Phubbing by George Merrill

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Two of our children and four of our grandchildren joined us for Thanksgiving. The grandchildren, girls, range 17 years on down. Early in the day everyone winds up in the den. Most like to watch the Thanksgiving parade and, later in the day (why I have no idea) the dog show and so the room can get packed. The den’s not that big.

I’d been in the kitchen paring vegetables and after finishing up I walked into the den. Except for my wife and me, both our children and the four grandchildren were in the den – three girls and their Dad were on the sofa; Mom and one grandchild sat in chairs. The television was on. Ostensibly everyone was watching the parade or, in a perfect world, would have been.

Three of the grandchildren were texting. One was playing a video game on her iPhone and Mom and Dad were either texting or getting text messages. As for the television screen, it may as well have been blank. As for the audio part, it could just as soon have been the sound of the one clapping.

In the interests of full disclosure I confess I’m a Luddite and while I love my family, I find this behavior abominable. There’s no other word for it . . . well, maybe one and I learned of it only recently. It’s called phubbing and it is reaching epidemic proportions. The word is a conflation of phone and snubbing. It refers to individuals interacting with their iPhone (or other devices) rather than engaging with the human beings that they may happen to be with.

Phubbing is addictive. More and more and more people find it hard to resist. This is a serious. The phubbers have the frightening potential to transform us from homo sapiens, the typically gregarious social animals that we are, into hyped up phubbees, zoned out on the latest news blip, phone call or text message. All it takes is a tiny electronic blip or hum and we’re hooked.

Only last week The Washington Post reported studies about the many couples that are straining to maintain their love for each other while struggling with the allure of their androids and iPhones. This is not fake news, either. Researchers at Baylor University surveyed over 140 people and found that “almost half had been ‘phubbed’ by their partners, that is snubbed in favor of checking social media, news or texts on their iPhones.”

The managing editor of The Week Magazine, Theunis Bates, confesses to being caught up in the seductions of the electronic media and says he has been both a phubber and phubbee so he knows first hand the stresses involved.

Even should a phone not be in use, psychologists claim its presence alone in the middle of the table in the restaurant may cause interpersonal problems. Studies reveal that “simply leaving the phone out while dining . . . can interfere with your connection to your dining partner – perhaps because their eyes keep flicking toward the device eager for new alerts, suggesting that a piece of technology is more interesting than you are.”

Soon a kind of pavlovian response develops for compulsive iPhone users. Just by tapping a screen they are immediately rewarded with an “always updating streams of photos from family and friends, and tweets from the president.” Information varies widely and may include reports of the latest sexual abuse allegations being leveled at high-end capitalists, movie stars, clergyman and congressman. For the less discriminating phubbers there’s always a Trumpian rant or an endearing image of a friend’s new cat.

There’s mounting evidence that the rewards that this constant stream of data affords us are similar to the rush recreational drugs provide. Our electronic devices can turn us into addicts. As of 2015 there were an estimated two billion smartphone users with the number expected to rise by twelve percent in the next year.

Statistics are sobering. The average smartphone user checks in about eighty times a day either on Facebook, instagram feed or web links. I did however consult Google (I was alone when I did) to find out how many cell phone users there are worldwide. I want to emphasize here that it was my initiative to make the contact and only in the service of fact-finding. I want the record clear that I’m not addicted. I enjoy constitutional immunity.

 

St. Paul once said that we discover our strengths through weakness. I am a total electronic klutz, hopelessly inept with any electronic device. When trying to figure which icon to tap to retrieve a call or get weather, I behave like the centipede that gets flummoxed trying to decide which leg to put down first. I am not at all seduced by the lure of electronic beeps and buzzes. Actually I’ll frequently leave my iPhone at home because I find it intrusive and get irritated when I start messing with it. Being an electronic klutz has delivered me from the hand of the marketers and the snare of the phubber. The downside is that I’m often clueless as to what’s going on in the world that day. Hey, as I see it, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Most of it is demoralizing, anyway.

As with other addictive behaviors, confessional stories of personal struggles with phubbing are beginning to emerge, ironically, many on social media. Heather Wilhelm from the National Review writes to alert us as to what is happening: “Who among us hasn’t looked up at least once, smartphone in hand, slightly dazed, only to discover that precious bundles of minutes and hours have somehow slithered by, lost to all eternity, usually in exchange for no discernable enlightenment at all.”

In a more sober reflection I think that phubbing today does have an ominous side. It’s as if we in the post-modern era were like ten year olds who found a shiny nickel-plated revolver in the attic. We’re enthralled with its glittering properties, but have no idea how destructive it can be to ourselves or to those around us.

Phubbing may compromise our ability to be attentive, either to our environment or to each other. We’d literally become scatterbrained.

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.

 

In a Sightless World by George Merrill

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  • I have an inner light. So do you. You’ll notice it mostly when everything else darkens.

I don’t recall exactly what age I was, but there was a period as a child when I was tucked into bed before I felt ready to go. I entertained myself by closing my eyes and pressing on my eyelids.

I’d place finger pressure on my closed lids. One or two cheerio-shaped images appeared and they orbited through this interior universe. They changed colors the way the Northern Lights paint illuminated colors across the blackness of night. The colors went softly to magenta. Then they streaked yellow and finally to muddy brown – the way streams look after rainfalls. Surprisingly, the cheerio-shaped images were colored the same light tan as they look in a cereal bowl at breakfast. The background colors remained soft pastel as they slowly morphed from one color to another. This visual display that entertained me long enough so that after several minutes I was ready to sleep.

I was feeling festive the other day and found myself counting my blessings. It’s seasonally appropriate. I was surprised and pleased that I came up with as many blessings as I did. I’ll mention two that are for most of us so ordinary as not to worth mentioning. I can see and I can hear. And seeing is a joy.

The mid-Atlantic fall season reminds me of the soft pastel colors of my childhood’s bedtime adventure. In Vermont, where we go to visit children, fall colors seem almost garish, deeply saturated, stunning in their own way, but different from the Shore. It’s the difference between brilliant oil paintings and softer pastels I’ve seen, each relishing color, but rendered in different moods.

I read a moving essay by the acclaimed poet and Vermont essayist, Edward Hoagland. He, at eighty, lost his sight and writes about what it’s been like for him learning to live in a sightless world. He is an author of books that he can no longer read. There’s cruelty in being deprived of the functional organs of our creativity; Beethoven, who for deafness, never heard his great symphony performed and had to be turned around to receive the applause of an adoring audience that he could not hear.

Unlike my childhood adventure in which I chose to invite my inner lights to glow, Hoagland had no choice. I could always return to see the day. Hoagland cannot.

“Blindness is enveloping,” Hoagland writes. “It’s beyond belief to step outside and see so little, just a milky haze.”

I’ve spent large portion of my life reveling in the joys of sight. I’ve been enthralled by the marvelous textures shadow and highlight creates and the panoply of colors in changing landscapes. I’ve been an avid photographer since nineteen forty-seven. I’ve been writing for over twenty years and been practicing both arts with my eyes. Hoagland’s story disturbs me. With so great a loss, how does he cope, I wonder? How would I cope? I want to know where that well is from which he draws his strength? He still engages in his life with curiosity and wonder while continuing, without self-pity, to come to terms with a sightless world.

There’s a line is his essay that might suggest what that is: “Like Plato’s cave, your brain consists of memories flickering on the wall. The phenomenologies of sight [for Hoagland] are now memories . . . you can’t size up a new visage, yet the grottoes in your head have more to plumb, if your sight was lost midlife or later. You can go caving.”

Like the ancient caves of Lascaux, the walls of our memories are inscribed with the story of our lives. Now settled in the cave’s shadows, Hoagland sees his own stories written on the walls. He can revisit them. He goes caving.

I understand this to mean that while mourning the loss of seeing new vistas, he returns to the old ones and finds in them mystery and meaning.

The events of our lives once lived and inscribed on the walls of our soul’s memory, when reviewed in the here and now, often reveal so much of what we’d overlooked. Memories like that sparkle like diamonds when held up to an inner light. Turned slowly and deliberately they reveal many more facets than we ever thought were there when we first took hold of them. They become, as jewelers say about the finest diamonds: “of the first water.”

We possess an inner light. For some it’s a spark. It’s waiting to be kindled. For others it’s more like a flickering flame that appears in their eyes, the way I’ve heard compassionate and loving people described. Hoagland, I believe, through his poems and essays, illuminated the natural world in ways that helped us to see more deeply into a world he is no more privileged to see.

As I conclude this essay the sun is near setting and the late afternoon light illuminates the oaks in soft orange colors reminiscent of Dutch painters.

I wonder what new sights Hoagland is seeing with his inner light. His inner light will illuminate with new light, the familiar scenes of his life.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dropping The Bat by George Merrill

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I killed a bat, once. I never felt right about it. It was wrong, so unnecessary, so driven. I discovered for myself how quickly fear incites violence.

Bats are mammals, warm blooded and hairy like dogs and cats. Their wings, fashioned of thin-skinned membrane are frequently translucent. Their skeletons are shaped remarkably like humans, except that their knees bend the wrong way, like herons. Bats see, but find their way about more effectively by emitting and receiving sound waves, not unlike sonar. Like musicians and whales, bats negotiate their world by sound. But unlike musicians and whales, bats are irrationally feared.

“Liminal,” Professor Gary McCracken at the University of Tennessee, suggests of these little creatures, attempting to explain why bats give so many of us the willies: “They do not fit into people’s view of the normal scheme of things. They tend to be in between.” The human mind remains uneasy with ambiguity.
Not everyone finds bats creepy. The Chinese saw bats as symbols of good luck and bat images regularly appear in their tapestries and rugs. The Navajo Indians venerated bats as mentors during the long night hours, associating bats with their deity, the ‘Talking God.’ However, enjoying status hasn’t necessarily been an enviable estate for some bats. The Chamorro peoples of Guam, while honoring bats at special ceremonies, express gratitude for their contribution to Chamorro culture by eating them. Bats, as a result, have grown scarce in the Northern Marianas; the Chamorro’s have taken to importing bats. Being without honor in ones own land can sometimes be a blessing.

I once saw a moving picture of a bat, a Lyle’s flying fox, one of the larger bats. The photographer had taken the picture as the bat flew past a strong light, which lighted the creature the way sunlight illuminates leaves. The light set the bat’s torso in sharp relief with stunning clarity. I could see that the bat looked just like a human being, head high, arms reaching out sideways, legs extended backwards. The entire body looked woven together by the translucent wing membrane surrounding its body, which from the light behind it, shone like a penumbra, a glowing halo. The bat looked like Jesus on the cross, ascending bodily to heaven, and going to glory.

One November evening my wife, Jo, and I were sitting reading in the living room. A bat swooped over our heads; making two more passes before it went out into the hallway and out of sight. In about five minutes it returned, making a second sweep, as if he’d forgotten something, and then was gone.

The thought of his return frightened me. I had resolved earlier, that should the bat reappear again in the house, I’d swat him with the squash racket. With a twist of the wrist, I couldn’t miss.

I went to the closet, took a racket and waited for the bat to appear again from the hallway. By then my heart was pounding; the racket shook slightly in my hand. I couldn’t help myself now; I was committed. I had a passing sense that I was possessed with fear, and behaving like a madman.

The bat soon returned to the living room. I was waiting, racket in hand. A second bat appeared. They flew opposite courses around the living room. Ducking and feinting as if the bats were after me, I swung wildly, but hit nothing. I disturbed the tranquil air.

I stopped for a moment and steeled myself against an impulse to run, long enough to imagine the bats as squash balls; I turned my fear into sport. And as one bat began passing slightly over my head, I aimed deliberately and swung the racket firmly, snapping my wrist at the same time. The racket struck the bat full bore with a sickening spongy ‘whump.’ The bat flew against the wall, and with tiny high-pitched squeaks fell to the floor on its back. The bat twitched, its chest heaved and one outstretched wing lay motionless.

I felt triumphant at first. I watched the bat on the floor. His eyes were large, open as though he were surprised, and wondering. He had a pug face covered with soft brown hair; the bat looked like a miniature pup. One wing was broken asunder, the other drawn next to him as if he had tried vainly to protect himself from injury; hearing the sound of the racket approaching at terrible speed, he could do nothing to avoid it. I was sure for a moment that he was looking at me, and asking me, “Why?” The tiny chest rose and fell for a minute or so and suddenly ceased moving. His world his ended with a ‘whump.”

My wife, Jo was standing next to me. She had suggested earlier that we open a couple of windows and following the drafts the bats would leave on their own accord. Of course she was right but by then I was possessed. For many men, violence arrives too quickly on the heels of fear. Jo looked at me the way women often look at the men they love when their men do things they don’t understand, things which men feel compelled to do–driven kind of things–and her eyes looked moist, gentle and terribly sad.

I felt a faint wave of nausea; I wanted to run and to hide, to avert Jo’s eyes and never see the bat again but as I turned my head, near the tip of the bat’s broken wing bone, I saw four tiny fingers and a thumb. The bat possessed hands, one of which lay open, as if he were waiting for me to reach out and take hold of it.

Jo walked across the room to open windows.

I felt hollow, empty.

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.

 

In Praise of Oysters by George Merrill

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Oysters at Thanksgiving are a tradition on the Shore.

However, before I lived on the Shore it was in1960 that I first ate oysters. It was in New Orleans at Galatoir’s restaurant. I had them on the half shell and then ordered Oysters Rockefeller. I was hooked for life.

Every New Years Day since I prepare Oysters Rockefeller for family and friends. Even those who normally think of oysters as ‘yucky’ will allow that as a Rockefeller, an oyster not only becomes a class act, but an epicurean delight. I believe it’s the bacon and Spice Pariesienne that’s used which lends this dish its unique taste. Who doesn’t like bacon? In any case, preparing them is a ritual act like performing a liturgical rite. Presenting the oysters ceremoniously to guests earns the chef deep reverence. Fresh oysters, dressed with select ingredients and steaming in the rock salt beds on which they have been baked, there’s nothing quite like Oysters Rockefeller.

For me, oysters have been a family affair. The paternal side of my family had been involved in New York and Staten Island’s prolific oyster trade for over 250 years. An oyster 200,000,000 years old would look about the same as those we see today in the Chesapeake Bay or like the one’s my great-grandfather harvested in Raritan Bay. There aren’t many creatures about which we can say that, although the horseshoe crab is a close contender.

Oysters’ ability to survive and not change greatly over time is daunting considering the assaults they’ve suffered from man and beast alike, pollution and starfish. They work at their survival by maintaining a low profile, staying stuck-in-the-mud, having a thick shell and a hard edge. They also have some exotic habits.

If there is a preponderance of females among oysters, some females may simply become males in order to level the playing field – or vice versa. Necessity, the mother of invention, illustrates in this case how mothers can become fathers as required. Actually this same phenomenon frequents our own day as divorce becomes more common and mom winds up being both mother and father. For oysters, however, it’s an issue of DNA and not dereliction of duty that initiates the transformation.

Oysters are comfortable in a transgender world although I imagine courting could be challenging. An amorous oyster making his advances may not get what he bargained for. She might switch leaving him with some soul searching about same sex relationships.

To keep their enemies away, oysters house themselves in the most disreputable looking shells: misshapen, gnarled, uneven and rough to touch. Their shells can inflict a nasty cut. They’re covered with muck. I’ve seen resident barnacles and little red worms burrowing here and there on their shells – enough to put you off. The oyster’s sleight of hand is to appear ugly, but only to the uninitiated. Starfish have been onto them for ages. They’re more interested in an oyster’s inner life. They see beyond appearances.

The ramshackle exterior belies the oyster’s smooth interior living space. Within, the oyster inhabits a miniature palace, a salon, and elegantly glazed and satin smooth. The pearl-like patina of its walls is accented with occasional splashes of blue. The interior forms a seamless sanctuary where the oyster rests safely ensconced as cozily as though it were royalty reclining between pillows of silk.

Oysters are unique in their ability to inspire both revulsion and admiration. Like Quasimodo in the Hunch back of Notre Dame, their malformed bodies fascinate and endear many to them. In the same way, I find oyster shells beautiful. Native Americans used the shells – sans oyster meat – as currency. Making change may have created problems or sales were simply rounded off to the closest shell.

I live on a creek. In a sad annual ritual, in late winter, a waterman walks the shoreline along the low water mark. It’s an odd sight. He walks slowly in search of oysters that tongers may have missed. He tows a small dinghy behind him and when I see him he seems a little like a man walking a dog. He may stop, talk on his cell phone for a few minutes and continue his search. Finding an oyster he picks it up by hand throws it in the dingy and moves on. It’s sad because I take this to mean that oyster populations are diminishing in the Bay. They were once so abundant in New York Harbor during the era of early Dutch settlers, that one resident wrote how oysters were so prolific one could about walk across them on the waters between Governors Island and lower Manhattan,

My admiration for oysters goes far beyond my stomach or my eyes. It’s about holding in my hand the descendant of a prehistoric creature whose family inhabited the earth as life itself was just beginning to sort itself out. They were there shortly after the dawn of being. If oysters had eyes to see and tongues to speak they could tell us about how this marvel we call creation began its long trek. They would be witnesses to how life struggled from the sea to survive on land, to take wings and fly, to develop legs to walk, thumbs to hold, and minds to remember the past and to imagine a future.

If oysters only talked, imagine the stories they could tell us.

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.

 

The Slow Work of God by George Merrill

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“Above all,” writes the famous paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, “trust in the slow work of God.” He continues, “ . . . it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability – and that it may take a very long time.” At eighty-three, I’m learning to trust the slow work of time, which is, I’m sure, the slow work of God.

It’s autumn on the Shore, harvest season. I, too, am well into the harvest time of my own life. In my mind I frequently survey the landscape where I once sowed, the Island I was born on, and the various landscapes through which I’ve passed since. I see some things are gone, others have changed, and a few brought to fruition. My landscape has widened. The world of my youth was an insular one and now, with time, it’s become a global one.

Fall heralds the end of one season and begins another. It’s a time of transformation and for me, heightened awareness. I first see transformation in falling leaves and vibrant colors, but also in the autumn light. It assumes a softer character, so different than the garish light of mid-summer. On the edges of significant changes, I become more alert, as I might while driving through unknown terrain. Having arrived at the harvest time of my life, I return occasionally to the fields where I’ve sown.

Even with fall’s beauty radiating everywhere, I must confess I also feel tinges of melancholy, or is it nostalgia? I’m not sure.

I suspect that melancholy is the deepening awareness of my own vanishing history that grows more dim with the passage of time. There’s magical energy associated with the “firsts” of our lives. The excitement diminishes with time: the thrill of the first bicycle (it was a second-hand refurbished one as the war was on and few were made); the smell of my first new car; my first puppy named Pete who died of distemper; the first trip to the Statue of Liberty where I walked up the spiral staircase to see the harbor from its crown; there was my first love. There was the first photograph I took, developed the negatives and made the prints.

As a teen I was a lifeguard on the beaches of Staten Island. I once rescued someone. It was the only time and I recall it vividly. The slow work of God, sixty-seven years in this instance.

Growing up on the Island, the ethnic and racial differences were not as obvious as they are today. I knew no Asian kids in school, only one African-American and no Hispanics except once when, as a lifeguard, I rescued a little girl. It was my first hand introduction to how vulnerable and lonely being a stranger in the land can be.

The surf is gentle on Island beaches and bathers have to walk some distance to get in deeper water. It’s a safe place.

One day a thin and frail looking woman (in those days I would have said a foreigner) came over to the observation chair and got my attention by tapping me on the foot. I could see she was frightened and she pointed out to the water and muttered something – I think now it was in Spanish – I couldn’t understand. She beckoned me frantically to follow her to the water line. She pointed to a little girl who was out some distance, but not yet over her head. I could see the girl was standing. The water, however, was up to her chin. She was frozen with panic, afraid to move. I took large strides into the water, put my arm around her waist and walked her toward the shore. She clung to me and I could feel her shivering with fear. As we made our way to the shoreline, I felt a surge of protective compassion for her even though I knew nothing about her and was sure she was not really in much danger. The mother rushed over, put her arms around her, and looked at me in a way that said she was grateful, but, I suspect, also feeling awkward that she couldn’t tell me since she spoke no English.

In retrospect I believe I read the scene accurately. The mother and her child could speak no English. My guess now is they were Hispanic. After I returned to the beach I felt an overwhelming sadness. What must it be like to be in trouble in a strange place that you know no one? What can you do when you are afraid, but cannot speak the language of the people around you? I can only imagine how acutely vulnerable she felt and how hard it must have been for her to trust anyone. She didn’t speak the language, which would only have marginalized her more.

I often took the ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan, passing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island hundreds of times on the way. Both fascinated me. I saw them as the symbols of what America aspired to be, namely, a nation ennobled by offering hospitality to the stranger, a sanctuary for the tired and the poor.

Once I was a stranger.

A few years ago I took an elderly woman to a hospital while I was in Puerto Rico. She’d fallen and had lost considerable blood. She was diabetic and hadn’t eaten for hours. I spoke no Spanish. The halls were filled with patients milling about. I didn’t know where to go where to take my concerns. Doctors and nurses didn’t wear identifying uniforms. I asked some people where to register, where to go. They shrugged their shoulders in a kindly way, but indicated they spoke no English.

I felt desperate and lost.

“You don’t speak Spanish?” a short plump woman asked me. She had a lovely smile. I told her my dilemma. She oriented me to the hospital procedures, identified a doctor and even asked me where I’d parked. “The police will take your car if it’s in the wrong place,” she warned me. “It’ll be hard to get back.” Unlike the little Spanish girl of my Island epic, I could in this instance – with almost tears in my eyes –communicate my gratitude to her in a language she understood.

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.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor by George Merrill

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I’ve been around and on the water most of my life. I was born on an island, vacationed on another. Now I live on the Eastern Shore that is surrounded by water and for all practical purposes, is an island.

I’ve been seasick twice. The first time was crossing the English Channel from the Hook of Holland to Dover and the other sailing off Tortola in the Virgin Islands. Being seasick is a miserable experience. You think you’ll die and at times, wish you would.

A seasoned sailor once told me that the best way to stave off seasickness is to keep your eyes fixed on the horizon. As tumultuous as the sea can get, the horizon will appear steady and affords a stabilizing orientation that helps to make us feel balanced when everything around us is heaving.

I think of the socio-political climate I live in today as heaving. I feel tossed this way and that. It’s as if I spend my days trying to stave off the queasiness that frequently arises in my stomach when I look at my country and a world that seems to be going mad. It’s as if we were on a ship with a malfunctioning compass, a contentious crew and an ailing captain. We’re sailing under a cloudy sky that occludes the sun or stars so we can’t orient ourselves. I sometimes feel frightened, uncertain, lost.

As I write this, next to me sits a copy of The Week magazine. Like many magazines, the last page (The Last Word, this magazine calls it) offers reflective columns that deal with human-interest issues. The October 20th edition ran a piece on Mr. Rogers of the famous Mr. Rogers Neighborhood series that first ran on television in 1968. A picture of Mr. Rogers accompanies the article. He’s in his cardigan sweater, seated, smiling, as he puts on his sneakers. Rogers radiated an aura of benevolence that was infectious and from all accounts he was in real life the same kind, gentle, and caring man, as he appeared to be in his programs. He is an example of how character counts and how it can make all the difference in the lives of others. He had been a part of that horizon we seek as the world pitches and roils around us.

When I first saw the column I wondered, why now? Rogers died in 2003 and, although his program was shown for some years after his death, I assumed that he had become more like an old attic piece that may once have been loved and treasured and then wound up tucked away and forgotten. His reemergence is prophetic.

Prior to seeing this recent article, Mr. Rogers first came to my attention at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The horror of that senseless slaughter rippled through the country and it was front-page news for weeks.

At that time someone posted one of Mr. Roger’s comments online, a comment made years before on one of his programs. In his skillful way, he was discussing with his television neighborhood how when scary things happen and we feel all alone, it is not the end of our world. “My mother would say to me,” he told the children, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers –so many caring people in the world.”

The post reportedly went viral. It must have generated interest for millions in the country. The comment captured the national imagination. I believe it spoke to a deep need and a national hunger. It was an inspired statement from a man long gone, a statement recalled in the fullness of time, as if, as they say of angels, that the wounded and needy were being ministered to by messengers of God. America is facing ugly and scary things. We are reminded that there are helpers, people who are there for us in the darkest hours to aid and comfort us.

I remember at the time of the bombing there was a lot of television coverage focusing on people who suddenly appeared from nowhere to be available and help. One physician – perhaps participating in the marathon, ran to the hospital to make himself available to the wounded.

Anthony Breznican, the author of The Week article, recalled Rogers speaking those words of assurance when he had been a boy. Years later he found solace in those words as he struggled through personal crises of his own in adulthood.

I was curious that the journalist would write about Mr. Rogers now in the present atmosphere where threats of nuclear war and the mass shootings are the norm. We’re not having wonderful days in the neighborhood. There’s the bellicose rhetoric coming regularly from Washington. The recollection of Mr. Rogers was as if Breznican looked at the distant horizon and saw the person of Fred Rogers, and he felt calmed in the storm.

Loving-kindness will orient us in tumultuous times. Caring gets easily eclipsed in the tempests roiling in our world today. I suspect Mr. Rogers is speaking to his neighbors again, a voice beyond the grave, pointing us to the horizon of hope and comfort, the way prophets’ voices once spoke to a people who’d lost their way.

His message is as eternal as it is simple:

“To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers –so many caring people in the world.”

There are a lot of good people left in our neighborhood.

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.

What the Wild Things Do by George Merrill

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What wild things do is filled with primal wisdom. Their doings may seem inscrutable but you can be sure they’re informed.

Job, of biblical renown, believed the earth, including its creatures, would teach us what’s important to know about life. ‘Speak to the earth and it will teach you,’ he said. His message was simple. Let nature guide our ways.

In the fall, when the sun’s declination lowers as it makes its daily trek across the sky shadows grow longer. I’ve noticed, too, how the sun’s rays highlight anything that can glitter, the way shining a light beam flush to the floor reveals tiny shards of broken glass.

My studio is about a hundred feet from the house. Walking to it one morning this fall, I spotted a single silk thread shining, one end fixed to a porch stanchion and the other end to a magnolia tree in front of my studio. The single strand stretched over a hundred feet. How it survived wind, rain and birds on the wing is remarkable. It’s inspiring to see how such creative and delicate art, such as spiders weave, can survive in a world that has become so violent. At the most primitive levels, nature teaches us the art of living.

Spiders weaving webs is a task filled with uncertainty. The spider affixes one end of a strand to something solid. She manufactures liquid protein, which solidifies into threads as she lays each strand. The spider then lets the loose end play out and wind currents take it. Where the other end sticks becomes the first strand from which all the others proceed, like the first sentence in a paragraph.

Just why images of the spider’s web, joined witches riding broomsticks as Halloween’s premier spooky icon, I don’t know. From my point of view, a spider’s web is pure art, an engineering marvel and I would add, an inspiring statement of patience and persistence.

Often, the voice first heard in a crowd is a whisper. Gentle words influence others more profoundly than harsh ones. The spider web’s gossamer and flimsy appearance belies its resilience. Those silken threads have a tensile strength that’s astonishing relative to their weight. The web’s threads rival steel and Kevlar, the material used to make bullet -proof vests. Paradoxes abound in the natural world. Appearances deceive: There is great strength in what at first appears weak and fragile. Consider butterflies wings, as thin as tissue paper, and they can travel half way around the globe.

I watched a Monarch on the wing the other day. She darted this way and that, up and down, but always in a southwesterly direction. Soon another flew by and within an hour I must have seen at least fifty all fluttering feverishly, many erratically, but ultimately going in one direction. They were off to southern climes, probably Mexico over two thousand miles as the butterfly flits. Some can travel 265 miles in a day. Considering they don’t fly in a straight line, I suspect the mileage count gets doubled. Inclement weather is a constant threat. It is a long and hazardous journey they undertake, beginning with the same uncertainties that beset a spider’s web productions, namely fragility and vulnerability. What the spider and the butterfly teach me is how important it is to go about my business focused, patient and persistent. As a writer, remaining focused, patient and persistent takes about all the energy I can muster.

While writing this essay my wife asked me to go shopping with her. We left Bozman for Graul’s on the St. Michaels road. I noticed a green leaf bug had settled on the car’s hood just in front of the windshield. He was about an inch and an inch and half long. The leaf bug was bright green. I was sure he’d jump off when we started. He didn’t. Instead he stayed put for the long haul. I don’t know how he did it.

On the St. Michaels Road I was doing between fifty and fifty-five miles per hour. The leaf bug first faced to the side, but gradually aligned his nose with the direction the car. His two antennae, in length as long as he was, streamed behind him like reeds bent low in a windstorm. He was instinctively trying to minimize wind resistance. How, I thought, could he possibly stay fixed securely on the hood of a car? How could he gain sufficient purchase on such a slippery surface to stay put and resist the force of the wind? He did just that and remained as firmly rooted as if he were bolted down like a hood decoration. He did shimmy and shake some – but what else could he do? He was, after all, like a leaf in a hurricane.

For all that, he appeared nonchalant, unconcerned that he might be blown away. He’d move his foremost right leg deliberately and place it slowly forward to his face as if he were trying to keep the wind from his eyes. At times I was up to about sixty mph, but he held his own on the hood. In the parking lot at Graul’s, I took a closer look at the leaf bug. He made no effort to leave, but turned slightly, positioning himself perpendicular to the sun as if trying to get warm now that he was out of the wind. When we returned to the car he was still there waiting. I assumed he was insisting we take him back home where he had been so unceremoniously shanghaied.

We returned home. Before taking the groceries into the house I took a closer look at him. He had only five of his six legs. An accident? Combat? I had no idea. His right rear leg was missing. He’d extended his left rear leg to the hood’s edge, lying just where the windshield extends upward from the car. If he’d been a boat in a storm, he’d effectively have secured himself aft with single stern line and with his other four legs rooted firmly to the hood kept his bow from being upended in the wind.

The lesson? When the ride gets rough, and you’re out of control, and you’re sure you’re going to be blown off, best to simply hunker down and hold on tight.

It’s what the wild things do.

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.

 

Let’s Give God a Break by George Merrill

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I would like to write in defense of God. In my opinion we have abused him (or her) shamelessly. It’s high time we give God a break.

Biblical history has its own problems with fake news. “God rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah,” the bible tells us in one epic account. Why? God abhors homosexuality. Lot’s wife became collateral damage: she looked back on the city about to be destroyed. God instructed her not too. She was reduced to a pillar of salt on the spot because she turned around to look. Disobedience? Maybe, but another possible transgression suggested is that she became too interested in what was going on there. In either case the punishments, in my view, did not fit the crimes.

With the advent of modern biblical scholarship and scientific archeology, many of these accounts of divine retribution are believed to be more mythical than historically credible. Historically credible or no, myths make their point and this one and many others like it are that God’s wrath can be savage and spiteful. Much of historic religion has targeted gays and lesbians for just such punishments.

I recall after 9/11, televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were outspoken about how America’s tolerance of gays, abortion, lesbians and the ACLU caused God to open the gates to the terrorists allowing them to enter and cause this national tragedy to happen. In short, the attacks on 9/11 were God’s judgment against America’s growing liberal agenda.

Significant numbers advocating for this vengeful God have traditionally been associated with the Republicans who share their party’s contempt for liberals and their agenda. This has created a delicate situation now since the Republicans hold not only the house and senate, but the executive branch as well. Conservatives are more cautious about calling the disasters God’s retribution since Republicans are now in the driver’s seat and for the most part are setting the national agenda.

Rush Limbaugh, a loyal pundit of the right, got God off the hook this time by handling the recent hurricane tragedies this way. He just couldn’t help but blaming somebody.

“There is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it … All you need is to create the fear and panic accompanied by talk that climate change is causing hurricanes to become more frequent and bigger and more dangerous, and you create the panic, and it’s mission accomplished, agenda advanced.”

He seems to me to be saying that anyone even talking about the reality of destructive hurricanes makes the storms bigger and more frequent. He gives climate change talk the same power that God possesses; during the creation God only had to say ‘Let there be light”, and it was everywhere.

Televangelist Jim Bakker was determined to keep God active in the retribution mode and stated that “this flood is from God.” Why? To punish Houston’s former mayor for attempting to subpoena ministers’ sermons. Wouldn’t you wonder what the mayor knew about Texas clergy that God preferred to keep classified?

Pastor Kevin Swanson asserts that Irma’s path could have been altered had the Supreme Court only decided that abortion and gay marriage were illegal. God didn’t move the hearts of the Supreme Court in a timely manner. The pastor suggests that, the whole mess happened because God dropped the ball and didn’t act sooner. It doesn’t make God any less retributive but God is now also accused of not staying on top of things.

Ann Coulter, not averse to speaking her mind, interestingly wasn’t sure hurricane Harvey was God’s way of punishing Houston although she tweeted that the explanation was “more credible than attributing [natural disasters] to ‘climate change.’ ” I think she was uneasy attributing the hurricanes to God outright but she did so in a disingenuous way.

James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame, while describing the Sandy Hook shootings as God’s punishment for tolerating gay marriage and abortion, was curiously silent on the recent storms. He championed God’s wrath in the past. I wonder why he remained silent on the matter? Too busy with family business, I suppose.

Pat Robertson also did not comment directly on God’s role in the recent storms, but spoke to it obliquely. Robertson saw the hand of God in the Haiti and San Fernando earthquakes and suggested that the political pressures America puts on Israel, causes natural disasters. My guess is that he’s soft on Israel because Jesus was born there. He also warned that gay tourists at Disney World could cause a meteor strike. So much for star of wonder, star of night.

Michael Brown, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, cautioned that, “we must be very careful before we make divine pronouncements about hurricanes and other natural disasters.” He praised Houston for having stood bravely against the rising tide of LGBT activism concluding with this observation: “Why would God single out Houston for judgment?” One preacher suggested that Houston got it big time because they elected a lesbian as their mayor.

God gets portrayed as having sex on his mind all the time. I think those who champion his vengeful acts are the ones obsessed with sex and I would add, violence.

What are we to make of all this?

Four things come to mind.

One, we are still adolescent children in gaining a wholesome understanding of human sexuality. Secondly, nature, for all our scientific advances, remains mysterious and unpredictable. We try controlling it, but we can’t.

I don’t think we’ve grasped the reality that we are a global community and we have responsibility for each other, not to punish, but to heal. Finally, we keep trying to draft God into our causes, like selective service once called us up to serve in the military. We require of God that he do our bidding. It is very hard to grow into the knowledge that we’re made in God’s image when we keep trying to make God into our own. We fashion him in our own image, and unfortunately, not with our more endearing qualities: deceit, manipulation, coercion and violence. And for all that, would you believe, that at the end of the day God doesn’t punish sinners, but forgives, loves and welcomes them into his arms. Now that’s the real miracle.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord”

Thank God for that.

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.

No Forwarding Address by George Merrill

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In my last column I mentioned having grown interested in writing letters, real letters not email. In part, the idea was born by a book I read about one woman’s discovery in writing letters to people who’ve influenced her life. What she wrote impressed me.

One of the advantages of being an octogenarian is the long view of life that the years provide. I have both the time and the perspective to recall a rich repository of people who have been significant to me. To intentionally think about those people and what they meant to me is not, as you might expect, just going over the same old turf again. There are new discoveries. The recollections reveal new and startling aspects of how I have been influenced by others. Intentionally pondering the meaning of old relationships is filled with meaning and at oftentimes, surprises.

I’m thinking particularly about a recent letter I wrote – the second one I wrote with an intention to communicate gratitude for what she meant for me. I sent the letter to Maureen.

She was a colleague of whom I was always fond, but at the time I hadn’t realized just what it was about Maureen that drew me to her. We worked together thirty-five years ago. She had that ineffable characteristic gentle people possess: an unassuming presence that brings grace to whatever they’re about. In some ways she seemed to be able impute life even to things as inanimate as a small pile of stones.

Maureen had been a nun in a cloistered community. After years of discernment, she discovered she was being called to a new ministry. She received training and served both as a hospital chaplain and a pastoral counselor.

Occasionally she would lead small groups in meditations. She’d craft small objects as aids to the meditations she’d lead. There was one I remember. From one point of view it was wholly unremarkable. My memory of it – were talking some twenty to twenty-five years ago– is admittedly sketchy. My mind’s eye recollects a pile of small stones, placed on a dish. A candle was placed on the mound.  It seemed to me at that moment that the stones became like some ancient monument to a holy site. Some spiritual awakening had occurred and a small mound of stones had been erected to memorialize it. There is no material monument left by Maureen’s meditation except the picture in my mind and while the details are hazy, the feeling of awe, a sense of the holy is not.

As fuzzy as the image remains in my mind, and that I don’t even recall the particular subject of the meditation, the impression remains and the feeling I have about it is undeniable. She had the gift to bring a spiritual awareness to the things to which she gave her attention, significance that, of themselves, they didn’t possess. She didn’t teach the stones to talk. She invited them to communicate a mystical presence by the intentions she invested in them as she assembled them for the meditation rite.

I’ve sometimes thought of specific places like Lourdes or the Mount of Olives as holy places. I’m beginning to believe that by itself a place is not holy – what makes it holy is the time, the place and the people converging on it at a particular instant. All the circumstances at a particular moment conspire to create an experience that transcends time and place to reveal a new reality, as if by being present with open hearts a small window in the firmament of heaven is thrown open, revealing something of the eternity beyond it.

I will not know what Maureen may think of the letter or even if she will see her graces the way I describe them. I’m not sure she will recollect our common history in the same way as I have. I have seen that happen in families eager to share reminiscences only to discover that one may see particular moments very differently from others. Is it then possible that our experiences with each other may not be as significant when we all see the moment in the same way? We all have our town take. Our shared history with each other is indeed mixed. Few of us will ever know the full impact we have had on another. It may remain hidden for years as if under a small mound of stones.

Sending the letter became my way of reconnecting and celebrating what others have meant to me. Beginning to write the letters I find the hardest part. At first I have only a person’s image in my mind’s eye or some associated objects. Soon a feeling follows. It’s hard to put into words. For a while I’ll draw a blank, but soon recollections begin to take shape and the words come to express my gratitude.

There’s a Christian teaching called the ‘communion of saints.’ It’s stated this way: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight . . .” When I was a boy, I imagined that I was surrounded by all my relatives who’d died, gone to heaven and they hovered around me, invisible, rooting for me like Casper the friendly ghost. They were my celestial guardians. My youthful understanding of the communion of saints did not survive my seminary education, intact. One thing changed: I believe that those witnesses compassing about me now include many of the living. And I can send them letters, unlike friendly ghosts or even saints that we assume reside in heaven but never leave forwarding addresses.

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.