The Playroom by George Merrill

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My mind is slowing down. It’s retaining data more selectively. The missions I assign to my mind take longer to complete than before. The whereabouts of a misplaced pen, the glasses I just put down, determining why I went from the den to the living room; although irritating, fortunately these quirks are not crippling. Negotiating life’s basic tasks just takes a little longer, that’s all. And then, of course, living life is all about our use of time, anyway.

As my thought processes slow down, I’ve grown more interested in just how my mind performs for me, in the way we pay greater heed to our dwindling resources than we did before when they were plentiful.

As I was searching my mind for ideas the other day, I drew blanks. This happens regularly. The process always leads me to wonder about the creative process itself and how it works. I think people associate creativity with the arts or sciences but I believe the phenomenon is universal – a part of our humanity – and it appears in varying degrees in all of us. The laborer is creative, as is the salesmen, the politician, the artist, the clergyman and of course, writers. Then there’s the stay-at-home mom whose capacity for creativity is tested every minute. With a house full of kids, all of whom require strategic interventions of one kind or another, mom’s creativity is stretched to the max. Children, however, have the greatest capacity for creativity. They are the least likely of any of us to place constraints on their imagination. Kids love to just let it rip.

Of all our spiritual attributes, creativity is the most arbitrary. It doesn’t do well when forced.

My potentially creative imagination invariably bombs if I go at it full bore and try to squeeze it for some immediate project. In my experience creativity is activated the way seeds grow. First you plant them, let them be for a while, until you see something emerge. The fruits of creativity arise from imagination and surface only at their own pace.

Take creativity as it’s demonstrated in the biblical book of Genesis; the creation narrative proceeds ex-nihilo; it comes from out of nowhere, from nothing. God seems matter of fact about his momentous achievements of creating a universe but most of us would greet such special creative moments with ecstatic expressions like, ‘Eureka,’ or ‘Hot damn.’

In 1950, the legendary science-fiction writer and author of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, wrote “The Veldt.” In it he describes a playroom “with television monitors lining each wall and the ceiling. Walking into such an environment, a child could shout: River Nile! Sphinx! Pyramids! And they would appear, surrounding him, in full color, full sound and why not? Glorious warm scents and smells and odors . . . All this came to me in a few seconds.”

Whimsical? Kid’s stuff? Absolutely. He’d had that vision in his mind’s eye since he was a small child. As an adult, it all came back to him in a flash, “in a few seconds.”

Augmented reality has long sounded like a wild futuristic concept. I read recently in the New York Times that Augmented Reality is here to stay and The Times is offering it on line. AR is all about superimposing computer-generated images on top of our view of reality, thus creating a composite view that augments the real world. In effect, excepting for smells, this describes Bradbury’s playroom to a T. And I bet smells will soon be on the way.

This is one among many instances of our mind’s capacity for the kind of imagining that reaches well beyond exigencies of time and place to see into a reality that has not reached its moment in history. In Bradbury’s case I would say his Playroom vision was a byproduct of wonder. Our minds have an insatiable appetite for awe and wonder. They feed on it.

There are people whose imaginations have the capacity for a special kind of creativity. They are able cut through the illusions which imprison us and see clearly into the future. They, too have visions of wonder, but their kind is more about hope. There are three biblical prophets I immediately think of who shared a similar vision pertaining to the future of the Jewish people. I read it also as a vision of our destiny as a human family. The prophetic proclamations are introduced with the phrase: “In the last days” meaning these proclamations are to come about at a future time. It is a vision of the way the human family will ultimately live together, but only after time.

Especially today, in the climate of war mongering and national arrogance, this prophetic chapter from Isaiah I find simply stunning.

“And many people shall go and say, come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Similar visions appear written in the prophetic books of Joel and Micah, as if the idea captured the minds of the ancient world which was as contentious and war-torn as ours is today.

The bronze sculpture “Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” created by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich, was presented to the United Nations on December 4th 1959 by the Government of the USSR. The sculpture, depicting the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other. It’s an inspiring work of art.

This remarkable vision of hope still lives in our human consciousness after first appearing around 800BC. That’s a long time ago.

Do you suppose as Bradbury once imagined his ‘Playroom’ as a young boy, and saw it realized as an adult, and that Isiah’s vision, conceived early in the life of the human family will be realized “in the last days? “The vision is now indelibly planted in human consciousness. Generation after generation the vision keeps reappearing. It may not be realized yet, but neither after all this time has it gone away.

I believe it will have its day when the right time is here.

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.

Oops by George Merrill

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There was an incident years ago, when my son was ten. I handled a situation with him poorly in a way that I have been not been able to completely forgive myself. When I think of it, I feel the sharp pain of remorse. He was needy and confused then and as we had recently moved, was trying to figure out his relationship with two of his new friends. When I look back, I can see that I didn’t get it – all the more ironic since I am a clergyman and psychotherapist. I treated his concerns casually. Rather than taking the matter more seriously and encouraging him to talk about it I didn’t hear what he was trying to tell me. It was a lost opportunity. Simply put, I blew it.

He has not forgotten it nor have I. Time and a frank discussion years later have alleviated much of the pain of that time for both of us. And even though I know that blaming myself is not helpful either for him or for myself, when I think about it I’ll still instinctively castigate myself for not getting it right.

I’ve often wondered why it is so difficult even though I may know God will forgive me, and for the most part my son has, that I find it so difficult to forgive myself. It’s as if I hold myself to impossible standards of perfection. I should never make mistakes. I’m supposed to get it right all the time. Even as I write that sentence it sounds absurd. As I think about it, there’s a perverse pride in such thinking. Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m actually saying I’m perfect, or if not, I should be.

Getting it wrong, making mistakes of all kinds is so fundamental to the human experience that rites of forgiveness have been central to religious practices for centuries. For Catholics, there is the sacrament of confession and in Judaism, the observance of Yom Kippur. Both rites help penitents to own their failings, express their contrition with others, and to put things right with self, with God and our fellow man. Each of these rites has an implied assumption; not only am I never going to get it right every time, but my efforts are probably better spent in managing my mistakes with a combination of contrition and a gentle spirit.

I characterize my routine mistakes simply as ‘oops.’ These are the annoying glitches that insinuate themselves into daily life; the lost key, the grocery bag left at the market, missing receipts, forgetting to lock the door, stepping in dog doo and the like. I shrug, get irritated, mutter under my breath and feel relieved that no one else has noticed. After making the appropriate corrections, I go about my business as usual. To make case in point when I wrote about stepping in dog manure, I wrote it first as ‘dog dew.’ My wife said I was mistaken, that it was ‘dog doo’ that I stepped in. For a moment, I wasn’t sure I had it right and I felt slightly intimidated. I googled it. In fact, I had stepped in both.

Strangely, inadvertent mistakes (the one’s committed in total innocence, with not a hint of guile and even with good intentions) can go badly and cause pain to others as well as to one’s self.

Not getting it right can be a mortifying experience. People often remark that when they suddenly realize they’ve really gotten it wrong they wish they had died on the spot or that the ground would have opened up and swallowed them. That’s one powerful emotion.

Kathryn Schulz, in her thoughtful book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, tells a story of a mortifying incident suffered by a journalist friend of hers. He was a seasoned writer on environmental issues and attended a lecture by a prominent environmentalist.

She made a brilliant presentation although pessimistic in content. He noticed how although her prognostications for the future of the planet were grim, that she was also pregnant. In his write up he commented that she was pregnant indicating that what he saw was her affirmation of life despite the gloomy picture she painted of the future. His article was published, made first page news and was widely circulated. Great, except the presenter wasn’t pregnant. Forty years later and he was quoted as saying “Truth is, I’m still mortified when I talk about it.” It turned out the woman was gracious about it but the journalist could never quite forgive himself for an innocent mistake, kindly disposed as it was.

I suspect that deep down many of us are aware of our failings, but try hard to disown them because we ourselves are not easy with them. The result can be that we’re intimidated by people who come across to us as on top of their game, competent, all together. It’s as if their togetherness were a judgement on us. The word ‘loser’ that has become such a popular insult today I guess underscores the contemporary obsession that in order to be of any account, you have to always get it and be winners no matter what.

Regarding mistakes, a look at how scientists behave may be instructive for getting along with our mistakes more skillfully. Many scientific researchers will routinely publish results making them accessible to other scientists knowing full well that what they’ve put out there may be flawed. That’s part of the strategy. If flaws can be identified so much the better. In the long haul, they’ll stand better chances of getting their project right.

So, since we are never always going to get it all right, what do we do? Ask for help if our mistakes have been harmful to ourselves or others, if we can. If not, accept, shrug, forgive, and keep a sense of humor.

Remember, to air is human, to forgive, divine.

Oops!

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 Yellow Brontosaurus by George Merrill

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I’ve had the blahs for a couple of days. It’s a disagreeable feeling. It comes on suddenly like a runny nose or a cough. The cause of the blahs is unknown.

When I have the blahs nothing I can think of energizes me. And then, if something does, it feels like a lot of work to follow up on it for the little return I imagine I’ll get. The other part of this is that a million things go through my mind, but I don’t land on any one. I’m all over the place.

Routine things for which I’d normally given little thought, now seem onerous. I don’t feel much like engaging with people, but the thought of being alone is not appealing either. There is one thing that I instinctively do when coming down with the blahs, and that is to figure out why I have the blahs at all and particularly, at this time. Normally that’s good self-psychotherapy, but when dealing with the blahs I’ve found it useless. It’s a little like sitting around and trying to figure out why the fire started, but that really doesn’t help to put it out. In fact, the inaction may just feed the lethargy making things worse.

The blahs are common. Most everyone suffers the blahs. I guess it’s mostly in the western world, a society while obsessed with money, power and politics, doesn’t ’t really know how to just have fun. For a person like me who has fun writing personal essays and leans heavily on energy that ideas generate, with the blahs I feel like a runner with an ailing foot. What he wholly depends on is suddenly malfunctioning. I want to fix it, but the blahs have a life of their own. They’ve developed considerable resistance to “giving myself a good talking to” and other common-sense remedies.

For addressing the malady, psychologists suggest the equivalent of ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Get yourself going, they advise, get off your butt, walk the dog, call a friend, fix the flower bed, polish the silver and the like but, see, that’s the thing about the blahs; you don’t feel like doing any of those things. People with the blahs will frequently make others impatient and it’s common to hear someone tell them, “Get over it.” It’s a rather insensitive comment and I don’t know that it works, certainly not for me.

Do a kind deed for someone you know or may not know at all. This bromide is frequently offered as a sure cure. Promising, perhaps, but it usually goes full circle; you still have to mobilize the energy to think of what would be something kind and to whom you’d direct it. You’re back to zero.

When I’m seized by the blahs, I’ve noticed this much: I do a lot of “yeah, but” thinking. That’s the kind where you have an interesting thought and then knock it down, like playing whack-a-mole or swatting a mosquito. So, is there any way, if not to cure the blahs, at least to limit their duration?

I listened to a talk once given by a seasoned writer, an essayist, who offered this thought: The essayist can write about the things he knows best, or he can write about something he knows nothing about but wants to learn more. I wondered if by writing about the blahs with no clinical understanding of the condition, I might stumble upon something significant that could mitigate some of its effects and even contribute to the well-being of others.

With that slight spark of energy my thought inspired, I decided to go for it.

One thing occurred to me immediately. Having the blahs is a little like being a child for whom we can do nothing to please. Children in that kind of mood can drive parents nuts; adults having the blahs can drive themselves nuts. I recall several instances of that with my own children. I once made up a trick to head it off. It worked most of the time.

Imagine a petulant little boy, my son, half in tears and fussing, disagreeable for no apparent reason. Immediately my instinct was to offer him possible options.

“Would you like to play with Eddie?”

“No!” he’d reply emphatically shaking his arms and legs in protest, his lower lip prominently protruding to underscore his point.

“How about Sally?”

“No,” again.

“Would you like a cookie?”

“Nooo, I don’t want a cookie,” and so it would go. This was a dead end and I knew it.

Then it came to me out of the blue, an epiphany, and it turned out to be a decidedly inspired idea.

I suddenly held my hand up, palm forward, opened my eyes just short of popping them from their sockets as if I were alerting my son to something terribly urgent, and looking beyond him into the distance I said in a hushed voice, “Did you see that?”

His petulant look vanished. He turned around to look, and turning back to me asked quizzically, “What.”

“The Brontosaurus, only this one is yellow, not green like Freddy, the one in your book.”

“Well, where is he?”

“I think you may have scared him off when you turned around. He can’t be far. Let’s go find him. We must be very quiet, come on, follow me.”

And off we went, hunting. It was the day of the yellow Brontosaurus.

I know just what you’re thinking. This guy is full of guile, a deceitful father, disseminating fake news to this vulnerable and innocent child.

I’ll tell you this; of course, we didn’t find the yellow Brontosaurus. He was nowhere to be seen. We called off the hunt. However, by then not only did the cookie begin sounding great to my son, but so did the idea of having Eddie over to play. The search alone began to give meaning to his day.

A strong case can be made that the means justifies the end.

What has any of this to do with the blahs? This much. I think the blahs are exacerbated by the way the condition can keep us unfocused. I know with the blahs I go from thought to thought dismissing them all, straightaway.

I don’t want to give credence to the school that advises “get off your butt and do something.” I find that solution questionable. But, instead, I’d advise focus, stay with just one idea of the many orbiting around in my mind. Soon it would lead to some kind of action like hunting the yellow dinosaur with my son. You don’t have to find the dinosaur; just looking for him is enough. The search is more energizing than the finding or as the saying goes, the journey is more important than the destination.

Nothing is quite like finding a purpose; it’ll make your day and beat the blahs.

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.

That They May All May Be One by George Merrill

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This essay’s title is from the Gospel of John. It’s statement of Jesus’ vision for universal reconciliation.

I watched a talk show rerun recently. Former vice president Joe Biden was being interviewed. He discussed his book, “Promise Me, Dad,” dealing with the death of his son, Beau. One of the women present conducting the interview was Meghan McCain. Meghan McCain, Senator John McCain’s daughter, is a former host on Fox news, a cradle Republican and one of the hosts of the talk show called The View. Biden’s book (I have not read it) is a grief work of hope that describes the profound sense of loss Biden felt for his son and the obligation he felt to honor his memory.

The interview was poignant. It told an important story of its own.

In the initial minutes of the interview, Biden and Ms. McCain were seated with a person between them. As the conversation developed, Biden spoke of how his son (who died of the same brain cancer that John McCain suffers now) had always found comfort in Meghan’s father’s bravery. As he spoke, Meghan grew teary. Biden then rose and seated himself next to her. He took her hand and shared with her some fond memories he and his son had of her father. In the political arena, John McCain and Joe Biden had done battle with each other. Each had great respect for the other. They were political adversaries and very loyal friends. They enjoyed a relationship with dignity.

I do not recall being moved by anything recently as much as I did watching this interview. Certainly, talking of our losses touches us all deeply; mourning is the one feeling that stabs us to the core and a feeling every one of us understands. Perhaps even more than laughter, grief is the universal emotion we all share. However, there was something else about the interview that haunted me. I couldn’t identify it right away.

Joe Biden, by most all accounts, is a decent human being. Professionally, he is regarded as an honest man and a skillful politician. He has a sense of humor, engages people in respectful ways and has passion for his ideas. He has integrity, is clear but gentle in his opinions and has a deft manner of handling complicated feelings tactfully – whether they’re political or emotional. He possesses that redeeming quality of being able to poke fun at himself. He talks freely about his big mouth in the way president Obama used to speak of his own big ears. It’s the kind of playful self-denigration people who are secure in their own skin are able to indulge.

Joe Biden knows about loss. Meghan McCain knows that for her, the final curtain of her grief will fall. They mourn together. They grow close.
One of Joe Biden’s character traits is his personal warmth. When he got up and went to sit next to Meghan McCain, took her hand and spoke softly to her as she wept, I almost wept, too. It was an image of male tenderness in a powerful man that is so different from the images reported in the daily news we hear or read about. We are besieged with relentless tales of abuse that men with wealth, social capital and political influence inflict on others. It seems to be a trickle-down effect, originating from the highest echelons, seeping through the political fabric and down into the various major and minor industry captains and entertainment celebrities. The frequency of the sordid reports would seem almost to testify to behavior now become routine, the kind we’d once have called unacceptable.

Who is left for any of us to look up to, to inspire us?

In that brief exchange between Biden and McCain I saw a possibility, a hope for the way we can be with one another. Tenderly and kindly. I am confident that for anyone who saw Biden take his seat next to Meghan McCain in that clip, there was no way this could be construed as posturing. It was a genuine gesture, based on a history of trusting relationships, demonstrating the kind of authenticity that has been in painfully short supply in the political figures we are confronted with daily in news media. There is so little trust evident, so little tenderness.

While women today may be witnessing to the ideal of dignity and respect we need to emulate, it’s the good men that are hard to find.

My attempt here is not to lionize Joe Biden or Meghan McCain. I want to cite his decency and McCain’s grace and to suggest how people, who do have power and social capital, are fundamentally honest and compassionate. These people can create good will and facilitate personal and collective healing. They become agents of reconciliation.

The core of the Christian message is a drama of reconciliation. The tale recounts the struggle to achieve reconciliation with God and with each other. We become reconciled to God by reconciling to each other. It isn’t accomplished by mouthing pious clichés nor by overlooking differences or even by accommodating political, religious, racial and ethnic distinctions. It’s by sharing our vulnerabilities and our humanity with each other.

When we are able to see in others the wounds and brokenness we have known in our own lives, we meet each other in deeper and more loving ways. I believe I saw in that clip some a tender and respectful moment between a man and a woman, a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat, a devout Catholic and a practicing Baptist.

In our lives today, our alienation from each other weighs heavily on us. We hunger for closeness, to be able to share our true humanity with one another.

My hope is that one day we may all be one.

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.

Solitude by George Merrill

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I walk frequently, more so recently. The prevailing anger and dissention in the atmosphere I find debilitating. I walk to settle my mind. I feed my soul by reconnecting with the beauty and goodness that permeates the world.

One path I like runs along the perimeter of St. Michaels. The other day, while walking, I saw a large dog trotting along by itself. The dog had a beautiful coat of thick white and gray fur. He watched me walk by, interested in my presence. It’s unusual to see a dog alone or not on a leash. I felt momentarily cautious when, after I passed him, he ran to me. He scrupulously sniffed me out – I guess I smelled acceptable because he then pranced around and started jumping up on me. I gently urged him down. I stroked him under the chin, mumbling totally mindless endearments. I knew that he heard music in my words, sensed my pleasure in the meeting and so the words were really peripheral to our encounter. The dog knew that I liked him. Words weren’t necessary.

I walked on while he wandered off into a stand of trees on the side of the path. I kept thinking of his gray eyes. This dog’s eyes were beautiful to see, like the soft and unblemished slate gray one sees on the undersides of clouds on sunny days. Was it the friendliness of the dog that determined how I felt about his eyes or were they simply lovely eyes?

Occasionally I’d turn around just to see if he were following me. I hoped he was. I saw no trace of him so I assumed he was off to make another acquaintance. For a moment, I felt let down.That day was particularly cold. I was alone on the path. Typically, there would be others I’d acknowledge with a nod – fellow walkers, many of whom would be walking their dogs. This was mostly a solitary occasion.

Solitude is an occasion for heightened awareness; Strangely, in solitude I’m made aware of how connected I am to all the life around me. I don’t believe I’m reclusive – I do not like feeling lonely. Solitude, however, is different from being lonely or feeling isolated; on the contrary, in solitude I find the space – inner and outer – to experience my solidarity with the life around me.

There’s something about meeting a creature other than human while alone; it could be a bird, bugs, foxes and even turkeys that have recently proliferated the woods around St. Michaels; it’s as if the meeting of the two worlds is unencumbered by distractions, or the need I might have to attend to another person who’s with me. We can be with each other, these strangers, in every sense of the word. Adam must have had great fun naming the animals.

Years ago, during the great ice storm on the Shore I had a similar encounter with a deer. Ice was building up everywhere, making paths slippery and downing tree limbs. It was dangerous. My neighbor Dot, who’d lost one leg to diabetes, was eighty plus and housebound. I walked through the woods to her house to see that she had food and kerosene for her heater. Power was sure to go. A deer appeared on the path in front of me. Ears as erect as antennae, she stood in the path and looked straight at me. I stopped. I moved toward her. She backed up, but didn’t bolt as I expected. Then I stepped back, and she moved forward. She seemed young and appeared to want to play. She appeared to limp.

I started muttering endearments to her: “Hey Bambi, what’s a gal like you doing out on a day like this?” She cocked her head to one side as if she hadn’t heard me correctly or thought I was a nut. With a kind of retreat and advance, we stepped toward and away from each other in concert until I made my way to Dot’s house. The deer retreated back into the woods.

Dot was in good shape. “Thanks, George, but got plenty of kerosene, bourbon and cigarettes,” she assured me. No better way to face the elements, I’d say.

Walking back through the woods to my house, I saw how the storm grew worse. The wind increased, the rain froze on all it fell upon. Rain ran down on the inside of my slicker chilling me. Walking was treacherous.

There was the deer, as if waiting for me. She was off to the side now. I walked slowly, babbling to her all the while, but not stopping. She didn’t move, but watched me pass by. She followed me for a few steps. Before entering my house, I saw she was looking at me, as if to say, ‘Stay out and play with me for a while.’ I waved goodbye and went in.

The wind howled that night. I heard trees falling; first a painful groan and then a thunderous crash. It was nasty.

In the morning, the sun shone. It illuminated the accumulated ice on tree limbs, on everything, and the world appeared as if sculpted by a glazier. Everything sparkled brilliantly in the sunlight, a scene set against a deep blue sky.

I went outside looking around. By the small stream between Dot’s house and mine, I saw the deer. She was dead. She had a twisted hoof. I could see she was crippled. I don’t know how she died.

I stooped over her. Her eye, deep and dark, reflected a billowing white cloud high above her as if she could now see something well beyond the constraints that life had imposed on her. She saw an open and free space that went on forever. I had a regret. I wished that the day before, I’d stayed out a little longer and played with her.

Solitude, in unexpected ways, makes us friends with those with whom we share this planetary space.

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 From the Cold by George Merrill

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We’ve had some cold weather recently. And then snow. If anyone had doubts about whether mother nature calls the shots, there’s little question now.

It was cold enough so that our creek froze. In small pockets on the creek where some water remained unfrozen, hosts of geese huddled together in the water, feather to feather. They were unusually quiet. Normally they chatter all the time, like frequent flyers in a bar comparing their flights. I noticed one morning how the geese had their heads tucked under their wings. Was it to keep their heads warm or was it a gesture like the ostriches’ that hide their heads in the ground when they feel vulnerable? In either case they were remarkably still, undoubtedly preserving heat.

The leaves of the large Aucuba bush in the front of our house curled almost in half and I assume, like the geese, was trying to preserve as much warmth as it could. Only the leafless trees, conifers, and the holly seemed unperturbed with the arctic air.

Of my regular sweaters – and I wear sweaters all the time in winter – not faux sweaters made of synthetics or even cotton, but ones made of real wool from real sheep; none kept me warm enough. I hauled out an old woolen sweater I’d bought years ago in Baltimore. The sweater was made in Ecuador. It weighs about as much as a flak jacket. The sheep in Ecuador must stay warm all the time. I’m good and toasty in that sweater.

Arctic air can be lethal for those who don’t enjoy the basic services and conveniences that most Americans enjoy. A service I enjoy routinely, can be a matter of life and death for those who try to get by without it?

I sleep at night in a house with a temperature of about 60 degrees. I have plenty of blankets. I get up in the morning and turn the heat up to 68 degrees. I use the bathroom, flush its wastes, turn the tap water on to brush my teeth. In the kitchen, I draw more water to make coffee; I turn on my electric stove to make breakfast without being in any way encumbered or put out by the freezing temperatures outside. I take what I need from a well-stocked refrigerator. After breakfast, I put on the clothes for the day. The day I wrote this essay I saw two doctors- one to check my eyes and the other an ear infection. One appointment had been in the works for weeks, the other took me only a phone call and I got in the same day. For any obligations beyond the home, I own a dependable car.

In short, I am assured of a warm place, food, safety, power and clean water. I have accessible medical care, transportation and a home to which I can return in all seasons and be comfortable. I have been resident in the community long enough to know people and I have friends that I can depend on.

In short, by virtue of my circumstances I am one of the millions of Americans who in fact live comparatively privileged lives when measured against the world’s population. I have done nothing to earn any of these luxuries – they are not rewards of any kind – they are a part of the good fortune of being a middle-class American citizen that offers many opportunities.

I find freezing weather intimidating. I realize when it gets so bitterly cold that my well-being is derived from all kinds of services and from the people I am fortunate enough to have access to. Americans talk a lot about their “rights.” I don’t consider any of these things as a right; I see them as blessings, mutual blessings meant to be shared with others by those of us whose circumstances have assured us of many blessings.

The luxury of having privilege can affect people two ways. There are those whose good fortunes inure them to the sufferings of the disenfranchised. They feel indifference if not contempt. In others, the blessings they themselves enjoy inspire a sense of gratitude and with that, a desire to share their blessings with others.

Talbot Interfaith Shelter is one icon of blessing in our community that witnesses to how, among the privileged, there are enough who care and are committed to provide shelter for those who have none. To use a Christmas metaphor, TIS (Talbot Interfaith Shelter) offers room at the inn which is a blessing at any time but especially when temperatures plummet.

To treat the blessings of one’s life as entitlements is a significant character flaw in the American psyche. “I got my rights” is a common refrain. It’s the product of “I worked for everything I have.” No one ever does it all on his own. There were all kinds of helpers along the way. A life of economic security and social capital can often bring out the worst. The ego converts its privileges and good fortune into entitlements. There’s no thought given to blessings.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, defending the recent tax bill’s lessening of the estate tax on the 2% of wealthiest Americans said; the “rich people invest their money” as opposed to those who are “just spending every darn penny they have whether on booze, or women, or movies.” Sen. Orin Hatch, in a similar vein was quoted as saying it made sense to cut corporate taxes and reduce Obamacare and other safety-net spending, since the government spends trillions “to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger.”

The implications are painfully clear: the rich are deserving for their virtue; the poor are moral failures and therefore undeserving.

In my youth, a parent’s eagerness to have resistant children eat their spinach was often to tell them about all the starving people in India. The strategy wasn’t very skillful. Guilt rarely induces generosity but it sure will make you hate spinach.

Right now, the socio- political climate is edging us along a “me first” path. Americans are better than that.

With all the good fortune Americans routinely enjoy we don’t have to leave anyone out in the cold.

And that’s a blessing in itself.

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.

Guide Us To Thy Perfect Light by George Merrill

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The journey of the Magi, the legend of the Three Kings or Epiphany is celebrated on the twelfth day of Christmas. It’s a significant part of the Christian story; it’s about light, about love and about discovery.

The day was special for me on that January 6th of 1947. I have never forgotten it. I remember it more fondly than Christmas days or even more vividly than the anticipatory thrill I’d feel on Christmas Eve.

During that Epiphany, the confluence of two streams met; a young boy’s emerging sexuality, and the majesty of high church liturgy. It was in those sublime moments I sensed for the first time something that I would not fully understand until much later in my life. Even now, I can’t say I understand it, but I can feel it. What a powerful influence love and light have in our lives. Love, like light, waxes and wanes, but it always returns. Someone always shows up to rekindle both in us.

The Feast of the Epiphany or the Three Kings commemorates the journey of the three wise men, who at the bidding of King Herod sought the whereabouts of Jesus. They followed the star “in the East,” found him “in a manger” but, being warned in a dream, did not tell Herod whom they later learned was planning to kill Jesus.

I sang in the choir as a boy. On Thursday nights Franny, Mrs. Sontag and I would walk to choir practice and then home again. I was thirteen. Franny was eighteen, a tall, pretty blond. I had a crush on her. She was nice to talk to. She and Mrs. Sontag listened and took me seriously, not like I was just a kid. Mrs. Sontag was old (probably ten years younger than I am now). She smelled of cigar smoke. Her husband never attended church. He watched TV and smoked all day. I think she was lonely. I liked having these grown up friends. I felt, well, grown up.

Epiphany was special. For me it marked the last colorful church festival before the bleak winter set in. At the end of the Eucharist, we would be given a small candle to take home with us. Each candle was lit from one of the altar candles. We were to take our candles home, while keeping the candle burning on our way. We were symbolically manifesting the light of Christ to the world.

Mrs. Sontag wasn’t in church that day. After lighting our candles, Franny and I set out for home. I liked Mrs. Sontag, but this day I liked more being with Franny by myself.

The day was cold, but not windy.

We chatted as we walked, carefully cupping the candles lest a breeze extinguish them. Franny walked close to me. I was conscious of the dark blue overcoat she wore and her hair, which protruded from under her cap, contrasting with the blue of the coat. She looked pretty and I smelled a fragrance like lemon around her which seemed to suit her well. It suited me well, too.

We kept our candles burning as we walked and talked. I was aware of Franny and luxuriating in the closeness and the sweetness she aroused in me while at the same watching my candle diligently. I wanted to make it all the way home and still have a lit candle. I almost made it.

When we arrived at the street where Franny would head home and I’d continue on for a block, a breeze extinguished my candle. I felt badly. I almost made to the end. I looked sorrowfully at Franny and since she was older than I was and knew more, I asked her if she thought Fr. Rogers would be disappointed in me for not keeping the candle burning. I was concerned that if I were to ask Franny to light the candle from hers that might mean I’d be cheating since getting home with the candle lit was our task. Franny told me that she was sure he would not mind. He said nothing about relighting it, anyway. “Just get home with the light still burning,” she said confidently. I was relieved.

We stopped at the corner. Franny drew closer to me. She extended her candle and after a couple of attempts, the flame quickened and I was good to go. But I really didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay. It was, however, time to get going. I said goodbye. She turned and made her way up the street. I watched her for a few moments and then went for home . . . with candle burning and a confused heart. I had completed my mission for Christ with only one small glitch, but there was a feeling that remained and I was not sure what to make of it.

Now I think of this day as one of those singular moments of revelation in my life. They just happen. An increasing awareness of my emerging sexuality and a nascent sense of the mystery that’s conveyed in Christianity’s ancient rites and rituals converged in me that day. I felt a sweet tenderness and an intense longing. For just what I didn’t know. I only knew I wanted to be close to Franny and serve God by sharing the light. Now I recognize how I was being moved by the elemental forces of attraction the way everything in the universe is governed by attractions. The planets move in their orbits by mutual attractions as they course along their paths through the cosmos. We are drawn to others by erotic attraction. In the liturgies of religious celebrations of God’s actions in the world, the extravagant beauty to which they witness leaves me awed and wondering about what it all means.

And then there’s light. I’ve watched sunflowers turn in a field, inching their way around to keep their faces to the sun as if the sun had cast a spell. I’ve seen infants lying in a crib, enchanted, with eyes riveted on a mobile turning above them, the mobile dancing with tiny points of light. People rarely weary of the magic of sunrises and sunsets, nor of a full moon or starry sky. Everything in the universe begins with light. Candlelight is the preferred accessory to romance.

I took the accompanying photograph. It’s of a seasonal decoration we’ve had for years. It depicts the journey of the Magi – following the light of the star. It has no pretense to art. It’s like a child’s plaything. What endears it to me is its innocence. The innocence of childhood may be the last time you or I have had an unobstructed vision to be thoroughly awed and to see clearly into the mystery of how life unfolds.

Perhaps only in those times of innocence and unknowing is our vision sufficiently unencumbered to see deeply into light in all its purity and majesty?

The final line in hymn popularly sung during Epiphany ends with these words: “Oh, star of wonder, star of night . . . Guide us to Thy perfect light.”

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.

Starting Over by George Merrill

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In my first attempts to write a personal essay appropriate to the New Year, I fell into a trap. As most of you know about writers, their first drafts are awful. That’s’ why it takes so many rewrites to get it to work and if not, at least get it representative of what an author truly feels – not just some attempt at posturing.

I began with a theme in mind. The theme was “starting over.” I thought the new year is one kind of ‘starting over’ and starting over is also an old Buddhist teaching about how we can skillfully deal with our efforts to, well, start over. It specifically refers to deepening our spirituality simply by learning how to not quit in discouragement, but to just start over.

The teaching guides me in ways to gain the riches of the spirit and self-control by minimizing aspects of my life that work against it. This always requires a change in how I normally go about things. Typically – and New Year’s Eve is one good example – after the first drink, I will swear to either give up something or to embark on some new discipline. The giving up invariably involves certain foods and uses of alcohol or tobacco; chocolate is a big one as is resolving to abstain from certain disagreeable habits like flipping the bird at pokey drivers creeping down the St. Michaels Road. Having only two lanes makes such people really irritating. Vowing to exercise regularly is another frequent resolution.

New Year’s resolutions don’t last. There’s good reasons for that. They’re not undertaken for substantial reasons, or to say it differently, they are undertaken for egoistic motives. Just why I choose to forswear some particular food or drink, or even undertake to change other habits is frequently driven by negative motives rather than an aspiration to more noble estates. Topping the list is a desire to lose weight and look good. ‘Because I am fat’ becomes an issue of pride more often than it is a concern for good health. In fact, I’d offer the thought that most New Year’s Eve resolutions I’ve undertaken are to prove something to myself. I long to prove that I possess strength of character and resolute will. I am not, as I secretly fear, a wuss or wimp. I have character, determination.

I will own that there are people who by sheer force of will can alter their undesirable traits, but I would not want to live with them. I notice they remarry a lot. Maybe they don’t smoke or drink or eat fatty foods, run every morning and drink ten glasses of water daily but the very undesirable character traits that led them into bad habits in the first place, remain. They’re not overindulging anymore, they’re self-righteous and know everything, instead.

But back to my problem in writing an essay appropriate to the new year.

As I started writing, I began thinking about the year as I’ve experienced it since last January. The trap: I just grew more and more angry. In a snit, I typed away furiously about how we’re being jerked around by a flood of mindless tweets with which the White House floods America’s cyberspace; I thought of a federal judge charged with pedophilia whose Christian constituents defended him by comparing him to Joseph, the father of the Holy Family. After all, Joseph dated Mary, Jesus mother and Mary was well Joseph’s junior. So, what’s the problem? It’s beyond crazy, that’s the problem.

And then I remembered the president of a Christian College who encouraged his students to carry a concealed weapon so they might be prepared to shoot Muslims. I felt as though I was flying over the cuckoos’ nest. Felt, hell, I was flying over a cuckoos’ nest.

At lunch, I mentioned to my wife, Jo, how worked up I’d been while writing. As I told her she assumed a look, like I’ve seen on the faces of those who’d just eaten a bad oyster.

“What?” I said defensively.

“Why rehash what everyone knows anyway? Is there something helpful, something different instead that you can say that might help us live through this with some dignity and hope?”
So much for St’ Paul’s admonitions that wives defer to their husbands. It’s a new ball game.

That’s just what the last year has been instructing us, instructing me. It is a new ball game.
My challenge is to hold still to the ideal that how we play the game is as important or more so than winning. The trap I fell into was identifying with the aggressor. Ranting against the absurdities of this administration is simply doing the same thing as I claim to be denouncing. I’m just firing off another round of mindless tweets.

In situations where people have been treated abusively or contemptuously, there is a tendency to assume the vicious qualities of the perpetrators. In short, I want to unleash on others, what they have, or I imagine they have, visited on me. It’s one variation on revenge.

Starting over is a significant discipline in Buddhist spirituality. It recognizes the deep desire to do something good, be something worthwhile, but invariably to slip back into old habits. It’s discouraging. The tendency is to be self-critical, and feel inept in meeting the challenge. If we slip often enough, eventually we just quit.

I want to start over again this next year by attempting to be as wise as a serpent, but gentle as a dove. I mean by that looking directly at the evils and absurdities that surround me daily, but with a clear eye and gentle spirit. And if I get riled up and want to go on a new rant, just remember to go back and start over. I then keep my focus on what’s important for me to be about and not remain stuck and focused on the provocateurs.

There’s a phrase that I’ve known for years. One part is from psalm 37. The latter part I don’t know but together they make the point beautifully:
“Fret not for the evil doer, lest thou be moved to do evil.”
May we all gain the grace to live wisely and courageously in the coming year. And, if we slip and fall into old ways, let’s just start over.

Blessings in the New Year.

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.

That They All May Be One by George Merrill

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The title of this essay I took from the Gospel of John. It states Jesus wish for universal reconciliation.

I watched a talk show rerun recently. Joe Biden was being interviewed. He discussed his book, “Promise Me, Dad,” dealing with the death of his son, Beau. One 0f the women present and conducting the interview was Meghan McCain. Meghan McCain, John Mc- Cain’s daughter, is a former host on Fox news, a cradle Republican and one of the hosts of the talk show, The View. Biden’s book (I have not read it) is a grief work of hope that describes the profound sense of loss Biden felt for his son and the obligation he felt to honor his memory.

The interview was poignant. It told an important story of its own.

In the initial minutes of the interview, Biden and Ms. McCain were seated with a person between them. As the conversation developed, Biden spoke of how his son (who died of the same brain cancer that John McCain suffers now) had always found comfort in Meghan’s father’s bravery. As he spoke, Meghan grew teary. Biden then rose and seated himself next to her. He took her hand and shared with her some fond memories he and his son had of her father. In the political arena, John McCain and Joe Biden had done battle with each other. Each had great respect for the other. They were political adversaries and very loyal friends. They enjoyed a relationship with dignity.

I do not recall being moved by anything recently as much as I did watching this interview. Certainly, talking of our losses touches us all deeply; mourning is the one feeling that stabs us to the core and a feeling every one of us understands. Perhaps even more than laughter, grief is the universal emotion we all share. However, there was something else about the interview that haunted me. I couldn’t identify it right away.

Joe Biden, by almost all accounts, is a representative human being. Professionally, he is regarded as an honest man and a skillful politician. He has a sense of humor, engages people in respectful ways and has passion for his ideas. He has integrity, is clear but gentle in his opinions and has a deft manner of handling complicated feelings tactfully – whether they’re political or emotional. He possesses that redeeming quality of being able to poke fun at himself. He talks freely about his big mouth in the way president Obama used to speak of his own big ears. It’s the kind of playful self-denigration people who are secure in their own skin are able to indulge.

Christmas, now upon us, is a paradoxical time. It’s a festive season. It’s also a time of mourning. Despite all the lights, bright colors, parties, gestures of good will and aspirations to joy, an undertone of melancholy prevails. I think one reason for this is that Christmas as a holiday is an anniversary event. It occurs yearly at a designated time. Anniversaries induce memories. Christmastide is strongly associated with attitudes of kindness and generosity and of being close to the people we love. An anniversary event like Christmas also has a darker side; it stands as a yearly remembrance of the people who are not here now, but with whom we shared this event in the past. We are made aware of what we’ve lost; the festivity’s bright lights cast dark shadows. There’s always sadness about that. Joe Biden knows about loss. Meghan McCain knows that for her, the final curtain of her grief will fall. They mourn together.

One of Joe Biden’s character traits is his personal warmth. When he got up and went to sit next to Meghan McCain, took her hand and spoke softly to her as she wept, I almost wept, too. It was an image of male tenderness in a powerful man that is so different from the images reported in the daily news we hear or read about. We are besieged with relentless tales of abuse that men with wealth, social capital and political influence inflict on others. It seems to be a trickle-down effect, originating from the highest echelons, seeping through the political fabric and down into the various major and minor industry captains and entertainment celebrities. The frequency of the sordid reports would seem almost to testify to behavior now become routine, the kind we’d once have called unacceptable.

Who is left for any of us to look up to, to inspire us?

In that brief exchange between Biden and McCain I saw a possibility, a hope for the way we can be with one another. Tenderly and kindly. I am confident that for anyone who saw Biden take his seat next to Meghan McCain in that clip, there was no way this could be construed as posturing. It was a genuine gesture, based on a history of trusting relationships, demonstrating the kind of authenticity that has been in painfully short supply in the political figures we are confronted with daily in news media. There is so little trust evident, so little tenderness. While women today may be witnessing to the ideal of dignity and respect we need to emulate, it’s the good men that are hard to find.

My attempt here is not to lionize Joe Biden or Meghan McCain, but only to cite his decency and McCain’s grace and suggest how people who do have power and social capital and are fundamentally honest and compassionate, can create good will and facilitate healing, personal and collective. They become agents of reconciliation.
The Christian message its’s core is a drama of reconciliation. The tale recounts the struggle to achieve reconciliation with God and with each other. We become reconciled to God by reconciling to each other. It isn’t accomplished by mouthing pious clichés nor by overlooking differences or even by accommodating political, religious, racial and ethnic distinctions.

When we are able to see in others, the wounds and brokenness we have known in our own lives, we meet each other in deeper and more loving ways.

I believe I saw in that clip some a tender and respectful moment between a man and a woman, a conservative republican and a liberal democrat, a devout catholic and a practicing Baptist.

I think our alienation from each other is weighing heavily on us. We hunger for closeness, to be able to share our true humanity with one another.

That one day we may all be one remains my vision of hope.


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.