Outside of My Prison’s Walls

“Even though I’m out, I can’t seem to make my own decisions. Six years of someone else telling me what to do, where to go, how to act, and now I can’t seem to move ahead in my life, and do what I need to do for myself.”

“It’s like I’m still in prison. I’m still behind the walls,” my young friend told me, as we were deep in conversation about his life and where he was headed.

Yet, aren’t we all still behind the walls, the walls we make ourselves? Don’t each of us have that fear of moving ahead, and taking on our hard issues, and that tough challenge of having our own walls to climb over?

Life has a way of moving along, and we don’t often see ourselves in control of the directions we are taking, or our ability to find our own path. Our jobs, our families, our friends all seem to be the movers and the guides in our life that are shaping our daily lives, and where we are headed.

I like to think that I’m purposeful in what I do, and what my action plan is for the day, the week, maybe even the year. But, my daily routine and my usual “to do” list means the day has a lot of routines, and I end up responding to other people’s agendas more than my own, long term, “what is good for me” list.

And, often, other people’s expectations of me can soon turn into my own prison walls. Just playing follow the leader and letting other people’s plans and needs fill my day becomes pretty easy, and pretty comforting. I don’t have to think much, at least the thinking I should be doing about where I’m going in life, and who I want to become, and the dreams I want to realize and achieve.

I let the walls get built up, and I get comfortable with that, instead of speaking up for myself, and finding that voice inside of me that talks about my dreams and my goals.

Some philosophers would say that each one of us is living life in the prisons we’ve built ourselves, too afraid of taking charge, and finding the ladder to climb over the walls, or to search out the key to the lock to the gate.

I think I’m free, free to go outside and smell the fresh air, and walk down the road, or meet a friend for lunch, or mull over an idea and speak my peace about a hot topic. Yet, my daily routine and my well worn path in the road of life is pretty comfortable if I let others do the thinking and gently prodding me into going along with the plan for the day.

After all, it is easier to just nod my head and grunt an “uh, huh” when someone pontificates an idea that my heart is telling me needs to be challenged, needs to be explored at some length. That would take some work, and I might offend the other guy, and end up getting deep into a serious and thought provoking debate. And, I might actually learn something and find some flaws in my own thinking. I may even have to take some action, and get out of my routine.

Or, not. Just let their thought slide by, and I go along with the flow.

“Don’t rock the boat,” my grandmother used to say.

Yet, I recall she was pretty opinionated, and wasn’t shy about challenging some popular ideas and politics in her day. She wasn’t a model prisoner inside the walls society had built in her day, and she was good at teaching me to think outside the box and not take the usual way out of a dilemma by simply going along with the flow, and not rocking the boat.

A few weeks ago, I listened to Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian social activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She was a young medical student when a civil war broke out in her country, devastating her family and community, and halting her promising medical career. She wanted to break down the walls that kept her country from seeing an alternative to war, terror, and lack of opportunity for women and children.

She didn’t have an army, and she didn’t have money or power.

“But, I had my voice,” she said. ‘And I used it. I spoke up, every chance I got.”

She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she wouldn’t let any walls, any thinking that social change was impossible, get in her way. She told the stories of the women and children in her country, and she talked about non violence and civil disobedience. She challenged and she provoked, and she taught and she argued.

She used her voice and moved her country towards peace. She made people think, and pushed people out of their ruts, helping them find the keys to their own prison gates, and to find their freedom and their true destiny.

Leymah Gbowee didn’t start down that road with the idea that she’d win the Nobel Peace Prize someday. She simply wanted her country to be at peace, and for her family and neighbors to be done with war, and to live in peace. She spoke up, using the only tool she had, her voice.

My young friend is finding his voice, and I see a lot of other people finding their voices, and finding the keys to their own prison gates. Folks are moving out into freedom, out into the sunshine outside of their own prison walls.

Neal Lemery, May 14, 2014

The Power of Listening

The Power of Listening

“Concern for others is the best form of self interest.”

—Desmond Tutu

I talk a lot. I’m pretty opinionated, and I usually have something to say.

Yet, this week, I learned, once again, the magic of being quiet, of listening to others, and just being there, so that they could say what was on their mind. In doing that, I learned a lot, about them, and also about myself.

I had lunch with a man I’ve known for quite a while. I don’t think we were friends, but now we are. He needed some help in his life, some advice, some direction. He needed a bit of my time.

We talked, or rather, he talked, and I asked a few questions along the way. He had quite the story to tell, and needed some direction. Not many people had been listening to him lately, and life had gotten out of hand. He was living in chaos and things that needed attention weren’t getting his focus. He was overwhelmed.

The more I listened, the more I realized he really needed some medical care. That wasn’t on his pretty long list of the crises and dilemmas in his life, but, the more I heard him talk, the more I realized that the solutions were to be found in him getting some medical help.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), he’d just been accepted into the Oregon Health Plan. For the first time in about fifteen years, he had health insurance, and didn’t need to rely on the emergency room as his only source of health care.

Up until this year, he hadn’t been able to afford to go to the emergency room, and so, when his thumb got cut pretty deep, he sewed it up himself. He showed me his thumb, and the decent job he did. I winced at the thought of his pain, and his determination, to take care of himself, no matter what he suffered.

He wanted me to wave my magic legal wand and solve his legal problems. Yet, the real issues were rooted in his health. If he could become healthy, and address his medical issues, then he could manage and resolve the things he said were troubling him. Soon, he’ll need a lawyer, but today, he needed a doctor.

I drove him to the health clinic and made an appointment. A few days later, we met there, again, and we filled out the long questionnaire about his medical history, and a survey on depression. Bingo, he self scored a 100% on the depression survey. I admired his honesty in answering all the questions with an open heart. It’s tough for anyone to be brutally honest with themselves when it comes to your health, and that challenge is doubled or tripled when it comes to looking in the mirror and saying the word “depression”.

We met with two amazing, compassionate staff members of the clinic. In a few minutes, they were doing tests, asking more questions, and engaging my friend in a frank and respectful conversation about his health. He could see the entire picture, and the collision in his life of genetics, diet, exercise, addictions, and the stress of his life.

We talked about remedies, and new choices to be made. More tests were scheduled, and a follow up visit was set, to check on how he’s doing on his depression medication, and to begin work on some of his other long term problems. They offered him hope and professional competence. More importantly, they offered him respect.

It was a hard day for him, hard to show up for the appointment, hard to have a real conversation about the realities of his life, and hard for him to accept the help he’s needed. Everyone in the room was concerned about him, him as a person, as a human being. There wasn’t a word of judgment, a word of criticism of his choices and the way he’s chosen to self medicate.

At last, he could get the medical care he needed, and to gain the tools he needs to move on with his life, and regain his health.

Our country is having a big discussion about medical insurance and health care. A lot of folks grump about the costs of medical care, and the pros and cons of subsidized health insurance for people in poverty, and the working poor. I’m overwhelmed with all the statistics, plans, and arguments on all sides of the discussion.

All that quickly gets intellectually confusing, with lots of rhetoric and politics, and, I suspect, a lot of propaganda. There’s money to be made, and lots of self interest, and self serving posturing going on.

Yet, for all that talk, I sat with my friend, seeing him get first class health care, seeing him get the services he’s needed, and to be able to work on restoring his health. Soon, he’ll be able to work, he’ll be able to get out of bed and feel good about himself, and to be the kind of father he needs to be to his kids, and be an active, healthy member of the community. If there’s a price for that, I think we’d all think that would be a pretty good investment, especially if you could see the tears of relief and validation that flowed down his cheek, as we sat in that exam room, and he realized he’s on the road to getting well, and he had hope for his life.

The next day, I visited a young man in prison. He’s asked that I come visit him, to mentor him a bit, and have some conversation. I’ve admired his art work, and some of my other buddies out at the prison thought it would be a good idea if I came to see him.

I brought some coffee and doughnuts, not sure what he would like to enjoy, as we got to know each other.

“You could have brought anything,” he said. “I haven’t had a visit in a year and a half, so, …anything’s fine with me.”

He gets out next year, and is working hard on the work crew, earning a bit of money so he’ll be able to find a place to live, and get settled into adult life. After seven years, it will be a big change, and he’s ready to make a fresh start in life.

He had a lot to say, once I asked him a few questions. I shut my mouth, and gave him the space to talk. His family only came once a year to visit, and now that they’ve got some serious health problems, they haven’t been able to see him for a year and a half.

He sees his younger brother going down the wrong path, and wants to be there for him, to help him turn the corner, and live a decent life. My buddy knows the drug and alcohol road, and the road of anger and not having a healthy father as a role model in his life. He’s done his work behind those walls, and is walking on the straight and narrow path now. And, he’s not afraid to share his wisdom.

I heard him tell the sad tales of his life, the struggles of his mom, raising kids on not much money but a whole lot of love. I heard him speak about his anger about his stepdad, and the hunger he’s had for some good role models, and some direction in his life. I heard him speak about the fights he’s started, and how being a gang member addressed his hunger in his life, until he realized that punching someone out and being angry at the world wasn’t doing much for himself. He wasn’t being the person he wanted to be, and he needed to change.

He showed me the violin his grandfather sent, and he grinned as he told me how he’s learning to play it, and how it gives him a voice for all that he feels in his heart, about who he was and who he is now, and where he wants to go.

He wanted to hear a little bit about me, who I am, what my life is like. And, sometime soon, we’ll have that conversation. But, yesterday was his turn, his opportunity to speak his mind, and tell his story. He needed someone to just listen, to take the time for him, to let him be the focus of a conversation for once.

His story is a sad story, but also a story about courage, and determination, and the power of a person to reach down deep inside of themselves, and realize that they need to make a change. It was a story of reaching out, of finding some resources, of seeing hope when you are at the very bottom of your life, and of deciding to climb out of that hole, and to move on, to seek the destiny of your precious, wonderful life.

These two men, these two encounters this week, are teaching me a lot about courage, and determination. They are teaching me that there is hope in this country for men deciding to summon their courage from deep inside of themselves, to face what they need to face, and then to step out, to move on, and change their lives.

—Neal Lemery, March 9, 2014

Taking Flight

Taking Flight

Young eagle in flight,
soaring on the last of the storm winds,
the end of the hurricane that shook his soul,
that darkness testing his manhood to his sweet core.

Today’s sun rises bright, fresh with promise,
of all his possibilities, all of his hopes;
challenges push and pull,
testing his heart, his young wings.

He looks deep into his heart, finding his direction,
and faces life head-on, confident in
direction, rich in determination,
rich in possibilities and well-chosen dreams.

He takes the best from the past,
and plots his course with care;
moves ahead, heart filled with love,
focused, loved, and whole.

Neal Lemery 1/29/2014

Living In the Midst of Courage

I live in the midst of courageous people. Oh, I laugh at the funny things about my little home town, the log trucks and milk trucks rumbling through downtown, taking up a lane and a half, the cow manure fountains spurting their stink, attracting seagulls and puzzling some of the tourists.

“What’s that green fountain in the field?” they ask, until they get too close.

Our high school teams are the Cheesemakers, and our big tourist attraction is the cheese factory, where people line up for ice cream cones, and carry out big bags of “squeaky cheese”, what my grandmother used to call cheese curds, and fed them to the hogs. At $5 a bag, I bet today she wouldn’t be thinking hog food.

Our biggest celebration is the June Dairy Month Parade, led by our dairy princesses, and finished up with big hay trucks and the town’s biggest fire truck. At the county fair, the most popular events are the “Pig ‘N Ford” races (Model Ts and greased pigs), and the Saturday night demolition derby.

Yet, serious things go on here, people taking on serious, tough issues and moving ahead in their lives.

This week, the local paper features the lives of young women, rebuilding their troubled, addicted lives in a women’s rehabilitation house, finding a healthy routine, and real normalcy. The paper printed their pictures and their names, at the top of the front page, along with their stories of drugs, violence, child neglect, and jail. They are stepping forward, claiming their sobriety and their changes, and proud of their journey.

A mentally troubled lady buttonholes me in the library, venting her political views, and urging me to gather food for the coming apocalypse.. The librarian and I later compare notes, on how we both look after her, in our own ways, knowing that the resources for helping the mentally ill are stretched thin, and the best thing we can do is keep an eye out, and sometimes offer a kind ear for the demons in her head.

I chat with a contractor outside of a cafe. He’s up to speed on how our jails are our mental health clinics, that most folks in jail are addicts, and that this country has the highest per capita rate of prisoners. And, how that doesn’t work. He tells me how he hires guys getting out of jail, knowing that they need the work, and more than a little guidance and fathering from him. He says he’s changed some lives, and that he makes a difference.

“I take a chance on people, but folks need a break, a chance to be successful,” he grins. “Been there, myself, you know.”

A young man here in prison talks to me about his release in a few months, how he’s going to move back to his small town, back to where people know him for his crime and probably aren’t in a forgiving mood. He takes a deep breath and calls his journey “stepping out” into his future. He’s not looking back, and will find new friends, and negotiate a new way of living with his family.

He talks frankly with me about his sexual crime, and how that affected the victim. And, he talks about how he was abused, and beaten and how he was going down the dark road when he was a teen. Prison changed him, he says, and the treatment there was the best thing he’s doing for himself and for his future.

A grocery clerk takes a break outside, looking up at the sky. Her daughter’s back in jail—drugs, again. It’s a tough cycle, and there’s a tear in her eye that slides down her cheek, as she thinks about her daughter, and the granddaughter now back in her care, and what lies ahead. Yet, she’s here, working, and taking it on, again.

Courage. Courage to move ahead, the past be damned.

The local AA groups proudly fix up their meeting house, putting up a sign announcing their presence, and their mission in this town, where the bars nearly outnumber the churches.

“We are here, and we are working our plan, one step at a time.” Not that long ago, there was a whole lot of shame and denial in addiction and recovery, and the biggest voice about it was just a whisper. Now, that work is something people are proud of, even letting the local paper put their names and pictures on the front page, talking about their recovery, and the work they’re doing to stay clean and sober.

We can talk about domestic violence now, too. The local group that offers counseling, shelter, and a lot of support is out in the community, accepted as an important service and a vital presence in our lives.

Not that we are putting an end to domestic violence. It still rears its ugly head in so many ways. But, a lot of discussion goes on about domestic violence now, and we aren’t so afraid to talk about it, and the impact it has on people’s lives, and how complicated it is to help someone who is dealing with it in their lives. There’s some turning points, and people’s thinking is changing. And, people who are dealing with it are being admired, admired for being courageous.

I take an evening class at the community college, During my break, I saw a woman writing on a tablet in the student commons. She writes slowly, thoughtfully, her pen poised above the paper, as she carefully chooses her words. She opens a book, a text on communications, and reads a paragraph, her brow furrowed in concentration, and picks up her pen, and starts to write again. She’s still wearing her uniform from work, and her face tells me it’s been a long day. But she’s here, working away, making progress in her life, getting an education.

My teacher is working hard, too, spending time with each of his students, making sure everyone is challenged, and everyone is learning something useful, something to make them better guitar players, better musicians, and, most of all, better people.

He’s building a house, from the ground up, learning as he goes. Today, he put in a window, something he’s never done before. Not that that would stop him. He loves a challenge, he loves building his future, one board, one sheet of plywood, one window at a time.

At night, the college parking lot is full. Every classroom is busy, people listening, talking, working hard on learning, on moving ahead in their lives.

People moving ahead, working on what needs to be taken care of, people living their courage.

Neal Lemery 10/30/2013