Learning What’s Important by George Merrill

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One of the highlights of my life is a bi-weekly meeting I have with a small group of elders. We are men and women of “riper years” who, in the latter days of our lives, remain curious and wonder what this business of being alive is all about. Some of us are religious in the conventional sense. Others more eclectic, some atheistic and agnostic, but none nihilistic. The thread that connects us all is a feeling of wonder at being alive, the mystery at the heart of it and as we watch the shadows of our days lengthen, we examine what the afternoon light reveals in the landscape of our lives. The conversations can be moving, funny, or sad, but always life-giving.

For me, it’s an opportunity to grow in wisdom. I once thought wisdom was knowing something about everything. It isn’t. It’s knowing what’s most important.

Dr. Lucy Kalanithi is a physician who has learned what is important.

She’s a lovely young woman who exudes heart felt authenticity. She met her husband while studying at Yale. He, too, was a physician. They married. Shortly into the marriage he was diagnosed with stage four cancer; tumors in the lungs and bones. In a presentation she made in a TED talk, our group watched and listened as she shared how she learned what was important. It was not easy to hear, but her message was clear and convincing; knowing what is truly important is doable, because if we can remember it, we always have some choices in how we live. Making those choices together with those we love leads to wisdom, and in themselves become expressions of that love.

“Out loud” was a pivotal metaphor in how both she and her husband negotiated their lives in the face of the husband’s impending death. The metaphor arose when one day he looked at her and said, “I want you to marry again.” She was floored at the directness, the generosity and love implied in his wish. “Whoa,” she exclaimed. “I guess we’re going to have to say things ‘out loud’ from now on.” And so, they did.

In preparing advanced directives, she spoke of their conversations as an affirmation of their love for each other, something about advanced directives that had never occurred to me in that way. She described how she felt when discussing the particulars in what he wished to have happen and what he would need from her. It was a statement about how neither would have to live this tragedy alone. As each spoke “out loud” the hopes and fears of their hearts, they grew closer in an unexpected way. Advance directives became for them not just an exercise in organizing their affairs, but also tangible expressions of their love story.

A particularly moving piece of their story was about making choices, specifically, within the limits of time they had together. Should he undergo extraordinary measures to sustain life? Should they have a child? They measured the time scrupulously to consider the realities of such a move. They calculated that with his life expectancy, he would be there for the birth for sure, but little beyond that. The decision was made to have a baby and she delivered a baby girl. About the time she delivered, he was failing rapidly. He told her he wanted no extraordinary measures. He asked her to bring the baby so he could hold her. Four hours after he held her, he said “I’m ready.” He died.

Light shines through some people. They transmit the light like saints in stained glass windows. The light can be generated in the crucible of white-hot suffering. Wisdom is refined in that crucible and it is offered for us to see, or in the case of Dr. Kalanithi’s story, to hear her account. She speaks “out loud”, too.

She speaks of a life lived fully not as one free from suffering, but because of it. An adversarial relationship to our suffering is often expressed by “fighting” the cancer, “beating” the heart disease, or “conquering” the illness. She does not see us as victors by winning battles. What she and her husband experienced was the discovery that there were shepherds there to guide and sustain them, not soldiers to fight for them. That is something very important.

Freedom, I once read, is not the absence of constraints, but the art of living freely within them. Dr. Kalanithi goes at some length in describing how living in the constraints of the illness, their oncologist worked with them as a co-creator in framing a medical regimen that realistically supported the ways the patient chose to live the remainder of his days. Her husband once told her that things would be OK. Was that to mean that they’d return to the things had been? They were OK if one understands, as she had come to understand, that to live a life fully, is to recognize that we are free enough to make the choices offered under the circumstances. There are typically more than we first imagine.

The opportunities that we have to compose a life in the face of adversities is getting more recognition. As a society, we’re beginning to accept the inevitability of suffering as a condition of being alive. As physicians, both Dr. Kalanithi and her husband knew this, but she says, “It’s another thing to actually live it.” The other message that we gleaned from her talk was the importance of candor, the ability to speak directly to the suffering and not hide or deny it. What grows from the open and shared acknowledgement of pain, the “out loud,” she describes as an increasingly deep intimacy following in its wake.

I know that everyone in the room that day was engrossed in listening to Dr. Kalanithi’s story. Most had been through significant loses; spouses, children and friends and many knew the anguish involved. But for all of us there was something hopeful in her story. I think it was the thought that when tragedy strikes, we’d remember the essence of what she said. And if I could summarize it I’d say, that at end of the day, it’s loving well that’s most important. The unendurable is endurable if we have someone there who loves us enough to walk with us in the time of shadows.

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.

The Physical by George Merrill

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I’ve often wished that I had the temperament of one of my dearest friends. He is faithful in all that he undertakes. He eats sensibly, exercises regularly, never smoked, drinks moderately, prays often and at specific times of day. He never seems put upon when others ask him to perform tedious tasks on their behalf. He is as virtuous a man as I have known – very credible – and although it does him no honor for me to say this, I do envy him his God-given disposition. He has an amiable relationship to himself. Mine tends to be more erratic.

A psychiatrist I know understands envy in this way: if the virtues that we see and admire in others were suddenly bestowed on us, we’d have no idea what to do with them.

I thought about this recently after my annual physical with my primary physician and cardiologist. Overall, I’m doing well. A problem has arisen in the last few years: I weigh more than I should, now to the tune of about twenty- five pounds. Of the invasive and other undignified diagnostic procedures I have been subject to over the years, including the universally loathed colonoscopy, the diagnostic prescription I find most difficult to hear is from not just from one but from both of my physicians; I must eat less and exercise more. At least in undergoing a colonoscopy, I’m out cold so the doctor can say anything and it wouldn’t bother me.

I find ‘eat less’ particularly hard to hear from my cardiologist. I don’t mean that he is not kind and competent. He says pretty much the same as my primary does. It’s just when he holds up one hand, points to the palm of it and with the other hand, inscribes a tiny circle, indicating this should be the size of the portions I need to be eating, I despair. I’m sure his hands are as large as any adult male but when he illustrates this particular prescription, like some ominous signing to a deaf man, I cringe. His hands seem to suddenly become diminutive, like a doll’s, and I think to myself how can he expect so much from me when he promises so little.

Both physicians recommended more exercise, one, advising specifically that walking one hour a day was best. Now this prescription did not please me much either but it was one I thought I could get behind far more than the starvation diet that the cardiologist advised. In one sense, I was prescribed two pills to address my ills; eat less and exercise more. I chose exercise over diet simply because I love to eat. But wait – isn’t contemporary medicine encouraging us to be a pro-active voice in designing our own treatment, tailoring it to the way we wish to live?

I write this to demonstrate how our unruly wills and affections can seduce us. Habits of the stomach for the aging can be even more compelling than those of the heart for the young. My reasoning: far better to burn those calories away in exercise than never to have savored them at all. I see it as unconscionable to waste their sweetness. And then, too, the calories would be gone for good that way, and would not remain available to compromise someone else’s’ health. Actually I’d be serving others.

Here’s the rub. Now, already two days successfully into my new resolve, the issue has come down to how much mettle my resolve actually contains. My challenge lies, not so much in knowing what has to be done, but in the showing up for the doing- boots on the ground, if you will. Am I really exercising for the right reasons? Am I trying to avoid the issue of eating less by exercising more? Yes! Only now I have crafted a rationale.

The great essayist, Montaigne, knew all the tricks that our minds play on us. He wrote, “Virtue will not be followed except for her own sake and if we sometimes borrow her mask for some other purpose, she promptly snatches it from our face.”

I heard a story once about a man, a recovering alcoholic who has enjoyed an otherwise successful thirty-year sobriety. He told about the games his mind used to play on him when he wanted what he wanted, but didn’t want to fess up to it.

Early in his recovery career he went into a bar and ordered six shots of bourbon. He had learned from AA that the first drink is too many, and a thousand is not enough. Just don’t take that first drink was the cardinal rule.

He claimed he never did.

He’d start drinking the the sixth shot, the last one placed on the bar. Then when he was down to the first, left it, then ordered six more, again drinking the sixth one the bartender put on the bar but never taking the first one. By the time he was wasted he had eight shots left on the bar, having left only the first one’s he correctly boasted that he never drank.

Here’s as honest as I can be at this moment in my own struggle with myself. I love eating too much right now to reduce my intake to those Spartan portions that were prescribed. I think I could knock off chocolate and deserts too (by knock off I mean eschewing not chewing) without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Scrapple should go and the skin of southern fried chicken I believe I could do without.

But the immediate challenge is exercise: what about a rainy day, or an extremely cold day, or one of those hot and sultry days on the Shore that can melt macadam on the roads. Worse still, when I just don’t feel like exercising at all. Then my unruly mind and its perverse wishes will begin plotting to defeat my resolve.

It’s time like this I envy my virtuous friend.

“Be sober, be vigilant,” writes Peter in his first epistle, “for your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

It’s not the roaring lion I’m worried about; it’s the whisper of temptation.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that my wife, Jo, copy edits my manuscripts for publication. She rarely challenges content, just cleans them up. She took issue with the number I claimed I was overweight. Normally she’s a great editor although she can get picky about details.

I stay resolutely focused on the big picture.

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.

Hair by George Merrill

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Hair grows liberally over my entire body except where it’s supposed to; on top of my head. I began losing my hair in my late teens.

It was a slow process, but inexorable; each brushing or combing would yield unnatural amounts of loose hair. In a manner of speaking, the handwriting was on the comb.

My mother is of Spanish heritage. She had great confidence in olive oil – which she often cooked with or added to salads. She wondered if its legendary properties of healing might alter the course of my falling hair. She convinced me to let her rub some into my scalp. The regimen went on for about a week until my pillow case began looking like my auto mechanic’s shop floor and smelling like the salad that often accompanied dinner. We both acknowledged that the historic therapeutic properties of olive oil did not extend to altering hair loss or promoting its growth. Surrendering to this reality I accepted the fact that my pate was sealed; by the time I was in my late twenties I had little hair left and had prepared myself psychologically that I would suffer the same fate as my grandfather. I was destined to be bald.

Barbers ask extortionist prices for haircuts. I’d have to pay the same as a man with abundant hair. My wife offered to cut mine, free. It takes little time.

The role of hair in shaping our self-image cannot be underestimated. We treat hair growth like a Japanese horticulturist cultivates bonsai trees; we coerce hair, forcing it through all kinds of contortions depending on the winds of popular taste, which often change like weather. All this in the service of getting it to look just so. Sometimes we curl our hair, bob it, get a brush cut and other times straighten and color it. Among the young – both male and female – we see on the same head of hair the complete color spectrum of the rainbow. Consider that only a few years ago, men wore long hair down on their backs, wove pony tails and grew sideburns looking like mutton chops. Now, the style for men is like Telly Savalas, bald as a billiard. Even men with massive hair growth allow themselves to be shorn like sheep. For me, the thought of being bald intentionally seems like the farmer eating his seed corn; imprudently wasting a primary asset.

Kim Jong Un has an interesting cut. If haircuts are personal statements, his suggests a preternatural drive to be the man on top. By the same token, our president grooms in a way that expresses his contrarian nature: most people groom hair from front to back. Characteristically, he does the opposite, from the back, forward.

Hair is implicated in our moods: Being in a foul mood is “Having a bad hair day.” We get so frightened “our hair stands on end” or so creeped out “it makes our hair curl.” We call sticky situations, “hairy.” No greater honor can one woman bestow on another than saying, “I love your hair, dear.”

Religion is ambivalent about whether to display or hide hair. Monks were tonsured, once a sign of humility. Not now so much. In Christian rites, women were exhorted to wear a head cover in church – a gesture of submission I suspect. Men went as they were except, except for Jews, while Catholic bishops wore Miters (oddly, looking like a dunce cap), the priest and cardinal a berretta or Anglicans the Cranmer cap with four corners. All this suggests to me that we have confused values with regard to just who or how our hair should or should not be displayed either for fashion’s sake or even for the greater glory of God.

There’s a code word in my house that’s evoked when it’s apparent I need a haircut; “You’re looking furry.” The other day, during my haircut, my wife commented that my eyebrows seemed to have a life of their own and grew bushy and unruly like the legendary John L. Lewis’s. How odd that hair grew aggressively below my scalp but not on top of it, the way some lawns inexplicably luxuriate in one corner of the yard, but never in the other.

I’d never given a thought to eyebrows. Surprisingly so since they are one of our most prominent features. Thinking about it, hair growing on the pate is always stationary, except in a strong wind or in those rare instances when something makes your scalp crawl. Consider for a moment how eyebrows’ mobility betrays our emotions. Raised eyebrows are the signature feature of skepticism or surprise. Furrowed brows can indicate anger or anxiety. Drooping brows might signal grief or melancholy. Winking can lower one eyebrow sufficiently to reveal that you’re flirting. In another context, just lowering one brow may signal that no one should believe a word you are saying or that you have no clue as to what’s going on. The Washington elite are often referred to as highbrows, depending, of course, on whose side of the aisle is making the point.

Beware: our eyebrows may reveal our hidden emotions and let the cat out of the bag. And speaking of cats, Greek historian Herodotus wrote once that when the family cat died (in ancient Egypt, not Greece) everyone shaved off their eyebrows as a token of mourning.

Traditionally, for women, eyebrows have been beauty marks. Like hairdos, eyebrow styles have gone in and out of fashion. Egyptian Queen Nefertiti liked extended eyebrows, darkened by paints. In the 15th century, Queen Elizabeth’s day, one’s forehead wasn’t to be cluttered so eyelashes and eyebrows were removed as a beauty statement. Throughout history, eyebrows were variously sported: they were plucked, arched, darkened, painted, lightened, shortened, lengthened or simply removed.

Mention of barbers and hairstylists is in order. Historically, barbers were more diversified in their services, grooming being only one. As a kind of one stop professional, they addressed a wide variety of personal needs including surgery, bloodletting, leaching, cupping, tooth extraction, and enemas. They, cut hair and trimmed beards, too.

A friend of mine, a hairstylist, told me she enjoys close relationships with her clients. The cliché, “only her hairdresser knows” is not frivolous. It’s generally descriptive of the kinds of intimate conversations that often arise between a hair stylist and her clients. I suspect a woman’s hair is more closely tied to her sense of femininity than a man’s is to his masculinity.

Years ago, when I grew sufficient hair to warrant seeing a barber, I’d describe the visits as classic male camaraderie, like a neighborhood bartender; talk of football, baseball, trips, hot cars, taxes, and the like. Pleasant and safely circumstantial.

About my surviving hair I can say only this for sure; I can’t do a thing with it.

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.

Feeling Good by George Merrill

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I read recently in The Week magazine about 18-year-old Evoni Williams. She works as a waitress in a LaMarque, Texas Waffle House Restaurant. An elderly man came in and ordered breakfast. His hands were not agile enough to cut the ham. He asked Evoni if she could cut it for him. She cheerfully cut the ham. Unknown to both, the incident was being filmed by a nearby customer. He uploaded it on Facebook. It went viral. It so impressed LaMarque’s mayor that he established a day in Williams’ honor. Texas Southern University’s President, Austin A. Lane, issued her a scholarship check for $16,000.

“I was raised to help,” Williams said.

Why did a customer record it and when it was circulated, struck a chord nationally?

Today, we long to feel good about something; almost anything will do. Cultural malaise is the prevailing mood these days as anxiety about declining personal safety and rising national insecurity increases. I hunger for feel-good stories. Where is Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World” when we need him?

I also yearn for laughter.

Humor is important. Physicians will tell you that humor aids the body’s healing process. It works better if you don’t take humor seriously. You’d think psychiatrists would feel the same about humor cheering our minds, but they’re mostly suspicious of anything that might suggest erotic preoccupations, and as we all know, the best jokes are typically about sex. Psychiatrists urge patients to analyze their jokes. That takes all the fun out of them.

Where then can I go today for the solace that feel-good stories generate or the relief that humor offers? I’ve put this question to myself of late as I sometimes get irritable and feel humorless.

I took careful stock of the media sources I depend on for information, the way I might examine my diet to see if I’m getting proper nutrition. I looked particularly for humor. My reading material leans heavily on the sources our President dismisses as fake news – by which he means the media and all journalism except the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

I looked over the Guardian and The Post. I read The New York Times, and The New Yorker, regularly. The Week presented me good synopses of various points of view; Harpers can be informative although heady and even inscrutable at times. A full-page section in Harper’s called ‘Findings’ presents, for unknown reasons, bewildering one line factoids like: “The moose of Isle Royale are shrinking.”

Mother Jones is a flaming liberal rag with well-researched articles; Sojourners is a thoughtful ecumenical Christian voice. Once I read a copy of Bloomberg Business Week. Then I understood why my father prophesied that I’d be a disaster running a business. I receive L.L. Bean and Land’s End Catalogues and of course, read the Talbot Spy.

I don’t read my sources cover to cover. Taking a critical look at my sources of information, I noticed that humor is as scarce as feel-good stories are. I could see I had to intentionally ferret them out.

I looked carefully at a couple of old magazines and found some humor.

In The New Yorker, Jack Handy wrote a column, “The Mysteries of Humor:” I liked this one: “If a tree falls in the forest, on top of an old man with a walking stick, does he make a sound?” Handy doesn’t try explaining it.

In the magazine, The Week, I saw this sly but informative piece about D.C.- “A Massachusetts lawmaker is calling for the ‘The General Hooker Entrance’ sign to be removed from a doorway in the State House because it is offensive to women.”

Perhaps Harper’s observation of the shrinking moose is meant to be humorous, but it needs some serious explanation which if offered would do it even greater harm.

I was satisfied that humor indeed exists in my reading repertoire. I’d just have to work a little harder to find it.

Finding feel-good articles was another story. They seem to become scarcer as government dysfunction increases. Then on March 24, I read in both The Post and The New York Times the coverage of the hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and victims worldwide, some in D.C., all marching for sane gun reform. As is often the case, feel-good things just show up when you need them most.

I felt good about the demonstrations, the way I had when Pope Francis came to the States and talked about the responsibility that we, who are privileged, have to the poor and disenfranchised. His aura of goodness and gentleness of spirit uplifted many of us who were feeling discouraged about the way of our world. Pope Francis offered us an old vision, but offered it in a way that made it seem new and fresh, filled with hope and vitality. Sadly, the momentum soon began to wane and then there was the election of 2016. Then goodness in any genre foundered.

I saw the same kind of inspired grace abounding in the young people’s demonstrations as I did in Francis’s vision, but with this encouraging difference.

Pope Francis is an aging man. He witnessed to the truth, but somehow it didn’t gain traction. The young people who are demonstrating now represent the next generation. As they grow into adulthood, they will know from their own experience the cost of violence and how precious life is.

They’ll also have learned to distinguish between public servants that serve the people and politicians who serve themselves. Best of all, with that knowledge, the youth will vote.

In that sense, the wave of the future may well be shaped not by the elders, but by youth. It is not now, as in days of old, when wisdom was passed down generationally. The young are amassing a body of understanding that disturbs them. They are, even as they speak out, being trivialized and scorned as tools of liberals, anti-American puppets, enemies of the second amendment, naive kids who know nothing. I think the children are undertaking the tough work of truth-telling so badly needed today.

But watch out, who knows? When these young people are old enough to vote, we may witness a marvelous transformation in America; a conscience will return to Congress.

Now that’s no joke, but it’s a wonderfully feel-good story.

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.

Martians On The Bozman-Neavitt Road by George Merrill

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I often walked on the Bozman-Nevitt road. It’s located near my home in Talbot County. Sometimes I’ll see a SWAT team picking up roadside debris. What, I’ve thought to myself, if this SWAT contingent were Martians and they were here, like intergalactic archeologists, sifting through and examining the remains that Eastern Shore inhabitants left behind them every day. Because walking can get boring, sometimes you have to find ways to entertain yourself. So, I began to imagine further that these Martians were seeking to learn more about us from our typical roadside debris. They wanted to know just what we earthlings here on the Shore were like and how we lived our lives. What, indeed, would Martians think from what they found discarded along the Bozman-Neavitt road?

I assumed the Martians would see the same stuff that I would normally pass by in the course of any week’s walk. What I see looks something like this. First, of course, there are the cars and trucks coming and going constantly, but also, as a result, I see lots of road kill. Squirrels and turtles seem to take the hardest hits, next possums and snakes and finally tiny little wooly bears and a variety of insects. Since they are all flat when I see them, identifying each creature poses significant challenges, and especially, I imagine, for Martians.

Beer cans are everywhere along the road; Bud, Miller, Coors, but only a few of them are ‛lite.’ Of the larger objects, beer cans outnumber all others by far. Next come soda cans and bottles, motor oil containers and lots of empty cigarette packs, both for filtered and non-filtered. I saw one pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco. There were always plastic cups around, some clear, others colored in various sizes as well as the Styrofoam coffee cups with Hardees and McDonalds written in cheerful colors on the side. Next to one fast food wrapper, I once saw a small plastic toy, ‛Buzz,’ the astronaut from ‛Toy Story.’ He apparently landed in Bozman from one of Easton’s fast food chains, unharmed. There was an occasional drinking straw lying here and there. Straws always look unused. Once I saw a discarded refrigerator.

Along the road one sees shredded napkins everywhere. There’s always a compliment of unused ketchup packets lying about. Why, a Martian might wonder, do earthlings take so many of of them, but don’t actually use them? Hose clamps and broken bolts cover the roadside like ants, along with unraveled music tapes that look, from a distance, like a snake pit or heaps of worms. Car antennae are an occasional sight. Of my one-time sightings, it included seeing a five-dollar bill and an empty box for condoms. They were some distance from each other.

From such a random sampling of artifacts, what is a clueless Martian to make of our Eastern Shore civilization? There are certain inevitable conclusions. One is that folks here love their cars and trucks and probably spend more than half their lives driving them somewhere. And if you’re insect or animal it’s worth your life to travel any road. I think the Martians would also have noticed that Eastern Shore drivers are remarkably friendly; they never hesitate to extend greetings to pedestrians from their cars even if the pedestrians happen to look unusual: I assume Martians would look pretty weird but I suspect they’d still earn that index finger Shore drivers raise from the steering wheel, extending a friendly salutation to any pedestrian.

Roadside findings make it clear that Shore dwellers are not weight conscious. They eat voluminous amounts of fast food and make no pretense of cutting calories by drinking “lite” sodas. It’s a plain Coke or industrial strength beer. For Shore dwellers, it’s industrial strength all the way. Although Martians may see evidence of an advanced civilization, however, the extent and variety of our cast-off artifacts on roads reveals some serious problems we have with waste disposal. But that’s easy for Martians to say: I imagine they can just vaporize whatever they want to get rid of. Martians probably concluded that we threw away that refrigerator I saw because it couldn’t keep beer cold, anymore.

Martians may have trouble making sense of the random objects they find. Statistical analysis could help. By looking at raw numbers, for example, the sum of the individual objects that the Martians found daily along the road, the Martians could pose some interesting hypotheses about the habits of Eastern Shore life. The days final tally of observed junk would suggest that, no matter what our laws profess, we still drink and drive a lot. We care less about chewing tobacco, using ketchup or having sex than we do about driving our cars or trucks, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, eating fast foods and keeping our engines well lubricated. It would be interesting to see what the Martians might conclude if they landed instead in Washington, D.C.

As I returned to earth, and watched the SWAT team caring for our community by their unselfish service, I wondered what my fictitious Martians might think of them and what they’re about. I pretended that I was talking with one. I asked the Martian what he thought the SWAT team was. ” That’s easy. Those are the mature adults, the caring ones of the human species. You can spot them anywhere; they’re the ones always cleaning up after somebody else’s mess.”

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.

After the West Wing by George Merrill

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My wife and I watch old movies on TV. We also watch reruns of some TV series. It’s nice not having to endure commercials. One night recently we elected to watch West Wing, a popular TV series that we enjoyed years ago. One of the perks of aging and its memory deficits is that when viewing an old movie or TV series we’ve seen, even when reading a book, I’d read years ago, it seems like a brand-new experience.

The series ran during the George W. Bush era. The country became enthralled with The West Wing. My wife, Jo, was an uncompromising West Wing junkie. Wednesday night became a kind of secular Sabbath during which time all normal activities were shelved to honor the latest episode. In fact, one year, when I proposed we go out for dinner on Wednesday, my birthday, she said we couldn’t; it was West Wing night.

The West Wing, first shown in 1999, was an instant success. Critiquing it, Atlantic Magazine rated it as one of the best TV series to date. It was skillfully written, and heart-fused, with characters easy to identify with, whose bantering with each other included generous portions of sparkling repartee. Watching it was fun and informative. The series’ political leaning was liberal idealism. However, the narrative played out less as party promotion than an examination of the complexities of governing during that era.

We settled in and watched two of the episodes. Inexplicably half way into the second one, I felt close to tears. It so surprised me that I dared not look at my wife lest she think I was either losing it or a sentimental old fool . . . or both.

I didn’t understand my reaction; what nerve had the revisiting of West Wing touched?

I watched an episode that involved the issue of a presidential pardon and the pressure capital punishment opponents were putting on the White House to grant a pardon to a convicted murderer on death row. It was a no win. If President Jed Bartlett did not pardon the man accused of three murders, he would earn the wrath of the victims’ survivors along with those holding the almost universal sense of justice that lives latent in all of us: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That the state should take a life at all became a part of the agonizing that President Bartlett struggled with as he considered what his responsibility was as a human being as well as the president.

I remember thinking as Bartlett processed his thoughts with a priest – it’s clear the priest did not advocate capital punishment – how I would handle such a morally complex issue considering all the factors involved. In the end, Bartlett acted by not intervening and the execution took place as scheduled on a Monday morning. The scene was a portrait of a powerful man, a decent one with a sense of compassion and enormous responsibility having to make a horrible decision. It was eminently human and very tragic.

I was drawn into what was good drama while at the same time experiencing for myself what some committed public servants in government must struggle with. The burden of power is responsibility.

For all its liberal leanings, both sides of controversial issues of the day were debated, issues like the environment, refugees, education, race relations and gay rights, offering a balanced view of what the country was grappling with.

I realized what had moved me so: I was seeing a political world as I wished it were today. Perhaps I was mourning a world that never really existed.

In the way, The West Wing is presented, the cabinet and White House staff, although they frequently clash, like and trust each other. We see aspects of their humanity as it gets provoked by defeats or buoyed in victories. There are genuine bonds of affection among the principles who guide the country’s destiny. They take their jobs seriously and enjoy governing. They are professional. The characters are cast as genuinely interested in the people, and in serving the country. They function as a team.

If it is true that the art and entertainment of any era reflect the popular mood, this may not be good news.

I note with concern that after West Wing, two other government series were introduced on TV and have enjoyed significant popularity. One is called “Scandal,” the other, “House of Cards.” I watched most of both.

They create a very sinister portrait of the workings of politics and government, in America and in Britain. Both series savor of that forbidden allure that only evil can provide us. While I avowedly disdain such evil, I confess that I watched many episodes glued fast to the tube. It was like watching a boa constrictor swallowing a live pig; I found it as fascinating as it was repulsive. Contract killings, performed in the shadows serve the ends of Crisis Management Consultant and lover to the president, Olivia Pope, and her band of creepy associates. Those same bloody means served the very charming and unscrupulous American President, Francis Underwood (FU) or his conniving British Prime Minister counterpart, Francis Urquhart (FU) in the British and American versions of House of Cards.

The extent to which the murderous cut throat plotting dominates these series, it places them in another moral universe compared with The West Wing.

I find it no small irony that House of Cards and Scandal reflect today’s political atmosphere, a very different one prevailing at the time when The West Wing viewed, even considering the controversy surrounding the Bush presidency.

The political TV series following The West Wing make no attempt to credit government, its appointees or its elected officials with anything near having a vision or working from a set of ideals. They act from total expediency. They inhabit an amoral world where no holds are barred and the task is to win while destroying enemies.

At the time of the West Wing series, gun legislation and immigration were on the table. Today, refugees the world over are changing the face of nations. I’ve wondered if it may be immigrants that will help America reclaim its soul, the way African–Americans began restoring the soul of white America. Or will it be our young people who restore it?

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.

Ladybugs by George Merrill

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Artistic types, like those who paint, write, sculpt, garden or research, spend a lot of time alone. They’re often accused of being temperamental, even flaky. I prefer to think of such idiosyncrasies as signs of their complex personalities.

Many have a loners’ streak. They find energy in being by themselves. I, for one, have to be intentional about being social. It’s not that I am a misanthrope; just a dreamer. Dreamers, in their several pursuits, work with very little outside material, as it were. They try to draw most from their own experiences – from their heads and hearts which, occasionally, can be inspiring. Of course, there are times when what they draw out from themselves bombs. When artistic types begin drawing blanks, then they know that’s the time to get out there and mix it up with others.

I do have friends, dear and devoted ones. It occurs to me they may be friends precisely because we don’t see each other that often. There’s always the danger that frequent contact might change the equation in the way old married couples are often heard to say, “For better or for worse, please God, not for lunch.”

I bring this up because of the two lady bugs that became a part of my normally solitary life in the last couple of weeks. They just showed up.

I began looking forward to seeing them each morning as I entered my studio. I now had two friends whom I did not mind being with all day. They, too, were perfectly content to have me around. I never intruded upon their routines. They never bothered me. It was the kind of presence that can satisfying, a kind of special presence that requires so little other than gratefully acknowledging the fact of who or what the presence might be.

I believe etymologists would identify my new roommates as Coccinella. Their elytra is colored deep red or orange with distinct black spots.

I could not identify gender, whether the two were mates or partners, were kin of some kind, or just good friends.

When first entering my studio, I’d look to see exactly where they were. For a while I might not see them, but as the morning wore on, I’d catch the sight of one or even both walking along a slat of the venetians blinds that hang at my windows. When I saw the ladybugs, I would leave my chair and go for a closer look. I welcomed them, and then returned to my chair, satisfied in knowing my companions were safe and well.

They had mixed feelings about being touched. On some days, I could coax one from the slat onto my finger. He or she seemed content to explore for a minute or so. Suddenly, though, it would hop; fly, really, making a soft sputtering sound, while going a short distance. It was time to leave the ladybug alone.

I’ve read how sailors, making solo ocean voyages, welcome petrels or other seabirds landing on their sailboat. The birds behave like hitch hikers, riding for a short time and then getting off. Sailors describe a kind of mystical bond that develops between them and the birds. The skippers talk to them and the birds listen. Then, one morning the skipper exits his cabin, goes to the cockpit ready to chat only to find that his fragile defense against the vast loneliness of the open sea has vanished. A simple presence made all the difference in the world. Each skipper described with undisguised grief the impact made on him when his hitch hiker left the sailboat. They mourned the loss and felt lonely.

It’s odd to say but we bond not only with each other, also with other species (dogs and cats), but objects as well. Aging people, when ready to unload a lifetime of collected stuff, will agonize over surrendering an object, some trinket or a photo that has accrued a significance, far beyond its material worth. They either keep it, offer it to the kids, or pitch it and then mourn its loss.

I can understand why frequent flyers like sea birds welcome a place to land and rest. Just why the ladybugs chose to inhabit my studio is not clear. Their reputation is legendary in helping farmers rid their crops of pesky aphids and other insects that destroy the harvest. But that’s all outdoorsy stuff, working in the fields. I have no plants or any vegetation in my studio. I wash daily. Why my studio?

It’s finding a warm place to winter.

Who would want to be out in the chill and wind of winter? The ladybugs were just hunkering down in my studio like Eastern Shore retirees that go south for the winter. It’s a way of getting through the bleak days until the sun feels warm again, crops grow and eating outside is fun.

One day I couldn’t find them.

I entered my studio and went to the slats to wish them a good day. They weren’t there. I looked around but didn’t see anything. My studio is painted in white and the rug on the floor is an off-white. It shows anything that falls on it.

I took my chair as usual and then saw a speck on the rug, half again as big as the head of a ten- penny nail. I got up to see and sure enough it was one of the ladybugs.

I had the horrible feeling that I’d stepped on her. I reached down to pick her up. She slid from my fingers. I was relieved that she was intact – indicating she’d not been squashed. I’ve seen her dormant before and by picking her up she’d start exploring my finger. But she didn’t try this time as she had in the past. She was dead.

I was sad. Fearing the worst, I began scouring the studio to find the other ladybug. Nowhere to be seen. Leaving the studio late one afternoon I went to open the door, and there on the threshold was the other ladybug.

Again, saddened, I picked her up. She, too, had died.

I noticed that both ladybugs did not die, as so many insects do, with their legs pointed in the air. Instead, ladybugs meet their maker, heads down and their elytra up, their cheerful colors in the open for everyone to see.

I believe they prefer being remembered that way.

Not that strange, when I think about it. I’ve often seen photographs accompanying the obituaries of septuagenarians or octogenarians that can only have been taken forty years prior to their deaths. For Coccinella and homo sapiens, vanity extends beyond the grave.

I shall miss them.

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.

 

Showing Up By George Merrill

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There are millions, worldwide. They’re everywhere.

They were there when I needed them most. They could be friends or strangers. They might be old or young. I’ve found these people hard to profile except for this: their timing is impeccable. They were there just when I needed them.

In my lifetime, I’ve known more of them than I can count. Some are especially memorable and two come to mind immediately; a young working man I met twenty-five years ago in a snow storm. He drove the sorriest junk car I ever saw. The other, a school principal I knew over seventy years ago. He listened to me in a way no one ever had before. He wore brown suits. I don’t know if the working man had any religious affiliation but I know the school principal was Jewish. His name was Abraham Rubin.

Both showed up at just the right time.

I am talking, of course, about angels. Mr. Rogers of the legendary Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, preferred calling them helpers- probably because he was a Presbyterian – I think of them as angels, being a high church Episcopalian and all. But it’s also because these angels have got to be connected; affiliated with someone higher up who really knows what’s going on in people’s lives. Whoever that may be, I suspect he or she is the one that tips the angels off. That’s speculative but in any case, I want to tell you about the two angels I’ve never forgotten.

It was in 1945. The war had just ended. My father returned from Europe and shortly thereafter died violently. My family was depressed. They didn’t like to talk about it. I felt abandoned and alone. My own grief began showing up in my school performance and after a while I was remanded to the principal’s office for remedial action. In Public School 29, kids believed the gallows was a better option.

I was frightened. I walked into Mr. Rubin’s office. He invited me to sit down and instead of sitting across his desk from me, he drew a chair up beside me, looked at me with the kindest eyes I believe I’ve ever seen. I was still scared. He only said, ‘I hear you’ve been having trouble with your school work. What’s been the hardest for you?’

I burst like a pierced balloon filled with water and cried. I must have talked about a half an hour non-stop. I talked about my father’s death and then about the dog we had, and how only a week after my father was gone my dog died of distemper. When I’d emotionally wound down he asked me in the most matter of fact way, what my hobbies were. Photography I told him.

He paused; then said that he was soon to initiate a school newspaper. He wanted pictures. Would I like to provide them? It would require me to meet weekly with him for a few minutes to deliver the photos and help him select the best ones for the school paper. Of course, I said yes.

In the genius of his compassion he’d devised a plan in which I would be accountable to him in a way that didn’t highlight my failures but affirmed my talents. I felt known. I felt cared for.

I believe everyone meets angels. There are some you don’t recognize until years later. One day about fifty years after the principal appointed me school photographer, it came me: “Wow, now I get it.” This was an angel. There are times, however, when I knew it immediately, right there on the spot. Such was the case for me some twenty odd years ago in January after a big snow storm.

The snow storm ended. I was due in D.C. for a conference in which I had committee responsibilities and had also been asked to take photographs. I had my car serviced. I packed all my photographic equipment in it and left Baltimore arriving at the Washington D.C. beltway around five. The beltway had been plowed and there were high snow banks on either side. The beltway was jammed although traffic clipped along in all three lanes at sixty plus. I was in the middle lane.

I accelerated to get positioned into the safety of the right lane. The motor raced. The drive shaft had uncoupled. I could not accelerate and was gliding. With no control over my speed, how to get in the right lane was the problem. Cars shot by me on either side. Finally, I saw a break in traffic, pulled to the right and glided into a snow pile just short of Georgia Avenue. I was trapped between the cars racing in the right lane and the snow bank. It was dangerous.

An old junk car pulled in behind me. The driver got out. He wore a flannel shirt and Levis. He walked to my door and asked if I had AAA. I did. He took my membership number (before cell phones) saying he would stop at the station on Georgia Avenue and have them come and tow me. Within an hour, AAA arrived and I was towed safely off the beltway. He drove off. I never saw him again.

What a kind man, I thought. I also felt that what had happened signified something much more. The man was endangering himself walking between the narrow space between traffic and the snow bank. He didn’t know me from Adam. Why did he stop and bother at all and for a complete stranger at that? I was sure this was an angel because at times like this I’ve sensed how the total of the encounter feels equal to far more than the sum of its parts. If I feel that way, I’m pretty sure I’ve been visited by an angel. I’m sure I was.

Why do I write this now?

It’s Easter for Christians. In the Easter narrative, there’s a part of story that mentions angels that show up at critical times. After the crucifixion when the women who loved Jesus came to the tomb to find him, he wasn’t there. They were alarmed. Two angels appeared to assure them that Jesus had risen and that they would soon meet up with him.

I’ve always had this whimsical thought about that appearance. I imagined, not unreasonably, that one of the two angels were Jewish, since there was a significant Jewish population in the neighborhood. He may have been a teacher like Mr. Rubin. The other, possibly a working man, a shepherd maybe, like the man I once met who drove the junk car.

And the angels were, as always, true to their word.

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.

The Heart of the Matter – A Good Friday Meditation by George Merrill

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The crux of an historic religion is its stories. The stories guide, direct, inform and inspire the faithful. We call those stories myths. By myths we mean not that they’re make-believe, but that they strike to the soul of our human condition. Mythical images reflect eternal truths.

I have sometimes wondered about one of the Christian stories. I’ve struggled at times to see how it could guide, direct, or comfort me in any way. It is the Good Friday epic which, I confess at times, I haven’t seen as very good at all. It’s very heavy. It’s complicated. It has to be one of history’s most egregious accounts of both political and religious treachery and deceit, accompanied with a level of brutality and humiliation equal to the holocaust. It is one of humanity’s horror stories.

Over the years I have come to see the observance in a clearer light. There is something very good about it, some things we desperately need to hear. I would go as far as to say our survival will depend in it.

As the Good Friday story unfolds, it begins to suggest a scenario not unlike Dr. King’s marches that spoke truth to power. King’s message had been creating backlashes from not only law enforcement agencies, but also some religious institutions invested in white supremacy. Speaking truth to power can be dangerous. King’s rallying cry was “Set my people free.” Jesus message was, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Like Jesus, King’s message of love and reconciliation were not universally welcomed. In fact, people grew nasty, and brutally violent at times.

Christians understand Jesus as the one who reveals to them just what God is really like. He helps us see beyond the generalities into the particulars of God’s spirit, the nuances if you will. So, Christians remain attentive to Jesus by watching what he does as well as what he says.

I believe this is one way that God leads us.

Which brings me back to the Good Friday epic.

In a telling incident, I believe the nature of God is clearly revealed, and we see what God is like and what he wishes from us. God is very strong and at the same time, remarkably kind and gentle.

The incident takes place in a garden near a brook at Cedron. Judas brings with him armed officers and officials of the high priest to arrest Jesus. “Whom do you seek?” Jesus asks. When they say, Jesus of Nazareth, he tells them that he is the one. Then this happens:

“Then Simon Peter having a sword, drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear.”

Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Put up thy sword into its sheath; the cup that my father hath given me, shall I not drink?”

I understand the incident in this way; that whatever means that Jesus may wish us to employ or that he would himself engage in the furtherance of his Kingdom, violence and the use of weapons is not among them.

To state the divine imperative in another way that speaks to our own time: our faith teaches us unambiguously that stopping a bad guy with a sword, with a good guy with a sword, is not a Christian’s way.

There’s one other piece to the story. Considering all the brutality, humiliation, and injustice visited on Jesus, he exhibits a gentleness of spirit and moral courage that is extraordinary. At the end of the day he can still say “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

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.