Living In A Strong Community


Living in a Strong Community

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”
― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth

 

I’ve been taking a look at my community, and wondering how we measure up, in these challenging times, when some are wondering if our society is in decline.

 

Here’s a checklist of seven attributes of a healthy community:

  1. Good governance
  2. Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
  3. Parks and gardens
  4. Partnerships
  5. Programming
  6. Neighborhood-responsive schools
  7. Tree culture

–Scott Doyon

 

Being in community is vital to my own mental health and emotional well-being.  Given the continual national stream of tragic events fueled by racism, prejudice, bigotry, and selfishness, I often feel the weight of despair and hopelessness. I am increasingly more sensitive to reaching my limit of how much of that “news cycle” and horror I can be exposed to.

Much of that angst is relieved when I immerse myself in building up my community, and being present with others who are caring, selfless people engaged in taking care of themselves and each other in these turbulent, emotionally exhausting times.

In my town, we are doing it right. I think we get high marks on Scott Doyon’s list of a healthy, engaged community.

In the past three years, the state highway department has funded a major revamping of the traffic pattern (our previously confusing junction of two major highways), narrow downtown streets, and a dilapidated, underused waterfront.

This week, we are celebrating the completion of that project, as well as other efforts by the city and the business community to rejuvenate and invigorate the downtown, making it a welcoming and prosperous town.

Now, we have new sidewalks, a smoother flowing traffic pattern, a town pedestrian plaza, bike paths, a food truck cart center, bike racks, a fresh look in two waterfront parks, and a walkway encouraging people to walk to other parks and attractions.  New bridges span the slough at the north edge of the downtown. New landscaping adds a fresh, inviting look.  The local restaurant scene is vigorous and inviting. Open mics, featuring local musicians and writers, are now the norm.

Downtown merchants have also gotten on board, with renovations, fresh paint, and interesting shops.  We have a number of new downtown events, including a monthly Art Walk, a thriving community art gallery, and a museum which not only showcases local artists, but a continuing schedule of regionally renown speakers and presenters.

 

Community organizations are thriving, and numerous activities are filling up the community calendar with a wide variety of events for every interest. New ideas are being discussed, and plans are underway for even more activities and ways to build a healthier community. We have a “can do” attitude now.

 

Our “Year of Wellness”, a public health collaborative to focus on ways to improve individual and community health, has brought together the entire spectrum of health service agencies, government, and individuals to collaborate on improving public health and a sense of community spirit. We are challenging ourselves to live healthier, more informed lives, and doing it from the ground up.  Grass roots activism at its finest! We’ve decided a year wasn’t long enough for the tasks we identified, and now the work is seen as long term, with increasingly challenging and meaningful goals. Community wellness is now part of our collective experience.

 

The library is spearheading the building of a new downtown park, and library programs are enjoying wide popularity, engaging the community on a variety of experiences and informative activities for all ages.  Public use of the library is setting records.

 

Teachers are developing state of the art educational experiences for students, and we are becoming increasingly well informed about the impact of childhood trauma, domestic violence, hunger, and addiction recovery.

 

The best part of all this is that we have a sense of belonging here.  Each of us is important, and each of us is a valued contributor to the common good, the whole community.  An individual has something unique to offer, and is a valued, unique player in the common effort.  I feel I belong here, and so do all my neighbors.

 

In this town, one person makes the difference, and others listen to their voice, and value their experience, their perspective, and their talents.  And, we have the will power and the courage to take on the difficult, ugly issues that our community, and the nation, has.  Much of the work is hard, and the tasks are daunting at times.  We don’t always achieve 100% success, but we are trying and we see a lot of progress in what we are trying to accomplish. And, that feels really good.

 

In this town, there is hope, and there is a sense of collective purpose. We are committed to be winners, and the changers that create a better world.  Now, we are a town of optimism and determination.

 

Community partnerships are everywhere, knitting together our community fabric in a fresh spirit of resolve and collaboration.  There’s an attitude of “get it done” and pitching in to just do it.

 

As my friends say around town, “Onward!”

 

Getting Distracted


 

 

Some of the best conversations I’ve had occur in the aisles of the local grocery store. There, in those spontaneous and seemingly random encounters, I find the greatest wisdom, coming from longtime friends who speak profound wisdom and solid Truth.

We nearly ran into each other, grocery lists in hand, and quickly caught up on the successes of a mutual friend.  Our similar political views led us to some hand wringing about one of the current scandals on what I’ve been calling our collective national news feed.

“But, it’s really all a distraction,” my friend says.  “Keeping us from talking about and taking action on the really important stuff.”

My friend is right. I am distracted, feeling like I’m jumping from one outrageous story to another, never having the time to be fully morally outraged about an event or a trend, when another absurd or unsettling story blips on my radar screen, stirring up my indignation, and leading me down another rabbit hole in the political and cultural scene.

Some of my angst comes from not feeling I’m taking action myself, righting some injustice through my own actions, or simply not speaking out at all, because I’m distracted.

I’ve been finding some direction and camaraderie with a wise person from the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Politics and culture in his time weren’t tranquil and serene, and, in his writing, he spoke out against injustice, hypocrisy, and what one of my social worker friends calls “stinking thinking”.

 

“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say,—’Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act.”  —Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 

I’ve been distracted from being purposeful, intentional, and acting against the intolerance and injustice of our times.

 

“The purpose of life is not to be happy.  It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived, and lived well.”

 

_Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Am I living well, am I living to be useful and compassionate, and making a difference? Like all of us, I suspect, I want to be living in the here and now, to be productive.

My grocery store conversation stirred me up, and I’m motivated to keep at it, keep doing my life work, and making a difference.

 

I’ve long believed that social ills and “stinking thinking” are best addressed by a good public airing, so people can truly see a thought or an attitude for what it really is.  One of my missions in life has been to seek the truth, and bring it to light.

My friends in the medical community often talk about the curative properties of sunlight and fresh air, and how infections often respond to a change in the environment, and the need for a thorough examination under a bright light, bringing in fresh air, and creating a place where healing can begin.

I’ve long enjoyed the idea of clearly identifying the elephant in the living room, so people can begin to talk about the real problem, take ownership and responsibility, and move towards finding solutions. Such clarity and directness gets us “down to brass tacks”, as my grandmother used to say.

Then, another news story, and a flurry of unreasoned opinions, rants, and personal attacks. Distractions, again.

Uncivil discourse, a sign of the times.

Blindsiding and personal attacks; not having meaningful, purposeful conversation about the issue at hand  — it all reminded me of what our national political conversations have turned into, a lot of noise taking away our need to focus on productive discussions and the elephant in the living room. We are being distracted from expressing and sharing, not having well thought out and articulated debates on issues vital to our national health and direction, and respecting people’s views, even if we might disagree with them.

My grocery store encounter with my good friend reminded me that distractions are simply that. They get in the way, and keep me from my purpose in life and in my community.  I need to keep focused on the task at hand, the issues we are facing, and carry on, “to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived, and lived well.”

 

–Neal Lemery, 6/1/2018

 

 

Resilience


 

 

I live in resilient times.  Examples of being tough, flexible, and determined to move on with one’s life are all around me, and I am heartened by their courage, their stubbornness, and their ability to realize their dreams.

I’ve only known one man through a mutual friend, and we’ve exchanged letters for several years now, talking about books and sharing our writing, and our lives.  He’s been in prison for 21 years in another state, so we’ve never met face to face. Yet, we’ve connected and I’ve been a cheerleader for him, as he’s been preparing himself for a challenging parole hearing.

It was an uphill battle for him, and he’s had to work through feelings of worthlessness and lack of confidence in his talents and how he’s grown in prison, that he’s not the enraged, frustrated teenager living on city streets, acting out, in a drug induced haze.  Others have supported him, too, yet the real work was his to do.  Meeting the parole board, it came down to what he had to say for himself. It was about how he presented the work that he’s done to change his thinking and to demonstrate that he’s ready for life on the “outside”, ready to make some contributions to society.

And, at the end of the day, he was found “worthy of parole”.  After all that time, he can now move on, into a first-class drug rehab facility, where he will also learn the skills to be a drug and alcohol counselor.  He’s overcome his fears, or at least has been able to use that energy to fuel his rehabilitation and self-actualization of who he really is, inside. He’s open to learn more about himself and the demons that have shaped his life, and to build himself into an even healthier, balanced man.

He’s changed, and it’s not because of those who have supported him, but because of his own work, and his own determination and self-esteem.

Another friend gets out of prison this summer, nearly finishing his graduate degree on line.  He’s done his undergrad and grad school work on line from a cubicle in prison, diligently studying, writing, and even doing group projects with other students. Prison isn’t the ideal college campus, yet he has persisted. Already, the college has employed him to improve the program and help other students.

Even more astonishing, he has grown and matured into a well-adjusted socially delightful young man, who knows the importance of a well-rounded and balanced life with others.  His attitude and his intentions are the total opposite of his childhood life, and he has made the transition with a great deal of grit and determination.

Yet another man has navigated a tough childhood and several years of incarceration, to getting off parole and moving into the work force.  No job was beneath him, and he worked hard, always moving ahead, improving his skills and not being afraid of hard work, long hours, and changing himself into a healthy, cheerful young man with solid values and meaningful dreams.

Today, he’s transitioning into yet another job, with more responsibility, better pay, and stability.  He knows where he is going and knows who he is and wants to be.

Some of what I’ve gained in these friendships is to experience their honesty and forthrightness.  They are open to who they are, where they’ve come from, what they’ve experienced, and the mistakes they’ve made.  They freely share their lessons and their wisdom.  They have taught me that one’s intentions and one’s determination makes all the difference in the world.  And, with that drive in their gut, there is no stopping them in what they want to accomplish.

They’ve made mistakes, but then, haven’t we all? Regrets, even shame and guilt are there, but when one decides to learn from that experience, and to change what needs to be changed, and focus on where one needs to go, the past becomes a teacher, and not a label.

They remind me to examine my own life, the experiences I have had, the choices I’ve made, and the directions I have taken in my life.  They have taught me to accept the lessons to be taught, and to move forward, gathering my skills and my ambition, and to move ahead.  It is hard work, and challenging.  Yet, if one wants to change and to realize one’s dreams, you have to step forward and do the hard work.

In that process, you have to also love yourself, and to respect yourself for who you are, and who you are becoming.  Labels don’t really matter, and one’s past is simply that.  It doesn’t compel you to repeat poor choices, or to accept the situation you are in, and simply feel that you are doomed to a certain direction or destiny.

What others may think of you doesn’t really matter, unless you think it does.

These men are speakers of Truth, an increasingly scarce commodity in our society.  They don’t dance around the facts, the reality of life.  Instead, they focus themselves, grab onto their dreams and the direction they have decided to take, and then put their heart and soul into working towards their goals and dreams. They are honest, and don’t pull any punches when it comes to being real and direct.

They get real, and they keep me real, and focused on doing something meaningful and productive in my life.

Our conversations are deep and purposeful. And, I wish I had more friends like them, and more conversations with substance and depth.

Game playing, lying, manipulating others, and not dealing with the elephant in the living room aren’t who they are about.  They know what they want and they know how to get there.  They are brutally honest with themselves, and can spot the old “stinking thinking” a mile away.

They don’t suffer fools easily, and steer away from the naysayers and the idlers they come across in their lives.  Their BS meters are finely tuned and always powered up.  Their respect is not easily earned, yet they are fiercely loyal to their own dreams, and to those in their lives who have become their close friends and family.

Others in our lives can easily dance around the truth, and are prone to manipulate us with propaganda, half-truths, fake news, and false thinking. They waste my time and clutter up my thinking with their blather.  I find myself repulsed by their disrespect for the truth and for their own warped values. I resent how they waste my time, and detract all of us from improving our world and enriching lives.

The better society is being built by the likes of these men who are self-actualized truth seekers. They are constructing decent, purposeful lives, and are worthy role models for the rest of us.

I’d rather hang out with the likes of these men, who are straightforward and focused. I have much to learn from them, the resilient ones.

 

–Neal Lemery 5/9/2018

The Real Presents Under the Tree


 

 

Christmas Eve, 2017

 

I’m sitting by the fire, with a mug of coffee, watching the cold rain fall outside, almost turning to snow.

The presents are wrapped and under the tree, brightening up the living room. Soon, dinner will be in the oven, and the merriment of Christmas will begin.

The real joy of the season, and the real presents to be enjoyed, won’t be found under the tree. The true gifts of Christmas have already been given, and our hearts are already filled with the joy of the season.

That joy, that “reason for the season” is found in relationships.

It has been a year of reaching out, reconnecting, and opening our hearts to one another. Friends and family have shared their fears, their uncertainties, their doubts. Many have had their lives turned upside down, and have been left fearful of their future, and their own abilities to captain their ships through storm-tossed seas.

This year, I’ve made it a point to reach out and share time with many people. Being a good listener, offering comfort and solace. Realizing that each of us is an instrument of change. One person can make a difference. It’s a simple truth.

Often, simply showing up and being there for someone has warmed our hearts and provided a safe harbor during the storm.

Last week, I visited two young men in prison. Both of them were filled with doubt and uncertainty, feeling lost and unsupported in their journeys. We talked, we laughed, we shared our stories of our struggles and doubts during this year.

We each took comfort in the other’s big hearts and willingness to extend hands of friendship.

Behind cold walls topped with razor wire, I found the light of personal commitment to a better world. Young men, with great courage and great wisdom, speaking from their hearts gave me hope for the future.

We are not alone. None of us are fully confident in our ability to weather the storms of life. Yet, we have each other, and we believe in each other. In our community, by coming together and sharing our hearts and our talents, we will change the world.

This year, I celebrate the gift of friendship, the gift of unconditional love.

What really is important this year is not found in politics, and is rarely talked about on the pages of newspapers, social media posts, or on TV. Yet, I hear it from friends and family, over coffee, and in new books that come my way.

The real treasure we have, and the true power that we hold in our own hands and in our hearts, is the ability to care about each other, to support each other, and to act with compassion and respect.

The answers to the world’s problems won’t be found in the marble halls of Washington, but they will be found in our hearts and in the strength of hands holding hands, people walking alongside other people, and working towards our common goals and implementing our common values in the work that we do.

This is a time of rebuilding, and restarting the relationships and the social institutions that have served us so well in the past. In our commonality, our common goodness, there is hope and there is our future.

–Neal Lemery

Building Community


Building Community

Takes time.

Time for coffee with a friend, time to say hi on the street,

Time in the grocery store to ask how someone is doing,

Time to listen, and have that five minute conversation, and

Not worry about the to do list, the errands yet to be run.

 

Building community

Is giving someone else the credit, get the award,

Have the idea you had become theirs,

Letting someone work through the process and stumble

When you could do it twice as fast, knowing that they are learning

And will be proud of their accomplishment when the work is done, and to

Know we will all be better off because of that.

 

Building community

Is teaching skills and quietly providing tools

Helping someone grow in confidence and pride

While you stand back, and just coach, mentor, applaud,

Brag about them to others about how they are growing.

 

Building community

Is letting the gossip stop with you, not passing it on,

Not finding something to criticize, or mock, or disparage

And instead, to praise, to applaud, to find the good in something,

And let the flowers bloom in someone else’s yard,

To quietly weed when no one else is looking, and let someone else

Take all the credit.

After all, don’t we just want the flowers to bloom?

 

Building community

Is to keep smiling, to praise, to recognize the good in someone,

To remind yourself that you haven’t walked that mile in someone else’s

Shoes, that you don’t really know all of their story,

And that we are all on a journey

Together.

 

–Neal Lemery 5/16/2017

Believing In Tomorrow


 

 

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
–plaque in a public botanical garden started by a nurseryman.

Recently, I’ve visited several gardens, taking in their winter beauty, the quiet, the restful time before Spring gets started.
One garden was the kitchen garden begun by a Jesuit missionary in the 1690s. Walking hundreds of miles through the desert to a dry, almost abandoned area, he brought a new religion and new crops to a community on the verge of starvation.
His first task was to build a church, but I’m sure near the top of his list, like any gardener, was laying out and planting the beginnings of his garden. An irrigation ditch soon brought essential and dependable water. Plants from his beloved Italy found new homes. In a few years, an orchard flourished, and grains and vegetables supplemented the local diet of roots, seeds, and other traditional local fare.
The herbs were planted in orderly beds, near the tomatoes, peppers and other plants that thrived in the hot, sunny climate. An ancient wrought iron hoe laid against a gnarled fruit tree, likely the third or even fifth generation of the first orchard planted here. I wondered how many generations of gardeners had held that hoe, steadily weeding and tending this fertile space next to the church.
A substantial adobe storage building wasn’t very far away, a symbol of the bounty of this land and the investment in sustainable agriculture, 1700s style. Inside, large terra cotta bowls stored next year’s seeds, and the winter supply of the year’s harvest.
The priest must have smiled, seeing his garden feed his parishioners, helping the community to thrive and grow. How many gardeners started here, gently nurtured by others, learning of the miracles of seeds, the tending of plants, the pleasures of harvest?
In good years, there was enough surplus resources so that the villagers could make more adobe bricks, hew more wood beams brought from the forests in the mountains. They slowly added on to the church, making it into a bigger symbol of their faith in God, a rising symbol of their success as a community.
Now, the ruins of the church dominates this place, bringing visitors, teaching us of old ways, the power of faith.
Yet, the real church, the real symbol of faith is here in this simple garden.
Over three hundred years later, the Jesuit’s garden still produces fruit, and the irrigation ditch still brings water to this thirsty garden. In a few months’ time, a new gardener will plant tomatoes and peppers, prune the orchard, trim the rosemary and deadhead the oregano. The new gardening year will start again.
That Jesuit priest left his mark here, his love of the land and his design still apparent to those who now visit his garden. If I began the spring work, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him looking over my shoulder, perhaps even discussing where to set out the tomatoes this year. We probably could talk for hours about this place, how to make it an even better garden for next year, for yet another year of tomorrow.

–Neal Lemery 1/11/2017

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