Rosie Revisited by George Merrill

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Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 4.02.31 PMThe adjacent picture is one among many images depicting the iconic Rosie the Riveter of WWII fame. The image packs a whole story, especially today, about gender and society. It’s a timely statement. They say pictures are worth a thousand words? This one is worth more. It tells tells several stories.

The portrait represents a woman who is not about traditional feminine business, at least as we’ve known it historically, being agreeable and deferential. She’s in what we think of as a man’s world and appears to belong there unapologetically. She wears the blue denim shirt like the one I wore when as a young man I worked in shipyards. She’s a skilled laborer. Rosie was showcased as the kind of woman who, needing only the chance, was up to doing any man’s job as well if not better.

The woman’s facial expression is serene and confident, almost regal. It’s not the facial expression we’d expect from somebody who was feeling angry and defiant. The way her arms are configured, as I read it, is indeed a protest, but her expression suggests to me she is confident in her defiance, that she’s not just being reactive. She’s affirming who she is, a competent no-nonsense woman not about to be patronized.

Her right hand is placed over her left bicep, her left arm bent with fist held high in the air.

She might be just rolling up her sleeve but as I see it, she is multitasking. This is unmistakably the universal gesture of defiance normally associated with angry men, frequently low-lifes or tough guys. The French, always nuanced in delicate matters, call this gesture the ‘bras de’honneur;’ the Italians who are more proprietary say it’s the ‘Italian salute’ and Americans who are characteristically course know it simply as, ‘up yours.’ Defiance is a distinct part of the message here.

This is not a woman a guy wants to mess with. She knows just who she is. As I interpret this image for our time, I think she’s telling the world; “Let’s get serious. No more eighty cents on every dollar a man makes for the same job. It’s time for equal pay for men and women, and for blacks and whites as well.”

Stereotypical gender roles are rapidly changing. They’re challenging the way men and women relate to one another. The ‘little woman’ being protected by the ‘big guy’ is now an unsustainable fiction. Women’s safety stratagems that once depended on feminine wiles are antiquated. Tears of helplessness and fluttering eyelids are to the modern woman’s armamentarium for survival as the bow and arrow is to todays fighting Marine. For those guys still clinging to their traditional gender prerogatives, this change in social conventions may come as a shock.

According to New Yorker columnist, Lizzie Widdicombe, Dana Shafman, an Arizona native, is the inventor of the Taser party. Similar to the traditional Tupperware party women hosted in their homes, Shafman’s presentations are not about freezer containers or dishes for leftovers. Her wares are displayed on a coffee table like Tupperware. This is, however, serious weaponry proffered for sale, a lucrative, legitimate business, presented with a characteristically feminine touch: hospitality offered in the hostess’ living room, along with cookies, coffee and demonstrations in the uses of the Taser. This changing convention is not good news for men. It will require men to exercise more caution in the mating game and with women in general. Guns used to be strictly a guy thing. Now Mr. Macho can’t be sure when his disgruntled squeeze may be packing a piece.

The Taser, although ostensibly non-lethal, is a weapon like a gun, used by the military and police to subdue suspects who might become violent. In living room presentations to neighborhood women, Shafman showcases Tasers customized to suit the most discriminating woman’s tastes. The C2 Taser, small, “Virginia Slims” as the model is dubbed, has been developed for civilians and some specifically designed for women. Some come in pink, perhaps anticipating today’s confluence of traditional femininity with some of the instruments historically associated with masculinity. Shafman’s customers are promised that if the first shot doesn’t drop the miscreant, not to worry. The Taser can still be used as a stun gun.” Go for the jugular,” Shafman advises her customers.

It’s a new day.

March eighth this year the world observed International Women’s Day. The timing of the observation came at a particularly advantageous time since the occasion was set in sharp relief by the recent contempt with which the president publically denigrated women. It some ways his attitudes gave a greater impetus for increasing public awareness of the long standing issue of gender inequality. For all the wrong reasons his attitudes may have aided in propelling issues of gender inequality into public awareness.

It’s interesting to note that increasingly men and women are “partnering” rather than entering a marriage. Perhaps “husband and wife” still carry enough of the suggestion of inequality to trouble women in particular. The word partner or co-worker suggests equality.

What about good old-fashioned romance, you ask? That’s a subject for another conversation. My guess is that the glow endures among men and women who regard each other as equals.

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.

Take Heart by George Merrill

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Cynics say that positive thinking in the Trump era is equivalent to being in denial or suffering a psychiatric condition called magic thinking. Take heart, it’s not so.

The trick I’ve learned is not to read the papers or visit any other media for at least two hours after rising; the longer the better. Then I have an untroubled look at the sunrise, listening to the early birds flitting about while I savor that first cup of coffee. With an untroubled mind I can think about just how I want to go about my day.

Another strategy to maintain equanimity is to think contextually, that is, keep an eye on the big picture. Beauty is often revealed by its surrounding space, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh once observed about the shells she saw on a beach.

February is a case in point.

I’ve always regarded February as a blah month – cold and wet and dreary. But, taking the long look I now see it differently. Consider this: February 14th is Valentines Day. February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day. It’s also American Heart Month as well as Black History Month. The only downer is that February includes Presidents’ Day. Recently it’s felt more like a wake than a celebration. Still, my challenge is to remain positive, look for the silver lining in the darkest cloud, and don’t resort to keeping my head in the sand.

Valentines Day was especially rewarding this year because I remembered it on my own. I was the first to initiate a congratulatory kiss and tell my wife I loved her. I know she welcomed it, but I saw fleeting skepticism in her eyes. She may have been surprised that I remembered. She made the attached card for me.

February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day. Then I was still on holiday in Puerto Rico. Like many privileged Yankees I stay at a resort where some of the heart-rending poverty remains invisible. In many ways it’s an alternative universe, and if I ever had any illusions about inequality, being on the streets of Humacao as well as on the streets of our own capitol, they are quickly dispelled.

When I first arrived, I had occasion to leave the resort to buy supplies in Humacao. At a light I was approached, one after the other, by no less that four indigent men. Each held a plastic cup in his hand.

Their appearance betrayed desperate need. As each approached, I realized I only had twenties in my wallet and had made no provision for this. As they moved their cups in my direction I shrugged my shoulders and they passed me. The men betrayed no apparent anger or judgment. I believe I saw in their eyes a silent resignation, the blank stare of hopelessness. Having heard of a man in New York who did this, I elected to be sure next time when I left the house I’d be prepared to give each a dollar. This probably made no difference in their plight, but out of guilt and compassion I felt a need to at least act, to take their plight seriously enough to acknowledge it. Each time I gave, I had an odd feeling. I think it reduced that sense of guilt that goes with privilege, but the other feeling seemed different. As we momentarily looked each other in the eye I noticed I felt less alienated and more aware. This was a stranger whom I met only once and probably would never see again. The feeling was faintly reminiscent of a sense of belonging, that both of us were connected in a fundamental way – children of God. Moments like this make me appreciate the exercise of compassion – and the organizational commitment – that Julie Lowe and the volunteers of the Talbot Interfaith Shelter have created. Random acts of kindness are good as far as they go. Compassionate acts inspired by committed and accountable people is goodness at it’s best.

During February we celebrate Black History month, usually emphsizing the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Gandhi, Dr. King showed the world a more excellent way. I continue to be awed by the care and planning that the early civil right activists practiced. It was as disciplined as boot camp, giving as much thought and respect to adversaries as to advocates. The movement was one example of not only the power of goodness and personal sacrifice to reach the human heart, but to also change oppressive social structures. Social revolutions are notoriously bloody. The civil rights movement had casualties – King himself – but his life and mission changed the world in a remarkably bloodless way.

February is also American Heart Month. Our hearts are our most loyal supporters and our closest friends. We can’t live without one. They have an awesome responsibility and even when they suffer malfunctions, with the right treatment, they keep on truckin’. Try this on for size: In a seventy-two year life span, a heart beats approximately 2,800,000,000 times. Of our other organic functions, our breath comes in behind the heart but still at a whopping 530,156,808 breaths. In times of erotic excitement and especially during presidential campaigns both numbers may increase substantially.

This brings us finally to February 20th, which is Presidents Day this year. It’s usually a celebration, but this year I think confusion abounds in the White House and President Trump seems angry all the time about one thing or another. I haven’t found this President’s Day as festive as last year when President Obama was in office. He was fun, articulate, with a sense of humor, even self-deprecating humor – “I’m the guy with the big ears,” he’d say. President Obama seemed to really care for us, as though he held in his heart the people he was elected to serve.

Oops! See, I’ve done it, dumping on Trump again, right into the negativity I’m encouraging us to rise above. Well, getting back on task I count as a blessing that Vladimir Putin didn’t become our 45th President.

Take heart, friends. Count your blessings, however modest. It promotes warm hearts and fewer visits to your cardiologist.

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.

To Whom Much has Been Given by George Merrill

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In ancient times, in the Middle East, a man once sat near his tent in an area not far from a village called Mamre. His wife remained in the tent attending to chores. He saw three strangers approaching. He rose, ran to them, welcomed them, bowed to them in respect and offered them his hospitality. He washed their feet (a gesture of welcome of nomadic peoples) offered them bread to eat and water to drink. His actions were guided by a prevailing custom, which obliged him to offer hospitality and protection to aliens and strangers.

He took and slaughtered one of his calves and prepared a feast for the three guests. When it was time for them to leave, the story goes, he went with them a distance “to see them safely on their way.”

This is one of the myths of the legendary Abraham and Sarah who appear in Islamic, Judaic and Christian scriptures. By all accounts we have a picture of a man and his wife, people of privilege and power offering hospitality and protection to the potentially weak and vulnerable – in this case to three men who appeared as strangers in their midst.

Last Friday, the President of the United States signed a directive closing the nation to refugees and people from “certain predominantly Muslim countries.” Immigrants were turned away, with no preparations or forethought apparently given to how appropriate authorities would ‘see them on their way.’ The directive created unimaginable suffering for millions of people – all of whom wished us nothing but affection and admiration for what we stood for – a just and welcoming space. I was deeply saddened when I read about it.

The supreme irony is that the practice of hospitality was an ingrained spiritual tradition in many of those same countries that now seek refuge and sanctuary here.

There are darker implications to the recent executive directive. In this action, I believe our present leadership violated one of America’s fundamental moral foundations. The operative myth that has made America unique and distinct in its greatness is its commitment to hospitality.

We live by myths. Campaign slogans are myths. Our most beloved religious stories and symbols are myths. This is not to suggest they are only “make believe or fanciful.” They may be, but do not need to be historically verifiable to be powerfully motivating. To be viable they only need to speak to some deep human yearning. In the myth of Abraham and Sarah, we see the deep and universal human need to care for others, in short, to offer hospitality to strangers.

Two symbols represent our national myths; the eagle and the Statue of Liberty. The eagle represents nobility and strength, the alpha bird if you will. It tells the world that America is strong. It feels good to be strong. The eagle is, however, a predator. Eagles are also kissing cousins to buzzards.

The Statue of Liberty, our greatest national landmark, was conceived in grace. It was given to America by the French in gratitude for our supporting their struggles for equality and justice. For us, she has become the iconic symbol, not of America’s might, but of America’s caring. The gift was given in gratitude, one of the most profound feelings we have as human beings.

What’s disturbing is that the symbol of America’s true greatness with it’s long and venerable history of hospitality to the stranger, might soon become more like the guard stationed at the entrance to a gated community; admitting members only. I recently saw a picture on the side of a pickup truck with a picture of Lady Liberty on the cab door. In her arms she’s holding an AK 47.
This portrays the statue more as an armed guard than a hostess welcoming “your tired and your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

The highest task imparted to us as human beings is to care for one another. It is not some kind of legal imperative, but more a recognition that we belong to that interdependent web of life that is woven into who we are and has consequences in what we do.
The story of Abraham and his guests is instructive from another point of view. We can assume that he is a man of means, with resources. Even if he were not wealthy, the same call to hospitality was a spiritual value that would be as incumbent on him as it would be for the privileged.

The substance of spiritual matters is reflected more subtly than say, closing a deal.

What characterized the recent executive order banning immigrants was its ‘slapdash” quality. Many, including the Secretary of Homeland Security were just learning of the order as it was being signed. The people in government agencies that would have the responsibility for carrying out the directive, “to see them on their way,” were largely blindsided which led to scrambling and confusion, only aggravating the predictable suffering for all involved.

In the spiritual nature of life, awareness is critical. It’s expressed in the attention one gives in the way we treat others in our routine or extraordinary transactions with them. Careless and off-handed treatment of others suggests that there’s little awareness and care or feeling for the other.

There’s one other irony in these developments. Of all the countries being impacted by the present migrations, America’s space, wealth and privilege position her to be compassionate with far less impact to her than countries with fewer resources.

To whom much has been given, much is required.

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.

Out and About (Sort of): Day 1 -Trump Undone by Howard Freedlander

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On my way to writing a different column, I learned again on Day 1 of the Trump Administration that truth is a terrible distraction to the spanking new President. Nothing new, really.

Our new President takes narcissism and insecurity to new heights. If held accountable to facts, he feels insulted and disrespected. The real world is an unpleasant circumstance. Nothing new, really.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, his first full day as leader of the Free World, Mr. Trump disputed the number of attendees at his inauguration the day before, despite visual evidence, and claimed that his feud with the nation’s intelligence community was a creation of the “dishonest” media, despite evidence of his tweets during the transition period damning the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). At a January 2017 news conference, he even charged U.S. intelligence officials with conducting a Nazi-like smear against him

What was sorely lacking on Day 1 was even a scintilla of substance.

Instead, our new President appeared before the CIA’s Memorial Wall of heroes and said nothing about the brave people whose names are listed on this hallowed wall. As is his annoying and self-serving custom, Mr. Trump demeaned the audience by citing his war with the media over the number of people who attended his swearing-in. While he expressed strong support of CIA employees—and that was commendable—he failed again to focus entirely on the subject at hand.

It was during his remarks that Mr. Trump ascribed the ill will between him and the intelligence community to the hateful media.

So, what we saw during the Presidential campaign and the tweet-filled transition will be a mind-boggling staple of the Trump reign of power. The “you, “the American people, whom he addressed repeatedly during his inaugural speech, was merely a rhetorical device. His self-preoccupation underscores his being. Nothing new, really.

The first of 1,460 days of occupancy of the White House by the highly-flawed Donald J. Trump was actually an incredible and historic one not only in Washington, DC and throughout the world. The Women’s March the past Saturday illustrated the power of peaceful protest in a strong democracy.
Family members and friends descended on the nation’s Capital to proclaim their objections to Mr. Trump’s documented behavior toward, and comments about women.

Crowds exceeded expectations in Washington, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Juneau, Alaska, London, Paris, Melbourne, Australia and other cities.
Maybe that’s why Mr. Trump was mad. His words and behavior possibly have spurred a movement. That would be ironic. He constantly boasts of the movement that his candidacy spawned.

It’s because I have to accept the truth—that Donald Trump’s boorish behavior, his paper-thin skin, his incessant self-glorification and his alarming lack of personal and intellectual depth will most likely not yield to Presidential growth—that I write this column. It’s human to expect the best.

Some might ask: what did you expect? Some might assert: he never indicated he would change his garish stripes. Some might say: this authenticity is what got him elected. He’s a change agent, some might argue, and you better accept that reality.

Further, some might suggest that I and others should give the billionaire businessman a chance. After all, he just was sworn in. He needs time to adjust to the demands and laser-like scrutiny that accompanies his exalted position.

If past is precedent, our 70-year-old President sees little need to change. He won the election, and that’s all that matters.

I suspect that impeachment will shadow, if not end the presidency of Donald Trump. Bound by his own rules and standards of conduct, he likely will step over the legal and ethical lines. He will find that utter service to himself does not translate into service to his fellow Americans.

Day I brought out the worst in Mr. Trump. We can only hope for the best—whatever that is.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Certain Slants of Light by George Merrill

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My wife, Jo, has dragged me kicking and screaming into the electronic age. I can almost manage Facebook and survive fatal errors. I’ve learned what a blog is. I can text, albeit at a painfully slow pace and, although I will never be a truly renaissance man of the postmodern era, at least I can get messages and compose on the computer.

One of the marvelous gifts of electronic communication is its capacity to offer talks by informed people. I can listen to the wise and learned as they share their wisdom with me. Just the other day I listened to a clip where Krista Tippett (recently at the Avon Theater in Easton) was interviewing Rabbi Rachel Naomi Remen, a remarkable woman, and one of many I am hopeful will spiritually feed and guide more of us as we make our way in this increasingly uncertain world.

Rabbi Rachel Remen, MD, Clinical professor of Family and Community Medicine at U.C.S.F. has a vision. She relates a story as told by her grandfather. It’s a myth with deep roots in Jewish spiritual wisdom that I believe has profound healing qualities especially for this time. In her pioneering work in Holistic and Integrative medicine, while suffering herself with Crohn’s disease for sixty years, she’s no stranger to suffering or to the mystery of healing. She is wise in the art of living wholly (holy) in the midst of brokenness – which, for all of us, is life’s primary task.

She relates her grandfather’s story, a pivotal myth that has guided her along her spiritual path of healing that she’s trod during her life. Like all inspired myths, it reveals truth without artifice, in such an ingenuous way that it touches the heart and soul deeply. She offers a vision of hope for healing in this broken world. As I heard the story for the first time, I understood more clearly the ancient psalm that speaks of “the beauty of holiness.” The story goes as follows:

“In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then…at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. The vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness and light…was scattered into a thousands of fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

“Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew, the restoration of the world. And this is a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. Not making a huge difference, only healing the world that touches me and is around me.”

I read of a man who lived in Greenwich and commuted daily to the financial district in New York. No sooner out of the train and he’d meet on a few corners men and women begging for change. It’s a fixture in most big cities. It bothered him. He decided that each day when he left for the city he’d take ten dollars in singles. When asked, “Can you help me out,” he’d say yes and give the person a dollar. When the sum for that day had been given it was enough but he did the same the next day and the next.
His story came up at a dinner party. A couple of people suggested that while he meant well they gently chided him saying if he was serious he might do much more and concluded that this tiny gesture would do no good; “They’ll just buy drugs or alcohol” was the prevailing sentiment.
I saw the scenario differently. The issue wasn’t what the needy might do with the money, or even how significantly it would address their plight, but that he in some small way attempted to meet these people not “making a huge difference,” but reaching out to those in his world that touched him and that gathered around him every morning on his way to work. I was moved by how, when he became aware of the deprivation that faced him daily, he felt overwhelmed like most of us do, but became intentional and committed about addressing it at least in some small way.

Acts of kindness and compassion can be trivialized, as they don’t at first “make a huge difference.” However, they set into motion unexpected consequences that potentially mobilize all kinds of healing, social, physical and spiritual. The good news in the Rabbi’s grandfather’s story is, that from the beginning, we – each one of us – has been assigned the task of healing the world, a tiny bit at a time.

Keep an eye peeled for signs of inner light.

I wrote this piece during the inauguration on Friday while just outside my window I could hear the gentle and plaintive cooing of a mourning dove.

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.

Stillness and Space by George Merrill

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Years ago, I remember how the minister began the Morning Prayer service by saying, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let the whole earth keep silence before him.” Then, for the next hour, sounds of every sort would reign non-stop: there’d be prayers, chants, a sermon, hymns and anthems. This list does not include the audible whispering that congregants engage in throughout the service. Nor does it mention the announcements, which, depending on what’s going on in the parish can be extensive. So many different sounds can seem dissonant; they lack the harmonic concord of a unified melody. Where silence is concerned, we talk a good game and that’s the problem . . . we just can’t seem to be still . . . even in the hallowed halls of the Almighty.

With regard to space, it goes in a similar way. Part of the beauty and wonder that explorers Cabot, Hudson and Verrazano wrote of when discovering the New World was its open and unencumbered spaces. It was openness that allowed luxuriant flora to thrive. In four hundred years humans have filled the space with the marvels and the effluence of engineering. Many of the plants and trees are extinct as a result – while the few remaining plants, flowers and trees survive by growing in highway medians. These are born to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on rush hour commuters who will never see or smell them.

It’s not nature that abhors vacuums; we do.

We are driven to fill silence with sound, and clutter space with stuff. My guess is that it’s because we are still at the adolescent stage of our evolution as a species. Most adolescents’ bedrooms are the ultimate showcases for litter of all descriptions. When ordered to tidy up, all the clothes on the floor go in the washing machine along with hamburger, gum and candy wrappers. In adolescence, my room was a mess. So were my children’s. It’s clutter from wall to wall and when the kids played music, it was loud enough to rattle the china in the cupboard downstairs.

Since I’m more respectful of space as I’ve grown older and try not to clutter, I also play music more softly. This change has given me hope for mankind’s future. Like wine, we can mellow with age.

A huge meteor hurdles through space intact and at dizzying speeds, all in silence. When it reaches the earth’s atmosphere, it slows down and begins disintegrating while emitting sound for the first time. Beyond the earths atmosphere it travels silently. What’s more astonishing is how even exploding or imploding stars in our galaxies, with forces hundreds or thousands of times greater than our home made atomic concoctions, are born and die in unimaginable conflagrations without so much as a peep. I’ve thought perhaps when a meteor gets too close to the earth, our planetary noise level makes it go to pieces. We call it atmosphere.

There’s power in silence. There’s healing as well, since we must first be still in order to hear. I have experienced how listening is an instrument of healing. Sometimes the most troubled soul, when he or she knows they’ve been heard, feels momentarily at peace.

I’ve walked many state parks. Sometimes I was lucky enough to be sufficiently distant from highway noise to enjoy solitude. Jets passing overhead quickly reminded me that finding silence is a significant challenge.

There are two places I believe where there’s infinite space and also stillness: in the universe and in our souls. They enjoy similar characteristics.

Two writers I’ve read ponder space and silence in similar ways. Anne Morrow Lindbergh once wrote of space: “For it is only framed in space that beauty blooms . . . and objects and people are unique and significant – and therefore beautiful.” The moon gains radiance because the sky it occupies is black – and it orbits in plenty of space. Chet Raymo writing about the mystery of silence: “A note in music gains significance from the silence on either side . . . only in relation to silence does sound have significance.”

In an age dominated by technology, our hearts suffer an inadequate vocabulary to articulate the spiritual riches of our souls if we even knew they were there. We are constantly bombarded with information. There’s never enough time and mental space to process it. In short, we’ve lost the art of interior reflection. We’re driven by sound bytes of dubious credibility and our endless busyness.

It was such a lovely day, I left off writing this essay to walk for a while. The day was cold and clear with a fierce wind blowing. The trees swayed ecstatically and the slate gray underbelly of the passing clouds accented the white of their crowns. The sky was deep blue, setting the clouds in sharp relief. As the sun dropped lower, the underbelly of the clouds turned orange as though kindled by fire.

As I walked, for a moment I had this silly thought; that the universe had broken it’s silence for me long enough to reveal itself in a muffled rush of wind and by displaying its glory in a space as big as all eternity.

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.

Only Those Who Know the Longing by George Merrill

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Enthusiasts of Tchaikovsky’s haunting melodies will be familiar with his classic, “None but the Lonely Heart.” The title, however, comes from a poem Goethe wrote. The German reads, “Nur wer die sehnsuch kennt,” which translates literally, “Only those who know the longing.” I strongly suspect we’ve all felt this longing, but didn’t know what to make of it. The feeling is unlike anything else.

Have you ever felt such a longing, a persistent and inexplicable yearning that seems to have no clear origin?

I’ve experienced it as a mood that comes and goes and feels like a deep huger for something I cannot quite put my finger on. Then, I see or hear of a particular happening that’s filled with grace and beauty and I’m suddenly moved to tears – not tears of sorrow or sadness, but the tears that release a latent joy that has been hidden from me deep down within my own heart. Yes, you say to myself, that’s it, that’s what sates this hunger of mine, something innately good and filled with love and grace.

This past year capped one of the darker eras in our national life. Over the last several years, hate and ugliness seemed to be insidiously growing like a malignant tumor in our national and world body. It was slowly disfiguring many of our treasured ideals. One ideal suffering disfigurement was that it made no difference anymore how anyone played the game, but only that they won it. Losers didn’t matter. They were non-persons. We stood by and watched, as our values were regularly devalued.

The year culminated in an atmosphere characterized by mean-spiritedness and flagrant amorality. But out of the crucible of the most unimaginable suffering in these last few years, there arose periodic intimations of that sublime beauty. We are finding that noble and grace-filled spark that burns in the human spirit – the image of God – still glows. Even in these troubled years we saw the evidence with our own eyes how love can conquer hate. In two instances the glow manifested itself in the suffering of the African American community in Charlottesville, North Carolina and the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In June of 2015, Dylann Roof entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine parishioners were engaged in a Bible study – he shot them. That’s the ugly and hateful piece of the story. There’s another story. It’s different. During Roof’s bond hearing, several family members of the victims who attended said that they forgave him. The transformational quality of grace and goodness are perhaps one of the oldest miracles of our species. How do they do it, I wonder; would I be strong enough if I were in their circumstances?

Like butterflies these moments of deeper spiritual manifestations suddenly appear. Their beauty stuns us. Such moments are fragile and soon they are gone and forgotten. But like the butterflies’ wings, as fragile as they seem, will transport them across continents. I want such moments of grace to remain, to bring a continuing joy and hope into my life. The experience of grace and goodness is often transient, but it leaves in the corridors of memory something grand and noble, the knowing of something essentially good. Having once beheld it and felt its benign power, I want it to hold onto it always; I want all of us to have it – always.

Ten years ago, ten Amish schoolchildren were shot while in their one room schoolhouse. In the midst of their grief the Amish community did not blame, point fingers, and get lawyers – they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family. They visited the killer’s family to console them.

Again the power of grace and moral beauty to heal and reconcile is an awesome phenomenon to behold. It’s miraculous. How does goodness survive in the fetid fields of violence in which we grow? How can flowers bloom in an arid desert? They find a way and therein rests our hope.

I see little evidence that the antagonistic climate that has seized the country since the election will change that much. It places the burden on people of good will – on those who know the longing – to cultivate, in the small worlds in which each of us lives and has influence, the spirit of grace and goodness. ‘Walk in the light that you have,’ the old inspirational message urges us. That light is all that guides us when all other lights are extinguished.

Some hostilities and divisions remain so intractable as to seem irreconcilable. None more so than the Israeli – Palestinian conflict that only recently has reemerged to threaten the world.

There’s a story I once read about a handful of Israeli mothers that for a while, sated that longing in my heart. It’s a soul story, something essentially good and grace-filled. I think these women knew the longing.

At a checkpoint in Israel, Israeli guards were posted to monitor entering and exiting Palestinians. The tension for the soldiers was as stressful as it was for Palestinian citizens. This led some guards to treat Palestinians aggressively that in turn led the Palestinians to feel hostile and more victimized.

A group of women – Israeli mothers – banded together to undertake the task of monitoring the behavior of the guards, a few of whom were the mothers of the soldiers. When the guards gave evidence of not treating the Palestinians with basic courtesy, the particular mother assigned to monitor the guard would scold him. The legendary power of Jewish mothers to intimidate their sons became a profoundly humane, even a divine gesture, which maintained the integrity of the guards while securing a measure of dignity for entering and exiting Palestinians. It allowed neighbors to at least pass by one another without causing rancor.

No, the gesture didn’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. It helped the few whose live it touched to walk in the light. They knew about the longing.
Heed the longing when it comes. Listen to its music. It has messages for us.

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

Out and About (Sort of): White House Messages Give Us Pause by Howard Freedlander

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Often times, others’ words carry more meaning than ours. I thought, therefore, that Christmas messages issued over the years by some of our U.S. Presidents might be appropriate for this column.

Amid World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who began the tradition of Christmas words for the nation, said on Dec. 24, 1944, “…sad and anxious thoughts will be continually with the millions of our loved ones who are suffering hardships and misery, and who are risking their very lives to preserve for us and for all mankind the fruits of His teachings and the foundations of civilization itself.” The scourge of Adolph Hitler was coming to an end.

During a time of peace and prosperity, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, lighting the National Community Christmas Tree on Dec. 24, 1953, said: “Tonight, richly endowed in the good things of the earth, in the fellowship of our neighbors and the love of our families, would it not be fitting for each of us to speak in prayer to the Father of all men and women on this earth, of whatever nation, and of every race and creed—to ask that He help us—and teach us—and strengthen us—and receive our thanks.”

Again during war, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a Christmas message to Americans in Vietnam on Dec. 23, 1964, said, “In every generation the burden of protecting liberty has fallen to a few stouthearted men. We Americans celebrate this holy season because our forebears had the courage, the determination, the will to sacrifice, that was equal to the challenges before them.’

In his Christmas message on Dec. 24, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford struck a decidedly upbeat tone during a period of political turmoil when he said: “The spirit of Christmas is ageless, irresistible and knows no barriers. It reaches out to add a glow to the humblest of homes and the stateliest of mansions. It catches up saint and sinner alike in its warm embrace. It is the season to be jolly—but to be silent and prayerful as well.”

President Ronald Reagan, speaking to the nation on Dec. 23, 1981, about Christmas and the uprising in Poland, said: “Some celebrate Christmas as the birthday of a great and good philosopher and teacher. Others of us believe in the divinity of the child born in Bethlehem, that he was and is the promised Prince of Peace. Yes, we’ve questioned why he who could perform miracles chose to come among us as a helpless babe, but maybe that was his first miracle, his first great lesson that we should learn to care for another.”

On Dec. 20, 1995, in observance of Christmas, President Bill Clinton said about the Christmas story: “…This Child was born into poverty in a city too crowded to offer Him shelter. He was sent to a region whose people had endured suffering, tyranny, and exile. And yet this Child brought with Him riches so great that they continue to sustain the human spirit two thousand years later: the assurance of God’s love and presence in our lives and the promise of salvation.”

In his weekly address on Dec. 25, 2010, President Barack Obama said, “This is the season when we celebrate the simplest yet most profound gift of all: the birth of a child who devoted his love to a message of peace, love, and redemption. A message that says no matter who we are, we are called to love one another—we are our brother’s keeper, we are our sister’s keeper, our separate stories in this big and busy world are really one.”

I omitted some Presidential messages only for lack of space. By citing these powerful messages, I mean no offense to those who practice religions other than Christianity. I believe, however, that the underlying themes–of gratitude for those risking their lives in foreign combat, of charity and love for those less fortunate than we, of unity and comity among people of all races and creeds and of respect and admiration for those strong in spirit but lacking in material possessions–encompass all religions and beliefs.

As my family and I prepare for a joyous and fulfilling holiday season, I find the words of U.S. presidents compelling. They carry universal sentiments.

They give me pause.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Op-Ed: Presidential Transitions – Lincoln to Johnson and Obama to Trump by Tom Timberman

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Few Americans would disagree that the 2016 presidential election was the least conventional, most difficult, sometimes offensive and trying of their lives. They emerged on November 9, 2016 stunned or relieved at the results, but uniformly grateful, it was over.

Usually, the transition period between the election and the inauguration proceeds along a familiar path, while citizens descend from an emotional, adrenaline-driven eighteen months to a more normal routine. However, this year’s transition to date is proving to be as surprising, unpredictable and raw as the election itself.

Many historians tell us that the Lincoln – Johnson transition was the most challenging in US political history. However, given the nature of the Obama to Trump hand-over as of mid-December 2016, it seemed appropriate briefly to compare the two and the contexts in which they took place. The purpose here is to reach a tentative, conditional finding of how 2016 compares to 1865.

1865

The Civil War was just drawing to a close when Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, his vice president, assumed the presidency. The country was socially and politically torn apart; 600,000 men had been killed; the slaves had been freed, but Reconstruction of the former Confederacy had not begun.

Johnson’s rise from a tailor’s apprentice to the White House was literally a rags-to-riches and power tale. He was an extremely hard worker and a successful businessman, real estate investor and slave owner when he began his steady climb up the political ladder: alderman to mayor, to state representative and state senator, then to the Federal House of Representatives and finally the U.S. Senate. Johnson was the only senator from a seceded Southern state who remained loyal to the Union.

President Lincoln appointed him a brigadier general in the Union Army and assigned him in 1862 as military governor of Tennessee. There is no question Johnson was very experienced at multiple levels and remained a very popular Tennessee politician to the end of his life. After he had left the presidency (1869), in fact, he was reelected to the US Senate only months before his death in 1875.

Lincoln was a Republican and Johnson a Democrat and they had run in 1864 on what they called a “National Union” ticket and easily won.

However, after being sworn in as the 17th president, he faced a Republican Congress and lacked Lincoln’s intelligence and keen political sensitivity and quickly became embroiled in substantial fights within his Administration and with Congress.

Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment (citizenship to former slaves), omitted any protections for the recently emancipated freedmen leading to Southern state legislation (Black Codes) depriving blacks of their civil liberties. Old Southern leaders were elected to office. Congress passed legislation overriding the states and refused to seat their senators and representatives.

The President vetoed the legislation, which was overridden by the Republicans. This pattern continued until the end of his administration when he was impeached (first), but not convicted by the Senate (one vote).

Johnson also embarked on a crusade to promote a more powerful presidency in an effort to bypass Congress. His primary target was Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Congress quickly passed the Tenure of Office Act to protect appointees from dismissal. When Johnson continued trying to fire Stanton, the House impeached him.

Many historians conclude Johnson was America’s worst president, while others admire his strict constitutionalism.

2016

The Lincoln-Johnson transition began under the most difficult and emotional circumstances. However, there was no question about the legitimacy of his and Lincoln’s election, or of his succession as provided for in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. The fact that he and the President represented different parties and he inherited the staggering responsibility of reintegrating the Southern states into the Union and the former slaves into American society, guaranteed his faculties would be tested as never before.

Mr. Trump, the president-elect, has extensive business experience during decades as a successful real estate developer in the United States and abroad, but is new to government. However, his dazzling electoral success is testimony to his political savvy.

Moreover, there is, of course, no comparison between the destabilizing circumstances of the immediate post-assassination, post-Civil War and Reconstruction period and those existing after the November 8, 2016 presidential election. However, there are clear stresses today.

First, is the Central Intelligence Agency’s assertion that President-elect Trump benefited from the Russian Government’s direct support of his candidacy. Reinforcing this potential attack on the legitimacy of his victory, is the large popular vote advantage (3,000,000) enjoyed by his opponent. The Agency has not yet released its evidence to the public and there is no hint of any possible obstacle presenting itself to Mr. Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017.

Second, is Mr. Trump’s (and some of his nominees) potential conflict of interests arising from their wealth and the president-elect’s disinclination to separate himself from his business interests. This could run afoul of the Emoluments Provision of the Constitution and the laws regarding such conflicts. The involvement of Trump family members in the Government could raise questions of nepotism.

Third, are the remaining stark divisions of the electorate among Mr. Trump’s supporters, Mrs. Clinton’s and Senator Sander’s (her primary opponent). These differences will make consensus on policies extremely difficult to reach among Americans and their Congressional representatives.

Here, president-elect Trump enjoys an advantage over President Johnson because in 2016 and for the next two years, the Republican Party holds the majorities in both houses.

After he is sworn in, President Trump faces major challenges overseas (wars in Afghanistan, Syria/Iraq, Libya), possible crises with China re Taiwan, the NATO Alliance and the EU community regarding Moscow’s conquest of Crimea and continuing support to insurgents in Ukraine. Domestically, there is the maintenance of the US economy’s progress as well as his and his Congressional allies’ legislative agendas.

Conclusion

Mr. Trump’s transition will continue to be rough, but President Obama’s clear preference that it proceed as smoothly as possible, weighs heavily on the side of a successful change of administrations.

The major pending question is the Central Intelligence Agency’s report and whether or not it contains an acceptable and reasonable case showing the Russian Government did set out to influence voters in critical states to vote for Mr. Trump. My guess, whatever evidence is produced, will for reasons of national stability, be found not dispositive.

However, this challenge does raise an interesting legal and constitutional question? What could be done if a fraudulent electoral outcome was proven beyond all reasonable doubt?

At the moment that is unknown.

Tom Timberman is an expert on military policy and now lives on the Eastern Shore. Among his many assignments with the US Department of State, he has headed a provincial reconstruction team, embedded within a combat brigade in Iraq. He has also helped implement a new counterterrorism strategy in South East Asia as Senior Advisor for South Asia in the Office of Coordinator for Counterterrorism.