I said. “Just like you.”

He grinned and nodded.

We had talked about his life, the chaos before he came here, how he endured fists and drunken rages, his soul battered by neglect and abuse, how he learned to hurt others, and ended up here.

“I’m doing great here,” he told me. “Best place I’ve ever been.”

This is prison, I thought. There’s a tall fence, with barbed wire, not a hundred feet away. Guards roam and surveillance cameras look down on our path, where we’re setting in our little thyme plants, giving them and the young men here a fresh start in what looks like a tough place to grow.

He nodded at me, looking deep into my eyes.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Me saying prison is the best place I’ve lived.”

“But, you know, this is the first place I’ve felt safe, where I’ve been able to go to school every day, and get some good help on growing up, becoming a man,” he said.

There had been a neighbor, and a kind teacher in his life, people who’d taken an interest in him, feeding him dinner and giving him a couch to spend the night on when things at home got crazier than usual.

“They gave me hope,” he said. “A sense of feeling that I was worth something, that I could change my life, if I wanted to.”

He’d never forgotten them, and the idea that he was, deep down, a good guy, someone who could move ahead and be someone who was decent and kind.

We kept planting the little plants, each of us taking an edge of the path, working our way down to the other end, side by side.

The late winter sun took the chill out of the air, and we paused to take off our sweatshirts. A few drops of sweat ran down our faces, and we laughed about working up a sweat on this February day.

“It feels good to laugh,” he said.

I agreed, telling him I was admiring his project, that we were making the pathway a refuge from the daily routine.

“The rest of the guys, they’ll enjoy the path more,” I said. “They’ll notice the plants and smell the thyme, and they’ll have a moment of beauty in their lives as they walk along here.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’d thought about that, when I came up with this idea, and ran it by the garden teacher. She thought it was a great idea.”

“Even if the guys don’t say something about the path, it will still be part of their lives, part of their experience here,” he said.

This path, and the beauty he’s creating here, will also be part of his life, I told him. He was making a difference, changing lives, and teaching people about love.

We’d come to the end of the path, and paused, letting our muscles stretch and the sweat on our faces dry. We stood up, looking back, taking in all the new plants, and how the path looked different now, with its new design of green among the pavers, the faint smell of thyme fresh in my nose.

“You are a creator, making this corner of the world just a little better place to live and grow in,” I said.

“Thanks for doing this, for being an artist and brightening up this path for everyone,” I said.

“Thanks for helping out,” he said. “And for being a friend.”
He got quiet, looking down at the path, and the work we’d done this morning.

“It’s everything I’d hoped for,” he said.

—Neal Lemery 2/23/2016

Pruning Time


The days are growing a little longer, and I contemplate the coming of spring, with its promise of new growth, new beginnings, and, with work, an abundant harvest.

A few days ago, the sun was out and it was time to prune my little apple orchard. With newly sharpened and oiled pruners, I ventured out, soon shedding my sweatshirt and enjoying the physical work and the satisfaction of making the foundation for this year’s apple harvest.

I pruned out the dead branches, the branches that crossed each other and rubbed in the wind, and the few limbs that were diseased. Then I topped the scraggly branches that won’t produce fruit. I didn’t hold back, pruning and cutting with vigor, as I shaped the orchard into tidiness, preparing the trees for a healthy summer of apple production.

Where there was chaos, I brought order, and cleaned things up, making for a bountiful year in this corner of our land.
A nice pile of trimmings grew, bound for my friend, the fisherman, who welcomes my annual gift of apple wood for his smoker. One man’s discards are another man’s treasure.

As I went about my work, I felt my shoulders twinge from this new work of muscles and joints, gone soft from an idle winter in the house watching the cold rain fall. The sun felt warm on my pale skin, and I contemplated the smile of my friend as he thought of all the salmon he could smoke with my gift.

There will be many gifts from all the pruning: healthier apple trees, more apple pie filling, apple butter, and cider for next winter, a springtime of trees loaded with pink blossoms, and a summer of vigorous, healthy trees growing a new crop of fruit.

My friend will do his own magic with the prunings, and create mouth-watering smoked fish, putting smiles on more faces.

There were other lessons in the pruning; how cutting back, taking out our dead and dying wood, and opening our branches to the bright sunshine will bring bigger, juicier fruit to our lives.

Old thoughts, and old ways of doing things need to be looked at, with newly sharpened pruners in my hand. If I want a vigorous tree to grow, or a bountiful harvest, I need to think of the pruning that would move my life in the right direction.

The young men in my life are pruning their orchards now, with newly sharpened tools and a fresh determination to transform their lives. They are looking at their past, and their dreams, and finding the directions they want to go. Dead wood and dis-ease are being cut away, and their trees are being reshaped and thinned. Only the vigorous branches remain, with the promise of abundant and fertile blossoms to emerge in the springtime of their youth.

Old ways of thinking are being evaluated. New paths and fresh thinking are being explored, and they are moving ahead; their minds always challenging and testing. Boys are turning into healthy, thoughtful young men; the best type of crop to raise.

They are learning about their emotions, finding names for feelings and thoughts, figuring out how to live with themselves and with others as healthy young men, with clear, focused minds.
I prune my apples every year. I expect my young friends to find their pruners and tree saws, too, and also tend to their orchards. My task is to show them the way, teaching them to be good orchardists for their own lives.

It is a lifelong challenge, this living with one’s emotions and feelings. Like good farmers, they tend their fields and pay attention to their crops, and weathering the storms that roll in, bringing new challenges and opportunities.

They say they learn from me, but I also learn from them. Their courage and determination reinvigorates me, in my journey through this life. They make me a better farmer, a better caretaker of my own orchard. Because of them, my harvest is more abundant and sweeter.

–Neal Lemery 1/29/2016

Sharpening Our Tools


There’s always a lesson for me in the garden, especially when I’m the teacher.

The young men gathered around the table, looking at me, leery about the day’s agenda. The pile of our trusty and well-used pruning shears, weeding forks, and trowels, and my odd assortment of files, oil cans, rags and steel wool was raising some puzzled looks.

“We’re going to sharpen our tools,” I said. “And that will make us better gardeners.”

I talked about dirt and grit, and how dull, rusty tools slow us down, and make our work harder. I talked about rain and damp, and getting rid of rust with a bit of oil wiped on a newly cleaned surface.

“If you take care of your tools, they will last a lifetime,” I said. “It’s a great gift to yourself.”

I talked about how pruners work, whether anvil or bypass, and why the blades are different. I picked up a file, showing them how to hone a blade, bringing out the edge. Doing a good job was all in how you finished it, by gently taking off the burrs on the edge, bringing out the best of the blade, and ourselves.

The metaphors were not lost on these young men, struggling to remake their lives, and move on to managing their lives in a decent, productive way.

I showed them how to do the work, and then urged them to pick a tool, and do their magic.

“The right tool for the right job,” I said, echoing my grandfather’s wisdom I’d heard when I was a young man.

Curious, eager minds asked dozens of questions, and, again, I showed them how to hone the blades, taking their eager hands into mine, helping them grip the file and set to work.

They found their way, getting a sense of that feel, of file meeting blade, steel against steel, until the newly bright edges met their standards of completion and excellence. Rust and dirt were buffed away, and a new coat of oil made hinges and springs smooth and silent. Grime and dirt were banished, the young hands feeling how they brought back the life and beauty of the tools they’d used this past year.

One young man kept doing it differently, missing what I was trying to teach. I was gentle with him, explaining everything again and again. I felt my patient grandfather in me, as I took his hand and the file, and began the lesson again.

Uncertain frowns gave way to smiles and shared accomplishments, the pleasure of making something as good as new. I saw young men restoring something to its original good purpose, gaining pride in who they were, and knowing what they could do.

We sharpened all of our tools today, and we sharpened some lives, too. I sensed my grandfather’s arm around me, holding me tight, whispering how proud he was of how I sharpened my tools.

–Neal Lemery 1/23/2016

The New Year Comes


“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

The new year is almost here. I’m ready for a change, to go with the new calendar on the wall. Soon, there will be a new month, a new year, and the rest of winter. But, I’ve been adrift, not quite able to put words to this feeling, this restlessness for looking at life in a new way, with new words.

A new friend and I meet, sipping coffee milkshakes, as he tells me of his life and his hopes for the future. He is full of optimism, and hope for a new beginning. His life is changing, much for the better, as he distances himself from chaos and anger, to curiosity and new vocabulary.

He thinks I’m wise, and I can teach him much. Truth be known, he is my teacher, my spiritual guru today. Like him, I need to free myself from old patterns, old demons, and look ahead. I need a new vocabulary, and fresh eyes to see the world unfolding before me.

“I want to explore so much,” my friend says.

I could easily define him as a failure, a cast off, for something he did several years ago. His family has rejected him, and society has sent him to prison.

He’s a prisoner, I thought, but really, he’s free now. He’s been released, and can now truly live his life. One person’s idea of prison is another’s university of life.

A paradox. Yet, he feels free now, for the first time, to be who he wants to be, to stretch himself and move ahead in his life.

For the first time, he is with people his own age, making friends, going to school, and learning to write. He’s waking up every morning in a place where he is not beaten, screamed at, or kept away from the world. He’s escaped from the darkness of his family’s chamber of horrors, and has come into the light, joining the world as a real person.

He searches for words to express himself, and the words for his waves of emotion, all new to him. This coming year is a new beginning for him, a gift to be opened and cherished, with words and emotions he has never known before.

We discover we are both gardeners, in every nuance of the word. Like me, he’s browsing the seed catalogs, and placing his order, dreaming of the coming springtime, where one plants and brings forth new life. He yearns to nurture the garden of his own soul.

“Who am I?” he asks.

“Anything you want to be,” I reply. “You can choose now. The world is yours to explore.”

And, not just for him, I realize. It is my choice, too. I, too, am in this world, and I also can make those choices and have those opportunities. We are both gardeners and poets, thinking of spring.

And we are both prisoners, of our thoughts, our old perceptions of the world and how we fit into the mold of what others expect of us, how they think we should act and think.

Like my buddy, I too can be free, and move on towards the coming newness and freedom of the new year, and be who I really want to be.

12/28/2015
Neal Lemery

Growing Our Garden


 

 

On Fridays, I garden. I drive down the road to a community garden, ready for a morning of planting, weeding and, often, harvesting.

I join a group of young men, and we set to work. Together, we tackle our list of chores and get the jobs done. I work up a good sweat, my muscles get tired, and we add a few smudges of dirt to our faces. We laugh, sharing the simple joys of a day in the garden.

We take a break and look at what we’ve accomplished. Every week brings new projects, and fresh results.

We surround ourselves with all the elements of a healthy garden.   We make sure we use substantial and complex soil, rich fertilizer, fresh air, sunshine, water, and tender care. Each plant gets its own place in the garden, and is encouraged to flourish. If there is a need for water or fertilizer or a little pruning, we are quick to respond, doing our work in nurturing and care taking.

The plants look great, but we’ve really been growing healthy young men.

And these young men flourish. They get the attention and care they need. They find their place in our work, and are encouraged to send their roots down into the soil. They open themselves to the warmth and sunshine we all share. They are hungry for this work, and eagerly take on their roles in raising chickens, planting seeds, in the designing and building of raised beds, compost bins, and trellises. They learn to plan their projects, to plant and harvest. Over the fire, they cook a meal from the vegetables they have grown, tasting and savoring what their hands have grown in the dirt, nourishing themselves with what they have grown.

They become connected to the earth, and the food that they eat. The garden sunshine brightens their lives and feeds their souls. They build community in their work and by their conversations around the campfire.

For many of them, this is their first experience at growing things, and in being caretakers. They become gardeners, not just of their community garden, but of their own lives. In their work, they make the connection between this work and the work they are doing to rebuild their lives, growing into healthy young men.

We do this work behind a prison fence, yet there are freedoms here these young men have never had. They grow here, encouraged to find themselves, and to see themselves as more than men scarred by the traumas and poisons of troubled, directionless childhoods. This is a place of new beginnings, new opportunities. Old wounds are healed and they can move ahead, becoming healthy men.

I treasure the simple moments, the quiet, one-on-one time with a young man, as we plant a flower box, or weed the potatoes, slice some tomatoes, or pick and shell some beans. Just a couple of gardeners, but so much more goes on here, more than the eye can see.

Sometimes, we sit around the campfire, cooking some food, toasting a marshmallow or roasting a hot dog, or just reflecting on what we’ve done in the garden. Soon, stories are being told, experiences shared, observations made. Guys being their true selves, deepening their friendships, and talking about their growing strengths and talents. They are farmers talking about their crops, and how they are making some improvements, tending their crops, growing their lives.

I’m the old man in this crowd, the guy with the gray hair, who just shows up and offers a helping hand, maybe a word or two of advice. I like to be quiet, taking it all in, letting them take the lead in whatever we are working on, watching them ask their questions and talk out the solutions, finding answers.

They need to be in charge here, the gardeners of their own garden. Part of our harvest is growing strong leaders, people who can take charge of their own lives, and make their own way in life.

They come up to me, wanting me to notice their work. They ask me questions, seeking my advice, and not just about gardening.

They are hungry young men, hungry for attention, for someone to affirm them, and recognize them for the goodness they hold inside of themselves. I show up, say good morning, and ask them how they are doing. We work together, as farmers and as life long learners of how to live a good, productive life. The other adults at the garden do that too, and the young men respond with smiles, their eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.

We take time to measure our harvest, counting and weighing our produce, admiring the beauty and abundance of what the boys have grown.

Yet, there is more to the harvest than all the tomatoes and corn, chicken eggs and dried herbs. I count the smiles and the looks of pride and confidence I see in their faces. These young men have grown this summer in so many ways than what we see in their vegetables and flowers.

Their strength and their resilience shine in their faces today, and their newfound abilities to grow their own lives is the real essence of the harvest of our garden.

 

 

–Neal Lemery 9/14/2015