Deep Down And Way Up by George Merrill

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As a boy I had two toys that I recall fondly. One was a metal German submarine, WWI vintage. It measured a little less than a foot long. The word “Unterseeboot” was inscribed in classical German font along the keel adding to its mystique. When wound up, the propeller would drive the U-Boat the length of the bathtub where, at least once a week, I bathed while conducting naval warfare. The U-Boat could not submerge unless I pushed down on it. No matter, my imagination and I took the sub at least weekly on its predatory excursions.

The other toy was a model of the Wright Brothers aircraft, the first plane to substantially sustain flight. The skeletal structure was made from lead and its wings composed of yellowish translucent material. The wingspan measured a foot and a half. It had a tiny wind up engine that turned its prop, but it wouldn’t move the plane an inch since the plane weighed a ton. A lone pilot, properly attired in suit, jacket and tie sat at in a cockpit that looked like an open porch. He didn’t look very safe.

I came by the toys via a mysterious great uncle I never met. Uncle Frank, according to family lore, traveled the world and frequently returned with various kinds of exotica from the countries he visited. Nobody was clear about just what he did.

I thought of the toys the other day. Their images appeared suddenly in my mind’ eye and kept returning like the tunes that insist on playing over and over in my head.

Submarines and airplanes provided mankind its first access to places we’d only dreamed of going before. Both inventions were quickly placed in the service of war; we have a penchant for forging swords more quickly than plowshares.

With these inventions we could now live long periods below the water’s surface and travel great distances through the air. Our forebears once believed heaven was God’s exclusive dwelling place along with his angels. Heaven was private property and trespassers would be prosecuted. The ocean’s depths were the habitat of frightening monsters. In the nineteenth century one theory held that all living creatures, after death, descended to the depths of the ocean where, in its arcane mud and slime, they were transformed into new beings. The deceased rose, not to heaven as once thought, but sunk to the bottom like stones.

Our bodies, by original design, are earthbound. Our spirit is another matter. It’s not confined to time, place and space. It can go anywhere and it does.

It’s our nature to plumb the depths. We are insatiably curious. Most Americans usually aspire to greater heights, or as the psalmist once put it: “to take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea.” We know the feeling as restlessness, that low-grade discontent that feels like hunger, but not knowing what food might sate us. Our souls quickly stir when experiencing goodness, but can become strangers to us in our consumerist culture. The spirit urges us to search more deeply in life while aspiring to greater heights. A consumerist culture, on the other hand, asks of us only that we keep purchasing, acquire more and be winners at all costs. In short, we are awash in a morass of banality; today’s ideals are not inviting us to reach nobler heights or discern greater depths, but only to acquire more and make good deals. It’s a ‘me’ generation, floating on millions of selfies.

I’m encouraged of late to see that there’s a growing appetite for justice. I’m seeing it, of all places, in our streets. “The streets,” as we often talk about them, are dismal places where crime, gang violence and poverty manifest. However, other things are happening on the streets providing some hope for our languishing spirits. There’s a growing public outcry for justice. Justice is to the soul what water is to the body. A soul can live a long time without many things, but without justice it soon languishes.

Occupy Wall Street, a grass roots movement that began in September of 2011, attempted to bring the income disparity of America into public awareness. If it did little more than increase awareness of economic inequality, it served us well. It’s been a tough nut to crack. The top 0.1 percent of today’s population earns 184 times the other ninety percent. Even now, women make only eight cents to every dollar men earn for the same jobs.

On January 17th the women’s march on Washington highlighted the social and economic indignities woman have suffered in our sexist and consumerist culture. The demonstrations were well disciplined, held with dignity and, unlike many social movements that can grow self righteous and combative, were carried out with a distinctly feminine touch. The demonstrations reflected people with hope and with a vision. The marchers made their point with understated eloquence, deftness and humor. The pussy hat was a stroke of genius.

On earth day, thousands of scientists marched in D.C. and around the world to protest budget cuts to scientific research. The heart of the march, in addition to protesting research budget cuts, was also to marshal a renewed will for healing the earth at a time when there’s massive denial of its problems. Much of that healing lies in what science can unearth about the ecological dynamics of our planet. There is no Planet B.

These fanciful excursions – from a bathtub sub to a Wright Brothers airplane – may seem a bit of a stretch. Still, I’ve often wondered whether those seemingly innocent images that flow past the mind’s eye may not be symbols of a longing seeking a voice. The subs and planes represent spatial dimensions – deep down and high up. I think they’re symptomatic of my longing for a higher vision to which we can aspire as a people while freeing ourselves from the depths of cynicism into which we seem to have been inexorably drawn.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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