The Extra Chair


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

(also published today in the Tillamook County Pioneer)

One year at Thanksgiving, Mom told me to set an extra place setting.  We’d counted up all the relatives who would be coming, and I was curious as to who she was adding. By my count, we hadn’t forgotten anyone and the place settings matched the numbers of who was coming.

“Oh, it’s nice to have an extra setting, just in case,” she said.  “You never know who might come.”

I was very curious, but she wouldn’t answer my persistent questions.

Thanksgiving morning came and we were all put to work on preparations for the meal. My dad had to go into work for an hour, and not long after he left, the phone rang. It was my dad.

“That’s fine,” she said.  “Of course. No problem.  The table’s already set and there’s an extra chair.”

She turned to us after she hung up the phone.

“We’ll be having another guest for dinner,” she said. She smiled then, and started humming a tune, as she turned back to the stove.

Sure enough, my dad arrived home with our mystery guest.  She was a co-worker, and had no other place to go for Thanksgiving. Her smile said it all, how grateful she was to be included.

Every year after that, we always set an extra place for Thanksgiving.  One year there was a flood and some neighbors couldn’t make it to their family dinner, so we set up another table and had another half dozen dinner guests.

One year, it was one of my friends in high school, needing a refuge from a tough time on the home front.

As always, my folks asked no questions, and passed no judgement.  The unexpected guest was welcomed with open arms and the first serving of turkey.

My wife and I continued the tradition, welcoming friends, making sure there was a place at the table.

The first Thanksgiving we had our foster son, we made sure he felt welcome, as family gathered to enjoy the holiday.

And, as if on cue, the phone rang, and I heard myself saying, “Sure, of course there’s room.  We’d love to have him.”

I made a special trip while the turkey was cooking, and brought his brother home for the weekend. We made sure to make him feel welcome, a part of the family. He responded with a tear running down his cheek, as he sat down in the extra chair.

Years later, after my folks had passed away, and our kids were starting their own families and had moved away, it was just my wife and I who would be home for dinner.

“Let’s set another place,” my wife said.  “You never know.”

A few days before, she called first one and then another friend, friends who were single, and who, it turned out, would be alone for Thanksgiving.

“Of course, you’re invited.  We’ll expect you at 1,” I heard her say.

We set two extra plates that year, and the Thanksgiving celebration became even more special, as two lonely people found a warm home and bountiful table to share, and our friendship grew. Thanksgiving took on a new, richer meaning that year.

One of our traditions, just as we sit down for the meal, is for everyone to share their gratitudes with the rest of us. There is so much to be grateful in our lives, and we so often tend to skip over giving thanks on Thanksgiving. Instead, we slide into talk about a lot of other subjects, forgetting what the day is really about.

Thanksgiving truly is a day to celebrate our gratitudes and to give thanks. And, often what I am most grateful for is that extra chair, that extra place setting.  I’m grateful for the company of someone who would otherwise be alone on the day we gather and give thanks for all that we have.  And that list begins with being thankful for each other.

 

Thanksgiving, 2015


Finding Thankfulness and Gratitude in My Life

“Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.”
–Henri Frederic Amiel, Swiss philosopher

The harvest is in, the garden has been put to bed, and the weather has turned cold. The days are growing shorter; winter has arrived. It is the season of a comfortable chair, a warm blanket, a mug of tea and a good book.

It is also a time of being thankful and grateful. At Thanksgiving, we gather around the table, sharing food and companionship. It is a time of quiet celebration.

Thanksgiving is a quiet, contemplative holiday with few expectations. Simply being together and sharing a meal is all that the holiday seems to require of us. Oh, and the obligatory giving of thanks. In the rush towards the consumerism and frenzy of Christmas, it seems easy to slide right by this time of giving thanks, and plunge into the next holiday.

And, when we do that, we forget to pause and reflect, and to be truly thankful.

The real holiday, the real celebration this week is a time to go inward, to truly appreciate what we have in our lives, and how we are to live, to truly be children of God. Thanksgiving is all about love, in all of its dimensions.

This year there is much to be thankful for: the necessities of life, purposeful work, time with friends and family, health, and being able to serve, to be of service.

People in my life this year have achieved much. One friend is moving into a new home, his first, very own, this is really mine, home. A year ago, he was adrift, unemployed, unsure of himself. Today, due to his hard work and his belief in all of his possibilities, he has a rich, purposeful life.

Another friend is casting aside distractions and old misery, and healing old wounds. He’s taking charge, doing healthy things, putting his life in order.

Another friend passed a test in school. He conquered his fears, his self doubts; he has conquered his sabotage of a future of rich possibilities. He is ready to move on, and he has shown to himself that he can grow, and learn, and be successful. He has climbed his own mountain, and can believe in himself.

I am recharging my own creative energies. I am writing a serious book that gives voice to those who are less fortunate. I am immersing myself in creating music and art, and being an advocate for others. I am pausing to look at the beauty of the world, in this very moment, to appreciate who I am and where I am going.

All this is scary, terrifying work. What if I actually accomplish what I dream? Are there really no barriers, no limits to what I can accomplish, if I put my mind and my soul into the effort? I might be successful? Me? But, then I will have to take on even greater challenges, and be responsible for my effort. Really? Little old me?

Yes, me. I am the one. I am the one who can change the world, one little step at a time. Changing the world is really my job. And, I can do it.

We all have our obstacles. And we are all capable of success, and believing in our strengths, our possibilities.

I am a citizen of the world and I pay attention, I learn, and I try to apply my energies and my awareness to being an instrument of positive change.

We live in troubled times. Yet that has also been true in years past. Every generation has faced that challenge, and had to answer that question, can I really accomplish my dream?

I choose to be an agent of change, and to not retreat into silence and indifference. I believe we are called to respond and to act, to be proactive, to be God’s instruments of change.

Maybe I can’t wave my magic wand and achieve world peace. But, I can move in that direction. I can bring myself and my work into a state of constructive peacefulness. I can work to nurture that energy into my family, my neighborhood, and my community.

I can make a difference.

I can join with other like-minded people, and consistently do good works.

Each of us is a peace-maker. Peace making has to start somewhere.

“Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me,” the song says.

We all have our story. Be a listener, and hear someone speak their truth, perhaps for the first time. Let everyone’s story be told, and be heard.

Each of us can do an act of kindness and compassion. Pay an act of kindness forward. Buy a stranger a coffee, help an elderly person with a package, talk to a friend, visit the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned. Maybe bring a meal to a sick neighbor. Volunteer.

Strike up a conversation while waiting at the grocery store check out. Ask the clerk how they are doing and listen to their answer. Hear them, deeply and compassionately. Hug a friend who seems upset, lost, without hope.

In any of that work, there is kindness and compassion. You are giving of yourself, and you are showing others how to be human, how to be kind and loving.

“Be the change you want to see in the world,” Mahatma Gandhi said.

Our example, just something simple, can change one person’s life. And in that, we change the world. We make our planet just a little better.

Isn’t that the Golden Rule? Isn’t that what the prophets, the scions of great religions have preached? Isn’t that being an instrument of God’s love for every one of us?

Each of us is special, unique. We are here for a reason. And, isn’t that reason to show love and compassion, to be kind, generous, thoughtful of others? By our example, we show the way, we demonstrate how people should really live, how we really are the children of God.

Today, I give thanks, and I am grateful. And, in my own, small way, I am making a difference, I am changing the world, one small act of kindness at a time.
—Neal Lemery, November 24, 2015

Being Thankful


“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”  ~Theodore Roosevelt

Yes, the Thanksgiving dinner table will “groan” with an abundance of food, and a delightful gathering of family and friends, and rich conversation will mark the feast. We will pause to hear each of us express what we are thankful for in the past year, one of our favorite traditions.

And, in that telling of thanks, there will be a few tears, and a few laughs, and my heart will be filled with gratitude of what I have in my life. People new to our Thanksgiving table will remark about the goodness of speaking about what we are thankful for, and sharing that with others.

Yet, I try to express my thanks in more than words. As Theodore Roosevelt said, truly giving thanks is putting our gratitude into action, into our deeds.

This week, I sat with two of my young men in prison, each of them at a crossroads in their lives, each of them struggling to move ahead, to grow, and to steady themselves on their paths. Their particular challenges were different, but each of them steeled themselves, dug deep inside of their souls, drawing on their resilience and their growing self esteem, and moved ahead.

I marveled at their strength, and at their insight into their challenges and dilemmas. In the short time I’ve been privileged to be in their lives, I have seen them grow into healthy, strong men, gaining confidence and perspective on how far they’ve come, and what potentials they have to make it in the world.

I found myself giving thanks for the privilege of simply being present, as they worked on their problems, seeking solutions, weighing alternatives, and doing the gut work they each needed to do in order to move on. What each of them were working on, and what each of them accomplished was bloody, gut wrenching, soul challenging work.

There was old ugliness and pain, stuff all of us would probably want to find easier to ignore, and keep buried deep inside. Yet, they plunged in, dealing with the ugly past, the old patterns of thinking, and simply did the work. They tried out their new tools, and embraced the light they want to have in their lives, leaving behind the dark, sad past.

Their challenges, and their deep, thoughtful, soul changing work, brought tears to my eyes. Their stories of their childhoods, and their heart wounds, and search for love and acceptance in this world, tore at my heart. Yet, they accepted who they had been, and embraced who they are becoming. They are moving forward, with courage and with love for themselves, at last.

Being a witness, and a cheerleader at times, I was humbled by their perseverance, their determination to move forward. They faced change, and moved on. They faced uncertainty, and complex choices, yet each of them knew where he wanted to go, and what they wanted to accomplish for themselves.

I learn from them all of the time. They inspire me, they mentor me, in how to live a healthy, productive life. They teach me that one’s past is not necessarily the predictor of one’s future, that one can change and move away from disaster and bitterness, and into a life of sanity and unconditional love.

Outside the prison walls, our society faces challenging problems, and dilemmas that seem to defy solutions. And, soon enough, these young men will be leaving prison, and living their lives as free men. I am excited that they will soon be free, and will soon take an active part in our country’s life and culture. They are strong, capable, and determined men, men with brains and a healthy way of looking at life, and who they want to be. They will be rich, productive assets for the rest of us. They have much to teach each one of us.

I am thankful for them, for being able to be a small part of their lives, and, in a small way, help them move on and be strong, loving, and amazing young men.

—-Neal Lemery, 11/27/2013