The Big Picture by George Merrill

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Of late my mobility has been limited.

The more anchored I am in one place the more I see of it. What’s been revealing to me is that my front yard, which should be as familiar to me as my toes or my fingers, I’m seeing as if for the first time. Just sitting still isn’t so bad, after all.

And so, the other day I put a chair where I could overlook my yard and the cove. I sat there just waiting. Waiting for what? That’s the thing; I didn’t know for what, but I did know I was waiting.

It was one of those grand days that have visited the Shore in the last week or so. Not too hot; a hefty breeze and a deep blue sky filled with clouds, but uncharacteristically different kinds – the wispy ‘mare’s tails’ of the high-altitude cirrus, and in the distance cumulus clouds – I never think of them as celestial bedfellows – I’ll typically see just one or the other in the sky, separately. Everything shimmered with vitality while I just sat. I laughed at myself; “What a slug you are,” I thought, while shamelessly enjoying my immobility. I call it a no-agenda moment, not going from here to there as I always do – but just nesting here.

A small plane flew overhead. It circled around in the sky in broad swaths, like hawks do, not appearing to be going anywhere in particular but just out for a spin. I thought the pilot and I were both enjoying the same landscape; the pilot’s take on the landscape, however, would be far different than mine

Perspective alters perception.

I thought about the way I assemble my world view by shuffling around the disparate pieces life throws at me. I arrange them into customized compositions of my own. From there, I conduct my affairs as if my constructs were a reality. At best, perceptions of reality are an iffy business, usually hits, misses, and many course corrections.

Reality, like a freshly caught fish, is slippery, hard to hold firmly for any length of time. It slips from your hand or you get pricked by its spines. Reality keeps slipping from my hand; it pokes me, too. Once having held it for a minute or even less and it has poked me, I know how it feels before it gets away.

My wife, Jo, is a jig-saw puzzle enthusiast. I am not. For Christmas, she received a two-thousand-piece puzzle. The thought of two thousand pieces intimidating, but the enormity of the number of pieces energizes her. Different perspectives. To me, the complete picture displayed on the box lacked distinctive shapes and colors. Both color and form just morphed from one to another without boundaries. I considered the puzzle ominous and fiendish to put together since all the pieces seemed to lack identifiable distinctions.

Generally speaking, Jo creates a visual reality from defining the boundaries first – initially completing the puzzle’s edges and then, finding a place for a particular piece within those boundaries.

As an essayist, I put together a big picture differently. My mind seizes some scrap, disembodied, if will, not apparently connected to anything else. I will have no idea what it is. Then I try to hook another fragment up to it, something which seems likely to fit. It’s hit and miss, and frequently I stall out. When I occasion to make connections and the connections form a larger and coherent picture, I feel euphoric. I’m reassured once more, that my world, however fragmented it can seem, is of a piece, made of trillions of other pieces. I guess I like composing a spiritual ecology.

Julian of Norwich, a 14th century Christian mystic, said some remarkable things, particularly about connections and the big picture.
She said: “(God) showed me a small thing . . . a hazelnut . . . round as a ball . . . I looked at it with the eye of my understanding . . . What might this be? . . . and it was answered thus: it is all that is made. It shall ever be for God loveth it.”
Seems like a stretch, at first, but, looking closely, it’s a portrait of connections.
How can anything so small and still be so wholly inclusive, leading us from a tiny nut to the outer limits of the universe. All we know about are beginnings and ends. Do you suppose the universe has no boundaries at all?

For a minute I thought I was the earthbound nut (hazelnut, I mean) and the pilot high above me was comprehending all that there is. We belonged to the same reality, viewing it from different places.

A day later I sat on my dock. I watched a jellyfish. They go with the flow (current) and yet constantly try to ascend vertically, slowly flapping their gelatinous bells so they ever so gently break the water’s surface. That’s as far as they get. I’ve thought that they too, deep down, know that they belong to a universe far larger than the creek they inhabit. They strain to see beyond the constraints by making their vertical ascents. They never fully succeed but then, they never quit, either. Do airplane pilots feel that way? Astronauts? Is seeing the big picture what drives them?

I’ll bet the whole world yearns for a glance of itself beyond the familiar boundaries that contain it.

I think that’s what yearning is; I think it’s a universal hunger, and a hunger for the universal.

I lost an old friend recently. A nun. I knew her as Maria, her professed name. We were faculty together at Loyola. We became intimate friends. I thought of her as one of those ‘spirit people’ whom you sense instinctively walk closely with God. I’ve found such people infinitely approachable, even earthy, but there’s no doubt that they keep their eye on the big picture.

I underwent several medical diagnostic procedures recently. One included a bone scan for which I wasn’t greatly concerned. I felt mostly inconvenienced.

During the procedure, but of nowhere, I had a powerful sense of Maria’s presence, so much so that I felt of rush of goose bumps and an urge to weep, not from fear or distress; I had the distinct experience of momentarily grasping a reality, namely that when we are loved and love others, we can never be separated from this love despite, as St. Paul says: “life or death, principalities and powers.”

The big picture’s total far exceeds the sum of its parts.

The pilot made one last lazy pass over where I sat and headed north, disappearing from sight. I was alone – not really alone but solitary in the small space that I, at least for this duration, I call home.

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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Letters to Editor

  1. Carol Schroeder says

    When I visited Norwich a couple of years ago I visited Julian’s cell in the St. Julian’s church after which she is named. In the chapel was a little bowl of hazelnuts for anyone to take. I took one and still have it….the whole world in my palm.

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