What Shall I Wear by George Merrill

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From the moment of our birth, we are swaddled, capped and wrapped to greet our world. Fish, animals and birds meet their world au natural. From the start we are embarrassed to reveal our natural endowments, except once, and then only briefly in the Garden of Eden. We keep our privates, private. Critters don’t care a fig.

For us “What shall I wear?” is the first questions of our day.

At the dining room table recently, two of our granddaughters engaged in a heated discussion. It concerned clothes. One was sixteen and the other was eighteen. For many years, as they were both about the same size, they wore one another’s clothes the way the Native Americans once shared the same land with each other; they took turns inhabiting it. For years the arrangement worked amicably and exponentially increased wardrobe choices for both.

The problem: the older girl was soon going away to college. What clothes would stay, which would remain? There was another concern here, although it didn’t surface directly. The sisters have been very close and the older leaving home set into motion the younger’s anxiety about her sister’s leaving. Wearing one another’s cloths indicates the depth of intimacy and ease with each other that both have enjoyed. Clothes constitute more than meet the eye.

Clothes may be utilitarian, but we make individual statements by what we choose to wear. Statements include the sense of our sexuality, or our wealth. We show social status, as in the uniforms, which identify our professional and societal functions like the military, ecclesiastical garb and the doctors’ white coat. Clothes in that sense are like a language; visual symbols of who we think we are or where we belong. Clothes communicate our statement to others.

Recently I saw a young girl wearing jeans. They were deliberately stressed and shredded; fibers opened at the knees, patched here and there and unevenly bleached. They were fitted so tightly that if the girl were a western cowgirl, there would be no way she could get on a horse. What was remarkable was that I could tell that they were brand new. I have been told stressed jeans sell for extortionist prices. The statement the girl’s jeans make is more difficult to read. Why would girls wish to look like waifs in tattered rags? The symbolic significance is a confusing one; blue jeans would naturally come to such a worn condition only by backbreaking labor since for years blue jeans and Levi’s had been marketed specifically to the working man who wanted most their indestructability.

But perhaps there is a message here if we look more deeply. In this post modern era, many of our youth spend little if any time engaged in labor of any kind except perhaps taking the garbage out, cutting grass or washing a parent’s car. Enormous amount of their time is spent riding in automobiles. They’re constantly on cellphones, on computers and watching TV. Does wearing the embattled looking Levis express an unconscious yearning? Do they reveal a latent desire to have performed the physical labor that, at the end of the day, we can point to with pride and say ‘look at what I’ve accomplished?’ It seems to me that today, if Levis were left to wear out naturally, the seat would be the first to go.

Jeans, when I grew up in the late forties and fifties, were especially popular among boys. My first pair of Levis was a signature moment in my boyhood. I bought them in a dry goods store that had a distinctive smell, not unlike local hardware stores of yesteryear. My jeans indestructible character and association with cowboys carried the suggestion of masculine prowess. They were not associated with any elite, but rather the workingman. The coming-of-age uniform for my boyhood was decidedly Levis. It included wearing a white tee shirt with its short sleeves rolled up to secure a package of cigarettes. This is how we chose to dress among our peers, but we carefully lost the cigarette pack when we returned home.

Time is a big factor in how we react to clothes. James Laver, in his book, Taste and Fashion, constructs a timeline, known as Lavers’s Law, by which we can expect certain reactions to dress. Laver notes that wearing something ten years after its time is indecent. Five years old, shameless, but one year before it’s time, daring. One year after it’s time it’s dowdy, ten years, hideous, and fifty years, quaint. Worn seventy years after it’s time is charming and after one hundred and fifty years it’s beautiful. I note that socks and underwear are apparently exempt in the discussion in that Laver’s focus is primarily on what meets the eye.

This is interesting if we follow the fashion trajectory of blue jeans: they’ve traveled uphill all the way. They’ve gone from “work clothes,” to casual, to business and now even to formal wear and are still engaged in a gradual social ascent – even though the jeans remain only a shadow of their former selves. In 1886 when Levis first illustrated in advertising, a pair was tethered between two horses. Behind each horse stood a man with a whip ready to flog the horses: the message? Even wild horses couldn’t make these pants rip or tear. I do not believe that today, with outsourcing, our jeans are made of such stern stuff.

Any discussion of sartorial matters like this cannot but address our universal need to be sexually attractive. By just thumbing through any magazine that advertises clothing, the models – either male or female – look unlike the people we normally associate with, particularly here in Talbot County… except perhaps when our children or grandchildren come to visit. The beautiful young models are shown to encourage vain hopes in us, but I think most would agree, our preoccupations with sexual allure have a natural shelf life.

Until about twenty years ago I enjoyed shopping for nice clothes and believe I had good taste and dressed well. Since I became an octogenarian I no longer think of myself as a sex object and my dress habits have become less inspired and more perfunctory. Now, clothes primarily need to fit loosely, keep me warm in winter and cool in summer. They should not embarrass my spouse and friends and should ideally be made of fabrics able to minimize any food and coffee stains I may have spilled.

Worn a size or two larger, Levi’s might fit the bill nicely.

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.

Spirituality Of Recovery by George Merrill

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In the sixties I served as the Chaplain at Blue Hills Hospital, Connecticut’s cutting edge facility treating drug and alcohol dependent persons. I was a young priest and had recently completed graduate studies in psychotherapy and family counseling. I knew little about addictions, but I learned – I mostly began understanding spirituality.

I led groups. We’d sit in a circle. The chairs were hard, the folding ones commonly found in parish halls. One day there were fourteen of us, all men. Some members were new admissions, others recidivists. A third of the group suffered drug addiction. The others were alcoholics. (alcoholism is drug addiction, the substance of choice being alcohol.)

The discussion groups provided safe space, acceptance, and a forum for patients to air concerns and confront “stinkin’ thinkin’,” the chronic attitudes of resentment, self-denigration and/or grandiosity that feed the addictive process.

On this day, the subject settled on “relapses.” Frenchie was the center of the discussion. For years he’d been readmitted off and on for detox. Frenchie was a likeable guy. People took to him. He had a kind face, gentle eyes, and seemed shy and awkward – like an adolescent boy. He worked at lumbering in the Canadian forests. He made good money. He might stay sober anywhere from six months to a year.

One drug addict in the group, a street smart and perceptive young man, asked Frenchie a question in a friendly way. “Why, after almost a year sober, did you ‘fall off’?” “You had it made, man,” he went on, pressing for Frenchie’s story.

Frenchie smiled sheepishly, and told us he’d indeed been doing well. One night, on his way home, he walked by a bar and saw two or three people he knew. “I just went in to talk with them, I swear,” he said with a pleading look.

The cagy drug addict looked at Frenchie kindly, but skeptically and said: “ Hey, Frenchie, ain’t nobody goes into a whorehouse because he just wants to talk to the girls; know what I mean.”

The comment however confrontational was insightful and caring. Frenchie was being taken seriously and his denial challenged in a humorous way, from a peer – someone from whom he might be able to hear what he couldn’t from critical moralists.

Founders of AA had learned long ago that those whose lives have known brokenness, could be the most effective instruments in healing the brokenness of others. In so doing, the broken heal themselves.

Christian spirituality has two best-kept secrets: it seems they’re kept from most Christians: one is how in our weaknesses we find our strengths. The other is how God has deeper compassion for losers than winners. Consider how Jesus befriends Peter, who betrayed him; how St. Paul, a religious terrorist, becomes a Christian advocate; and how the thief on the cross crucified next to Jesus, Jesus promises to welcome in paradise that very day. Jesus did not schmooze the rich and famous. He had a feel for the people on the streets.

St. Paul discovered his strengths by facing his weaknesses. For me, and I suspect others, this is not always a welcome notion. Who wants to face their weaknesses, parts of their personalities that they find ugly (if we can even identify them)? A confrontation like that may drive us in either of two directions: deny the shortcomings and blame others for the alienation we’ve created among friends, family, spouses and employers. The other is to openly acknowledge whatever defects of character we have that are defeating us. Then undertaking the hard work to remove them. AA calls this step “taking a fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The 12 Steps can serve as a universal guide to anyone interested in developing a spiritual practice. In my view, the 12 Steps touch most all the bases.

I’ve known fiercely religious people whose piety is hard-edged and critical. They’re always right and will grumble about “them” and “those” who may see things differently. We all know this as the “holier than thou” attitude. Recovering folk have a perceptive description of the man or woman who is now sober but just as insufferable and unreasonable as any drunk can be. They’ll say he’s a “dry drunk,” meaning that even though he’s stopped drinking, he’s the same unreasonable, defensive and self-defeating guy that he was when drinking.

I befriended a man about twenty years ago – I’ll call him Sonny. He’d been severely alcoholic and lost jobs and almost lost his family. He earned his sobriety slowly but steadily and was now actively working the 12th Step, reaching out to others to offer hope or help to anyone ready to receive it.

One day Sonny and I drank coffee. We talked about our lives. I shared some of the changes I’d seen in my life since the days at Blue Hills. Sonny looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, but straight faced he said, “George, it’s too bad you didn’t know me thirty years ago when I was drinking. I knew everything then and all you needed to do was ask me. I’d always have answers for you. Damn shame,” he mused as he shook his head mischievously; “I guess I’ve just lost my edge.” Humor lends a light touch to painful memories.

It’s been my experience that humorless people are often the least self aware, like many well meaning but self-righteous folk who once gave moral lecture’s to people desperately seeking help for their addictions. A sense of humor indicates the capacity to change where the situation warrants it. It reveals the capacity to live with loose ends without trying to precipitously tie them up to force conclusions. Humor is the reed that survives the storms because it is able to bend no matter from what direction the wind blows.

I studied spirituality in seminary. I discovered it at Blue Hills. I saw a spiritual practice that helped broken lives mend while offering hope to the hopeless. I also witnessed what for us Christians can be a hard truth to take on: that our strengths will be made perfect in our weaknesses.


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.

Darkness at Noon by George Merrill

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As different as night and day? In a binary world maybe, but not this one. This world is a bewildering both/and.

When two self-contradictory statements make sense we call it a paradox. When two self- contradictory statements claim to be equally true but when examined make no sense at all, we say it’s equivocation. Equivocation is the art of the deal, a tool of deception and the soul of politics. Paradoxes are the heart of spirituality and the occasion for astonishment. “To gain one’s life, one must first lose it,” is a paradoxical statement.

Nothing new under the sun? An eclipse can make the world seem new. For a moment, there’s darkness at noon. That’s new.

I suspect what appears new to us is how fundamentals, the basics of our universe and of our human condition, become arranged and rearranged. Author Bill Bryson writes: “During the big bang, ninety-eight percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced . . . the universe is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in the time it takes to make a sandwich.”

What’s new is how all this fundamental matter continually coalesces to form new creations.

For us, a specific confluence of time, place and awareness can generate extraordinary moments. It’s mix and match of sorts. Like a bridge game, the number of possible hands can be staggering. In my lifetime, the range of possibilities that may open to me, created by a finite number of variables, is endless. Hope and wonder are predicated on that belief. How life actually proceeds for us includes the hand we’re dealt but even more, how and when we play it.

My first introduction to the Eastern Shore was an overnight sail across the Bay with a friend. We left Middle River mid-afternoon and arrived at Fairlee Creek, a popular gunkhole for boats sailing to the Upper Shore. The sail became one of the signature moments in my life, a moment greater than the sum of its parts.

We arrived shortly after five, successfully negotiating the narrow dogleg that forms the entrance to the creek. We anchored, made drinks and watched as the sun began descending in the west, while slowly shrinking into an ever-diminishing orange ball. The sun’s usual brilliance softened as the heavy moisture laden atmosphere settled in, common on steamy August nights around the Bay. The evening was still. The only sound came from a boat anchored nearby. Someone on board with a flute was playing airs, the notes wafting through the night air around the creek. At that moment, I was sure the whole world had been reconfigured right there before me and momentarily revealed the heart of the universe. Everything came together to create a moment of pure magic. What became paradoxical was how I felt about it. I’d have sworn at that moment I’d been in Fairlee Creek before. I’d never been there. It was new and it was not new.

How did this bewildering universe begin?

Some people hold to creationism. Creationism teaches how the universe and all its living organisms originated from specific acts of God, as described biblically rather than by natural processes such as evolution. It didn’t take God long, but longer than making a sandwich; six days to be exact. Scientists believe creation is a 13.772 billion year evolution – plus or minus 59 million years. For creationists, the crabs we catch in the Bay today are the same as they were when the Bible was written. It’s not a majority opinion, but it seeks to account for the wonder of how our world began.
For me, creationism is too static. There’s no process, no growth, no ongoing shifts and realignments. There are no paradoxes. It’s all tidily finished off, wrapped and presented.

Even a flaming biblical literalist or a hard-nosed scientist might agree to at least this much: how and whenever it happened, the universe was conceived with blinding light. God either spoke that light into being or the big bang illuminated the void, while creating a universe out of nothing. Ex- nihilo, meaning ‘from nothing,’ and the idea of light being the first order of creation have offered some nascent possibilities for agreement between religion and science.

While writing this essay, the solar eclipse had been under way. Light and darkness were on my mind. Hordes traveled to be in its path and witness the event. News broadcasters across the country were hyped as they interviewed festive crowds assembled for the event. During lunch I joined my wife for an hour and we watched on TV as the total eclipse occurred over Oregon. It loses its wonder on TV.

An eclipse is predictable; responses to it are not. Its predictability provides thousands the opportunity to experience what darkness descending during mid-day is like. Some described it as fun, others, eerie, scary, otherworldly, and awesome. What was unique to the event was witnessing a certain configuration, the confluence of forces already in existence but converging in such a way as to reveal in the things familiar to us – like a sun and a moon – something new and awe inspiring.

Miles O’Brien, PBS’s science correspondent interviewed a scientist knowledgeable in cosmology and physics. The scientist said that the sun’s corona, hotter than even its atmosphere, is expanding. In billions of years it will grow to such proportions as to burn off our earth’s atmosphere and eventually cause the seas to boil.

This suggests an ongoing process of ‘becoming.’ Become what is the mystery: toast or completely transformed. The process under way is how everything is being inexorably woven together and making all things new. You and I and the world are engaged in a process of becoming, during which many truths exist without necessarily having to contradict one another.

The author of the 139th psalm thought God a paradoxical way: “Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”

What’s it like when darkness and light are alike? Perhaps something like the experience of finding ourselves in darkness even in the middle of the day.

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.

 

 

A Longing for Love by George Merrill

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The tragic clash in Charlottesville recently and the president’s disappointing equivocation about its perpetrators is one more toxin added to the already poisoned atmosphere in which Americans live daily.

I’ve seen selfless service and goodness exercised in public life: Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elie Wiesel, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dag Hammarskjold and Shimon Peres – to name a few. These are the men and women I’d want my children to emulate. They’re strong and loving people. They care. My concern is that today’s young people are being fed a steady diet of cynicism through sensationalistic media outlets, which, by the way, Americans devour voraciously.

I believe our national discontent indicates a deep hunger for inspired leadership, for authenticity and for the hope that can lift us up and help us live the greatest challenge to our existence: how to love one another. Loving one another is the ultimate challenge in life. Everything else is secondary. Inspiration and hope are available, but today you have to look hard. It’s like panning for gold in a streambed. The constantly moving water stirs up dirt and obscures the gold.

How shall we “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” is a challenge as relevant today as it was over two thousand years ago when the grieving psalmist, longing for his true home, first spoke these words.

Thomas Merton is a name well known in and out of religious circles. Seven Story Mountain, his autobiography written in 1948, concerned his conversion to Catholicism and his eventual entrance into the Trappist community. The story fascinated believers and non-believers alike. I read it as a teen-ager and I remember little of it. I do recall the feeling that it temporarily awakened in me. It was that feeling all of us have had at one time or another. It’s when on a dark night, we watch the stars and a feeling of awe becomes visceral, working itself up from deep within us and lodging in our throats. Merton’s spiritual vision extended beyond the banks of conventional religion to excite people’s imagination about the awe inspiring wonders of spiritual awareness.

I was surprised to read not long ago about how, years after he wrote it, Merton began to critically examine his own motives in writing it. He had uneasy feelings about it’s tone which he regarded as condescending, giving the impression that the cloistered life of the monk was the ideal spiritual path to follow.

What amazed me was how a spiritual giant like Merton who could “speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” still retained a fearless openness, curiosity and transparency. He was able to take a hard look at himself and what he was about. In one sense, his own spiritual growth process spoke even more loudly about living a life of spiritual depth, perhaps even more than did his thoughts he wrote about earlier. He was not dogmatic and hardwired to defend ideas he once held. He enjoyed enough of the spirit of wisdom to understand that spirituality is a process of constant change, not static “beliefs” that demand unquestioned loyalty.

Years later he said of his book, “this is the work of a man I have never even heard of.” He knew his spirit still missed something and he still hungered.

In 1958 he had an experience that again changed his life, but this change, in my estimation, is the most profound.

He was still writing and had been in Louisville Kentucky to meet his publisher. Merton was walking though a shopping district at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets. He became acutely aware of all the people around him. He was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that he loved them all. In his words: “ . . . they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” He recognized “the secret beauty of their heart.” He described them as shining brilliantly like the sun.” He goes on to say: “If only we could see each other that way all the time; there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

Big problem? Not in my book. That’s a more excellent way than shooting each other, driving cars into crowds and bombing innocents in market places.

I know we hunger for a vision of ourselves and our nation that inspires and lift us up. Witnessing to love is the most compelling vision of all.

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.

 

Saddle Shoes and The Kingdom of Heaven by George Merrill

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Getting to the right place for the wrong reasons is more the rule than an exception.

For a long time my parents were uncertain which church to affiliate with. My father had been raised Methodist, and my mother Dutch Reformed. Neither was an active churchgoer but – as many middle class people – they thought their children could use the respectability of some religious affiliation. Proximity I think finally clinched their decision: the Church of the Ascension was much closer to our house than either the Methodist or the Dutch Reformed Church. The parish was an easy walk from home so there was no need for transportation. My religious journey began not with aspirations to greater piety but for proximity and convenience. I was baptized there. I was ten at the time, considerably older than the typical baptismal candidate.

I had little sense of what baptism was about. The rite assured that I would become an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. At my age, these theological formulations went over my head and I remember my baptism now only because of the relief I felt that my suit and especially my saddle shoes remained dry during the ritual. Prior to the baptism, my parents bought me a glen plaid suit and the shoes for the occasion. I was a clotheshorse and eager to wear my new clothes. The solemnity of the occasion was of secondary importance to me if I was aware of it at all.  Dressing up was first priority– a shallow motivation to be sure – but I was nevertheless respectfully clothed to claim whatever my new status was as a child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Even during the baptism my worldly desires dominated.

During the baptism, my head was slightly inclined over the baptismal font in preparation for the priest to pour water on top of my head. This was done three times in the name of the “Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”  I could think only of how to protect my saddle shoes from any cascading water. Fr. Rogers was skilled at this maneuver so the shoes remained dry while I received my new inheritance. For all the wrong reasons I was initiated into a spiritual community, which grew in importance as I became older and more aware.  I would say, the choice of that parish also turned out to be a good call, even as my parents, or me for that matter, had little if any sense of the implications that belonging to this community carried.

How many decisions do we make or in which we enthusiastically participate during our lives without having any idea of what’s really going on?  It’s probably most of them. Those decisions cause no great harm. A fortuitous outcome of many of mine has led me to believe there is an overarching reality that redeems us even as we muddle through life. To see such grace at work during our lives requires a hard look at the erratic course a life follows.

Voting, marriage, and buying a first home are three decisions I imagine most of us make while poorly informed. Studying up on your candidate, engaging in pre-marital counseling or contracting for a house inspection can offer some assurances that we’re acting with our eyes open. However wide our eyes may be opened, there are always surprises. Many blindside us but some are welcomed.

Scientists deal with this reality regularly. In investigating one phenomenon, they invariably discover something radically new and altogether different.

One day, scientist Perry Spencer of Raytheon was fiddling around with a microwave emitting magnetron used in radar when he felt an odd sensation in his pocket. He felt something sizzling. A chocolate bar in his pocket had begun melting. By a fluke he discovered what we know as today’s microwave ovens.

Navy engineer Richard James was experimenting to find ways to stabilize delicate instruments on ships that were always rolling and pitching at sea. What he inadvertently stumbled upon is what delights the heart of every child; the ubiquitous “Slinky.” Three hundred million sold worldwide.

There’s a spiritual message in this. It’s a dead-end to insist we have to get it right.  There’s a piece of scripture that has suggested this but only because it has been misinterpreted. “Be ye perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect.” Know anyone who is up to that? If you do they will probably bore you to death. The English word ‘perfect’ is an inadequate rendition of a word that at its root means ‘compassionate.’ As human beings we are not challenged to “get it right” but to be compassionate, a far more challenging ideal. Aspirations to perfection lay an enormous burden on you and me. Perfectionists can drive themselves and everyone around them nuts.

The election of Ascension to be my spiritual home and the baptism that followed it was hardly the result of high-minded piety or idealism. It’s nevertheless where the full story began. I became a part of a nurturing community through my turbulent adolescence, aware of the healing power words and music while I discovered some of the timeless tools by which I could attempt to plumb the mysteries of God and of my own soul.

And all I knew when all this began was that my parents were delighted not to have to drive us to church and the saddle shoes remained dry during my initiation into the Kingdom of Heaven.

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.

 

Strangers by George Merrill

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One summer, as a teenager, I worked as a laborer for a ship’s chandler in New York Harbor. In those days, freight ships had access through their hulls for tenders to come alongside and deliver staples. I was always thrilled to meet my foreign peers as we handed off sacks of coffee and boxes of fruits from the tender to the ship. One of the rituals – it seemed universal and instinctual then – was to greet our fellow laborers from various foreign ports by offering them cigarettes. There would be an immediate nod and smile of camaraderie. The recipient would in return take out his cigarettes like Gauloises and offer me one as I extended my pack of Camels toward him. Then came the task of trying to converse, as neither of us spoke the other’s language nor were we even sure where others were from. We would gesticulate, point emphatically, raise our voices for emphasis, as if volume would bring understanding, as we attempted to learn more from one another. Where are you from? Who do you work for? In the process we occasionally understood differences and what the other was getting at. I remember how exhilarating it felt to wend our way through the apparent differences that separated us to connect and discover something in common.

I believe to know others and be known is one of the most basic hungers of the heart. We yearn to be connected, to be a part of the whole.

There is something universally satisfying about finding kinship in a stranger. For starters, it might mean nothing more than establishing that you’re both smokers. Still, better to begin there than to remain strangers. We may be from different countries, speak different languages, and even have similar bad habits, but we all enjoy the same heritage having traveled here the same way riding the Milky Way. In one instance for me, the awareness of others grew from floating alongside foreign freighters in New York Harbor and finding some hitherto unknown traveling companions.

A thought about this apprehension with strangers today troubles me, but I am not sure what there is to do about it since I fear it’s become a way of life. How has such universal suspicion has become part of our daily lives? I’ve become increasingly aware that in the last maybe twenty years we are living reactively, defensively with each other. I hate to see it, but it’s begun showing itself in all kinds of ways that communicates the message that whatever is strange and unknown is necessarily dangerous. It’s evident in small ways. The popular way of saying our goodbyes is to say ‘take care.’ Must we be so hypervigilant and remind others to be?

There are public indicators that we must protect ourselves from one another. I’ve noticed in supermarkets that there are disinfectant dispensers or handy wipes to clean off the carts we push to carry groceries in. It’s as if just being human is a dirty enough business to make us threats to one another.

I have watched my children as they raised their own and observed how they behave. It’s as though there were dangers everywhere. ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ is a refrain I hear from many parents these days who legitimately fear for their children’s safety. Few children today roam the neighborhoods to play. I cannot but feel sad. Whatever has happened to us that we don’t welcome the stranger, but instead suspect him or her of being dangerous?

In a strange twist, the cellphone has both lent itself to this phenomenon and at the same time offered some protection from some of the imagined dangers. Children now carry their phones everywhere and some texts they receive can be frightening. The children also have in their hands the instruments by which they can seek help in situations where they might be vulnerable.

Every parent’s nightmare is losing a child or fearing he or she may be walking into danger. Is there a more anxious atmosphere now than there was fifty years ago? I suspect there is and it results I believe from loss of real neighborhoods where people know one another by name. Here on the Shore where retirees come to live, some permanently, some weekending, has created communities where people have houses close by but do not know who their neighbors are or if they do, rarely see them.

It’s interesting to note that new houses under construction have their porches in the back of the house to insure privacy. In the past, porches were on the front where neighbors welcomed seeing other people coming and going. “Private Property, No Trespassing” is a common warning seen on the lawns and front gates of many properties.

A prominent African-American educator once told me about growing up near White Haven here on the Shore. It was during segregation and in a small black community. Despite the indignities of segregation, she recalled fondly the neighborhood. To paraphrase her story, she said that since that long ago time, she has not experienced the safety and solidarity of a community. Neighbors knew each other and were called “Aunt” and “Uncle” by all the kids. Even if Mom and Dad weren’t at home, kids had to behave, as neighbors kept an eye on them. They grew up as we hope kids grow up; feeling safe and cared for. People knew and had come to trust one another.

My granddaughter Leighton is fifteen. She recently volunteered at a summer camp in Delaware providing day activities for children from homes with limited means. One little girl, age five, grew fond of Leighton. One day as they were engaged in activities, the girl looked to Leighton and said; “If you were only brown you could be my sister.”

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” reads the scriptures. I would add that angels come in all colors and many don’t speak English.

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.

Saved By George Merrill

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In 1939, I went with my family to see a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. The stadium was huge, expansive and bigger than any public place I’d ever been in. Everything was new to me and seemed so immense and spacious. I wasn’t really thinking much about the game, but more about the expanse of the stadium and also that it was a holiday weekend. That meant no school for three whole days, a thrilling thought for me. Here I was in the Bronx as if I’d been set free from the usual constraints of my daily life on Staten Island.

I felt a rush of liberation, of joy. I can’t remember having the same feeling ever again quite as intensely. The feeling and the moment were indelibly implanted in memory at a time in my life when I can remember little else. In my child’s whimsical mind, had I been translated into another universe where time was not a factor any more in my life? Was this moment of joy to be forever and ever? I wondered if I’d somehow tripped and fallen into a moment of eternal bliss. Yankee Stadium was an unlikely place for such a transcendent moment. I didn’t like baseball that much.

The memory of the incident persisted my whole life although it made no sense to me. I guessed that I’d had a glimpse of something bigger than baseball or being off from school for a few days. But what?

Ideas get sown randomly. We process thousands in a day. Like seeds, some die. Many remain latent; some germinate much later and in unexpected places.

So more than half a century after the Yankee Stadium event, a professional colleague and I happened on the topic of salvation. We were discussing how in Christian circles salvation is popularly understood as the assurance of an afterlife in heaven. Although some hold that it’s a free gift, I suspect more believe that salvation is earned by a life of moral rectitude. I’ve never been wholly easy with that. If it were so, heaven would be as sparsely populated as the Sahara Desert. I’ve suspected that the fundamentals of salvation are more of a living dynamic, something happening in the moment, rather than the site of a future residence.

My colleague, more biblically informed than I am, mentioned one of the earliest historical understandings of the word salvation. The word describes an experience. The experience is almost wholly universal and can be put like this: I’m in a tight place. I’m hemmed in, but am being released into a wide-open and spacious place. To say this in another way, experiences of salvation are common to the religious and irreligious alike because they are one of the spiritual dynamics inherent in our daily lives. It’s a process experienced in the now and not a place we go in the future. Who among us hasn’t been jammed up and hemmed in, one way or another, and then sought to break out into the open? When it happens, it’s a powerful moment. Some call it ‘moments of grace.’

The nature of salvation is not only a preoccupation of theologians or philosophers. It’s a living drama that plays out daily in our personal and social lives.

Addictions are one example. Individuals recovering from addictions are in a process of going from a tight and constricting place to free and open spaces. It’s a spiritual process. For the addicted, this is a daily – if not an hourly – issue. It happens one step at a time. It’s all about ‘now.’ For such persons, awareness must be constantly cultivated in order not to be trapped again in those dead-ends to which addiction invariably leads. There is a profound sense of gratitude a recovering person feels in knowing from personal experience how precious those wide open spaces are and being able to freely live in them. It brings happiness to everyone.

I recently watched a TV clip on the aftermath of an earthquake. A large crowd watched as one man worked to free a child who’d been trapped. As the man lifted the child into the hands of the crowd everyone cheered, clapped and threw hands into the air in jubilation. It was as if the rescued child were one of their own. It’s a joyful occasion witnessing those who are trapped become freed and led into the wide open.

Salvation has social implications as well. The ramifications are playing themselves out dramatically in today’s immigration crisis. It’s painful to see.

Governments grow increasingly hesitant to grant space for immigrants fleeing the tight and constricting places in which they find themselves imprisoned. For wealthy countries that have both the resources and the spaces to create possibilities, the fear of the stranger inhibits action. We in the Western World, who have the resources to “save” scores of immigrants, lack the will and the vision to do it. It raises a question – if one subscribes to salvation’s old “saved or damned” typology – of who then is damned in this immigration tragedy? Is it those who inhabit the open and spacious environs or those confined to tight constricting places?

Admittedly these reflections are a long way from a day at Yankee Stadium in 1939, when, for a moment, I sensed there was a world right here filled with joy and endless possibilities. To find what we’re looking for – the wide-open spaces where the heart yearns to dwell – we first have to know they exist. A ball game may seem like a strange place to become spiritually aware. But then, even in baseball, finding your way home safely is the name of the game.

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.

On the Face of Things by George Merrill

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Appearances deceive!

When I read Jesus’s words, “Judge not,” I think to myself, “You’re putting me on, right? Not judge? It’s impossible. Give me a break!”

Well, it is and isn’t impossible. With first judgments, the ones we typically make on the face of things, I’d say it’s impossible. Knee jerk judgments behave like reflexes; you can rarely stop them any more than you can get a fit of sneezing to end. Getting at the heart of what makes up our judgments is another matter. We have control over that. It requires some practice and being better informed on how we’re put together psychologically and spiritually. “Know thyself” is our most valuable asset. Being informed, we’re less likely to be suckered into attaching ourselves to snap judgments that are typically suspect.

I was in the grocery store not long go. The line was long. Shoppers were getting restless. The man directly in the front of me was huge man with a considerably protuberant belly – a beer belly I’d say. His hair was long and unruly. He wore on a tank top and under each arm he held two large cartons of beer. His arms and shoulders were covered with tattoos – large hearts pierced by arrows, a dragon, an iron cross, a nude woman and a couple of American flags.

There were about five people waiting as an elderly man by the checkout lady fumbled in his wallet for a check. I was the third in line, just behind the huge man.

The elderly man found the check but then couldn’t find a pen. Then he sought for his glasses all of which was consuming a considerable time. I could see ripples of irritation forming along the line: a few people turned around and looked at the person behind them. That person in turn rolled their eyes and sighed conspiratorially, acknowledging what a pain it was to be stuck in line like this for just one patron.

The huge man was right behind the flustered shopper. He put down his two cartons of beer and I watched as he leaned forward to speak to the unfortunate customer. I heard him say: “Hey Buddy, let me fill out the check for you and all you have to do is sign it.”
The man, subdued but grateful, handed him the check and the huge man filled it out and returned it.

It was a risky intervention: it could easily have soured and raised suspicions of the huge man’s efforts to help. The offer was unusual but bold and creative, and I would never have suspected it of him. I had no idea that a Good Samaritan might look like a biker from Hells’ Angles. Nothing is quite as it seems on the face of things. Yet so many judgments are a result of our perception of appearances. Racial profiling and gender discrimination are cases in point.

In a New York Times on June 23rd, a picture of a psychologist appeared in an editorial. The article was called “The Torturers Speak.” Dr. James Mitchell is one of two psychologists who contracted, for eighty one million dollars, to design, oversee and help carry out the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees after 9/11. He and another psychologist are being sued.

Dr. Mitchell is handsome, a well-dressed, middle-aged man with a distinguished beard. He’s pictured holding his glasses in his hand, like professors, politicians and preachers do as they speak. You’d take him for a doctor or lawyer or any professional. If you were to meet him for the first time my guess is he’d inspire confidence with the dignified presence he commands. Admittedly, in the picture he looks angry but I don’t know why.

The enhanced interrogation techniques were horrific enough that Jose Rodriguez, a top CIA official, destroyed the videotapes of the techniques, which he described as “ugly visuals.” One detainee after eighty-three “enhanced interrogations was reduced to hysterical pleading and unable to communicate at all with his tormentors.” His dignity was gone, his humanity violated.

Both Mitchel and his colleague claimed that they did not “want to continue what they were doing.” Intelligence officials, however, “kept telling [us] every day a nuclear bomb would be exploded in the United States and it would be my fault if I didn’t continue.”

My knee jerk reaction to the editorial was to feel revulsion and yet it is difficult to make judgments when all the information and the many pressures on all parties are not fully recognized. Still, the issue remains; when the going gets tough, what are the values we hold most dear that will guide us?

The mentality that this interrogation regimen reflects is undeniable: it really doesn’t matter how you play the game. Winning is all there is. Winning, a form of power is very seductive.

There’s another scary piece in the story that troubles me. The capacity that apparently well educated and informed professionals, people like me – holding degrees in the humane studies like psychology – are able to sufficiently distance themselves from their own humanity that eighty-one thousand dollars would be worth all the inhumane suffering that their plan would inflict. That demonic piece of our human condition –and the potential for that lives in all of us – surfaces again and again whether in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, in the inhumane strategies of Issis or the detailed planning in the Final Solution the Nazis launched. These were not crimes of passion, which makes them all the more chilling. The murder and torture were coolly calculated with clinical precision, schemes devised and executed as manageable bureaucratic policies, which, through some torturous casuistry, legitimized them.

Only God can judge and for good reasons. He’s the only one who has the complete overview, who knows all the facts. In the meantime, we are charged to be discerning while holding firmly to the values that dignify our humanity.

It takes practiced eye not to be fooled by appearances.

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

 

 

 

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Dry Bones by George Merrill

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My knee is on the mend. The bones have realigned. I am happy to report I am out walking again. I didn’t fully realize how much I missed it until the rubber (my sneakers) hit the road. It felt like I’d been given a second chance.

On the walk I was reminded how hot Maryland summers are. It is mid-July. We have relatives in Georgia who claim Georgia’s the hottest place on the planet except maybe at its core. Not so. Maryland beats Georgia and the earth’s core hands down. It’s not just the heat, but also the humidity, which, if you’re inclined, you can wring it straight out of the air without any help from a cloth or sponge.

But back to my walk. Once resigned to the heat and humidity, I got into the delights of mobility and began looking around as I walked cautiously along the road. I felt like the child riding his bike for the first time without training wheels.

I usually keep my eyes lowered some in front so I see a short distance ahead. I scan the road that way to see any critters that might be joining me on my stroll. There are occasionally grasshoppers, once a turtle, ants and bees, especially wasps that seem to enjoy just hanging out on the road. And indeed I did see, of all creatures, a wooly bear. I’m accustomed to seeing wooly bears on my fall walks, but in July’s blazing heat, this was new to me. She was overdressed for the day wearing her dark brown and orange fur coat that I always assumed was to keep her warm in the winter. I will say, though, she undulated along happily, like a tiny balloon filled with water, and seemed to pay no attention to the heat.

I walked close the culvert that retained a few inches of water. I was soon to discover that it was the sanctuary to a host of good-sized bullfrogs. I was not aware of them at first. As I grew close to one, he squealed and “plop,” dove into the water. I note here that unlike what people imagine about bullfrogs, they squeal and squeak as often as they croak in that full basso profundo with its deep resonance.

All the frogs in the culvert were ready for me. As I approached the next one he squealed and jumped and so did about six others in succession the way dominoes, when set up a certain way, fall consecutively after the first one is toppled. It was fun to hear the “plop, plop” as I made my way up the road. I once read a published haiku that said nothing more than: “ A frog jumps in the water, plop.” The poet had a way with words.

I was doing famously – tickled pink about my newly healed bones – and was nearing my first half-mile. Then I began to ache in the most unlikely places – not as I half expected in my abused knee, but everywhere else. It began hurting in my right buttock, my thigh, and then down the front of my leg. My hip protested a little. Then I noticed my ankle ached some and suddenly, after eighty-two years of living in this very same body, I realized just how much I had wholly underestimated the number of moving parts that constitute my frame and sinew – particularly the bone and sinew from my hips on down.

Ezekiel’s proclamation, as celebrated in the famous African-American spiritual, Dry Bones, promises that at the resurrection “dem bones gonna walk around.” The spiritual explores in considerable detail how our bones are assembled one upon the other, which one is attached to which, but mentions nothing about how they will feel when first moved after not being exercised – in my case for over a month. Consider too, those who have been waiting for centuries to be raised from the dead; those first hours on their feet are not going to be any cakewalk. Maybe Ezekiel failed to mention synovial fluids, which, if included when the saints go marching in, would be sufficient to lubricate the long unused joints and mitigate pain as well.

I’m always surprised how it is that what I have so much of, I give such little thought to. My ability to move about easily – to jump, kneel and run – when I was younger I now look upon with nostalgia and some regret. The regret is that when I had it so good, I was hardly thankful for the abundance I was enjoying. Now that I have agility again, but in much more limited measure, I am far more grateful.

Gratitude is a peculiar emotion: it’s felt in inverse proportions to our blessings; there is less gratitude when we enjoy many blessings, while when there are fewer, our gratitude increases.

I’m grateful to be on the road again.

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.