Mixed Neighborhoods by George Merrill

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I presented a reading the other day in Easton. A number of Shore writers were celebrating the eleventh anniversary of The Delmarva Review. The day before I had learned of the shooting at the Mosque in Christ Church, New Zealand. The occasion became an eerie confluence of events.

The essay I read had originally appeared in 2008. I wrote about hospitality, the ancient custom of offering sanctuary to the stranger, and the divine imperative of making space for others. The story, however, was not as abstruse as it might sound. It revolved around a specific incident when I shot a blacksnake in my yard. Why? Snakes scare me. I shot it because it creeped me out. In the essay, I wrote: “Killing is remarkably easy; all we need is a motive, some legitimacy and a weapon. The rest is duck soup.”

As I read my essay, the subject of hospitality and xenophobia, its inhospitable opposite, had been dramatized the day before by the shooting tragedy that took place half a world away. A man feared that sinister foreigners were encroaching upon his white world. He had a motive, he legitimized it, he found weapons and the rest was a nightmare.

In the essay, I had used the snake as a metaphor for those “others” whom we either fear or loathe, but who do us no harm nor do they intend to. They are simply one other part of our human experience and its ecological realities. Sharing space is the name of the game.

Where I live on the Shore I share space with a bewildering array of living beings; foxes, deer, buzzards, groundhogs and, of course, snakes, to mention a few. Whether we reside in cities or rural areas, one thing is sure; we’re living in mixed neighborhoods.

The prevalence of social media has turned our world from pockets of insularity into a mixed neighborhood. In our increasingly electronically connected world, if we didn’t know it before, we know it now; everyone is your neighbor and for good or ill, we can learn instantly much of what his or her business is about.

Mixed neighborhoods trouble some people. They prefer being “with their own kind.” As hard as many are trying, there is no way we’re going back to the days of tribal identities, racial purity or ethnic superiority and national supremacy. Hitler put a formidable military and political machine behind his attempt to make Germany racially pure. Fascism had touted a thousand-year Reich. In its grandiose attempt to be great again, Hitler’s Germany went down in flames in only six years.

It’s heartbreaking to be hearing again the familiar fascist slogans in today’s public discourse. Some are subtle, others blatant. It’s still the same organized and systematic brutality: the lies, deceptions, the institutionalizing of hate, the manipulation and the messianic grandiosity that characterizes the racist mind – the kind we saw in Italy and Germany during WWII. What’s happening to us?
One thing I know is that we are awash in information but with little or no skills in discernment. Discernment involves possessing a set of substantive values to guide judgements. Right now, they are in short supply.

An unflinching look at the human condition reveals this unpleasant reality. At heart, we are both hyena and lamb. We are just as capable of the heinous acts we decry as the ones of generosity and kindness we applaud. Our behavior will depend on which critter we have been feeding. Here’s a graphic instance of what happens when the hyena gets overfed. According a New York Times account, the shooter in Christchurch “. . . walked up to a wounded woman dressed in black who lay on the pavement crying ‘help me, help me’ and shot her twice more.”

Social media today has become the trough of easy access from which malignant ideologies are nourished, perpetuated and proliferated.

This electronic neighborhood it’s created has become supercharged and overcrowded. In overcrowded communities, diseases spread. We are inundated with disturbing happenings and virulent ideologies as millions of people worldwide walk around indiscriminately ingesting data with phones. A demagogue can gain more global visibility on Twitter or Facebook than he ever could at a rally. Available space limits the audience at rallies. With social media, the sky’s the limit. You can even make visual documentaries to inform the world as you insult, kill and maim your enemies. Insidiously, hatred is becoming a form of entertainment. Violence already has.

One of the most chilling aspects of the Christchurch tragedy was how the perpetrator presented the carnage on line with sublime detachment. He created a reality show, a form of entertainment. He turned what was gross amorality into a playful show along with a manifesto to legitimize it.

When racists work to keep the neighborhood “pure,” you can be sure the whole neighborhood will go.

Humanity began as family groups (after we graduated from our time as pond scum.) We organized as tribes, settled in villages and then became citizens of nations. We organized around color and religion. Each new stage in our evolution created a particular challenge. How can we be good neighbors in a global community with all its bewildering variations? How do we regulate our differences and make space for others? How can we be hospitable?

Get to know the neighbors is a start.

I have six grandchildren who have already, or will be having, educational opportunities abroad. The countries include South Africa, Spain, Scotland, Costa Rica, Belgium, Italy and Panama. One other grandson is in the Air Force and will soon be deployed to Okinawa. These children enjoy the privilege that makes such opportunities possible. There are growing numbers who will also study abroad. And therein I find hope.

Children who are so positioned in life to be influential can, in their formative years, develop a broader view of who we are as a global family. My hope is that these young people will have an experience of being amazed and energized by differences and not be afraid or critical of them. They will make acquaintances and perhaps even friends from worlds and cultures distinct from their own; they will see people with differing habits.

I believe today’s frenetic tide of chauvinism flows contrary to the set our future’s current is taking. The world is a big place. Regulating differences requires a compassionate understanding of our place in it.

My hope is in our children who may become the voices of sanity in an ‘adult’ world that’s lost its way.

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.

Getting In Shape by George Merrill

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Sometimes a waterspout is more than just a waterspout.

Years ago, I saw a waterspout. I’d not seen one before. I was on a sailboat on Long Island Sound. I watched until the waterspout was finally spent. The sight was mesmerizing.

I’d been sailing on the Connecticut side of the Sound; the waterspout appeared near the Long Island shore. The cloud hung low above the horizon. Below the cloud, the spout undulated as hoses will when first filled with water. It slowly and deliberately moved this way and that until finally it stabilized. The display lasted about three minutes. The spout was gradually assumed into the cloud.

Vortices, whether tornadoes, water spouts, dust devils or the whirlpools of descending water, have always excited the human imagination. The fascination may be associated with something as sublime as God speaking to Job in a whirlwind or Jacob’s ladder that’s often pictured as a spiral staircase.

Witnessing vortex action can be a negative one, like the commonplace fear that the whirlpools from a draining bathtub or toilet often produce in children. These childish fears were regarded universal enough that Mr. Rogers, in one of his neighborhood series, addressed the issue and reassured children that they would always be safe from harm and never be drawn down and away with waste water. Perhaps the fear is inspired by the power a whirlpool demonstrates. It has the capacity to suck anything down and make it irretrievable – not unlike the tornado that adults fear can flatten and then draw almost anything up and toss it away.

The fascination with the activity of vortexes is found in documents dating from ancient times among the Aztecs, the Greeks and Romans, the Arab and Asian cultures and into the twenty-first century here in the west. The nature of various kinds of vortexes was understood to reveal the basic structure and function of the universe. They were frequently regarded as divine manifestations. The character of the vortex appeals to something deep and primal in the human soul.

Eliot Weinberger, in his book, An Elemental Thing, explores the cultural myths that have appeared at different times and places worldwide. What is striking in his research is how he discovers close similarities in the vortex images that appear in widely disparate mythic creation traditions. They may represent creation, destruction, divine activity or the workings of our minds.

Some historic instances include:

In 500 BC, the Taoist tradition held that the “the universe produced ‘chi,’ the life-giving breath, and it was like a whirlpool” Another example; the Buddhists describe their concept of Nirvana as “eternal peace in the vortex of evolution.”

In 203 AD Plotinus, a Roman general believed; “the enlightened soul returns to its origin, which is a whirlpool,” and in 1920, poet T.S. Eliot wrote more ominously about vortices: “Vortex is the end of time.”

It seems that images portraying vortices occupy a place in our primitive consciousness; what Carl Jung described as our “archetypal consciousness.” These are archaic patterns and images that derive from our collective unconscious by virtue of our being members of the same human race.

I unwittingly discovered I carried similar archaic patterns in my own unconscious. It revealed itself as I was trying to give a shape to formlessness.

Some years ago, I presented a photographic exhibit at the Academy Art Museum in Easton. The theme was the Genesis epic of creation. I produced photographs to illustrate selected texts describing various acts of creation. The first image presented me with a significant challenge.

“Now the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Something without shape and void does not lend itself to being photographed. What could I do with that?

I decided to fabricate my own negative. I did this by putting printer’s ink on a glass plate. I let my imagination go wild and made fanciful finger paintings, hoping that something would take a shape that would in some metaphoric way suggest the shapeless and barren universe that preceded the first act of creation.

The glass plate would serve as my negative which I would then place in an enlarger to make positive prints from it.

The last time I’d done anything like this was finger painting with my children when we were stuck indoors on a rainy day. We’d put blobs of paint on paper and then just let ‘er rip, smearing colors everywhere, guided only by high spirits and atavistic impulses. Actually, it was great fun for all of us, real play without any rules or limits except being careful not to get any paint on the rug. The table was big enough to accommodate that constraint.

My children were not of an age to artistically render recognizable objects or figures of any kind. What they produced were pure abstractions, some of which were delightful albeit inscrutable. The pleasure they felt I would guess was as much tactile as it was aesthetic, and the surprise that their five fingers could indeed create something out of nothing excited their imaginations.

In creating glass negatives, I followed my instincts, as much as my adult needs for control would allow me, and came up with some bizarre and goofy looking messes. Still, as much as I was having fun with this, I had an agenda to finally to come up with some kind of image – a paradoxical one in the sense that a black and white image would suggest its very opposite, no image, no shape, no form. I was trying to give shape to the shapeless.

I had my work cut out for me.

Finally, I came up with a glass negative that printed the image accompanying this essay. It was after many attempts. I thought I saw in this image, something (almost) of what I was reaching for, something that was just shy of taking form.

Only a few weeks ago, after I’d read Eliot Weinberger’s essay on the vortex, I was surprised to find that the image I had settled on as the ‘void,’ was in fact the shape of a primal vortex similar to those appearing in so many cultural creation myths. The character of vortices in these cultures is that they represented beginnings and endings, life and death.

What a marvelous thought to ponder; that buried deep within my unconscious – in yours and mine both – lies hidden the blueprint of our very beginnings.

The Day of the Dipper Ducks by George Merrill

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Nature doesn’t usually take the sting out of difficult times of year, like mid-February to mid-March. I find this time a seasonal bummer – cold, dreary and unpredictable. There is one creature I know that makes this season not only endurable, but at times, thoroughly delightful. I am, of course, referring to the Bucephela Albeola, the uptown Linnaean designation given to what you and I know as the Bufflehead or more popularly, the dipper duck.

In a lifeless season such as February, these little critters bring life in abundance to our lusterless creeks and marshes. They have real pizzazz.

The dipper duck goes by various aliases. New Jersey hunters call them ‘butterballs’ or ‘hell divers,’ but one shouldn’t expect much by way of aesthetic sensibilities from our northern neighbors. These designations suggest a predatory view of these delicate creatures by assigning names to them like the doomed Thanksgiving turkey or a Nazi sub.

Dipper ducks are a favorite of birders. I’ve heard some comment that dippers are exceptionally punctual They arrive on the Shore just when they should. This year, I began seeing them about the middle of February.

Actually, it was years ago in late February at Ft. McHenry that I saw my first Buffleheads. It was love at first sight. I was enthralled watching their antics. At the time, I was with a Baptist minister friend from the Eastern Shore. I pointed to them and asked him what those ducks were called.

“Dipper ducks” he replied unhesitatingly and, I sensed, even with a little admiration. Being a Baptist minister, it seemed to me he’d have more than a casual interest in any practice involving total emersion. Indeed, he did, but in this case, he was simply identifying them by their common name.

I find them very distinctive; it’s their diving habits. They seem to emit a bright flash as they take dives. The dives are made suddenly but smoothly, like summersaults. On their heads, there’s a significant daub of pure white. As they dive, the white catches the early morning sun, creating the impression of sunlight reflecting from a tiny mirror. The light goes off upon their submersion only to appear again as they resurface. There is the suggestion here of some exhibitionism among dipper ducks, like kids at a pool who always cry out “watch this” as they jump and disappear into the water.

It’s not uncommon to see Mergansers mixing it up among small armadas of dipper ducks. By comparison, Mergansers dart about in zig zag patterns – unlike like dippers that generally go in one direction. Mergansers also appear unkempt, even shabby, compared to dipper ducks that look immaculately groomed with heads dark and polished. Mergansers’ head feathers make them look as though they were having a bad hair day.

I find dipper ducks adorable. They’re cute, even cuddly; they seem as if they are just playing although they’re really just foraging underwater for their dinner. I want to pick one up and run my hand over its small bulbous head, the way people feel an irresistible urge to pick up an infant or a baby chick. Of course, the dippers would have none of it.

Ducks are fair game for hunters. Buffleheads are among the hunted. For reasons I cannot explain, I’ve never seen buffleheads hunted in the small cove next to where I live. There are two duck blinds on the cove so I am assuming the interest is there. I’m hoping the dipper ducks have won the hearts of the most determined hunters. They certainly have won mine and judging from various duck carving exhibits, local craftsmen as well.

Unusual for most birds, dipper ducks are as much at home in the air, on top of the water as they are under it. Strictly speaking, dipper ducks are not all that at home underwater. They dine underwater like we go out to dinner at a restaurant. They don’t linger there. We enjoy our dining experience, but as people say about New York, great to visit, but not to live there. They submerge only to eat. They resurface, float briefly, then take another dive or fly back to their nesting sites. The speed with which they find food and dine is swift; they may be more inclined to fast foods to avoid drowning. In any case, they just gulp it down and go for the surface.

Unlike most other amphibious birds, they can submerge, resurface and be flying off in the air in a matter of seconds.

Over the years, hunting has diminished duck populations in general. Although Buffleheads remain popular among hunters, their numbers have not seemed to dwindle. One theory offered is that Buffleheads nest in small holes in trees vacated by woodpecker’s. The woodpeckers’ abandoned nests are big enough for dippers to raise their young, but small enough to discourage intruders who may be considering having them for dinner.

I have seen Mergansers going through mating rituals, but never Buffleheads. Courting means showing your stuff and I’ve read that dipper ducks strut their stuff in a very macho way: in order to gain her attention, he can puff his head up dramatically, enlarging the signature white daub on the side of his head while paddling in front of her, his beak pressed deeply into his expanded chest.

Such exhibitionism may lead us to think the Bufflehead is just another lothario. Not so: he keeps the same mate for years. . . or maybe it’s that she keeps him for years. This is uncertain.

I tell you any of this because at least for me, in the cold and bleak weather on February creeks, just a few minutes watching the Buffleheads feeding (or if you’re lucky enough, courting) either way it will make your day like nothing else.

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.

Moving Right Along by George Merrill

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I am thinking about motion; the simple act of walking from here to there. I take it for granted. Mobility is the elixir of life.

I’m thinking about this while sitting on a stretch of land on the east coast of Puerto Rico. I am looking outward where the North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea meet. A fresh wind is blowing out of the North East; the sea is heaving, relentlessly. The wind nicks the tops off waves turning their crests into horizontal streams of mist. The sky is deep blue. Overhead, the clouds billow like whipped cream. I feel quiet and still, but in fact, everything around me shimmers with energy and motion.

I turn my attention to two little boys. They catch my eye. They are playing catch with their mother. They pitch a ball back and forth; the older boy gleefully picks it up. His younger brother, even as he makes his legs go at maximum speed, is always outrun by big brother. Mom deftly intervenes to be sure younger brother stays in the game.

What’s striking to me in these two vignettes is motion; motion serves us as pleasure and purpose. I think children run or skip everywhere because it enhances the invigorating sensation of motion, the feeling that we’re going somewhere; we’re on the move.

Few of us can abide the feeling of being stuck. Mobility is most of what keeps us going. We enhance our mobility with cars, bikes, wheel chairs, skates, planes, escalators, trains and even canes. And then there’s the intoxicating rush we actively seek at carnivals; the expansive view from the Ferris wheel at its zenith, the parachute jump as it falls, the bumper cars, and on the tracks where, in little seats, we’re propelled on twists and turns while traveling at terrifying speeds. Breakneck speed offers some big kicks, if not terror.

In an article I read years ago, a physician commented on the importance for aging people of maintaining their mobility. He put it strongly; don’t worry as much about heart disease and cancer (the diseases common to the aging), but be careful to maintain mobility. Make it a priority. Getting around is one of life’s biggest deals.

I suspect at the heart of the universe, deep in the essence of our being, there is a still point. Poets refer to it as the place around which everything else turns. When we have access to the still point (meditators will say they gain it momentarily) it’s from there we can discern not only movement, but the direction it’s taking. When we manage to get caught up in dizzying speed, it’s easy to lose one’s sense of direction.

It’s curious how I don’t feel the roughly one thousand MPH the earth spins (at the equator) under my feet every day. Probably just as well.

There are two kinds of mobility I find especially pleasing. They are the kinds of movement that liberate; they take me away from a place of being stuck to one of feeling released. Being stalled in traffic is a classic.

I remember being stuck in the mother of all traffic jams one summer on the Bay Bridge. I was stuck for three hours, occasionally moving what seemed like inches at a time. After the first hour and a half I was sure I would languish and die there before ever reaching Annapolis and my bones would turn to dust in the summer heat and I would be swept off the bridge to finally rest in the Chesapeake. Three quarters of the way across, traffic began to move, first sporadically, varying between five and ten miles an hour, then finally fifty and sixty. Even the five and ten mile an hour reprieve left me feeling as though I’d been delivered. I felt pure joy; I was moving again.

There’s another kind of movement in life. I felt it once when I achieved what I thought I’d never be able to do – build anything with a hammer, nails, screwdriver, etc. I was a disaster working with my hands.

I was well into my twenties when I discovered I could actually make things with my hands. My childhood had been a long series of failures and the abiding conviction that being handy was not my thing. It may not have been a problem, but the boy I hung out with was a whiz. He intimidated me. He could weld metal, make wooden race cars from old crates, knew his way around electricity sufficiently to wire a lamp and make a Morse Code set. I had come to terms with my liability and assumed whatever gifts I may have enjoyed from God’s beneficence, being handy was not one of them.

At the time, I was serving a parish in Manhattan. I liked the rector and he was easy to work with. He had many interests, one of which was woodworking. He’d made a workshop in the basement of the rectory.

There was a radiator in the living room of my apartment. It just stood there uncovered, paint peeling and unattractive. I mentioned to the rector that my radiator was an eyesore. “Why not make a radiator cover for it.” I looked at him as though he’d asked me to fly from the top of the Chrysler Building. “No, no, really, you can do it. I’ll show you how.”

Still feeling that I was entering a forbidden world, I went with him down into his workshop. He marched me through the basics of what was, indeed, comparatively simple and I began feeling the muted hope that I might be able to do it.

It’s hard for anyone to imagine being intimidated by three pine boards. There my trial lie awaiting me. The rector showed me how to secure the boards and make a frame in the front, onto which I could attach a sheet of filigree metal, effectively making a stylish but porous frontal that allowed the heat to escape. After I put the last screws into place, I painted it white. I can’t describe the pure of joy I felt on its completion except to say I was ecstatic.

The cover now in place, I relished in how I beautified my living space by my own handiwork. In fact, whenever I entered the living room my eyes went first to the radiator cover, paying silent homage to the living monument of the time when I’d moved on from a place where I’d once been stuck, to a better place.

I had overcome. It’s a form of deliverance.

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

A More Excellent Way by George Merrill

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I am on holiday in Puerto Rico. One day I have an unusual experience. I watch a man on the beach. He stands near a palm tree.

The man is alone. He’s tall, fit, about sixty, tanned and, I would reckon, at least six feet tall. He carries a long pole – a bow, the name he calls it as he tells me later. The bow is seven feet long.

The sight is unusual in that the man stands by himself on the beach. There seems no reason that he should be there. And carrying a long pole? I’m curious about what it means.

He stands erect in one spot, as if at attention. He is facing east while holding the bow in one hand. I watch him incline forward slightly from his waist as if reverencing some unseen deity. Suddenly with lightning speed and remarkable grace, he parries and thrusts with the bow, now clasped in both hands. I assume that he is practicing some form of the martial arts, but I know nothing about such things. I am fascinated watching him since each move is executed precisely, always finely honed and purposeful as you might expect from a professional ballerina or an acrobat. I can’t take my eyes from him as he engages in his routine. I keep trying to interpret each move: is he on the attack, on the defensive, telegraphing a warning, or like a master, simply demonstrating his skill to eager students? Maybe he is just staying fit. I can only imagine.

A half hour passes and I can’t contain my curiosity any longer. I have to know what he is doing. I leave my apartment and walk down the beach toward him. He sees me coming and momentarily stops. I introduce myself and I tell him I am fascinated and wonder what he is doing. He is friendly and informative. His name is Dennis.

Dennis tells me he is practicing a form of martial arts that evolved originally in Okinawa. During the 1600’s the ruling Japanese government prohibited the native population in Okinawa from possessing swords. The natives were left defenseless with no way to protect themselves. They clandestinely developed this martial art form (its name I cannot recall) by using common farm tools like spades and hoes which finally became the ritual “bow,” the weapon of choice. It is a commonly practiced art on the island even today.

I comment to Dennis on how, as I watch him I notice that some of his movements seem defensive and others aggressive, but always deliberate and purposeful.

He makes an interesting comment: he tells me that the ultimate purpose of this art is not just the perfection of fighting skills, but also the total development of the human character, the kind of character where fighting is no longer necessary. The suggestion here is that people highly disciplined, skilled and with well-developed interior lives are typically averse to getting into fights. He emphasizes the code to which he is committed, now that he is a certified practitioner. He is never to strike another person first, but if attacked, he may defend himself and then ultimately disarm the attacker.

How very different this seems to me from pulling a trigger, launching rockets, gassing a population, fire-bombing or defoliating a landscape with toxins. Victory is achieved by discipline and skill. In a potentially adversarial moment, the master of the martial arts does not have to act blindly and with brute force, but with heightened awareness and a clear focus. Dennis says that practitioners never act from anger or in retaliation. In fact, Dennis points out that anger is a sure path to defeat. He says anger causes the eyes to look down, interfering with concentration and drawing attention away from the person with whom he’s engaged. We are then driven more by rage than attentiveness and quickly lose awareness of what our adversary is about.

It is an interesting thought, and not a prevailing one these days, that intentional training, developing skills and practicing discipline can equip us to ultimately be safe even when not having at one’s command overwhelming force. The mentality of martial arts guides actions and the actions are the fruits of discipline, self-control and a cultivated interior life. The development of character creates the confidence in oneself that obviates the chronic necessity for combat.

Usually in modern warfare, combatants are trained to dehumanize the enemy thus freeing the soldier to kill without hesitation or remorse. In martial arts, the practitioner cultivates a keen awareness of his adversary’s humanity. It changes the rules of engagement dramatically.

I watch as Dennis continues his routine. There are moments when he stops. He remains still and then, as though someone stands in front of him, he bows slightly, again creating the sense that he is offering a gesture of respect to an adversary even as he prepares to engage with him.

It’s a week later early in the morning and I see Dennis again. He goes through what seems like similar motions as before but this time he does not carry the bow.

I wonder whether he would be just as effective in defending himself without the bow. I think he might. His real strength lies primarily is how he has developed knowledge of himself, and how he maintains a disciplined awareness of the person he is engaging. What’s perhaps the most remarkable about this ancient art of self-defense is that it is not driven by anger, hatred, revenge or conquest. If what I saw that morning is any indication, it’s not heavy weaponry that carries the day. It’s wisdom.

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.

Current Affairs by George Merrill

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Getting a charge out of life? If not you should be. Believe it or not, we’re being buzzed all the time and from the most unlikely sources.

We have known for a long time that man and beast alike exude energy fields. Whatever thoughts and feelings either one entertains, although not expressed openly, issue forth invisibly like radiation permeates the air or like our breath escapes from our mouths. In fact, we influence our surrounding environment depending on our attitudes. Perhaps this accounts for why, when meeting someone for the first time, we might feel a deep kinship or even a strong antipathy, but couldn’t say exactly why.

The matter, as the saying goes, gets more complicated.

More recently science has been exploring this mystical kind of communion that also occurs in the plant world. Plants and flowers think and feel. Our world’s vegetation is as intuitive as sentient beings are. If your flowers or plants are drooping lately, it may not be about water or lack of sunlight; you may want to check what’s been on your mind. Your attitude and those negative vibes you’ve been harboring could be doing your plants in.

Cleve Backster is America’s foremost expert on the science of lie detectors. He teaches police agencies on their use. He made a remarkable discovery that changed his life and the way science understands the world of vegetation. By attaching electrodes to a plant, he was able to document that plants issue electric currents not only when physically assaulted, but also to any intent to harm them we might have in mind. He demonstrated how, when he conceived of the idea of burning a plant leaf to see its reaction, his thoughts alone caused the plant alarm. It elicited an electronic response similar to how a human would react when sensing danger. Plants read our thoughts. When near people who love plants, plants thrive. These electrical fields seem to be our universal connectors.

Backster’s initial discovery has been controversial among scientists. However, more data is gathering exponentially. The theory has become compelling enough that the Department of Defense is investigating what potential the phenomena might suggest for the military. The Russian government is also taking a hard look at ESP to find ways to “speak to seeds” to make them happy so they grow vigorously. Mind control is being investigated by Russians and Americans; strange to think how plants and flowers might become the signature weapons of the future. Indeed, it is a mind-blowing thought to consider how flower power may inspire the mother of all weaponry. It is also a sad commentary that the marvelous discoveries of science that can bring us closer to others, even heal us, are quickly examined for their capacity for
annihilating foes.

Still, I find Backster’s discovery promising from a happier point of view. It illustrates the depths of primal interconnections that comprise all life on the planet. It’s about getting a charge out of life.

A soft-spoken Ph.D. from Japan, Ken Hashimoto studies the habits of plants. He is the managing director and the chief of research at Fuji Electronic Industries. Intrigued by Backster’s work, he tried a related but different experiment. He contrived a device to transcribe the energy charges he elicited from a cactus onto a graph. Then he designed a way to transpose the tracings of the graph to convert them into sounds thus, literally, giving a voice to the cactus. It didn’t go right at first, which, is the way of all great discoveries; we learn as much from our failures as our successes.

When Dr. Hashimoto conducted the experiment initially it hadn’t yielded the anticipated electric charge he expected from the cactus. He went over his procedures scrupulously, but couldn’t account for the lack of response. Coincidentally, Mrs. Hashimoto was a sophisticated botanist and always elicited high-charged responses from most any vegetation when in its presence. When Dr. Hashimoto conducted the experiment again, this time in Mrs. Hashimoto’s loving presence, the cactus responded positively with electronic charges. When the charges were converted to graph readings, and from the tracings of the graph readings into sounds, guess what? The sounds were eerily reminiscent of Mrs. Hashimoto’s affectionate voice. My guess is that the good doctor was a brilliant scientist in conceiving the experiment, but his wife, a more feeling person, had the bed side manner to make it work. It takes heart to make even high-tech challenges succeed. Seems like when we’re trying to communicate cross species, we won’t get anywhere without putting our hearts into it.

I think maintaining an open heart influences how we can speak effectively to others of our own species.

We are currently experiencing a time when the world has grown adversarial; there’s increasing violence and anger; we are engaged in building walls, not bridges – some walls in the literal sense, others racial barriers. We face unchallenged economic inequality. Religious voices have grown more strident. These are disconnects, many politically designed to divide and alienate us one from another. It’s hopeful to think that science is revealing new ways in which we are intimately connected, not only to others, but to all the creation with which we share space. Science, once regarded as indifferent and even suspicious of our spiritual aspirations, has now joined poets, painters, artists, mystics, visionaries, and humanitarians in satisfying that age old yearning our hearts never fully relinquish – that atavistic desire to give a voice to the earth, to glory in the creation . . . and delight in the deep mystery of our being.

Failing to get a charge out of life? Stop! Smell and listen, and then touch the flowers. They’re holding messages for us.

Oh, Bother by George Merrill

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My wife calls me ‘Eeyore’ when she’s feeling cutesy. Many of you will remember the children’s classic, Winnie the Pooh. Eeyore was the sad donkey who always lamented the loss of his tail. He’s always searching somewhere looking for it.

She calls me Eeyore since I tend toward a melancholic disposition and usually see the glass as half empty. Another reason is that I lose things all the time. The glasses I wore on my nose only seconds before seem to disappear, even though I have not moved but a foot or so from where I last had them. I wish I could attribute this tendency to aging; in fact, it’s been an unfortunate character trait as long as I can remember.

One of my grandchildren visiting at the house one year commented on all the little stuffed Eeyores about the house. The picture accompanying this essay my wife painted for my birthday. I told my granddaughter that the Eeyors were gifts from Gramma Jo – she gets a kick out of reminding me that I often lose my tail. My grandchild, perplexed, defended me saying that Gramma Jo was just being silly; “You don’t have a tail.”

“Yeah,” I told her, “Now you can see what she means.”

Recently I was idly thumbing through some old Golden Books we kept for our grandchildren to read to them when they were small. Occasionally I’ll read some when my imagination sags and I’m at a loss for ideas. Their innocence often cuts through complex issues and illuminates significant things in a playful way. I picked up a book at random, called, “Just Be Nice . . . and help a friend.” It was all about Eeyore and his unending search for his lost tail.

The story begins with a sad looking Eeyore who wakes up to find his tail missing. To make a long story short, Eeyore sets off to find his tail, imploring as many of his friends as he sees to aid him in the search. They’re all too busy: Pooh was collecting honey, Rabbit was gardening and couldn’t get away, Piglet and Owl were busy and Tigger and Roo were, as we all remember, always on the move, somewhere. Eeyore strikes out. “Oh, bother,” he laments.

Totally discouraged, Eeyore goes home, paints his house gray to fit his dejected mood and to hide from friends the way depressed people often hide themselves behind a dark cloud. His friends, done with their chores begin feeling guilty. They resolve to make off for Eeyore’s house to offer help in his search. When Pooh looks into Eeyore’s house, he sees the missing tail.

Fairy tales have a moral: at first, I thought the moral was about being a real friend and helping out. But then I had another take; Eeyore’s tail was actually right under his nose (or rump) the whole time and he never saw it. What he thought he lost was either right in front of him or close by, in either case, equally as close.

I think I had a need to see the story in this way, given where I now find myself in life, being a writer, a purveyor of tales, if you will. Nothing is more discouraging, even depressing, than for a writer not being able to find his tale. And I have behaved much the way Eeyore did. He wanted someone to help find it for him and he went out diligently looking for that help; I would look in books, read newspapers, religious literature, call learned friends or just mope and mindlessly thumb through L.L. Bean Catalogues. While some of this activity may have helped inform me, or if not, at least numbed me, I ultimately find my tale emerging somewhere from deep within; like my keys, in front of me next to the phone that I don’t see because they are so close. Sometimes I go through periods where I will think not only have I lost my tale, but I will never be able to find another one again. The tale is gone, lost forever and I mope and grouse. And then, for reasons I wish I could identify, I see a tale emerging right before me, as bright as the moon ascending on a cloudless night and I know this is my tale and I want desperately to tell it. My energy returns and I feel that, at least for that moment, I’m all in one piece again, tale and all.

It’s hard at first to make heads or tails out of our innate processes of creativity in whatever forms they take; parenting, cooking, being a friend, handling adversity, nursing our wounds, loving others, aging, finding a generous heart and perhaps most challenging of all, forgiving. The divine attribute we all share as human beings (God was first and foremost a creator) is the capacity to make things new; to mend a broken relationship, find joy in the midst of sorrow, and see in what is old and familiar to us, something unusual and surprising.

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.

Op-Ed: The State of the Union by George Merrill

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The other night I watched the State of the Union address. Because I find our president a disagreeable man it’s hard for me to listen to him. My anger keeps getting in my way. I don’t listen properly. A jaundiced eye is always biased. A jaundiced eye also has a voracious need to validate its own convictions.

A tale from Japanese folklore makes the point.

A farmer loses his axe. The farmer after searching everywhere, suspects that the boy who lived next door must have stolen it. He did not confront the boy at first. For days, he began to study the boy’s every move. The farmer was sure that the boy, usually friendly and always faithful about saying good morning, was becoming too overly friendly. The farmer began to think that the boy was averting his glance in ways he’d not noticed before. He’d watch the boy walk and he now seemed furtive. Finally, the farmer was convinced that, indeed, the boy was the thief.

One day, the farmer went about his chores and in one corner of the field, found the axe.

The tale ends with this pithy observation: “The next time the farmer saw the boy, there seemed to be nothing suspicious about him at all.”

I needed to unload my anger and suspicion to hear what the president was saying.

About two thirds through the president’s address I noticed how my body was tense, my back aching and I was having a hard time listening. Off and on I’d catch on to how I was playing to my jaundiced eye. I was instinctively critical of everything he was saying. This was not good.

Ignoring strong negative feelings won’t work. Like whack-a-moles, they’ll just pop up again. I know cultivating a level of self-awareness can go a long way in mitigating some of the dead ends to which an angry mind invariably leads me.

I tried acknowledging my anger, but not dismissing it. Then I tried to put the moment in a larger context. What forces drive the Trump agenda? What is he trying to do? He says he is committed to making America great again. I took him at his word. Then I tried to be as open and attentive as I could to hear how he plans to do it.

The attitudinal shift proved helpful. I was better focused. I listened. This is what I heard.

The broad vision he promoted wasn’t a democratically functioning America, but more like an imperial America: the strongest in the world; an invincible military; the most economically successful; an America cleansed of undesirables; its citizens the envy of the world. I decided that my big issue with him beyond my personal pique is that he is committed to an outdated paradigm. In my opinion, he seriously misreads what the future is requiring of us. His ambitions for winning, of being first in the world, of being the wealthiest and the most powerful I find a thinly disguised invitation to return to colonialism.

Britannia gave up ruling the waves long ago because it wasn’t working for anyone, especially Britain. America’s been there and done that, too. The wave of the future, as I see it, is not a feared and isolationist American economic and military fortress such as I hear the president promoting. The future is in becoming a partner, a team player along with the rest of the world. I see an America that brings its venerable and compassionate history of governance that has enabled the aspirations of millions by providing valuable resources to the task. I do not believe our future is about making America great again; I think the future is calling America, with all her blessings, to help heal a broken world. The future is not all about America, it’s all about the world in which America is important, but still only one among many.

My petty irritations aside, this is where I can say, now with less anger and with conviction, how I differ from what I heard from our president Wednesday night in his address.

Simply put, I think he lacks a vision for the future in which America can play a critical part without having to dominate the world in all aspects of national 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. 

Let Go, Let God, But Drive Defensively by George Merrill

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‘Faith moves mountains,’ the saying goes. Tectonics too, but faith can do more than that; it serves as a constant companion on our journey. It keeps us on an even keel through weal and woe.

I read a story recently about trust; some call it faith.

Christopher Warren, a former Secretary of State, told a story of driving one night on a two-lane road at about sixty miles per hour. A car coming in the opposite direction was doing about the same speed. They passed each other. For about a second Warren had a fleeting glance at the other driver’s eye.

Warren writes; “I wondered whether he (the other driver) might be thinking as I was, how dependent we were on each other at that moment. I was relying on him not to fall asleep, not to be distracted by a cell phone conversation, not to cross over into my lane and bring my life suddenly to an end. And although we had never spoken a word to one another, he relied on me in just the same way. Multiplied a million times over, I believe that’s the way the world works.” An unremarkable story perhaps, except for its implications; we live by faith even as we remain unaware of it.

To live life with a reasonable amount of equanimity, having faith is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. A necessity, that is, if we don’t wish to become chronically fearful, suspicious or cynical.

In America today, there are approximately 276 million cars on the road. That includes me which ups the ante, considerably. There may be as many as 8 traffic signals at any major intersection. They have to be negotiated safely.

Considering the number of people driving, the estimated 6 million accidents annually is remarkably small compared to the volume of vehicles, the hours on the road and the wildly different temperaments of the people driving them.

American drivers implicitly trust their fellow drivers. They have faith in people they don’t even know.

Lacking self-confidence is a faith-related challenge and not uncommon. For many of us who’ve struggled with self-confidence, learning to trust ourselves is an incremental process. In my experience, it usually begins with a defining incident involving someone who has shown faith in us.

My first parish assignment after ordination was in a wealthy suburb of Connecticut. The people of the parish were kind and open. The rector, under whom I served, was not. His insecurity led him to be distrustful and excessively controlling. I felt intimidated by his lack of confidence in himself and in me. It undermined my own self confidence.

When my time was up at that parish – ‘served my time’, as the saying goes – I went to a new assignment in New York City. All Angels Church was on Manhattan’s West Side, a rapidly changing neighborhood where Manhattan’s elite once met to worship. It was a stunning church aesthetically. The congregation was socially and racially mixed. It included young, aging and pensioners living marginally in single room occupancies. Actors and day workers worshipped side by side. It was a humming community – real and vital. The church happened to be around the corner from Zabars, the city’s premier Jewish delicatessen that made tongue sandwiches to die for. It was there – not Zabars, but All Angels Church – where I developed faith in myself and in the God whom I served.

Being in a pulpit had always terrified me. I felt no confidence in myself as a preacher. I was obsessively concerned with “getting it right.” Anticipating preaching, my hands grew cold like ice, my stomach taut. I wanted to be an inspiring preacher. I never thought I was pulling it off. My preaching was pedantic and uninspired.

The rector was an amiable man. He was never critical, leaving me all the slack I needed. I’d been there for about six months and one day he commented casually that he noticed that I read my sermons from a manuscript and was always quoting famous theologians. “Ever think of trying to write a few notes and then just speak from your heart?” he asked one day. Jumping off the Empire State Building seemed more attractive to me. He never pushed his suggestion, saying only that it might be fun trying it one Sunday.

I thought off and on about what he’d said. A few weeks later I had a dream. It went something like this; I was stepping up into the pulpit. The church was packed. I looked out into the congregation and saw a multitude waiting expectantly for me to speak. A wave of panic shot through me as if I’d touched the third rail on the subway track. I looked down at the manuscript I was to preach from. In what I can only describe as divine intervention directing me in the most ungodly way, I said to myself, “Oh, the hell with it.”

With those words, I pitched the manuscript to one side and watched the pages fall like autumn leaves from the pulpit. I looked directly at the congregation and began to speak. My voice, which I always thought sounded strained and hoarse, in this dream now sounded pleasing. I felt confident, the calm kind of confidence that’s gentle and sooths, not the cocky kind that one might feel making slam dunks with every throw while fans cheered. When I awoke, I felt free as if a muzzle I’d worn for my whole life was taken off and I was free to bark or howl or even growl, whatever it may be that my heart dictated. In the dream, I had an abiding sense of kinship with the congregation I’d not felt before. No wonder, really, as I had been so preoccupied with the inadequacy my own performance, I probably never looked directly at my parishioners.

In that dream, I experienced the freedom to be as I was, to say what I felt. It became a defining moment or as the theologian Paul Tillich once described, ‘finding the courage to be.’

I’d love to say that the week after the dream I ascended into the pulpit with a few scribbled notes and preached. I didn’t. Months after, for reasons I can’t exactly recall, I did. I was, of course, apprehensive. The sermon was unremarkable. I saw some parishioners reading the bulletin as I spoke, others looking around as if bird watching. But it was a sermon spoken from the heart and I knew it. I spoke with a measure of spontaneity, even confidence I’d not experienced before. I was sure of this at least; that if my job was to preach good news of Jesus Christ, unless I could speak it from my heart, I’d just be mouthing pious clichés.

A footnote about how the holy spirit guided other pastoral duties at All Angels. I’d visit shut ins and hospital patients, getting around the city in my old VW Bug. I confess I never could mobilize faith in New York City drivers, especially cabbies. I scrupulously followed the exhortation of scripture written in I Peter: “Be sober, be vigilant; your adversary the devil walketh (driveth) about, seeking whom he may devour.”

I took this as God’s message for me to drive defensively.

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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