Gary Lemons is a poet, yogi, activist and long-time member of the Feathered Pipe Ranch Community, venturing to Helena, MT for 20 summers in a row to study with renowned yoga and dharma teacher Erich Schiffmann. An author of eight books of poetry, Gary’s latest book Original Grace is the final book of a series he’s titled the Snake Quartet, a visceral and insightful journey that follows the end of our world as we know it—and what Mother Earth decides to do with us humans in order to prepare to create a more sustainable existence.
Gary tunes in today from his home in Washington state and we allow our exploration to take on a life of its own: discussing what it was like being “born into a house of women with no mother,” his early involvement in the counterculture movements of the 1960s in DC., his courtship with poetry, the laws of nature, genderlessness in infinity and much more.
We recognize here, together, that poetry was a form of meditative awareness for Gary long before he even knew what meditation was, and he reflects on the evolution of his craft over the decades–studying and perfecting the formal structure first so that he knew exactly how to break free of it.
Now, in his more recent works, he sees his role as a listening post or a channel for the ideas that want to move through him, a force that’s not coming from the structural side, but rather a deeper connection with his quartet’s character, Snake, that allows the words to flow when the boundaries are released.
Gary shares, tearfully, the incredible story of he and his father’s reconciliation after 35 years without communication or contact, and we get to sit back as Gary reads two poems: “The Elephant in the Room” from his newest book Original Grace (available in May) and “Freedom” from his book Fresh Horses.
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Andy Vantrease 00:17
Welcome to The Dandelion Effect podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feather Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community and empowerment.
Andy Vantrease 01:04
Hi, friends. Welcome back to another episode of The Dandelion Effect podcast. I’m your host, Andy Vantrease. And today I’m speaking with Gary Lemons. Gary is a poet, yogi, activist and longtime member of the Feather Pipe Ranch community, venturing to Helena Montana for 20 summers in a row to study with renowned yoga and dharma teacher Erich Schiffmann. An author of eight books of poetry. Gary’s latest book, Original Grace is the final book of a series he’s titled The Snake Quartet, a visceral and insightful journey that follows the end of our world as we know it, and what Mother Earth decides to do with us humans in order to prepare to create a more sustainable existence.
Andy Vantrease 01:45
Today, Gary tunes in from his home in Washington State, and we allow our exploration to take on a life of its own, discussing what it was like being “born into a house of women with no mother,” his early involvement in the counterculture movements of the 1960s in DC, his courtship with poetry, the laws of nature, genderlessness, and infinity and much more. We recognize here together that poetry was a form of meditative awareness for Gary long before he even knew what meditation was. And he reflects on the evolution of his craft over the decades, studying and perfecting the formal structure first, so that he knew exactly how to break free of it. Now, in his more recent works, he sees his role as a listening post or a channel for the ideas that want to move through him a force that’s not quite coming from the structural side, but rather a deeper connection with his quartets characters Snake, that allows the words to flow in the boundaries are released.
Andy Vantrease 02:44
Gary shares tearfully the incredible story of he and his father’s reconciliation after 35 years without communication or contact. Plus, we get to sit back as he reads two poems, “The elephant in the room” from his newest book, Original Grace, which comes out in May, and “Freedom” from his book Fresh Horses. This conversation is packed with courage, forgiveness, self expression, and reflection. Please enjoy and help me welcome my dear friend, Gary Lemons.
Andy Vantrease 03:16
I often ask my guests to share some details about the foundation of their upbringing, kind of the pivotal moments of their childhood, when they look back, they believe these moments or these events have played a huge part in shaping who they are. When you reflect on your own origin story, what comes up for you?
Gary Lemons 03:39
Thank you for asking. Initially, I was born with a condition that back in those days was often and likely fatal, and they did some experimental surgery on me. And because my father worked so much, we were very poor. He worked two jobs plus put himself through night school. And my mother was not the kind of person who knew what to do with a with a sick baby. I was her first. And she was only 19. And so my grandmother’s became my immediate form of emotional nourishment. And they spent a lot of time with me. And I’m really grateful for that time because they taught me so much about reading, for instance. They read to me constantly and eventually, I was sort of precocious that way, I learned to read myself very, very young. And I learned to love books and words and language through them, both of them.
Gary Lemons 04:42
When I was nine, my mother left. And she left with a, for and with another man, leaving my father in the late 50s to raise four boys on his own. And we were like I say very poor. This made up a lot poorer. He ended up working three jobs while still going to night school. And, but we got through that, and he remarried four years later. By then I was 14. And as the oldest I’d had the responsibility of caring for my younger brothers, which has lasted to this day. I sort of developed a habit of looking out for them, and to some degree, others as well.
Gary Lemons 05:25
So that was my formative time. We had all kinds of substitute mothers, I actually have a line in one of my poems that says, “I was born in a house full of women with no mother.” And that’s really kind of true. But what came out of that was a sense of the power of the, not just the feminine. As a yogi, I don’t believe that there is such a thing as real gender in infinity. Although we certainly struggle with it in the form we’re in currently. But that sense of belonging to another gender, because that’s how I felt when I was very young, helped me endure an incredibly toxic male environment. Whether it was fishing in Alaska, which I did for many years, logging, working high steel, all forms of construction. And then tree planting, which was a very feminine energy, suddenly, I was working, restoring things. Instead of either leaving some kind of monument behind, or tearing something down in the case of logging, or pulling something out of its native habitat, like fishing, we were putting things back. And tree planting was sort of the culmination of all of my jobs that led the male that I am back into the integration of the feminine that I also am, but had forgotten.
Andy Vantrease 06:54
After fishing, after logging, after high steel, you went tree planting?
Gary Lemons 06:58
Yeah, I came out here. I’ve been in Port Townsend for 45 years. And before that, I also worked very physical jobs. I got out of college, The Writers Workshop at Iowa, as a poet. And rather than go into grad school, which was offered to me, and my teacher was also a dear friend of mine, Norman Dubey, who said, “Hey, if you want to go to grad school.” He was the director of that program. He said, you’re in. And instead, I went up to Alaska and worked on the pipeline. I just wanted to do some things with my hand with my body, instead of sitting in a room and hearing other people’s opinions, trying to prod mine in a certain direction. I just wanted to be physically engaged, something I had really not been yet in my life. And so I went through this whole kind of seismic experience of physical labor way out on the edge of what I would have ever imagined I could tolerate. And then at the end of that time, tree planting cropped up as an option. It was a crew of men and women equally 50%, both like the real world is, and we were putting trees back in, working high elevation clear cut. We were at Mount St. Helens right after the blow and reforested, the dead zone. We were all over the Pacific Northwest and southern Alaska, putting trees back into and really damaged land. I mean, to this day of everything I’ve done in my life, it’s by far the most, I don’t want to say proud, but pleased with myself for doing. I planted over half a million trees in…
Andy Vantrease 07:02
Gary Lemons 08:36
Seven years. And I was one of the, I mean, I knew people that had planted 3 million, because you plant 1000 a day. They’re little tiny guys, but you go back 40 years, and here’s a forest of 50-60 foot trees, and it’s incredible. And then after that I went back. I was in my late 50s and decided that I was getting a little too old. My body was too worn out from what I’d done. So I I went back into some other more desk related jobs. I ran a public access station here in town and worked in an arts institution here in town called Centrum, as your education coordinator, and things of that sort. No longer doing anything for hire, real physical, although I still plant trees whenever I have the opportunity on our property.
Andy Vantrease 09:29
Yeah. So you grew up in DC, the hotbed of political unrest, social unrest, civil rights, movement, Vietnam War, like all of that, you know, in the hub of our country. What was it like being in the epicenter of all of that in the 60s?
Gary Lemons 09:53
Well, I was always sort of a rebellious child, maybe because there was no mother in the house. My father was pretty much gone. So I didn’t have a lot of attention. I was free to roam a little more than probably most children are at that age. And so when the 60s hit, I had a predilection to move in that direction. I wanted, I wanted to be out on the edge of where change was happening. Because changing my own family was so important to my survival, how we adapted to, you know, a constantly difficult situation was a skill, I have to say, I think that I acquired that helped me go back into the world with that. You know, when the Vietnam war came and I was very influenced by rock and roll. Bob Dylan had written so much, so many songs about war and, and how horrifying it was. And that resonated with my own intuition. And so I was ready to help in whatever way I could, which meant going into the streets. And you know, what people are still doing today carrying signs and ferrying food between various groups and blankets. And I was a member of the SDS for a while. I probably shouldn’t say that, but I’m going to. So we did a lot of support for the marches, many marches on the Pentagon, and the Poor People’s March, Resurrection City, The Trail of Tears. These, these were all happening. Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King’s assassination, in DC Around this time, it was very polarizing, in a way. You were either on the other side, what I call the other side, supporting the status quo, or you were in the streets. And most of me and my friends, most of me, my friend, and I were. And most of me…
Andy Vantrease 11:43
Yeah, there’s something to be said there, too. I’m sure.
Gary Lemons 11:48
So I may have been prepared for it to happen, sort of spiritually, but the actual engagement in it was transformative. It changed my whole life to this day. I’m still suspicious of the ‘establishment’. And I’m willing to listen to anybody that has an alternative to it.
Andy Vantrease 12:11
Going through all of this, and being on the side of history that you wanted to be on and wanted to fight for, you’ve said that that was very counter to your dad’s position, the way he viewed the world and what he deemed important, and perhaps even what he valued in a man.
Gary Lemons 12:32
Those times there was really only one available male model. And my father sort of represented that. I should say, white male model, because I can’t also talk for other races and what stood up for them as a man. But in a time I was raised in the community I was raised in, my father was very representative. He, he was a quote unquote, Christian. So he had a lot of Christian values that are attached to the Bible, especially the Old Testament. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” that kind of thing…”An eye for an eye.” And so I didn’t know and all of my extended male models were pretty much the same. There wasn’t a lot of options for me looking around at what men were. And again, the 60s changed that too, because all of a sudden, I saw all kinds of different men. But anyway, to get back to what you said, my father and I began to really butt heads about the time I turned 15, which is, strangely enough, when my stepmother whom I retrospectively currently adore, but has unfortunately passed away. But she came in and suddenly we had a disciplinarian in the family family.
Andy Vantrease 13:59
Gary Lemons 14:01
But my stepmother took on four boys who were totally out of control after four years of being on their own. And so my father, of course, supported his new wife and the two of them, I felt like were ganging up on me. And so I, I left home a lot. I got a lot of trouble, I acted out. And maybe I would have anyway because that was just I was that kind of kid to start with, to some degree. I didn’t like anybody inflicting authority on me, unless I’d had a chance to have a conversation about it. But when you’re 13 and 14, adults don’t typically engage you that at that level. They should but they don’t. So yeah, my dad and I had we struggled a lot. I had a professional career sort of dangled in front of me, as a baseball player. I had played all through Little League, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson. I played Semi Pro. I played in College. And I had been scouted by the Washington Senators, with the idea that were I to take that path, there was probably some likelihood that I would get into professional baseball. And my dad totally supported that completely and had spent a lot of time when I was younger grooming me. And so the 60s came about and instead of going further down that road, I went a complete 90 degree turn away from that road into poetry, the the arts, the humanities, the relationship between personal responsibility and political activities. And that, that just became unbearable for both of us. At that time.
Gary Lemons 15:48
I moved out when I was 17. But the last months between, at some point at 16, and becoming 17, I spent as much time as I could away with friends, sometimes hiding in their houses, because their parents would have reported me if they, because mine were looking for me. So I sort of wandered as much as I could to stay away from conflict. It wasn’t even at that point that I had grown to dislike my mother and father, my step mother and father, it was that I just did not want the conflict that arose whenever we we were together, and it seemed to be constant. So I looked for gentle places to either hide or to, that welcomed me. And it was a slow gradual detachment physically from what had already happened emotionally.
Andy Vantrease 16:43
And that is around the time that you got into poetry, correct?
Gary Lemons 16:48
Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.
Andy Vantrease 16:49
I often think that the arts and, I would even say beauty, kind of calls us, you know, it’s not always a direct decision. I’m going to make this decision. And I’m going to do this thing. It’s like this seduction…
Gary Lemons 17:04
Andy Vantrease 17:05
Almost of like a courtship. I mean, that’s how I feel with a lot of the arts. And I’m curious of what that beginning courtship with poetry looked like. How you said I do.
Gary Lemons 17:19
And I did. I’ve been very faithful for many years. Yeah, that’s beautifully put. And I think you’re absolutely right. There was a seminal moment for me when I was in 10th grade, and I had a teacher who had just come back from the Peace Corps, and he was missing half of his left arm that he’d lost over there. And his name was Mr. Angel, which is fitting. And our literature classes back then were filled with the traditional stuff. You know, we got lots of Longfellow and Thoreau and Emerson and Blake and Shelley. And these are great poets. I’m nothing. Nothing really to say about them other than their great poets, but they were they were kind of shoved down our throat and nothing on the outside was allowed in. And Mr. Angel read, you know, Walt Whitman, “The Song of Myself,” and all of these, Allen Ginsburg, Howl,” and things that we were just almost not permitted to hear. And then one time he was reading the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and he’s stalking around the room fully animated. We, it didn’t matter to him that we were there. I don’t think. He was so into the poem. He he shouts out, Elliott’s amazing line, one of his many, many, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s saying something about the way I’ve been living. And I’d like to dig that kind of thing out of my own material, and put it into words, if that’s possible.” And I started to write. And amazingly enough as soon as I, because I’m still playing baseball, and I’m surrounded by guys that play baseball. And at the same time, I started to write. All of a sudden a new community of friends [were] around me in high school poets that I never known existed. One who became my dearest and best friend for many, many years, a man named Greg ???. And so then, instead of getting out of school and hanging out with my baseball buddies, Greg and I would walk through the neighborhood with books and read each other. And it was just a whole different thing. And all of that nourished me. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for that. Poetry at that point became the path suddenly manifested out of all of the bends and twist and hidden openings and suddenly boom, there was a door.
Andy Vantrease 19:56
And I think about how much your grandmothers had you reading you know? When you were young, and just all of your life experiences coming together to start this practice. You know, knowing that you’ve been a yogi and had a meditation practice for decades, I really, when I look at the trajectory of your, your seeking and finding, it really seems to me like poetry is that first morsel of learning how to process your emotions and your life, from the seat of the observer, putting some space between what’s happening. It’s just another form of meditation.
Gary Lemons 20:38
You’re amazing. You’re absolutely right. And that’s beautifully said. Thank you for illuminating that.
Andy Vantrease 20:44
You mentioned Mr. Angel as being one of the teachers that brought this introduction of poetry to you. Who were some of the other teachers in your life that walked with you on this path and guided you towards some of the more gentle practices that you started to get into?
Gary Lemons 21:04
Initially, there was a man named Rudy, Rudy Schuster, that I met my first year of college. He was a lot older than the rest of us. I think he was in his early 30s. And he had either been discharged or deserted the military over in Okinawa. rather than come back to the States, he went to India and spent seven or eight years just wandering around with Bodhisattvas, and all kinds of studying with and at the feet of various gurus. And, and he was just a very humble, wise, beautiful man. And I was sitting in the dining hall with a bunch of friends and, and Rudy kind of comes in, and like I say, he’s 10 years older, he could be a teacher. And he, he walks up to me, and he sits down, and my friends are looking, because they don’t know him. I don’t know him. And he points at me, and he says, “I need to talk to you. I have something for you.” And I go, and I’m like, instantly, just goosebumps. I don’t know why. I don’t know what’s going on. But this just means something to my body, even if my mind isn’t getting it. And so I said, “Well, yeah.” And he said, “Well, come on, let’s go for a walk.” And, and that was it. You know, he introduced me to the whole practice of meditation. He was a Mahayana Buddhist at that time. And so I learned strictures and, and disciplines that are a part of that aspect of Buddhism and studied with him for the whole two years, I was at that college. That with the poetry that I was already beginning to explore, the two things kind of merged into what I then think I’d been doing the rest of my life in some form or another.
Gary Lemons 22:56
There were no other real significant spiritual teachers along that path until I met Erich Schiffmann. In 1995, I think at a teacher training in Sun Valley. So there’s 25 years that I was taking what I had been given from Rudy and following it through my own experiences toward Erich. When I was totally depleted of my own resources, there was Erich. Wow. And in poetry, I was of a generation where I was really, really fortunate to have living poets around me who were still actively teaching in workshops and seminars and so I studied with some of what I considered the greatest poets of my generation. And I went to two years at the University of Iowa Poetry Writers Workshop. And there I studied with Donald Justice and Morgan Bell and Norman Dubey and John Berryman, William Stafford, Denise Levertov, Diane Murkowski, Maxine ???. Just a huge amount of wonderful, astounding poets who helped me find my voice. And of all of them Norman Dubey was the one I still to this day I’m in connection with and whom I just adore. And who still helps me find my voice in the same way that Erich helps me remember my voice.
Andy Vantrease 24:25
In so many different artistic mediums, I really feel like through the art, you’re continuing to find out who you are. You know, in college, and as you’re studying, was it more feeling like you were learning structure and skill and being trained? Or were you aware of the self-reflection and the self-discovery of the process?
Gary Lemons 24:50
I think a little bit of both. I remember reading very early, a wonderful John Coltrane quote, where he said, “If you want to improv, you better learn your scales.” And, and I took that to heart. I realized at some point that I was free, but I didn’t know what I was free from. And so I wanted to learn the scholarly aspects, the formal aspects of poetry. I spent a lot of time in school in targeted classes learning, you know how to break down poems, how to find the meter, how to how to listen to the music, how to find the rhythm–iambs connected to the anapests produce this, almost like violin movement through the poem, or other musical feet produce another instrument. And that whole thing is very orchestrated down at a fairly minute level by the poets who came before me. And so I wanted to learn that in order to be free of it, as it turns out. I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I would always write in rhyme. And then for a while, I thought I’ll always write in, if not rhyme, then with some attention to rhyme. And now I write pretty much a free verse with the idea that the music underlying the free verse is as important as the message itself. It’s like a film frame or video frame is, there’s 30 to a second. And so I’m trying to produce stills that connect together almost so rapidly, that you just get a feeling, not a sense of cognitive awareness of what this actually means. But somewhere inside, you’re touched, not through the brain, but the heart.
Gary Lemons 26:40
I think poetry for a long time was primarily aimed at the brain at the mind. Can you make this comprehensible? Can you be understood by the most amount of people? And if you can, your work will be popular. And then consequently, you can make a living at poetry, which so few do. Those years spent studying the mechanics, the underlying foundation of what I consider to be a beautiful poem, helped me find my voice. Because once I knew that my voice was just not about being against something, but that it actually had roots going back into something that was invisible to me. When I was reading poems as a younger man, I didn’t know why I was moved, and I didn’t know what the poet had done to move me, I just knew, you know, I liked it or not. And then I began to see how this skill, this craft can become art through attention to those aspects.
Andy Vantrease 27:41
I think that’s such an interesting point of learning this structure and the craft in a formal way first, so then you can be free of. I almost feel like so much of our lives is that. You know, like, we go through schooling and we go through the education system, and you know, different job systems, and then the whole rest of our lives is learning how to be free to decondition at least, or…It seems like it does create a context for not fighting against something, but knowing that it’s there, and then being able to move and shift off of that.
Gary Lemons 28:21
You actually triggered that in me when you said something about becoming conscious of something allows you to create a little bit of space around it. To me that yeah, this is what’s happening in education as well. These disciplines and structures that were exposed to, by people that we have given our authority to and who require it in order to teach us. Being aware of that allows you to step back out a bit a little bit. I got that from what you said. And I think it’s really true.
Andy Vantrease 28:55
I know that your more recent books have been you as a poet taking the role of almost a channel or a conduit between ideas that are coming from some source and evolving in their own right. I’d love to hear about you’re being told what to write not even necessarily from the learned skill, but something so much deeper.
Gary Lemons 29:23
Yeah, that sort of merging of my yoga practice and meditation with my writing practice. It completed itself with the Snake Quartet, which briefly is a four book series with a character called Snake, who is he-she because, again, the thing I mentioned about gender. When you begin to deal with infinite archetypes, which Snake is there is really no gender in infinity or there, gender is a finite concept. We have it in our form. I see a man. I see a woman. I see a dog or a cat. I see these specific forms, the infinite in specific presence. But the perspective shift in meditation is to see the infinite in the specific form. And when you do that, gender becomes meaningless. It’s just, it’s, you know, if you want to put it this way, God is not male or female, God is all things, there’s nothing outside of God. And I use that word, as Erich uses it not with any specific religion in mind, but as the all-ness of the totality, the source of all things.
Gary Lemons 30:38
And so the Snake Quartet is about the end of the world as we know it. Life on the planet has gotten intolerable for the planet. Gaia made an intelligent choice, because she has an intelligent entity to start over. This didn’t work. All these things happening on me. People are thinking drills deep into my core. People are exploding bombs on my surface. People are poisoning the air that water. this isn’t working. So she gets rid of us, and starts over. And Snake is the repository for where we go. It’s not like anything ever dies. It just moves. It goes somewhere else and, and we can’t see it anymore. But all at once we all go into this kind of spiritual escrow account where we’re being held, no longer visible, and Snake is all that’s left. And Snake is the negotiator with the Earth about trying to convince the Earth to lead people in things back on it. So this time, we can do it right. And so yeah, it’s difficult. There’s a lot of darkness in the book. And so the dark is critically important to transformation. That’s how I feel.
Gary Lemons 31:57
The books, and in fact, all of my work, become a listening. I feel like a listening post, which is another way of saying channeling these voices that are speaking from wherever they are, that I hear sometimes in my meditation, maybe not as language even as music or as intuition or as a prompt to be active in something I didn’t expect or hadn’t cognitively laid out for myself. Suddenly, I’m doing something, “Whoa, how did that happen?” Because I was moved, and again, I want to honor Erich for this, but he says, “Have the courage to do as you’re guided to do.” And, and so that form of guidance in poetry means write what comes out. You can go back later and apply discipline to it. You can look for places where the tense is off, or you’ve used a gerund where you should have used a present participle. These things can be corrected retrospectively. But as far as letting the whole thing come out, unedited, that’s brand new to me, or since I started writing the Snake books, and awesome. It’s just a killer way to write because it feels like meditation.
Andy Vantrease 33:14
Do you ever fear what is going to come out when you leave it so boundary-less? Or do you have playful curiosity with let’s just see what comes out?
Gary Lemons 33:27
Both. I’m also scared to death, what will come out. This first Snake book particular is very difficult. It’s the book in which the destruction the end happens. Everything else is after the end. So it’s not quite as visceral. But the first book is extremely visceral. But I’m also holding myself accountable for being there no matter what. And again, to quote Erich, in his classes, he often says things like, when he’s talking about do what you’re guided to do, what your inner guidance is saying. He quotes that old radio show, “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man. The Shadow knows.” His point was, is that there’s no inherent evil in there. If you trust if you’re willing to abandon your, you know, your rigidity, and your insistence on certain characteristics that you and others are supposedly made up of, like evil and good. And these things, again, the perspective shifts and you’re in the infinite perspective. And these things are just in their part of the composite of the whole. Consequently, they lose their dynamic grip on us.
Andy Vantrease 34:46
Just this idea of bringing awareness to the darkness and to the shadow side, I think there’s a lot to be said about teachers and people who are willing to look at that shadow side. You know, have it not all be about love and light and positivity and optimism. And I think that there’s there’s a healthy longing for what else is there. And when I really think of it as the Earth, it’s like, there is no summer without winter.
Gary Lemons 35:23
Andy Vantrease 35:24
And so, so what are we doing to ourselves when we cut ourselves off from this darkness? How can we have the courage to really go to those places that are typically avoided? Would you be willing to read “The Elephant in the Room”? Because I think that that poem, it’s sort of a call to action for that.
Gary Lemons 35:45
Sure, I would be honored. And thank you for asking me. The poem is called, as you said, “The Elephant in the Room.” And it’s from Original Grace, which is the fourth book in the Snake Quartet, which will come out, well mid May.
Gary Lemons 35:59
The Elephant in the Room…It’s only come here because the rivers are dry, or undrinkable silted over with sand. The Acasias, some thousands of years old, dead, their leaves torn off by storms, the way soldiers field strip cigarettes. The elephant is in the room, because now it must raise its young among our furniture, and on our carpets. And sure, it might break a vase, or punch out a window, or drink with its delicate pink nose from the toilet bowl. But please, don’t chase it away. The days of walled off abundance, and personal habitat are over.
Andy Vantrease 36:51
Can you tell us a bit about that poem.
Gary Lemons 36:56
If there’s one thing that I have the most difficulty with in terms of juggling my spirituality with the manifest reality, I’m floating and as we all are, it’s the cruelty to animals, and the extinction of species. And this this poem came about after reading that the last living Sumatran rhinoceros had died in a zoo. And that sub-genus of elephants in southern Africa were so endangered, there was just a few of them left. And I think where can they go, you know, we’re crowding them out of where they live. Their ecology is shrinking to the point where they’re, they’re like in a crowded room, like people would be when they’re placed in high rise buildings, where you’ve got thousands and thousands of people living in a square block vertically. And so the poem comes from the idea that, you know, we’re going to have to share. The poem talks about sharing our homes, but really our, our home is a metaphor for the earth itself. We’re going to have to share. We can no longer wall ourselves off behind fences and gates and economically specific communities, mostly rich communities, where we’re inured to this. This is done. The world cannot live like this anymore. And I don’t mean, philosophically. It’s going to happen whether we get on board or not. The change is coming. And the creatures that live on this planet are going to begin demanding their right to be here. This goes back to something we talked about a little earlier about sort of the male, masculine, patriarchal, social inventions used to promulgate itself. And so structure over structure over structure, the measurement of success within the structure becomes more and more exclusive. And consequently, less and less are able to fit in causing huge societal separation, loneliness, and that is the first step toward disease and illness. When you go into some of these other cultures, where you’re able to relax into the social embrace of children, men and women living and sharing their lives together, there’s nothing that keeps them apart. I’m trying to write about that right now in my way.
Andy Vantrease 39:38
Yeah, I totally agree. And it’s interesting to me because I think that there is a natural structure. We think that we have to create a structure for whatever it is we’re doing here and it’s like it exists. I mean, a lot of the work I do with my teacher is around this the cyclic nature of existence on earth? And, gosh, what would happen in who would we be if we just took up our right relationship? You know, like Native American talk about right relationship with the Earth and with different beings. And the human, what is the right relationship for the human in the natural existing order of things?
Gary Lemons 40:28
I would use the word and this is just the result of my own inquiry, I use the word balance. Because I think that, you know, in infinity, that’s so huge, we can’t grasp it. Infinity is there’s nothing outside of it. If you find something outside of it, it’s included. And so infinity gets larger, but there’s nothing outside of it. And that means it everything, every imaginable and unimaginable thing somewhere can happen. There’s no zero on the probability curve, nothing is impossible. And secondly, everything is equally present. Because it’s infinitely present. We may only see a little small aspect of it, but somewhere thousands of light years across the universe, the rest of it that makes it equally infinite is there. So, you know, in this immensity that’s beyond any comprehension, thankfully, or we try to own it. There is, there is perfect balance, because everything is completely an infinitely consequently, equally present. Yeah, so I think about like, this is really silly, if you had an infinite amount of white jelly beans, and an infinite amount of black jelly beans, and you threw them out some force threw them across infinity. So you have an infinite amount of black and white spread across an infinite space, there will be more black in someplace more white in another place. But when in meditation, when you sit back and and look at this, through the infinite perspective, they’re equally there. And so boom, “balance.” The underlying feeling tone, for me is perfect balance.
Andy Vantrease 42:19
How have you been able to in your lifetime, hold these concepts that are so deep and so huge, with living in this form on this material plane?
Gary Lemons 42:37
I can’t, a lot of times, and so…
Andy Vantrease 42:40
Gary Lemons 42:40
Most important tool in my tiny little toolbox is forgiveness. So when I fail, I, I forgive myself. And when others fail, I try to practice forgiving them with a really wide spectrum of success and lack of success.
Andy Vantrease 42:58
Yeah. Gosh, more and more, I just seem like, we’re really hard on ourselves for things that don’t really matter. In the long run.
Gary Lemons 43:07
Exactly. I know.
Andy Vantrease 43:09
Yeah. Knowing that forgiveness is a practice of yours, and I so appreciate that because I think that it’s such a hard practice. But there is a necessity of gentleness and surrender in a practice of forgiveness. Just that idea reminds me of the story of you and your father. And you had mentioned earlier about being at odds with him in your teenage years. And I know after that you were estranged, essentially for 35 years, but you you to have a pretty incredible story. So if you’re willing to share that today, I would love to hear about that reconciliation.
Gary Lemons 43:52
Sure. When the 60s happened, and as we talked about earlier, there were all kinds of wedges being driven into an already fragile relationship. Why this was so hard was because I had watched my father, even as a young man, make incredible sacrifices to hold our family together. When there was no mother around to help him. He worked two and sometimes three jobs while going to night school to get a better job, which he eventually did. You know, the sacrifices he made to keep us together are extraordinary. It was hard for me to to step away from him because of our grave philosophical differences. But I had to also to be true to myself. So when this all happened, the 60s and, and this movement into civil liberties. I supported civil rights issues, as well as opposing the Vietnam War. and he’s World War Two veteran, and both of those were an anathema to him. I just left. I said to myself, “Okay, that’s it. We’re done.” And he said the same thing. He said, “Okay, I don’t, I essentially disown you.” I will say oldest son. And, and so we went our separate ways. He did what he did. He, he had an a daughter with my stepmom, and they raise all of my siblings, and they went their ways. And, and I didn’t know much about what was going on. Once in a while my next closest brother, who was my dearest friend, most of my life, and who did go to Vietnam would tell me things about what was going on. But that’s the only source of information I had go years without hearing about it.
Gary Lemons 45:35
And then I was at home, just like 35 years later, pick up the phone and I say, “Hello.” And he says, “Gary, this is your father.” And I go, “What?” And he goes, “Yeah, I want to apologize for my part and everything that went wrong when we were together. And I’m really sorry. And I hope you can forgive me.” And I was so stunned. I didn’t know what to say. I said, “Well, yeah, sure, Dad.” You know, and I became a little kid again, almost. And and then he just said, “Okay, well, that’s what I wanted to say.” And he’s kind of abrupt that way on the phone anyway. And so he just hung up. I went, “Wow.” I turned to my partner at the time. And I told them what happened. And they knew the whole story. And they went, “Whoa, that’s, that’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard. I can’t believe he did that. Wonder what it went on.” And so then four days later, I get a knock on the door. He lives in DC. I live in Port Townsend. It’s like, over 4000 miles apart, and I open the door. It’s my dad. I’m just blown away and go, “Dad, what are you doing here?” And he looks at me. And he says, “You know, it was a cop out for me to say that over the phone to you. I have to say this to you in person.” And he apologized again for his part and what went wrong. And you know, I just like burst into spontaneous tears. I couldn’t believe it. And then I said, “Well, come on in, come on, Dad.” And he goes, “No, no, I don’t I don’t want to impose on you. And I didn’t want to make this a social visit. I just wanted to make sure that I looked at you when I said it.” And then he got back in the car and drove 4000 miles back to DC.
Gary Lemons 47:26
And ever since then, my heart has healed from those wounds, some self-inflicted in some inflicted by by the situation and including by him. But forgiveness, just like, it was this amazing freedom that he gave me to do the self-processing that allowed me to let go of all of these years of anger and pain and the need to keep him away from me just disappeared. So that, that’s pretty amazing. Where it stands. Currently, my dad has just turned 95 on April Fool’s Day. He is one of my best friends now. We, we have grown so close. I regret all the years we lost even though it was necessary for both of us to do our, to be true to ourselves.
Andy Vantrease 48:28
I don’t hear about that kind of thing, often outside of movies, to be honest.
Gary Lemons 48:33
No. I know. I know. And this is the kind of person he is. He’s a very grand figure in a sort of ordinary life. There’s something about him that’s almost mythical and tragic. And he acts sometimes in heroic ways like holding a family together when he was 25 for all those years when there was no mom around to help him, no partner to help him. When I look back on that I asked myself, could I have done that? No, there’s no way I could have done that. I don’t know where he got the courage and the strength to pull that off. But he did and, and that’s the kind of guy he is. He sometimes can just drive me nuts, even now, but he’s also become almost mythologically beautiful in my heart.
Andy Vantrease 49:27
How many years have you had together since then?
Gary Lemons 49:31
I would say around 24-25. Maybe somewhere in that. See I’m old.
Andy Vantrease 49:37
There’s so much in life. It’s incredible.
Gary Lemons 49:40
Yeah, it really is. The opportunity you’ve given me to talk about this. I’m eternally grateful for. Thank you.
Andy Vantrease 49:47
Well, it is very fun for me and something that you said was that Erich was instrumental in helping you recognize that all of the anger and the hate hatred and the pushing away of your father was not possible to hold on to if you were dedicated to the path of yoga.
Gary Lemons 50:11
Yeah, he didn’t say it to me like a lecture or like a rule. He embodied in such a way. The loving presence of Erich ripples into the people around him in such a way that they begin to question, you know, who they are and what they’re doing in the world with their lives. And what I got from him, like the first time almost that I was in the room with him, is this like, “Wow, I’ve been meditating since I was 17. And I thought all along that I’m moving in a direction that is “spiritual” and, and is liberating and become something I can inhabit the rest of my life in. And yet, I think I can carry this crazy weight of anger along the way?” No, I just, whoa, my whole being went, “That doesn’t work, dude.”
Andy Vantrease 51:16
What are some of those main stories that had to be shed when he came back into your life, because I think a lot of times around situations like that, it becomes part of your identity, all of the ways that we love to get attached to those things.
Gary Lemons 51:35
Well, two things on that. One, it’s sort of in the bigger container of my awareness. I began to do the work and am doing the work to see that the stories don’t have to change. The stories are what they are. It’s me that has to change. And so can I be aware of the pain and the anger that I carry, and not identify with it. But like you said earlier, that thing about giving a little space around the events so that you are already a witness to something that you were originally entangled deeply in and, and had no perspective other than being a victim of it. So there’s that. And that’s an ongoing process, not just with my dad, but with everything.
Gary Lemons 52:23
And then secondly, with my father, there were specific things that he’s changed about. You know, he grew up in the south, he was a racist. And I knew it when I was young, because I got a lot of trouble. In fact, I got kicked out of church for questioning the minister for his racist sermon. Taking that Old Testament model of what men and women are in relationships, and seeing him apply that. I didn’t agree with that. Again, it was a 60s when I started to hang out with really strong, powerful women, and bring back the memory of my grandmother into those times and see that I’m surrounded by alternatives. And why in the hell am I still believing or giving any energy to this model when it doesn’t work, and never really was intended to survive. Maybe in the cave millions of years ago, it was necessary to do things that way. But that’s a long time ago. And then, you know, there was a whole thing about the military, these are stories that I carried, and my lack of support of, of war and, and all that comes from war. The way that the economy is weighted toward the military and, and the cost of that in education and social services. All these things that were happening. So those were stories that had something to do with it.
Gary Lemons 53:52
And then there was the whole thing about homophobia, which he also was. And that just, interestingly enough, triggered his apology to me. He had a woman in his office, and he by then was, worked at the government at a very high level as a Treasury’s design accountant. And he had a woman that worked with him, who was very young in her mid to late 20s, when he was in his maybe late 40s. And they became friends. And she was an avid handball player, and so was he. And so they started playing handball together. And they were very competitive. And they were about equally matched. She would beat him a little more, but he also was able to hold its own and sometimes beat her too. And so they just had this wonderful relationship. And she would come to the family dinners while, I wasn’t there but I heard. Christmas she was over and my mom, my stepmom loved her. And, and then he found out she was lesbian. And he told me this with tears in his eyes, not during those original visits, but later when we became close. And he said, “You know, I had to decide whether I disliked her because of her choice to be a lesbian, or if I still loved her because she was dear to me.” And he said, “And with that question, in my mind, there was no way I could do anything but still loved her.” And that moment was cathartic for him, because he realized, I think this is fair to say, a lot of his presuppositions shattered in that moment, as well. And, and that triggered the whole evolution to the place where he called me.
Andy Vantrease 55:48
Wow. Yeah, I think that a really difficult thing to do is allow space for another person’s evolution. When you have a story about who they are, and I have gone through that with parents, and I’ve gone through that with friends. Do you see your father’s ability to change as a hopeful sign that we can change, people can change?
Gary Lemons 56:19
Oh, I definitely do. I mean, he’s, he’s 95 now, and he’s still astounds me sometimes with how he’s evolving. He hasn’t sat down at some point in his life and just said, “Okay, this is who I am. And I’m not changing anymore.” Because it’s work to change. It takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of contemplation, self-inspection. These things require your presence. And to see somebody that age continue to look at himself and try to figure out how he could be better at what he is, is just amazing to me. And I, for me, personally, it’s very inspiring. I hope I can follow his lead on that. I hope I never sit down in a chair and go, “Okay, I’m done.”
Andy Vantrease 57:09
Yeah. Gosh, that even seems like it takes energy and strength too. It’s like, to change is the natural thing, but we fight it so hard. That…
Gary Lemons 57:20
That’s a good point.
Andy Vantrease 57:21
You know, to sit down in a chair and not change is like you’d really have to remove yourself from the world.
Gary Lemons 57:29
Oh, you’re totally right.
Andy Vantrease 57:31
Well, Gary, to close, I would love for you to read your poem freedom.
Gary Lemons 57:38
Boy, thank you so much for all of this. For being there, for doing what you do, And for being my friend, I really, really admire you. This poem is called “Freedom.” And it’s from my first book which was published by Van West & Company. And that company is Jenny Van West, who is one of my dearest and closest friends and someone I admire tremendously and look up to as a teacher.
Gary Lemons 58:12
Freedom…From the common yard, we share with others, too injured, too cold in their eyes, too fearful or tenured to leave. You can see the woman with a small dog on the hill. She loves you. She is the life you would live were you not enclosed behind your wounds. She grows smaller, the music of her voice more quiet every day of your diminishment. Each day is a room forgetting makes into a prison. Inside there are iron bars, cruel guards, wardens and dogs, our blood on the perimeter. Outside, there is our life. We have no weapon. No key. No sorcerers want to make a door. Only the image burned into each newborn child, of freedom. We must never forget that we are intended to walk in sunlight. That injury is not a blessing. That outside there is someone who loves us, who may be drying up from lack of rain, who needs us to blow down the house we built with every blow we’ve taken. Someone waits for all of us beyond our cell. Perhaps there is a small spotted dog growing older seven days to our one, a child or children trying on a larger shoe. We must never stop working to be free. You can actually escape if you remember a time you were not a guest in your own house. Then you will see them on the distant hill, waving you closer, calling your name. They are the ones who draw a circle on the ground, at the edge of every darkness, love is burning candles. If you are not at home and yourself, then you are dying. You are lost inside the prison of your days. While tomorrow turns to ash at the edge. You must remember now. You must look clearly at what it is you hope to never see about yourself, and suffer visions summoned from the terrors you turn to brutal light. You must take off your clothes and place them on the shadow growing smaller, where you stood when you were still afraid.
Andy Vantrease 1:01:16
Gary Lemons what a soulful human being. This is the first long conversation I had with Gary after meeting him briefly a few years ago at the Feathered Pipe Ranch. And I felt so connected to his sense of the world, his creativity, his willingness to explore all parts of life and existence, even those dark corners that many of us seem to avoid at all costs. And what an incredible story of reconnection with his father. I was over here letting the tears flow silently as Gary recounted the events of his dad making the drive all the way across the country to apologize. This proved to me that it’s never too late to say you’re sorry. It’s never too late to question the beliefs that you picked up from certain systems and institutions. Keep growing. Keep connecting with people. Lean into each other. In doing so your worldview will open wider than you ever thought possible.
Andy Vantrease 1:02:11
To read Gary’s work and purchase his poetry books, visit garylemons.com, and look out for Original Grace, the fourth book of The Snake Quartet, which will be available mid May and can be found on his website at redhen.org.
A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.
This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day.