Just Washing the Dishes



It was a busy day in the prison garden on a hot day. We took on a few weedy flower beds and set to work, creating several wheelbarrow loads of weeds, and unburied dozens of flowers and herbs from the lush growth of summertime weeds. They had gotten a head start on us with stretches of warm weather and summer showers.

Our work was made lighter by the telling of stories and knowing that fresh shortbread and warm rhubarb and strawberry sauce with ice cream awaited us at the end of the class time. The teacher always has a way of motivating the crew.

At the end of the first hour, we stored our tools, dumped our weeds and washed up for our next activity: flower arranging.

I saw looks of skepticism on the faces of our young gardeners as one of the other volunteers brought out the floral arranging bases and foam blocks. Soon, their hesitant looks turned serious, as they began to plan their individual works of art. Once again, the gardening class offered something new and exciting, challenging them to use their talents and grow their skills.

The young gardeners were busied themselves fashioning their own arrangements from the piles of shrubs, herbs, and mid summer flowers.   They put their individual touches to their work, and soon, there was a lovely selection of beautiful flower arrangements in the center of the table.

Even the most hesitant young florist immersed himself into the project. Conversations and questions about texture, color wheels and flower selections filled the air as they set to work.

The hoop house, our schoolroom, filled with many of their propagated works, became a florist shop, and our focus could turn to our mid morning snack. The just baked shortbread and freshly simmered strawberry-rhubarb sauce filled our noses with delight, and we quickly formed a line to create our own culinary delight. The promise of ice cream in the morning also enticed us.

Our plates filled, we gathered around the fire circle, and fell into relaxed conversations. I caught up with their challenges and successes, both in the garden and in their lives. Proudly, they showed me their vegetables and flowers, their chickens, their compost, and the new additions to their garden.

Our time grew short and I gathered up the plates and forks, and the glasses that had been drained of the special iced mochas that quenched our thirst this August day.

I started washing the dishes and was soon joined by a young man who offered to help. He didn’t want me to take on the task, saying that it was a boring, mundane thing for me to do.

“Oh, I rather like it,” I said. “Washing dishes gives me time to do some thinking, organizing my day and planning ahead.

“I get necessary work done, and I also get some ‘me’ time,” I said.

“I enjoyed the weeding this morning for the same reason,” I added.

He nodded, his ears taking in a new idea on what he had said was a minor task, not worthy of my time.

“It’s not a minor thing,” I said, “Cleaning up helps everyone, and builds community. Every job is important.”

He nodded.

“I guess so,” he said. “I never thought of it that way.”

“I see what you mean,” he said. “Even though it doesn’t seem like an important job, it really is.”

Our time was up. Class was over and he needed to go.

“I’ll finish this up,” I said. “I promise not to have too much fun.”

He laughed.

“Do some thinking for me, then,” he said.


We grinned at each other, building another bridge between the old guy gardening guy who comes here once a week, and the young man, whose garden of his soul grows well in the springtime of his life.




Sharpening Our Tools

There’s always a lesson for me in the garden, especially when I’m the teacher.

The young men gathered around the table, looking at me, leery about the day’s agenda. The pile of our trusty and well-used pruning shears, weeding forks, and trowels, and my odd assortment of files, oil cans, rags and steel wool was raising some puzzled looks.

“We’re going to sharpen our tools,” I said. “And that will make us better gardeners.”

I talked about dirt and grit, and how dull, rusty tools slow us down, and make our work harder. I talked about rain and damp, and getting rid of rust with a bit of oil wiped on a newly cleaned surface.

“If you take care of your tools, they will last a lifetime,” I said. “It’s a great gift to yourself.”

I talked about how pruners work, whether anvil or bypass, and why the blades are different. I picked up a file, showing them how to hone a blade, bringing out the edge. Doing a good job was all in how you finished it, by gently taking off the burrs on the edge, bringing out the best of the blade, and ourselves.

The metaphors were not lost on these young men, struggling to remake their lives, and move on to managing their lives in a decent, productive way.

I showed them how to do the work, and then urged them to pick a tool, and do their magic.

“The right tool for the right job,” I said, echoing my grandfather’s wisdom I’d heard when I was a young man.

Curious, eager minds asked dozens of questions, and, again, I showed them how to hone the blades, taking their eager hands into mine, helping them grip the file and set to work.

They found their way, getting a sense of that feel, of file meeting blade, steel against steel, until the newly bright edges met their standards of completion and excellence. Rust and dirt were buffed away, and a new coat of oil made hinges and springs smooth and silent. Grime and dirt were banished, the young hands feeling how they brought back the life and beauty of the tools they’d used this past year.

One young man kept doing it differently, missing what I was trying to teach. I was gentle with him, explaining everything again and again. I felt my patient grandfather in me, as I took his hand and the file, and began the lesson again.

Uncertain frowns gave way to smiles and shared accomplishments, the pleasure of making something as good as new. I saw young men restoring something to its original good purpose, gaining pride in who they were, and knowing what they could do.

We sharpened all of our tools today, and we sharpened some lives, too. I sensed my grandfather’s arm around me, holding me tight, whispering how proud he was of how I sharpened my tools.

–Neal Lemery 1/23/2016

The Makings of Soup

Start with an empty kettle, preferably on a cold, rainy day, next to a garden in a prison. Surround yourself with a number of young inmates, serving long sentences, isolated, estranged from their families. Make sure they are close to you, hungry for lunch and hungry for the simple joy of simply being together and wanting to accomplish something important today.

Add an aching heart or more, maybe a dozen, mixed with feelings of loneliness and disconnection, even a little abandonment. Throw in a handful of indifference, and a pound of neglect.

Take a gallon of tomatoes, grown by these men in this garden. Grown from seeds, where their sprouting was a miracle of life witnessed by those who had never been placed in fertile soil, watered, and kissed by sunlight and love. Tomatoes potted up in rich soil, then transplanted out in the spring sunshine, to grow, and bloom, producing wonderful red, ripening tomatoes, and harvested by young, eager hands. Don’t forget to stir in the pride that comes with using OUR tomatoes.

Simmer the tomatoes, adding heat from the stove, and the heat of a young man’s heart, eager to learn and show that he can do this.

Slice some onions, preferably sliced by a young man who had never held an onion, never knew how to peel and slice it. Add the spirit of his curiosity and excitement, of being a cook, making something to eat, with his own hands. Take all that and simmer it in your heart, and feel the warmth of that nurture your own soul.

Find a frying pan, and heat it on the stove. Add olive oil, making sure your assistant chef gets a drop or two of the oil on his finger, so he can taste the sweet richness of olives ripening in Californian or Italian sun, asking him to describe a taste he has never had before on his tongue. Add the warmth of his smile to the soup, and stir gently.

Teach your young friend to peel a few cloves of garlic, by smashing them with the flat of a knife, watching him lean down to smell the pungent garlic, freshly peeled and minced. See him smile, when he realizes he has learned something new.

Find some peppers nearby, the ones the young men grew in the greenhouse this summer, the ones that are now just ripening. Ask him to select the peppers himself, asking him to trust his own judgment as to whether they are ripe. Gently stir in the newly discovered sense of trust and respect into your soup.

Put a wooden spoon in your young friend’s hand, letting him stir the onions, garlic and peppers together, as they begin to sizzle in the heat of the olive oil. Put some salt and black pepper, and a little brown sugar in his hand, letting him judge how much to add, when to stir, deciding when the mixture is cooked just right. Fold in the sense of accomplishment and the pride of making his own soup into the mixture, and remark about how wonderful it all smells.

Let him discover what happens when you mix the wonderful medley of onions, peppers, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and olive oil, and his accomplishments and emotions, into the warmth of the tomatoes, the transformation into soup.

Stir gently, letting the flavors blend, letting him slip into the ownership of his creation. Hand him a small spoon, urging him to taste, and evaluate, to enjoy his work, his creativity. Watch his face, overcome with pleasure and art, as he seriously evaluates and decides what to add.

Stand back, and let him take control, adding basil and a little more salt. See the glimmer in his eye, as he finds a secret ingredient to add. Enjoy his boldness, as he adds a pinch of his secret ingredient, and add that sense of power and confidence to the soup.

Gently whisper that it is time to add the milk, that the soup should be ready soon, for all the other men to enjoy. Ask him to taste it again, and sense all of its wonderfulness. With tenderness, tell him that this is an amazing soup, that everyone will love it, that it will be the best thing to experience on this cold, rainy day in the garden.

Watch him hold himself up strong, shoulders back, as he ladles out the soup, handing a bowl to all of the other men, his friends, his compatriots.

“I made this,” he says, to each of the men. Each one of them takes their bowl from him, with a slight motion of deference, respect, and thanksgiving.

“Thank you. Thank you,” they tell him.

And, a few moments later, see him smile as the room fills with the chatter of hungry men filling their bellies with warm soup on a cold rainy day.

“This is delicious. This is the best soup I’ve ever had. Amazing. Fabulous. Ah, so wonderful.”

See him nod, understanding what this is all about, what we have accomplished today, the making of the soup, the growing of the man.

–Neal Lemery 11/16/15

Apples and Young Men

I was there to teach, to demonstrate how to care for apple trees, getting them ready for a season of growth, of new fruit. The young men gathered around me, curious about the sprayer I had brought, my long plastic gloves, my eye goggles.
Usually when I come to the youth prison, I bring coffee and food, and visit with one of two young men, listening to their stories, giving them a bit of direction and encouragement, trying to help them move on with their lives. Sometimes, I bring my guitar or a book. Sometimes, I bring my drum and listen to their worries and hope in a drumming circle, connecting with them in a deep, intimate way, the drum beats opening all of us up to our spiritual paths.

Today, though, I am the gardener, and so are they. They gather around a big work table in their greenhouse, all the shelves and plant tables filled to the brim with trays of their seedlings and cuttings. Eagerly, they show me what they’ve done, what they’ve planted, techniques they’ve learned to bring forth new life.

The chickens they’ve raised from eggs are now about to lay their own eggs. They tell me the stories of each of the hens, and how they’ve grown. The chickens are now a big part of their garden, eating scraps of lettuce, decimating slugs, and adding their nutrients back into the garden soil.

The circle of life is vibrant here, everyone involved in the daily routine of new life, hands on experiences with dirt, manure, sunlight, new plants, harvest, decay, renewal.

Their lives, too, nourished, weeded, fertilized, pruned and guided into healthy new growth, strengthened by the sunlight they are now letting into their lives, becoming strong, healthy men. I see smiles and bright eyes, as they tell me about their plants, their chickens, this place in the world they have made their own, a place of beauty and growth, of new life.

I talk about apples, how humans have tended them for thousands of years, continually improving them, new varieties, new techniques. There are stories of grafting, pruning, thinning, making living things thrive because of a person taking a little time to care.

I talk about disease and blight, of the need to prune out the parts of the plant that were harming the health of the rest of the tree, of adding lime to the soil, to help the tree thrive, to yield juicier fruit, growing stronger. Today, I’m attacking fungus and bugs, things that are hard to see, but still harm the tree. There were nods of understanding when I weave the care of apple trees into our lives and our dreams.

Eagerly, they watch me spray their trees, explaining each step, why I’m doing what I’m doing, helping to grow healthy trees, bring forth a bigger harvest, make this part of the world just a bit better.

Their questions are thoughtful, to the point, raising issues I hadn’t thought about. Together, we explore new questions, new solutions. We are all students here.

They’re orchardists of their own lives, and the concepts of opening something up to more sunshine and fresh air. Thinning out disease and refocusing energy are familiar ideas.

These men are gardeners of their own lives. Their questions and our discussions about apples teach me about the real agriculture that is going on here, behind the fence that surrounds their home.

“I learned to take care of a garden. Now I can take care of my life,” a young man said not long ago to one of the teachers there.

That wisdom helped him in the weeding and pruning of his life.

His story, told while we are snacking on some of the vegetables they had grown, brings nods of understanding from the young men there, gathered around the table. It is a lesson they know well, a way of thinking that is part of the routine, part of what they do every day when they water and tend their plants, feed their chickens, and make plans for how their garden would grow in the coming summer, and the summer of their own precious lives.