Oh, Bother by George Merrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something to Crow About by George Merrill

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Circumstances change the meaning of our words. In one sense, words are soluble in time; left to steep for a good while, they mutate. Some evolve to mean the very opposite of what they meant originally.

An article on crows appeared in The Week magazine recently. It made the same point about words but in an oblique way. What was described gave a whole new meaning to the old saying, “bird brain.”

In 2002, crows first came to the attention of naturalists and other bird watchers in New Caledonia. The crows demonstrated some remarkable skills not thought possible before. Naturalists have historically regarded crows as a cut above other birds when it came to problem solving skills.

The naturalists noted how, in the past, one captive crow had been able to fashion a tool by making a hook from a wire and thereby enabling him to retrieve food that would normally be in a box outside his reach.

Nothing, however, compared to this more recent revelation.

In a new experiment, eight crows were presented with an assortment of different-length cylinders that looked like straws. Individually, the straws were too small to reach food that had been secured in a box. Within five minutes, the birds put their beaks together and figured out how to attach two of the cylinders, thus fashioning a pole-like implement that allowed the crows to push the treat out of an opening in the container’s other side making it accessible to them. One bird even constructed a four-rod pole, the first known instance of any animal fabricating tools with more than two components. A commentator on the event wrote, “The finding is remarkable because the crows received no assistance or training in making these combinations.” They just kept at it until they figured it out.

About words and how they may change meaning?

An old phrase, “bird brain;” a saying that once dismissed someone as dull witted or just plain ignorant cannot apply any more. I offer the thought that today it means just the opposite of the original. “Bird brain,” in light of new data, connotes not only sagacity, but even genius and especially a knack for realizing possibilities through cooperation. I grew up thinking crows were so clueless that all they could do was squawk at each other mindlessly all day. It’s a new era. Crows have broken the glass ceiling and the constraints of bird cages in which we’ve placed so many. For serious avian watchers, crows have come up with some extraordinary feats . . . and at that, from their own bird brains.

Since then, researchers have documented not only their extraordinary intelligence, but more significantly, in my view, their ability to cooperate as a team in fashioning new tools to serve their needs.

There was a time when it was popularly understood that our evolution as a species depended on a survival of the fittest. Although Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is more complicated, the idea many held from it for many years was that dominance and power seized the day, and weakness was consigned to annihilation.

In Carter Phipps’s recent book, Evolutionaries; Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, he develops the thought that it is not the species that dominates which survives, but the species that has learned cooperation as the ultimate non-zero-sum game. Just why other species catch on to that more quickly than man does I do not know. I would suspect with all the destructive power in human hands, time to figure it out is not on our side.

An incidental observation: As I worked on the final editing of this piece, my wife called me into the other room to say that our president was on TV notifying the country that he was ordering the reopening of the government. He added, however, that if he did not get his wall in three weeks, he would either shut the government down again or invoke extraordinary powers to have the wall built.

It was just the timing of the news that evoked this silly thought: do you suppose if we got 535 crows working on the problem, (the same number constituting our congressional members), that they’d find a way to make this thing work out for everyone? My guess? You bet they would!

Now that would be something to crow about.

Goose Tales by George Merrill

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Geese, like many boaters and tourists who show up on the Shore, are seasonal visitors. The arrival of geese in the fall is like the invasion of college kids on Maryland beaches during spring break; they’re everywhere. Geese gather in droves in the creeks, golf courses, and weekenders’ lawns, huddling feather to feather. They stay for the winters and then leave.

Whether arriving, taking off, or just floating around, geese make an extraordinary ruckus. One night in the fall some years ago, while anchored on the Wye River near Shaw Bay, a huge colony of geese settled in the water near us. I was unable to hear what my wife was saying across the cockpit for the din that the geese were making. Geese generate a thunderous volume because they all talk at once the way anxious people do. Why so much to say I have no idea, unless, perhaps, as frequent fliers, they’re relieved to be settled in and enjoy telling each other stories of where they’ve been, the ups and downs of their flight south and who they’d bumped into along the way. I heard a lot of stories that night, and although I couldn’t understand a word – a honk, more accurately – I didn’t sleep a wink for the din.

Once, in late spring, I woke in the middle of the night to the honking of a solitary goose in the creek in front of my house. I’m used to sounds that gaggles of geese make. It’s odd hearing only one. I felt melancholy listening to the goose. I couldn’t get back to sleep, but not because of the noise–the honking wasn’t intrusive– but for the suggestion of what this plaintive voice might portend.

In spring, I’m expecting nature’s new arrivals. This goose must have been around the Bay since the fall, anyway. I doubt it was a recent arrival. To hear the honking of only one goose when I know that he or she, only a month ago, was surrounded by the convivial chatter of friends and relatives, inclines me to think the worst: perhaps its spouse died or for health reasons the goose wasn’t up to making the long trip north. For this goose, spring was not a beginning, but an end.

There are gains and losses in the seasons of life. I think of the retirees who come to the Shore to live out their days in the gentle ambience of tidewater country. In my community, most of the people are of riper years, most over fifty-five.   The days of contentment endure for a while but then there’s the inevitable time of illness and death. One survives to live out by themselves the dream they once shared together.

Not far from my home just off the Bozman-Neavitt Road, a couple I knew once named their home, Final Decision. The name was inscribed on a plaque attached to a covered well housing that stood by the road. The home is still there, the well housing too, but the name has disappeared.

Final Decision was a word play on the husband’s profession – he had been a judge – and that this was the last move the couple planned to make. In short, like many here, they came to live out their lives on the Shore. The husband died and the wife stayed on in the house.  After some years she became disabled with age and her family saw the necessity of moving her to a facility providing regular care. After she left, the sign began losing letters, falling off one by one, until, when I last saw the sign, the remaining letters read, ‘indecision.’  Life decisions we make are rarely final; they’re tentative. The final decision is made elsewhere.

I considered another possible scenario to account for the solitary bird’s presence. Indeed, like Henry David Thoreau, the goose may have been making a statement. He’d had it with the noise, the crowded skies, congestion on the creeks, geese everywhere flapping and fussing, and spending long hours in the air. Like Thoreau, the goose found his own Walden Pond, on the creek in front of my house.

For man and goose, alike, there are tradeoffs to be managed. While it’s comforting knowing someone’s nearby it’s also important to have time and space to be still and alone. To be assured of the comforts and safety that companionship and society provide, most species congregate together in one way or another. For our part, we build and inhabit homes around the tranquil coves we love, sail the open waters that beckon us, and drop our hooks in the silent creeks and rivers that promise us a night’s safe anchorage. But we also insist upon having conveniences nearby like shopping malls with big boxes We profane the very pristine nest we sought for refuge, the place where we sought gentle space, where we could engage in the discernment that solitude brings, and where that soft, downy texture of stillness can be heard, the stillness that cradles the soul like soft pillows sooth sleepy heads.

After a month or so I never saw the goose again. Who knows where he’d gone. But I like to think that he went on searching for that perfect time which includes discovering the uncommon place for which many of us longed and found a while we lived on the Shore.

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 Your Pants On by George Merrill

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‘Keep your pants on’ we’re exhorted when we become frantic, impatient and agitated. We’re urged to be cool, stay easy with things. The phrase, in addition to being a metaphor, can now be understood literally. An epidemic has been identified among post-modern men; we see droopy drawers everywhere.

It’s shortly after Christmas and near New Year’s Eve. In those weeks, I’ve eaten more than my share and I Know it. When I overeat, it alarms me. Various parts of my body redistribute themselves. In a word, I add volume while changing shape.

There was a time when all that was required of me to see the tips of my shoes was to cast my glance downward. I can do that, but it’s not my shoes I see, anymore. The space between where my eyes are set and my shoes are planted, a terrain once occupied by a firm torso, has been replaced with a more viscous substance I can only call fat. What had once been concave, is now convex. In order to see my shoes, today, I must bend forward some. My pants that historically belted navel high, given my evolving body shape, must now be buckled well below the navel in order to remain up. In the body, matter is neither created nor destroyed, just increased and moved around.

What offends me about my body’s redistribution of its mass is that I must secure my pants with a belt well below my navel, leaving to my shame, an unsightly mass draping over the belt for which no amount of gerrymandering (or sucking up) is able to alter. My roll of fat is visible to all and my drawers appear perilously close to dropping.

I’ve recently had some workers doing carpentry around the house. These are fit young men, at the top of their game, with lean bodies as straight as ramrods. I notice, however, when any one of them has to bend over, it reveals the upper portion of his butt. This phenomenon is common enough to have earned a diagnostic designation: “builder’s butt.” This describes graphically what happens to a man when his pants sit too low at his hips. Bending over to hammer nails or working on a pipe under a sink, his trousers decidedly fail him. His pants reveal the upper regions of those lower ones that pants were once engineered to conceal.

The corpulent old men of my youth, my grandfather and my great uncle, had significant paunches. I remember distinctly my great uncle’s silver belt buckle sitting prominently across the widest circumference of his girth. I thought it was neat. I recall both men’s large middles fondly, as if this was the distinguishing mark of age and wisdom. I don’t recall seeing an offensive overhang, which is the objection I have to my own paunch. Theirs, as I recall, would make mine look like an anthill. I wonder just how were they were able to wear pants buckled high along the upper waist, leaving no trace of an overhang? I would add that neither of them wore suspenders.

It seems to me that straight lean bodies should allow the belt securing one’s pants to ride just about anywhere up or down the torso. But today, even with young bodies, men’s pants rest precariously below the hip. I have concluded this happens not by the physical vicissitudes of aging men, but by a calculated decision of fashion designers.

I realized this while at the voting booth in Easton. While waiting my turn, I was dreamily people-watching. My glance fell on a tall man around my age. He was thin, rangy and well built. What seemed odd was how low his trousers were riding on his hips. Obviously, this did not result from the inability of his torso to accommodate a belt-tightening just about anywhere he chose to secure it. I can only conclude that fashion designers are flooding the market with slacks tailored to make men appear as if their drawers are dropping.

I can’t imagine why. I see no aesthetic advantages to such a design nor even a hint of erotic allure -which dominates most all products of fashion – except maybe handkerchiefs. To say the least, a man with droopy drawers does not present as someone dignified, a desirable sex object, or as someone having any idea of how to meet the public. He is definitely not cool.

Answers to this strange phenomenon may be found in today’s psycho-social climate. The unstable climate seems to be driving all kinds of aberrations. Truth telling has become a lost art today and we’re hesitant to believe anything we hear or see. The transparency we once valued in our relationships to one another has grown opaque with the incessant allegations of “fake.”

Transparency and openness with one another was once considered a social necessity, even a virtue. I wonder whether, while men’s pants don’t reveal all, they reveal just enough to satisfy us that a man is trustworthy; his pants present him as the kind of guy discreet and tasteful enough not to let everything hang out, but sufficiently transparent to assure us he is not hiding anything.

A bit of a stretch perhaps but there you have it. Nothing else I can think of explains 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.

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A Hole In The Ground by George Merrill

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If the New Years’ experience is nothing else, it’s our collective indulgence in nostalgia.

We all know that feeling of sweet aching, a yearning for some aspects of our past, however we interpreted them. The word nostalgia means coming home. And of course, ‘home’ begs the question: just where is home? Is home somewhere way back there that I’ve left behind, or is it located up ahead of me where I have not yet arrived? Is a homecoming a retreat? An advance? Or might it be just standing where I am and really know the place.

I suspect it’s all of the above. Home is wherever the heart is.

When I was a boy, I wrote a message on a piece of yellow lined paper and placed it in a can that once held tennis balls. I dug a hole in the ground and buried it in the hayfields behind our house. I cannot remember what I wrote although I remember the yellow lined paper. I wanted the finder to know something, but for the life of me I cannot recall what it was. I do recall feeling powerfully driven to leave a message hidden for someone one day to discover. I would describe the feeling as one of nostalgia and a fleeting sense of life’s hidden connections that emerge to surprise me. Creating my time capsule was inspired perhaps by stories I’d read about people finding bottles on beaches, set adrift by someone unknown far away. I’ve wondered whether it was my way of leaving a piece of me behind that would outlast my days, a primal yearning perhaps for immortality, a statement across time that bears witness to the fact that I had once been here.

I recently retrieved copies of old newspapers I saved from New Year’s Day, Y2K; specifically, the Washington Post and The Staten Island Advance. They represented the worlds of my past on the Island, and my present home in St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore. I saved them thinking the millennium was an epic event and it might be interesting years later to see what our concerns were when it first came.

It turned out it wasn’t how we would fare in the new millennium, but how our electronics would. The bogey man then was the fear of the Millennium Bug, a problem in the coding of computerized systems that was projected to create havoc in computers and computer networks around the world at the beginning of the year.

The evolution of our computerized systems has in fact created havoc, not coding issues as such, but the impact electronics have brought to every conceivable aspect of modern life. Few would consider leaving their homes today without taking their cell phones than they’d consider leaving the house without clothes.

I saw in that edition of the Post that I was not alone in my desire to put time capsules in the earth. One headline read: “A time capsule from the people of the year 2000 to those of the year 3000.” The national millennial time capsule in D.C. contained among other things, a piece of the Berlin Wall, a Hostess Twinkie, a WWII helmet and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.” How the contents for time capsules were chosen is not clear. The contents of some raise the question in my mind of just what were they thinking.

Take for example the Billings Montana Campfire Girls Adventure Group 33; they sealed a time capsule in l976 to be opened 2076 Tercentennial. That they included a Princess telephone, a digital watch seems understandable, but a box of bullets was odd. Was it something like squirrels who bury acorns to be retrieved when the going gets tough? Maybe the bullets have something to do with the girls being called “Adventure Group 33,” or do the bullets suggest the incipient stages of the #metoo movement.

In 1976, a time capsule was buried at the Los Angeles Bicentennial to be opened in 2076. The contents included one of Cher’s dresses, a pet rock, a skateboard and Laker Jerry West’s No. 44 basketball jersey.” Mostly Frippery in my opinion.

A Time Capsule commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. was sealed in 1988 and slated to be opened in 2088. Here the contents seem appropriate; personal possessions of a great man, audio cassettes of the 80’s and recordings of the significant speeches of the civil rights era.

The Westinghouse time capsule sealed at the 1939 World’s Fare (I was there), was slated to be opened in 6939. Why so far into the future I can’t imagine. It contained no remarkable items or any whimsical material, but microfilm, news reels, fabrics and, presciently, seeds.
Since science is creating hybrids all the time, studying the characteristics of the original seeds might teach us how life mutates over time, perhaps like preserving the bones of a pre-historic man.

Most American time capsules from the 19th and 20th centuries contained a Bible, stamps, coins, newspapers and an American flag. Some offer predictions about how life will be when they are opened.

On the front page of The Washington Post’s millennial edition I read; “Yeltsin Resigns: Premier Putin Assumes Power Pending Election. He’s here to stay.

What became of my own time capsule that I sealed and placed in the ground in 1944? In 1945, the field was bull dozed for a housing development. No doubt my statement to the world was lost to development. As silly as it may sound, although I have no idea what I wanted to tell the world in my time capsule, I felt a twinge of nostalgia when I remembered placing it in the ground while I entertained the hope that one day it would be found and my words would become a part of someone else’s story.

That kind of moment is more than just a hole in the ground.

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.

Oysters Rockefeller by George Merrill

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As the New Year arrives, I will have been on this planet eighty-five years. It’s a wonder to me as I think about it. This is a long time to spend in one place. Oh, I’ve moved around within its confines, but in the big picture I have to say my entire life has been lived on earth. Being an inveterate day-dreamer, my parents weren’t always convinced; they complained that I spent a lot of time elsewhere.

Robert Burns had it right. Auld lang syne are never forgot especially at anniversary times like holidays, birthdays, and of course, the end of the old year. Then the thought of old times surface.

Speaking of earth, I first moved to Maryland in 1973. I was thoroughly charmed by everything about the state: the tropical summer heat and humidity, the nettles in the bay as thick as barley soup, and the rolling hills in Baltimore and Harford counties. When I first come to the Eastern Shore, I arrived as John Smith did, on a sailboat. I sailed from Middle River to Fairlee Creek and spent the night there. The air was still, the water calm; it was a magical moment watching the sunset.

Maryland in size is around nine thousand square miles, medium in size compared to the other states. This is what I love about the state. I can go a hundred miles or so from just about anywhere in the state, and discover the grandeur of the rolling hills of Greenspring Valley, the grand old mansions along Maryland’s many rivers and the voluptuous tidal marshes of the Eastern Shore.

There were two reasons I had a romance going with Maryland long before I moved here. I was familiar and enchanted with Aubrey Bodine’s bay photographs, especially the skipjacks and watermen. When I was a boy, my grandmother told me tales of how great grandfather Merrill sailed down to the Chesapeake to purchase oyster seeds to plant in the oyster beds in Raritan Bay off Staten Island. Seeds indeed, I thought then. Do oysters grow like dandelions? Great grandfather Merrill harvested the oyster beds there until the early 1900’s when the beds were closed for fear of spreading typhus.

My family was deeply ensconced in New York’s legendary oyster trade, but I never tasted an oyster until the 1960’s when I was in New Orleans and ate at Galatoires. I had Oysters Rockefeller and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. After returning from New Orleans, that following New Year’s Day I went about making them. Ever since then I have prepared oysters at New Year’s. I use the recipe from The Joy of Cooking. I do it from scratch, shucking the oysters myself, melting the butter and adding spices.

The down side of aging is brought home to me around the oyster ritual. For over forty-one years I’ve been preparing this New Year’s oyster feast for select friends and family. Some have either died (not as a result of eating my oysters), moved away or grown infirm so they can’t travel any more. It’s the nature of rituals that they continue to go on while only the players change.

In the early years of the ritual, I discovered that an oyster does not yield its fruits willingly. I had no formal instruction in opening oysters. As with many hazardous tasks, patience is not only a virtue, but it can spare you a visit to the doctor.

One New Years Day, growing weary of shucking, I hurried to cut corners. Instead of cutting a corner, I cut my hand; I put the oyster knife through my palm. I bled so much that it looked like all the oysters were covered in cocktail sauce. It was my blood.

The small town of Joppa, on the Western Shore where I lived, had a resident physician whom I’d never met. I went to him He scolded me good naturedly for my carelessness and sewed me up. That’s when I learned a new way of dealing with a recalcitrant oyster. He suggested that if I had an ornery one, take plyers and twist the lip to break a piece from it. You can see where the opening lies and then insert the knife. It works, but for all the years I have been opening oysters, I’ve never learned to do it well. For the last several years during the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, I’ve watched a professional shucker open the shells with a nimble twist of the wrist in a way that the meat is extracted whole and never macerated – as I always manage to do it. I never quite got it.

I feel a primal affinity for the oyster. They cast a spell over me. To describe their exterior is like poetry– they have hard striated shells, like tile roofs, all covered with calcium ripples, like goose bumps. Sudden sharp edges arise here and there and can give the unwary a nasty cut. Like braille, running my fingers gently over the ruts and contours of the shells, conveys a message to me, a statement that’s thousands of years old. The oyster’s beauty is one of sharp contrasts; while roughhewn and rugged on the exterior, it’s interior is shaded with subtle swirls of pastel blue and finished in a smooth and unblemished surface as fine as silk. Their allure may be a genetic resonance in my DNA code since my ancestors settled on the Island in the late sixteen hundreds and fished the Island’s marshes and Raritan Bay well into the twentieth century. I think a way of life, if it’s not practiced anymore by descendants, is nevertheless etched into their sense of things.

Just why was it so late in my life that I discovered the oyster? It may be the way many of us were as kids. Then we thought anything fishy was gross, inedible. The oyster’s gelatinous meat may be delectable to the practiced gourmet, but for any kid or some serious meat and potatoes guy, at first glance oyster can seem super-yukky and slimy, far too suggestive of what issues from our nasal mucosa. Although I can’t remember, it seems reasonable that back then, for aversions like that, I wanted nothing to do with oysters until that life-changing day at Galatoires in New Orleans.

I suspect that’s why Jonathan Swift, the eighteenth-century satirist once put it this way: “He was a bold man that first ate the oyster.”

I’ll bet he never regretted 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.

Peace On Earth by George Merrill

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“Peace on earth and good will to all” is our holiday mantra. The holidays are upon us. So is the mantra. Whether peace and good will are upon us, well, that’s a whole different matter.

I have a book written in cooperation with the American Friends Service Committee. The committee promotes peace education worldwide. The book is no bigger than the spread of my hand, maybe an inch thick. Each page contains up to three brief commentaries on the subject of peace. I thumb through it periodically.

The book is remarkable in the sheer variety of the world’s great iconic figures commenting on the nobility of peace. The 582 contributors affirming peace include names like Gandhi, Einstein, Rachel Carson, Walt Whitman, George Patton, Jimmy Carter, Tolstoy, Dwight Eisenhower, Buddha, Ovid, Anne Frank and Matrin Luther King Jr.

The statements depict yearning, the hope the authors have rather than identifying any achievements in establishing peace.

The message is clear: worldwide, the human heart longs for peace. So why, after the ‘war to end all wars’ was there WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan to mention major conflicts, not including the hundreds of internecine conflicts within African nations and in the Middle East? Is there a darker side of this we are not seeing, or wish not to?

I think so.

All affirm the ideal, and one quote from Thomas Hardy suggests why it’s difficult to achieve. Hardy, writing at the turn of 20th century, comments about peace, but puts it in a different light, namely that there is actually something alluring about war. He writes, “My argument is that War makes rattling good history, but Peace is poor reading.” I think Hardy brings to the table a disturbing thought that few wish to own: there is pleasure in war. Mortal combat produces an adrenaline rush. Skirmishes with death are exciting. At a more benign level, the murder mystery is one of the hottest sellers, some filled with muted violence, others bloody. Video games sell like hot cakes and they are not games that promote our finer sensibilities. ‘Annihilate the enemy’ is the goal of these games. Kids are mesmerized by them. I know adults who play.

In graduate school, I studied psychotherapy. I had two friends that were Viet Nam vets, Reggie and Rock. Rock served as a marine, Reggie with the army, both in Viet Nam. We were all ordained clergy. Occasionally we’d gather for drinks and talk about our classes or anything on our minds.

One evening we discussed war. I had no military experience so I enjoyed some of the tales of military life that were delightfully zany. I learned the origins of the acronym, SNAFU and how just saying it lightened the drudgery of military life. Reggie was quick witted, a fun guy to be around. Reggie had seen considerable jungle combat in his three-year tour in the Army. He brought it up for the first time in one of our conversations.

One evening Reggie talked about the war. He said how few will tell you this, but there is an undeniable adrenaline rush in the midst of combat. What we don’t hear about the rush is how exhilarating it is and when the fighting is over, you miss the high. I remember him saying specifically, he knew no high that could compare with it and to this day he confessed that he missed it. Rock agreed. They knew what ‘highs’ were all about and war was a special one.

Perhaps it’s not so strange that we continually wage war over thousands of years even as we claim to abhor it; Everyone deplores the carnage, the suffering, the destruction of war. Yet war goes on and on and on. Is it that peace is boring, as Hardy suggests? Do we need drama, constant stimulation or even catastrophes to maintain our attention, to make us feel vital and alive? Where there is a spiritual vacuum, violence is energizing.

A closer look at today’s way of life is instructive? It’s frantic and overstimulating. Communication has become flagrantly sensational. Our leader’s foibles, predictably flamboyant and bombastic, are aired, televised or printed only moments after his tantrums issue. Most stations air “Breaking News,” not just news. To gain our attention there is a need to create urgency and an anticipatory excitement for what is about to come. I’ve also noticed that some news stations on TV begin with drum rolls just before the anchor speaks, not as if to announce news, but as if they were introducing a death-defying circus act. On one TV screen, we may have three things going on simultaneously: the show, the latest data crawling along base of the screen, and in the corner of the screen, the blinking of the station’s identification logo. TV multitasks all the time. It keeps us multitasking or, if it doesn’t, we think something’s gone wrong with the set.

We’re rarely at peace. We’re mostly multitasking, busy about many things.

A statement by Anne Frank sums up the book: “I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Anne Frank did not have the luxury of a thousand diversions. She was confined, with nothing to do but manage the inevitable stresses that come with being cramped in crowded quarters. What she developed was an inspiring inner life. By becoming aware of her thoughts and feelings, investigating the small circumference that constituted her entire life and writing her thoughts down, she transcended the physical limitations imposed on her. She found an inner space that was far more expansive than even the country in which fate had trapped her.

Through her suffering she discovered peace on earth and good will toward all.

Peace begins in the silent spaces of the heart; it’s an inspired vision of possibility.

Anne Frank was inspired by in inner vision. It was forged in her suffering. How she did it is not clear, but it offers hope for greater possibilities for a world vision.

She wrote: “If I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

I pray for that vision.

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 Reflection on Servant Leaders by George Merrill

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This month marks a significant anniversary in my life.

On December 17, 1960, I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

I have fond recollections. It was a grand occasion. The cathedral setting and the ceremony’s grandeur left me feeling as though I were being knighted, and instead of a sword laid upon my head while I knelt in fealty to a King, the Bishop of New York laid his hands upon my head in the way of the ancient rite that confers the order of priesthood. The rite was dignified, noble in its intent and the prayers and invocations spoken in the lyrical Elizabethan language from the old Book of Common Prayer, lofty and inspiring. It marked the beginning of my lifetime career. I was not being ordained to a privileged office, but equipped to be a servant.

It took me a while to get it, but in time I learned.

Sorting out my feelings about the ordination experience happened to fall on the day that former president George H.W. Bush’s funeral service was held at the National Cathedral. It too, was lofty and inspiring, but this occasion marked the end of a life of service, not the beginning.

In a way, the funeral at the Washington Cathedral reminded me of my ordination. Both services were held in large cathedrals, both magnificent settings that were regal, elegant, communicating how serving others was a noble calling. For former president Bush, the funeral at the National Cathedral celebrated the years of service he offered to our nation. The funeral was a celebration of one leader’s life as a public event. The service united us in collective thanks for his contribution to the world. He presided over the end of the Cold War without a shot being fired.

My ordination at St. John the Divine was not the end of a career of service, but instead a ceremonial beginning, essentially commissioning me in the words of Jesus, to “love one another as I have loved you.” Then, I was as green as grass and only imagined how living out such a charge might be like. The overriding themes of the ordination rite and the presidential funeral liturgy highlighted a fundamental human responsibility, each rite in its own way claiming that serving others is the highest calling for all of us whether offered professionally or in the practice of daily life. Who doesn’t want to know that someone cares enough about who we are to look after us?

Teaching, medicine, nursing, psychology, healthcare, ministry, social work, emergency services and some arms of public service are generally regarded as “helping professions.” Almost any service others provide for our well- being are strictly speaking “helping,” but the above-mentioned vocations are directed specifically to psychological, spiritual, physiological, and social needs with specialists equipped to deliver them.

There’s a common thread woven through the helping professions but how some deliver their services differs dramatically, like the neurosurgeon. He or she functions in much tighter parameters, than say the teacher, nurse and clergyman who enjoy greater latitude in performing their duties. One British neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh, in his fine book, “Do No Harm” describes his work like the men who defuse bombs and mines. The window for error is crushingly small for such surgeons. Marsh says that neurosurgeons breed a kind of hyper attentiveness in performing their craft. Attention dare not drift even for a second. It’s always a matter of life and death.

For clergy and politicians, and I suspect for nurses, teachers, psychologists and social workers, the services they provide are intimately wrapped around the personalities through which they mediate their service. An ability to feel compassion is the sine qua non for this group; the kinder they are, the more enduring their impact in and out of their professional roles.

I’ve often thought of Jimmy Carter as compassionate. His political successes are not remembered as much as the impact of his person. Like Bush has was a one term president and humble by nature. Carter did not have a dynamic personality. He was not a great speaker and he did micro-manage the White House. His presidency did not enjoy the same successes as Obama and Clinton, but for integrity he had no parallel. If white conservative Christians today think they are getting bad press from fake news, they might look to president Carter for the inspiration they need to polish their image. A born-again Southern Baptist from Georgia, a religious conservative, who after his presidency, returned to his roots in Plains to continue a life of service. He still teaches Sunday School, lives in a rancher valued at about $240,000, and receives about half the retirement pension that Obama and Clinton enjoy in retirement. Recently, he left his life-long church affiliation in protest against its failure to support gender reform. He has been responsible for housing thousands of the poor worldwide by promoting Habitat for Humanity. He’s been a tireless advocate for peace and was successful in establishing a Middle East Truce.

As the saying goes, Carter walked the walk as did Bush, but in very different ways.

The funeral of George H.W. Bush, and that of Senator McCain recently highlighted in painfully sharp relief what today we are missing in public life. Committed and caring, these men were different in temperament; Bush, the steady handed patrician, McCain, the firebrand and scrapper and Carter the plodder. Despite differences these men dignified us and the country by their commitment to public life and service. They cared; they cared for the people, the nation’s institutions, and they honored the men and women who serve them.

It’s written in scripture: “And whoever will be great among you, let him first be your servant.”

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

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