Smoke Break


 

–by Neal Lemery

 

His hands shook as he rummaged through a plastic grocery sack, pulling out a plastic pre-roll tube. It still had its faded label from the marijuana store down the street.  The shakings nearly caused him to drop the tube, but he managed to snap open the plastic lid. He tapped a little something into his mouth and swallowed.

He’d laid his lit cigarette on the black metal patio table, and set down the plastic tube, pushing the lid shut with yellowed fingertips.  The rest of the sack’s contents were soon strewn across the table: another pre-roll tube, three cigarette lighters, a half empty pack of rolling papers, an open pack of cigarettes, and a pocket knife with an open, half broken off blade.

A worn cardboard box sign with crude letters spelling out “Hungry” also decorated the table.  He had been holding it up on a street corner a mile away not an hour ago, looking gaunt, wet, and needy.  The hood of his coat had shadowed his face from passersby and the drivers waiting at the light.

His body twitched occasionally, his head bouncing back and forth, as he muttered to himself and occasionally spoke loudly in an indecipherable squawk, into the wind.

The sign was catching some of the raindrops  blowing in from the approaching storm, and he scooted the table and himself further under the eaves, until the chair banged against the window.

His friend showed up a few minutes later, also dressed in a black, heavy cotton raincoat and jeans, with equally sunken eyes and a week’s worth of beard across his face. His fist was curled around a crisp new paper sack, its shape formed by the scrunching of the sack against a bottle recently purchased at the nearby liquor store two blocks away.  He grinned as he arrived, raising the bag and his fist in triumph. He mumbled a few words to the first guy, who took another taste of whatever was in the tube, and handed it to the second guy.

It was their only conversation here on the street.

The second guy took a long drag on his cigarette, white smoke briefly covering his face, before the wind cleared the smoke away.  He set the half-smoked cigarette on the table. A fresh breath of wind rolled it off and down to the sidewalk, where it was promptly snuffed out by the wet. Grabbing the tube, he opened it with an experienced flick of a thumb, and tapped some of the contents onto his tongue.

The sidewalk and side street were otherwise deserted, as rain began to fall in bursts. The wind gusted, picking up speed, scattering fallen leaves this last part of November. An empty, sodden Starbucks cup rolled towards the adjoining street, soon to meet its fate in the steady stream of log trucks and pickups, and tires splashing in the gutters.

They each took a couple more hits from the pre-roll tube, until the contents were depleted.  The second man cursed as he discovered his sodden cigarette on the ground, and quickly lit another one from the open pack on the table, flicking a flame out of one of the three lighters on the table.

The first man, staring at his shoes, pulled heavily on the last of his cigarette, everything in jagged motion as yet another twitch overtook him. Taking in the last of the smoke the cigarette had to offer, he breathed out a sigh of pleasure.

The wind gusted stronger, moving the rain at a lower slant, now streaking the window under the café eave.  The two men were starting to get wet.  They wordlessly fought with the plastic grocery sack and the wind, finally getting all their items back into the sack, and stuffed it into the first man’s knapsack. They headed off towards the street. The second man clutched his sack full of liquor, his steps uncertain in the wind and rain.

The first man paused, wracked again by yet another twitch and shaking all over, his hands convulsing for a few more seconds.  Again, sounds came from his lips, harsh, angry, incoherent.

The other man looked back at his friend, his eyes gaunt, staring, unfocused. He silently turned and moved ahead, as the first man finally regained his balance and started moving again, trailing the other guy.

In a minute, the sidewalk was empty, the rain moving in for good, drenching the pavement and washing away the last traces of their visit to the table by the café.

Back and forth, give and take, getting a little high before the storm hit for good, before they opened the booze somewhere out of the storm.

******

 

I watched from my booth at the café, this snippet of their young lives playing out before my disbelieving eyes, leaving me to ignore my coffee cup and the poem I was trying to rewrite.

The waiter came to refill my cup, and looked out into the wet, windswept street, commenting about the coming storm.  No mention of the two men, the ingesting of the contents of the tube, the full bottle of booze in the brown sack, the occasional twitchings and outbursts, as if this episode of these young men’s world wasn’t really playing out by the front door of his café.

Invisible, or just part of the downtown scenery, I wasn’t sure which.  Maybe the scene was just too ordinary, too commonplace to merit comment.

 

The poem I was going to work on lay unattended, and my coffee had grown cold. Instead, I had become a part of their cigarette break, their moment on the street.  I had been held silenced, unnoticed on the other side of the glass, and the ritual with the contents of the plastic tube, as they passed it back and forth, emptying the contents into their mouths.  There were the manipulations of the smokers and their cigarettes, and the occasional twitches and tremors, the incoherencies of the man with the “Hungry” sign.

“Hungry”.  Still hungry, as the two men started their journey to the next place.  A place where, perhaps, the bottle would give them warmth and conversation, a way to pass the time until the storm blew through.

And, perhaps the stuff from the tube, the liquor, the smokes would somehow fill the bellies of their souls with what they needed in their lives, the stuff that couldn’t be found on the table by the café.

I went back to my coffee, and a bowl of soup, and my unfinished poem, behind the glass of that café window that was my own private window into their world, sheltered by the storm and the wind that blew through their lives.

11/29/2018

 

 

 

 

The Young Prisoner’s Rage


The Young Prisoner’s Rage

 

 

 

It boils out of me, this rage against you, this struggle I have on how to feel about me being the son, and you the father. The bruised knuckles from hitting the wall, again, with the full force of the rage, aching, yet all I want is to be numb, and not feel the ache in my heart.

I stuff it down, push it deep, wanting to turn my heart into stone.

Betrayed. Abandoned. Neglected. I just want to be numb, and not feel all that.

I’m trying to grow up, to be healthy, mature, manly. But without a father, a healthy, good father, I am empty, hollow.

My soul is hungry for connection, yet the absence of my dad, the silence, even worse, the indifference, tells me I am unworthy, I have failed.

I’m here in prison, doing time, labeled, categorized, marked. Wanting to be a healthy man, yet I have stumbled, fallen, and became a criminal.

I hear my dad’s voice saying, again, of course you’re worthless, you are trash, you are a criminal, and not worthy of my love, or even my name. You are not my son. I denounce you. I reject you, my heir, my seed, my son. You are not of my image, my spawn, my child.

Be my dad, I had said, I had begged. Love me, embrace me, take me by the hand and show me. Show me how to be the son, the man-child, a good man.

But, no. Rejection. Shame, guilty, abandonment. I am the throw away son.

Of course I am worthless. I am the criminal, the felon, the prisoner. Like you expected of me, I have proven how worthless I am. I guess you were right when you said I was worthless. You told me I was trash and so here I am, a sack of garbage, the criminal unworthy of you even acknowledging me.

I am not your son. I am trash. You have no son.

But, father, did you just try to love me, to guide me, to hold me close, to be the parent, the father I needed?

I didn’t need much, just for you to love me, to accept me, just to be your son.

I got lost, but you didn’t come find me, didn’t guide me, didn’t hug me, didn’t parent me. You threw me away, and I just want to go numb, and slam my fist into the wall, and not feel it.

You loved the bottle, the pipe, the pill, the denial of my existence much more than what I needed from you.

Undeserving, of no value, that’s the message you gave me, again and again, until it sounded like the truth. Repeated, and repeated, so it must be true.

What else can I do, but rage. I scream into the night, punch my fist into the wall, look into the mirror and see only a worthless soul, unworthy of love, unable to forgive, to honor myself, to see any good in myself.

I rage, so therefore I am worthless, trash. A tight circle, self-fulfilling prophesy of emptiness, garbage.

Is it too much to ask, that I can hear I am valued, that I have purpose, that I am a man, a good man, capable of and deserving of love?

Is it too much to ask that I hear you are proud of me?

You reject me, over and over again. I get it. I am nothing in your eyes. I can never be the man I dare to dream of being; I can never be the son worthy of your name, your love.

No, I am trash, garbage, a worthless sack of s**t. My destiny must be to sit in my prison cell and mean nothing to anyone else, is that what you think? Is that what you want? Is that what you desire your son to be?

Slam, goes the fist into the wall, the pain somehow justified, earned, because of who you think I am, how worthless I must really be. If only I could be loved, to hear you say that word, to hold me tight and let me feel your love for me.

But, no. Rejection, shame, abandonment. Is that what you want for me? Is that why you brought me into the world, to throw me away?

All I want is to be loved, to be seen as a son, as a soul seeking his dream, wanting to have value, to be a beloved child of God.

Yet, I am rejected, unloved, unworthy, undeserving of the name of son, of being beloved and embraced.

And when I have a son, how will I treat him, what will I say to him? What will I show him how I have learned to treat a son?

And, so I rage.

And , so I rage.

 

 

—-Neal Lemery 3/20/2017

Numbing Up


 

 

“I just want to feel numb,” he said.

The young man sitting across the table sipped his drink and munched on some chips, looking down.

The obscenity he had carved into his arm a few months ago had almost faded away. The pain I saw in his eyes hadn’t.

He pulled hard on the skin on the top of his left hand, and then he poked at it hard with his finger.

“See,” he said, “it doesn’t hurt. I can barely feel it.”

He bent his fingers back, the large knuckles cracking and popping. I winced, sympathetically feeling that pain in my own hand.

There was a story that came with it, about being angry and high; ramming his fist into a bridge pillar on a dark, hopeless night. The pain felt good, felt real, a release from his misery.

The pain made things clear, an atonement of his many sins.

I reached over and lightly touched the top of his hand.

“I can’t feel that,” he said. “Nothing.”

“Have you told anyone about this?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“If I tell people things that are wrong with me, then I’m weak. I don’t want to be vulnerable,” he said.

“Then, they’ll pick on me, kick me when I’m down.”

“Not that I don’t deserve that,” he said.

I didn’t have a good response. He’s vulnerable enough already, I thought.

“What are your plans now, about getting out?” I asked.

He shook his head, then looked down.

“I don’t have a home to go to. So, maybe some kind of half way house.”

He’s got some work ahead of him here, this correctional facility where the staff work with youth, working on their treatment, their education, building them up so that they can be self-supporting, self reliant.

There’s a few years of high school left for him. He came here without any high school credits, but he’s doing the work, and moving ahead in his classes. He’s surprised himself, getting good grades, moving ahead, grasping concepts, and being able to hold his own in class.

When we talk about his vocation, his trade he wants to learn, he brightens up. When we do our math and our writing, if I can make the task relate to that work, he gets it, and he learns.

He’s not the dumb ass his dad thinks he is; he’s no longer getting high on the street, and being the wanna be gang banger.

Still, there’s that desire to just be numb, to not feel, and sometimes, the desire to just end it all, to just curl up in the corner and die.

A few weeks ago, he seemed so down, I asked him the question, the ‘are you thinking of killing yourself’ question. The carving on the arm was fresh then, and the hole he was living in was dark, and getting deeper.

We had a heart to heart talk then, and things got better. He used the word “trust”, and liked having someone around he could talk to, someone to trust. He liked that I kept showing up, even if sometimes he didn’t think it was worth my time.

I kept showing up, kept proving him wrong about wasting my time.

I even saw a smile, then another one.

The medication seems to help some, and the latest pill hasn’t fully kicked in yet. There’s his basketball playing, working up a sweat and playing a good game with some of the other guys here. He’s pretty good at it, and the other guys want him on their team.

And, the weightlifting. Another guy is training him, gradually increasing the weights, building him up, finding that spark of confidence and trying to fan it into a real flame.

I show up, and sometimes we work on his math, sometimes his writing. Usually, we end up talking about what life was like on the streets, him looking to get high, getting into fights, being angry at his mom for getting high, and dad – not showing up, not being in his life.

One day, I met with him and his teachers, talking about his grades and his work. The conversation shifted, and we talked about his depression, his suicidal thoughts, his fear of getting out and not making it. There was a lot of compassion in the room, a lot of caring, a lot of concern.

We weren’t giving up on him, and I could see him taking all that in, feeding his soul.

Today, he’s back talking about just wanting to be numb. It’s familiar talk, and probably all that he’s known most of his life, a familiar way of dealing with the world.

He and I, we are trying to change that, to look at some positives, to work on some tasks and succeed, to change the theme in his life.

I’m seeing progress, at least a willingness to keep working on the good stuff.

Perhaps that’s enough, at least for today.

I’ll be back, and I’ll keep cheering him on, believing in him, seeing him as something more than someone who just wants to be numb.

 

–Neal Lemery 3/1/17

 

My Ticket To Prison


 

 

It was my ticket to prison. Following the guard’s direction from the loudspeaker, I pushed the ticket machine button. “128” was printed on what looked like a raffle ticket for a drawing.

“Drive to the top of the parking lot, park and then wait with the others until your number is called,” the faceless stern voice commanded.

I soon found myself with the other visitors. We huddled together in the early morning icy wind. After the two-hour drive, it felt good to stand up, but the wind made me yearn for the shelter of the gatehouse down the hill. It was surrounded by coils of ribbon wire, overshadowed by the guard tower with the black, one way glass.

One lady kindly asked me if this was my first time here.

She told me the routine, what to expect, adding that it was a cold, heartless place to visit.

She and her mother had been coming to see her son for several years now, and it was always a hard thing to do.

“We’re his only connection to the world, to family,” she said.

“It’s the only thing we can do for him, coming here every week,” she said.

Her voice dropped and she looked away. I could see a tear in her eye.

“Numbers 120 to 130,” the voice crackled over the loudspeaker.

We moved hurriedly down the hill into the gatehouse. Paper money was changed into dollar coins for the vending machines, and people took off their jewelry, shoes and belts, and handed their driver’s licenses to the guards.

When my turn came, I identified who I was seeing and then set off the metal detector.

“Glasses, too.”

As directed, I moved, blindly, sideways through the metal detector, satisfying the stern faced guard glaring at me.

We all had the back of our right hand stamped, with invisible ink. When we left, a guard shined an ultraviolet light on our hands, making sure we weren’t inmates, that we hadn’t switched places and were organizing a great escape.

I reassembled myself and sat on a wooden bench with some of my cohorts, waiting for our turn to walk in small groups through another steel door and across the yard to the visitors’ building.

Once inside, I was directed to several rows of plastic chairs and low tables, more appropriate for a fourth grade classroom than a prison visiting room. There were a few vending machines on one wall, offering chips, sodas, and coffee.

The room was dimly lit with a few florescent bulbs and small barred windows near the ceiling. The dark cement floor sucked up what little light came through the windows.

A large modern painting of a tree leaned against a gray wall, near a large chair on a platform, where a guard sat, staring out over the assemblage of visitors.

There was nothing else in the room that resembled life on the outside, and I wondered if the painting hadn’t been hung yet, simply because it was so out of place here.

We were grandmothers and aunts, a few girlfriends, two guys who might be brothers of inmates, and a lawyer.   He looked out of place, in his three piece suit and large three ring binder. He paced and looked at his watch, anxious to get on with the rest of his day and finish up his business with his client.

The rest of us had our prison visit clothes on. The rules said no blue jeans, no blue shirts or jackets. Blue is the color of inmates here, and the prison wanted a clear distinction.

We waited, and waited some more.

A few inmates came in, embracing their loved ones and then sitting on the opposite side of the small tables.

We waited some more, and I saw the kindly mother and grandmother look at their watches and the big clock on the wall.

I caught their eye and shrugged. They nodded and shrugged back.

Finally, my young friend came out of the side door. He and all the other inmates were clad in blue jeans and blue shirts, with blue lanyards and their prison ID cards around their necks.

We hugged and took our seats.

I hadn’t seen my buddy for four months, since he got sent upstate to adult prison, after serving all the time he could at the youth prison where I go every week. He’s got seven more years to go, and had to move to adult prison when he turned twenty four.

What got him here was something that happened when he was thirteen, when life was crazy, chaotic, without guidance and direction. He was arrested at seventeen, and treated like an adult in court.

The system pounded on him, maxing him out, making sure he got the presumptive sentences reserved for the worst of people.

But he’s not. He was a kid himself when he came to prison, never been in school, never really parented and raised to be a healthy young man.

The youth prison was good for him. He finished school, and let his curiosity lead him to becoming an expert gardener, craftsman, and artist. He taught others, taking on leadership, gaining the skills and confidence of a healthy, productive young man. He’s everything you’d want a young man to be in this world.

We talked for the next hour and a half, two friends catching up on our lives, and the news from the youth prison.

His dad died last month, a heart attack ending a troubled life, leaving the relationship with the son in prison still unresolved, still unhealed. The anger and bitterness now mixed up with grief, with the emptiness of not being able to go to his father’s funeral, to take care of his widowed mother, and the rage and violent life of the younger brother.

We tested out the vending machines’ offerings of soda and coffee. Starbucks has no worries about the competition here.

My friend has a good job, managing the kitchen garden. He’s ramped up the composting, and is planning new crops for the summer.   His eyes twinkle as he tells me of his plans and the new watering system he’s designing.

He’s saving his money for a guitar. Prison rules wouldn’t let him bring his old guitar with him, but he’s scribbled out some new songs, and another guy has let him borrow his guitar once in a while.

I can’t send him a guitar. He has to buy it from the prison canteen.

“They worry that you’d send in drugs with the guitar, you know.”

We laughed. He’s too serious of a musician to think about smuggling in drugs or being a criminal.

“There’s ‘yard night’ in the summer,” he tells me. “I’ll have my new guitar by then.”

You can bring your guitar with you, and guys play and sing, and tell stories. They even barbeque and turn the prison yard into a house party, at least for two hours on a hot summer night.

I don’t ask him much about life here. I can tell he’s not wanting to share, not wanting to explain the emptiness, the boredom.

He grins when he talks about the botany book I sent him. College level stuff, and good for his mind. He reads it every night, soaking up the science, the methodology. He redraws the illustrations, creating new works of art in his cell.

Last year, he petitioned the Governor for clemency. About twenty people added letters of endorsement, from the youth prison’s school principal to most of the volunteers. The prison staff weren’t allowed to endorse the petition, but loaded up their letters with assessments and evaluations of what he’d accomplished.

We attached his portfolio of botany illustrations, and photos of his wood carvings and wood burnings, and the multi-layered wooden bowl that won a special blue ribbon at the county fair. We sent copies to legislators, and we wrote to the Governor.

Nothing has happened with that, and now he’s in this prison of 800 men, medium security for the next seven years. Or, until the Governor might decide that he needs to be out, needs to be working on his bachelor’s degree in botany at Oregon State University, and creating fine works of art for the world to enjoy.

We didn’t talk about all that. The silence from the Governor’s office lies like a stone in my heart. It’s too painful for him, too. Seven years more is a long, long time.

The guard in the chair boomed out, “Visiting is over. Inmates to the rear. Visitors to the front.”

We stood, and I picked up our empty coffee cups. Awkwardly, we moved to the end of the table, and hugged one last time.

“I’ll come again soon,” I said.

“Oh, you’re busy. I’m doing fine,” he said.

He doesn’t lie well, and looked down at his shoes.

“I’m not too busy for you, son,” I said.

“I’ll be back,” I said. “You’re an important guy to me, you know.”

For the second time that day, I saw a tear form in someone’s eye.

And when I got back to my pickup, there was more than just a tear.

 

—Neal Lemery 2/5/2017

A Nice Review


A nice review of my book, Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains.

“Neal Lemery has a very big heart, big enough to understand how all of the grief and stress which the young men he encountered in court in his position as a judge was connected to their acting out against the law. Rather than pass harsh judgment, instead, over and over, he found ways to reach out to those young men, to empower them to understand what they were really feeling and to feel that someone truly cared about them. As such, over and over he’s been a kind of miracle worker. He has also become a mentor to incarcerated young men, visiting them faithfully while they served time, and sometimes even becoming a kind of adoptive parent to them. He tells their stories and the stories of his connections to them in an easy conversational style and helps us all understand how powerful compassion can really be and how to express it. Must reading.”

—Carol Imani

Restringing Guitars and Young Men


 

 

Fridays are my day at the local youth correctional facility. In the morning, I work in their garden, helping young gardeners tend to their chickens, vegetable plots and herb gardens.

 

We plant, weed, water, and harvest, and then preserve and dry the results. Most every week, we cook, enjoying the bounty of our work, and treating the young men to fresh, nutritious produce and the concept of healthy nutrition and living.

 

The real gardening comes in our conversations, the camaraderie of young and older gardeners, working and learning together, truly being in community.

 

They are learning where food really comes from, and how to be invested in that process, being self sufficient and healthy. The metaphor of the garden is not lost on them, as they work to become strong, healthy, productive farmers of their lives.

 

I also work with some of the young men individually, being the “surrogate parent” and being the visitor they need and wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m the “family” who shows up with some baked goods or candy, and just visits for an hour. Sometimes, we play games, but mainly, I just listen, offering the compassionate ear of the uncle or dad who is missing in their lives.

 

I’m tender and kind to them, being the encouraging voice, the cheerleader, the supportive dad they wouldn’t otherwise have.

 

Today, one of my young men and I restrung one of the guitars there. It is a “state” guitar, which means it’s the guitar that gets played by those who don’t have their own instrument. The guitar is played a lot, and replacing the strings has become a regular task for me.

 

The guitar gets loved to death, played hard by lonely, frustrated fingers pouring out the emotions of the neglected and abandoned, the incarcerated, the young men who have no other way of expressing themselves. I’m like that guitar, a place where the emotions of these young men can have their voice, a willing ear, an appreciative audience for what they need to say.

 

My guy has had a rough year. He’s one of the lucky ones, not serving a mandatory sentence, a guy who can walk out the door if he’s done all his treatment, completed high school and shown he can be a responsible young man.

 

He literally has the keys to the front gate, but the old voices keep telling him he’s worthless, and should be abandoned and left out for the trash man.

 

Like so many of the young men here, being responsible and healthy is a new experience, and the fear of going back into the world, and being around the family and friends who were a big part of the bad times that brought him here, is one huge scary nightmare of parole.

 

The thought of being successful in life is a new idea. For most of their life, they’ve been told they are worthless, failures. My job is to be a spark of encouragement, the mirror of their successes and self worth, to be the dad who believes in them and is proud of who they are becoming.

 

My job and the job of the guitar are a lot alike.

 

My buddy has derailed himself a number of times here, despite all his good work. The old ways, the old voices still show up, beating him down with the whips of shame and guilt, the indifference to the beauty of their young souls.

 

Today, though, he moved ahead. He took the initiative and restrung the guitar, without much help from me. With confidence, he completed the task, grinning as the new strings sang out their song in his confident fingers. His eyes twinkled with pride as he showed others the work he had done.

 

We did more than restring an old, well-used guitar. We restrung a young man and gave voice to the new, self-confident man now playing his songs, happy with what he’s done and who he’s becoming.

 

–Neal Lemery, 12/9/2016

Another Nice Review of Homegrown Tomatoes


A garden has countless lessons to teach, and in his second collection of essays set in the garden at the Tillamook County Oregon Youth Authority, Homegrown Tomatoes: Essays and Musings from my Garden, former judge Neal Lemery reflects upon what he’s learned in his volunteer capacity, teaching and toiling with the youth. Also included are lessons learned involving members of his community and his friends. Each essay in this collection deals with one of the “big” issues in life we all encounter, young or old.

The garden for Mr. Lemery and the incarcerated youth is more than a garden—it’s a metaphor for life in a general sense, and a place for everyone to be nourished, with wisdom, honor, and respect; a place for listening and conversing, questioning and finding answers, all while completing mundane chores such as weeding and washing dishes.

Whether you are a young parent looking for helpful parenting tips, a mentor, a teacher, or a person looking to live an authentic, joyful life, this book is a treasure chest of heartwarming stories and ideas to help you along your way.

 

— by Youth Advocate