A Leica for Losers by George Merrill

Have you had days when you feel you don’t do anything right? I have. Then I’m sure I’m a loser. I feel like the man who once complained, “Even when I’m eating canned grapefruit I squirt myself in the eye.”

As a boy, a friend and I went with my uncle to the New Jersey countryside. We were going on a painting outing. My uncle was French and an accomplished artist. His paintings were stunning. He provided the materials. We left home and arrived at a lovely meadow. A red barn stood in the field surrounded by cattle, a rustic fence, with a farmhouse nearby – the lovely ambience typical of rural America. We soon got down to our task. I noticed how my uncle and my friend were rendering charming images with ease. My colors were lusterless, the perspectives stilted and my painting began looking more like a chemical spill than a country scene. My uncle and my friend were kind and encouraging but I burned with humiliation. I felt like a loser. I wanted so badly to paint like my uncle.

There’s good news for those of us who have ever felt like losers. As of June 7th this year, we can now rejoice that being a “loser” has not only lost its insulting connotations, but ‘losers’ have earned a distinguished place in one of the world’s unique modern museums. In the town of Helsenborg, Sweden, The Museum of Failure officially opened. Admission is 100 Swedish Kroner, about eleven dollars, a small price for those of us who may feel like losers and are sorely in need of a morale boost. The museum, by its exhibits, showcases an enlightened understanding of the realities governing human affairs.

Forty-three year old clinical psychologist, Samuel West, conceived the idea while on a holiday and quickly purchased the Internet domain name. In applying, West accidentally misspelled “museum,” a sure sign, he believed, that the project would, well, succeed.

One journalist writing about the museum called the exhibit “Top of the Flops.” Catchy and descriptive. The museum is a commentary on life as a primarily dynamic, fluid, and ongoing process rather than a patchwork of static and unrelated incidents, such as a winner/loser paradigm suggests. Nicolai de Gier, professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts commented on West’s museum: “It’s like the other part of trying is failing, so it’s just a very natural thing and a very important thing.”

Some flops were nonetheless imaginative. The motorcycle giant, Harley Davidson tried its hand at marketing cologne for men. It was an elitist excursion into the macho world of bikers. The cologne was packaged and labeled with the Harley logo, identified delicately as “Eau de Toilette.” It was promoted as having a “leathery smell” and was called “Hot Road.” Plucky concept, but real bikers apparently don’t do cologne. The product failed.

The mouthwash and toothpaste empire Colgate, tried offering packaged frozen beef lasagna to the public. I’m not sure why except perhaps that it was an attempt to take over more of the household market via the kitchen as it had successfully done with the bathroom. It didn’t work.

The Edsel was touted to be the car of the future – an attempt to make Ford great again. The car was a disaster, but Ford learned from its mistakes and landed on its feet. Today Ford is one of our country’s automotive giants.

Failure is a familiar story in the American experience, indeed, in the human experience. Innovative attempts and high hopes from long standing industries fail regularly: McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, Pepsi’s Crystal Clear and Caffeine Free, Coors Rocky Mountain Sparkling Water and Frito Lays WOW, all went bust. The companies today, wiser for their failures, still thrive. In one sense, there are few if any winners who did not first endure the humiliation of failure to get there.

I felt badly about my painting failure since I had an innate desire to create visual images, but developed no skills to render them. It was like having all the letters, but not knowing how to arrange them into words. As it turned out, that same uncle liked photography. He owned one of the classic Leica cameras of the day. I’d watch him at family gatherings as he took candid shots of relatives. The Leica intrigued me, in the way that little boys find gadgetry alluring. I asked him one day if I might use it and take pictures. I went through a roll of film. He processed the negatives for me, printed them and later showed me what I’d captured on film.

As you might expect the pictures were hardly museum quality fine art photographs. The fact that I selected this one particular scene or that one specific person to photograph, and through the medium of the camera actually created acceptable images, exhilarated me. A year later, in 1948, I found an old camera, took pictures with it, processed the negatives and printed positives. I discovered myself in a place I never thought I belonged. There was something of the artist in me and I needed to try and fail until I could find the means to express my yearning.

Via a hurtful failure as a painter, I found my way to photography. Photography has given me sixty-nine years of pleasure in picture taking, of presenting photographic exhibits and seeing my images published in various publications.

I suspect we need to first be losers in life to win, the way some of us must face our mistakes in internships in order to become professionally competent.

Of the thirty-six frames on the film in the Leica, only twelve came out. One was a portrait of my dog. My lifetime journey of a thousand photographs began with these first twelve.

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 Glimmer of Hope by George Merrill

In a book I’ve been reading about Christianity and its “struggle for new beginnings,” I saw a passing reference to God as the creator of humanity. It quoted a fourteenth century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, who stated that we are made, not “by God,” but “of God.” I found the switching of the usual preposition “by” with “of,” striking. That God might have made us – the typical religious teaching – suggests an important connection but a discrete difference like the sculptor who fashions his sculpture from marble while he remains a creature of flesh and blood.

Being made of God offers a different thought; that we are fashioned from the same substance as the creator, one manifestation of the very stuff from which God is composed. To be human then, and being made of God – and not to be impious – I’d say is simply affirming that we’re all chips off the old block.

The way things are going today you’d hardly ever guess it. But then there are those transformational moments that offer us glimmers of hope…

Religion today, like politics, gets the public interest not when it acts sublimely, but when it behaves badly. Ears go right to the ground when the muck is being raked. But every so often something of essential goodness transpires and I, for one, find myself moved to tears. In those moments, circumstances conspire such that I become more conscious of my “of-ness,” and our “of-ness.”

One such moment occurred recently on June 14th following the shooting at the congressional baseball practice in D.C. At this writing, Republican Congressman Steve Scalise is in critical condition. Four others were wounded. The shooter was killed. His motives were vague political discontents.

Given the kind of political posturing that usually follows these tragic moments, things took a very different turn and in my judgment, a hopeful one. The spirit of the moment became one of claiming our national as well as our human solidarity rather than vilifying the perpetrator and swearing he will be caught and punished. In one sense our “of-ness” was the issue not someone’s “other-ness,”

Paul Ryan addressed the House shortly following the incident. He said: “An attack on one of us, is an attack on all of us.” He went further to state passionately that, “…there is one image that this house should keep. And it is a photo (as shown above) I saw of our Democratic colleagues gathered in prayer this morning after the news.”

He added that “We are a family…these are our brothers and sisters.” Finally he pleaded with the House: “I ask each of you to join me in resolving to come together…to lift each other up…and show the country – show the world – that we are one House.”

I felt moved. I didn’t see this kind of response coming.

The next evening on PBS, Judy Woodruff interviewed House Representatives Joe Barton, R-Texas and Mike Doyle, D-Pa. The interview took a remarkable turn. They had been long-term friends in the Congress. During the incident Doyle was at the field with his Republican colleagues while Barton practiced with the Democrats. In reiterating the frightening experience of the shooting and also speaking of his friendship with Barton, Doyle was clearly on the verge of tears. At that point, Barton placed his hand on Doyle’s arm in a spontaneous gesture of affection. There was no mistaking its authenticity. The gesture was the kind of human softness that exhibits our greatest strengths, that is, our capacity to care for others.

As I watched the interview, Isaiah’s visionary statement of a world reconciled to God came to mind: “The wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw with the ox – they will do no evil or harm in all My Holy Mountain.”

Imagine, if one day the elephant and the donkey might have drinks and dinner together after work, and would dwell and graze together and do no evil in “all My Holy Mountain.” If that isn’t the slam dunk formula for making America Great, and I don’t mean great again, but greater than ever, then I can’t imagine what is.

In the interview on PBS, Doyle made what I would call a visionary statement – not a policy statement, but a visionary one, the kind that we rarely see or hear today.

Speaking of Congress he says, ”We may have differences politically, but they’re our friends, and we care about them very much. And I think all of us are reflecting on how each one of us individually can set an example for the country, too, because when people see their leaders being uncivil towards one another then you start to see the public being uncivil towards one another and towards their leaders.”

He also speaks to that prurient part of all of us that delights in hearing sleaze and scandal. In referring to congressional mud slinging he notes, “Oftentimes the media’s interested in interviewing the two that are throwing the swords at each other…the news media, too, can reflect a little bit on that and show some of the positive things that take place down there.”

Religion struggles today, as politics does, for “new beginnings,” relevance, and integrity in a world in which we see little of either over the din of the sectarian and party claims. In power struggles, the common denominator of our “of-ness,” our mutual humanity gets easily excised, in the way soldiers trained for combat learn to dehumanize their adversaries in order to destroy them.

A columnist for CNN seemed to see in the recent event, glimmers of hope. He put it this way in his column, “There’s a lot of awfulness in Washington today…but out of the awfulness (almost) always comes some good.”

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.

At the Still Point by George Merrill

From my studio window I enjoy a limited view of Broad Creek. Locals call it Saddler’s Cove. It’s a preferred landing site for birds – ducks and geese occasionally, but mostly herons. The shallow water in the cove provides them easy access to minnows and an occasional water snake. Of course, the cove is also home to aquatic creatures like fish, crabs and oysters. At first glance you think it’s a still and sleepy place, vintage tidewater ambience. However, there are times when nature gets busier than traffic does on Rt. 50 on a summer weekend. It’s a still spot, but at the same time there can be all kinds of goings on.

My mobility of late has been temporarily limited due to an injured knee. Now I spend more time in the studio just sitting and gazing out the window. The studio has become the center of my world, the still point of my universe. Too bad it takes a bum knee to settle down and be still long enough to be aware of what’s going on around me.

Looking out the window one day, not focused on anything in particular, my view was dimmed by a large shadow cast by something flying high above. At first I saw only the shadow. Then a Great Blue Heron came into full view. He was circling and preparing to land in the cove. He made a lazy pass over the site as if he were waiting for clearance from flight control. Getting the go ahead, he began his final approach. Near touchdown he arched backward, throwing his legs forward the way a broad jumper does before he hits the dirt. The heron landed effortlessly in about two inches of water.

I watched the Heron with awe. Just before touchdown, the Heron flapped his wings strategically, allowing him to substantially break the velocity of his descent. He practically parachuted to earth, legs bent forward to absorb any shock he might make upon contact.

I winced when I thought of my own knees bending backwards like that. One knee of mine feels as though it had.

What with physical therapy, two visits to an orthopedist and finally owning that I had done a number on my knee, I’ve become conscious of life’s appetite for movement in general, and my own mobility in particular.

Life is always on the move. All God’s creatures want to get up and go. They like to fly, soar, jump, swing, roll, dig, flip, or dive for the sheer joy of it. Some divide themselves into halves like amoebas or regrow a lost limb like starfish, but I suspect that’s out of functional necessity. They’re not doing it just for fun.

Recently I saw a little girl busy at the end of dock – checking crab traps I guess. When she completed her task, she began skipping along the dock and back to the land. I was mesmerized watching her. Her movements seemed inspired, a moment of pure abandon and playful lightheartedness that seizes all of us at one time or another. We just can’t resist it. Jumping for joy is a popular way of putting it. I could not remember for the life of me how I once skipped. I remember the joy I felt, though.

Amusement parks capitalize on the thrill that various forms of mobility can excite. As a boy, I remember riding the parachute jump at Coney Island.

Standing on the boardwalk, my view of the world was narrowly circumscribed by a limited horizon, the usual view for anyone who is earthbound. The world grows larger on the parachute jump.
Secured safely we began the ascent. Gradually my world opened up and I gained a bird’s eye view of New York City, Long Island, Staten Island and parts of New Jersey. The ascension is titillating, but the high point of the adventure is when we drop.

I’m secured in a canvas seat with another boy. Suddenly I feel as if it’s falling out from under us – I scream – everyone screams – some for terror, some in delight, most screaming for both. We plummet downward, delivered at the last minute by the restraining jolt of the tether attached to the tower’s crown.

Movement is the essence of cosmic energy. What about creatures that have no means for their own locomotion? Nature lands a helping hand. Consider the milkweed seed. It takes nothing more than a breath of fresh air to set these diaphanous threads aloft and soaring. Milkweed seeds need do nothing except to lie back and enjoy the friendly skies until the threads are flown to their final destination. Safely delivered with their tiny package intact, like the legendary stork, they bring to wherever they light a brand new life.

Years ago in Manhattan I entered the subway to catch the train uptown. I boarded and got seated. Across the platform, I saw another train. It, too, was stopped waiting for passengers going downtown.

In a few minutes, looking out the window I felt distinctly we were moving. But, I was unsure. Was my train moving or the other? I was disoriented. Just who was on the move. Entering a tunnel I could see then that my train was moving. I recognized the motion as mine only when I had reference to a still point.

We live in both a material and spiritual world. In the material world, motion and busyness easily become addictive. We’re on the move all the time, hurrying here and there, and fidgeting with this and that. But until we gain some access to the still point deep within us around which everything spins, it can be for us like it was for me that day in the subway, when I couldn’t be sure at all just who was moving and who was at rest.

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.

Lots of Junk by George Merrill

The views along the scenic routes of country roads sometimes surprise me – like walking into a teenager’s room unprepared. On one country road the other day, I passed by a lovely old house. Junk littered the entire front yard.

I saw snippets of chicken wire, a tire here, a wing chair there, a refrigerator resting on its side, and bathroom sink half filled with water. Plants grew in an old bathtub. Near some broken tools and motor parts lay a Raggedy Ann doll with only one leg. If the people living there intended to throw these things away, they didn’t throw them very far. The residents seemed to deliberately keep these castoffs right in their front yard, as though they placed them in limbo to await a final disposition.

I’ve seen yards like this over the years. I believe the litter is more than just trash; it has significance, a meaning. It helps to look at junk the way archaeologists regard heaps of rubble: with curiosity and an open mind.

The discarded objects in the yard had certainly been useful, valuable in their prime; it was time and wear that eventually claimed them. Why the stuff was finally remanded to the front yard and not the dump raises questions. Perhaps the goods were retained as a memorial to the many hours of companionship and service they provided, the way we save mementoes of family and friends, like baby shoes, locks of hair and photographs. The yard reminded me of the tiny family graveyards one also sees in the country – fenced-in cemeteries near the main house, fresh flowers growing in the plot, and miniature American flags flying next to a standard of the American Legion Post. The family’s faithful departed, long gone to their reward, were to remain interred close by, only a stones throw from the front door of the house. Out of service, but not out of sight.

Nothing lasts forever. Implements of daily living cease to be viable because of changing needs and circumstances. Yet, I find it difficult letting go of anything with which I’ve had long history. I grow fiercely attached to things. I experience periodic urges to clean up, to pitch the old stuff out, but then I find I can’t make myself do it. It’s too hard to let go.

Sixty-five years ago I received the gift from my mother. It was a tie she bought in Bermuda. It was wide and silky decorated with various earth tones. I loved it. But I haven’t worn it for years since it’s long out of fashion. With gritted teeth I recently tossed it out.

I’m convinced that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it fosters endearment and attachment. Like ageing wine, certain objects mellow over time and assume a virtue they never had when they were brand new or recently acquired. In fact, time increases the value of something as insipid as an old pump handle, Prince Albert tobacco cans or green Coke bottles. Such articles sell like extortionately priced hot cakes in early attic stores. Finding old junk when it’s the throwaways of our own past, even though it’s ravaged by age, is like meeting an old girl or boy friend that we’ve not seen since childhood. Old thoughts return to swim for a time in the bittersweet pools of nostalgia. Memories are similar to littered front yards; we keep close at hand what long ago we had to surrender.

But the junk in antique and early attic stores tells me that there are certain times, like my tie, we let things go once and for all. Sometimes it happens after a death in the family. The stuff appears regularly at yard sales.

A death in the family often releases the sealed and forgotten contents of the attic or basement into the hands, first of relatives, and then to parties who express some genuine affection for the article. The death of the relative marks the end of an era, and invests certain items with more meaning, some with new significance, like the deceased’s letters or a family bible. Other effects lose all value, like the deceased’s comb or toothbrush. It’s much easier to relinquish the relics of our sentiments to kin and caring friends rather than to total strangers. We want to know someone will care for them. Funeral services reflect this, too, when they assure mourners at their time of loss that it’s okay to surrender their loved one, to give them up; they’re in good hands, God’s hands.

Yard sales are important community rites; there one sees the resurrection of junk after being buried in attics or lying in front yard limbos. Neighbors join together to sell the unused effects accumulated over years. It’s a surrender of the past. Yard sales won’t necessarily generate much income, but there’s comfort and closure in knowing that your neighbor now values a can opener or mix master that you’ve used for forty years. “I remember my grandmother had one just like this,” is a frequent comment.

Yard sales create a sense of community, as wakes do. There’s an appreciation of life’s fragility and also its continuity in the small transactions of yard sales. There is a sense of generativity, that matter isn’t destroyed, only transformed by time, and then passed along into new hands. There is life after attics and basements.

Ezekiel once prophesied how our old bones would one day walk around again. I can almost imagine them holding rag dolls in their arms, cooking with Calumet Baking Powder, riding bright red Flexible Flyer sleds in the snow, and sitting by pot belly stoves. And on Saturday night, before going out to see the moving picture show, they’d bathe in porcelain bathtubs with gold colored claw feet, the kind of junk we see in someone’s front yard, in an early attic store, or at a yard sale, waiting for a new home.

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.

Splendor in the Grass by George Merrill

A few months ago, a nearby road had been freshly resurfaced. I didn’t see a rut or pothole anywhere and the surface was as shiny as coal. A yellow centerline illuminated by the earlysun snaked along the winding road while the roadsides were framed by crisp white shoulder stripes. It was new, neat, gleaming and as lifeless as plastic.

At the edges of the road, I saw signs of life. Black shards of macadam had risen here and there in small mounds, like black anthills. Where the macadam had covered over them over, tiny grass blades and plant stems pierced through the thick tar to the surface, bursting the macadam like budding flowers. The grass hadn’t buckled under the tons of asphalt heaped upon it; in a quiet way, the grass affirmed life.

As a boy I mowed our lawn. I used an old push mower to cut the grass. I grumbled about doing it. Still I liked the aroma of freshly cut grass.

Poets like William Wordsworth remembers with melancholy fondness “ . . . the hour of splendour in the grass,” as Dylan Thomas recalls being “happy as the grass is green.” Walt Whitman thought that a single blade of grass “ . . . is no less than a journey work of the stars.” Grass is indeed a survivor; cut to the quick, grass soon grows back again.

Grass is the fourth largest plant family in the world. Its twenty four-million-year survival can be attributed, not to taking over, but to the symbioses grass sets up with every other living creature: what’s sometimes called the survival of the cooperative. It’s incredibly pliable, both giving and taking. With its almost nine thousand species, grass is a creature of mutuality, feeding most living things on the earth, above the water and below it. It’s the lifeblood of countless critters, among them ourselves. The Chesapeake Bay depends on grasses. Grass asks for little; some water and a little space.

Space is the problem. Unlike grass, humans dominate space, crowding out each other and other living things as well. A macadam-aproned shopping mall inters everything below it – and frequently around it – in an asphalt coffin. If I were to walk the width and breadth of a parking lot in bare feet, my feet would never once touch the earth; much less the grass and the soles of my feet would be slashed to pieces by broken glass. My soul would also feel cut.

Asphalt and concrete alienate us from our earth. We rarely have our feet on the ground. They’re often several times removed. The connection to our roots is lost, the green arteries of fields and meadows that lift our hearts are severed by overdevelopment. Concrete and asphalt harden landscapes like plaque hardens arteries. As acre upon acre of asphalt and concrete shopping centers cover the earth’s living tissue, land is asphyxiated. I’ve never read any poem nor heard an elegy about a concrete apron or an asphalt strip mall that stirred the heart, except perhaps obliquely, in the laments of the jilted lovers of country music who hit the lonesome road.

But increasingly, people flee overdeveloped places and congested roads–if they can afford to– and come to Easton, Cambridge or St. Michaels, or Crapo. They’re seeking a geographic cure here on the shore, a kind of spiritual angioplasty, and a release from the unhealthy psychic and physical clutter we’ve created by our suburban developments. It’s odd that some would want to recapitulate here by encouraging new mall strips, the very overdevelopment that they were fleeing in the suburbs. Our insatiable appetites insist on having the riches of both kingdoms and in so doing vanquish the countryside we say we long for. It’s like surviving a heart attack and then celebrating it with a cigarette and a Big Mac.

The Shoreline of the Chesapeake offers a unique heritage. We see it in our open fields, in the water and in our fragile marshlands. These natural endowments have been conducive to gracious living. I would hate to see us do what one Baltimore contractor urges us to do and writes it on all his trucks: “ Cover It with Asphalt.”

For the spirit and for the belly, however, grass, like trees, has proved to be one of nature’s most generous providers and hardiest survivors. A mall the size of the Delmarva Peninsula could never feed as many people as a comparable wheat field. The mall’s runoff would be toxic to grasses. The refuse would be suffocating. And it certainly wouldn’t feed the soul; in shopping centers I may see a few cement planters but they are filled with limp decorative plants, like those in hotel lobbies, mostly filled with cigarette butts, plastic bottles and sale fliers.

The evolutionary process has a way of making mid course corrections. As we move our trade from big boxes and malls to direct mail through the Internet, perhaps we’ll see more and more malls deserted. And as the decaying concrete and asphalt dries and crumbles, what will emerge around the abandoned big boxes and broken fissures will be fresh new blades of grass.

The Art of the Matter by George Merrill

My first excursion into art was through photography. I didn’t know then that photography was an art. I just thought it was fun. For over sixty years I’ve accrued hundreds of photographs.

Some, like the accompanying picture, I particularly treasure.

I took it at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A workshop was being offered that day to community children. A good number of children attended, with supervising elders guiding and facilitating the children’s budding efforts to create. The kids were having a grand time.

When I began writing essays later in life, some focused around certain of my pictures. I was sure they had a story to tell me, in the way sculptors believe that, in the stone they are about to carve, there’s something within it yearning to be freed. The sculptor’s task: to give shape to the yearning and thereby liberate it. In whatever artistic medium, the same principle applies; the materials of artistic creation become the expression of things inward and spiritual. Sacraments, like works of art, are defined in this way.

I’m sure this child won’t remember her day at the museum. I remember it vividly. I experienced what legendary French photographer Cartier-Bresson once identified as the “decisive moment.” He describes this as being drawn to a scene in which something fundamental to life is being dramatized right before your eyes. The photographer sees it and he snaps the shutter. A moment – a once and for all – is plucked from the continuum of time to become timeless in the form of a silver-gelatin print, the photograph.

At the museum that day, I sensed that the child painting and I were both engaged in something fundamental to life; the urge to create. I saw in the child, some of the yearning that I, too, have known. She is trying to give her own particular shading, form and color to some matter of the heart that she feels within her. The yearning spurs her on, but offers little specific guidance. She has to find her way. How does she do it? How do any of us engage in the sort of midwifery that facilitates the process of emerging possibilities? Inspiration comes first, encouragement next and then practice. It can be summed up this way: follow your bliss. It’s often first discovered during decisive moments.

The child was totally absorbed in what she was doing. It was all about her, her own inner vision; everyone has an inner vision, but many remain unaware of it. Her expression, as I read it, didn’t have that strained or frantic quality – the kind of hyper-alertness or frantic anticipation that I see in the faces of children on cell phones texting or calling. They are as absorbed on their phones as the child in the museum was in her painting. There is a difference. I believe the child at the easel was more in tune with her inner voice or vision than a child on a cell phone is. Some of her radiance showed it. The energy in texting is primarily outwardly focused, reactive; an artist in the act of creating is both inwardly and outwardly focused at the same time. Maintaining an inner vision while expressing it outwardly by craftsmanship is the practice of an art. It has a meditative character.

Art has many mediums. Art is a process that represents the works and activities resulting from human creative skill and imagination. Einstein formulates the stunning equation E=mc2. While the equation is mathematical, it’s also, at a deeper level, an aesthetic statement. It was created by an inner vision. Einstein first visualized the cosmic dynamism in his imagination before making any of the computations.

This remarkably terse statement of three letters, a number and an equal sign captures the essence of an infinitely stunning and interconnected universe. It’s similar to the way the fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich spoke of the hazelnut she once held in her hand. “And in this [God] showed me a little . . . hazelnut, lying in the palm if my hand. And it was as round as any ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding. It was answered generally thus, ‘it is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness.” Good art sees things with the eye of understanding.

Art is an attempt to release the eternity hidden in the grain of sand. It illuminates the nascent grandeur inherent in life’s “little things” that we rarely notice. Art renders them visible for everyone to see. Art keeps truth and its beauty visible saving it from falling to nothing. Art, as the product of our imagination, offers infinite possibilities in the way we see.

One of the rewards of making art is the experience of discovery it offers. I think it’s generally true of the visual and literary arts that what the artist first sets upon to do looks little like the final product. While the essential vision first imagined remains, it gets hewed, tempered, altered, pressed, burnished and polished in all kinds of ways before it takes its final shape.

I do not know what the child was envisioning at the museum that day. I never saw what she finally painted. It was enough that she was trying to claim her vision and give it shape, form and color.

That’s the art of the matter or perhaps more pointedly, the matter of the art.

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.

Deep Down And Way Up by George Merrill

As a boy I had two toys that I recall fondly. One was a metal German submarine, WWI vintage. It measured a little less than a foot long. The word “Unterseeboot” was inscribed in classical German font along the keel adding to its mystique. When wound up, the propeller would drive the U-Boat the length of the bathtub where, at least once a week, I bathed while conducting naval warfare. The U-Boat could not submerge unless I pushed down on it. No matter, my imagination and I took the sub at least weekly on its predatory excursions.

The other toy was a model of the Wright Brothers aircraft, the first plane to substantially sustain flight. The skeletal structure was made from lead and its wings composed of yellowish translucent material. The wingspan measured a foot and a half. It had a tiny wind up engine that turned its prop, but it wouldn’t move the plane an inch since the plane weighed a ton. A lone pilot, properly attired in suit, jacket and tie sat at in a cockpit that looked like an open porch. He didn’t look very safe.

I came by the toys via a mysterious great uncle I never met. Uncle Frank, according to family lore, traveled the world and frequently returned with various kinds of exotica from the countries he visited. Nobody was clear about just what he did.

I thought of the toys the other day. Their images appeared suddenly in my mind’ eye and kept returning like the tunes that insist on playing over and over in my head.

Submarines and airplanes provided mankind its first access to places we’d only dreamed of going before. Both inventions were quickly placed in the service of war; we have a penchant for forging swords more quickly than plowshares.

With these inventions we could now live long periods below the water’s surface and travel great distances through the air. Our forebears once believed heaven was God’s exclusive dwelling place along with his angels. Heaven was private property and trespassers would be prosecuted. The ocean’s depths were the habitat of frightening monsters. In the nineteenth century one theory held that all living creatures, after death, descended to the depths of the ocean where, in its arcane mud and slime, they were transformed into new beings. The deceased rose, not to heaven as once thought, but sunk to the bottom like stones.

Our bodies, by original design, are earthbound. Our spirit is another matter. It’s not confined to time, place and space. It can go anywhere and it does.

It’s our nature to plumb the depths. We are insatiably curious. Most Americans usually aspire to greater heights, or as the psalmist once put it: “to take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea.” We know the feeling as restlessness, that low-grade discontent that feels like hunger, but not knowing what food might sate us. Our souls quickly stir when experiencing goodness, but can become strangers to us in our consumerist culture. The spirit urges us to search more deeply in life while aspiring to greater heights. A consumerist culture, on the other hand, asks of us only that we keep purchasing, acquire more and be winners at all costs. In short, we are awash in a morass of banality; today’s ideals are not inviting us to reach nobler heights or discern greater depths, but only to acquire more and make good deals. It’s a ‘me’ generation, floating on millions of selfies.

I’m encouraged of late to see that there’s a growing appetite for justice. I’m seeing it, of all places, in our streets. “The streets,” as we often talk about them, are dismal places where crime, gang violence and poverty manifest. However, other things are happening on the streets providing some hope for our languishing spirits. There’s a growing public outcry for justice. Justice is to the soul what water is to the body. A soul can live a long time without many things, but without justice it soon languishes.

Occupy Wall Street, a grass roots movement that began in September of 2011, attempted to bring the income disparity of America into public awareness. If it did little more than increase awareness of economic inequality, it served us well. It’s been a tough nut to crack. The top 0.1 percent of today’s population earns 184 times the other ninety percent. Even now, women make only eight cents to every dollar men earn for the same jobs.

On January 17th the women’s march on Washington highlighted the social and economic indignities woman have suffered in our sexist and consumerist culture. The demonstrations were well disciplined, held with dignity and, unlike many social movements that can grow self righteous and combative, were carried out with a distinctly feminine touch. The demonstrations reflected people with hope and with a vision. The marchers made their point with understated eloquence, deftness and humor. The pussy hat was a stroke of genius.

On earth day, thousands of scientists marched in D.C. and around the world to protest budget cuts to scientific research. The heart of the march, in addition to protesting research budget cuts, was also to marshal a renewed will for healing the earth at a time when there’s massive denial of its problems. Much of that healing lies in what science can unearth about the ecological dynamics of our planet. There is no Planet B.

These fanciful excursions – from a bathtub sub to a Wright Brothers airplane – may seem a bit of a stretch. Still, I’ve often wondered whether those seemingly innocent images that flow past the mind’s eye may not be symbols of a longing seeking a voice. The subs and planes represent spatial dimensions – deep down and high up. I think they’re symptomatic of my longing for a higher vision to which we can aspire as a people while freeing ourselves from the depths of cynicism into which we seem to have been inexorably drawn.

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.

Measuring the Marigolds by George Merrill

Whether they’re measuring marigolds, adding or subtracting or just hanging by a thread, I think inchworms are really neat. Whenever I can, I watch them tirelessly. Even as a boy they intrigued me as they walked along my finger.

In the last few days, the weather has suddenly become seriously summerlike, with temperatures reaching into the upper eighties. While walking to the car one inchworm landed on my head (Being legally bald, I feel anything touching it.) He’d been hanging by a thread. When I reached the car I saw another making his way along the hood. The sum of inchworms I saw was adding up to totals I could reckon in feet: they were everywhere.

The inchworm has a distinct style of mobility. Since he (she as well) possesses legs only at the front and at the back of the torso – none in the middle – inchworms always seem to have an arch in their back. I would think that might provoke orthopedic problems if he had any kind of exoskeleton or skeleton. He has neither. No problem. So while traveling on a solid surface, or climbing his web, he easily places his head as far forward as possible and then quite literally, brings up the rear, making a prominent arch in his back.

It’s strange the things we remember. I can actually recall the first inchworm I ever saw. I was under a strand of trees near a pond and the sunlight was shining toward me. The sunlight flickered, caused by swaying tree leaves, and it created an illusion: at one glance, the inchworm appeared to be suspended in mid air as if he’d discovered the art of weightlessness. Then as the light shifted, he appeared to be shimmying up a silver thread on which he hung like a green pendant. The sight enchanted me.

I tease my wife Jo about how she can be entertained by the most insignificant kinds of things the way I am with inchworms. In restaurants, she might remove the paper sleeve covering a straw, crinkle it up, wet it with a drop of water, and then watch as it wiggles across the table, not exactly like an inchworm, but close enough to make me think of one. I’ll say something cute like, “Well, you’re a cheap date, I’ll give you that” or “It’s great you’re so easily entertained.” She’ll ignore me.

An old saying has it: “What goes around comes around.” It doesn’t always, fortunately for me.

We were out on the porch the other evening. The sun would soon set and we were enjoying the remains of a lovely day. To the right of where we sat, on the very top of a black wrought iron chair, an inchworm was making his way along. The coal black of the chair, set off his green color in sharp relief, as if his little journey was being showcased for the world to see. I brought Jo’s attention to it and instead of doing unto me, as I had unto her –making some wisecrack – she got into watching the inchworm with me. I felt a slight sense of shame given her more magnanimous response that accommodated to my interest in inchworms.

Watching the inchworm this time around, I found it was how the inchworm brought up his rear that intrigued me the most; as if he was either always getting ahead of himself or trying to catch up. My thought is not as fanciful as it may first seem.

The inchworm’s maneuver is a perfect metaphor for how I have lived much of life.

Over the years, I was confident that I had a firm grasp on the nature of life situations. I’m a thoughtful man. In significant ways I’ve lived a little like the inchworm travels – placing my head way out there in front of me and only later, when certain realties force themselves on me, haul the rest of me along or, like the inchworm, bring up the rear. It’s always sobering. The revelations that our diminishments impose, as the saying goes, can be a kick in the pants.

In this regard, injuring my knee recently has been instructive. I now bump along like an inchworm.

Hobbling about with a cane has not called forth my better nature. I’ve become irritable and testy (more than usual). It’s because this diminishment has highlighted yet another deficiency I suffer. I have lived with this one for most of my life. I am constitutionally unable to set out from one room, go to another to retrieve some items that I don’t, upon returning to the room I left, discover I’ve forgotten at least one of the items I was after. What most folks accomplish in one trip takes me two.

Given my present circumstances, that second trip, once routine, now comes at a price: I hurts like blazes and I feel as if I’m bumping along like an inchworm, but not with the deliberate grace with which they move.

I have now and even greater affinity with inchworms. Like me, they can’t get from here to there without bumping along. They’ve some how learned to be OK with that. Instead of grousing about it the way I do and wishing I was a rabbit or a race horse or in my case, years younger, they make their strides slow and easy, while taking the time along the way to measure the marigolds.

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.

Gotta be This or That by George Merrill

Gotta be this or that? Would it were that simple.

When I was a teen-ager, a gay man befriended me. He went to my church. Cal was about six years my senior. He was preparing to enter ministry. We spent time together – he introduced me to classical books, we discussed poetry, religion and philosophy and we listened to classical music. One summer we traveled to Europe. I felt very cared for in the relationship – mentored, like a son by a father. During the four years we were friends he never made any sexual advances on me. Although we never discussed sexual orientation, I knew he was gay. This was a time when homosexuality was considered depraved and the devil’s contrivance. I did not feel that Cal was sinister and, as I look back, I profited greatly through his mentoring. The relationship with Cal called forth some of my intellectual and artistic abilities. I am grateful for what the relationship offered me.

In my first church assignment as a priest I was one of two young associates. My colleague was a delightful man, animated, bright, had a compassionate way with people. He married a charming woman. They made a winsome couple and the parish adored them.

On Cal’s day off, he went out of town to visit a friend. The friend was a male lover. The police pulled them over, issued Cal a DUI and the word got back to the rector of our parish. The situation turned ugly. The rector was terrified; ill equipped to handle the emotional and social complexities and called the vestry together. He slammed Cal for being a “drunk and a homo, a disgrace to the parish.” The rector manipulated the support of influential lay leadership to call for Cal’s immediate dismissal. The Bishop concurred. It was my first exposure to how malignant ignorance can be and how brutal it can turn, especially among the traditional standard bearers of mercy and righteousness.

The rector was secretive and never discussed the incident with me. Cal told me there was no attempt either by the Bishop or the rector to work with the suffering the man’s dilemma created for him and for his wife who too was devastated. The church treated him as damaged goods and he had to go.

The tragedy was not that the ecclesiastical leadership didn’t understand the complexities of gender preference or orientation – few did then – but that the clergy showed no compassion. I saw the church as capitulating to the binary world of tidy moralities –it’s either this or that. The church failed in its mission to minister and help the couple’s to begin healing their broken lives. Broken lives are messy – all lives are messy – they are never just this or that, and they challenge everyone involved in the messes to be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

I was furious and, quit my position at the church indignantly – with more than a little of the self-righteousness of youth. If this, I thought, is what parish life is like, I wanted no part of it. The incident would shape my life. I left parish ministry to study for a specialized ministry in psychotherapy and pastoral counseling.

It was the right choice for me. I’ve mellowed over time and have seen how much goodness and compassion finds expression in parish ministries when the leadership is secure in itself.

I can say that today we’ve come a way on the road of compassion.

Human sexuality, however, remains contentious among religious bodies. Gender identity is divisive and an anxiety-laden issue for several reasons – confusion and fear being the greatest. Because gender identity is so personally intimate in the formation of self-image and of relational and social attitudes, sexual orientation doesn’t lend to simple explanations or pious platitudes. As the gender revolution grows in popular awareness, the struggle will be to develop a holistic understanding. The issue needs a larger context, and a frame of reference for understanding gender while psychologically and socially regulating differences. The differences need legitimacy, a spiritual place in the created order.

A discussion of the gender revolution appearing in the January edition of National Geographic identifies a glossary of twenty-one distinct categories of sexual orientation worldwide. On the cover is a group photo of seven attractive young people, two of whom are transgender females, the others intersex nonbinary, bi-gender, transgender male, androgynous, and male heterosexual. None of the kids looks anything but ‘normal.’ The Bible tells us God made them male and female, but God gave us little indication at the time the Bible was written of the variations that may attend the two primary gender identities. I wish that God had said more.

As we try figuring it out, I’d offer this hope: that the conversation takes place in an atmosphere of kindness and compassion. For example, to date the debate over restroom usage for transsexual persons is couched in fear of sexual exploitation and violence. When I was young, the myth was that homosexuals preyed on children. It’s incomprehensible to me that a person having gone through the agonies of establishing a sexual identity as lesbian, gay or transgender is going to use restrooms for purposes of exploitation. The struggle of those outside the gender mainstream is not where the quickies are, but the longing to belong and to be accepted.

In the sixties, I remember fondly the first client assigned to me while in training at the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry in New York. He was a young gay man – poor, Hispanic, flamboyant and articulate. I will call him Manny. AIDS had not been identified and being a closeted gay was a risky business because sexual liaisons in subway restrooms and bathhouses could spread disease. We knew nothing about AIDS then. Manny wasn’t in therapy because he was gay, but for incidents of psychosis that clouded his judgment and put him in danger to himself and others.

When I think of Manny my hope is that the world today will grow kinder and gentler for people who discover they don’t naturally fit into “this or that” than it was for Manny in the early nineteen sixties. Interestingly, even then psychology and psychiatry had little knowledge about the nature of gender orientation. I am pleased that the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry provided Manny and others like him that level of hospitality and acceptance in a hostile world. I hope it helped him live into his life more fully.

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.

View from the Write by George Merrill

Over the years I’ve led workshops in writing the personal essay. Recently a participant asked me when I wrote my first essay and what it was like. I had fun recalling the experience and I’d enjoy sharing it.

It was in 1994. The great February ice storm devastated the Eastern Shore where I live. I wrote to make sense to myself of the troubled feelings and muddled thoughts I had about it. I was horrified by the storm’s devastation, but enthralled by its methods. Violence holds its own fascination. The sheer beauty of how ice, when it freezes on tree branches, sparkles and glistens. It’s fragile and exquisitely radiant. It’s amazing how deadly it can become.

I remember it was foggy during the storm. The temperature for several days remained slightly below freezing. Accumulated moisture began forming ice on everything including tree branches. The ice thickened. It glistened and sparkled festively even as it rent trees apart limb by limb while in their death throes, the trees groaned mournfully.

When the storm ended, I came upon a doe. She was dead by a stream near my house. She was crippled, somehow a victim of the storm. She died alone. My wife and I put her in the thicket where I believed she’d lived. We grieved for her. The first essay I ever wrote was about the experience.

The essay proved, by publishers’ standards, to be mawkish, appallingly sentimental and rejected by a magazine so swiftly that it seemed to me I received their notice in the return mail. My writing life began ingloriously.

Writing personal essays often leads to dead-ends. When it does, I’ll try a new path. The paths get strewn with excess verbiage. I sweep much of it away and tighten it up before more verbiage takes it place. I knew that writing was my new vocation in the same way junkies realizes they’re addicted; we can’t stop.

Personal essayists can claim no authority except their own thoughts and feelings. Shaky ground to be sure. I try speaking my heart as honestly as I can. I must write quickly before I obfuscate and render my thoughts unrecognizable by a host of anxious qualifications and addendums designed to impress. Ego is seductive and always a problem. There’s a lot of catch and release in the writing life.

I found that gathering my thoughts can be like snatching frogs before they hop away. Recalling thoughts is tricky, like attempting to remember last night’s dream. However, the personal essay, as its name implies, is at best an account of the writer’s experience and how she or he thinks about it.

Personal essays can be suspect. It’s because the “I,” appears a lot. Essays are almost always written in the first person. It begs the question; is the personal essay only a narcissist’s exercise? I’d say yes and no. E.B. White once wrote that he was “by nature self-absorbed and egoistical.” I know I have a strong streak of that. Personalities like mine fare better in print than in their marriages or parenthood.

My wife and children often tell me I’m too self-absorbed, preoccupied. My wife treats my astral excursions good-naturedly: she’ll say innocently, “And how are they today?” referring to my spacy demeanor. Her quip is all it takes and I’m right back in the room with her. I move fairly easily in and out of the real world. When I write, I alternate between both.

Craft can be taught. The necessary inspiration and fascination for writing are different from craft. They’re elusive, hard to quantify. Both live in our imaginations. Imagination is the locus of the soul. There, inspiration and fascination are born. And, what moves anyone’s soul is infinitely particular although at the deepest level is also universal. This is so because we all share a common humanity.

Lewis Thomas was fascinated by the lives of cells, E.O. Wilson with ants and termites and Emily Dickinson by certain slants of light. Andre Dubus was a gun nut. Writers do best when they write abut what fascinates them.

As a boy, an old Voightlander camera enchanted me. I believe fascination is the divine incitement to wonder, a holy invitation to look deeply into ourselves while also trying to see beyond the horizon.

Photography informed my writing. I’d been avid photographer since boyhood. I had a good eye. I learned later that I preserved my personal experiences as mental images, like cameras record pictures. Writing is not unlike darkroom work. In a camera’s dark chamber, light rays enter to leave their impressions on film like the images of my life are retained in my mind. Processing the film to develop the picture is like my scrutinizing my mental images to find meaning. And like darkroom work putting images into words is equally as uncertain. Both in writing and in classical photography I might spend hours in the dark before I can see anything clearly enough to make sense of it.

The process of writing the personal essay can be heavy. It’s emotionally demanding. There’s always the vulnerability in putting my thoughts on the line or the fear that I may have nothing worthwhile to say. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated with the process.

An intimate feeling of being connected to others occurs occasionally. I find out – typically long after some essay had been published – that in reading an essay, someone saw something new in it that was familiar to them, or recognized something familiar in what was new. When that happens, I feel useful.

I tell my workshop participants that when their first essay is published they’ll feel a little like scientists who’ve launched a rocket into space. They’re always hoping but never sure just where it will land or whether there’s anyone out there who will ever see it.

With all the uncertainties, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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