Woo Woo by George Merrill

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Heard the expression, ‘Woo woo?’

It’s how skeptics describe those of us who can’t credibly be called nut jobs but who nevertheless hold unconventional beliefs that lack common sense or have little or no scientific validation. Those beliefs may include certain spiritual manifestations, having mystical experiences or employing ancient forms of medicine. I’m woo woo.

I am not offended by its flippant implications. There is a difference between being woo woo and being a nut job. Being woo woo, if you ride gently with this condition and don’t get strident or dogmatic, is like surfing; it can lift you up enough to offer you new glimpses of what’s beneath the surface of life’s happenings but still land you on a shore. It can be a wonderful ride. A nut job typically rides the same old again and again and gets furious because he gets nowhere.

Woo woo’s blessings offer the possibility for discovery. The old and familiar can become new and amazing. I have had such experiences in my life. I was a boy then and at first, and dared not tell anyone as they might think I was a nut job. Actually, I thought I was a nut job which is why it took me so many years to claim the experiences as my own; to welcome them as gifts, mystical ones, and to be grateful that I’d been given them.

I’ll briefly describe two.

I’m a native of Staten Island. My family roots go back to the late 1600’s with the arrival of Richard Merrill and Sarah Wells from England. They owned a farm. My family and I used to take late fall walks on the rural parts of the Island. A favorite was on a hill above historic Richmondtown, near St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

One day we went to walk the field. It was fall, cool and clear. The air was brisk with a briny tang as the wind blew in from the Atlantic over Raritan Bay. The golden hay covering the field undulated like a lion’s mane heaving in the wind. In the distance, I could see the spire of St. Andrews.

I was standing near a small stand of trees. I began to sense that the entire scene was getting brighter, the way people often claim they feel before fainting. I felt steady on my feet, clear headed, but I began to see the landscape before me vibrating, as if every blade of hay, tree leaves, their trunks even the sky were all pulsing with auras of energy. It was mesmerizing.

I remained transfixed. It lasted but a minute or two. When the landscape seemed normal again, I did feel (but not understand) as though I may have momentarily seen deeper into what vivifies life itself.

I had neither life experience nor even a vocabulary to give the moment expression. Over the years I recollected it from time to time, wondered its meaning, but could make no sense of it. I had another experience similar – another hilltop moment- when on a high point on the Island overlooking Manhattan and New York Harbor where, for a minute or so, the scene before me seemed to vibrate and pulse with energy, as if the whole world had a heartbeat. The inanimate Manhattan skyline, also shivered with energy.

I was a few years older then, maybe eighteen when that happened. Over the years I began taking such moments seriously as one way of knowing. I had been introduced to Impressionist artists where I noticed how the colors in their paintings had a vibrancy that, too, trembled with inner energy.

Mystical experiences, as I’ve come to understand them, are more likely to occur when we’re younger. I believe this is because as we grow older we construct psychological firewalls to protect us from greater awareness. Awareness can be unsettling. It may leave us out of control.

I never spoke of the experiences to anyone. Maybe they were like the Bible records Mary’s reaction when the angel visits her; she is left wondering what manner of salutation this could be. It was so out of the ordinary. It took me half a lifetime of experience and enough of a vocabulary to even describe for myself what happened. It wasn’t migraines. I knew I had been visited with a fleeting moment of intimacy with whatever it is that constitutes the heart of the universe.

I’ve learned in the meantime that since 1960 science has been investigating the prime building blocks of the universe once assumed to be atoms. Some researchers believe the more fundamental units of all matter are vibrations. A theory has emerged popularly known as the ‘string theory.’ It posits that everything, our bodies included, the planets and the entire natural world is composed of strings that vibrate, and that there is, not only metaphorically, but literally a music of the spheres. These vibrations perform their cosmic symphony, and their combined orchestrations determine how we comprehend what transpires within us, as well as heightening our consciousness of the world around us.

The mystical experiences reported in the great religions can seem bizarre. I imagine them as blips of basic truths, a peek through the keyhole of the universe In reading about scientific discoveries I’ve found liberation from much of the post-modern world’s spiritual vacuity. The wonders of discovery create spiritual adventures; I am seized by what’s amazing and reverberate with the awe of it.

I’ve wondered whether mathematicians and physicists approach God (at least those who are inclined to) more humbly than theologians. Theology gets preoccupied with establishing moral high ground than standing in awe of a stupendous creation. Math equations demonstrate how stunningly intricate we’re fashioned – “wonderfully and fearfully made” a psalmist once wrote – and how breathtaking a universe we live in. As a boy, long before Einstein formulated the equation E=mc2 he dreamed of riding on a light beam. Call it woo woo if you must but look where it led.

I write this with the belief there are many of us who have had experiences of heightened awareness that don’t seem to fit anywhere. The inclination, because they seem goofy, is to dismiss them. I offer the thought that they may be invitations to discover in the commonplace of our everyday world, what’s extraordinary.

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.

Keep An Ear To The Ground

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We don’t listen to the voice of the earth.

The present administration continues ordering significant reductions in the restrictions the Environmental Protection Agency had in place to preserve the health of the planet.

The voice of the earth is a metaphor. It describes the planet as a living organism. To hear her voice is frequently a spiritual experience because it broadens our humanity by providing us access to something that transcends us but also lives deep within us. For example, most religions express spiritual wisdom through the images of the natural world. The two are interconnected, the spiritual and planetary. Some astronauts, after returning from space flights were reported to have been overwhelmed with reverence for the planet, and knelt down and kissed the earth. Sometimes you have to leave home for a while and then return to actually see it for the first time. Listening to the voice of the earth is our best chance of having a home to which to return.

Consider how the debate over land use might go if the earth were taken seriously as a living organism? How might we relate to the land if she were understood as companion rather than commodity to buy and sell? We rarely hear discussions about land except as real estate and property. An understanding of the ‘living’ earth would move the discussion from ‘use’ to that of a partnership or a relationship with the earth. Because economic stakes are so high, it’s difficult to shift our prevailing paradigm of the earth as fundamentally raw material and real estate to one of neighbor. As soft as this may sound, the central fact of our lives physically and spiritually is that we’re inextricably tied into the planet earth( and to each other) as intimately as our bodies were once integral to our mothers’. We wouldn’t ever have gotten here without either mother or the earth. As we grow up we may cease to need mother, but there’s no way we’ll ever live without planet earth.

An old proverb says that we are what we think in our hearts. My purpose in this essay is to invite consideration of ‘what we think in our hearts’ about the planet earth and how those assumptions may be guiding our relationship to and deliberations over the land. It’s an invitation to include the voice of the earth in our deliberations.

Late one autumn afternoon I went on the front porch of my house to be outside and rest. I fell into a kind of half sleep, alert, but in a dreamy sort of way: I saw my front yard as one might see things in a dream, with curiosity and attentiveness to whatever passed in front of my eyes but with no sense of myself as an observer. It’s as if I were simply part of the landscape.

A few butterflies, monarchs, made their way in and out of the petunias, lighting on one for a moment and then moving on. Bees, too, hovered languidly over the potted flowers on the porch but never landed. Perhaps they stayed cooler on the move. A hummingbird, with feints and dodges, tried working herself around wasps which had placed themselves, like watchdogs, around the ports of the hummingbird feeder. The hummingbird was trying for a sip at the feeder. In the yard, a solitary squirrel rolled around in the dirt. A blackbird, sitting on the edge of the birdbath, would dip his beak into the water. Then holding his beak upright, as the water descended down his throat, he’d shiver all over, as though he were sitting at a bar, belting down shots of straight whisky. At the edges of the creek the water lapped rhythmically, and everywhere the crisp dry leaves of the oak, locust and cherry trees shook and whispered to each other coaxed on by the southeasterly breeze. Everything pulsed with life. I heard the voice of the earth.

What was she saying? Something about the stupendous diversity of this planet’s happening we call life. I know names for only half of what I saw in that hour in my front yard. There were trees; Locust, Cherry, Sassafras, a Hawthorne, White Birch and Pines. There were squirrels, blackbirds, robins, a bluebird, jays, yellow finch’s and a ruby throated hummingbird. I saw ants, yellow bees, wasps, and I listened while a carpenter bee drilled away on the fascia boards of the house. And I was there, too, as one among all these creatures, watching a hazy sky, and listening to the water and the wind. Other life forms were there that I couldn’t see, like fish and crabs, creatures that lived under the earth and the millions of cells and bacteria which attend my body at every moment. My front yard is busy place. I am a busy place. So are you. We’re alive.

If the voice of the planet earth were telling me about her great diversity, what then might this mean for my relationship to her? One thought I’ve had is that like members of a family, we share a common heritage, although we have individual differences. How the families of all living organisms regulate their differences assures mutual survival. To regulate the differences of humans and the other living species on planet earth is first to recognize the differences and respect them.

I’m again on the front porch. This time it’s early morning. There’s still no rain. Why so little rain here, why too much there? The reasons the planet has for fire, drought, storms are still inscrutable. Our critter cousins on this planet seem to behave strangely to us: bats see with their ears, fish never close their eyes and breathe under water, and bears sleep away a whole winter. Wooly bears turn into tiger moths. But we must seem weird to them, too. Animals must wonder why we change clothes all the time, eat with implements and mate at any time we want. As strange as some life forms may seem as compared to others, we’re all a part of that amazing happening called life. As goes one of us, so eventually go all others.

This is what I heard voice of the earth teaching me one day on the porch.

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.

Dog Fight by George Merrill

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I’ve been thinking about women, recently.

Since I am married to a strong woman, it’s prudent that I should, and that those thoughts be about her. But, it wasn’t my marriage that brought the subject of women to mind . . . this time. It was a Victorian essay I stumbled on in reading a collection of English writers. It was, of all things, about dog fights. What do women and dog fights have to do with each other? More than I first imagined.

The essay was written by John Brown, a cultured Scotsman, born in 1806. Biographical data portrays him as a likeable man, well connected socially and with many friends. He was a physician, a writer and noted as an enthusiastic a dog lover.

Brown writes that he and his friend, Bob “. . . got to the top of the street, and turned north when we espied a crowd at the Tron Church. ‘A dog fight!’ shouted Bob and was off: and so was I, both of us praying that it might not be over before we got up! And is this not boy-nature? And human nature, too and don’t we all wish a house on fire not to be out before we see it?”

Brown continues:

“The crowd round a couple of dogs fighting is a crowd masculine mainly, with an occasional active, compassionate woman, fluttering wildly round the outside, and using her tongue and her hands freely upon the men, as so many brutes.”

An appetite for violence, I believe, is very much a guy thing, not only today, but from our origins. For eons, both physical and social power has been in the hands of men. And, to protect the power, violence was the means of securing it. Brown makes just this point. He sees women as attempting a moderating influence on men’s violent inclinations. However, he turns their concerns into a caricature by describing it this way: “…fluttering wildly round the outside, and using her tongue and her hands freely upon the men as so many brutes.”

From Brown’s essay and my own experience, I think despite the rebukes of ‘compassionate’ women, it’s hard to keep boys from being boys. I remember my mother breaking up a neighborhood rock fight. We were playing war – although undeclared. Our weapons of choice were iron ore rocks thrown across a half-dug foundation, like lobbing grenades on our foes. To this day, I bear a scar on my forehead from some kid’s direct hit sustained during the combat. My mother was livid and actually much more effective in bringing this skirmish to an end than the women Brown describes in his essay. If this fascination with fighting ended with boyhood it might make an amusing story. I am persuaded that, with males, the propensity for violence lasts our lifetime. Those least aware of this design flaw are often the most afflicted with it and typically the most lethal.

If I step back and take a long look at this phenomenon, and how resistant men are, not only to the counsel of women, but to treating them as equal partners, I find it extraordinarily sobering.

Florence Nightingale’s (a contemporary of Brown’s) experience with the British Army perhaps lays out this phenomenon in all its self-destructive machinations and madness. During the Crimean War, the British were losing soldiers at an alarming rate, not directly from being shot or maimed but during recovery, from gangrene, sepsis and other infections that finally killed the wounded. Nightingale identified poor sanitation as the cause of the deaths. She fought tooth and nail to legitimize herself with the Army’s male hierarchy who were suspect of having women involved in a “man’s business”’ in this case how the brass was being unwittingly complicit in the death of their own soldiers. They made her task twice as difficult with their suspicions, which to use an old Army term, left the Army command for some time shooting themselves in the foot.

Suffering enormous indignities at the hands of a male dominated institution, she nevertheless persisted and helped the boys clean up their act, quite literally. She was responsible for saving hundreds of men’s lives.

Another historical whopper was how Allied Chemical’s male officials went on television on a smear campaign when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. A fortune five hundred looking company executive (graying at the temples) on TV told us how her findings were not credible since women were well known to be hysterical, that she was unmarried, and because of their frailty, women’s scientific acumen had always been in question.

In both these instances and others that were to follow, the issue came up again and again for women: knowing that their voices were not being heard, much less heeded. Like black voices in the American story, even today many women feel they are not being heard. The #MeToo movement has caught the ear of many men.

I suspect the message is clear: even now, as the sexual abuse scandals unfold, the old boys are having a real struggle growing up and I think a goodly number are still living their lives out in a protracted adolescence. An historical overview of recent history reveals that women only succeeded in the right to vote in 1920. The pill exploded on the gender scene in 1960, affording women the choice over their own bodies. Men previously held the power over reproduction. The pill flipped the equation. The pill, more than anything, may have let Pandora out of the box – in a manner of speaking – by enabling women greater freedom of choice. Viagra, as we know, is covered by most medical plans. Birth control pills are not. The ERA, assuring no discrimination on the basis of gender is still not ratified by all the states. On equal pay for men and women, the jury is still debating.

On gender issues, my wife and I see differently on one issue: women in combat. She makes a case for the importance of choice and having the opportunity to serve in the Armed Forces if women should wish to and are qualified. Her issue, as I understand it, is primarily the freedom to choose and not be automatically excluded on the basis of gender.

I struggle with that, not about the desire for choice, but about choosing combat. As I feel about the matter, it’s troubling enough for me that the guys are energized by the fray, but it offends my sensibilities that women might be also. Somehow, as I imagine it, the woman brings to our evolutionary tasks another dimension, a more holistic one, one that cultivates the skills of healing and reconciliation, rather than the art of dominating by force. This may be a vestige of my own atavistic male chauvinism, but there you have it.

I’d welcome a conversation about the complementarity of men and women in the long haul of our human journey. I’m not confident that I see it clearly.

I am confident of this: I haven’t seen a dog fight since I was a grade school kid. I remember it was neat, but I kept wondering what I would do if one turned on me.

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.

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.

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