Restringing Guitars and Young Men


 

 

Fridays are my day at the local youth correctional facility. In the morning, I work in their garden, helping young gardeners tend to their chickens, vegetable plots and herb gardens.

 

We plant, weed, water, and harvest, and then preserve and dry the results. Most every week, we cook, enjoying the bounty of our work, and treating the young men to fresh, nutritious produce and the concept of healthy nutrition and living.

 

The real gardening comes in our conversations, the camaraderie of young and older gardeners, working and learning together, truly being in community.

 

They are learning where food really comes from, and how to be invested in that process, being self sufficient and healthy. The metaphor of the garden is not lost on them, as they work to become strong, healthy, productive farmers of their lives.

 

I also work with some of the young men individually, being the “surrogate parent” and being the visitor they need and wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m the “family” who shows up with some baked goods or candy, and just visits for an hour. Sometimes, we play games, but mainly, I just listen, offering the compassionate ear of the uncle or dad who is missing in their lives.

 

I’m tender and kind to them, being the encouraging voice, the cheerleader, the supportive dad they wouldn’t otherwise have.

 

Today, one of my young men and I restrung one of the guitars there. It is a “state” guitar, which means it’s the guitar that gets played by those who don’t have their own instrument. The guitar is played a lot, and replacing the strings has become a regular task for me.

 

The guitar gets loved to death, played hard by lonely, frustrated fingers pouring out the emotions of the neglected and abandoned, the incarcerated, the young men who have no other way of expressing themselves. I’m like that guitar, a place where the emotions of these young men can have their voice, a willing ear, an appreciative audience for what they need to say.

 

My guy has had a rough year. He’s one of the lucky ones, not serving a mandatory sentence, a guy who can walk out the door if he’s done all his treatment, completed high school and shown he can be a responsible young man.

 

He literally has the keys to the front gate, but the old voices keep telling him he’s worthless, and should be abandoned and left out for the trash man.

 

Like so many of the young men here, being responsible and healthy is a new experience, and the fear of going back into the world, and being around the family and friends who were a big part of the bad times that brought him here, is one huge scary nightmare of parole.

 

The thought of being successful in life is a new idea. For most of their life, they’ve been told they are worthless, failures. My job is to be a spark of encouragement, the mirror of their successes and self worth, to be the dad who believes in them and is proud of who they are becoming.

 

My job and the job of the guitar are a lot alike.

 

My buddy has derailed himself a number of times here, despite all his good work. The old ways, the old voices still show up, beating him down with the whips of shame and guilt, the indifference to the beauty of their young souls.

 

Today, though, he moved ahead. He took the initiative and restrung the guitar, without much help from me. With confidence, he completed the task, grinning as the new strings sang out their song in his confident fingers. His eyes twinkled with pride as he showed others the work he had done.

 

We did more than restring an old, well-used guitar. We restrung a young man and gave voice to the new, self-confident man now playing his songs, happy with what he’s done and who he’s becoming.

 

–Neal Lemery, 12/9/2016

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

Bringing In The Light


I take so many things for granted. And, I often think there aren’t many miracles in life, in the ordinariness of the day. That is, until we pay attention, until we make room for them to happen.

In the rush of daily life, I almost let this one slip past me, unnoticed.

He asked me to help build the campfire so he could get it just right. Everyone was depending on him. It had to be perfect. This was his task, and he wanted to do it perfectly. He’d never been asked to do this before. It was the most anyone had every asked him to do.

Only men built fires, and wasn’t he just a boy?

We gathered his chosen sticks of wood, dry and perfect for his fire. He picked up the kindling, methodically splintering it over his knee. Even the paper was torn just so, all arranged, ready for the match.

We had to wait, a friend had to get the matches. We had some time, and I asked him about his campfires past, who had built them, what happened around them.

It was small talk for me, until he spoke. His voice got quiet, his eyes wet, his hands shaking. No, this was big talk, big stuff, big wounds.

Only a few campfires, only a few of the only good times in his past, what he could remember of them. Most of childhood was just a fog; he couldn’t remember.

He thought this fire would fail, it would not burn, and everyone here would think he was a failure. It was the old familiar story, it was the ending that he expected. Wasn’t that the story of his life?

This was his fire, his first fire he had built. He wanted to say his dad would be proud of him, but halfway through the words, he choked, looked away, not able to say that, that dad would be proud.

The matches arrived, and I handed them to him.

“Light your fire, son,” I said. “You can do this.”

There was a spark, a small flame that grew, catching the paper and kindling he had laid so carefully, his most important task ever in his young life.

I asked him to blow on the small flame, to make it grow. And he did, a smile breaking across his face.

The fire, his fire, was ablaze, catching the big sticks, sending flames up high.

“Good job,” I said. “You did well. I’m proud of you.”

Those words, ones he had never heard before, filled the air, filled his heart. The words he had never heard, until now.

He nodded, not saying a word. The fire crackled, as we let those simple words sink in, letting him really hear them.

He built the good fire, the fire everyone liked. Soon everyone crowded around to feel its heat on this chilly morning, to cook our lunch, warm our hands and our hearts.

The others, the builder of the fire, and I sat around the fire, sharing our lunch, a few stories, our friendship.

“Great fire,” they said. “Thanks.”

He looked down at his shoes, and then at the fire, taking it all in, feeling the warmth of their praise, their thanks, warming his heart on this cold winter’s day.

His big smile lit up his face, and added more light to our day together.

A miracle, in the coldest, most ordinary of places. But that’s where miracles happen, when its cold and lonely, and you think your life isn’t all that special.

We just need to be ready to let the light in.

Neal Lemery, 12/6/2015