Taking On Change


Taking On Change

by Neal Lemery

The pandemic is a time of postponement, not taking care of business. Life now has a lot of waiting around, and my frustration and impatience show up in high numbers on my emotional dashboard. The personal “to do” list seems to keep growing and has few check offs.

In normal times, my life’s challenges usually get resolved with me realizing it is a time to change. And that work to refresh is always so productive and satisfying. In these times, much of what we are facing seems out of my grasp to change. Most things get booted down the road. Like the virus, procrastination is becoming the new normal.

I often escape into my music. I pick up my guitar and find some solace, literally tuning out the world. Even there, there is a need for change. In guitar speak, it is realizing it is time to restring my faithful six string acoustic.

There’s a lifespan for good steel guitar strings. All my chord making, strumming and picking literally wears out the wires, as well as providing proof of my labors with bigger callouses on my fingertips. In that playing, oil and dirt from my fingers are rubbed into the strings. My picking and the vibrations becomes tiresome to the guitar (and probably the rest of my household).

I play my guitar for its mellowness, harmonizing tones and its predictability in terms of the sounds that are emitted, consistent with one’s repetition of chord patterns, strumming, and finger picking. One gets to mix it up, of course, by using different sizes and materials for strings, and the qualities that are unique for each guitar.

Other variables are at play: the type and age of the wood, the thicknesses of materials, the design, humidity, and how precise you are in tuning each string. You add other variables, too: the methods and styles of finger picking, flat picking and slides, plus little touches like pull offs, hammer ons, and chiming; not to omit the likely dozens of other techniques and styles I’ve yet to hear about, let alone begin to attempt. Guitars become “sweeter” with age, the wood conditioned by time and playing to evolve into an even more expressive instrument. It is a metaphor that I appreciate more the older I get.

Yet, it all goes back to having strings in good shape. It really is the simple things that make a big difference in how my guitar sounds in a day. Aside from all the complexities and sophistication of the accomplished musician, it is the act of restringing and putting on a set of new strings that makes my guitar come alive again. Sometimes, you just need to get rid of the rust and dirt and the “worn out” aspects of life.

I procrastinate, doubting myself that it really might be time to change the strings. I’m good at the kind of self-talk that talks me out of making a needed change. I’ll bargain with myself, offering excuses like time, or effort, or thinking it really hasn’t been that long since I put on the strings that are there now. I ignore the principle of guitar strings that age and wear out are a function of how much you play, versus what the calendar might say.

It’s not like I have to run down to the music store for a set, or that the cost will break my budget. For all their magic, guitar strings are a bargain. I almost always have on hand good to high quality strings, engineered for a long and vigorous life, with promises of crispness and high-quality tones. And, I have all the little tools, wood cleaners, and the other gizmos of the specialized world of guitar string replacement. I learn by trial and error in my music. My string changing regimen is a product of years of redoing and reliving most every mistake you can make, plus having some exciting adventures along the way.

Today, for instance, was the reliving of the occasional crisis of having a wooden peg pop out and plummet into the depths of the guitar box. These little pegs, which I want to think are insignificant, are really essential. They secure the little “ball” end of the string snug in the hole in the body of the guitar. They grasp one end of the string, so you can then tighten it, eventually giving enough tension on the string that it will vibrate and produce a note.

When pegs run wild, I feel helpless and inept, adding salty language to the experience. The peg then plays hide and seek, rattling around the inside, and getting caught in nearly every crevice of the various wooden bracings inside. I do the dance, holding and shaking the upside-down guitar in every angle and configuration, hoping to maneuver it to come out of its cave and rejoin its companions on the face of the guitar. There is the added chance of having the peg flying through the air and lodging under the nearest piece of furniture, prolonging the chase. More excitement comes when the cat decides to help.

This game is sometimes played with a guitar pick. My personal record for chasing the reluctant and shy guitar pick inside the guitar is a (now) laughable three weeks. At best, the usual plastic pick is worth, maybe fifty cents, but still, it’s the principle of the matter and a personal challenge. Man vs guitar pick. I WILL prevail.

The string changing ritual offers other challenges, such as squinting sufficiently in order to thread the thin wires through the holes in the tuner pegs at the other end of the guitar, so you can then wrap the wires around the pegs and begin to tighten them. The shiny wires blend in well with the chrome tuner pegs. In this stage, it is easy to qualify for a Purple Heart for Guitarists, by giving yourself a substantial poke in the finger. My guitar is frequently sanctified by my sacrificial efforts, accompanied by that now well used salty language.

You have to put the strings on in the right order, of course. Each string has a different diameter, with lower notes produced by thicker strings. That seems simple and logical. But, we’re talking me and mechanical tasks. Disasters can occur, with a brand-new string in the wrong place that’s tightened too much, accompanied by the unexpected loud twang of a broken string. Then there’s that deep feeling of ineptitude. Another box of strings is now on the table, adding to the potential confusion. I’ve learned to practice rituals of how I lay out the paper string packets and the manage the order of installation, much like a priest officiating at a high mass.

It is even more fun with a 12 string guitar. String changes on a 12 string increase the challenge by several magnitudes of difficulty, where the rubric requires the lowest four pairs (courses) to be tuned in octaves, but the top two courses are tuned in unison on the same note. Doubling the number of strings and the number of pegs that can go wild more than doubles the fun.

As one hits the home stretch, with all six new strings in place, you get a sense of impending success. When you finish up the tuning ritual with the electronic tuner and the seemingly never ending turning of the pegs on the tuner machines, the transformed guitar begins to sing its songs with a fresh, much improved voice. I’m always struck by the sweetness of the new strings.

“Wow, I should have changed these long ago. The new ones sound great,” I usually proclaim to the household, causing my wife to mutter that I always say that when I put on new strings. Still, it is continually a fresh and delightful discovery, each and every time. I am, perhaps, a slow learner.

I coil up the old strings, and attempt to put them in the garbage can, along with the handful of snipped off string ends, from both the old and new sets. This tangle of wires always resists me, usually breaking free and uncoiling onto the kitchen floor, attempting to evade my thick-fingered efforts to corral them and restuff them into the can. After all our quality time together, they just don’t seem to want to leave. It can be another perilous time for exposed fingers and toes, another opportunity to earn a Purple Heart for Guitarists. Now, though, I can see them in all their dirt and grime, the finish worn off and dull, any new effort to bring forth any decent sound doomed to failure. Tired and worn out, they are ready for a rest.

The rules and the pleasures of guitar string changes applies to other parts of my life, as well. I learn a lot from this occasional task. Familiar jeans well past their prime and faded, torn t-shirts and flannel shirts, with ripped sleeves, deserve similar replacements. Shoes, however, are the worst. I can easily wear out a pair of my favorite hiking shoes, my daily attire, until every last aspect of padding and support are long gone. A new pair tells me immediately that the old shoes were at least several months past their lifespan, and that familiar phrase again crosses my lips, “I should have changed these a long time ago.”.

These discoveries can be applied to other aspects of my life: toothbrushes, cracked glassware, chipped plates, bent forks, even one’s favorite chair. I can apply these lessons to my community life, as well: overly familiar places to hang out and tiresome, sometimes toxic people who refuse to grow in their thinking and experiences.

My guitar teaches me a lot about life: perseverance, consistent practicing, having a regular time to focus on some quality “me time”. And, change.

We can wake up in the morning, engage the world, and remark to everyone within ear shot, “I should have changed this a long time ago.”

9/30/2020

Finding My Way


 

 

by Neal Lemery

Podcast

“What should I be doing with my life?” a friend asked me the other day.  I echoed the cliché about following your passion and left it at that.  But that’s not much of an answer.  It was incomplete, and not respectful of a sincere question, one I still come across in my own life.

I recently read an essay about a young person’s path of self discovery from an elementary school teacher, to musician, and now, reformed, changed up to a teacher of song writing and music.

“I don’t recall any defining moment of decision to focus primarily on teaching music over performing it.  I think it revealed itself in small steps, one choice at a time. It reminded me of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1903): ‘I want to beg you, as much as I can … to be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves … Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

“I don’t make a living from songwriting, but writing songs is critical to living my life.” Her songwriting “brings me closest to myself. By allowing myself deeper self-knowledge, I found I was able to follow the breadcrumbs from there.  And I still am —songwriting continues to allow me to stay centered and take whatever next step feels right.”

“That said, I must admit, I squirm when anyone says: ‘Follow your passion and you can make a living doing anything.’ Clearly these folks underestimate the sheer amount of effort and dumb luck required to make this a true statement.

“Whatever your passion, go ahead. Follow it. By that I mean: be aware of what grounds you most, start there, and be flexible.

“What is the meaningful work in your life? What grounds you? Where do you feel most recognizable to yourself?’ ‘Live the questions,’ as Rilke says, to which I add the path lies in asking them, not answering them.” (Avery Hill, What Does It Mean to Follow Your Passion? Local Lore newsletter, Portland Folkmusic Society (Sept/Oct 2020)

 

My own roadmap through life is a series of questions and slogans, ones I come back to and reflect on in a quiet moment. I crave those small slivers of life I’ve tried to find for myself during the day, the ritual part of some of the disciplines and practices I’ve sought to establish for myself.  Perhaps I, too, am trying to live the questions and not worry too much about having the right answers.

Part of my brain likes to see the world in terms of “either/or”, a process of sorting out options in convenient, systemically ordered piles.  What brings me joy? What doesn’t bring me joy? Those questions, that approach to looking at life, can eliminate the boring, soul-killing tasks and obligations that don’t advance what I value as good uses of my limited time on Earth.

I’ve been trying to be around my chosen family, who aren’t usually the biological relatives. I want to avoid toxic people, their poisons often putting me down, diminishing me, which is often a slow chipping away of my goodness, my purposeful direction.  Knowing that I can choose my family and friends liberates me and expands my potential.  I strive to be a better manager of “family time” and take nourishment from those who enrich me and challenge me to excellence.

I’m an advocate for finding purpose and meaning in life through service to others.  I try to reach out and practice small acts of kindness and charity.  I work on my empathy and my self-actualization through kindness, volunteerism, and my creativity.  Even a few minutes of gardening, picking up a piece of trash, or saying a few kind words to someone at the coffee shop or the store are forms of service and community building.  You change experiences and attitudes, and bring the proverbial ray of sunshine into an encounter.  Your attitude can be contagious and transformative.

Another dichotomy in my life is to decide to act either out of fear or out of love.  I can cringe through life, my sword in hand, obsessed with seeing the world as a disaster waiting to happen, my role in it as the continual failure, fulfilling my expectations as one who is inadequate and “no good”.  Or, I can flip that, seeing the world and my experiences as acts of love, as possibility to do good, and to advance the values and ethics that I cherish, and build a better world.  That work always starts in my little corner, with my own two hands and my own heart and voice.  Words and small acts of kindness do make a difference, and become the tools of my trade, a builder of a better world.

When I have a clear intention, good actions follow from that.

I strive to be my own best friend, being kind to myself, helping myself across a busy street, or sitting with myself in a challenging situation, offering myself comfort and solace.  I can be an advocate for myself, a calming presence, a voice of reason and support, and offer myself a big hug and a shoulder to cry on.  I can pull out the handkerchief and lovingly wipe away the tears. Those are transferable skills to be present with others, but I often benefit from practicing that good work on myself.

I practice self-care.  I’m my own best nurse.  I can plump up my pillow, put on the extra blanket, make myself some comfort food and find my teddy bear at the end of a hard day.  The idea of “holding space” for others, by simply being present and attentive, also applies to me.  The rest of the world’s insanity can be swirling around me, which is a reminder for me to hold some space for myself and be self-caring, to be the caretaker.

I do best at problem solving when I can see the Truth.  Truth is often elusive, and others who seem to want to do harm to me, or use me, take my time and money, will manipulate the truth, bending and distorting it to their own advantage. I’m prone to be a people pleaser, and default to thinking that others are always genuinely caring and kindly with me.  But, that action by others is often manipulation and deceit.  It really is my task to know what is the truth, and to recognize deception and truth bending for what it is, a means of lying and fraud.  In that truth seeking, I need to hold my own self to the fire, to be self-critical, evaluative, assessing.  I need to be aware of my own self-talk, my own ways I sabotage myself.  It is a question of self-actualization, self-esteem, honoring and valuing my own friendship with myself.  It becomes self-advocacy and self-assessment, self-love.

I need to see myself as unique, special, one of a kind.  I do best when I deeply discount other people’s opinions about me.  What others think of me really has nothing to do with me.  They are caught up in their world, and their thoughts about me only help them explain their own perceptions of themselves, their own belief system.  They don’t really know me anyway, especially the part of me that is the precious, unique parts of my soul that are God’s special gifts to me.  The judgments of others are simply opinions, and really are uninformed opinions, not based upon Truth.  My own value, my own place in this world really is none of their business.

I try to declutter my life.  That can start with things, but that work becomes especially effective in managing my relationships and encounters with the world.  It goes back to the “does it bring me joy” question.

There’s also the “three gates” approach for managing what comes out of one’s mouth: is it true, it is necessary, is it kind?

I’m a verbal guy, opinionated and outspoken.  I share my opinions, probably too freely. I’ve been trying to apply the “three gates” practice in my interactions with others.  I’m trying to tamp down the judgmental aspects of what I say, and apply these “filters”.  In that, I am working on being a better listener, and actually welcoming the times of quiet, of being present, and holding space for others.                                8/29/2020

Moving Into A Quieter Time


 

 

By Neal Lemery

(published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, March 12, 2020)

How often do we wonder out loud why life is so hectic, and complain that we don’t have enough time?  Our lives are full of obligations, errands, events, endless demands on our time, and yet we often feel that we don’t tend to the important things in life.  We are bombarded with demands for even more obligations and commitments, and our growing collection of electronics chirp and beep further straining our capacity to manage our lives.

Do we really want fewer obligations and more time to kick back and enjoy life? I think we do, but we simply haven’t given ourselves permission to do that.

Well, now we have that opportunity.  If there’s a silver lining in the cloud of the Corona Virus crisis, it is the gift of time and space in our lives.  My calendar is getting cleared as I write this, with almost hourly e-mails announcing cancellations, postponements, and changed plans.  I now have mandates to not be so obligated and committed.

Public health officials and the Governor are taking drastic actions to call us to a simpler, less hectic life.  No large groups, no travel to meetings, fewer social interactions, and a call to spend more time at home.

There’s compelling scientific evidence to support these directives.  Yet, this crisis is perhaps a blessing in disguise. The Chinese writing character for crisis contains the character for opportunity.

My meeting was cancelled for this morning, so I found myself in the garden, with time to contemplate where I’m going to plant my early spring vegetables. I planted some seeds in the greenhouse and began my annual organizing there.  I’d told myself I’d get to that needed project, but I’ve just been “too busy”.  Now, the cleared up calendar is telling me I have the time.

The “hunker down at home” message is going to allow me the time to tend to my garden, to find a sunny spot and enjoy a cup of tea, and read some of those books that have been piling up on the coffee table. Spring is truly coming and yes, I can even enjoy it.

I’m going to have fewer hours at my favorite coffee shop, but I can also make time to invite a friend over for coffee and sit out on the deck and enjoy the birds that are arriving at my feeder. I’ll catch up on some correspondence, even getting back into the old yet treasured practice of writing a letter to a friend.

We have a month, at least, with legitimate excuses to dial back the pace of life, to take our foot off the gas, and take a breath. I’ll even avoid meetings that, perhaps, weren’t really that essential. I know I’ve been over-obligated, over-involved.  Now, I have an excuse to move into a quieter time. I can still do what I love to do: play my guitar, learn more about playing the banjo and mandolin, doing more in my yard than the most pressing tasks, even having a second cup of coffee on the deck in the morning, and linger over the daily paper.

I suspect my friends who are working will enjoy more productivity by working at home, and not having to travel for meetings. Maybe they too can live in quieter times and linger over that second cup of coffee on the deck. Perhaps we’ll be more like Europeans, with shorter work weeks, and more time with friends and family. Let’s give it a try.

I’m going to connect more with friends and family, too. More listening, more planning a small event where we really have a deep conversation and talk about our lives. Dinner can be more relaxed, and I’ll try to more thoughtful on what I cook and focus on healthier eating.  In all of that, I’ll be in the spirit of our collective effort to deal with this disease, focusing myself on being rested and improving my health, being a responsible citizen in times of crisis.

I’ve been yammering for years on the hectic pace of life, whining about how Americans work too much and don’t spend enough time with their family.  Now’s my chance, our chance, to get out of the fast lane, kick life down a few notches, and enjoy a quieter time, a slower pace of life.

It’s time I practice what I preach and get to really know myself and the people I love.

After all, it is doctors’ orders.

Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer


 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

 

When I was a kid, Nat King Cole made this a popular song, and the lyrics still seem to sum up summertime on the Oregon coast, with an increasingly strong emphasis on the “crazy”.  My good intentions this year were lots of reading on the deck, working in my flowers and vegetables, and plenty of time for friends, taking it easy.

Summertime is paved with good intentions, yet the calendar has filled up with friends and relatives who live in other states “just dropping by”, numerous parades, festivals, concerts and fairs, and a steady pace of casual get togethers. The idle hours of reading on the deck by my flowers has become a rare hour here and there between all of the scheduled and unplanned activities. The dread of being caught in bumper to bumper traffic on the highway and too many people at my favorite haunts has cut into my summer plans, motivating me to cross off a number of calendared “fun” to dos. Instead, my reading chair on the deck is my refuge, my hiding place from the mob.

We paid the price for a visit to a friend’s open garden tour with an hour and a half of stop and go traffic on a Saturday afternoon.  What were we thinking? We even skipped our customary treat at a local dessert shop as that would have required making a left turn. This is, after all, “No Left Turn Season” and tourists are definitely in their “bubble of oblivion”.

My classic example of no thinking this summer occurred in front of me on the Wilson River Highway, with both lanes completely crammed full and traveling at 25 mph.  The out of state car ahead of me suddenly skidded to a stop and pulled a U-turn, forcing the oncoming car and me to burn rubber.  In their frenzy, they had to back up in order to fully turn around and head in the other direction, oblivious to the chorus of our collective repertoire of swear words.

I fantasized about a robotic State Trooper flying a drone, forcing them over with tractor beams and issuing a multitude of traffic tickets. Can I apply for a “tourist tax” grant to supply that needed addition to local law enforcement?

A friend calls the syndrome “tourist brain” and swears there is scientific evidence in support of that psychological condition. I know the local anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

I wonder what all the emergency responders call it, but I probably couldn’t repeat their phrases here.

A long overdue class reunion challenged me to deal with a restaurant on full tourist overload, and spurred me to politely discourage a gaggle of out of town visitors intent on their ice cream cones at the Creamery.  I’m not up for dealing with 10,000 people clamoring for sugar on a summer day, preferring a quiet conversation on the deck with some iced tea, no parking lots and lines. After all, I’ve planned ahead and have a nice stash of ice cream in my freezer.

It’s time I take a deep breath, and look at the calendar.  Time is on my side. It’s only a few weeks until Labor Day. That Tuesday is our traditional visit to our favorite beach, as we celebrate “Take Back the Beach” day, my favorite summer holiday. We might even be bold and make a left turn.

 

8/14/2019

Fathers’ Day — A Mixed Bag of Emotions


 

–by Neal Lemery

 

 

 

Fathers’ Day is a challenging holiday, and I’m relieved it has come and gone. The event is idealized in our culture, presented as a day of barbeques, family time, and lots of smiles about idyllic childhoods and loving, kindly fathers who have inspired us, who have taught us all about love, family, and healthy parenting. It comes across as cuddly and warm, yet for many, the message is one of conflict and contradiction.

 

On Sunday, I had good communications with many of the men I am proud to call “son”, and good friends, guys I can talk with, heart to heart. I’m relieved that they are doing well in their emotional lives, and able to freely express their feelings with me about fathering and growing up.  We’re at a stage, finally, where “I love you” is more easily spoken or written.

 

Yet, I have others I’ve mentored and parented who choke on saying the word “love”. I know they are struggling, challenged by how to find themselves and make sense of the confusion and chaos in their lives. Depression, addiction, broken relationships, and even jail time challenge them, as they keep searching for the tools and the paths to heal themselves and be able to move on in their lives. Guys don’t easily pick up the phone or text that they’re suicidal, high, or behind bars.  There aren’t any texting emojis that say that they aren’t good enough, that they’re failures and can’t get their lives together.

 

I love them anyway, and try to communicate that, but often it is a one way street. Some of my letters addressed to a prison don’t get a reply, but I write anyway. I’m a gardener and planting seeds and adding water and fertilizer on what appears to be infertile ground is part of that work of faith.

 

Like other holidays, what we are supposed to be honoring and acknowledging conflicts with our own reality and our emotional journeys through life. None of us have lived the idyllic life, being parented with the ideal, perfect father, and living our own life free from emotional baggage left over from our childhood. We experience our own roles as men, fathers, and the complex task of helping to raise kids and navigate our own turbulent emotional waters of adulthood. The road is often bumpy.

 

It is a day of conflicting emotions and fake messages, including this Instagram posted on this Fathers’ Day from Bill Cosby, once television’s ideal dad, and now an imprisoned, convicted sexual predator:

 

“Hey, Hey, Hey…It’s America’s Dad… I know it’s late, but to all of the Dads… It’s an honor to be called a Father, so let’s make today a renewed oath to fulfilling our purpose – strengthening our families and communities.”

 

Emotional predators, especially those who have projected a wholesome image through the media, and hold themselves out as a role model of virtue and integrity, have no credibility coming across as the ideal dad. No, Mr. Cosby, you are not “America’s Dad” anymore, and I reject what you are trying to project upon us.  Your social media posting is a mockery of what Fathers’ Day needs to be.

 

I’m not alone in thinking about the challenges of being both the child and the father, and dealing with sons and daughters who are conflicted about dealing with the idealization of parenting, how to emerge whole, or at least not emotionally ravaged from childhood.

 

I Googled “father anger” and saw there were 185 million hits. It is a rich topic for writers, and all of us who are trying to make sense of masculine anger.

 

“It’s not being a man that makes men prone to anger, but being socialized to be “masculine,” which studies suggest is hard to separate from a propensity for angry emotions. Societal expectations about how to be a boy are evolving, but many men are still taught that anger is one of few acceptable emotions for them to express. When toughness and independence are highly valued in men, this inevitably leads to outbursts.”

–Virginia Pelley

https://www.fatherly.com/love-money/relationships/good-dads-anger-problems/

 

The greeting card section at the grocery store doesn’t have Fathers’ Day cards about anger, about emotional abuse, and the challenges of having a real deep conversation with dad about growing up, and how to navigate those troubled waters.

 

Talking about emotions and childhood trauma are still taboo topics for many men at social gatherings, as well as one on one.  I’ve also seen adult children who are called at a funeral to eulogize their parent struggle to put into words stories about their parents’ lives, trying to balance truth telling with unresolved emotions about the tough times with mom or dad.  A funeral isn’t expected to be very healing for anger and rage.

 

However, the subtleties in the stories that have been edited to be spoken at a funeral can convey a willingness to be real, to connect with family on what has often been stuffed away in the family closet of secrets. There remains the deep need to tell the truth, and to heal.

 

Being open and honest about such experiences has been seeing the light of day in recent years.  Popular figures have been telling their stories, and numerous books dig into the challenges of familial rage and dysfunction.  The “Me Too” movement and other acts of cultural courage over the past few decades have modeled the benefits of being open and having the courage to start to heal.

 

In the last few years, work on addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences(ACEs) has been a breath of fresh air and provided opportunities for understanding and healing, much to the benefit of our society. Educators are now becoming informed and are implementing innovative approaches to helping kids.

 

Many of the men I’ve mentored have had the benefit of good counselors and therapists, friends, and lovers who have helped in removing the thorns of abuse, self-debasement, and emotional sabotage.  For many people, the vicious cycle of generational emotional paralysis and impotent rage has been exposed to the light of understanding, and been broken, or at least interrupted.  For all that work, I am heartened, and I can see society moving and changing, Bill Cosby’s recent comment notwithstanding.

 

I try to convey to my sons and the other men in my life that we are all entitled to our anger and our rage, that the wounds we have experienced should be acknowledged, and that healing is possible.  Dealing with the mixed emotions of Fathers’ Day is part of that work. It is a reminder of how far we have come, and how far we need to go in our journeys.

 

6/17/2019

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

Building Community — Ubuntu


How do I build community? How do I help make my community stronger, more resilient, more viable? How do we improve our ability to take care of each other, and become healthier, a better whole?

 

In South Africa, there is a concept of Ubuntu.

 

“I am what I am because of who we all are”

 

“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Desmond Tutu

 

 

“Ubuntu is a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual.” Stephen Lundin- Ubuntu!

 

The word ‘ubuntu’ originates from one of the Bantu dialects of Africa, and is pronounced as uu-Boon-too. It is a traditional African philosophy that offers us an understanding of ourselves in relation with the world. According to Ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities.

 

“Or as the Zulus would say, “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu”, which means that a person is a person through other persons. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others.

 

“The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu as:

‘It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.

 

They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.”

 

(https://motivationinspirationandlife.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/ubuntu-i-am-what-i-am-because-of-who-we-all-are/)

 

Who am I? A citizen, yes. Yet, I am a part of my community. In defining that, I am who I am because I am a part of the community.

 

My community defines me.

 

If I want to advance myself, and advance my community, I must, as a part of the community, also advance the community.

 

Ubuntu is unity, being a part of something bigger than myself. And, that “whole” also defines me.

 

In my work in the community, when I strengthen others, I strengthen the community and also myself.

 

When I mentor someone, help them with a school subject, take time to listen to them, work in a community garden with them, talk with them in the line at the grocery store or the post office, or just smile at someone on the street, I am building my community, and I am engaging in and being an aspect of Ubuntu.

 

And, when I am tearing down my community, not taking care of myself and others, when I am exploiting weakness and divisiveness, then I am working against Ubuntu. My negativity is destructive, of myself, of others, and of my community.

 

Racism, sexism, bigotry, ignorance, indifference — all work against the spirit of Ubuntu.

 

Today, I resolve to be a builder and a force for strength, wholeness and health. I strive to live within the spirit of Ubuntu.

 

–Neal Lemery, November 16, 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

Getting Our Brain In Shape


Getting Our Brain in Shape a 3-part series
January 12, 2016

By Neal Lemery

There’s a lot to learn about our brains, and recently, I heard Dr. Neil Nedley engage several hundred of my friends and neighbors in rich conversations about the human brain.

We can improve our brain’s health, and get it in shape. It’s time for a brain fitness challenge which is as important as working our muscles and getting our bodies in shape.

Yes, we can change our brains, our behavior, and our attitudes, and we can change the functioning of our brains.

We can move through depression, anxiety, fear, and other unhealthy “stinking thinking” by improving our nutrition, exercise, social life, and our attitudes! By learning of new developments in brain research, we can improve our thinking and our lives.

Here are some of the things I learned. All this is a great start to a rich community wide education and conversation about mental health and our well being.

PART ONE

Oregon has the second highest suicide rate in the country. Tillamook County has the third highest rate in Oregon. Mental health is an issue we need to address as a community.

The brain has 100 billion nerve cells. There are 100 trillion nerve synapses, and there may be the possibility of ten times that amount. Each one of these cells has 20,000 possible connections. There are thousands of categories of cells.

As complex as the brain is, we now know the brain can repair itself and, with the right tools, even re-wire itself. Our research on the brain is just beginning.

There is a lot we can do to optimize our brains. Consider the acronym NEW START. We need:

• Nutrition – especially from vegetables. Nutrients in food provide the building blocks of our nerve cells and what makes them function
• Exercise. At least 20 minutes a day, ideally using our hands, moving in three dimensions, to stimulate the brain
• Water, more than you might think but yes, you can get too much
• Sunlight, natural or from a light box
• Temperance – Avoid harm. Live in moderation. Practice self-control. Understand the long-term benefits that come from delayed gratification
• Air. Fresh air is vital. Get outside and move.
• Rest. Early to bed, early to rise.
• Trust. Have a trusting relationship with others, with Spirit.

PART TWO – What’s the Frontal Lobe Got to do with It?

Depression and Anxiety

We are experiencing an epidemic. What we have developed to improve happiness actually often impairs brain function. Electronic screens with flickering light reduce frontal lobe activity and induce a hypnotic state in the brain. Increased sexual stimulation actually reduces pleasure and interest. Poor nutrition, lack of exercise and lack of exposure to light and fresh air also reduce the ability of the brain to respond and function.

26% of Americans have a major emotional disorder. Over 50% have a minor emotional disorder. This phenomenon is found across all social, economic, and education groups. One quarter of physicians are depressed.

We must look for long-term gain. Once brain health is optimized, a family is able to leave poverty, reduce violence, addiction, unemployment, and hunger.

The frontal lobe is the least studied aspect of the brain and yet makes up 33% of the human brain. If it is compromised, it affects moral principles, social interaction, judgement and foresight. The frontal lobe takes 30 years to fully develop and is home to such things as abstract reasoning, mathematical understanding, and empathy. When enhanced, the frontal lobe increases a person’s creativity, originality, curiosity and adaptability.

The frontal lobe is the seat of critical thinking. Current research shows that 45% of college students lack critical thinking skills. Lifestyle and behavior choices play a large role in the development of the frontal lobe. Drugs that can impair this development include illicit and prescription drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and marijuana. Alcohol can impair brain function for as long as 30 days after consumption. Repeated use of marijuana lowers IQ permanently, also lowering emotional intelligence (EQ) and motivation.

Intelligence is the capacity to learn, retain, and apply knowledge. Advancing in a job is NOT related to IQ but rather to Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Creativity, logic, and persuasion are tied to EQ. Improved EQ increases longevity, enhances the immune system and improves social relationships. Emotional Intelligence can be taught and increased over one’s lifetime.

PART THREE – “Know Thyself”

Enhancing Emotional Intelligence (EQ) occurs in five stages. The first of these involves self-awareness and understanding your own primary and secondary emotions. Why are you feeling that emotion? What thoughts and experiences are tied to that emotion? Feelings can lie. How we think, influences our reactions to problems and situations. Use the THINK technique to identify if these thoughts are helpful or harmful. Are they True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary or Kind? This is at the root of “Stinking Thinking.” The second stage of Emotional Intelligence involves the ability to manage our emotions and the thoughts that lead to them.

The third aspect of enhanced Emotional Intelligence is the ability to accurately recognize emotions in others. This is coupled with the ability to practice empathy, or the ability to understand and feel the emotions of another person even though you are not experiencing their situation firsthand.

The final two aspects of Emotional Intelligence have a lot to do with social relationships and “getting ahead” in life. How well we manage relationships with others and how effectively we can motivate others are features of a well-developed EQ.

There are many ways we sabotage the development of our EQ. Negative self-talk yields to adverse emotions. Magnifying minor issues or minimizing major issues are signs of impaired EQ as are defensiveness and denial. The alternative to this is an attitude open to repair and redemption. “A man who commits a mistake commits another mistake if he doesn’t correct it.” – Confucius

Practicing self-control, expressing gratitude, finding hope, seeking “bright lines” of morality, seeking worthy goals, and giving of self willingly are part of living the “psychological good life” and are the foundation for personal transformation.

We can turn setbacks into victories. Find the lesson, apply it, and
Move on. Then look back on defeat and smile.
–David Schwartz

A Letter to My Son


Dear Son:

It was a good visit yesterday!

I’d like to give a bit of fatherly advice.

You are now of an age and in a place where you can truly be your own man, your own boss.

Write down your short term goals and your long term goals and dreams.

Then, each day, make a list of tasks you want to accomplish today. One of those tasks should be something that advances one of your long term goals. Several of those tasks should be something that advances some of your short term goals.

If you work ten minutes a day towards a long term goal, then you will ensure that you achieve that goal.

Check off your accomplishments. At the end of the day, update your list, mark off your accomplishments. Even doing something that is part of a task is an accomplishment. Be proud of moving forward. Be proud of the direction you are moving in.

You are a man now. You get to decide who your friends are and who is your family. You get to decide what kind of relationship you have with family. You define who is family.

Just because someone is biologically related to you doesn’t mean you need to keep them in your family. Family is how you define it.

You will always have some sort of relationship with your mother. But, you are the guy who decides what that looks like and how that works. That is pretty much what you do about your relationship with your dad. You have decided how that is, and you make sure you protect yourself and work through all those feelings about your dad.

Same with your mom. Your job is to protect yourself and to make sure you have a healthy relationship with your mom, whatever that is. You decide. You set the boundaries. Don’t let yourself get hurt, or let her run your life. You are in charge of running your life. You are the boss, the manager.

Figuring out our relationships with our parents is tough stuff. I am still doing that, and both my parents are dead. Yet, I hear the old voices, the old ways. But, I am the one who decides what I listen to, and how I respond. I am the boss. I have the power.

You are smart about relationships and about feelings. You have the power, and you have the brains about all that. Put your learning to work. Do what is best for you. Only you get to decide what is in your best interest.

You are the only one who really knows what is best for you. Practice self love and self care. Protect yourself from giving other people permission to hurt you and to make you feel bad.

You have done very well as you have grown up. You have new skills and new power. You have self confidence, and self esteem. Keep up that good work. Move ahead, and go in the direction you want to go in. Be proud.

No one else gets to run your life. You are in charge. Do what is good for you. Go live your dreams.

Take those hard steps, and move in the direction you want to go. Don’t try to please other people. But, please yourself. Do what is good for you.

You are surrounded by people who care about you and who support you in all of this. Use that energy and that support.

Believe in yourself.

You are finding your power in what you are writing. Be proud of what you know and what you are feeling, and what you are dreaming. Go where you need to go.

My job is to be a cheerleader, and to believe in your dreams, and to support you in the direction you want to go. I don’t get to run your life, and no one else does, either. Don’t worry about what I think. What really matters is what you think, and where you want to go. What really matters is what is best for you.

If you need a tool, ask for it. You live in a place where there are lots of tools. You live in a place where people believe in you and support you.

Anything is possible.

All my love,

Neal