Candlelight: A Story Teller Visits the Youth Prison


Candlelight: A Story Teller Visits the Youth Prison

We gather in a circle, to hear from the story teller who has quietly appeared among us. His quiet presence is greeted with respect; admiration for his time with us six months ago, his quiet message of hope, and healing, and his wisdom.

We share an opening prayer, a sense of being at peace with the universe, and with our souls. And, a sense of coming together.

Each of us is invited to tell our names, where we had come from, and a bit about our own journeys. All of our experiences, all of who we were, and are, and are becoming, are welcomed into this circle. The chaos of our lives, our pain, our joys, are all welcomed and accepted, without limits.

In this prison, there are many stories of tragedy and pain, loss and suffering. Some of those experiences are given voice today, in this circle, and are accepted and acknowledged. There is no blame, no judgement today; only acceptance and compassion. And, in the telling, there is healing, perhaps a sense of understanding and forgiveness.

In my community, there are many prisons. But, when I come here, I can see the physical fences, and the locked doors. At least when I come here, the walls and the barriers to freedom are obvious. For so many away from here, their walls and locks take other forms, and may not even be known to those who are locked away by the prisons in their lives.

Some of the young men offer a hint of the pain in their lives, the violence, the drugs, the abandonment and anger; the absence of community. Others nod in agreement; such pain is so common in this place of acknowledgement and healing. They are here to change. And in that work, they find direction and hope. They do this together, united for a common purpose. In this place, being aware of the possibility for change, for unconditional love, is part of the air they breathe.

The storyteller’s visit is part of that change, that opening of doors to understanding, to acceptance, to personal salvation and love.

Several young men offer their gifts of song, opening their hearts, and touching our lives with the beauty of the moment and their own journeys.

Others offer a wooden staff to the leader of the drumming circles here. She comes here and leads us in prayer and song, giving the young men, and me, her unconditional love and guidance through troubled seas. The staff, adorned with beads, and feathers, and other symbols of hope and love, is a gift back to her of what she has given here. Their decorations and gifts and blessing of the staff fills the room with that sense of community. We pass the staff around the circle, each of us offering a blessing, a wish, an acknowledgement of the power of others to change our lives. The power of that sharing and healing fills all of our hearts with love.

The story teller told us of his life, and his sister’s recent death. He spoke of the tragedies in her life, and how, through all the pain and loss, she still loved people unconditionally. His loss and his pain are mirrored in the faces of the young men gathered in the circle. A sense of knowing that pain, and compassion for others grows in the room. This place is safe now, a sacred place for being in that pain, and having our own sparks of humanity accepted.

Unconditional love is his message today. In his native stories and tales, in his words about his own life, the message is repeated.

In our lives, and our experiences, and in our pain and sufferings, we are preparing ourselves for the work ahead. There will be times when our presence, and our unconditional love for others, will change lives. What we are going through now is merely preparation for the gift giving we will do in the future.

One young man offers a song in memory of the storyteller’s sister, filling us all with sadness and hope and a bit of that unconditional love.

Others give voice to their struggles, their anger, their work to become healthy men.

The storyteller leads us in a dance around the circle, holding hands, all moving to a drum beat, singing an ancient, timeless song. In movement, we become one; there are no leaders and no followers. We became community, accepting and united.

Stories are told, letting us nod and laugh together, hearing his tales, and joining together in the acknowledgment of his story. His work brings us together, to a feeling of being one, of each of us having value, of being accepted for who we are, right now. And, again, judgement is suspended. Unconditional love lights up the room.

Telling our stories is what we need to do in our lives. In our stories, and in the stories of others, we find acceptance, and we find community. As we drum together, sing together, and listen to our stories, we come together. We are one.

In my heart, I touch my own pain, my own losses, my own doubts and fears. The storyteller’s songs of love and acceptance, and of his own pain and his own journey through life brings me renewal. That spark of humanity, of the power and force of love as a healer, as a single candle that can light the entire room, is fed by his quiet presence in our lives.

In all of our eyes today, I see acceptance, reconciliation, forgiveness, and unity in all of what we experience in our humanity. We become a stronger community, telling our stories, finding acceptance and hope.

–Neal Lemery 11/4/2012

In the Listening


I should never assume I’m in charge of the agenda.

The other day, I had a visit with one of my young friends at the local prison. I’ve been mentoring him, and he’d been teaching me, for quite a while. Visiting day was turning out to be the best day of the week for me, on a lot of different levels.

I had our time all planned out. I brought food, some of his favorites, and coffee. I brought my guitar, and planned to play a game. I even laid out, in my mind, what we’d talk about, as we ate, and played the game. Silly me, thinking I’d be in charge of our time.

Yet, when I arrived, he didn’t even open the bag from the restaurant. He barely sipped the special chocolate frappe I’d brought in. My guitar stayed in its case, and it was obvious he had a lot on his mind. His first words pushed me into the nearest chair and he took command of our time, his eyes sparkling with determination to speak his mind.

He talked, and told stories about his life, his family, and his fears. I heard about his grandma, and his most challenging wrestling meet, and how his coach believed in him. The coach was the first man who ever thought he could do anything in his life.

The restaurant food grew cold; there was a different hunger in the room today. It wouldn’t be satisfied by the burgers and fries.

I heard about his best friend shooting someone at school, and what it was like to watch that, and hear the gunshots in his high school hallway, what it was like to turn around and see his friend firing the gun and the other guy falling, and bleeding. And how he helped get the gun away, when the magazine was finally empty, and how it fell, clanging, on the hard linoleum floor, by the blood.

I had to remember to breathe, as his words quietly tumbled out, words without emotion, just relating the events, him being a reporter of what went on, as he watched a murder.

He took me there, his words painting a picture of his fear, and his empathy for his friend, and why his friend’s anger boiled over into gunfire. He didn’t cry, he just spoke, his voice firm, the sentences turning into page long paragraphs. I wondered if anyone had ever heard this story, even after the cops arrived a few minutes later, and took his friend to jail, leaving him in that long, cold hallway, next to the bullet riddled body, the empty magazine, and the blood.

His eyes told me it was not my time to ask, only to listen.

I could only nod, later occasionally offering a full sentence of empathy and understanding. His words tumbled out, keeping a steady pace, as the hand on the clock on the wall spun around, once, twice, and half again.

Finally, he took a deep breath.

“I guess our time’s up now. Can you come next week?” he said quietly, unfazed by his two and a half hour monologue, his story of murder, and loneliness, and losing a friend.

“Sure,” I said, nodding and giving him a hug. He hugged back, bear like, taking the sack of cold burgers with him.

“I’ll heat these up in the microwave. Thanks.”

When I got home, I took a walk, in the autumn afternoon sunshine, and looked at the colors of the leaves falling from the trees, and the last of the summer flowers, ones that had survived the first few nights of frost. The air was still, the rays of the setting sun still warm on my skin.

There were no birds, no insects, not even a breeze in the dying yellow leaves on the maple tree, as if the world knew I’d had enough listening for a while, and needed to let all that settle in, to find a place for what I’d heard that afternoon.

I heard his stories, again, in that silence, and let his tales sink deep into my soul. And, in all that, I realized I’d been given the gift of knowing him better, and in letting him finally be free to tell his stories and find his own way.

10/8/12