Root Beer and Potato Chips


I see him every couple of weeks, our time spent playing a game and talking about his accomplishments. Tonight, he’s got on his best shirt and a pair of khakis.

“I dressed up for you,” he says, as we shake hands and sit down at the table.

He takes the games seriously, being focused, attentive, a big smile showing up when he wins, or when he makes a good play. He smiles when I win, too, just enjoying the company, and having a good time.

“I played with my dad, too,” he says. “We had a good time.”

I nod and talk a bit about having fun playing games when I was a kid. I make light of it, not wanting to linger. A few visits back, he talked about how his dad abandoned his mom and the kids when he was ten, and then died of a drug overdose.

Life went downhill for him, and he found himself in long term foster care, then an adoption. The family rejected him, and he was adopted again, and then that family rejected him, too. He ended up in some program for lost and abandoned teens, and then, he ended up here, in prison.

I make sure I show up when I say I will, and I’ll play any game with him he wants to play. I buy him a coffee drink from the prison canteen, and sometimes a cookie or a hamburger. I try to be one of the few who stick around for him, who show up, and are willing to spend time with him.

I’ve known him well enough now that we can talk about most anything. He’s growing a goatee now, and its starting to fill in, and look like a real beard. It’s growing in with two colors, patches of brown and then patches of tan, almost white. His hair grows that way, too.

I say something nice about his addition to his face, trying to send a compliment his way, to notice his new manliness.

“Interesting that there’s two different colors,” I said, suddenly realizing I might be coming off as rude or obnoxious, tripping over my tongue.

“Yeah, just like my hair,” he says.

“I was a failure to thrive baby,” he adds. “I was in the hospital for my first three months, and then my mom got special formula for me.”

“But, she sold that for drugs, and fed me root beer and potato chips for six months, before the case worker finally caught on.”

“That’s why my hair grows in patches; two different colors. Malnutrition.”

No big deal.

He goes back to the game, intent on studying the cards in his hand.

He lays down some cards, making a brilliant play in the game, racking up a bunch of points. He laughs, telling me he’s going to beat me on this hand.

Root beer and potato chips. I’m still back on that, still trying to wrap my head around a mom who would sell her baby’s formula for drug money.

And, it’s no big deal. Just a fact in his life, just part of the craziness he’s gone through, just his story. Another matter of fact anecdote to tell over a game of cards.

He’s finished up with high school, and he’s ready to graduate. He was going to go through the graduation ceremony, the one the high school has here every June, but he got sick and had to go to the hospital for three days, and missed the ceremony.

We’re planning a special ceremony for him, a day just for him to get his high school diploma, and get a round of applause. He thinks his mom is coming, in a couple of weeks, and his brother, too. He wants them here for his graduation, wants them to see him get his diploma.

She’s only been back in his life now for the last six months. They talk on the phone, and she’s come to see him a couple of times. He says it’s a good thing, and they are starting to have a real relationship.

“But, when she comes to visit, I don’t get any root beer or potato chips,” he said, breaking into a chuckle, and giving me a wink.

“We’re just moving ahead.”
8/30/14

Three Cups of Joy


“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
― Rumi

Three amazing experiences and celebrations in the last few days have blessed my life and filled my heart with joy. Each has reaffirmed the power and the gifts that love brings to my life.

I was honored to attend the wedding of a dear, long time friend, and to celebrate not only her marriage to her beloved, but also a welcome change in the law in my state, a law that now holds that marriage is a relationship, and a commitment that any two adults can share. Love, I realized again, is such an amazing force. Love in marriage, and the ability to share that love in this world, is the essence of our humanity.

Love filled their house, and we feasted on the sweetness of commitment, dedication, and respect to who they are, their marriage. We celebrated that love is the amazing and healing light in a person’s life, the basic reason we are here on this planet.

“Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go. You have made my life complete, and I love you so,” were the words Karen sang to our friends, my guitar adding more sweet notes to the occasion.

The second cup of joy was listening to a speech given by one of the young men I mentor in prison. He spoke before a large audience of fellow inmates and their families, gathered for the annual family day celebration. He spoke of courage and determination, and the super heroes in his life.

His speech was a month in the making, the words coming hard to him, as he focused on who he is becoming, and where he wants to go in his life. He’d practiced, and rewrote, until the words on the pages held by his trembling hands in front of the crowded room were just right, just what he wanted to celebrate.

We marveled at how he has grown, and the wisdom in his words. His road in life has not been easy, yet he is seeing the fruits of his hard work, his decision to make real changes in his life, and to move ahead. Now, he truly loves himself, and believes that the good things in life come about through the power of love and self respect.

His confidence, and his powerful message of self actualization rang across the crowd, inspiring all of us to love ourselves just a little bit more, and believe in our dreams.

The third cup of joy was watching a young man be recognized for all the hard work he has been doing in his first year at a university. A little over a year ago, he moved ahead in his life, taking big steps, working hard to attend a respected university. Now, he’s studying to earn his bachelor’s degree. He is Mr. Determination, and diligently works to balance a full life of school, a job, and family.

He dove into academic life, studying hard, asking questions, being active in study groups and class projects, going out of his comfort zone to succeed in college. In that new world, he achieved, and he grew, and he’s heading in some great directions in his life. He’s achieved a 4.0 GPA and was tapped to join the university’s honor society.

We sat next to him this weekend, joining all the other honorees and their families, listening to the presentations and all the congratulations. These students are the best and the brightest, and he fit right in. Looking into his eyes, I knew that he knew that, that he really was one of the best and the brightest, that he was living his dream, and he was achieving his goals.

He beamed with pride, and satisfaction, proudly showing off the plaque bearing his name and the title of University Honor Society Member. I could sense the light in his heart, that flame of passion and self confidence that, a couple of years ago, was only a flicker. Now, nourished by his hard work and his determination, and the recognition of his professors and fellow college students that he was smart, capable, and especially talented, that flame burns bright and clean. That flame is hot with passion, and lights up his world.

We, and a number of other folks, helped him keep alive that flicker of passion and desire for a better life, back when he was facing some tough challenges. Some of his past was telling him he couldn’t do it. We all slowly added some fuel and blew on the embers when there were times we thought the flame might go out. And, now, his determination and his ambitions in life keeps that flame ablaze on its own, with our quiet words of encouragement, our belief that he can do anything he puts his heart and mind to. He knows that his future is what he wants it to be, and there is no stopping him, in pursuing his dreams.

Three events, three times of sitting there, letting tears of joy flow down my face, three times of feeling the power of love in the room, knowing that love is what changes the world, overflowing my heart with hope and joy.

—Neal Lemery 6/2/2014

Spare the Rod, Save the Child


Someone recently commented on how they felt children should be disciplined and raised, saying that a good swat on the butt was a good thing, and that “discipline” helped their child learn right from wrong.

“If you spare the rod, you spoil the child.” That’s old thinking, and I’ve seen the harm and the failures in that view of parenting.

I spoke up, disagreeing, expressing my opinion that violence teaches violence, that physical punishment demeans a child and fuels their anger. Instead of building up a child, violence in any form sends a message that they are worth less than others, and that the answer to a situation is pain, tears, and degrading another person. Words are weapons and you are successful when you conquer your enemy on the battlefield.

Parenting is tough work, and requires a wide range of skills and approaches, especially when the child learns more from what you do than what you say. And, yet, the method we fall back on, the one that comes first to mind, is how I was raised, and how I was treated.

As a parent, I have always tried to be a good example, to be, as Gandhi said, the change you want to see in the world.

“How do I change behavior, how do I teach this child that there is another approach to how they are dealing with life?” I ask myself, when conflict arises, when a lesson needs to be taught, when change in behavior and thinking needs to occur.

If I spank, if I slap, if I use loud and demeaning words, then I only teach by bad example, and, later on, I will reap the harvest of shame, anger, and even rage. The family will suffer, and, so will the community. We will have another angry person, whose approach to problems and difficulties in life will be the path of violence, and being able to communicate only through a fist, or a string of mean, vicious words loaded with sarcasm and degradation.

Is that what kind of world we want for our kids, an atmosphere of put downs, power struggles, and pent up fury? Is that what we want to be remembered for as parents, the one who instilled fear, a sense of powerlessness and frustration, the one who struck the match to the bonfire of self loathing and blind rage?

Or, do we want to teach compassion, unconditional love, and a pathway of exploring one’s emotions, and celebrating our humanity? Do we want to teach effective problem solving, self love, and peace making in this world?

That dialogue stirred up some strong feelings, and several voices talked about their own violent and frustrating childhoods, and how they’ve struggled with forging a new direction, a new approach to how they raise kids, and how they deal with their own angers and frustrations.

In my parenting, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my own childhood, and the parenting methods of my family. And, I’ve hopefully learned a lot, and I’ve changed and grown. I’ve learned that real parenting is teaching by example, by modeling, and by a great deal of listening and empathy. I’ve learned to talk things through, to name the emotions that are flying around the room, and in the hearts of my kids. I’ve tried to value emotions and the struggles we all have in dealing with difficult situations and conflicted hearts.

I’ve also learned to throw away the paddle, and to not inflict pain. I’ve learned to curb my tongue, and not use the hurtful, warlike vocabulary that leads so quickly to tears, rage, and frustration, as well as a lifetime of self doubt, low self esteem, and a sense of being a failure as a human being.

I’ve learned to say I’m sorry, that I’m not perfect, and that I’m looking for a better way myself. I’ve learned to get my emotions out on the table, so that I can take a good look at them, and see myself in all my glory and all of my foibles and deficits. And then, when I’ve named all of that mess on the table, I can sort through it, and find my path towards the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of person I want my kids to be.

I want to change the world, and I know that happens one person at a time, beginning with me.

Defining Success


On Christmas, my wife and I visited one of our young men in prison. Of all my friends, he’s the one who enjoys Christmas the most, especially the anticipation, the expectation, and the promise of a happy time, a brighter tomorrow.

After five and a half years in prison, his spirit is brighter now that it’s ever been. He’s grown in so many ways, and achieved many of his goals. In prison, he’s actually had goals and found ways to achieve them. Before that, life was just survival, slogging through chaos and drugs, of being treated indifferently, without love, and not knowing who he was or where he was headed.

Now, he’s found purpose and meaning. He’s making peace with the demons in his life, and has found the strength and courage to look deep inside of himself, and to finally love himself, and all the possibilities he has in his life.

He wanted socks for Christmas, making sure everyone knew it, too. Now, he’s a wealthy man, Mr. Big in the world of socks. He’s the happy recipient of forty pairs of socks, socks of nearly every size and color. He has socks everywhere now, new socks to try on every day for over a month.

Yes, he had a successful Christmas, all the socks he could ever want. In the telling of his story, his laugh and his big smile light up his face; he knows now that he is loved and respected by so many people. He’s figured out the magic of Christmas, the reason for the season.

He’s successful in so many other ways this year. He’s taken charge of his life, looking deep inside of himself, and taking charge of who he is, and where he is going. He’s embraced his new maturity. He’s taken on his self confidence and is moving ahead. He’s found his courage and is nourishing and loving his soul.

He’s the person Robert Louis Stevenson was writing about when he said,
“That man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men and the love of children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had.”  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

This year, many people I know have taken stock of their lives, summoned their courage, and moved ahead. Their accomplishments are many, and I’ve been applauding their journeys, and marveling at their determination and sacred intentions in their lives. It has been a year of transformation and a year of dramatic and momentous growth. Old demons have been called out of the basement, new directions has been set, and the tough, sweaty and hard work has been done. And, in that work, our communities are stronger, more vibrant, richer in so many ways.

Some people look to Washington politicians to make the big changes they want to see in the world and in their lives. Yet, the real change and the real work is done right here, inside my friends and neighbors, the farmer, the waitress, the young man in prison. The real change makers are right here, and the work is getting done. People are becoming transformed, people making a real difference.

Like my young friend in prison, people are taking inventory of who they are inside, and grasping the power they have to change. And, then, they are stepping out, and doing the hard, gut level work, and moving ahead.

They see the richness in their lives, not by the number of socks they got for Christmas, but in the way they love and are loved.

Finding The Right Fathers’ Day Card


I walk past the large display of Fathers’ Day cards in the store, not even stopping to browse, to find the perfect card to send to a father. A twinge of sadness stings my gut, bringing back that old feeling, a mixture of grief, loss, and an emptiness that can’t be filled.

The greeting card companies and the TV ads tell me I’m supposed to make Fathers’ Day a special day for my dad.. But, they’re missing the point, and they sure don’t understand my life and how I think about Fathers’ Day.

Dad has been gone for most of my life. And even when he was around and I got him a card, he’d just nod, barely saying the “thank you” I’d been craving. My step dad has been gone a long time, too. I knew he liked my cards. He’d smile and give me a hearty handshake. We knew where we stood with each other.We just didn’t say them. Talking about love and fathering wasn’t part of our conversations. But, we knew. And, that was enough for me.

My father in law liked my cards, too. He’s chuckle and laugh, and there’d be a twinkle in his eye. He got a lot of attention on Fathers’ Day, and he knew he was loved. He gave it back, too. In spades.

This is the second year without him, and the emptiness inside of me as I look at all the choices on the card rack gets a bit deeper with me.

I’m on the other side of the coin now. I have a bunch of sons. My step son and I are close, even though he’s about six hundred miles away. We can share our love easily, with just a smile, a joke, or something funny we e-mail to each other. We still joke with each other, still playing pranks on each other with a silly plastic lobster. A few weeks ago, I found Mr. Lobster, again, and he starred in my movie, the one I made on my iPad, and sent to my 42 year old son.

A few hours later, my son sends me an e-mail. He’s in hysterics over my three minute movie, and invites me to share it with the rest of the family. I’m not sure he thought I would, but I did, showing him I, too, can make my way around You Tube, and make some jokes again, with Mr. Lobster.

One of my foster sons flies his paraglider way up in the air, sending me videos once in a while, looking down at the far away ground, or a jet liner flying under him. He knows I’m scared of heights, and I worry about him jumping off cliffs and flying high in the air, turning summersaults and making loops. I know he’s laughing every time he sends me his latest aerial adventures. It’s his way of saying he loves me, that he’s doing just fine.

I have other sons now, too, the young guys I mentor in prison, and some of the other guys there, too. The young man who makes the coffee drinks at the prison canteen on visiting days knows my usual order, and gets it started the moment I walk in the door. Other guys show me their art work, or tell me about doing well on a test, or moving ahead in their treatment. I get a lot of “Hi, Neal”s when I show up on their special days, or sit in on one of their activities, being a dad in their lives.

Their own dads don’t show up much, if at all. So, I like to give them a smile and a handshake, just to say hi, just to say that they are important.

I don’t find the “sons” section in the Fathers’ Day cards. There are the golfing joke ones, the religious ones, the silly ones, even the stepdad ones now. But, there aren’t any cards that say what I want to say, “Good job, son. Thanks for being the son. Without the son, there’d be no Fathers’ Day.”

“I’m proud of who you are, what you’ve become.”

That’s what this day is really about, sons and daughters. The dad takes on the job of helping to raise the child, to teach, to listen, to wipe snotty noses and change dirty diapers, and help them with their homework. And, to listen and counsel, and show them, by example, how it is to be a man, to move along in the world, being healthy, and wise.

I don’t have daughters, but I know they’re watching their dads, too.
“How are you at this man stuff? How do I live with you? What kind of man do I want in my life? And, while you are at it, teach me about trust.”

It is the biggest job I’ve ever had. A lot of teaching of respect, and capability, and a lot of unconditional love.

We’re supposed to show them what love is all about. And, respect. And, compassion and learning about this crazy world.

Being a dad is really learning how to be a good example, to be watched, and judged.

“How ARE you doing as a man?”

“Show me. But, I expect you to do it right.”

No pressure there!

And, by the way, the manual on all this stuff is out of print, and I can’t find an old copy on Amazon.

We’re the guys that wait by the door at night, making sure they get home safe from that party, or that big date. We’re there to listen, to nod, to simply be there, keeping the porch light burning, to be the guy who cares that they do have a home to come back to, after a day of being a teenager in a harsh, often indifferent, cruel world.

We give the hugs, wipe the tears, and look them in the eye, quietly telling them we believe in them. All things are possible. And, they are loved.

Such simple things we do. But, when that simple stuff gets neglected, or no guy is behind the front door when they do come home late at night, then all hell can break loose, and their fragile ships at sea too often crash onto the reefs and sink in the storms.

And, we’re the guys that haul the laundry sack to the laundry room, when they come home for the weekend. And, we fire up the barbecue, and cook their favorite foods, letting them hang out with their old friends. We often take a back seat then, letting them visit and laugh with their friends, as we flip the burgers, and get more potato salad out of the frig.

There will come the time when they’ll sit down with us on the couch, after the party, and after a long day at the beach with their friends. Then, they’ll talk, a bit shy at first, then going deep, talking about the serious questions of life that a young man has, once they get out in the world, and have to deal with all of life’s adult problems and worries.
Then, we listen, and we listen hard. Sometimes, they ask for advice, but mainly, they just want to talk, to show you they are doing OK, that they learned a lot from you about life, that they are doing pretty good at it.

And, we let them know, right back at them, that they’re doing a good job, and they we believe in them, and take pride in who they are becoming.
It’s pretty easy to sit there and listen, and to nod, to say a few words of encouragement.

You see, fatherhood is a whole bunch of just showing up, just being present in someone’s life.

You don’t need to give them your DNA, but you do need to give them your time, and your love. That’s fatherhood. That’s being a real man.
The good work comes in just answering the phone, or texting something sweet back, in the middle of the night, letting them know you are around, that you care.

I get my thanks, then, for being the dad. I get that when they don’t call for a couple of weeks at a time. I know they are fine, they are making their way, needing their independence, flexing their big boy muscles and making their way through life.

Someday, Hallmark might figure it out, and start selling “I love my kids” cards for Fathers’ Day. But, until they do, I’ll just keep on doing what I do best, loving all my kids with all my heart, and telling them, every chance I get, that I love them.

–Neal Lemery
June 11, 2013

Letter to a Young Man in Jail, Again


Dear ***:

I worry about you. I don’t like seeing your name on the jail list. I’d rather take you out for coffee somewhere and hear about the good things you are doing.

I care about you. I know that you care about yourself, too, and want to move ahead.

Love yourself. You have an infinite capacity for love. You are a loving man. There is a great deal to love about yourself. You are worthy of that.

You are worthy of success, of happiness, of peace.

Nourish that wonderful spark of amazing love that burns inside of your heart. Let your light shine, let your love fill this world. You make a difference in other people’s lives, and you make a difference in your own life. You, my friend, are a beautiful person. Believe it. Act on it.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

This is wintertime in your life. Time to rest, to reflect, to refocus and gain new directions. Get your seeds ready for planting. Your springtime is coming soon. This is a time of reinventing yourself, for oiling the gears, and repairing what needs to be repaired. Your garden is ready for plowing, and seeding, and new growth. You are a good gardener.

You know the answers. You know where you want to go. I give you permission to go there, to do the hard work that needs to be done, and to fill your heart with love for yourself. It is OK to love yourself. It is OK to make the hard choices, and to move in the direction you truly want to go. That is your destiny.

You have unlimited potential, and unlimited strength. Your love has no limits. You are a child of God and you are beloved.

Tell the voices that bring you down, that degrade you, that hurt you, to shut up. Find your own voice, and sing your own song.

You already know all of this. I’m just flapping my jaws and making noise here. You already have all the wisdom you need. You already have all the skills. You know where to go. You know the steps you need to take, and the path that you need to walk.

I’m just saying that you have permission now to go do what you need to do. You have all the abilities, all the knowledge. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be wasting money on the postage for this letter.

You also have all the courage and determination you need.

The future is yours. You are in charge of the present, the now. Go, and do what you need to do. Tell the voice of despair and “failure” to shut up, and listen to your heart.

I expect no less of you. I expect greatness in you. I expect you to fill yourself with love and the Light. Let your Light shine.

I believe in you.

Sincerely,

Neal C. Lemery