Martians On The Bozman-Neavitt Road by George Merrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the West Wing by George Merrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladybugs by George Merrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s finding a warm place to winter.

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

One day I couldn’t find them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe they prefer being remembered that way.

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

I shall miss them.

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

 

Showing Up By George Merrill

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There are millions, worldwide. They’re everywhere.

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

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

Both showed up at just the right time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I write this now?

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

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

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

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

Some Lessons from a Streetcar by George Merrill

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Today, Christians observe Palm Sunday. It commemorates Jesus Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, a grand procession, only days before his crucifixion on Good Friday. It’s a festive occasion and a harbinger of hope.

I’d like to reflect on a piece of the story that seems odd. As the narrative unfolds, people in the crowd, at first festive and jubilant and hailing Jesus’ arrival, in a few days demand his crucifixion. It seems very abrupt.

I’ve wondered if this is another historic instance of how a group mentality influences individuals.

I know today our social climate, influenced heavily by politics, has grown increasingly combative and vulgar. At first the vulgarity and violence seemed episodic but they have increasingly become routine. Symptoms of moral decay appear as more boundaries are ignored. In troubled societies, citizens behave in ways they’d normally find repugnant. It’s as if we’ve been given permission at the highest echelons to throw off the basic restraints that social conventions secure for us. As everybody else seems to behave that way, there’s a tacit assumption that aberrant behavior is acceptable. If a culture is healthy and vibrant, its people behave in healthy ways. A morally bankrupt culture behaves in morally bankrupt ways. There’s no trust.

I remember years ago, I was caught up in what I took to be an unhealthy cultural expectation surrounding me. To my shame, I succumbed to it.

In the early sixties, I traveled to New Orleans for a conference. The city was charming and I reveled in its antiquated Franco-southern charm. While sightseeing, I ate my way across the city. Even today, I remember vividly my epic dinner at Galatoir’s in which, for the first time in my life, I had Oysters Rockefeller. I was hooked long before I ever came to live on the Shore. I visited The Streetcar Named Desire. What changed my life, however, was the short ride I took on what I’ve since called, ‘The Street Car Named Integrity.’

Friends said I had to ride one of the street cars around the city to see some of the antebellum houses and other charming sights of the city. I boarded one and sat down on the last seat left in the car. At one of the stops an old woman boarded, shakily, wielding her cane for support. The woman was black.

The car started up again. The woman was maybe ten feet from me down the car. In front of her sat a white family; a father with two young adolescent boys. The woman held on to an upright pole to field the bumps and turns the streetcar made.

I kept looking at the man and his boys wondering why none of them offered a seat to the woman. While I didn’t offer mine, I found myself irked that the father and his boys, right next to her, made no effort. I remember having the strong instinct to offer mine but I had a troubling thought and then hesitated.

Racial conflicts were emerging during that period and I began wondering whether the woman’s race had any influence on why no one offered her a seat.

I began to feel troubled; first about the colossal insensitivity of the white family seated right in front of the woman and then feeling uneasy about what I thought was going on.

I imagined that the people in the car must be racist. If I would stand up to offer the woman my seat, I worried I would get looks of disapproval. The threat of social censure finally took me over and while I obsessed about it I began feeling immobilized. I knew, that I should offer my seat, even as, in my mind, I condemned the others in the car for not.

I may not have read the situation accurately. The incident may have simply been inspired by colossal insensitivity rather than racism. The point, however, is that I was the one who thought racism was the issue and then behaved as I did.

So, I obsessed about how this poor woman was being victimized by racism. As I indulged in my high-minded and righteous sentiments for justice and equality, after three stops the woman got off, while the whole time I remained seated.

An ego that’s soothing a conscience can make anything crazy look reasonable. After the woman left, I felt immediate relief. After all, I thought to myself, she’s gone so there’s nothing I can do. If she’d only stayed, of course I would have offered my seat. Right!

Integrity does have a cost; it may be something as simple as incurring a disagreeable look or as consequential as losing a congressional seat, or having to endure demeaning attacks on twitter. For Jesus, the issue of integrity became a matter of life and death and he chose integrity. It’s worth noting that Jesus could have made a deal with Pontius Pilate and beat the rap. Instead he took the road of integrity. It can be a rough one.

I’ve wished at times that the media today was really feeding us fake news. That would at least offer more hope. Tragically, most of it is true and I’m concerned we are growing inured to it.

It’s painful to watch as our culture slides into moral bankruptcy, see the sycophancy that feeds it and to feel that there is no one with the integrity who is prepared to declare it. Those with power who can, won’t risk it.

Our hope for a national healing may begin with our children. In the Christian tradition there’s a saying,” A little child shall lead them.” Children not yet sullied by the prevailing cultural milieu have faith and hope. They see possibility, they have dreams.

Recently, in an unprecedented way, we’ve watched as many young people took to the streets to protest gun violence and its political complicity. The weaker among us have so far exhibited the moral courage that the powerful have abandoned.

I find that hopeful.

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.

Door On The Shore by George Merrill

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I’m routinely in and out of all sorts of things, but none more than doors.

Doors are a signature feature of daily life. We meet one at almost every turn. I would reckon that in the course of my lifetime, I’ve come and gone through millions of doors. Yet I never take notice of them. For something as omnipresent as doors, they remain surprisingly invisible. And so, in reflection, it seemed surprising to me one day some time ago, driving along Rt. 50, I noticed several doors. It wasn’t as though I had to pass through any of them. I simply found the sight of them compelling, enough so that I pulled my car over to take a closer look. The doors were hanging in an old derelict motel located just north of Easton on Route 50. At first glance, the doors were a sorry sight.

The motel was brick, a one-story stretching out like a set of row houses and arranged in a semi-circle forming a courtyard in front. There was surprisingly little rubble in the courtyard but hardly a pane of glass remained in any of the window frames. Inside the units I saw junk: old furniture here, some wire there, metal cabinets there and in one unit, a small stove. A couple of plastic chairs and a mattress in another unit suggested that maybe the motel still provided a modicum of hospitality to some less fortunate on their journey to and fro on the Shore. My eyes were drawn again and again to the doors, most of them still intact, half open, their fronts lit by the sun, highlighting the darkness within as if in its terminal condition the motel was declaring that even in its twilight days it was still game to do what it always had, that is, providing hospitality to tired travelers.

In summers, up and down the Peninsula, motel populations swell with happy vacationers on their way east and south, “downee ocean” as Marylanders say. Cars are packed with bags and toys for the beach while kids repeatedly ask ‘are we there yet,’ all seeking the sun and fun of the Delmarva coastline. Folks come from Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and other cities as they have for years. For the last several years they will have passed an abandoned motel just north of Easton and never seen it, in the way a motorist’s eyes hardly notice road kill. After a while, on long drives, one becomes inured to the passing landscape except for more garish sights, like those monolith road signs up and down the Eastern Shore that display advertisements for restaurants, motels, casinos and lawyers.

The small abandoned motel certainly had its day – not even its sign remained – and the only functional witness left to honor its contribution to the life of past summer migrations to the Peninsula were its doors. The doors still hung on their frames, able to open and close. A few locks worked so some doors could still provide one of a door’s most important historic functions, that is, to safely secure it’s inhabitants for the night.

For many, the word, “motel” doesn’t imply class as say, the word “hotel” or “Inn” does. The Inn of colonial times may have provided you a bed, but no shower. Forget running water. You’d get a chamber pot or use a privy, and probably share your bed with a number of strangers, some of whom may well have been lice infested. Our modern motels, however marginal, have a leg up on any Inn of old. Comfort beats class for most of today’s travelers.

Of all the doors at the old motel, it was the one at room number ‘9’ that enchanted me most. I imagined that the face of that door, like the face of some wise old man or woman for whom each wrinkle that time had etched into it, told a story. And indeed the door face was heavily wrinkled and rippled with weathered wood and peeling paint. I wondered as I watched shadows play around the curled folds of paint, what those stories may have been that the door had overheard, tales told by people who had once come by to stop and to rest on their journey ‘downee ocean.’

I’ve often had similar thoughts when I’d come across abandoned houses in the more rural areas of the Shore. Many sagged under the weight of time like people do but unlike people who feel self-conscious about it, for an old house long forgotten, no remedial measures are available. On the inside, one might see a lone pot or a mouse eaten chair or a two-legged table. Just who were the people they once served and where did they go?

As there are old men and women who are full of years but now marginalized, and yet have seen it all, there are doors like that. Doors, like such people, rest tentatively on the tired hinges they have that still move while wisely keeping their own counsel and the secrets they’ve overheard a long time ago.

Am I the only one who sometimes wonders where the trillions and trillions of stories go that humankind has told since we developed language? Do you suppose they are like the beams of lightless stars traveling into the eternity of the cosmos?

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.

Beyond the Grave by George Merrill

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Out of my studio window I can see the upper reaches of Broad Creek. It’s a wide shallow. At the ebb during extremely low water, I can see the jetsam that the flood waters normally hide like rotted tree limbs, cans, shotgun shells and plastic bottles. I saw a mound in the shallows the other day. It was a deer, a dead buck. I don’t know how he died.

During low tides buzzards descend on the deer to feed. One day an eagle, circling above spooked the buzzards. The buzzards vacated their seats at the feast deferring to the intimidating presence of the eagle. They returned for a later sitting.

Such scenes are common in the natural world. However, they can be disturbing to watch. Birth, death, transformation and rebirth is nature’s way. Nature, however, is unceremonious and perfunctory about the whole business. Strictly no frills. We on the other hand are very ritualistic about death, and over the years have devised all kinds of ceremonies and rites to commemorate the event.

We’ve been burying our dead for one hundred thousand years. Exactly why, is not certain.

I conducted funerals as a young clergyman. The services from the old Book of Common Prayer were typical of many funerals; solemn, sober, dignified, accompanied by melodic hymns and traditional classical music. Sometimes these funerals were regarded as inordinately depressing, funereal as some put it. During Christian funerals, the resurrection was proclaimed but I’m sure at such moments only a few were in the mood to believe it.

Our treatment of death is changing, partly because greater longevity has provided many of us much more time to consider it. Today, more people actively plan for death, beyond just tending to wills and estate issues.

We once went to funerals. Today we are more likely to attend ‘Celebrations of Life;’ rites of passage with a very different tone than those of yesterday. They are geared more to commemorate the life of the deceased than to make a statement of faith although sometimes both occur. Eulogies, although they are meant to be kind, we know are not always representative of the deceased. True or false, they remain an important part of the ritual.

A significant number of my ancestral family on my mother’s side are interred at Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s located on the highest point in Brooklyn, with gorgeous trees and gaudy, imposing mausoleums, along with gothic masterpieces that attest to the wealth and prestige of old New York. It’s also a commentary on the ironies of human pride, our need to make a statement that survives us beyond the grave.

In the same cemetery as my grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts and uncles are interred, also rest luminaries like Pierre Lorillard IV, the tobacco giant; Henry Steinway of piano fame and Samuel Morse, of “What hath God wrought?” renown. Horace Greeley, newspaper tycoon is also buried there among many other famous historical names

Founded in 1838, Green-Wood is traditionally non-sectarian but was generally considered a Christian burial place for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants of “good repute.” Undesirables (?) and criminals, at least in principle, were denied plots. I’m assuming my ancestral family members were of good repute. Even if they weren’t, or were undesirables for that matter, given the cemetery’s unusual history and arbitrary admission practices they still may well have secured eternal rest there.

On closer examination, not everyone resting in Green-Wood’s bosom were exactly choir boys or girls during their earthly sojourns.

Fanny White, a fallen woman is a remarkable resident of Green-Wood. She was one of the most successful madams ever to run a high-end brothel in New York City. Believed to have been sexually abused as a child, she not only survived, she triumphed. She took great pride in her entrepreneurial skills. She hosted an especially discriminating clientele, name dropping her clients – not by name but by profession – “merchants, Congressmen, and many belonging to the Diplomatic Corps residing in New York.” She was entertained by New York’s finest. At the time of her death she was loaded and owned fashionable Town Houses all over the city.

“Boss Tweed” the nefarious leader of Tammany Hall that once steeped the democrats of New York in graft and corruption, rests undisturbed at Green-Wood. Just why is unclear since he was hardly of good repute and in fact had criminal charges against him, which should have automatically precluded him a plot at Green-Wood. I guess being a democrat in those days opened more doors than it does today.

Joey Gallo, professional mobster or Albert Anastasia, the renowned contract killer for ‘Murder Incorporated’ are also interred at Green-Wood. They either made Green-Wood an offer they couldn’t refuse or perhaps being Christian or just Catholic was sufficient to gain them admission. Who knows?

I remember three distinct visits to Green-Wood. The first was in nineteen forty-eight, when my grandfather was buried next to his parents. There was a marker designating a mysterious infant named Hattie. I was never sure who she was except from a funeral card I discovered in a family bible. Its poem indicated that her death was heartrending. I was not that close to my grandfather but the grandeur of Green-Wood’s mausoleums and the lush landscape awed me. At the time it seemed magical, a wonderland of antiquity.

The next time I visited was early in the fifties when my grandmother was buried. That’s a painful memory. I loved her a lot. The day we buried her was cold and wet with a misty rain. I felt totally desolate as I watched the coffin lowered into the earth. It seemed as if we were abandoning her. Green-Wood did not seem grand that day. It was dark and ominous, filled with the pain of loss.

I made my last visit in the seventies. I went with a friend who had an interest in its history. I wanted to photograph the family gravesite which I did, including the site where the mysterious child ‘Hattie” was interred.

The trip was a sentimental journey, the kind inspired by nostalgia. I viewed Green-Wood with more detachment that day. The majesty of the landscape was the same. I grew curious about just who these people really were who have now returned to dust. I wondered how, if they could speak to me, what might they tell me about who they were; they could tell me stories of the New York that once existed, that has since died, been transformed and is being reborn in a new world.

Speaking of transformations, I read only this week that for the next twenty-five years, visitors to Green-Wood will be able to write down their most intimate secrets and bury them in a special grave designed by an artist. The cemetery will also be hosting moonlight tours, cocktail parties, dance performances and yoga classes.

My grandfather was a staunch Baptist, eschewed alcohol and I suspect disapproved of dancing. When he went to his rest at Green-Wood, the world was a very different place.

I’m glad he did not live to see his resting place, swinging.

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.

Einstein and a Hole in the Ground by George Merrill

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I am sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico. Watching the waves break, my thoughts rise and fall. They can’t seem to be still. I’ve been reading about Einstein’s beliefs concerning religion and spirituality. He doesn’t believe in a personal God. He feels awe and a profound reverence for the mystery of nature and the workings of the universe. He calls this his religious feeling.

I look up briefly from my Kindle. I see a ghost crab digging a hole in the sand nearby.

The hole is perhaps twice the size of a silver dollar. His eyes appear as black dots affixed to the end of two stalks that extend prominently from his head. He emerges half-way out of the hole and then stops.  He’s eyeing me to see what I will do. I wave my kindle to test him. He shoots down the hole in a flash and is gone. A minute or so later he reemerges. I remain still so as, in a manner of speaking, not to spook the ghost crab. He is not but three feet away from where I sit. I am suddenly at a ringside seat, enthralled, watching first-hand what a ghost crab does during the day.

Unlike the Chesapeake’s bluecrab that scampers sideways on a flat surface, the ghost crab stands up on all 10 legs or if speed is required, just two.  He can move laterally at amazing speeds. He’ll turn on a dime while capable of doing 10mph.

I watch. He emerges from the hole again, assumes this same posture – half in, half out – but this time he makes a lightening quick gesture with the claw that had remained half buried in the hole. In a flash and in one swipe, he tosses out deposits of sand with it. The excavated sand looks round and as it land, like small marbles several inches from the hole. He remains still for a moment – not a twitch – as if perhaps to see what my reaction will be. I am amazed not only by the speed with which he tosses the sand up and out, but by the distance he throws it. The sand pile is tidy. This crab is no rooky. He knows how to throw a fastball and aim it just where he wants it to go

The sun shines on him from behind. He looks delicate, almost diaphanous, and as the sunlight shines through him he appears translucent while glowing a faint yellow. He appears otherworldly, as though he was molded of gelatin. Perhaps his transparency is one reason why he is called a ghost crab. The other is that ghost crabs are typically nocturnal.  I enjoy the good fortune to catch his performance in a rare matinee appearance.

He has captured my complete attention. I sit stone still. I don’t want to miss a thing.

Every forty seconds or so, he goes through this same drill: disappear down the hole, emerge, pitch out the sand he’s accumulated, position himself half in and out and then dart again down into the hole. No doubt about it; he is digging a tunnel efficiently and skillfully, the envy of any convict who ever dreamed of a subterranean escape from his confines.

I find that watching other creatures up close is a kind of otherworldly experience for me, like entering an alternative universe. The exotic ways of other critters, in this case the ghost crab, although he addresses the same needs to live as I must, he goes at it in a way I can only describe as mysterious.

I understand he prefers his big meal at night and goes out to eat most of the time. There no candlelight here. He can see in the dark with eyes that are situated above him that see 360 degrees. He gets the big picture in a flash. It would take me longer.

I know this may sound sexist but the females, when digging their tunnels do not perform their tasks in a workman-like fashion. They’re really messy. The male, as he digs his burrow, leaves the excavated sand in a neat pile on one side of the entrance. The female on the other hand doesn’t care a whit about being tidy and flings sand out in all directions like toddlers playing in a sand box.

However, the maneuvers grow more complex.

It’s not just that the male is more disciplined in his work habits, but his actions are informed by a darker purpose.  He is in fact sending a message to two parties. To would be intruders, his tidy little sandy mound tells them to buzz off. It also informs females that they are welcome to drop in at any time.

I note that the issues of personal privacy and availability to females are of the highest priority to the male ghost crab’s life style. The same selective frame of mind dominates the subject of conversation among crabs just as it governs their work habits in tunneling.

Ghost crabs do communicate by sound but are not great on small talk. They never gather to gossip or just shoot the breeze, like geese. They’re painfully single focused, always agenda driven.

On its right claw the ghost crab has what’s called a Stridulating organ. When the ghost crab strokes this against the bottom of its leg, it emits a squeaking sound.  I’m assuming it’s like the violin, able to produce a variety of notes. The repertoire, however, is severely limited.

Even in the aural communication the male ghost crab has the same agenda that’s reflected in his digging habits; leave me alone; females, excepted.

The ghost crab may be a loner but I suspect he’s also a swinger.

I had been watching him dig and tunnel in and out for about twenty minutes. Then he changed the venue and emerged coming all the way out. He stood still just inches from the entrance. I knew he’s was checking out the landscape. I assume he felt safe to wander from home. Then I saw him take off for a short distance down the beach. To think of a crab as graceful or to describe his short excursion as if it were executed with the sylph-like motions of the ballerina, you might think I’m exaggerating. I am not.

He skittered across uneven sand for a short distance with a fluid- like movement as if none of his appendages ever touched the ground. He stopped and stood still and I could see the little black dots of his eyes, unmoving, but taking everything in. He made a kind of pirouette and took off for a short distance at a forty- five- degree angle from his first direction.  He stopped abruptly maybe ten feet from me.

I felt that by having patiently held still and respecting his space I had earned his trust. He felt safe with me. I was enjoying a communion with this creature from a world so close to and yet so far from my own. I felt part of his world as though he were sharing it with me.

Above me four pelicans fly overhead.  They cast shadows between where the ghost crab stands and where I sit. In a sprint, so fast I can barely follow him, he makes for the entrance to his tunnel, darts in and is gone.

I don’t see him reappear.

I go back reading about Einstein. I think I’m getting his point.

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

 

The Playroom by George Merrill

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My mind is slowing down. It’s retaining data more selectively. The missions I assign to my mind take longer to complete than before. The whereabouts of a misplaced pen, the glasses I just put down, determining why I went from the den to the living room; although irritating, fortunately these quirks are not crippling. Negotiating life’s basic tasks just takes a little longer, that’s all. And then, of course, living life is all about our use of time, anyway.

As my thought processes slow down, I’ve grown more interested in just how my mind performs for me, in the way we pay greater heed to our dwindling resources than we did before when they were plentiful.

As I was searching my mind for ideas the other day, I drew blanks. This happens regularly. The process always leads me to wonder about the creative process itself and how it works. I think people associate creativity with the arts or sciences but I believe the phenomenon is universal – a part of our humanity – and it appears in varying degrees in all of us. The laborer is creative, as is the salesmen, the politician, the artist, the clergyman and of course, writers. Then there’s the stay-at-home mom whose capacity for creativity is tested every minute. With a house full of kids, all of whom require strategic interventions of one kind or another, mom’s creativity is stretched to the max. Children, however, have the greatest capacity for creativity. They are the least likely of any of us to place constraints on their imagination. Kids love to just let it rip.

Of all our spiritual attributes, creativity is the most arbitrary. It doesn’t do well when forced.

My potentially creative imagination invariably bombs if I go at it full bore and try to squeeze it for some immediate project. In my experience creativity is activated the way seeds grow. First you plant them, let them be for a while, until you see something emerge. The fruits of creativity arise from imagination and surface only at their own pace.

Take creativity as it’s demonstrated in the biblical book of Genesis; the creation narrative proceeds ex-nihilo; it comes from out of nowhere, from nothing. God seems matter of fact about his momentous achievements of creating a universe but most of us would greet such special creative moments with ecstatic expressions like, ‘Eureka,’ or ‘Hot damn.’

In 1950, the legendary science-fiction writer and author of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, wrote “The Veldt.” In it he describes a playroom “with television monitors lining each wall and the ceiling. Walking into such an environment, a child could shout: River Nile! Sphinx! Pyramids! And they would appear, surrounding him, in full color, full sound and why not? Glorious warm scents and smells and odors . . . All this came to me in a few seconds.”

Whimsical? Kid’s stuff? Absolutely. He’d had that vision in his mind’s eye since he was a small child. As an adult, it all came back to him in a flash, “in a few seconds.”

Augmented reality has long sounded like a wild futuristic concept. I read recently in the New York Times that Augmented Reality is here to stay and The Times is offering it on line. AR is all about superimposing computer-generated images on top of our view of reality, thus creating a composite view that augments the real world. In effect, excepting for smells, this describes Bradbury’s playroom to a T. And I bet smells will soon be on the way.

This is one among many instances of our mind’s capacity for the kind of imagining that reaches well beyond exigencies of time and place to see into a reality that has not reached its moment in history. In Bradbury’s case I would say his Playroom vision was a byproduct of wonder. Our minds have an insatiable appetite for awe and wonder. They feed on it.

There are people whose imaginations have the capacity for a special kind of creativity. They are able cut through the illusions which imprison us and see clearly into the future. They, too have visions of wonder, but their kind is more about hope. There are three biblical prophets I immediately think of who shared a similar vision pertaining to the future of the Jewish people. I read it also as a vision of our destiny as a human family. The prophetic proclamations are introduced with the phrase: “In the last days” meaning these proclamations are to come about at a future time. It is a vision of the way the human family will ultimately live together, but only after time.

Especially today, in the climate of war mongering and national arrogance, this prophetic chapter from Isaiah I find simply stunning.

“And many people shall go and say, come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Similar visions appear written in the prophetic books of Joel and Micah, as if the idea captured the minds of the ancient world which was as contentious and war-torn as ours is today.

The bronze sculpture “Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” created by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich, was presented to the United Nations on December 4th 1959 by the Government of the USSR. The sculpture, depicting the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other. It’s an inspiring work of art.

This remarkable vision of hope still lives in our human consciousness after first appearing around 800BC. That’s a long time ago.

Do you suppose as Bradbury once imagined his ‘Playroom’ as a young boy, and saw it realized as an adult, and that Isiah’s vision, conceived early in the life of the human family will be realized “in the last days? “The vision is now indelibly planted in human consciousness. Generation after generation the vision keeps reappearing. It may not be realized yet, but neither after all this time has it gone away.

I believe it will have its day when the right time is here.

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.