“Kids Who Care” Award Strengthens Gay-Straight Alliance Group


Life for an adolescent is challenging enough. Add to that an emerging question about one’s sexual orientation and trying to maneuver through society’s gauntlet of condemnation, harassment and abuse for being gay, and you have the ingredients for despair, exile and even suicide.

For two young Kent County students, Bryan Betley and Kirby Powell, facing discrimination in high school led them to reach out to other gay, lesbian and straight student to create a support network—the Gay Straight Alliance—and for that they were awarded a “Kids Who Care” grant from the Family and Community Partnerships of Kent County.

Rebecca Lepter at FCPKC said that one of the tasks of their organization is to identify and target the needs of Kent County youth, may they be in public or private schools. The Partnership has worked previously with PFLAG to fund youth projects and felt that Betley and Powell qualified for for the grant award.

Dubbed the “GSA Umbrella Krewe,” the grass-roots organization is designed to unite gay and straight, and youth and adults, to cultivate a support system and promote

Linda Dutton, board member of the Chestertown chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) said that Kent County High School students approached her about trying to set up a support group in light of PFLAG’s work for marriage equality. “After marriage equality passed, we still had a mission to support other related issues, so we spent a year of strategizing with the students about the best way to approach the issue of gay discrimination in our area. Setting up an Eastern Shore network looked to be the best approach,” she said.

After some initial difficulties with how to define the organization’s mission to work with the school’s strict guidelines for club organizations, the GSA Umbrella Krewe started to gain traction. “We worked hard on that because we really wanted and needed the faculty on board with us. It wouldn’t work without their support,” Bryan Betley said.

“One of our goals was to create a safe environment within the schools. The students were pretty receptive and respectful of our goal and we think it has helped a dialogue that challenges bullying and discrimination,” Powell said.

Powell and Betley are currently students at Chesapeake Community College and continue to work on their networking project. “We want to see lots of small LGBT groups linked together throughout the Eastern Shore. A lot of them exist now, from Gunston to Washington College, but our strength would be in bridging them together,” Betley said.

“As an adult, to not talk about these issues is not healthy. Education is the key to confront closed minds, Dutton added.


Bryan Betley (center) and Kirby Powell (right) are joined by friend Kyle Wilson. Betley and Wilson founded the Gay-Straight Alliance Umbrella Krewe at Kent County High School.

Bryan Betley (center) and Kirby Powell (right) are joined by friend Kyle Wilson. Betley and Wilson founded the Gay-Straight Alliance Umbrella Krewe at Kent County High School.


For information about PFLAG see their Facebook page or call Linda Dutton at 443-480-3138.

Art Review: “WaterLines: RiverBank” at the Chestertown Bank Building by Mary McCoy


Last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, something extraordinary happened in the vacant Chestertown Bank building. As darkness fell each evening, a watery, bluish glow emanated from the double glass doors set into its dignified Neo-Classical façade. Inside, the familiar, staid lobby had become a world of rippling light and sublimely meditative sound.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.05.08 AMSometimes it takes a stranger to show you what you have. In this case, it was four strangers: architect and installation artist Ronit Eisenbach, dance artist and choreographer Cassie Meador, composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, and biologist and visual artist Jenifer Wightman. Invited to Washington College by the Sandbox Initiative, these interdisciplinary visiting artists have spent this academic year getting to know the area, its environment, community, and history. Along the way, they gathered information and insight from many local sources, along with videos and sound recordings, all of which led to “WaterLines: RiverBank.”

Involving members of the community throughout, the three-day event included the multimedia installation in Chestertown Bank and a dance performance on Thursday evening, preceded by a morning gathering at the foot of High Street to collect water to be used in the performance. Although I missed the performance due to a prior commitment, experiencing just the installation in the bank was unforgettable.

Its darkened lobby, strangely stripped bare of the tellers’ counters and desks, was filled with a shifting tapestry of light and sound. Tinkling bells and wind chimes wove in and out along with the sound of a ship’s horn and the muffled calls of ducks and herons as something akin to the singing of souls came cascading from all around. Spilling high across two walls, videos of light flickering on the Chester River’s gentle waves were projected through a tall side window and through the gauze curtains of the 2nd story French doors overlooking the lobby.

Another video streamed across the tiled floor, its patterns of earthy color sweeping forward like waves rolling up the shore, then turning slightly sideways to wash back. Although the rhythmic motion brilliantly captured the calming, hypnotic movement of lapping waves, the images were not of water but instead showed a time-lapse sequence of Wightman’s mud paintings, multicolored panels of Chester River mud on view at the Sandbox gallery since February. The organic abstractions created by live microorganisms in the mud have been slowly changing as colors bloom and fade with the growth and decay of the minute organisms.

Whether or not you know the story behind the mud paintings, the evolving sequence was inspired. Although the video documented the interconnecting life cycles of microbes, it just as easily called to mind the forming and dissolution of galaxies. Either on a microscopic or cosmic scale, what mattered was that you were seeing nature at work, creating, evolving, transforming.

Skimming over the tile of the floor, the organic imagery made a distinct contrast with its setting in the orderly, institutional building. A bank is meant to be a stable, trustworthy place. Siting “Waterlines” in a bank that has gone out of business conjured the uneasy feeling that there is nothing whose permanence can ultimately be relied on. Given the watery reflections shimmering in every direction, there was even a feeling that this might be how the building itself will look in a few centuries if sea level rise continues unchecked.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 9.05.29 AMThe inevitability of change was underscored by stepping into the bank’s open vault. The rows of safety deposit boxes were in disarray, some of their doors locked, some left ajar. Instead of deeds and precious family jewelry, some held small bowls of river water or tiny videos, all shot locally, pointedly inferring that these things may well be even more valuable.

The videos presented familiar scenes of Chestertown’s waterfront geese and ducks and its docks, drainage pipes and marshes, the banding and release of birds at the college’s Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory, the dreamy underwater movement of swimmers, and close-ups of gesturing hands shot while the artists were interviewing community members. In the intimate space of the cramped vault, these modest, local subjects were brought into sharp focus, provoking thoughts about their significance and how they too are changing.

For those of us who have lived in this area for many years, “WaterLines” was saturated with memory and love—memory of the buildings, businesses, people and seasons that have come and gone, and love for the river and its marshes, shorebirds, shifting tides, and halcyon days of sunlight on the water. Such feelings are warm and joyful but also fraught with anxiety as the ecological challenges to our beloved home become more obvious.

In the ever-shifting, contemplative space created by this installation, the mind quieted and breathing took on the measured cadence of the phantom shimmering waves. Gradually, the flow of light and sound began to feel curiously more real and authentic than the everyday world of computers, phone calls, cars and schedules. Simultaneously, fear of change slowly gave way to a deeper understanding that what we are called on to do is to welcome and acknowledge change and use our innate creativity to adapt to its gifts and challenges.

Photo credit – Zachary Z. Handler

Sultana to Show Off New Center Design Wednesday


One of the most exciting projects happening in town this year is taking place on South Cross Street downtown where Sultana Education Foundation plans to build their new 10,000 sq. ft. Education Center.

At 7:00pm Wednesday, Garfield Center of the Arts will host a design forum open to the public, hosted by Chesapeake Bank and Trust Company. The forum will showcase the design features of the new building, nothing less than state of the art. Mayor Chris Cerino will moderate the forum.

A stellar cast of architects and designers have come together to create a space that will include classrooms and work areas to accommodate 15,000 visitors a year, including 9,000 Maryland Public School students.

Alex Castro, interim director of Washington College’s Kohl Art Gallery and Director of SandBox Initiative, is the principle design architect for the project and is joined by:

Joe Adamczyk, Project Architect: Joe Adamczyk of JWA Consulting is the project architect for Sultana’s Education Center. Adamczyk is a registered architect in the State of Maryland, a member of The American Institute of Architects, and has partnered with Castro Arts on a variety of building projects. Adamczyk’s varied experience includes commercial, private, institutional, and governmental agency projects.

Peter Doo: Green Building Consultant: Peter Doo is Sultana’s principal consultant for sustainable engineering and LEED certification. The founder and principal of Doo Consulting LLC, Doo is a recognized leader in sustainable building. An early LEED Accredited Professional, he now works with a variety of rating systems including LEED, Green Globes, and the Living Building Challenge.

Joe Karlik, Design Consultant:  Joe Karlik of Locust Grove Studios is playing a lead role in the interior design of Sultana’s Education Center.  A master in the art of visual story telling, Karlik and Locust Grove work with a diverse client base including some of the most prominent companies in the world, and has expertise in a variety of media, including graphics, 3-D design, and video.

Samantha Hollomon: LaFleur Lightning Designer:  Samantha Hollomon LaFleur, principal of LaFleur Associates, is the chief Lighting Designer for Sultana’s Education Center. LaFleur has designed lighting for more than 100 projects over the span of fifteen years and specializes in fresh design solutions for interiors.

The center will be constructed using strict Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED Platinum requirements to “implements measurable, positive steps toward protecting and improving human and environmental health.”

The public is invited to attend the presentation and design panel discussion. The foundation’s new building will be a valuable centerpiece addition to Chestertown’s vibrant ascendancy. Don’t miss the show.

Architectural design by Alex Castro.

Architectural design by Alex Castro.

Location on South Cross Street

Location on South Cross Street

Classroom Concept by Joe Karlick

Classroom Concept by Joe Karlik

Project Shop, rendering by Joe Karlik.

Project Shop, rendering by Joe Karlik.

First Floor Plan

First Floor Plan


For more information, go here.

A First Look: Rep. Chris Van Hollen Comes to the Eastern Shore


With U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski giving notice earlier this year that she would not be seeking reelection in 2016, at least two Democratic candidates, Congress members Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, have thrown their hats into the ring for her seat. The Spy caught up with one of the candidates on Sunday afternoon.

Just before his first appearance at the Talbot County Democratic Forum’s annual meeting in downtown Easton, Representative Van Hollen very briefly sat down with the Spy at Bullitt House to talk about his experience in Maryland politics, beginning with his first political job as an aide to one of the state’s most respected leaders, Charles McC. ‘Mac’ Mathias Jr. as well as his impressions of the current Congress. While he quickly shifts away from talking about his opponents, Van Hollen highlights his long history of working on Maryland issues, including his efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

This video is approximately eight minutes in length

Of God and Gays by George Merrill


In the last several years, religious communities, especially my own Episcopal Church, have been roiling in heated controversy around the issues of human sexuality. It was particularly contentious when the Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay Bishop. Defying the decision, some parishes split from our denomination to establish their own churches. One African Bishop, when a gay man offered to shake his hand, turned his back on him. Not our finest hour.

Understandings of human sexuality vary widely and opinions run from “what’s the big deal” to “abomination.” Creationists tend toward Biblical literalism while liberals lean more to metaphorical interpretations. The issues include how we are to view lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender persons (LGBT). Are they sinners in God’s eyes, an aberration or are their sexual proclivities a product of genetics? Is marriage a contract exclusively between men and women or might it include same sex unions? These issues are now being openly discussed.

georgeOpponents of LGBT’s sexual orientations frequently cite the Bible’s Leviticus 18:2 for divine justification: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind.” If a Biblical text ultimately decides this matter, advocates for exclusively heterosexual marriage have a strong case. This text is unequivocal and historically the traditional point of view in the West. Liberal interpretations point out that love, loyalty and commitment, also divine imperatives, are the essence of a marriage contract, not gender. Pew research finds that opposition to same sex marriages is greater among political and religious conservatives. A 2015 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 59% of Americans support allowing same sex marriage.

The problem as I see it is that America’s spiritual roots lie in the Judeo-Christian tradition that has historically been antagonistic to any sexual expression outside of marriage. The historical context for the present controversy is essentially hostile to the emerging understanding of who androgynous people are and their rightful place in the human family.

We’ll not find answers for a long time. In my opinion, the real challenge is not so much who’s got it right about sex, but how we can remain kind and gentle with one another as we’re searching for answers. The record is not encouraging.

I read an enlightening paper on homosexuality recently. It explored how many of our own Native Americans understood it. Professor of Anthropology, History and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, Walter L. Williams, writes about how American Indians understood their androgynous (gays and lesbians) brothers and sisters. Native American communities regarded them as persons especially blessed because they were believed to have “two spirits;” the one male and the other female. The spirit world was significant to the Native American character as their cosmology was centered around it. Gays and lesbians were consulted about matters of the heart and spirit and were sought after as teachers because of their wisdom. A male with feminine proclivities might be incorporated in tribal life by working along with women in agriculture and childcare. The women with a male orientation worked side by side with males in hunting and warfare. What’s striking to me is how gays and lesbians were extended a revered place in the life of such a strongly heterosexual culture. The Spanish and English explorers called gays, “sodomites,” clearly betraying the harsh Judeo-Christian condemnation of androgynous people we have with us today. French explorers, on the other hand, called gays, “berdache,” which means, “intimate male friend.” The French, of course, when it comes to sex, keep a laissez faire attitude.

I wonder if Christians might be kinder and less judgmental with each other by going native rather than quoting scripture.

Being kind and gentle amidst controversy isn’t easy and requires spiritual maturity.

I recall hearing of an inspired idea some Christian schools developed to cultivate in children peaceful and kindly attitudes for settling conflicts. The formula, dubbed, WWJD, stood for “What would Jesus do.” The letters were inscribed on bracelets, which the children wore and could readily see. If a child was in a conflict situation he was encouraged to look at the bracelet and ponder how Jesus might resolve this situation in his legendary non-violent and gentle way.

In one story, two boys linger at the table in the school lunchroom. A remaining piece of cake sits uneaten in the middle of the table. Both eye the cake for a minute and then each lunges for it. A teacher sees the situation and quickly intervenes. She asks the boys, “What would Jesus do.” The boys sit sullenly, and after a while one boy points to the other and asks, “Why don’t you be Jesus?”

What would Jesus think? I suspect he’d smile benevolently while patiently trusting that one day we will all eventually get it: I don’t mean the cake, but the meaning of love and generosity in religious life.

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

Art Review: “Earthwork” at Massoni Gallery by Mary McCoy


It’s pure pleasure to view “Earthwork,” an exhibit of handsome, well-crafted works at the Carla Massoni Gallery through May 3. As part of “Art of Stewardship,” Chestertown’s month-long series of exhibits and events, it celebrates the natural world and aims at encouraging the desire to be a good steward of the earth, but the question that looms over the show is “Can such art really make a difference?”

This is not a show of confrontational art, and there’s no gloom and doom environmental rhetoric. Instead, “Earthwork” takes a remarkably positive stance reflecting gallery director Carla Massoni’s feeling that it’s only when you come to love and appreciate something, that you naturally develop a strong desire to nurture and care for it.

Rob Glebe, “BeeCause,” mild steel, metal stain and lacquer

Rob Glebe, “BeeCause,” mild steel, metal stain and lacquer

Environmental art can range from angry protest art to actively engaged work such as Mel Chin’s use of plants to extract heavy metals from contaminated soil in his “Revival Fields” and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s installations and performances educating the public about urban waste as artist in residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation. The works in this exhibit fall politely somewhere in between, leaving it a matter of opinion how effective they are in raising environmental awareness.

The show’s most specifically issue-oriented piece is Blake Conroy’s “GMO.” An absolute show-stopper, it’s a large, breathtakingly intricate panel of many superimposed layers of laser-cut paper. From a distance, you clearly see an image of ripe ears of corn still on the stalks, but step closer and curious things happen. The image dissolves into a frail web of paper and holes as you realize you’re seeing each layer exactly repeated by the one underneath, just as the genes of genetically modified corn are identical. Just below the corn is an unobtrusive line of text giving the dictionary definition of “monoculture.” From loss of seed diversity and dependence on possibly toxic herbicides to patent issues and the consequences to native species, the implications of GMO monocultures form a large and controversial subject. Leaving viewers to consider its ramifications for themselves, Conroy mischievously points the finger at the main player by highlighting certain letters spaced widely across the line of text. They read: “Monsanto Monsanto.”

Many of the show’s works touch on specific environmental concerns, if only through their titles. Like Conroy’s, some of them presuppose knowledge of these issues. Karen Klinedinst’s quartet of photographs of milkweed pods in sepia tones are striking simply for their achingly beautiful textures and forms, but knowing that milkweed, the host plant of the endangered monarch butterfly, is being largely eradicated from agricultural lands through the use of the herbicide glyphosate, gives them a deep and touching pathos.

Similarly, Rob Glebe’s remarkable large steel sculpture “BeeCause,” while strangely fascinating for the “otherness” of its huge bees at work filling their honeycomb, is really about the pollinator crisis. Animated and alien, Glebe’s bees call to mind old, scary movies like the 1954 film, “Them,” with its giant ants, in a neat allusion to nature out of balance. Considered in terms of the pollinator crisis, the sculpture’s scale gives it a surreal power that points to the magnitude of the problem.

Many of the show’s 21 artists, Glebe included, will be familiar to those who frequent the gallery, but there several artists new to the gallery bring in fresh energy. There’s an effervescent dance running throughout Katherine Allen’s stitched and painted fabric pieces, and the scribbled pencil marks in Susan Hostetler’s “Flock in Funnel Formation” masterfully evoke the dynamic swirl of flocks of blackbirds in flight. A sprinkling of red dots seems a curious addition until you realize they form a spiral, the basic shape of the birds’ path. More rustic than the gallery’s usual fare, Marcia Wolfson Ray’s engaging sculptures made with dried plant materials from marsh elder bushes to hosta leaves explore the delicacy and rhythmic structures of plant growth.

Wolfson Ray’s focus on natural materials is shared by many of the artists giving the show a satisfying feeling of physicality. Vicco von Voss’s burnt black walnut shelf speaks of the natural forces of growth and fire while celebrating the strength and solidity of the wood. Rectangles of richly textured encaustic (pigment suspended in beeswax) give Karen Hubacher’s abstract panels a luscious, earthy feeling, and Carol Talkov’s mosaics, while weak in composition, are captivating for their collections of bits of slate, marble, quartz crystals, pyrite and jasper.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 7.26.45 AM

Carol Talkov, “Migration (Drought),” stone, limestone, travertine, marble, chrysocolla, apatite

Much of the show’s strength derives from Massoni’s knack for finding relationships between artworks. As is usual for this gallery, the works are hung in such a way that the power of each augments those around it and suggests a wider, more encompassing view. If Michael Kahn’s elegantly serene photograph, “Lilypad Reflection,” with its delicate reflections of clouds in water, was not hung directly above von Voss’s sculptural wall shelf, “Estuary,” you might never notice the nearly identical skim of pale shapes left by a fungus in the grain of the wood.

The ability to sensitize the eye and, by extension, the mind is one of art’s greatest strengths, and this show is intended to do just that. Expanding the concept to the written word, visual images are partnered with evocative poetry in an inspired collaboration between painter Marcy Dunn Ramsey and eco-poet Meredith Davies Hadaway. A stack of copies of Hadaway’s new book, At the Narrows, shares a corner of the gallery with a group of Ramsey’s tiny, intimate gouache waterscapes painted in response to the poems. Their titles are tantalizing snippets of Hadaway’s work that tempt the visitor to read more.

These interactions between works of art are a hint at the premise of this exhibit and of the “Art of Stewardship” project as a whole, that it takes more than individual effort to affect change. Collaboration and the open sharing of ideas are all important to developing sustainable ways to live on this earth. The first stage is to raise awareness; the next is to find solutions to the many challenges to the earth’s well-being. A look at the “Art of Stewardship” schedule of events finds everything from environmentally focused art exhibitions, concerts and storytelling to panel discussions on stewardship issues to community trash cleanups of trails and waterways.

“Art of Stewardship” has become a collaboration between several organizations including the Massoni Gallery, RiverArts, Garfield Centre for the Arts, Washington College, and the Town of Chestertown. It’s a humble, grassroots effort and will need to be duplicated in many other communities, large and small, to make any real difference for the planet earth. Still, it’s a start, and it’s worth noting that it is based on a tried-and-true model of dynamic balance: Nature itself is one big collaboration.

Out and About (Sort Of): Festive and Hopeful at Nationals Stadium


Not many sporting events match the optimistic and festive aura that surrounds opening day of a Major League Baseball team. Add a comfortably sunny and warm spring day, and the gods of baseball are smiling as thousands of fans race through the turnstiles to enjoy the American pastime.

I watched as the Washington Nationals hosted the New York Mets Monday afternoon, April 6 in a losing effort at Nationals Stadium in southeast Washington. The result mattered little. I just treasured this annual rite of spring.

The Lerner family, owners of the Nationals, always offers a stirring dose of patriotism during any given game but particularly so on Opening Day. During pre-game festivities, a U.S. Army group sang “America the Beautiful.” As we all sang the National Anthem, members of the U.S. Coast Guard unfurled in the outfield a huge American flag, followed by a military flyover. And, then, maybe during the 7th inning stretch, a military group sang “ My Country Tis of Thee.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 7.07.05 PM

About the game—the Nationals’ newly-acquired $210 million pitching ace, Max Scherzer, could not overcome two errors by Ian Desmond, the shortstop, and lackluster hitting by his new team in a 3-1 loss to the Mets. I guess that the elusive emotion of hope represented by a highly skilled pitcher—and nearly six innings of giving up no hits– diminishes as human flaws manifested by two serious errors provide a striking contrast to pitching excellence.

Of course, this drama represents excitement in a game that suffers by comparison with the fast-moving and violent game of pro football.

Without becoming too metaphorical, I think that baseball offers a strategic chess match between two teams, struggling to outmatch and outwit the other, punctuated by bursts of activity amid often long stretches of boredom.

I realize that boredom in baseball is in the eyes of the beholder: a pitching duel is viewed as a thing of beauty by some, humdrum by others.
Spectators savor home runs, acrobatic catches by infielders, home-run saving catches by outfielders, double plays, sliding collisions at home plate, arguments with umpires—and even errors that remind us that the superior athletes we are watching are human beings, too.

As I’ve gotten older, I find it comforting that baseball draws families and friends together, demanding attention but allowing chatter and second-guessing in a comfortable setting. In many ways, watching baseball brings back memories of attending games with parents and grandparents and playing baseball in the neighborhood.

And I’ve gone nine paragraphs and mentioned nothing about food. That’s almost heretical. The standard hot dog—yes, it still exists among a variety of gourmet concessions– still certifies that you are in a ballpark and enjoying an experience that would be incomplete without this baseball staple and all the stuff that covers it on a soft roll. Other choices now enhance the culinary experience.

I mentioned optimism at the outset; it’s almost a cliché associated with the first home game in a season that has 161 other contests. Every team is equal at that point though that circumstance won’t last long.

The World Series is every team’s goal, a hope and dream that dominates every player, coach, and owner. It’s a new season. Why not?

The festive atmosphere is nearly perfect for flights of fancy. The ballpark is filled with enthusiastic fans eager for the home team to withstand a lengthy season—and at least achieve the playoffs. Anything is possible.

Nothing matches Opening Day, a brief holiday from all our other concerns.

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. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in political science and journalism and a master of science  degree in strategic intelligence from the Joint Military Intelligence College.

The Web of Addiction: Mary Valliant on Families and Recovery


Eternal vigilance is standard issue with parenting. Add to that DNA script a child battling substance abuse addiction, and you have the kind of emotional trauma that can cripple a family.

From midnight phone calls to missing household money, plummeting school grades and behavioral changes, substance abuse, and addiction can play out in ways that challenge our experience and our role as parents. The sudden realization that we are dealing with the possibility of a fatal disease sends us reeling into self-recrimination, blame, anger and fear. The stakes are high, and we often don’t know where to turn.

We wait for the call from the police or the hospital, and we dread the next installment of the disease pattern.

Many are lucky to find a pathway to long-term recovery as others are lost in the undertow. In Talbot County, the Eastern Shore and Maryland, in general, heroin use is on the rise, along with widespread suffering and loss of life.

Aside from the tried and true 12-step programs, treatment services are becoming more available and a new openness about the problem is evident with families talking to families.

Oxford resident Mary Valliant is familiar with the painful odyssey of being the parent of an addicted child. What she has discovered about “long term recovery” is a lesson for all—addiction is a family disease and that despite the wreckage it leaves in its wake, each day forward in recovery is another day of healing and the renewal of healthy family dynamics.

Holding true to the idea that “long term recovery” should focus on the issues at hand and what it takes to rebuild a relationship between a parent and child, Valiant talks about her journey, and her hopes as her son enters his third year in long term recovery.

Her message is clear. Reach out now for help. Professionals await—physicians and counselors, peer support, recovery facilities and encouraging family members and friends are available.

Here, Valliant talks about her journey, its hardships and the healing she hopes will continue for her son and family.

Dying to Talk by George Merrill


My wife, Jo, for her own sanity, treats my eccentricities lightly. I see the glass half empty. She sees it half full. On birthdays, she’ll give me a stuffed Eeyore. Eeyore is the sad donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories that constantly frets for the loss of his tail. I’ve accumulated several Eeyores; one has a removable tail, and another when you scratch its back, exclaims, “Oh, bother.” I also have a pocket size Eeyore that, when traveling, I can take on the road.

img001 copy 6I mention this as I’ve been thinking about a disturbing topic lately: death. I suspect many of us don’t give it much thought. I’ve spent energy not thinking about it. After all, it’s something that always happens to someone else anyway.

Recently on PBS, I watched a discussion on death and dying. Called the Conversation Project, the presentation considered how poorly prepared most people are to die, and showcased a program in which loved ones can sit down safely together to discuss what happens when one member is facing death. The Project equips people for just such conversations.

In the Affordable Care Act, a provision had been originally proposed, to compensate qualified physicians to provide just such end of life counseling for their patients. It was stricken from the bill in political partisanship and caricatured as “ death panels.” Missing the point, the caricature framed the issue as morbidly as possible effectively mobilizing opinion against the provision. Such short sidedness is always sad, especially as so many people might have benefited.

The ancient Egyptians threw as awesome a bash as any of the Bacchanalian festivals of Rome. The Egyptian festivities included a skeleton placed in the hall as a kind of ballroom centerpiece. It served to remind guests of their mortality even as they went back for drinks or chased concubines, creating a more mixed kind of ambience for parties than the decorated bars and Champaign fountains that we’re used to. Of course, such party decor takes some getting used to, but if I were to arrange the affair, I’d have included a baby placed prominently next to the skeleton. It would balance things out. Appearing together they make a more inclusive statement and also provide what so many of us feel the need of when death strikes, namely, someone to blame. If I’d never been a baby in the first place, I’d never have died.

Yet, with all the Egyptian’s preoccupations with death they had trouble letting go. The ability to let go is not only fundamental to successful living, but also central to the art of dying well. In an Egyptian tomb, food, wine, dinnerware, goblets, servants, jewels and gold and even concubines were buried with the deceased. I don’t think the Egyptians really got it: they wanted it both ways. Even stone cold, wrapped up and mummified, hermetically sealed in pyramids they still wouldn’t give up a thing. I think Christianity is more realistic: it also believes in life after death, but expects that when we die we take nothing we can’t carry.

Life is a line (an erratic one) between birth and death containing all the contingencies of our human condition including dying. Contrary to popular notions, this places death not as an aberration, but as a legitimate part of living. Discussing death is an investigation of life.

My wife and I have begun the process of discussing death. We didn’t begin with any program, but as so often happens with significant issues in marriages, it came up during an incident.

I’m a computer illiterate, a klutz on a keyboard. My wife, Jo, is a consummate techie, self-taught, courted by friends and neighbors to solve computer problems.

One day I lost a document on my computer. I flew into a rage, (I always do) and with a stream of expletives damned technology as the devil’s spawn. I asked Jo for help.

Cool under fire, she marched me through the steps to retrieve my document. I thanked her and apologized for being a jerk. She shook her head philosophically and said, “I sure hope you die first.” I was appalled and hurt. I thought she loved me. I guessed I deserved it as I behaved so badly. She added, “If I went first and you had no one to solve your computer problems, you’d be a danger to yourself and everyone else within shouting distance. Best that you go first.” A little insensitive, I thought, but I allowed as to how she had a point. The playfulness was fun, but I also got it: just what would it mean for me if she went first or if I did, its meaning for her.

Talking candidly about our own death or that of our loved ones helps mitigate one of the subject’s most dreaded emotions: intense loneliness and isolation. I’ve engaged in conversations with members of my own family and as a clergyman, shared in these significant moments with others. Taking the first step to talk is hard. Soon, though, I’ve found a soft intimacy takes over the conversation and I’m aware that I’m sharing with others significant pieces of my once in a lifetime journey.